By Charly SHELTON
Imagine a world lost to time. Oxygen in the atmosphere is at an all time low since the explosion of life in the Cambrian. Dinosaurs like Allosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Archaeopteryx and Stegosaurus roamed the planet. The world was ready for a new kind of plant life that would come to define the era – cycads. When imagining a Jurassic forest, the predominant plant is the fern, with long, curly tendrils and hanging leaves. But ferns alone don’t complete the picture. The predominant plant species during the time, the rock stars of plants in the Jurassic, were cycads – a seed-bearing plant which typically has a short and stout woody trunk with many long and stiff stems bearing evergreen leaves, usually arranged like a feather. These were very prevalent during the Jurassic period, from 200-145 million years ago, as is evidenced by numerous fossil plants. Many of these plants have survived the last 145 million years and remain relatively unchanged today. And now at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada guests can take a step back into history and experience the Ancient Forest in much the same way it was back then.
“What we wanted to do with the Ancient Forest was to showcase the cycad collection in kind of a re-creation of that ancient landscape,” said Jessica Wong, Garden Records coordinator, during a guided walk of the new garden. “As you walk through the garden, you will see a lot of other plants whose ancestors originated during [the Jurassic] and were around with the dinosaurs as well.”
The collection of cycads, and the impetus for creating the Ancient Forest, came from Frederick and Katia Elsea of La Cañada. Frederick Elsea is a collector of hundreds of different cycads and, as the Elseas were planning on moving to Tennessee, Frederick wanted a good home for his well-curated collection. In March, the couple donated 183 cycads to Descanso, 157 of which made it into the Ancient Forest with the rest still being cared for in the Descanso nursery. In addition to the 157 donated cycads, Descanso has added close to 200 other plants to the Ancient Forest, said Wong, and planted them all in a shady grove of redwoods.
“Part of the reason we chose this area of the garden to plant the cycads was because this is where we have the highest concentration of redwoods at Descanso,” said Wong. “The redwoods are the really tall, beautiful trees you see [in the Ancient Forest area] as you walk through them. And redwoods are also conifers, so they’re in the same group as cycads. Being gymnosperms, they produce their seeds and their pollen in cones. They were also around during the Jurassic period.”
Among the many interesting plants featured in the new garden is the Sago palm, Cycas revoluta, which is dioecious, meaning it has two sexes like animals. The males produce multiple cones in the center of the plant to release pollen, which is then carried by insects to the female plant, growing one massive cone in the center of the plant that drops seeds. When the pollen fertilizes the seeds, a new plant is born.
Another interesting plant species and one most appropriate for the Ancient Forest is the monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana. This small, spiky tree is covered completely in pine needle-type spiky leaves that are thicker and denser than actual pine needles, and it is considered to be the earliest living conifer. According to Wong, the name monkey puzzle came from “someone thinking that it would be really puzzling for a monkey to try and climb its branches.” The three monkey puzzle trees in the Ancient Forest are just baby trees, but they will continue to grow and can one day reach up to 50 meters in height.
The Ancient Forest is open now at Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Dr. in La Cañada Flintridge. For general information, call (818) 949-4200.