She referred to plants as her children
and used to say that a fifty cent tree
should be planted in a five-dollar hole.
Kate Sessions (1857-1940) is the “Mother of Balboa Park.” She earned the title by decades of labor, care, and support that transformed what was once City Park, a 1,400- acre tract of “nothing more than hills and valleys covered with sagebrush” (MacPhail, p.49), into Balboa Park, now a beautiful, diverse, thriving horticultural landmark for over a century.
Katherine Olivia Sessions was born in San Francisco on November 8, 1857. She grew up in Oakland and studied Science at the University of California at Berkeley. She moved to San Diego to be a teacher at what is now San Diego High School, but decided teaching wasn’t for her. She followed her passion into horticulture and in 1885, with financial backing from close friends, started a nursery business.
“Kate later said her only contribution to the partnership was a pair of willing hands and an enthusiastic love and understanding of growing things” (MacPhail, p.24).
By 1892, Sessions co-owned a number of successful for-profit nurseries and was THE florist in San Diego. She had a vision of combining her nursery business with a plan to beautify the city, and wanted one of her shops to move to the northwest corner of City Park. She “approached some members of the City Council, then composed of twenty-four Aldermen and Delegates, to see if it would be possible to lease a portion of City Park for a nursery and botanical garden” (MacPhail, p.49).
Not only did the City Council go for it, they gave her a job as the city’s horticulturalist.
“There was good reason for naming her City Gardener, a surprising title for a woman even today (and perhaps a first for a woman), for by doing so the city fathers were avoiding any legal problem that might have arisen had they leased park land for commercial purposes to a private individual. Surely no one could object to the City Gardener improving city park land, and that is what she began to do. San Diegans were delighted to know that at last something would be done to beautify the barren wasteland bordering the edge of their town” (MacPhail, pp.49-50).
As partial repayment of the lease, she was expected to annually plant “100 choice and varied sorts of trees, and care for the same while occupying the said land; and will also furnish annually to the city 300 ornamental trees in crocks or boxes to be used by the city in park, street, plaza or school ground planting” (MacPhail, p.51).
The lease lasted eleven years and she more than met expectations.
During this time, she regularly kept her nursery open on Sundays. The beautiful displays attracted visitors to the park. She knew how to show off her kids, however she was serious about their care. One of her protégés and Foreman of Balboa Park, Chauncy Jerabek, talked about her customer relations approach at the nursery:
“She didn’t go out so much for the money, she wanted to see things grow. She wouldn’t sell anything to anybody unless they’d plant it her way. If you wanted to buy some plants and wouldn’t plant them her way, forget it, she just wouldn’t sell them to you.” (Jerabek, p.17)
If she was wheeling past your house and didn’t like the hole you were digging for a tree, she would literally, and I mean that word literally, stop the vehicle, walk onto your property, take the shovel out of your hand and dig the hole herself.
And they say mother Grizzlies are protective. Has a bear, of any stripe, ever taken a shovel out of your hand and dug a new, better hole for your trees?
I rest my case.
Sessions contributed a lot more to the park than “only” planting more than one thousand and one hundred trees.
By prodding city leaders, she helped catalyze a Park Improvement Committee, where she was appointed a seat and made landscaping a priority on the agenda.
She supported others “parents” of the park. For example, she applauded “residents of Golden Hill who had banded together to improve the southeast corner of City Park by planting trees and shrubs, turning it into a small park and place of beauty” (MacPhail, p.66).
She made San Diego more tree conscious as a city. Remember that eleven-year lease? The donation of three hundred trees a year to San Diego?
“In February of 1900 the city had more trees from the Sessions’ nursery than it knew what to do with, so an offer was made to give away the trees to residents willing to plant them along city streets. This was a boon not only to homeowners but to tract developers who could, for free, beautify the parkways in front of the lots they had for sale. This accounts for many of the trees along parkways in San Diego’s housing developments of the early 1900’s” (MacPhail, p.65).
She supplied the trees, filled the city with them, and then organized San Diego’s first Arbor Day, on March 7, 1904.
“A school holiday was declared and 2500 school children and 4000 adults turned out to plant trees in City Park. Miss Sessions supervised the planting, recommended the kind of trees… and made sure they were planted in large enough holes” (MacPhail, p.70).
The celebration of trees was further enhanced by timing. Miss Sessions couldn’t have asked for a better leader of the United States. An environmentally-conscious, passionate Theodore Roosevelt personally sent a message of congratulations to the city. As did a representative from the Department of Agriculture and the Governor of California.
Thanks to the good publicity, “[f]or years after, Arbor day was celebrated by San Diego school children with tree planting at their individual schools. Kate Sessions would be sure to remind the Board of Education each year of this upcoming date” (MacPhail, p.71). Then she expanded her scope beyond San Diego.
Sessions was a co-founder of and frequent contributor to California Garden magazine, the “oldest, continuously running, horticultural magazine in the United States” (https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/california-garden/). The magazine became and is still a medium to promote Balboa Park and its ever-expanding list of plant life.
Speaking of which, following are a fraction of the trees Miss Sessions popularized in Southern California, the list limited only by the species for which I have recent photos:
- See more Bunya-bunyas here!(https://southparksdblogger.com/2020/02/25/balboa-park-the-bunya-bunya-trees/)
Floss Silk (currently in their fun “cotton ball” stage)
What stunning children!
- Want to see more beautiful pictures of Balboa Park? Check out “Balboa Park in Bloom,” with new photos of beautiful, diverse, flowering trees from around the world every month! (https://southparksdblogger.com/category/balboa-park/)
In the early, formative days of City Park, Kate Sessions joined with San Diego leaders, and supplied her vision, love of growing things, and willingness to work. She nurtured the park, supported and promoted its development, and created a context in which the park itself could thrive.
And become the Balboa Park we enjoy today.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!!
Interested in more Balboa Park history? Check out this EXCLUSIVE post about an eighty-year-old tour of the plant life of Balboa park, still in original form in San Diego’s Central Library. (https://southparksdblogger.com/2020/03/03/balboa-park-the-san-diego-tree-man-and-his-hidden-treasure/)
Elizabeth MacPhail, Kate Sessions: Pioneer Horticulturalist, (San Diego, CA: The San Diego Historical Society, 1976).
Kathy Puplava and Paul Sirois, Trees and Gardens of Balboa Park, (San Diego, CA: Tecolote Publications, 2001).
San Diego Floral Association, California Garden: Centennial Compilation 1909-2009, (San Diego: San Diego Floral Association, 2009).
San Diego Historical Society, An Interview with Chauncy Irving Jerabek, March 8, 1977.