Kate Sessions c. 1932. “She was a very forceful, dominant person. She had a strong voice. She was able to get across her ideas in a very forceful way.”
On her first trip to San Diego, Kate Sessions took the once-a-week steamer that plied the 446 miles from San Francisco. A little more than a century after her, I make my first journey on Southwest Airlines out of Oakland, She disembarked on the docks at the foot of Broadway. I rode in an airporter to the car rental office across from the Naval Training Center, watching the unfamiliar freeway ribbons unroll, skirting downtown, and passing air- plane hangars. My only fellow passenger, a 50ish business executive in a suit, loosens up as we chat. He tells me he left San Diego when he was 19 to go to college at UC-Berkeley. He graduated in time to miss the hippies, he says. As a kid in San Diego, the drive to the beach was simple. "Now it's all freeways." He says he doesn't miss it.
Tipuana tree planted by Kate Sessions at the foot of Mount Soledad
To get to Coronado, where Kate had her first nursery (with two partners) and ran the florist shop at the Hotel Del Coronado, Kate would have taken the ferry. Her white horse, Charlie, who made the round trip at least once a day, got so wobbly from seasickness as soon as he stepped onto the ferry that Alice Rainford, Kate's devoted assistant, feared he'd fall down between the traces. Once on shore, he acted like a colt.
I aim my red Hyundai for the Coronado bridge. "The brightest of the band is gone. We do not know how soon it may be our turn. Oh, death thou art so mesterious [sic] & dreadful. I cannot satisfy my mind.... Death is birth."
Milton Sessions (click on photos to read superimposed type).
Kate wrote that in her diary, mourning for her 19-year-old friend, Willie Clayton, who died of a gruesome, unnamed disease. Doctors finally had to amputate his leg. "After the operation the Dr. came back & took away blood & sewed it completely up & he suffered intensely," Kate writes.
The year was 1877, and Kate Sessions had lost the man who may have been the only one she loved. She was about to turn 20.
"[T]he things the town has forgotten live somewhere still...[in] the ashes of a heart," the late critic and novelist Mark Schorer wrote in A House Too Old, his historical epic novel about his Wisconsin birthplace.
In the ashes of Kate Sessions's heart can be found some truths about San Diego, her adopted home, and herself. Sure, there are cascades of newspaper clippings, affectionate profiles, plant lists, gardening columns, civic awards, tree-planting photos, diaries, letters, and citations that she and others collected about her. But they are overshadowed by what isn't there.
As Schorer warned, "The villagers...turned to old newspapers and to documents in the library, and they, they thought, found that which they were searching; but there are words never printed in newspapers, events not recorded in the documents stored in libraries, and if a forgetter comes at last to revive an ancient dream, he will not find it" without that crucial ingredient, "the words written still in a scar."
Kathy Puplava at the Marston House in Balboa Park
In her highly disciplined life, Kate did her best to cover over the scar. She shaped herself into a thoroughly public woman and imposed the strictest limits on her private feelings. "A waste of time," they were.
Eastertime 55 years ago, Kate was laid to rest in the earth she knew so well. As she would have expected, with a few venerable exceptions, her plantings are all but gone. Highways rip up landscapes; houses are torn down and with them the gardens that made them homes; trees are killed by bad pruning or not enough water, or they simply die of old age.
Eucalyptus grove, Balboa Park
Her most visible monument has made her a staple of tourist brochures. Like an oversized statue from Soviet Russia, she looms, smooth-featured, familiar, benign: the officially sanctified "Mother of Balboa Park."
That title would make the modest Kate squirm, but otherwise she'd be pleased at how she’s been frozen in the amber of civic virtue. For her, gardening was a public act, a duty even.
Kate extended her reach well beyond the potting shed. She lobbied planning boards and posed for dedications (though she hated having her picture taken); she was a lifelong garden columnist/correspondent for the San Diego Union and later the influential San Diego-based magazine California Garden, which kept her name before the public and helped her promote her favorite plants (for which she was usually the best or only source); she cultivated San Diego’s most powerful citizens; and she single-handedly ran the horticulture programs for the San Diego public schools, landscaping the grounds outside and teaching classes inside.
In nearly 60 years of 12- and 14-hour days, she gave herself only two vacations, and both included some horticultural work. Why was she so denying of her self? “Her plants were her children” is the diched explanation. Indeed, Kate left no heirs except her nephew Milton, with whom she clashed regularly. Now 94, he is the end of the Sessions line, his own son having died several years ago.
A reminiscence of Alice M. Greer provides a rare glimpse of a vulnerable Kate, a Kate for whom people mattered more than plants. In this case, the object of her affection is Greer’s mother Mary, one of Kate’s oldest friends, whom she had known since she was 15 or 16.
“Kate in her tweeds, her big shoes, her felt hat pulled low over her eyes, and with her nape-locks beckoning to her humped back, stood by the car to say good-bye. She kissed my mother. Impulsive tears filled her eyes and her voice. ‘You have two dear girls to be with you. I never had any. Take fine care of each other.’ Alone, she stood waving until we were out of sight.”
Like so many guardians of Kate’s image, Greer fiercely defended the life Kate chose for herself. “Did we wish that K.O.S. in her halcyon...days had married and now had ‘two dear girls’ to be with her? Yes and no. Great souls are lonely souls.’
“This IS Kate As I Knew Her,” she ends defiantly.
Yet Kate wasn’t the lone spinster woman of myth. She was known for her “socials” and maintained a vast network of friends and letter-writers.
“(H)er home on Soledad, Pacific Beach, the last home she built,” Greer writes, had, “best of all, many, many friends—the great, the near-great, the never-great, the never-to-be-great—all bound by that magic golden thread, the love of horticulture.”
For much of her life, Kate shared her house with a steady stream of family members. Both her parents and her only sibling, her brother Frank (Milton’s father), followed her from the Bay Area to San Diego.
All three are buried next to her in Mt. Hope Cemetery under three twisted junipers.
She oversaw the building of a house for her uncle Milton’s wealthy widow, Ellen (using Ellen’s money), when she was too feeble to care for herself and lived with her until she died. Frank moved into a house in the neighborhood after his divorce and installed his boy, the young Milton, with Kate.
She also took on her relatives as partners or employees. Milton worked in her nursery from the time he was eight. Her father, Josiah, acted as overseer and general helper between the death of her mother, Harriet, in 1895 and his own in 1903. She and her brother Frank started San Diego’s first commercial-scale poinsettia nursery on her land in Mission Hills.
“Her relationship with her brother was a business one, really,” says Milton in a recent interview. That went for the rest of the family, too, he says. Kate never made much of these obligations, just as she never made much of her own need for affection and love.
Bright brown eyes, lustrous brown hair, a tall, strong frame, a ready laugh, and a firm notion of herself drew men and women into her orbit. In her early 20s, though, she shucked her fine clothes and stopped caring for her looks. Why she did is her secret.
“She was no longer Olivia of the wavy brown hair, peaches-and-cream complexion, gleaming teeth, dainty shoes for the dainty feet, and made-to-order San Francisco or Amy Strong, San Diego’s early modiste, clothes,” Greer writes in her essay in the autumn 1953 California Garden commemorative issue on Kate. “Instead she wore tweed suits, an uninteresting brownish-gray, with leg-o- mutton pockets made of bed ticking inserted in the side seams to carry her garden paraphernalia; boy’s shoes, soft-brimmed hats pulled low; white embroidery jabot, poorly laundered and grimy but held in place by a lovely brooch; gray locks streaming from under her hat; eyes—beautiful, soft brown—keen, slightly squinting, quick to fill with emotional tears; voice strident; almost hunchback; hearing very impaired; manner usually abrupt, but at times very affectionate and understanding. This, then, was K.O.S., age 75.
“What had happened during those 59 years to bring about such a complete change in appearance and personality?” Greer asks.
