Influencer: Kate Sessions
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book, a painting or a house, a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” ― Ray Bradbury
Kate Sessions (November 8, 1857 – March 24, 1940)
This article is part a on my site titled “Influencers”, where I will be telling the stories of historic figures of the past as well as present day people who are positively influencing our city. I plan on doing a deep-comb of every person featured and really learning who they are or were. I will also include places we can still visit today that they either helped create or plaques in memory of them. Today I am covering the “Mother of Balboa Park”, Kate Sessions.
Kate Sessions was a horticulturalist that made a huge impact on the plants and trees we see growing all around San Diego. She is credited with introducing over 143 species from all over the world to Southern California. Some of the most popular plants she introduced were the bougainvillea, eucalyptus tree, birds of paradise, Italian cypress, queen palm, star jasmine, and the beautiful jacaranda trees.
Beyond being a botanist, Kate was also a teacher and businesswoman, working 12-14 hour days even into her 60’s. It is said that she only took two vacations in her lifetime and even then, both were largely based around horticultural work. I guess if you love what you do, it doesn’t really feel like work though, right?
Kate Sessions Coronado Nursery storefront c. 1880’s. http://www.sohosandiego.org
Kate began her landscaping business in Coronado, with two partners, and also ran a florist shop inside the Hotel del Coronado. She rode the ferry every day to get to her nursery and would bring her white horse, Charlie, who is said to have hated the ride and would get seasick. There is not too much significance to Kate’s career in Coronado besides it being her starting point in San Diego.
Sessions had a huge hand in the plants we see in Balboa Park today. In 1892, she was contracted by the city to plant 100 trees a year for 10 years. She left her business in Coronado and moved to the mainland where she was given 30 acres for a nursery, which at the time was called City Park. Today we know this park as Balboa Park.
Kate helped in the planning with both Palm Canyon and the Old Cactus Garden and also the landscaping for George Marston’s house, which has been turned into a museum. Pay attention to the street names that run along Balboa from Hillcrest into downtown, such as Spruce St and Ash. They are all named after trees, thanks to Sessions.
A statue of Kate, made by artist Ruth Hayward, and a plaque for her, stand at the western end of the Cabrillo bridge:
When Kate’s lease was up at Balboa Park, she moved her nursery to Mission Hills. Incredibly enough, this nursery is still operating today and gets to boast being the oldest nursery in San Diego. When she first opened her nursery, at the time it was mostly barren and open land.
If you ask, one of the employees can show you where several framed pictures hang of Kate:
Look for the adorable, giant gnome and then you will find a small plaque for Kate sitting in this area:
While operating her nursery in Mission Hills, Kate lived in the immediate vicinity. For a large chunk of her life, her closest family members lived with her. Having no children of her own, her friends and immediate family played a large role in her life.
I was tipped off to the home rumored to be hers by walkaboutsd and amazingly enough, the current owner happened to be outside when I was admiring the exterior. He confirmed that it was once her home, although much smaller when she lived there. Unfortunately, the entire property was bulldozed years back because it was literally sinking into the canyon. It would have become a disaster if it hadn’t been rebuilt, he said. The house was rebuilt as an exact replica of the original design though so at least we have that.
There are multiple trees in the immediate vicinity of her old home that are pretty obviously planted by her. They are so immense that I could not capture their entirety with my wide angle lens. They are a true sight to see:
Vegetation in the canyonside below her home received an initial helping hand from her as well:
Mission hills was part of a large development project shortly after Kate opened her nursery out there. The developmental plan included a streetcar line extending through town. Once this happened, property values and taxes went up. Although Kate objected to all of this, there was not much she could do. In 1924, she purchased 7 acres of property on the corner of Garnet and Pico St. at the base of Mt. Soledad in Pacific Beach. She called her new nursery Soledad Terrace.
Eventually Kate moved to PB as well. While working out here she was able to convince the city to build Soledad rd. which now offers some of the best views around! During the celebration of the road’s completion, Kate planted 5 torrey pine trees at the top.
Sadly, all that is left of her final nursery today is a huge tipuana tree that she planted on the property. Just like the trees outside her Mission Hills home, the tipuana tree towers over all the others in the area. You can tell it is well-aged. A historic plaque sits below the tree, commemorating her work and contributions to the city.
Jacaranda trees, which she introduced to San Diego, line the streets behind her old nursery. If you visit this area in June, you can catch them during their blooming period. To me, the hues of purple beam proudly in her name. It’s like an indigo wonderland walking this street!
Kate Sessions Park
One of Session’s final projects was Color Park. It is the only task of hers that was left unfinished before her death. The vision was to have a park with bright, colorful flowers, allowing the park to live up to its name. On the 100th anniversary of her birth, November 8th, 1957, the city council revived the park and renamed it Kate O. Sessions Park. Today it is a popular park for families and dog-owners. The views are hard to beat!
Final Resting Spot
Mt. Hope Cemetery
Kate Sessions passed away on Easter Sunday in 1940 at the age of 82. Her passing was due to complications from a fall in her garden while watering her plants. She lived a long, rich life & her legacy lives on in every tree she planted and their offspring. Her final resting spot is in Mt. Hope Cemetery amongst other powerful mover and shakers of the early 20th century. Next to her gravesite are her brother and parent’s grave plots with one of her favorite trees, the twisted juniper, planted beside her.