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Gardens Then and Now

June 15, 1986

We fell into conversation with Victoria Padilla recently, hoping to learn that she was considering a new edition of her classic "Southern California Gardens." She is not.

The book was published in 1961 by the University of California Press in collaboration with the Southern California Horticultural Institute, and now brings upwards of $80 in used-book stores, for there simply is no rival to this extraordinary illustrated history. Our copy came from the stacks of the Los Angeles Public Library, borrowed before the fire, and it showed even then signs of careful repair and a refurbished binding. We do not know if it survived.

"I'm not a botanist," Padilla explained. "I like plants. I'm a horticulturist." Her affection for plants is evident at the home that she shares with her brother, set in an exquisite garden of one-third acre. Dominant in the garden is their extraordinary collection of bromeliads, a genus of plants so diverse that it embraces both pineapple and Spanish moss. Her global reputation is for her books about bromeliads.

"Southern California Gardens" remains the basic resource of scholars tracing the history of the flora of our region, natives and exotics alike, its index a ready reference to hundreds of plants. But her book is about people as well as plants: William C. Walker, who introduced the eucalyptus from Australia in 1856 "to revolutionize the entire physical landscape"; Francesco Franceschi, who came from Italy in 1890 and, working in Santa Barbara, alone introduced at least 45 plants to California gardens; Theodore Payne, who came from England in 1893 to become the foremost authority on California native plants, assuring the preservation of hundreds of species of wildflowers through his careful collection of seeds. There were pioneer nurserymen as well, men like Hugh Evans of Evans & Reeves, Manfred Meyberg of Germain's and John S. Armstrong, first to sponsor the development of roses especially adapted to California.

Padilla's interest in bromeliads was inspired by Evans. "I asked him if there was something I could just tend on weekends," she recalled. He also encouraged her to take a sabbatical from Los Angeles City College, where she taught literature and English, to write the book on gardens. "I told him I had never written a book in my life."

The era of greatness, including singular figures in horticulture, is behind us, she has regretfully concluded.

"Now there is no interest in bringing in new plants." she told us. "There is not the excitement." There is little today to compare with what she calls the Golden Era, the first 30 years of this century, when fabulous gardens and gardeners abounded. Her book lists 38 great private estate gardens in Santa Barbara alone that had public exhibition hours in 1915.

"Where are the gardens of yesteryear?" she asked. "Bringing the book up to date would just be too sad."

But there is no melancholy in the conclusion of her book:

"The great estate with its quiet dignity, its vast expanses of lawn, and splendid specimens of trees and palms, is gone and most likely will never return. But more people are enjoying their gardens than ever before. They have learned, like Candide, that to escape from the tribulations that beset every era, they must cultivate their gardens. And they are doing so with more skill and better taste than their fathers did."

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