Balboa Park: The San Diego Tree Man’s Hidden Treasure

Have you ever wished someone would write a step-by-step guide through Balboa Park so you could learn its plants and trees?

Chauncy Jerabek, known as “The San Diego Tree Man,” made that wish come true… over 80 years ago.

In beautiful Balboa Park there are crowded many interesting plants from nearly every country of the world.

At some time most of you will have friends visiting San Diego who would like to see the park and know its plant life. Would it not be more interesting to them if you could tell them the names of a few of the outstanding plants.

In order to learn these names, how would you like to take a walk around the main part of the park? You could start at the front entrance to the Natural History Museum and learn the names of the most interesting plants as you go along.

So begins Plant Life of Balboa Park, a 20-page guided walking tour of the famous park’s flora. It was written by Jerabek, foreman with San Diego’s Park Department, and published as a five-part series in the city’s Municipal Employee magazine between September 1938 and September 1940.

It is a goldmine of information about the Park’s plants and layout in 1938, just a few years after the famous 1935 California-Pacific Exposition in San Diego where Balboa Park’s horticulture featured prominently. Historians and horticulturalists will find gems hidden throughout Jerabek’s text.

Jerabek didn’t bury his treasure somewhere in Balboa Park, though, say deep in Palm Canyon’s recesses where only ardent lovers of Fishtail, Triangle, and Pindo palms would venture. He hid it in plain sight.

The original manuscript, typos, handwritten corrections and all, is in San Diego Central Library’s Special Collections section on the 9th floor. To view it, you have to ask a librarian to retrieve it from the archives, and it cannot be removed from the Special Collections room.

No flash photography was used on this or any other document photo.

First name misspelled. “J” is for “Jerry”, short for Jerabek and a beloved nickname.
First name misspelled. Middle initial “I” for Irving, his given middle name.

Jerabek’s manually typed manuscript’s first page.

Last page.

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Chauncy Jerabek: The San Diego Tree Man

Chauncy Irving “Jerry” Jerabek was head gardener for E.W. Scripps from 1911 to 1917, during which time he “propagated and planted trees – thousands of them” (Roots: Profiles in Horticultural History in California Garden Sept/Oct 2011, p.17, Nancy Carol Carter), including a majority of the area’s famous Eucalyptus forest.

His efforts earned him some renown in Scripps Ranch. He even had a school named after him. https://www.sandiegounified.org/schools/jerabek/about-mr-jerabek

Jerabek then obtained work with the San Diego Park Department. During his tenure as a city employee “he lived in Balboa Park and was responsible for planting many of [its] trees…” (S.D. Union, Dec. 4, 1978). He retired in 1956, as Supervisor of Planting and the Nursery at Balboa Park, after 38 years of service to the city.

He was a longstanding member of the San Diego Floral Association and published regularly in California Garden magazine. Though not as famous as his mentor, Kate Sessions, or boss, John Morley, Jerabek’s lifelong devotion to the area’s flora earned him the nickname, “The San Diego Tree Man.”

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Plant Life of Balboa Park

“The Tree Man” was so enamored of the park that in the late 1930s he wrote Plant Life of Balboa Park for the benefit of his fellow city employees. His guide walked the reader step-by-step through the park’s flora and provided identifying characteristics, names and, sometimes, historical significance of plants on the route.

For example:

Now, turn to your left at the end of the boxwood border and walk back toward the building. The first plants you reach are the three feather-leaved palms, Rrecastrum Romanzoffianum, also called cocas plumose. This species was named in honor of Count Nicholas Romanzoff, a Russian nobleman. It is native of Central and South Brazil (p.1). 

Jerabek’s tour was a fascinating historical snapshot of Balboa Park as it walked the reader in proximity to park structures in the following order:

Jerabek added this commentary on page 6:

During the last two years, the Ford Building has been the headquarters of the 251st Coast Artillery (AA). Uncle Sam is not lenient in letting the public examine its equipment but one may still visit the Patio and see the plant life.

One of Balboa Park’s normally public buildings, recently installed for the 1935 California Pacific Exposition, was largely unavailable for Park purposes because it was a U.S. Military artillery headquarters.

See Jerabek’s handwritten correction of the same passage:

Four lines down from the top, just left of center, see the penciled circle around “25st” and the left margin’s note.

Left margin’s note.

