Digging the Horticulture History at the Arboretum Library

In honor of the retirement of my favorite botanical librarian, I compiled some favorite historical topics related to the Arboretum Library.

The library has been a part of the Arboretum since the California Arboretum Foundation Board outlined the objectives for the botanical garden in 1948. Since then the Arboretum staff has amassed an impressive collection of books, magazines and ephemera related to not only the region’s horticulture history, but broader Southern California history as well.

My mom actively researched California’s horticulture history and often shared her work with me. She wrote Sunset articles about public gardens and published several Huntington Library books on its botanical collections. She even gave a popular talk at the Huntington titled “Henry Huntington and the Golden Age of Horticulture.”

Mom (top left photo) in her own Sunset Magazine story about the rose gardens in Los Angeles.

Mom first introduced me to the Arboretum Library and librarian Susan Eubank awhile back, but it was in 2016 that I began my own connection to this wonderful place. Since I’m not a plant expert, the horticultural library felt slightly intimidating but Susan’s infectious passion for all things books and plants made the space so inviting. For the past six years, I’ve been managing the Arboretum Library’s Instagram account, digitizing its Bill Aplin photograph collection and, most recently, started the library’s monthly newsletter. It was truly a joy to work with Susan in crafting content that shined a light on the amazing collections of the library. Working with her has inspired so many thoughts about the past, present and future of horticulture in Southern California. Below are just a few ways my passion for local history intersected with the library’s resources:

The Importance of Nursery Catalogs

Nursery catalogs from Flowerland, the San Gabriel Nursery & Florist and the Long Beach Water Gardens.

The Arboretum Library has an extensive collection of nursery seed catalogs from all over Southern California, the US and the world. As Susan often repeated, these nursery catalogs are an important historical record that document the plants, flowers, and produce sold in different regions over the last 100 years. Horticulture historians use them to find the commercial names of plants now mostly known by their scientific name. The New York Botanical Garden explained that nursery catalogs “offer a unique window into other areas of American life, including publishing, landscape design, marketing, industry, and leisure activity, making them valuable resources for humanities research.” Must admit, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed researching history through the lens of these nursery catalogs.

For more nursery catalogs, see the Arboretum’s collection of “Early Fruit & Vegetable Seed Catalogs of Southern California: 1888 – 1945” on Flickr.

Horticultural Research Conducted at the Arboretum

The Air Pollution Greenhouse at the Los Angeles County Arboretum
The Air Pollution Greenhouse at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Before California’s Prop 13 forced the institution to cut back, the Arboretum engaged in a number of horticultural research projects that ranged from measuring smog’s effects on plants to identifying slow-burning shrubs (to fight wildfires). Arboretum staff studied the best varieties of turf for different recreational activities. The research was published in the Arboretum’s old newsletter, LASCA Leaves, which functioned more like an academic botanical journal than publicity tool. The list of respected newsletter contributors reads like a who’s who in Southern California’s mid-century horticulture — Ralph Cornell, Mildred Mathias, and William Hertrich (to name a few). It is fascinating and depressing to see that Arboretum researchers were grappling with many of the same problems facing today’s environmentalists — drought, wildfire and air pollution.

Sunset Magazine‘s Demonstration Garden at the Arboretum

I’ve long known about Sunset Magazine‘s old demonstration garden at the Arboretum so it was great to dig deeper into its history while volunteering for the library. Opened in 1958, the Demonstration Home Gardens were designed and funded by Sunset Magazine and the Arboretum Foundation. Sunset had several demonstration gardens throughout the west including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden. Sunset had its own extensive experimental garden at his historic headquarters in Menlo Park in which folks could “walk from Canada to Mexico in a quarter mile.” But the demonstration garden in Arcadia gave Sunset editors a space to test their ideas in the Southern California climate. A look at the evolution of this demonstration garden is a look at the evolution of how Southern Californians thought about gardening.

Botanical Libraries Are More Than Books

Daises painted by LIFE Magazine illustrator Charles Broughton, courtesy of the Arboretum Library.

Please excuse the above obvious statement, but I was always so impressed by the range of collections at the plucky Arboretum Library — from the slide collection of garden photographer Bill Aplin, to the flower paintings of Charles Broughton (former LIFE Magazine illustrator) to the old school research collections of Alfred Hottes (garden editor for Better Homes and Gardens). I could spend hours looking through each of these collections (and did). Also, as part of the library’s redesign, Susan ensured that there was a space for art exhibits and actively promoted the library as a venue to show creative works that related to the Arboretum. It is the kind of library where so many nooks and crannies are full of items waiting to be (re)discovered by curious botanically-minded patrons.

Botanical Biographical Bits

“California Cactus” published by Scott Haselton’s Abbey San Encino Press.

I fell down the research rabbit hole many times while exploring botanical biographies to share on our Instagram. Below are just a handful of those rabbit holes for when I need to jog my memory (most of the links lead to posts on the Arboretum Library’s Instagram page):

  • French herb woman Jeanne Baret (1740–1807) most likely discovered the bougainvillea plant that was named for Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the captain of the first French expedition that circumnavigated the globe in 1766. See the entertainingly informative 2011 book by Glynis Ridley.
  • Botanist Ynés Mexía (1870–1938) started her botanical career at the age of 51 and led expeditions across Mexico, Central America and South America.
  • Called the “Mother of Balboa Park,” Kate Sessions (1857–1940) was a central figure in California’s horticulture circles.
  • In San Francisco, Alice Eastwood (1859–1953) began organizing the herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences in 1892. When the 1906 earthquake struck, Eastwood was able to save over 1,000 type specimens from the fire that followed.
  • Luther Burbank’s His Methods and Discoveries, Their Practical Application was one of the first set of books to publish color photographs in 1914–1915. He also named Crimson eschscholtzia in honor of California’s poet laureate Ina Coolbrith.
  • Scott Haselton cofounded the Cactus and Succulent Society in 1929 in Pasadena and used his Abbey San Encino Press to publish beautiful books about succulents.

Finding My Mom in the Arboretum Library

My mom as photographed by Sunset photographer Bill Aplin, courtesy of the Arboretum Library.

The most important person I found in the Arboretum Library was my mom. I started volunteering for Susan not long after mom passed away. So finding mom’s image in the library’s shelves and file cabinets (usually related to some Sunset publication) was incredibly comforting during a painful time. I unexpectedly found this beautiful photo while digitizing Bill Aplin’s 1960s photos of the San Gabriel Mission. Halfway through scanning his negatives, I realized, “That’s my mom!” Her image randomly popped up several times while I was working in the library, which I took as a sign that she was right along with me in all these botanical meanderings.

Perhaps this is why I’m so grateful to have been one of Susan’s volunteers — the experience gave me a deeper understanding of my mom and her work related to the history of Southern California horticulture.

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