Katheryn Hunter has been an ardent whistler since childhood and can imitate about fifty of her feathered friends trill for trill. She has recorded bird songs for Walt Disney and Cecil B. De Mille.
  • Katheryn Hunter has been an ardent whistler since childhood and can imitate about fifty of her feathered friends trill for trill. She has recorded bird songs for Walt Disney and Cecil B. De Mille.
  • Vince Compagnone

Off Catalina Boulevard, up Rosecroft Lane, behind a red fieldstone wall bordered by tall trees, Katheryn Hunter nurtures an enormous family. Despite her eighty-three years. Hunter is up with the sun, for there are many children at her nursery — thousands of them. Working “eight days a week,” the petite woman has all she can do to keep her blooming charges green and healthy. Some need repotting; some need to be pruned; all require varying degrees of water, fertilizer, sunlight, and protection from ravenous visitors. Snails, aphids, red spider mites, and thrips — none of these creatures is welcome at the Rosecroft Begonia Gardens. Hunter treats them all the same — with a healthy dose of the appropriate pesticide.

Hunt: "Growing something that you’ve never grown before in your life — that you’ve never seen in your life — is stepping forward high, wide, and handsome."

Reporters and other visitors of the two-legged variety might fare better. It all depends on one’s intentions and Katheryn Hunter's mood of the moment. Of course, the serious shopper — one on the lookout for a hard-to-find item — is on pretty safe ground, and there are items aplenty to choose from. But idle browsers, especially those with clumsy feet and/or sticky fingers, had better practice their art somewhere else. That, or be prepared for a sharp reprimand, an outspoken reminder: “This is my place, you know!”

"There was a man swinging in that beautiful fern. I couldn’t imagine anyone being so damn stupid!”

Katheryn Hunter is not a rude person — just busy. All things considered, she has more than enough reason to feel a bit protective. For more than thirty years this farm-grown native of Kansas has dedicated herself to the Rosecroft Begonia Gardens. Once dry and neglected, the land has been converted into one and a half acres of cool, jasmine-scented Eden, rife with colors and packed with foliage from around the world. Here the feisty matriarch has raised tens of thousands of begonias from seed, not to mention thousands of fuchsias, hundreds of ferns, and countless other plants.

Beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat. Hunter is a woman of bird-like stature, with a repertoire of chirps and warbles to match. She has been an ardent whistler since childhood and can imitate about fifty of her feathered friends trill for trill. In the past she has recorded bird songs for Walt Disney and Cecil B. De Mille, given concerts all over the United States, and — in the early Fifties — even had her own San Diego radio program called “Pucker Up.” Though it’s been a good ten years since Hunter did any professional whistling, she’ll stop everything, including interviews, to answer a call from on high. Smiling, pale blue eyes dance behind thick bifocals as she scans the branches for her latest winged visitor. “There it is,” she says, pointing across the garden. The bird lets go with a high-pitched undulating song. The sound from Hunter’s pursed lips is very nearly identical, which inspires a brief exchange. The conversation continues when the bird departs.

“We were always gardeners,” she said. “My mother would build a garden and I’d have my own little garden under a peach tree. Later, we had a ranch with acres and acres of peach trees and raspberries. God, I was so sick of raspberries! But I remember when I left for college I missed them.”

In the early 1920s Hunter earned a degree in horticulture from the University of California at Berkeley. There, too, she refined her whistling talents with a group of fellow students. She and her husband Donald later managed orchards along the Snake River in Idaho, but were never very successful at it. Subsequently, the Hunters moved to San Diego. During World War II Katheryn spent three years working double shifts for the geared-up defense industry here. By the time it was over, she was very eager to start gardening again.

One postwar afternoon Hunter decided to take a drive in the family car, a pleasure she’d denied herself during the war. On the way out the door she joked with her husband about buying a farm. “Don't you dare,” he said. “I’m tired of farming.”

“Well, I got in the car,’’ she remembers, “and the first thing I thought of was to come out and see the gardens; I had not been one of those who came here frequently and had only seen it once before.”

The original Rosecroft Begonia Gardens were founded in 1900 by an Englishman named Robinson. Little more than a nursery to begin with, the place went rapidly downhill with his passing and the property changed hands many times thereafter. By the time Katheryn Hunter saw it, the place was, as she puts it, “lost to the world.” Besides the fieldstone walls, a stable, and a few small buildings, there was nothing left. Nothing, that is, but potential. To the would-be gardener’s appraising eye, it was perfect, beautiful.

“I just walked in here that day and took possession,” said Hunter. “As soon as I found out what they’d take for it, I rushed home to Mr. Hunter. I was very excited. ‘I’ve got the money. I’ve got the money,' I said. ‘Go get in the car. I’m going to take you out to buy something!’ ‘What have you got?’ he kept asking. ‘What have you got?’ When I drove out this way he knew what I had. He knew.”

After converting the old stable into a suitable home, Hunter, with help from her family, went to work on the overgrown garden. Though she had no experience growing small plants, the erstwhile sod buster managed to reclaim many abandoned flowers from the weeds and brush. To these survivors she added more than 1000 tubers of her own, and a healthy crop of multi-colored begonias was abloom the first spring. Hunter later felt confident enough to grow begonias from seed, an exacting, even aggravating task. Begonia seeds are almost microscopic in size; the contents of a package, worth about 420 plants, would fit comfortably in Tom Thumb's watch pocket, with room to spare for the timepiece.

“Everything we did seemed to come out just right,” she said of those initial efforts at planting. “We were our own boss and didn't ask anybody else out here. It was just my husband and me, and of course the children. If it hadn't been for the kids we wouldn’t have made it. Growing something that you’ve never grown before in your life — that you’ve never seen in your life — is stepping forward high, wide, and handsome, as the saying goes.”

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