Start by listening to the online reading of The Tree Lady, a book about Kate Sessions life, action, and accomplishments.
Katherine Olivia Sessions (1857-1940)
By Nancy Carol Carter
Katherine Olivia Sessions was born in San Francisco on November 8, 1857, to Harriet and Josiah Sessions, both originally from Connecticut. She grew up in a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins and with one younger sibling, Frank Shattuck Sessions. Her family moved to an Oakland farm near Lake Merritt in 1868. She enjoyed a carefree childhood, riding her pony and taking up the hobby of collecting and preserving wild flowers and ferns. Her mother was an avid gardener and as a teenager Kate became known for her ability to create pleasing floral arrangements. After high school, her botanical interests were boosted by a two-months long trip to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).
Sessions completed a business school course in San Francisco and considered out-of-state college programs, but eventually enrolled in the scientific curriculum at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1881. A popular and conscientious student, she hoped to work in banking or chemistry. However, the employment field most open to women was teaching. Kate Sessions signed on with the Oakland School system. Two years later she was hired at San Diego’s Russ School where she taught mathematics and served briefly in administration. For part of 1885 Sessions lived and taught school in San Gabriel.
During this time, Sessions was in conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Solon G. Blaisdell, Poway orchard and farm owners who were seeking a young and energetic partner to work in a nursery and florist business. Sessions switched careers willingly, but her association with the San Diego Nursery business partnership was short-lived. When it dissolved, Sessions retained a downtown florist shop on Fifth Avenue and part of the Coronado growing fields.
Sessions intentionally stepped away from women’s work and into a male-dominated world of horticulture. For more than fifty years she was the sole proprietor of her own nursery business. The independently-minded “Miss Sessions” maintained close ties with family and friends, but never married. She enjoyed her personal autonomy and freedom from the household responsibilities generally expected of women at the time.
When the Hotel del Coronado brought development and rising land prices to her growing grounds, Sessions sold her Coronado property and moved her nursery operation to a corner of City Park (Balboa Park). She had entered a private-public agreement with the City of San Diego in which she could operate her nursery on park land in exchange for developing an experimental garden, planting 100 trees annually in the park and providing 300 trees each year to the city for planting elsewhere in San Diego. Kate Sessions planted hundreds of trees in the park over the period of her ten-year lease, earning the title “Mother of Balboa Park.” Her nursery business was later moved to Mission Hills and, during the last years of her life, to Pacific Beach. After 1909 when she sold her florist business, Sessions concentrated on growing nursery stock and the design and planting of gardens.
Sessions enhanced the landscape of San Diego by popularizing and introducing scores of new plants appropriate to the climate and helping others learn to grow them. She promoted the use of native plants and tirelessly campaigned for civic beautification and the intelligent development of city park lands. She joined a Baja plant exploration trip in 1902 that brought a new plant species to the United States, the San Jose Hesper Palm (Brahea brandegeei). Three hundred twenty-five of these palms, grown by Sessions from seed she had collected in Baja, were added to the Balboa Park landscape in a 1914 plantation sited near the Laurel Street entrance.
When not at work in her nursery or engaged in a civic activity, Sessions studied plants and wrote about them. Her zeal to educate others about the beauties and benefits of gardening led her to participate in the founding of the San Diego Floral Association in 1907 and to contribute hundreds of articles to the organization’s magazine, California Garden. She also published a garden column in the local newspaper and contributed the occasional article to national garden and nursery trade publications. She taught school children about horticulture and helped organize San Diego’s first Arbor Day celebration in 1904. She led Balboa Park plant tours for the San Diego Park and Recreation Department and taught a gardening course for the University of California Extension Division. She was a frequent speaker at garden clubs, town councils and civic organizations. She entered garden shows, often winning top prizes and ribbons.
Sessions became widely known through her writing, her work as a test grower for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and her extensive correspondence with horticulturists around the world. Some of these contacts were personalized during an extended 1925 trip across the United States and through Europe. The following year she made a sentimental return to Hawaii fifty years after her first visit. In turn, Sessions was the preferred guide and interpreter of the Southern California landscape for visiting plant scientists.
Sessions was recognized as a leading citizen and local “personage” in San Diego. The neighborhood of Pacific Beach established a celebration each November for her birthday. Two painted portraits of Sessions were commissioned. In 1932 a Balboa Park Aloe and Agave Garden was planted in her honor (this garden has not survived). During the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, a “Kate Sessions Day” was celebrated and an idea she had promoted since 1918 was realized with the establishment of a Balboa Park Cactus Garden. This garden, located behind the Balboa Park Club, has weathered periods of neglect but restoration work was undertaken in 2019.
In November 1938, as the “Dean of California Horticulturists,” Sessions was invited to help break ground for the Horticulture Building planned for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. The following March, the American Genetic Association presented her with the Frank N. Meyer Medal for distinguished services in plant introduction, providing a capstone for her long and industrious career. In December 1939 Sessions fell in her garden and was hospitalized with a broken hip. She developed pneumonia and died on March 24, 1940. She is buried at San Diego’s Mount Hope Cemetery alongside her parents and brother.
Sessions lives on in public memory. A San Diego elementary school and a public park are named in her honor. The location of her Pacific Beach nursery is a designated California Historical Landmark. Plant hybridizers of the begonia, geranium, hibiscus, lilac, lychee tree and rose have created “Kate Sessions” cultivars. She has been inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame. A bronze statue of Sessions was placed at the Laurel Street entrance to Balboa Park in 1998. She is the subject of a biography published by the San Diego Historical Society, two university graduate theses and two children’s books. Her contributions to California Garden magazine have been collected and separately published by the San Diego Floral Association. Internationally, she is recognized at an important maker of Arts and Crafts gardens and as one of the influential horticulturists who shaped the landscape of Southern California.
Citation: Nancy Carol Carter, “Katherine Olivia Sessions (1857-1940)” in The Complete Writings of Kate Sessions in California Garden, New Edition. San Diego: San Diego Floral Association (2020).
Watch this 7-minute video of Kate Sessions’ influence, by Tiger Palafox, owner of Mission Hills Nursery, that Sessions started.
Watch this 1-hour webinar by Nancy Carol Carter, at the August 2020 meeting of the San Diego Horticultural Society.