Descanso Gardens is not just a pretty place.
Certainly, its natural beauty is refreshing, but Executive Director David Brown has long believed there’s much more to it. He pitched that notion to KCET-TV in mid-March — right when the station’s personnel were planning programming for their “Summer of the Environment” initiative.
The result: “Lost LA: Descanso Gardens,” an hourlong documentary that dives deep into the botanical gardens’ beauty as well as its social, political and cultural significance. It will premiere at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 18, on KCET.
From its origins as an oak woodland to its current status as a living museum, Descanso Gardens has a compelling history to share, said Matthew Crotty, the director of production.
“A core part of the ‘Lost L.A.’ series is that we dive into Los Angeles history and tell these stories about how different ideas have shaped the place we live now,” Crotty said. “At Descanso, you can start with the plant life and see different waves of migration.”
Over the years, people brought oak trees, and then rose gardens and then azaleas to the region. Today, Californians focused on water conservation are going for native plants, challenging earlier generations’ notions of how a garden ought to look. All of that is on display at Descanso Gardens.
“[The filmmakers] shared our belief that there is value to understanding how we got to be where we are,” Brown said. “And Descanso is this little postage stamp inside a huge metropolis where you can actually walk through history and understand a little more about how things came to be the way they are.
“This is a place where culture and nature meet. Human beings are creators in culture, but we’re also residents in nature. The decisions we make at our own houses, in our travel plans, in our advocacy and our philanthropy will all contribute to a greater awareness of places like this, where history is preserved but not mummified, where nature is made available but not overly packaged.”
Crotty said that as soon as it decided to go forward with the Descanso Gardens project, he and his team — which also features historian Nathan Masters — dove into research. Within a month, they’d embarked on an intense two-week springtime shoot.
“We ended up shooting right during the blooming season, right when the cherry blossoms, the roses, the wildflowers and the azaleas were all blooming,” Crotty said. “It was incredible; I could not stop talking about how amazing it was to shoot there.”
Perhaps the loveliness of the set contributed to what Brown called the filmmakers’ “cheerful approach” to the project, which is the first film production focused on Descanso Gardens since Huell Howser visited in 1995, Brown said.
Since then, on Brown’s watch, the 150-acre botanical garden that once belonged to newspaper magnate E. Manchester Boddy has gotten in touch with its past. Brown, who will retire Aug. 31, has overseen restoration of the historic Boddy House as well as introduction of gardens — the Oak Woodland and Ancient Forest, among them — that celebrate the region’s history.
“I always want to honor and respect the individual’s desire to just be in nature, to be in a natural feeling place and breathe deeply and recharge,” Brown said. “But it gives me so much pleasure to say there’s another layer of meaning here, and I think the film that has been made does that so, so well.”
In addition to the July 18 premiere, the documentary will encore on KCET at 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 22, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 26. It also will air nationally at 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 20, on Link TV (which is available on streaming apps and on DirecTV 375 and DISH Network 9410).