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Samuel Ayres Jr., 94, Dies; He Put Color in L.A. Landscape

November 17, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Samuel Ayres Jr., who for nearly 70 years waged what often was a one-man fight to bring color and beauty to the arid landscape of Los Angeles, died Monday.

The physician, who with his late wife, Helen, was the driving force behind the formation of the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum, was 94.

He was the oldest doctor still practicing in Los Angeles County, the County Medical Assn. reported in connection with an interview that appeared in The Times in August.

It was an intriguing combination of devotion to science and beauty that lured Ayres into horticulture.

He followed his physician father into medicine and decided while in medical school at Harvard to become a dermatologist. The catalyst was a patient with a "beautiful" skin ailment.

"Skin lesions are often a beautiful color," he said three months ago while he was still physically capable of maintaining his practice and working each day at Good Samaritan Hospital.

"This patient I had had a case of Erythema multiforma that displayed beautiful color. . . ."

His longtime fascination (he had sold flowers as a child while his playmates hawked more conventional things like lemonade) lay relatively dormant until he completed his medical studies. He married shortly after graduation and with his bride came to Los Angeles in 1921.

What they found, he recalled, was "beautiful landscape but boring. People had planted only maples and elms and other trees they had grown up with in the East. We saw almost nothing but green. No color."

The young couple settled on a modest estate in rural La Canada Flintridge, where his wife, who died in 1983, was one of the first supporters of Descanso Gardens.

In 1939, on a vacation to Hawaii, they both fell in love with the flowering trees that dominate those islands.

"We were so impressed with the color and then we came home and drove for miles without seeing a single flowering tree."

He suggested to the Southern California Horticultural Institute that it establish a botanical garden where the trees of Hawaii could be viewed in Los Angeles.

Parcel in Arcadia

He was named head of a committee to find such a site.

The committee chose a 111-acre parcel in Arcadia where developer Elias J. (Lucky) Baldwin had once owned a ranch. The acreage had been purchased by Times publisher Harry Chandler, who intended to subdivide it. But Ayres persuaded Chandler to keep it off the market until he could find some financing. The state and county eventually purchased it for $320,000 and the Arboretum became a reality in 1948.

Over the years Ayres and his wife brought back or sent for seeds from Australia, Mexico and Africa, and today brilliant fire wheel, floss silk and purple orchid trees grow where those seeds were planted.

He was credited with establishing Brazil's gold medallion tree and Colombia's golden trumpet tree in Southern California.

In addition to the Arboretum, the Ayreses established Los Angeles Beautiful Inc., which popularized the coral tree that today is the official tree of Los Angeles.

Many Honors

Plants he had grown in his own garden and commercial nursery, Rare Plants From Far Horizons, were donated when the City Hall annex and mall were built in the 1960s.

He was given awards from the Garden Clubs of America and was a Man of the Year for the California Gardens Clubs. He was named professor emeritus of dermatology at UCLA, where he taught for many years, was honored by the American Dermatological Assn. and was founder and first president of the Pacific Dermatologic Assn.

Perhaps the most succinct tribute to Ayres can be found in the dedication of a book on the history of the Arboretum.

Ayres, reads the inscription, "thought there should be more color in the Southern California landscape and did something about it."

Survivors include his son, Dr. Samuel Ayres III, with whom he was in practice from 1947 through 1962, and a daughter, Jacqueline Hartwick.

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