Her answer, while suggestive, rings incomplete. “K.O.S. took [a] tremendous beating." At her “attempt to get rich by making large real estate investments and finding every one of them going dead against [her]...the domestic and financial burdens of relatives.”
And “hard, hard work, outdoor work. [L]ift[ing] ten-gallon tins, dig(ging) fifty-dollar holes for fifty-cent plants, supervis(ing) and work(ing) side by side with Mexican help, com(ing) home at night so physically dead tired that time and energy for reading even the daily newspaper, let alone literature, are not in the picture—one cannot do all these things without taking a beating, physically and mentally.”
“Will C. has been buried a week today,” Kate writes the night before her 20th birthday. “A year ago tonight what a fine time all was having.... Tomorrow I will be 20 years old; it does not seem possible. I do not feel a day older than when I was 16. Altogether I think I have accomplished very little this past year.”
Several weeks later she visits a “Mrs. Kenny” who stages a stance. She “says Will Clayton was there.... Mrs. Kenny had my picture & Will’s framed alike and hung on the wall.”
The next fall Kate entered UC-Berkeley, where she studied chemistry and agriculture (though her degree was technically in philosophy) and was a vivacious, attractive coed.
But there were no more men in her life.
She later rejected two marriage proposals. The first came while she was an undergraduate from a man who would become president of Stanford. After she was established in San Diego, she turned down John Spreckels, the sugar magnate.
She enjoyed a string of long-lived friendships with women, single and not, and men safely removed from romantic speculation by social station (like her Mexican gardeners and drivers) or because of their very public married-ness (like botanist Dr. Townshend Stith Brandegee, whom she accompanied with his wife, Mary Katherine, on a palm-collecting trip to Baja in 1903, when Kate was in her 40s).
Kate’s sex life and loves have been bleached out of the official biography, written in 1976 by Elizabeth MacPhail (Kate Sessions, Pioneer Horticulturist) and published by the San Diego Historical Society. The few living witnesses to her life, all in their 90s, either won’t or can’t say; they leave a lingering suggestion that the portrait isn’t true to Kate’s passionate nature.
“She had these housekeepers who would stay with her for many years, good friends, helpmates,” says Milton noncommittally. “I don’t know anything about her love life,” says Tim Aller, also in his 90s, who was a close friend.
A single woman overseeing men in a business of her own wasn’t an oddity for when and where Kate came of age. Without a wealthy husband or father, though, Kate had to find patrons. She opened her first nursery with the settlement she received when her partnership with Mr. and Mrs. Solon G. Blaisdell dissolved. They had put up all the cash. Developers riding San Diego’s various land booms deeded her lots and options in exchange for landscaping work, and some of the region’s richest citizens, including Ellen Browning Scripps and Henry E. Huntington, gave her occasional large commissions.
If she hungered for the main chance while she was alive, she also had an eye toward her image after she was dead. Practically all her papers, which she sorted and organized, can be found in repositories of San Diego lore like the San Diego Public Library’s California Room, the San Diego Historical Society’s extensive research collection, and the Museum of Natural History.
What’s in those boxes and old envelopes (Kate never used fresh stationery when used would do), most languishing unindexed, yield more clues than Kate might have intended.
In the Museum of Natural History archives, I came across an undated clipping from a newspaper called The New York Continent. It was stuck in the pages of a three-ring notebook Kate used for miscellaneous work-related notes.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the marriage preferences of Vassar College alumnae, when “Vassar” was still shorthand for “progressive womanhood" (long before Mary McCarthy published her devastating 1963 satire. The Group).
“It is interesting to note,” the anonymous Continent reporter writes, “that no graduate of Vassar College has ever been divorced.” Maybe a Vassar education makes women “what Congress ought to be, a deliberative body.” Hubby doesn’t stray because “it is doubtful if the male partner in the enterprise would feel himself free." And if the wives’ “culinary products savor of geology, and...table talk is more frequently archaeological,” that’s not grounds for divorce.
Kate probably chuckled over the housekeeping dig. She loathed domestic chores. She enjoyed food (according to Milton), but it was usually simple: rock candy, oatmeal (which had to be cooked in a double boiler, also according to Milton), figs, bread, olives and, oddly, milk.
Not that Kate disliked men. She had male friends with whom she worked closely, among them, Spreckels, George Marston, Alfred Robinson, Brandegee, and architect Irving Gill. High-society connections were necessary for any landscaper. At the other end of the social scale, she sponsored the Italian-born father and uncle of the late Frank Antonicelli, hiring them just after they emigrated. She later sold Frank her Mission Hills nursery.
Another revealing scrap is an undated page of notes in Kate’s handwriting about a 15th-century B.C. Egyptian queen who dressed like a man.
Though she was the ultimate ruler, Hatshepa (which was her name) shared her power nominally with her husband and brother. Kate, too, was the head of the family, with a recently widowed father and a carefree brother (who was famous for his trick-performing tame steers). And Kate walked, talked, worked, and dressed “like a man.”
Hatshepa’s greatest official accomplishment was an expedition to Punt, “the promised land of the gods.” To get there, she “collected a fleet in the Red Sea and herself commanded it.” She brought back “small spice trees which she planted at Thebes,” enough to make Kate envious.
The final chapter in Hatshepa’s career has a curious parallel to Kate’s. When she was succeeded by her younger brother after 31 years of rule, “He effaced her name from the monuments.”
Kate has suffered a similar fate—though in her case by omission. Sure, there’s a school and park named after her, and careless admirers credit her, rightly or not, with planting any large tree growing in the old parts of town, but the only official monument to Kate remains a state-issued historical plaque at the base of the Tipuana tree she put on Garnet Avenue. And that was almost taken down when the street was widened after her death.
So what about the women in Kate’s life? Botany and gardening have traditionally been areas where women can compete with men on equal terms. As Kate proved, even the physical labor, the digging and grubbing, sawing and snipping, can be managed by someone trapped in a female body.
Another scrap she saved is a newspaper story from March 1937 about Ines Mexia, "famous woman botanist,” who had recently returned from two years in the South American jungle. She left with “little more than a frying pan, a sleeping pack, mosquito netting, and some quinine” and came back with 6000 specimens.
Mexia, a "Mrs.” whose husband is never mentioned, traveled solely with native guides. “I don’t think there’s any place in the world a woman can’t venture alone,” she declares.
I can see Kate nod. "The Natural Sciences as a Field for Women’s Labors” was the title of her undergraduate thesis. By choosing gardens, she was choosing a feminine world.
She had plenty of female friends and mentors. Among her papers are obituaries and clippings about several prominent local women. One was a Mrs. A.P. Mills, who died in 1937 at the age of 82, making her just a few years older than Kate. Mills came to San Diego at almost the same time. In her photo, she is a striking older woman with white, swept-back hair and a wide, well-made face.
Almost by accident, she became La Jolla’s earliest real estate agent. Kate could have worked with her as lots were laid out and developers and new owners sought to enhance their investments by planting trees and shrubs. “Improving” land was a favorite hobby of Kate’s. (There’s no mention of Mills in MacPhail’s biography.)
Mills’s obituary makes her sound as if she and Kate would have been compatible. A proud "New England Puritan,” she had “friends who departed from customs and practices to which she unswervingly adhered.
“Our friend,” the writer notes, was “the confidante of many who were in trouble or perplexity at home.” She led “82 years of a strenuous, changeful checkered life,” words that could also apply to the way Kate lived. It’s not hard to imagine Kate as an intimate of the shrewd real estate doyenne with the tolerant attitude toward eccentric acquaintances.
A woman whose closeness to Kate is well documented is Mary Greer, also only a few years older. Kate “was almost a member of my family, so close was she to my mother,” recalls her daughter Alice M. Greer in a 1962 talk.
