Descanso Gardens’ rare collection of dinosaur-era plants

Cycad plant

In 2014, La Canada Flintridge residents Katia and Frederick Elsea called the city’s Descanso Gardens with an odd proposal: would the famous horticultural center take their collection of over 180 rare cycads, a fern-like plant from the days of the dinosaurs?

The garden said yes, and now those plants are part of Descanso Gardens’ Ancient Forest, an effort to recreate a prehistoric landscape. Sixty-six species were transplanted from the Elsea collection to the garden’s fertile grounds. Cycads are so ancient, in fact, they appear in fossils over 280 million years old. That makes them far older than flowers. (Flowering plants first appeared in the Jurassic period about 175 million years ago.) In the Ancient Forest, there are also redwoods, tree ferns and ginkgoes, all “living fossils” from a long-gone era.

The cycads have been planted according to the geographic region where they originate: Africa, Asia, Madagascar, Australia and Mexico. Some of the plants no longer exist in the wild.

“For a really long time, this was plant life on Earth,” the former director, David R. Brown told the Los Angeles Times. “This helps remind me that, for as self-absorbed as we are often, we’re but a part of a story that has been going on for a very, very long time.”

If you’d like to learn more about Descanso Gardens, it’s collections and how it came into being check out this episode of Lost LA.

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