The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1979, Volume 25, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Contributor to California Garden Magazine

Images from the article

THE SAN DIEGO FLORAL ASSOCIATION quietly observed its seventieth birthday in 1977. In 1978 it was designated a “garden center” by the National Council of State Garden Clubs. This recognition was discreetly announced inside the front cover of the July/August issue of California Garden, the association’s publication; few persons noticed or realized what it meant. In 1979 California Garden, this country’s oldest continuously published horticultural magazine, will reach the venerable age of seventy. And now it is time to celebrate.

Nineteen-seventy-nine will be the San Diego Floral Association’s year to recall its roots—so intertwined with the horticultural development of San Diego, the “garden city”. Footsteps will echo in the gardens of the association’s First Families: the A.D. Robinsons of Rosecroft fame, Kate Sessions, the L.A. Blochmans, and Mrs. Fred Scripps. There will be proud reminiscences of annual exhibitions, and the magnificent dreams, both private and public, which a fledgling organization strove to realize.

No longer is it the lone garden club in Southern California. Garden Clubs have sprouted and flourished in this nurturant climate and most of those located in San Diego County have become Floral affiliates. Because of this, and the operation of a library open daily to the public with staff available to provide information on horticultural events, the association was recommended for and awarded, its “garden center” status.

The San Diego Floral Association has been functioning as a garden center since its inception in 1907, more than two decades before a National Council was conceived. The association established its own tradition of community service, anticipating the Council’s directive to provide “educational programs, exhibits and instruction in various phases of horticulture, conservation, civic landscaping and general gardening.” To appreciate Floral’s performance in those first years, we have only to read the following excerpt from a 1909 issue of Santa Ana’s Evening Blade. It records a British visitor’s amazed reaction to the Third Annual Flower Show, staged in the Grant Hotel’s fashionable palm court:

I went again to the show in the evening, when hundreds of Japanese lanterns shed a fairy light on every flower and plant, and on the best people of San Diego as they walked in the garden the San Diego Floral Association had made for them, while an orchestra discoursed sweet music. And this without hats or wraps, in full evening dress in the open air on October 21 in the evening. And I once more emphatically said, “This is wholly good.”

Since then I have been interested to know something of the Floral Association that dares to run an exhibition along lines of its own, and I find it is only three years old, yet does the kind of thing I have been talking about every year, and holds a rose show in the Spring, publishes an excellent monthly magazine called the California Garden, containing reliable local directions for the garden, besides a record of Association doings, which is, by the way, free to members; sends bouquets of flowers to the sick and visitors, helps out the school gardening projects and generally is a benefit to the community. And all this for a membership fee of $1.00 a year.

The Floral Association continues to “benefit the community,” but certain things have changed. Bouquets are no longer sent to the sick and visitors, nor are there annual spring rose shows and autumnal horticultural competitions. Cost and population growth have precluded the former, and the latter have been given over to the thirty plus plant societies and garden clubs who are Floral’s affiliates and keep the calendar crowded with flower shows from March through October. (At some of these societal shows, arrangements are the work of the Arrangers Guild, another affiliate.)

Floral’s own emphasis has shifted to designing with plants and floral material, and yearly the members create a holiday gala, transforming a huge, bare, square room in Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado into a glistening wonderland. The hall is festooned with greenery, decorated plants, arrangements from the traditional to the avant garde, miniature to towering, all portraying the year’s theme, as spelled out in the show’s schedule. Lining one wall are tables stocked with wreaths, Christmas trees, plaques and all manner of handcrafted decorations. These are created from pine cones, peach pits, maple and magnolia pods and other bits of “nature’s jewelry.” The Thursday Workshoppers (a volunteer group) collects, treats and preserves these capsules of new life into permanent beauty.

The Christmas show is free to the public: Floral’s annual gift of joy. Nor is the tradition of community service lacking at other times of the year. Picking at random from the October schedule, can be found: Thursday Workshoppers, Tuesday flower arrangement classes, bus tour to Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, “Beauty and the Beasts III” (co-sponsored by Floral and San Diego’s Wild Animal Park), and an evening meeting at which “Succulents for your Home and Garden” is the program. Again, all events are open to the interested public, and although some include a small charge, it is paid equally by member and “guest.”

Meetings are now held adjacent to the association’s office in Casa del Prado, a membership convenience no doubt, since the numbers have swelled into the hundreds. Home-made refreshments contribute warmth and hospitality, but there cannot be the same intimacy as in those long-ago meetings held in members’ parlors. Current “out-of-town” visits have become bus tours to spectacular public gardens, but they too must lose something in the trade-off when compared to the excitement of walking through the newly planted private garden of members such as Mrs. Fred Scripps of Pacific Beach or Mrs. W. S. Hebbard of Chula Vista. No doubt it was inconvenient to board a trolley, ride to the terminus and hike some fifteen minutes to some remote acreage that today stands subdivided into blocks of solid urban housing. But perhaps the greatest difference was in sharing a peek at the future, and imagining how the sapling groves would look in years to come, or clothing a newly constructed lath house with the wisteria just peeping up from a post. Today such expansive dreams are still possible in public gardens such as those recently developed areas of the San Diego Wild Animal Park or Quail Gardens. But for the private gardener, the dream has shrunk to a small scale planting, perhaps a new bed of annuals, a lath house, or maybe uprooting overgrown shrubbery to replace with something less invasive, more manageable or just different. And for many the garden itself has become a collection of potted plants decorating a balcony or patio.

Nor is the Floral Association directly involved in public park policy. Burgeoning city government and the proliferation of organizations dedicated to specific community projects have preempted this role. When heard, the association speaks only in the voice of a member who happens also to be active in the involved group.

It was different at the time of Floral’s inception. Public horticultural beautification was a major goal, seriously observed. It is clearly spelled out in the “purpose of incorporation” adopted by the membership in 1910: “to encourage the beautifying of private and public grounds and parks. . . .” It was a task which the association and California Garden joyously pursued. Their voice was one to be respected and solicited by city fathers and public officials in matters of civic beautification.

In 1910, talk had already begun about the proposed Panama-California Exposition, slated for 1915, and this served as catalyst for city beautification. Alfred D. Robinson, a founder of the Floral Association, its first president and editor of California Garden, immediately proposed that San Diego become a “garden spot in a summer land.” The unparalleled climate which allowed an enormous range of plants to thrive far from their native habitats was San Diego’s unique property, and this, urged Robinson, should be exploited as the “Expo Theme.” He suggested landscaping the Balboa Park site with a formidable array of semi-tropical plantings, establishing a “grove of 200 varieties of eucalyptus” and chided the citizenry for their neglected gardens, while entreating them to plant dozens of rose bushes and seed wild flowers in vacant lots.

But Robinson’s obsession was to create a botanical garden. He originally intended that it be “separate from park and Exposition.” The specifics of the “botanical garden” kept shifting, but recurring was the insistence on a lath house. Robinson had introduced and promoted the lath house for private gardens earlier in the pages of California Garden, and now in August 1911, he rhapsodized his grandiose vision for Expo.

We were in the largest lath house ever projected as a pleasure resort. Where the band played and we sat was a great central court, 500 feet in diameter arched over by a domed roof rising fifty feet in the air. Up its supporting columns ran choice vines, jasmines of such sweet savor, begonias and tecomas of gaudy hue and the curious dutchman’s pipe. Palms from many lands and of many forms lined the borders and were in beds here and there while begonias and other foliage plants nestled at their feet. In the air hung the orchids with their strangely beautiful blossoms.

From this central court ran out six great arms or aisles and in each were gathered and growing in grateful harmony a great family of plants. There were thousands and thousands of varieties and each was plainly labelled. The lighting had been carefully planned so as not to strike the eye offensively and the whole effect was absolutely entrancing.

Expo officials were also entranced by Robinson’s “Exposition Dream.” As Winfield Hogoboom, the publicity director, explained:

California Garden first published the details of this plan [lath house] and the idea met instant favor from the exposition management. The matter of funds naturally is the most serious side of the whole thing; but plans were prepared for the lath house just as if the funds already were provided.

Not only was Expo undaunted by the envisioned scope of the lath house, but the management added their own ideas on how to insure that it would indeed be a monumental structure and world famous.

California Garden estimated the lath house would cost, maybe on the outside $10,000. Here is what happened. The lath house idea developed and attracted so much attention that from it grew the determination to make at the Panama-California Exposition a horticultural feature that has never been equalled at any exposition in the world. The lath house, from being the central thing became a part of a big feature. As planned now, this lath house is to be no less than 600 feet square. It is to be 100 feet high, if it is possible for the constructors to design and construct a lath house that high. It will be filled, not only with ordinary plants and vines of this state but with the rarest and most beautiful plants that can be obtained from the seed and nursery men of the world.

In front and leading to it will be a Persian garden with a shallow lake warmed, and filled with Victoria Regias, lotus, lilies and surrounded by all the rare water plants possible to grow. Around the lath house will be lawn, shrubs and trees. Back of it another plantation at least ten acres in extent, laid out in formal gardens in which the exhibitors of plants and trees of the world will be invited to show their wares. From the nursery and lath house will be supplied hundreds and thousands of vines and plants for decoration of the buildings of the exposition. In the lath house during the Exposition will be band concerts by the famous musical organizations of the world. After the exposition the lath house will be maintained as a permanent improvement of Balboa Park, a monument for all time to come and a pleasure place that will increase in beauty for half a century. And the cost, about $30,000.

It is now more than half a century later, and the lath house, known as the Botanical Building, remains a Balboa Park monument. Its dimensions are somewhere between those envisioned by Robinson and the Expo management. It measures 250 feet in length by 75 feet in width. Height to the top of the dome center is estimated at approximately 60 feet. The building is constructed of redwood latticework with some stucco facade. Whether or not the roof could have been engineered to a 100 foot height became moot when a railroad scrapped its steel girders along with plans for an Ogden, Utah to San Diego run, and Expo became a willing recipient. The girders became the ceiling supports and dictated the final height.

In 1915 the lath house was the largest in the world. It was more than a lath house. As originally constructed, it was part of a botanical complex, which included an adjoining “glass house” or conservatory and a series of reflecting pools. The total became an undisputed, unrivaled horticultural sensation.

The “glass house” was razed in 1948, leaving only a parking lot to commemorate its existence. In its day it served to house some of the more delicate varieties of fern, anthuriums, and the Hoya carnosa (wax flower) along with many other tropicals grown for seasonal display, and many lath house counterparts. It also contained a rather ingenious device, in which water heated in giant iron boilers was circulated to maintain the conservatory’s tropical temperature (and particularly the bottom of the exotic pool). Pipes then directed the water flow beneath the lath house, down into a second, outdoor pool (La lagunita de las flores), fronting the lath house. The water continued its downward course (always heating from below so as not to disturb the surface placidity of the pool) into the large reflecting pool, ending finally in a trickle at the foot of Palm Canyon.

Although the pools were graced with Spanish names, their heritage was Persian, and from the beginning, the plantings were rich and varied in color, including almost every aquatic species.

In Expo’s second year, the pools along with other park plantings were upgraded and Mr. Gorton reports in the March 1916 California Garden:

La laguna is undergoing radical changes, and in addition to the rainbow of color which the upper pool (la lagunita) will present again this year, the lower and larger one will contain some of the rarest and best in water plants. . . . Several species of Lotus will be used, and the elite of water lilies will be present, including some imported novelties.

The botanical building was a dream come true—with only one major exception. Never was a band heard playing inside. So many were the plant inhabitants, that no room remained for music-making. But since John D. Spreckels had given an organ pavilion to the city, and arranged for daily performances throughout the fair, this omission was seemingly not regretted.

A more serious failure involved the rose contest, in which a new hybrid was to be named “San Diego.” Expo had a $1000 purse available for the winner, and both Floral and California Garden were to judge the candidates. The procedure involved submission of plants to a test site in the park where they were grown by committee. Since the entries came from all over the country, most did not adapt well to our local climatic conditions. After a two year trial the contest was called off, with no winner selected. An interesting sequel is that in 1976 San Diego did select a rose to bear its name. The choice was a yellow hybrid from Fresno, California. This bicentennial beauty also performs quite poorly here in San Diego, and consequently graces more Northern California gardens.

In another “Expo” collaboration, the Floral Association and the community scored a remarkable success. Again, California Garden had spearheaded the “city beautification” drive—intending to make San Diego truly a “garden city” for visitors. The Park Superintendent, Expo authorities and many private and public gardens rallied to provide plants, and the public enthusiastically participated.

Quoting from the May 1915 issue of California Garden, Ada Isabelle Dolph summarizes the “City Beautifying Results:”

For almost a full year free distribution of plants, cuttings and seeds have been made each week day. To each person applying, from four to six varieties of seeds have been given with as many different plants and cuttings. Rarely has a day come when the number of applicants has fallen below one hundred, while again there have been five, six and seven hundred callers in an afternoon. Who can compute the good done, or the amount of material distributed? The records show hundreds of truck loads of plants and cuttings with the little seed packets numbering way up into the hundreds of thousands, yet what does that tell of the healthy, happy moments spent in the great out-of-doors, preparing the soil, in planting, and caring for the little flowers to be, of the days of anticipation and the final joy in the blossoming time.

We cannot compute the good done, but roughly calculating 250 days (50 weeks at 5 days) multiplied by a minimum of 100 persons means at least 25,000 citizens participating. The numbers may not be impressive today, but when you realize that San Diego’s population in 1910 was barely 40,000, this surely must have represented a vast number of the households!

Although most of the beautification plantings were annuals for quick color, there were several hundred trees: pepper, eucalyptus, various acacias, palms and castor beans. It is quite possible that some of today’s graceful old trees are survivors of that program.

This, then, is the accounting of the San Diego Floral Association’s beginnings and how it shaped the city’s landscaping. The legacy of Kate Sessions, a charter member and officer, is known to most—her name lives on in parks, schools and other public buildings, commemorating her contribution to the plantings of San Diego. But although Miss Sessions was responsible in large measure for introducing many new varieties (especially of trees) into the area, it was her brother who did the actual dynamiting of the Balboa Park ground to receive those saplings.

A decade or so later, Roland Hoyt, another Floral Association president, strongly influenced the landscape design in San Diego’s public areas and private gardens. He served as consultant on Mission Bay Park and Presidio Park, the latter a gift by George W. Marston, an original advertiser in California Garden.

It would be hard to include all of the eminent officers and members of the association who subsequently left their mark on both the city and the field of horticulture. Suffice to say that in the year 1979, Floral hopes to honor those who made the past so illustrious along with those who are working today to realize the dreams of which tomorrow’s memories will be built.


California Garden, Published by The San Diego Floral Association, 1909 through 1916.

Goodhue, Bertram Grosvenor. The Architecture and Gardens of the San Diego Exposition. San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1916.

Official 1915 Guidebook of the California Exposition, Reprinted by The Committee of 100.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS for this article have been supplied through the courtesy of The San Diego Floral Association.