Mary Greer traveled with her family to the U.S. from London, where she was born. They stopped first in St. Joseph, Missouri. Later they lived in Salt Lake City. Mary was said to have walked there beside the wagon. At 18 she married an architect and moved to Berkeley. That was 1872. Kate was 15.
Alice Greer could remember Kate at Kate’s parents’ house in Oakland. She visited there with her mother when she was a child. (There’s no mention of how they met.)
Mary, her husband, and their two small daughters followed Kate to San Diego in 1890, and the two older women’s friendship continued for the next 50 years.
“We never knew when Miss Sessions would blow in, announced or unannounced, for a meal, a few hours, overnight, [or] just to drop off a new plant or a letter from some distant horticulturist.” They always referred to Kate as K.O.S. (short for Kate Olivia Sessions), “as she usually signed herself.” Kate’s mother called her Katie. Most others, Miss Sessions.
“Many false myths have grown around the name Kate Sessions.... Weigh and sift what you hear and do not pass on any anecdote unless you can verify its authenticity,” Alice Greer warns. Unfortunately, she doesn’t cite any meaningful specifics.
Greer’s main point was that there was “a side of her nature not known by many...femininity and sophistication.” That’s what Greer thought of as “Olivia.” Kate’s last house, which she built for herself in Pacific Beach, was a “delightful blending of the Olivia and the Kate.... Art treasures were there, relics from her travels, big clothes-closets for the ‘dresses I used to have,’ comforts of life, sun, open spaces, faraway vistas of sea and hill, a multitude of unorganized, well-thumbed books, magazines and papers, extensive gardens, and all” her friends.
When I ask Milton about Kate’s strong attachments to her women friends, especially Mary Greer, he gives a verbal shrug. “The fewer the number, the stronger the feelings. Kate was intensely interested in the Floral Association. So was Mary Greer.” As for her reported rejection of two suitors, “I wouldn’t be privy to that,” he says flatly.
Another woman in Kate’s life was Alice M. Rainford, who was much younger. They met when Alice was seven or eight at Kate’s first florist shop downtown at Fifth and C. Ten years later, when the then-fatherless Rainford was trying to make her own way in a new city, Kate hired her.
“I never worked for anyone but Miss Sessions,” she declares in a 1960 oral history interview, recorded when she was in her 80s. And she never married.
Later, in 1909, Kate engineered Rainford’s purchase of her florist shop with the aid of Alfred Robinson, a leading civic patron and good friend. By the time Rainford retired in 1946, she had become the premier purveyor of cut flowers. She supplied the arrangements, for example, for the Prince of Wales’s visit to the Hotel Del Coronado in 1920.
To understand Rainford and Kate's relationship, you have to understand what it was like to be a florist 80, 90, 100 years ago. This was a time when women wore corsages of fresh violets, torturously time-consuming to assemble and so perishable they wilted within hours.
“Too much night work in the flower business” was Rainford’s verdict in a 1960 interview she gave to a member of the San Diego Historical Society. Because they worked without refrigeration, “we used to have to go down at four o’clock in the morning if we had a big service, to get them ready for a funeral.”
Most of the blooms had to be grown nearby. Rainford and her colleagues depended on local housewives’ personal gardens. “There must have been 25 to 35 women scattered throughout the San Diego area who grew flowers [for me]," Rainford explained.
When Kate and later Rainford had the shop at the Hotel Del Coronado, it was stocked with blooms produced on two lots in Coronado. Whatever was left over after guest room vases and banquet hall bouquets were replenished each morning they could sell at their small booth.
In those days of the super-rich, flowers were also needed to prettify the private railroad cars visitors rode to town. “We were often called on to go down to the depot,” Rainford said. They also were asked to put flowers in small vases in the early electric automobiles.
Most of the arrangements used blossoms paint-by-numbers style; stems were broken off very short and stuffed into moss frames according to a template. “Many flags,” of course, Rainford recalls, lodge emblems, “square and compass for the Masons, three links for the Odd Fellows,” even a yacht, complete with a white-carnation sail. Funeral flowers leaned toward “wreaths and pillows, crosses, and occasionally even a chair or a gates-ajar with a dove on top. Those we considered old-fashioned, but still we often made them.” Kate tried to promote a more naturalistic aesthetic, at one point hosting a demonstration by a traditional Japanese flower-arranging expert.
It was important to keep close tabs on the customers, Rainford explained. “A shrewd florist always calls up the girl without the young man’s knowledge and asks what color her gown is going to be |so] the young man’s order shall be just right....It was quite fun to go and lean over the balcony anti watch the ladies dance, you know, wearing our corsages.”
A shrewd florist would also appreciate the value of her built-in access to the city’s wealthy elite. In a memoir she wrote about Kate, Rainford ticks off a dozen or so prominent San Diegans she served. No San Diegan, the cliché goes, was married or buried without flowers arranged by Kate. (In Oakland, years before, she did the funeral sprays for Will and corsages for herself and his other friends.)
Cut flowers had more than a social or aesthetic significance. They symbolized desirable human traits. “[R]ed roses, emblematic of her warm affection for her friends,” Rainford wrote when describing a memorial bouquet for her friend Mary Greer. “Lilies would signify the strength, dignity, and poise of her character. There would be forget-me-nots...[and| pansies for her thoughtfulness and consideration, and perhaps water lilies for her coolness and calmness in the midst of confusion.”
Like those long-faded blooms, much of Kate’s landscaping work has passed from view.
I drive around using old plant lists and newspaper articles, looking for signs of her.
One spot I find her is under the huge, beleaguered Tipuana tree at Garnet Avenue and Soledad Mountain Road in Pacific Beach. This is where she set up her third and final nursery, which didn’t get fully underway until she was in her 60s.
The tree is all that’s left. It’s an official state historic site, complete with plaque.
Suburban sprawl and bad traffic engineering make it dangerous to pull over. I have to drive by twice and execute an awkward U-turn through a parking lot before I can find a spot to ditch my car. Taking a picture is nearly impossible without being run over, because I have to step back so far to fit the tipu’s canopy—80 feet at least—into the viewfinder of my disposable camera.
The tree is a fitting monument. And not just because it has persevered so bravely and grown so huge. As much as her 19th-century sensibilities permitted, Kate saw all this coming, the quick oil-change shops and pizza joints, the baked-to-the-bone stucco ranchers of the flats, and, above them, in price and elevation if not style, the self-consciously walled-off “executive” homes.
Moreover, she hoped to profit from it. She helped convince the city to build Soledad Road, the first to go to the top of Mt. Soledad. When it was finished, Kate orchestrated a tree-planting ceremony, a Lady Bird Johnson-esque gesture that enhanced the area aesthetically— and financially. (A portion of the land at the summit is now the indifferently landscaped Kate O. Sessions Memorial Park.)
Kate casts a strong shade on Albatross Street, near Upas, south of Mission Hills, in a small canyon complex Irving Gill helped build for lavish-thinking Arts & Crafts movement aficionados Katherine Teats and Alice Lee from roughly 1905 to 1922. Gill respected the existing terrain, while clustering what came to be eight houses around the then-rural spot. Kate adapted her plantings to the contours and the climate as well, using banana palms, eucalyptus and other semi-tropical species, so that today there is a dense forest interspersed with paths and terracing. The original gardens were much more extensive and much more communal, with shared space and pergolas.
At 3407 Albatross, the last house built, the only examples of Kate’s handiwork I can see are two twisted junipers, battered and almost white barked. They guard the driveway. One looks fairly healthy, its twin, though, is dying.
A couple of doors up, at 3415 (built in 1912), what looks like a tea tree, one of Kate’s favorites, grows in the elbow of the house. Two huge palms mark the front corners of the lot. The two-story stucco frame is punctuated by generous windows and glass doors, some square, others slightly arched, which open up the inside to the air and light outdoors.
