The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1998, Volume 44, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

The Complete Writings of Kate Sessions in California Garden, 1909-1939.

Edited by Barbara Schillreff Jones. San Diego Floral Association, 1998. 172 pages. $18.00 paper.

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.

Volunteers at the San Diego Floral Association have spent nearly three years and hundreds of hours identifying and compiling the articles in this work so as to make Kate Sessions’ writings available to our current generation of gardeners, historians and readers. It has been a real labor of love for those involved.

There has been a great deal written about San Diego’s Kate Sessions and her career. She was indeed a pioneer horticulturist, introducing hundreds of plants into common usage in San Diego. But only through reading her own writings have we come to know her as a caring and dedicated professional horticulturist and educator, and catching a glimpse of her essence and appealing personality. Perusing the pages, we immediately recognize her mission to share with others her enthusiasm and knowledge of plants. She writes warmly, always informing, but never speaking down to her audience. She learned through doing and helps others to assure themselves of thriving gardens, both then and now.

Seasonal articles provide invaluable practical information on plant care, both general: “the July garden demands considerable work — principally watering,” and specific: “July is just the month for Bougainvillea planting or transplanting.” While some of the technology of plant care has changed with developments over the decades, the basic information is as good as when she wrote it.

More than a botanist or horticulturist, we meet Kate Sessions the naturalist who appreciated the beauty in what others would consider a gardening challenge. “Point Loma has a sandy rock formation that washes and erodes in a most artistic way and the possibilities of utilizing these fantastic canyons is delightful to contemplate.” In 1929 she wrote a detailed article describing two decades of events which shaped the establishment of the El Monte Oak Grove as a county park and its importance to the community.

Heretofore, only researchers delving into past issues of California Garden magazine have met the Kate Sessions who was so integrally involved in the fabric of the community. From even her first public writings she provided local names and addresses where people could drive by and see mature examples of plants she described. For her contemporaries it must have been a thrill to mentioned in one of Miss Sessions’ columns.

Others mentioned in her writings include some of the finest botanists and horticulturists of her day from around the world, many of whom became lifelong friends. David Fairchild, for example, became the first Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Plant Introduction. Professor T. S. Brandegee and his wife Katherine Brandegee were leading California botanists in the San Francisco area who introduced numerous plants from their explorations of Baja.

One of the joys of this volume is that it need not be read like a novel. Although the articles are arranged chronologically, much of the information is timeless. Readers may want to use the complete plant index at the back of the book to look up particular plants of interest. As example, while little has been written about wisterias in recent horticultural publications, there are no fewer than ten references in Kate’s writings of this easy-to-grow plant in San Diego, four of which are complete articles.

Social historians will need to take their own time to identify references to local families and plantspeople. The mentions are numerous and are not indexed.

This volume is informational. It was published utilizing a popular word processing program. The proofreading could have been more exacting for typographical errors. An unfortunate computer error skipped ten pages of the book and it was not caught prior to printing. The Floral Association has agreed to print a separate supplement which will complete the writings with instructions for interpreting the resulting pagination variation in the table of contents and plant index. These will be provided at no additional charge with each book. As for the typos, please be kind.