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.