Standing ten yards away on an empty sidewalk on a weekday morning, I can glimpse polished furniture and what may be an oriental rug. The tree rises straight and true. Its first big branches start just about at the roofline. The sun tumbles through its feathery canopy, shadowy phantoms dance on the walls. This must have been Kate’s doing, the positioning’s so right, close enough to dapple, not darken the windowed rooms, but not so near as to crowd the roots.
I come by several more times and walk around. The colors in the canyon change constantly in the light. Any breeze causes a cozy rustle. On the east side. Front Street, are some less-distinguished houses. One is in the throes of what looks like a sprawling, never- ending orgy of amateur home improvement. Tarps, scaffolding, bags of grout, and other leftovers testify to ambitions that may or may not be realized. In the disheveled yard, a clutch of hens busy themselves, and a rooster hops into view. Kate is here.
“There’s not much left,” veteran San Diego horticulturist Lucy Warren agrees when I talk about trying to find Kate. Most of her designs were rough sketches, usually on the backs of old envelopes. “She was an intuitive gardener, like so many of us.... Unfortunately, many plants have shorter lifespans than we do,” Warren says.
“In a way she was more important as a horticulturist than a gardener,” says David Streatfield in an interview from his office at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he chairs the landscape design department.
In his latest book, California Gardens: Creating a New Eden (Abbeville Press, 1994), he writes about the Albatross houses and another of Kate’s gardens. In his conclusion, he ranks Kate among “pioneering figures” like Theodore Payne, Lockwood de Forest, and Thomas Church, who helped California find its own garden vocabulary.
She’s important because “she was very much against the fashionable tendency for creating styles from all over the world. She was a pioneer in recognizing that San Diego was a droughty area,” he says. Her reputation was enhanced by her association with Gill and other Arts & Crafts advocates.
In his book, Streatfield explains how Kate interpreted that aesthetic differently than her counterparts did in Berkeley, where they made the hills shaggy and shingle-covered. Streatfield uses the Albatross houses as an example.
They are a “completely different form of hillside garden.... The mesalike landscape...with its steep canyons lacked native trees and never developed the luxuriantly wooded character of the Berkeley hills. These southern hillside gardens featured a variety of drought-tolerant plants and low walls built of local cobbles or red Camp Kearny stone. Gill’s plain concrete houses...were, as he said, ‘plain and substantial as a boulder.’ Their ornamentation was left to nature, which added tone with lichens and softened contours with vines and shadows.... The simple cubic concrete walls rose from the edge of the canyon, with Italian cypress, banana, and eucalyptus trees providing vertical contrast to the horizontal shrubs on the terraces.”
The most intact of her gardens, though it’s impossible to say how much of what’s visible today was her doing, are the grounds of the George Marston House (1904) at the edge of Balboa Park. They show that Kate thought not in human time, but in plant time, and the plan comes true.
In a photo taken just after the house was finished, it sits on a stark, treeless rise, with a nearly bare hill behind it. Today, the lemon eucalyptus scattered on the east slope have reached their full astonishing heights, nearly twice as tall as the three-story house. Canary Island pines have soared into living green pyramids. The sweeping, tilting lawn creates an ethereal effect as it spills away from the heavier mass of the house. The open expanses of turf run in discrete planes that meet and separate almost like slices off an invisible conic projection. They’re suspended on shifting ropes of light shooting down from the sky-high branches of the alabaster-trunked eucalyptus.
Beyond the rough hedges at the lawn's end, a cunning network of paths takes you deep into a woodland canyon. Each turn creates a new angle from which to view plantings that range from ground cover up to moderate, one-story-high trees. Ultimately, sadly, all that artifice is undermined by the freeway’s roar.
More than a design style, Kate’s legacy was the plants she imported into the region and her abiding passion for new varieties. "She certainly developed families of plants she particularly enjoyed,” Warren says.
To get them, she could be obstinate and even pushy. One letter from her files is from an “agriculturist” in the U.S. Bureau of Plant Industry, dated 1916.
He’s answering her suggestion that his department be more aggressive in collecting South African bulbs. Yes, he writes, two of them, freesia and gladiolus, have already proved useful and popular, but it’s out of his hands. “It would be highly desirable if somebody could...pan out the sands carefully for at least a year,” he writes plaintively. “But the prospect is not at all promising.” He tells her to try commercial bulb dealers in the Netherlands, France, and Britain.
New species were introduced casually. Mary Greer’s sea captain brother almost single-handedly brought camellias from China, according to a story Alice tells.
On one of his many Asian trips, he packed up three five-gallon buckets with young plants and brought them back to San Francisco, his home port. Greer’s mother, Mary, along with her two daughters, took them the rest of the way on one of their regular steamboat trips between their Berkeley home and San Diego, where her architect father was helping build the Hotel Del Coronado.
It was a two-day ride on the Santa Rosa, and passengers had to disembark for the overnight stay in a hotel at San Pedro. Luggage had to come off, too. “Can you see Mary A. Greer, her two little girls, aged three and seven years, holding their dolls all geared up in their traveling clothes, dollies were always dressed for the occasion—the suitcases or valises in those days, and three five-gallon cans of camellias?” Greer wrote.
"End of the camellia tale? One plant lived, to be propagated and introduced into San Diego County. That was the beginning of camellia culture in San Diego County.”
Though transportation was primitive compared to now, when a specimen can go from one country to another in a day or two, "don't underestimate them,” Warren says. “Those ships really were plying the oceans.”
Botanical discoveries could be worth millions in the pre-chemical era when natural substances like hemp (for rope and cloth), rubber, and rare minerals were needed in industrial processes. For example, Warren says, “fortunes were made and lost” in tea and tulips.
Most botanists were amateurs who simply traveled to where the plants grew, dug up a few, collected seeds and snipped off some branches, and took it all back for experimental propagation. Kate and her network of correspondents were constantly trading seeds and tips and observations.
In the rush to discover and spread new species, some confusion resulted, and Kate kept her eye out for who received the credit. Her friend and fellow horticulturist Tim Aller, writing in the 1932 San Diego Union about her signature Cocos palms, was not exempt from mistakes. “Several facts are wrong,” Kate wrote in the margin of the paper on which the clipping is pasted.
Aller traced Kate’s early palms (including those on Horton Plaza, Sixth Avenue, and Orange Avenue in Coronado) to seeds acquired by a nurseryman from a South African conservatory 40 years earlier. That would have dated them to 1892. But Kate wrote in the margin that the plaza palms were planted five years later, in 1897. She pointed out an even more serious discrepancy: The Cocos is native to South America, not South Africa. (Aller was right that Kate planted them. But they were grown from seedlings she purchased from a nursery in Philadelphia.)
“Plants then were more important to people in their lives. They still lived in an agrarian economy,” Warren says. Hoping to tap that passion, Kate promoted her rarities. A brochure for her Pacific Beach nursery, the “Most Desirable Plants and not common,” lists 23 ice plants by name and “others, the botanical names unknown at present.”
Jean Guy lives with planting decisions Kate made 90 years ago. By chance and marriage, she has become the third-generation steward of the Grossmont house built in 1912 by Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the socialite opera star who thrilled San Diego society in the early part of the century. Schumann-Heink was the grandmother of Jean’s late husband, Hubert Guy, an enthusiastic amateur historian who wrote the self-published, defiantly titled Grossmont Isn't Just a Shopping Center. He died last May.
As opposed to the 1000-plus acres of Balboa Park, this patch of Kate’s plantings comes to less than five. Instead of being open to the public at all hours, it is a private preserve in a neighborhood where privacy is cherished and maintained behind tall fences and hedges. For all the Guys’ involvement in Grossmont’s civic life, and for all Schumann-Heink’s local notoriety, her home has only been opened to the public once since she died. It was the Guys’ idea, to raise money for town projects. So many people lined up for a peek, there were traffic jams on the narrow roads that lace the hill. (And, Jean adds with a characteristic chuckle, Hubert couldn’t autograph fast enough the copies of his book, which he put on sale for the tour.)
