By Donna Mallen.
A long-time member of the SDHS and a former law professor at USD, presenter Nancy Carol Carter has devoted her retirement to historical research and writing, concentrating on San Diego’s Balboa Park and horticulture in the region, frequently focusing on the legendary Kate Sessions, known as the “Mother of Balboa Park”. Nancy is very active and well-known in the local horticultural and historical communities for her expertise and volunteer work. She gave us an intriguing, in-depth look at the visionary K.O. Sessions (as Kate was known in her time).
Katherine Olivia Sessions was a strong-minded Victorian florist, plant nursery entrepreneur and innovative landscape designer who pioneered a whole new direction in the horticulture of San Diego, influencing all of Southern California in the process. Over her lifetime, she became internationally respected for her influence on the landscaping industry by her introduction of numerous Mediterranean-friendly plants that helped turn our area into the gardening paradise that it is today.
In 1887, equipped with a BS degree from UC Berkeley and a family background in the landscape business, she opened a tiny nursery in downtown San Diego, served by her growing grounds in Coronado, thereafter expanding her territory to a 1,400-acre plot in what is now known as Balboa Park, under a lease agreement she had proposed to the City of San Diego in 1982 which called for annual payments of 400 trees to be planted (100 in the park, 300 in other areas of the City). She was named “City Gardener,” and was tasked with establishing an experimental garden on that site.
At that time, the USDA was in the process of importing plants from around the globe, such as Brazilian Jacarandas and Australian Eucalyptus, to test for viability in various parts of the country. When Kate was granted Test Grower status for her new growing grounds, the launching pad was established for the trajectory that her career, and the park, were to take.
The 1,000 trees she planted in the park, and her nursery and demonstration garden of healthy plants, inspired San Diegans to join with her in preserving the park from real estate development over the years.
Her nursery later moved to Mission Hills, where she and her brother established the first commercial Poinsettia growing grounds in Southern California, shipping their plants worldwide at Christmastime each year, and then to Pacific Beach.
She was an advocate of climate-appropriate plants, preservation of native species, and civic beautification with trees. She was also a writer, researcher, teacher, mentor, and lecturer, sharing her knowledge of plant husbandry with aspiring gardeners, young and old, and exchanging plants and information with fellow horticulturists and botanists around the world, including Henry Huntington (Huntington Gardens) and John McLaren (San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park).
A founding member of the San Diego Floral Association in 1907, she wrote over 260 articles for the San Diego Floral Association’s California Garden magazine over her lifetime, in addition to her numerous other contributions to other publications. If you would like to draw on Kate Sessions’ own advice and information addressed to San Diego County gardeners, a new edition of The Complete Writings of Kate Sessions in California Garden (which includes photos and copies of her nursery’s advertisements) is available online from sdforal.org.
Did this meeting report pique your interest? Do you wish you had been at the meeting? Were you at the zoom presentation but you would like to see it again? YOU CAN! This SDHS meeting presentation about Kate Sessions by Nancy Carol Carter is available for viewing, in its entirety, on the San Diego Horticultural Society's YouTube channel: