The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1995, Volume 41, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History.

By Victoria Padilla, Santa Barbara: Allen A. Knoll, 1994. Notes. Bibliography. Photographs, black and white and color. 323 pages. $39.95. (800) 777-7623. paperback $19.95. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Lucy Warren, President of Professional Women’s Horticulture and Landscape Association, Master Gardener and garden writer including articles on historical gardens in southern California.

It is interesting that some historians will demand exacting detail in restoration of a building and pay little or no attention to its setting, particularly the plant material creating the setting for the architecture. How often we take for granted the contextual background. And yet, we know either instinctively or subliminally that a banana tree in a Spanish mission garden looks, seems and feels wrong. Long lines of eucalyptus edging California byways became almost a trademark of the state for recent generations but early photos show arid landscapes with few ornamental plants.

May the California Native Plant Society forgive me, but southern California’s horticulture stock is predominantly imported. From the first friars who started building their missions, each succeeding decade and generation has brought additional plant material to this fertile region. And yet, despite the interest and pleas of horticulturists and historians, no comprehensive evaluation was done to document the tremendous increases of botanical material available to those who live in California. Marion Cran decried this situation when she completed her book Gardens in America in 1932.

Finally, in 1954, the Board of Directors of the Southern California Horticulture Institute took on the project of documenting the history of botanical development in southern California. Victoria Padilla, an active member, educator and well-informed gardener was asked to take on the project¼a wise choice. Over the next six years Ms. Padilla combed the state researching archives for information. Most knowledgeable gardeners in the region were well aware of the project and finally, in 1961, Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History was published by the University of California Press. In San Diego a review by Helen D. Carswell in California Garden announced, “Victoria Padilla’s book is out at last!” This classic resource book is a must for serious preservationists, restorationists, and historians. It has been out of print for many years and I must repeat the sentiment, “Victoria Padilla’s book is out again at last!”

This long awaited volume is an exact reprint of the 1961 edition, from its heavy glossy stock to the exact duplication of letterpress-production color photographs by Ralph D. Cornell, known for his landscape design work. Southern California Gardens remains one of the few authoritative sources for historical gardens and their development in southern California, and the only one for true hands-on gardeners.

San Diego references abound from the early friars to Alfred D. Robinson’s Rosecroft Begonia Gardens in the forties. While men such as Robinson, George Marston and Roland Hoyt were responsible for creating and supporting civic landscaping measures, Victoria Padilla does not forget the women supporting home garden culture, including those who organized garden clubs, horticultural societies, shows and displays promoting ornamental horticulture and creative talents. Early members of the San Diego Floral Association such as Mrs. Mary A. Greer are recognized.

The book is arranged in sections, beginning with the historical chronology of the region. Biographies of a dozen prominent plant persons include Kate O. Sessions. Interesting essays describe change and development of the major plant categories: trees, roses, cacti, the seed industry and the cut flower business.

Ms. Padilla’s writing is both factual and engaging. Intended to be a book for the public, a special “Notes” section includes diverse and fascinating facts such as: descriptions of existing adobes, a list of Santa Barbara estates open to the public in 1915, and average rainfall for different parts of southern California. While the book has a good selected bibliography, historical researchers will be a little frustrated by the lack of footnoted documentation. The book is invaluable in the selection of appropriate plants for historical renovation. Photos and illustrations of gardens from each era depict their variation and development.

Southern California Gardens has not been readily available to gardeners, historians, nurserymen, designers, and landscape preservationists. Even now it is in limited edition…the publisher has produced it at nearly cost as a service to the horticulture and heritage-minded community. You may order through the publisher or VTL Gardner Horticultural and Botanical Books in Santa Barbara (805) 969-4787.

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