Despite her complaints about a bad hip slowing her down, Jean Guy is an energetic woman. Her voice is firm and friendly. She laughs easily. Her “estate” is run more like a ranch, complete with an old pickup truck. During the few hours we spend together, she’s continuously pointing out details of her complex household: the dining room’s vintage wallpaper, which she once mistook for paint when trying to clean it; the wooden ornamentation that requires custom-milled replacements; the engineering quirks of the stone-and-mortar porte-cochere; the lack of electrical outlets; the weakness in the chimney.
Guy presides over a very public private place, an unofficial monument to old Grossmont and her late husband, who was active in promoting its historical significance. Thanks to the twin Washingtonia palms that tower above it, you can sight it from miles away.
Like Kate, Guy is an intuitive gardener, to use Lucy Warren’s phrase. As she leads me around, she lets drop bits of expertise. Her training began when, as a young bride in the ’40s, she watched first her mother-in-law and later her father-in-law nurture Schumann-Heink’s home and legacy. As they grew older, she gradually took over more of the physical tasks. Now in her 70s, she is the only one left, her children having grown up and moved away.
The Sessions connection is cherished here. On this knoll overlooking the El Cajon valley, Guy tells me, are trees personally planted by Kate, among them an olive, a fig, an avocado, the two palms and, of course, many eucalyptus.
Of interest isn’t the design—there isn’t much now—so much as the aged trees. As we step outside, a bird calls from the depths of a massive Australian Moreton Bay fig. From certain angles, a Washingtonia palm, whose droopy leaves wave another 40 feet higher, seems to grow up through it. A venerable star pine is in the background. “I have a picture of it in a little five-gallon can on the front porch. Now it’s more than 40 feet tall,” Guy says.
Between the trees is weed-free packed earth. In the orchard section, they are ringed by stone pits to conserve water and nutrients, which are pumped to them by a drip irrigation system. As a result, a few ancients, far exceeding their 30- to 50-year life expectancies, produce football-sized avocados, persimmons as big as melons, and steady crops of juicy tangerines, lemons, peaches, and oranges. “The soil here is absolutely excellent,” Guy says.
Even the wizened olive is covered with fruit. “This is an olive tree that Kate Sessions planted. She had a whole row of them. We had to cut it back as it died. Now I’m going to have them shape it into round balls.”
As happens with the houseproud and gardenproud, Guy salts her explanations with criticisms and apologies. She alternately frets over and boasts about her charges, who cost her thousands each year. A sample item: the Davey Tree man, whom she knows by name, makes an annual trip just to trim the trees, a $3000 job. If they aren’t thinned out, they grow so thick they’ll blow over. Just after Guy’s wedding, one did. It missed the house by a foot or so.
“I haven’t been down here to prune properly,” she says as we venture near the citrus trees. “The gardeners always chop too much. Look at this poor tree,” she says, pointing to her lone original Queen avocado. It stands stricken and lopsided.
Guy knows the allure and danger of a consuming garden. “That poor woman across the street—she’s not poor by any means—she lives there by herself,” Guy points to a yard with well-tended beds. “She insists on doing most of the work herself. Her son finally forced a gardener on her, and she resents it. She’s 91.”
The Guys’ yard has some trophies from Kate’s days when she had a little cottage in Grossmont, built on land deeded to her by a developer friend. There’s an original naked-breasted lady from what was then Balboa Park’s Electric Building. She was auctioned off with the other old plaster of Paris ornaments, to be replaced by more durable versions, and he bid on her at the last minute. An artist friend of theirs applied several coats of “something,” Guy says, to protect against the rain. She holds up a cairn of local rock Hubert patched together. Near her, the porte-cochere sits half deconstructed. It needs widening because “it was built for little narrow wagons.” The driveway was done long since, but they haven’t found a crossbeam long enough for the formal entrance.
“Would you like to keep it up?” she asks rhetorically. We sit down inside. The room was made by glassing in the original front porch. Now it’s an aerie that gives an amazingly clear view of I-8 below. Just like at the Marston House and the Pacific Beach tipu tree, a freeway intrudes. Guy likes it, though she knows she shouldn't. “It’s ever-changing. You never see the same thing twice. It really is fascinating.
“Looks like a fire,” she says calmly as engines pull up on the highway shoulder several hundred feet beneath us. “We keep everything well moistened. That hillside across the freeway there, someone is always flipping a cigarette. That’s one thing I’ve never done is flip a cigarette.”
She points out the cars going the opposite way that have pulled over to watch. “To the right there, off the freeway, that is the original road, a little two-lane road into El Cajon.” Across the valley we can see the high school her children attended. It’s a faux Gothic building (circa 1920) covered in ivy, imported (the ivy, that is) from England. The builder wanted to give Grossmont High an authentic look.
Kathy Puplava, Balboa Park’s first and only head horticulturist, was once jokingly referred to as the “new” Kate Sessions. She’d prefer to lose the analogy. Living with Kate’s work so publicly is fraught enough without the added comparison.
“It’s hard to separate the urban legend from the reality,” Puplava says as we sit in her small, sunny office in the park’s main administration building. Puplava, 40 and the mother of a toddler, has worked in public horticulture in San Diego since shortly after arriving here from Florida in 1979. From 1980 to 1988 she was at the Wild Animal Park and then the zoo. She got the Balboa Park job in 1988. She is sturdily built but, oddly, has an office worker’s complexion.
Landscape design historian David Streatfield imagines the old Kate Sessions would have some words for the new one. “My guess is she’d be appalled at a lot of what’s happened in San Diego the last 15 years," he says. “I’m not sure she’d be too thrilled with Balboa Park, the freeway that runs through it, all the building.” And “she’d be appalled by the amount of irrigation that’s been introduced."
Puplava can’t do anything about the freeway, though it bothers her. As for more building, she’s been wary of it ever since word leaked out last year about the Navy Hospital’s plans to expand farther into Florida Canyon. And the irrigation she can’t undo. Her main water worry is divvying it up between the crowd-pleasing annuals and aged trees.
Just as cities change, so do their public gardens. That’s why Balboa Park’s story, too, can best be told in plant time. All successful gardeners reach a compact with time. They know they won’t live to sec their best work, but if they’re lucky enough and good enough, their vision will extend beyond their lifetimes.
That’s what nourishes Puplava.
“ ‘If you want to live forever, plant a tree’ is the cliché,” she tells me as we bounce over a curb in her city-issued four-wheel-drive truck. Kate probably never heard it, but the groves of Balboa Park—eucalyptus, palm, cypress, oak, pine—which Kate could only imagine when they were laid out as five-gallon specimens, have given her fame.
However, that kind of immortality eventually fades. Kate’s trees are starting to die just when San Diegans have decided to rejuvenate the park for the third or fourth time. Puplava’s job is to reconcile plant-time mortality with the human-time urge for perpetual renewal.
The past is at best an imperfect guide, lust as it was for Kate, the park is “open 24 hours a day,” Puplava says. "But it’s a completely different world. We’re talking about crime and transients and the public’s impact on the park.
“People come out in trucks and just dig palms, roses.” To thwart them, trees and shrubs have to be put into the ground large enough to be hard to steal. “A lot of the trees they planted back then were one-gallon plants,” Puplava says. “We have to plant at least a 15- or 24-inch box.” Bigger plants cost more, so fewer items can be purchased. Puplava has 35 grounds maintenance workers, who also help out on other park department properties. Before Proposition 13 there was three times the staff.
Puplava sounds simultaneously confident—about caring for thousands of vulnerable growing things in an often threatening public space—and cautious about the dangers of politicizing what she does.
She has to grapple most publicly with Kate’s ghost, or what Kate’s admirers think of as Kate’s ghost. Her battle is to preserve the original vision of the park and still meet the demands of modern park management.