Some of the structures and trees named in Plant Life of Balboa Park still exist. Here they and their current versions are, with accompanying pictures taken March 3, 2020:

The Natural History Museum

[S]tart at the front entrance [on the steps] to the Natural History Museum… (p.1).

The Nat

Thank you, Ellen Browning Scripps.

Would’ve been in place prior to Jerabek’s tour.

From the Nat’s steps

Botanical Building

Near the doorway of the Botanical Lathhouse are three palms with sturdy columnar trunks about fifteen feet in height, crowned with large light green fan-shaped leaves, these palms are native on the Guadalupe Island off the coast of Lower California, and are called [E]rythea edulis, from Erythea, one of the Hesperides, Daughter of Evening (p.5).

Today we know the Botanical Lathhouse as the Botanical Building.

Here are three Guadalupe Palm trees (aka Erythea edulis), assumed planted long after Jerabek’s article, next to the Botanical Building’s entrance door.

The California Building

Our last walk terminated at the east side of the California building and the Prado (p.10).

Not the Prado you’re thinking…

Jerabek wrote the following about the east side of the same building:

To the left a Dracena which may be variety congesta, a slender species with narrow leaves having a bronze hue, the flowers are in small clusters borne above the foliage (p.10).

Here is a small cluster of a different species of Dracena, known as Dragon Trees (Dracaena draco), on the east side of the California building:

East side of the California building

East side of the California building.
Isn’t the Tower incredible?

They’re so cool…

Alcazar Gardens

This time we will start across the street, at the west end of Alcazar Gardens, near the pergola (p.10).

Lattice. Facing north.

The Indian Laurel Fig

Ficus benjamina var. comosa, native of India… [with] slender drooping branches and thin shining leaves; [a better specimen in Alcazar Gardens is] alongside of the archway of the path to the south (p.10).

That India Laurel Fig at Alcazar Gardens’ south entrance:

Facing south from within Alcazar Gardens

Magnolias

The towering trees along the southern rim, which are covered with those large lustrous evergreen leaves and beautiful white flowers, are Magnolia grandiflora (p.11).

Those 2 Magnolia trees, across the street west of Spreckels Organ Pavilion, are still comfortably settled in a grove with their kids and grandkids.

International Houses

Plant Life of Balboa Park mentioned the following:

  • Scottish cottage
  • Czechoslovak Chata
  • Casa Italiana
  • Russian Teremook

These aren’t the same International Houses we have today, but you might enjoy seeing a couple of them anyway…

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Honorable non-mentions?

Jerabek’s tour didn’t name the Moreton Bay Fig, or Ficus Macrophylla, between the Natural History Museum and Spanish Village. Since the tree was planted prior to the 1915 Exposition, it should have been well into its twenties by the time of Jerabek’s writing.

https://www.balboapark.org/attractions/moreton-bay-fig-tree

The tour also missed two Moreton Bay Figs at the southwest corner of Palm Canyon’s bridge.

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Here are all available pictures of Balboa Park from the magazine publication:  

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If you are a fan of Balboa Park, horticulture, or history, Chauncy Jerabek’s Plant Life of Balboa Park is a unique and fascinating view of the park “from the ground up.”

Most of the trees and many of the buildings in Jerabek’s paper are no longer. A reminder that even stately Balboa Park evolves.

The buildings and trees that remain, though, remind us of the Park’s fascinating history and connect us to the many caring people who have devoted themselves to its health and development, much to our benefit today.

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This post is subject to change…

I’d love to see Ranger Kim Duclo, members of the Balboa Park Conservancy, San Diego Floral Association and San Diego History Center all walk this tour together for a KPBS feature. It would be a wonderful way to connect Balboa Park’s past and present, history and horticulture.

I have written KPBS’ historic places department and hope this post will generate further interest in an historic tour.

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You can find a brief summary of Jerabek’s contributions to California Garden here: http://www.sdfloral.org/archives-5.htm

For more on Chauncy Jerabek’s personal life, check out this 1983 San Diego Reader article: https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1983/feb/17/beneath-bunyabunya/#

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Thanks for reading and stay tuned!!

7 thoughts on “Balboa Park: The San Diego Tree Man’s Hidden Treasure

    1. Thought you’d like to know the post has been updated to include a couple Magnolia trees, thanks to an assist from your own Grant Reeder!

      Like

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