San Diego Floral Association
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Profiles in Horticultural History By Nancy Carol Carter
Reprinted from: January/February 2010, Volume 101, Number 1
Photo reprinted from: Dr. F. Franceschi: Pioneer Plantsman
by Will Beittel (1984)
By Nancy Carol Carter
Emanuele Orazio Fenzi, better known as Dr. Francesco Franceschi, needed just 20 years in Southern California to permanently change our gardening history. He was descended from an old and aristocratic Tuscan family, schooled in six languages and educated as a lawyer. He fled Italy when the family bank under his management failed.
Fenzi changed his name when he came to Santa Barbara in 1893 to devote himself to horticulture, his true life interest. While operating the family bank, he had served as president of the Royal Tuscan Society of Horticulture and developed a botanical garden near Florence, introducing Indian bamboo and other plants to Italy.
Francheschi thought Santa Barbara the perfect spot to acclimatize plants from around the world. He was captive to a horticultural theory promoted by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (who gave us the binomial plant name system used today). Linnaeus hypothesized in the 18th century that all plants are globally adaptable. He believed that even tropical plants could grow in Arctic climates if given sufficient opportunity to adjust, or acclimatize, to changed growing conditions.
The benign climate of Santa Barbara allowed Franceschi to stretch the limits of the flawed acclimatization theory. Hundreds of newly introduced plants flourished under his care and spread out across the state. Franceschi used his personal funds to support his work, but developed a nursery business to help defray the expenses of plant imports and experimentation.
In 1895 he published an inventory of exotic plants already growing in the area, Santa Barbara Exotic Flora. This small book is still useful as a guide to early landscape plants used in Southern California. Through his writing and attendance at conferences and flower shows, Franceschi became well known throughout California as the foremost authority on rare plants and an invaluable channel of international exchange among botanists and horticulturists.
San Diego nursery owner Kate O. Sessions became a family friend, as well as a business contact. She sometimes stopped in Santa Barbara when traveling by steamer to San Francisco. The Franceschis were known for their hospitable welcome and generous servings of unfamiliar foods. While traveling by train during her 1925 European trip, Sessions had the small world experience of encountering one of the Franceschi sons, grown up and serving as an Italian army officer.
In Franceschi, Sessions found a botanical soul mate, someone as dedicated as she to experimenting with new plants and expanding horticultural knowledge. The two nursery owners also did considerable business with each other, keeping up a brisk exchange of plant material needed to satisfy customer orders. Business letters and postcards documenting this trade are found in the Francheschi papers at the University of California Bancroft Library in Berkeley.
Several plant introductions made by Kate Sessions in San Diego came directly from Franceschi. For example, he gave Sessions the first three fern pine trees (Podocarpus gracilior, also known as Afrocarpus elongatus) grown in San Diego. He introduced Phyla nodiflora (also known as Lippia repens), which Sessions championed as a low-water alternative to lawn grass.
After a decade of experimentation, Franceschi found a Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) that could thrive in Southern California. He also introduced successful species of avocados, figs and the large Japanese persimmon. He brought in bamboos, one of the more beautiful acacias, coral trees, cycads and many, many other plants. At one point his sales catalog listed 84 varieties of palms. Home gardeners can thank Franceschi (or not) for introducing zucchini.
Franceschi’s horticulture work in Santa Barbara is universally recognized as having a profound and lasting impact, but his American venture was fraught with problems, including business deals gone bad, a destructive fire and financial reverses. He returned to Italy in 1913 and was appointed by the Italian government to head an institute charged with developing agriculture and ornamental plantings in Libya, which had become an Italian colony. For several years he led plant introduction experiments in that arid land, reportedly with the same interest and enthusiasm displayed in his California days. He died in Tripoli in 1924 at age 81.
The Santa Barbara nursery of 40 acres atop Mission Ridge was operated for a number of years by some of the six Franceschi children, but eventually closed. The second owner gave the property to the city of Santa Barbara. The grounds were used as a city nursery and in 1931 about half the acreage became Franceschi Park, known today for its exotic plants and unsurpassed views. The Franceschi home, Montarioso (airy mountain), is situated in the park and the object of a preservation campaign by the Pearl Chase Society, a non-profit Santa Barbara conservancy.
Francesco Franceschi was just the third person to be awarded the Frank N. Meyer Memorial Medal for distinction in plant introduction by the American Genetic Association. On this occasion in 1922, an official of the Department of Agriculture wrote that his plant introductions to the United States were more numerous than that of any other one person. Francheschi also was lauded for bringing new and delicious fruits to America and for making California gardens more beautiful for all time.
Francesco Franceschi also known as Emanuele O. Fenzi
Santa Barbara horticulturist and nursery owner.
Born: 1843 in Florence, Italy | Died: 1924 in Tripoli, Libya
Dig deeper with:
Dr. F. Franceschi, Pioneer Plantsman by Will Beittel; Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society, 1984
“The Life of Dr. Francesco Franceschi and His Park, Parts I and II,” by Susan Chamberline;
Pacific Horticulture, 63: 3 and 4 (July/Aug./Sept. 2002: 4-12 and Oct./Nov./Dec. 2002: 13-19).
See a drawing of Montarioso, Franceschi’s home: www.pearlchasesociety.org/franceschi-house.html
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.