Take Kate’s prized eucalyptus trees. As Puplava dryly puts it, instead of dropping leaves, eucalyptus like to “shed their branches.” That can create hazards on the ground below. Although Kate favored eucalyptus, Puplava won’t replant them in the central park area. She is confident Kate would back her up if she had lived long enough to see the hazards mature trees create.
Puplava’s first task as the new horticulturist was to literally catch up with Kate and document what she had done. That meant counting trees. Tallying the first tract, the central 244 acres, took two years and cost more than $36,000.
The census takers found 6344 individual trees representing 295 different species. (Nearly 1700 were common sugar gums [Eucalyptus cladocalyx], but 66 of the 295 species were considered historically or horticulturally significant.) The number of trees was about three times what she’d guessed. The average density, about 26 trees per acre, was also a surprise. Puplava had expected all the “hardscape,” like buildings, parking lots and sidewalks, to dilute their presence more.
There was another welcome finding. “The concern was we were losing ail these trees and we weren’t replacing them, and eventually there wouldn’t be any trees in the park. What we found was, to our delight, that’s not true. That we’re doing pretty good.”
About 90 percent of the trees were in excellent to good health. “It’s a dynamic situation. A garden shouldn’t be 100 percent healthy, it should have some trees that are declining. You don’t want to replace 5000 trees today, because in 40 years they’ll all be the same age. We replace maybe 50 to 100 trees a year.”
Puplava personally visited each and “shook their hand.” Each was entered on a computer, cross-referenced by plant name and location on the grid. “Every tree now has an accession number. It’s just like a museum.”
Unlike a museum, though, a garden, well, grows. That makes it tricky to bring Balboa Park closer in line with its history. “You have to find the period you want to preserve,” Puplava says. “In the park, of course, it’s 1935, because if we went with 1915, the Palisades area down near the Aerospace Museum wouldn’t have existed.”
Some fundamental changes can’t be reversed. There’s much more turf for playing fields and picnic areas. The original paths, sprinkled with dust-producing decomposed granite, have been replaced. Low-lying shrubs have been removed to make the park safer.
In a few spots, like the Marston House, the old style can be maintained. A gardener works there seven days a week. For the rest, they just don’t have the staff. In her ongoing horticultural triage, “We’ve gone from perennials and ground covers to trees.”
Puplava is reluctant to ascribe too many plants to Kate. There just isn’t enough documentation. As we drive around, though, she points out some sites that show Kate’s hand.
The palms next to the Automotive Museum, for instance, are the same species that she brought back from her 1903 trip to Baja with Dr. Townshend Stith Brandegee. Kate propagated them from seed. Now they rise 40 feet and more. Their age is more impressive considering that palms don’t grow terribly fast. These specimens, as opposed to shorter-lived imports from the tropics, will last “100 years or so,” Puplava says. That gives them roughly two more decades.
We comb to the desert garden behind the Balboa Park Club, itself recently restored. This planting one dates back to 1935. We get out of the truck to look at euphorbia and cacti that are roughly 60 years old. “They love this kind of climate, and they’re getting occasional water," Puplava says. Branches and stalks, tall and squat, thin and thick, create an eye-pleasing tangle in a range of greens running from near-emerald to olive.
"Within the last two years or so, the gardener in this area has taken an interest. It’s a nice garden, and the transient camps have been cleared out," Puplava says.
The freeway screams in the canyon below. “I like to try to think of the park without the freeway noise, as it might have been.” I mention how loudly it roars at the Marston House. “That’s such a gorgeous place,” Puplava says. “That constant sound of the cars is really distracting.” The direct damage is mainly aesthetic. Though urban plants generally don’t live as long as ones in the wild, the pollution from the cars doesn’t seem to hurt them.
Palm Canyon is our next stop. Decades back, the city used it as a pound for stray animals because it’s a dead end. “The original plants are these tall Mexican fan palms. I don’t know if Kate Sessions planted them or not. They have the brown skirts on them and go down the center of Palm Canyon. The rest were put in starting in the ’70s as a collection area. So we have maybe about 75 different species of palms down there.”
Puplava waves her hand northward. “Her nursery is somewhere, maybe where that condo is,” referring to the large residential building on the park side of Upas and Sixth. She shows me a tipu tree that “is associated with Kate Sessions. It may have been one she was involved with planting.”
Generally, the trees on the west side are older and thus more likely to have been placed there by Kate, “but there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason. There’s no theme," Puplava says. “But that’s okay, because these areas are used for open park activities. So we’ve adopted a plan of maintaining this side of the park as conifers and hardwood trees and the palms in the central area. It was never written down that way, but that’s what we have.”
Puplava’s plans for the west-side groves stretch far into the future, starting with a stand of eucalyptus 50 to 70 years old that are nearing their final time. Trees don’t signal precisely the moment they start to die. “They grow and grow and grow, and then they start to decline. I can’t say when, because it’s influenced by the environment. They’ll start to die, basically, and get diseased. And then we’ll remove them, or else they’ll fall down in storms, because the soil here is hardpan. They actually had to blast holes. It is still like that.”
As replacements for the eucalyptus, she has planted ash trees. Now there’s a small grove of young ones “maybe three to four years old” and already two to three times as tall as a person. These new trees have been liberally mulched. That conserves moisture and nutrients and protects them from dangers like root compaction from people’s feet and gouges from mower blades. It also shields them from the turf, which is “a great competitor.”
In one of the myriad compromises of the public gardener, Puplava has dressed only about a third of the area she’d like to. People complain about the brown circles of twigs and bark. “They want to see the grass growing right up to the trunk," she says. Mulch wasn’t nearly as popular in Kate’s time, but today’s gardeners understand its value. Kate, Puplava guesses, would agree.
Kate’s favorite colors were blue and violet. In the lexicon of her florist friend Alice Rainford, they’d mean “rare power, dignity, philosophy, resignation and conquest over base thoughts.” Sounds truer to Kate than, say, the ersatz Old Town trolley with “Kate Sessions” stenciled on its fender. Or the sweatshirt applique and matchbook cover logo that her palms have become.
The stories from three living people who knew Kate well sound truer, too, as far as they go. They arc Milton, who shared a house with her; Tim Aller, a fellow horticulturist and admirer; and Isabell Baresh, a pupil of hers who can still recall how to slip-propagate a carnation and a fig and learned to use river sand rather than ocean sand to grow things in. All are in their 90s.
Milton spends most days in his comfortable garden apartment in La Jolla, attended by Yolanda, his second wife, who is several decades younger than he and alert to his needs. A good six feet tall, he’s still handsome, though heart disease saps his strength.
“My time is in the hands of the doctors,” he says when I first ask him for an appointment.
As Milton faces his own mortality, he can’t escape the ghost of Kate. He tries. He spends much of our talk on his father’s landscaping work and his own; he carefully differentiates himself from his aunt. Though it would annoy him to admit it, the connection’s obviously been a help.
In sheer chronology, Kate cast a long shadow over his life. He didn’t leave her employ until the year he turned 21, when he started his own business. She lived for another two decades.
I ask him for a vivid image of “Aunt Kate.” You have to remember, he says, that she devoted all of her waking hours to work. What remains unsaid is that she probably hardly noticed the eight-year-old boy who was thrust into her household as long-term temporary lodger when his parents’ marriage was breaking up.
He was watching her, though. Milton recalls that when it grew too dark to garden, Kate read botany books. “She had an office a little above the level of her dining room. I could see her every night there studying her horticultural subjects,” the glow from the lamp lighting her face.
Little Milton, meanwhile, sat in the kitchen with the hired woman.
Kate “liked her food. She was in the large-woman class,” says Milton. “She was big, five foot seven. Certainly in later years she could easily weigh 175 pounds. She had large shoulders, which had been developed through her years of working in the soil.”
