San Diego Floral Association
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July/August 2010, Volume 101 No. 4
Luther Gage: Father of Carlsbad’s Flower Fields
By John Blocker
Today, the Flower Fields along I-5 in Carlsbad are a tourist attraction as well as a working ranch. More than 150,000 visitors come each year to experience close-up the dramatic colors of the ranunculus flowers grown in these fields.
These fields have been in cultivation for more than 80 years and, along with other bulb-growing grounds in North County, have been a lure for visitors for almost as long.
In April 1933, Harold Finley of the Los Angeles Times suggested to his readers that instead of visiting a local flower show they should drive to Carlsbad and its neighboring cities to “…enjoy the unprogrammed outdoor showings of the commercial growers.
“The south coast area of San Diego County, taking in Carlsbad, Encinitas and South Coast Park, with Vista, a few miles back, thrown in for good measure, affords a gorgeous spectacle for the motorist, a spectacle amply justifying a trip expenditure for gasoline and one for which there is no ‘gate’ fee. Here where the air is tempered by a bit of moisture and an agreeable coolness from the sea, are the main bulb fields of the Southland’s great and growing floral industry.”
The first ranunculus grower and the most prominent early hybridizer in the Carlsbad area was Luther Gage. He was responsible for breeding the brilliant colors into the flowers that visitors see at the Flower Fields today.
“One can get the whole picture at … one establishment in Carlsbad – that of the veteran Southern California plantsman, Luther Gage,” Finley continued in his newspaper article. “Mr. Gage grows everything the others grow and grows it superlatively….Picture oriental rugs, veritable Persians for colorings, that are acres in extent – all laid down on a gigantic field of green.”
By the 1930s, commercial bulb growing in Carlsbad had established itself as a business. R. A. Casad and Sons produced freesia bulbs for the American Bulb Company for sale on the national market. The Elder family grew large tracts of freesias. Altman Floral grew the blooms for the cut flower trade. Alois Frey moved his bulb growing enterprise to Carlsbad from the San Fernando Valley where it had been a roadside attraction.
In July 1932, Lee Shippy reported in the Los Angeles Times that almost every other house in Carlsbad had a yard or half acre where bulbs were being raised for market. By 1934, approximately 15 million bulbs were shipped from the area, and Carlsbad had become the world’s leading center for freesia bulb production.
Luther Gage moved to Carlsbad after the South Coast Land Company, managed by Ed Fletcher, brought water to Carlsbad from the San Luis Rey River in 1921. The company, owned by Henry Huntington, William G. Kerckoff and C. A. Canfield, had bought large tracts of land in the Carlsbad area during the previous seven years.
Gage began growing bulbs on a five-acre plot at Tamarack and Fourth (now Jefferson) and branched out to grow on other fields. He initially sold the flowers on the Los Angeles Wholesale Flower Market. Flocks of owls – tecolote in Spanish – swooped across his fields, causing him to refer to his fields as Tecolote Gardens and to patent his bulbs under the Tecolote label.
Around 1923, Gage began to gather the best available ranunculus seed from around the world. He obtained a superior strain of ranunculus improved by a French scientist. He then acquired the Eggleston strain from Australia and the Ballange strain from Austria. Crossing these varieties, then removing the worst and re-crossing the best, he created a superb hybrid.
His breeding changed the ranunculus from a more or less single or semi-double white or pale-colored bloom to a brilliantly tinted, very double flower. He also increased the size of the bloom from the size of a silver dollar to the size of a camellia flower.
Photo: Rachel Cobb
Gage was also known for his “baby glads,” which he also sold under his Tecolote label. He crossed two varieties of “baby glads” from the San Francisco District, a white variety called ‘Bride’ and another named ‘Peachblossom,’ with a South African species, G. ramosus, and created a relatively disease-free cultivar in an array of 50 colors. His baby glads are one-third the size of a regular gladiolus and are early bloomers. They were highly regarded by gardeners at the time.
He also grew poppy-flowered anemones (Anemone coronaria). He had blue varieties from Europe’s best gardens; giant ‘Monarch De Caen’ in blues, pinks and reds; and a brilliant red ‘His Excellency’ with a black center. He grew 25 kinds of freesias ranging in color from white, lavender and pale yellow to red, orange and gold. Many of the freesias he grew had been hybridized by his neighbor, Alois Frey.
In addition, Gage grew rows of bulbs in his fields that were not big sellers. He grew corn lily (Ixia), harlequin flower (Sparaxis), flame freesia (Tritonia) and other lesser known varieties near his house, including a delphinium-blue Leucocoryne from Chile and Ornithogalum in oranges and yellows from South Africa. He had visions of developing them into garden favorites. He gained a reputation as a man who was always trying something.
By 1934, he no longer sold cut flowers. He sold his bulbs wholesale through the firm Armacost & Royston of Los Angeles. The firm sold to retailers not only in California but all over the United States and Europe. In the same year, Gage commented on the passersby looking at his fields: “Publicity only means a lot of visitors and as we do only a wholesale business, we have nothing to sell to visitors.”
In 1928, one of Gage’s workers, Frank Frazee, started his own bulb-growing business with his sons Earl and Edwin. Within a few years, using knowledge gained while employed by Gage and bulbs Gage hybridized, the Frazee family was growing 1,000 acres of ranunculus along Agua Hedionda Lagoon.
In 1938, the Frazees moved their ranch to the Stuart Mesa area on Camp Pendleton. They continued farming at this location until 1958 when they returned to Carlsbad to lease land along Highway 101 (now Highway 5) in the Ponto region of Carlsbad. Their brightly colored growing grounds in the springtime became known as the flower fields to travelers along the highway.
Today the Flower Fields are maintained in a joint venture between the Ecke family and Mellano and Co., both long-time flower growers in the area.
Photo: John Blocker
Luther Gage was born on Feb. 10, 1879, in Pueblo, Colorado. His father, Henry B. Gage, was a Presbyterian minister. The family moved to Downey, California, around 1880. Luther Gage became a nurseryman in nearby Montebello. In 1921, Gage moved to Carlsbad to grow bulbs. In 1924, he was elected president of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. He was an honorary member of the Carlsbad Rotary Club and a charter member and president of the Oceanside Rotary.
- John Blocker worked in the agricultural industry in San Diego for 31 years.
In 1934, he married Olive Carey, a resident of Redlands. She vacationed in Carlsbad every year with her grandmother. Their arrival every summer in the town’s smartest car was always documented in the local press.
The Gages lived in a graceful Spanish home (pictured above) that Luther built, located near Lincoln and Oak, a block from the Twin Inns. The house was said to be the hub of Carlsbad’s social activities. Today the house is surrounded by the Monterey condominium complex. Many of the condominiums are used as vacation rentals.
Luther Gage died Feb. 28, 1961, and Olive Gage died Oct. 18 of the same year.
Seekers of the Spring by Marje Howard-Jones, 1982
“The Lee Side o’ LA” by Lee Shippey, July 26, 1932, Los Angeles Times
“Speaking of Shows” by Harold M. Finley, April 16, 1933, Los Angeles Times
“The Flowers Still Bloom” by Helen W. King, February 25, 1934, Los Angeles Times
California Garden, April 1935
Archives of the Encinitas Historical Society
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.