Lynch and Appleyard knew that growth was unstoppable; they hoped to provide some overarching intelligence to mollify the land rape. They lamented the destruction of Mission Valley, a living example of the failure of 1950s thinking, and suggested that the city erect a historic monument to the event. The reduction of Mission Valley into "a chaos of highways, parking lots, and scattered commercial buildings" attacked the landscape of the city and bashed its economy.
Mission Valley also happens to be palm tree central. Hotels like the Hanalei, the Handlery, Holiday Inn, the Regency, Quality Inn, the Town and Country, and businesses along I-8 decorate with dozens of palms, mostly the Mexican fan palm, which lends a subtropical character to the region between I-5 and 163.
Ham told me that when he took a horticultural test for his degree, his teacher brought the class down to Old Town State Park because of the great diversity of palms. Canary Island palms majestically frame the buildings along San Diego Avenue, marking the Spanish-styled church at Twiggs Street and San Diego Avenue like a sphinx guarding the entrance to a tomb. Watercolor painters match wits with the image; trees compete with the church for reverence and grace. Sadly, Ham reports, the trees have an incurable fungus, and many in the area are beginning to show signs of disease.
"The Palm Lady of La Jolla," Teresa Yianilos, claims that landscape architect Joe Yamada was the mastermind behind some of the most vicious palm-bashing this city has ever seen. Walter Anderson, Jr., who runs the landmark Anderson Nursery on Pacific Coast Highway, said he remembers a photograph in the San Diego Union , circa 1970, of Teresa standing on Harbor Drive between a bulldozer and a palm. According to Mrs. Yianilos, the era of the "northern climate advocate" began with the ascendancy (and, she says, monopoly) of the landscape architect firm Wimmer and Yamada. Harvard trained, Yamada was once awarded a prize for his design of Lindbergh field. In Yianilos's words, his school of design favored "no horticultural basis."
Harbor Drive, Yianilos's big bugaboo, isn't well regarded by many plant experts in San Diego. Besides Yianilos, Ham and Anderson both felt the ball was dropped when that area was landscaped. When visitors get off a plane from back East, the last thing they want to see is more stinking pines. Subtropical plants may not be any more "native," but they grow gloriously here, speaking a language closer to our southwest clime. For Yianilos, subtropicals are sacred totems honoring a link to our Kate Sessions-influenced past. "You can't have a botanical garden with just melaleuca and pine trees," she said.
We only have one "accredited" botanical garden in San Diego, our world-famous San Diego Zoo. When visitors come here, they're treated to 80 years of botanical affection. The roots of that green bonanza go back to the San Diego--Panama Exposition of 1915. Kate Sessions played a major role in this undertaking, as did Ernie Chew, who is also credited for doing much to improve the garden's splendor.
In the years before the 1915 Exposition, members of the San Diego Floral Association lobbied hard to get the citizens of San Diego to plant and beautify the city. They asked in November of 1913 why the "average lawmaker will spend thousands of dollars for salaries and expenditures for which we have nothing to show the following year, but he begrudges the few cents tax levy for park purposes."
The San Diego Floral Society's 1913 newsletter featured an interview with Sessions on the "tardiness of the residents of San Diego in preparing for the coming of Exposition visitors." Sessions noted that the 1912 "tree law" was accomplished, but no active work yet begun. "Street tree planting in San Diego is a more expensive piece of work than in many other places where the soil conditions are better. In consequence, the best work will progress slowly." The article ends by suggesting how the city could be quickly beautified and which plants should be used. "Lippia, geraniums, Phlox drummondii, pink and white oxalis, sweet allyssum, ice plant, Shasta daisy, gazena, petunias, heliotrope, English ivy, trailing lavender lantana and dwarf lantanas of separate shades, green and variegated vinca, roses, dahlias, penstemons, verbenas, pale blue morning glory, California poppy, shirley poppy, Baby Blue eyes, marigolds, dwarf zinnias, nasturtiums, statice, mignonette, portulacca, scarlet flax, gaillardias..." — these shrubs and flowers were the quick fix for the years before the Exposition.
We've lost Kate Sessions's sense of mission and style. We've lost the sense of community that allowed the editors of California Garden to suggest their readers "work in our gardens...with something of the elevation of mind that we should take into our churches.
"Straight commercialism is killing the inner garden spirit," the January 1914 editorial begins. "We of this period have commercialized everything and are paying the penalty....We don't know it, but we miss the heart of the garden; we are looking for the inner gate, but we pretend to think it is age they lack and go out and contract for an acre of cement walk, as something real solid to tie to."
Charles Coburn inhabits Sessions's old haunts at the San Diego Zoo. He started working there as a gardener in 1971. Now he's the senior horticulturist. His philosophy degree (one of many degrees) lends a thoughtful air to his assessments of San Diego's public gardens.
Coburn and his cadre of plant managers inhabit a small cinderblock building near the rear service entrance to the zoo. Next door is the orchid house, open the third Friday of each month. A meerkat exhibit fronts the road outside. Inside, the place is drunk with polyglot plantings of bromeliads, ferns, cactus, aloe, and some boring impatiens. The most interesting plant in the courtyard between the orchid house and the horticultural center is a manioc tree with hand-like leaves.
We sat in his office, a jungle of epidendrum orchids visible out the window. The poor man's orchid, they were donated to the zoo by some benefactor who'd encouraged the plants to grow over six feet tall. Their tiny red flowers formed a trail; they seemed to be marching up the wall of the building like a colony of ants. Coburn mentioned that he had a meeting, but as he warmed to the discussion of the psychological powers of plants, the meeting disappeared. The phone, however, rang incessantly.