It’s not surprising that Milton would describe Kate's looks in a not totally flattering way. They quarreled for years, though he says people exaggerate their differences. His protestations are hard to believe. Even Elizabeth MacPhail in her generally soft-pedaled biography writes, “Although devoted to each other, their personalities clashed, and they did not always see eye to eye, resulting in frequent disagreement.”
He escorts me into his study, which is filled with mementos. On the wall is an oil painting of a stallion Kate’s father, his grandfather, shipped to Oakland from back East.
Milton abandoned landscaping to become a stock breeder in 1958, when he and his late wife bought a ranch in Santa Rosa, in Northern California. “Every weekend we had show horses out someplace, Nevada, Oregon. I had professional riders in my employ.” He stayed there until 1986, when he and his first wife returned to San Diego because of her worsening Parkinson’s disease.
Like Kate, Milton has grown living things to suit human tastes all his life. Unlike Kate, he seems to have made decent money doing it. Others grew wealthy buildingjun the land she’d chosen, its value appreciating as her plantings softened the scrub and altered the skyline. Her powerful friends had to step in to balance the books of her estate. She died a virtual pauper.
Milton’s spacious, comfortable (though not lavish) apartment, the ranch in Santa Rosa, which he sold, and is now a $12 million vineyard, the happy younger (though middle-aged) wife, this is not how a pauper ends up.
Milton spent years in Kate’s nurseries taking directions from her. He didn’t receive any special treatment; in fact, as family, he may have been held to a stricter standard. Pre-chemicals, running a greenhouse entailed more drudgery than it does now. Bugs were killed manually, pots disinfected by scrubbing.
The chores were simple-minded and repetitious; a child could do them. Milton began when he was eight. He recalled tasks suitable to a boy of that age, pulling weeds, gathering snails,” which were tossed in a can of kerosene. One of the “more disagreeable jobs during those years” was washing flower pots. They’d be put in ‘a great big tub” filled with cold water, where “they’d soak for long periods of time so the soil would be softened.” Once Milton was old enough, he drove the delivery wagon and later a truck. He was also finally permitted to transplant seedlings.
Kate “was a very forceful, dominant person. She had a strong voice. She was able to get across her ideas in a very forceful way.” Could she tell a joke? “Very definitely.” She was more playful than the record makes her seem, because “mostly what you’re getting is her promotion of the plant world. It was serious business.”
It had to be. She intended no less than to change the palate of the San Diego landscape. To that end "she had to establish herself in the public mind so her recommendations were respected,” Milton says.
Milton spent years cultivating the same people for his own landscaping business. “I struck off in a different direction. I was a landscape contractor. She did not draw plans,” his voice becomes more animated. “She sold people plants, showed people how to plant them.” Kate was “primarily a nursery woman.”
Weren’t they rivals though? “I knew the plants pretty well, but I was doing something she wasn’t, so it wasn’t directly competitive in that sense.” In another sense, which Milton doesn’t spell out, it was. “I had everything, a nursery, a landscape contracting business, a landscape architectural practice, and even a retail florist business.” The last was in a prime corner in Old Town that he and his father opened in 1921. "We purchased a fairly large piece of land and built substantial buildings to back that up."
“She had a great knowledge of plant material. She was aggressively involved in the importation of plant material from various countries, Australia, New Zealand, China, countries with climates somewhat similar to ours.”
Her favorites were “the bougainvillea, the twisted juniper, the Podocarpus elongatus [fern pine). It becomes a fair-sized tree, with little tiny leaves, very droopy. If it’s trimmed right, it becomes a very pretty small tree.”
Kate taught him about “small plants, seedlings” and soil, how to prepare it, and what it should contain. “I lay in bed the other night thinking about the way she’d teach people about the way soils were. A diagram. At the top is a soil that’s rich, then there’s one that’s mellow, of medium value, and on down the line until you hit the clay-based soils, which have to be altered with sandy loams to alter their severe composition.”
She refined soil to an art. Here’s Kate writing in November 1931 on the soil for growing ferns from spores. “Powdered brick dust with a little powdered charcoal.... Heat for half an hour to sterilize. ” Once the seedlings appear, after about a month, they’re to be put in pots filled with “finest leaf mold soil and some peat mixture and charcoal dust.”
She also was forceful about the need to dig a large enough hole. Too small, and the plant might outgrow it before the root system was mature enough to make the most of the surrounding inferior soil. “My Aunt Kate spent a lot of time and energy on that phase.”
When chemical fertilizers were introduced, soil improvement became “more difficult and generally more expensive.” The mixing was trickier, "so a lot more handling has taken place. An all-purpose plant food has to have the phosphorus, potash, and nitrogen in the proper ratios. Otherwise the customer will get in trouble with them.”
An eminence now in his own right, though not nearly as prominent as Kate in her prime, Milton grows more nostalgic about his aunt as the interview goes on. “She was a phenomenon in a way. Too bad the way she died. She broke her hip working in her garden in Pacific Beach, on Mt. Soledad. She got pneumonia. She never came out of the hospital. She had a nice home and big garden, which she enjoyed tremendously. I used to visit her there. I visited her in the hospital.” Milton was the only nephew and the only surviving Sessions, his father having died in 1931.
Milton and his father didn’t stump around yards, shovel in hand, digging 50-dollar holes for 50-cent plants the way Kate did. They manhandled full-grown trees that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars into new locations for instantaneous transformations. They didn’t work in plant time. They worked in human time.
Their ambitious tree-moving stunts made headlines, like when they installed the eucalyptus around the edge of the Automotive Pavilion for the 1935 exposition in Balboa Park. The trees were nearly as tall then as they are now.
In another fit of tree hauling, in 1929, Milton undertook to supply, at George Marston’s expense, some date palms to match Father Serra’s original date palm in Presidio Park. After scouting yards in the older parts of town, he finally rounded up five full-grown specimens 40 to 60 years old and plopped them into place.
Milton makes it sound easy. For eucalyptus, six months or so before the move, “you root prune, shape the root system for a box of a fixed size, and leave all the bottom roots intact.” San Diego's famed hardpan makes the job even simpler, because tree roots of any kind can’t penetrate very far. “When we got that tree tilted up, you’d see a whole mess of roots laying on top of hardpan.” Even better, eucalyptus roots "spread out like a pancake” to suck up any available surface water. “You’d be amazed. There is no tap root.”
Palms were easier. “A grown palm has no large tender roots,” he told garden writer Ada Perry in a 1929 story about the Serra trees. What roots they do have “heal over quickly.” They also store a large supply of food and water in their trunks. That tides them over any transplant shock.
Like Kate, Milton’s past is well documented. Yolanda jumps ' up to drag out scrapbooks, commemorative displays, citations, while Milton looks on, trying to appear modest, but clearly pleased. The press has been attentive to him in his declining years. When he was rushed to the hospital a couple of years ago, the Union-Tribune ran a story. Unlike Kate, though, his clips are preserved on fresh, crisp foamboard, or tucked away in neat files. His business brochures are printed on glossy stock, complete with photos. Also unlike Kate, he has married, twice, and raised a family. And finally, unlike Kate, his home is an apartment on a city street.
Milton won’t be rushed to the hospital from his garden.
One of the few people Kate deferred to on horticultural matters was Tim Aller. Now in his 90s, he is a dapper, slightly built man. His eyes give off a Yeatsian gaiety. A generation or more younger than Kate, born 40-some years after her, Aller arrived in La Jolla from Denver in 1915 as a child. He came with his family, where he was the last of eight. “We liked it very much,” he says of Southern California. Aller ended up living in his parents’ house. He had it torn down a few years ago to build a new one, which he recently settled into. Overlooking one of La Jolla’s beaches, with cantilevered decks, picture windows and sleek furnishings, it looks like the home of someone decades younger.
