The Tree Lady

illustration by Jill McElmurry from the children’s book by H. Joseph Hopkins



We spent a month in San Diego. Shopping center after shopping center, parking lots, garages, and malls. What can everyone be purchasing, we wondered, as they sped about day and night in their shiny new cars? Where are they all going and what are they are so busy buying? Objects to furnish their homes, clothes to beautify their bodies, hair and nail salons, and gyms.

Meanwhile this piece of the planet has been plowed over, hardscaped with asphalt and concrete. I could hear it cry “RAPE!” What is needed is a new feminization of San Diego. A planner with a vision. Another Kate Sessions to turn things around and get the city back on the right path.

Barren and brown, that’s how Kate Sessions saw San Diego in 1884 when she first arrived from Northern California. The image of dirt and sagebrush must have burned into her consciousness. Her contract was to teach, but she left teaching after a short time to open a botanical nursery. Soon Sessions had nurseries in Coronado, Pacific Beach, and Mission Hills. Recognizing her passion, the city leased to Sessions 30 acres of a scrub-filled mesa known as City Park where cattle grazed and garbage was dumped. The park became her growing fields. And the park became Balboa Park, one of the premier urban parks in the country today.

If all this sounds like a fable, it isn’t.

Unprecedented for a woman at the time, Kate had graduated UC Berkley in 1881 with a degree in Natural Science. With that she became a botanist, horticulturist, landscape architect, and in the process, an activist. She published articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals, was appointed supervisor of agriculture and landscaper for the city schools, and supervised school gardens. “Her whole life and her whole interest was in horticulture,” noted her biographer, Elizabeth MacPhail.

“Sessions cut an extraordinary figure before women’s suffrage in California,” wrote Geoff Wade in the California Sun newsletter. “She kept her hair in a knot atop her head, and wore men’s shoes—perpetually muddy—and a twill shirt with a large inside pocket that bulged with pruning shears, a knife, and other tools.”

Growing from seeds collected around the world, Sessions planted thousands of cypress, pine, oak, peppertrees, jacaranda, and eucalyptus trees, where San Diegans didn’t think trees could grow. Blessed with a mild climate, plants thrived on the boulevards, in canyons, and public spaces.

And then, it’s almost as if San Diego became too desirable a place to live and everyone moved there. 

It’s no wonder we kept dodging into Balboa Park during our visit.


Filed under city planning

15 responses to “The Tree Lady

  1. Val (Monty) Gauthier

    What a wonderful piece of history but so sad her vision was, as noted in a song, “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. So true that more vision is needed and you always provide food for thought in such an artful and beautiful way. Thank you for sharing. We need more of our beautiful planet back so we can all thrive.

  2. Elizabeth Ahrens Yourgrau

    Kate Sessions gift to San Diego sounds a bit like Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park. Both parks provide refuge from traffic, shopping malls, noise and madness. Thankfully, Hunter and the rest of us have a place to play and breath.

  3. cindyhouse2

    Kate Sessions gift of Balboa Park reminds me of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park. Refuge from noise and chaos. Hunter and the rest of us need a place to play and breath.

    • cindyhouse2

      The above is from Beth Yourgrau

    • cindyhouse2

      Cindy and Beth sure think alike. Ha ha. Cindyhouse2 is my WordPress name. I didn’t think my first comment would post so I put in my password and now you get to hear from both of us. Us is one. Kim, I’ll let you do the writing. Love, Beth and Cindy.

  4. Lynn Dunn

    We love Balboa Park and wish like you do that the organic growth was better planned in San Diego. There are other areas in San Diego which are lovely but the commercial businesses seem to be outpacing some of the beauty.

  5. Deb Derrick

    Thanks for highlighting this history, Kim. Im in the middle of The Overstory right now. Same theme!

  6. Christine Ahrens

    Such a lovely gift to Hunter!!!

  7. Paula Wolcott

    OMG Kim, you nailed it. It devastates me to see the country paved over. And for what, right? It’s too depressing and horrible. Thank you for your beautiful writing.

    • They took all the trees
      And put them in a tree museum
      And they charged all the people
      A dollar and a half to see ’em
      “Big Yellow Taxi” Joni Mitchell (1970)

      Joni was prophetic and we knew it at the time, didn’t we? What’s happened since is incomprehensible.

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