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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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The Touching Story of Descanso Gardens’ Famous Camellias

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

The colorful Descanso Gardens camellias are world famous, and constitute the largest camellia collection in the U.S., attracting tens of thousands of visitors to La Cañada. But the backstory on these beautiful flowers is truly fascinating, and has its roots (literally) in one of the great American tragedies of the 20th century.

The story begins with Manchester Boddy, born into poverty but with a quick mind and a bold spirit. He was the classic American self-made man, working as a laborer and salesman and eventually, through grit and perseverance, as a newspaperman. In the ’20s, he gained control of a failing L.A. newspaper, the Daily News. The paper became wildly successful after he turned it from a “good news” publication into a muckraker, featuring exposés of political and police corruption.

The now wealthy Boddy turned his myriad interests to horticulture when in 1936 he purchased a 160-acre tract of oak forest in La Cañada for his new home and named it Rancho de Descanso – “Ranch of Restfulness.” He hired professional horticulturists to build his massive gardens.

A personal fascination with camellias began in 1941 when he lined his driveway with camellias. He fell in love with the then-exotic flower and went searching for more. His timing couldn’t have been better. Two Japanese American-owned nurseries specializing in camellias were on the auction block, their owners having been given just days notice to liquidate before being sent to internment camps.

One of the nurseries, Star Nursery of Sierra Madre, was owned by Francis Uyematsu, a self-made man much like Boddy. Uyematsu had immigrated to the U.S. in 1904 and began importing and propagating camellias from Japan. He sold these then-unusual flowers from the back of a wagon, soon making enough to purchase a large nursery. As his fortunes grew he invested more into his camellias, buying and selling thousands of the plants. He collected many rare and hybridized varieties on buying trips to Japan. Despite the Depression, he was successful financially and fulfilled personally with the many unusual camellia varieties he propagated and grew for his own pleasure.

It all came crashing down on Dec. 7, 1941 and by early 1942, Uyematsu had received notice to report to Pomona Assembly Center with only what he could carry in a suitcase. The vultures swept in on his nursery, offering him pennies for his treasured camellias. Uyematsu would be wiped out financially.

But Manchester Boddy, with his horticulturist in tow, showed up at Star Nursery and asked Uyematsu what his camellia collection was worth, to which Uyematsu quoted a fair market price. Without bargaining or hesitation, Boddy wrote a check for the full amount and handed it to the amazed nurseryman, his eyes filling with tears. Some 300,000 camellias were purchased there that day, and they, along with another nursery’s stock, became the famous collection at Descanso.

Uyematsu used the money he had gotten from Boddy to donate 1000 cherry trees to the stark, bare Manzanar War Relocation Camp where he and his family were headed. He paid for the shipping there as well. A few of those trees still thrive in various yards in Inyo County. After the war he continued to donate cherry trees to L.A. parks – Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park and Exposition Park – and wisteria trees to other parks.

Meanwhile, Uyematsu’s camellias thrived at Descanso Gardens. Recently, a noted Japanese-American poet named Amy Uyematsu was contacted by a friend who had visited Descanso Gardens. The friend had seen a photo there of a Francis Uyematsu and his camellias. Was he a relation? Amy had a grandfather Francis, but he spoke no English and she no Japanese. He was a quiet man, and she knew nothing about him or his famous camellias. Through this chance encounter she discovered a legacy she knew nothing of and has since written poems about. Her grandfather’s desire to share a magical talent with plants with the community – a grandfather she didn’t know, who had a love for beauty, a beauty rooted in soil, a beauty that lives on today at Descanso Gardens.

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