A friend of his at the La Jolla Historical Society warns me that Aller has kept to himself more after the death of his wife a few years ago, but he greets me warmly and we settle in for an extended chat. At one point it’s interrupted when the young man who is his housekeeper/cook/driver/accountant stops in.
Aller first met Kate during the 1915 Exposition. He was a little boy, and she was the lady in charge of the flowers. By the time he got to know her better, their relationship had changed. He was the state agriculture inspector with the power to close her nursery.
He never did, but Kate bore watching, and she knew it. “She wasn’t too great about keeping the nursery clean,” he says with a chuckle. “She didn’t have time for that. But she always cooperated. Say she had 50 lantanas in one-gallon cans, and our inspectors would find mealy bug on them. Or maybe we’d find a scale that was just getting started on plants in San Diego.” Kate would “bemoan the fact, but she never disagreed with us.”
She also helped them investigate insects and diseases. “She knew a lot about it,” Aller says.
He was vividly aware of Kate when he was a boy, and she’s on his mind a lot now. “Every time I look at those plantings on Sixth, I think of Kate Sessions.” Aller thinks of the Tipuana tree in Pacific Beach as “her pride and joy.”
His strongest image of Kate is in Balboa Park. “She was a terror, in a way.” She would “lay into anyone who abused park property regardless of whether they were children or adults. With children, she’d light into them and shake them. ‘Suppose you were a little plant and somebody yanked you out of the ground?’ Or people picking flowers to take home.”
Was she lonely? “She never had a boyfriend, as far as I know. Most men, maybe they think, ‘Oh, she’s too tough for me.’ I really don’t know anything about her love life.”
Lovers may have been a mystery, but not friends. “If she didn’t like you, that’s it. You might as well forget her.” Kate “was it.” How not to be liked by her? “Disagreeing with her, mostly.” If you didn’t know what you were talking about, it was best not to venture an opinion. One nurseryman was “a heavy thinker, but he hadn’t so much knowledge. She used to fight with him all the time. Dewey Kelly was his name. He bought the nursery from her. He worked for her. He didn’t want to do things the way she did, because he thought he was a great horticulturist, so they’d argue.”
Over what? “Identification of plants and shrubs and things.”
Kate wasn’t as capable about money. It’s a repeated theme in her life. The late Frank Antonicelii, who bought the Mission Hills Nursery from Kate, in a 1985 interview, casually described how Kate gave his father some land because she didn’t have the cash to pay the back wages she owed him.
San Diego might have been wide open for opportunities, but the chance to make big bucks was balanced by the threat of losing them just as quickly. “People would just get money away from her,” Aller says. “Unscrupulous real estate people were taking great advantage of her. I know people were beating her out of money.”
Still, she “could see possibilities. When she bought all that land” in Pacific Beach, “she was pretty well fixed. It cost practically nothing. She had acquired quite a small fortune. But she ended up in the hole, and pieces of her land had to be sold. I could see what was happening, but I was in no position to help her out.”
Aller says Kate and Milton had a spat over property. “He tried to get the nursery away from her, actually. I didn’t get mixed up in it.” (Apparently, Kate and Milton’s father, Frank, bought the Pacific Beach nursery land together.) Aller says Milton “was the big shot. He would never give her credit for what she was doing.” He flings his hand toward the ceiling. "I keep pointing up because he used to live in Hillcrest. At the last, Milton Sessions got all her property.” He was her only heir.
Was she a handsome woman? “She was. She didn’t want her picture taken. 'Fiddlesticks, take too much time.’ I can hear her now.” She was like “a bumble bee. You know how a bumble bee is, it moves all around.”
Looking back over nearly a century’s worth of life, Aller flatly says, “Kate is somebody you don’t forget. I miss her.”
As I get ready to go, I mention I’ve taken a picture of the tipu tree near Soledad Mountain Road. His face brightens. “If you’ve got a spare copy, I wouldn’t mind. I can pay you for it.”
Isabell Baresh and I are sitting in the La Jolla Historical Society, housed in a tiny Victorian cottage near the beach. The rooms are tiny as well. Card tables and folding chairs provide movable furniture that is shifted depending on how crowded the place gets. The Xerox machine is the single largest object visible. On the walls are members’ artwork featuring notable local scenes. There’s a continuous background murmur among the three or four visitors and volunteers manning the archives.
Baresh is fine-boned, and she smiles a lot while she talks. The way she tilts her head completes the birdlike effect. She was one of Kate’s students when Kate ran the schools’ agriculture education programs. Nearly 90 years later, she still remembers what she learned.
Baresh, who has known Aller for decades, was also born in Denver. Her father was a captain in the fire department, she tells me. She married her late husband, Joe Baresh, late in life, 26 years after the two first met. She had to travel all the way to Boston for the wedding in his family’s church. “I loved Boston.” While he worked as a marine electrical engineer, she would ride the MTA, “rubbering around” till she reached the end of the line or stand for hours and watch a wrecking ball demolish a building. Before her marriage she worked for 21 years as a department store clerk in La Jolla. She still talks about Friday sunset cocktails with her downtown friends at an old La Jolla spot whose view of the ocean was blocked by a “new” building years ago.
Kate always emphasized how much there was to learn and how little time there was to do it, Baresh recalls. She was blunt about training others to care for her legacy. “She just said this is important for you to know because these trees will all grow up here, and maybe you can be as knowledgeable as lam.”
Though Kate tried to stick to the subject, she allowed her pupils occasional sidetracks. One day they made her explain her specially ordered men’s shoes. “They had a few lacings, then after the lacings, they had a hook that went the rest of the way. She showed us how to do that.”
On the table between us, there’s a vase stuffed with evergreen fronds from the tree outside. Baresh lifts up one of the swags. “This is covered with cones,” she says with excitement. She gets up and pokes under some needles. “Look at the baby cones here.” Although Baresh has lived in an apartment the past 17 years, she has “a whole window full of plants.”
Kate made the children's own yards part of the curriculum. If people had fig trees, she had them bring in branches so she could demonstrate how to “slip,” or grow them from a cutting. “She would show us how the little sections [of stem] would crack when you wanted to make it shorter. They built a little shack out behind the school. They built trays and filled them with good river sand; you couldn’t use sand from the ocean.”
She soon had them propagating Torrey pines, even then one of the region’s rarest plants. “A lot of people didn’t know you could grow them from seeds. She brought some out and showed us how to crack them open to start them. A dentist found out, and he went to Torrey Pines and bought some seeds. He had a lot up in La Jolla, on Scenic Drive, and he had great big boxes and he was growing those, and he thought he could sell them.” She laughs.
“Later he planted some of those Torrey pines down that incline up above Blythe [Road in Mira Mesa], and I can always see some of those trees there, and people don’t even know what those trees are.” Thanks to Kate, Baresh does.
The last place I look for Kate is her grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery. To get there, I drove east out Market Street, past the freeway, where the neighborhoods get scrubbier and the mesa begins to reclaim its original hold on the terrain.
The office of the county-run cemetery is drab, decorated in ’50s-era functionalism. A couple of miniature sample caskets sit on the counter. The woman behind it is brisk and helpful. When I mention Kate’s name, she knows who I’m looking for. She pulls out the plats with the thousands of burial plots neatly measured out in perfectly squared-off rectangles, each with its own occupant. “We get a lot of questions about her," she says.
“It’s under the junipers,” volunteers a groundskeeper who has overheard my request as she passes by. I drive along the side of a hill and into a dip where the trolley tracks cut through. I have to wait for a train to pass each time I cross them.
I turn onto Hope Avenue. Past a wide bend and on the left, near the top of a low slope, I spot the three twisted trees. Under them lie Josiah, Harriet, Frank, and Kate. The only inscriptions are their names on stone markers flush to the ground. It’s a pretty spot. The plantings are varied, and the landscape is soft, but it seems too quiet, too manicured for Kate.