Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Best Secret Garden, August 2006

Even though—or is it because?—we live in an urban desert, we seek out places where we can indulge a passion for plants. Sure, there are the Big Three: Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, and the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia. However, we have a particular fondness for lesser-known gems like UCLA’s Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, an emerald mini-forest that sits a mile from one of the city’s busiest intersections. Traffic noise occasionally spoils the mood, but once we descend the Mathias’s winding pathways it’s easy to lose ourselves in seven acres of tropical and subtropical species from around the world. When we’d rather enjoy the bounty of California in a more serene setting, nothing beats the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. The shaggy, sprawling 86-acre refuge contains the foremost assemblage of native species, including more than 2,800 of the state’s 6,000 types of plants. As we wander along its trails, rabbits skitter past and wayward branches brush our shoulders. The air is perfumed with sweet and musky scents. Among our favorite stops are a California fan palm oasis, an oak grove, and whole collections devoted to the coastal dunes and to cultivars (varieties developed for special purposes), including one named for Susanna Bixby Bryant, who started the garden on her Orange County ranch in 1927. (A quarter century later, it was relocated and is now a nonprofit institution affiliated with Claremont Graduate University.) Sprinkled throughout the grounds are useful botanical footnotes on field markers. 1500 N. College Ave., Claremont, 909-625-8767.


Designed in 1959, the lush Kyoto-style strolling UCLA Hannah Carter Japanese Garden is one of the more unlikely—and poetic—sanctuaries in L.A., incorporating bridges, pagodas, shrines, and lanterns that were shipped from Japan and thousands of pounds of local stones. Admission, free; reservations required. 310-794-0320.


The reopened Getty Villa has more than antiquities to behold. Its four gardens, including one devoted to herbs, are filled with the plants, statues, and water features indigenous to a Roman estate circa 1 A.D. The main garden is anchored by a 225-foot-long reflecting pool. Admission, free; reservations required (parking, $8). 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades, 310-440-7300.


The Tillman Reclamation Plant in the Valley makes for an unlikely oasis. But here at its  Japanese Garden , built in the style of 18th- and 19th-century feudal estates, you can journey over six and a half acres of tilapia- and goldfish-stocked lakes as well as through a Zen meditation garden. Tours, $3; general admission, free. 6100 Woodley Ave., Van Nuys, 818-756-8166. 


Created in the early 1900s but inspired by the Renaissance-style gardens of Italy, the verdant grounds of the Virginia Robinson Gardens over six acres are steadfast and elegant. The former estate in Beverly Hills is now administered by Los Angeles County. Admission, $10; reservations required. 310-276-5367, ext. 100. 


James Irvine Garden Hidden in a corner of Little Tokyo, this diminutive (it’s less than a third of an acre), award-winning garden was designed in the late 1970s by Takeo Uesugi. Enter through the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center building. Admission, free.