By David Moye
To new transplants, Kate Sessions’ name is most associated with the Pacific Beach park that bears her name, but this pioneering horticulturalist’s legacy is much more fertile.
One of the first women scientists to graduate from the University of California Berkeley, Sessions moved to San Diego from San Francisco in 1884. During her 56-year career, she introduced many of the non-native plants that have thrived in the region’s semi-arid climate, including bougainvillea, various palm trees and the Jacaranda, a South American tree whose purple flowers are as common in May as gray skies and Cinco de Mayo drink specials.
“She knew what would adapt,” says Encinitas-based landscape historian Vonn Marie May.
Sessions also had vision. When she arrived in San Diego at the age of 27, the city was a dusty desert town by the sea. By the time she died in 1940 at the age of 82, she had influenced landscapers and gardeners from Mexico to Santa Barbara.
“She would put certain trees on certain streets and made sure there were parkway strips,” May says. “At that time, the trees had to be hand-watered, and she helped out with that. Many locals did.”
Beginning in 1892, in exchange for permission to cultivate a swath of City-owned land, Sessions agreed to plant 100 trees per year in what was then called City Park. The program bloomed into a smashing success and helped to establish Sessions’ nickname: The Mother of Balboa Park.
But her legacy is not without controversy. Many of the plants Sessions introduced here thrived at the expense of the native vegetation and weren’t necessarily drought-tolerant. Sustainability wasn’t an issue at the forefront back then, but May says Sessions was ahead of her time in that regard as well.
“Every decade she was here in San Diego, she evolved,” May says. “By the time of her death, she was planting almost all native plants and understood their beauty.”