San Diego Floral Association
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Profiles in Horticultural History By Nancy Carol Carter
Reprinted from: May/June 2010, Volume 101, Number 3
Photo reprinted from: Dr. F. Franceschi: Pioneer Plantsman
by Will Beittel (1984)
By Nancy Carol Carter
There were few silver linings when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression descended, but California horticulture received a backdoor benefit: Hugh Evans returned to full-time nursery work after his real estate business crumbled. Evans had operated a nursery in Los Angeles around 1900, but failed to prosper in the business. His second effort, organized as Evans and Reeves Nurseries in 1936, is famous to this day.
Evans was born in the ancient town of Stamford, north of London. His plant-loving parents had surrounded their home with a beautifully maintained garden. Hugh took to gardening and chose an agricultural school, even as some of his nine siblings enrolled at Oxford University. In 1892, when just 18, he was shipped off to find a livelihood in San Luis Rey, a remote San Diego County town with a small community of British immigrants. He struggled on a water-starved and faltering lemon ranch before moving to Los Angeles to try his hand in the nursery business.
Evans sold this first struggling nursery business to native plant specialist Theodore Payne and moved to Santa Monica to sell real estate and insurance. With good timing and talented salesmanship, Evans became wealthy in the soaring Southern California real estate market. After serving as the exclusive sales agent for new developments in Van Nuys and Santa Monica, Evans undertook his own development projects in locations spanning from San Fernando to Palm Springs to La Jolla. His greatest success was with a Wilshire Boulevard tract that became known as the Los Angeles Miracle Mile. By 1928, Hugh Evans and Co. occupied an entire floor of an office building and handled property sales, development, lending, leasing, insurance and construction.
Financial success allowed Hugh Evans to purchase a Santa Monica home on three acres. Here he created a private garden that attracted visitors from around the world. Rejecting reliance on a small universe of proven plant stock, Evans began importing plants in 1923 and was constantly experimenting with exotics. Garden historian Victoria Padilla poetically describes Evans’ disdain for the garden commonplace as evidence of a broad mind in search of beauty and truth. His constant quest for new plants, she believed, was a reflection of his spirit of adventure and love of exploration.
Evans could not understand why residents of Southern California settled for widespread use of deciduous trees and shrubs when a benevolent climate could support year-round flowering greenery. For his garden, he imported flamboyant tropicals that bloom in all seasons, as well as drought tolerant imports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
He helped Southern Californians learn that orchids could be grown on their patios.
Once interested in a plant, Evans obsessively collected every variety he could find to compare hardiness and beauty. He brought in scores of fuchsias, several coral trees and 20 new eucalypti. He grew 50 different bougainvilleas, 150 varieties of hibiscus, and various rare succulents. Evans introduced many plants to the United States, but just as importantly, he revived interest in worthy earlier introductions that had disappeared from the nursery trade.
Evans’ standing in the horticulture community was solidified in the 1920s as his business prospered and his garden became a living marvel. All who met this well-read and multi-faceted man became his friend. He served on a committee of leading Angelinos to plan a botanical park. He judged the Beverly Hills Flower Show. His displays of rare plants at garden shows were called “stunning, fascinating, and astonishing” by Los Angeles Times garden writer Helen W. King. He generously shared his knowledge and gave away plants and cuttings.
Unwittingly, Evans created a market for the plants in his home garden. As the failing economy of the depression doomed his real estate business, the home nursery became a ready fallback. By 1931, his sons were actively wholesaling plants from the Evans home garden to regional nurseries.
In 1936, Hugh Evans and sons joined with Jack Reeves to open the Evans and Reeves Nurseries in Brentwood. After more than 30 years, Hugh Evans was back in the nursery business. Walt Disney, Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor were all customers. “Nursery to the stars” may be one claim to fame, but the important legacy of Evans and Reeves is captured in its business motto, “It’s Different.” The array of plants Evans had imported and tested in his own garden became the basis for an unprecedented expansion of commercial nursery stock.
For the great metropolis of Los Angeles, this popular nursery offered up a bounty of new and unusual plants that permanently changed and enhanced the landscape. The impact rippled out to growers and other nurseries across California and cemented the lasting reputation of Evans and Reeves.
Hugh Evans turned more attention to garden writing when once again in the nursery business. He promoted new plants and shared his gardening philosophy through numerous articles in the Los Angeles Times and various horticulture magazines, including California Garden. He was a popular speaker, addressing the Western Shade Tree Conference, the San Diego Floral Association and many other groups.
He described gardening as the purest of human pleasures. He believed that people all over the world could gain comfort and consolation from the contemplation of growing things. Without beauty, he said, life is only a desert.
In 1957, Hugh Evans retired and Evans and Reeves closed. Along with Francesco Franceschi of Santa Barbara and Kate O. Sessions of San Diego, Hugh Evans is today included on every short list of horticulturists who helped define the Southern California landscape.
Gardener, horticulturist, plant importer, nursery proprietor and garden writer.
Born: 1874 in Stamford, England | Died: 1960 in Santa Monica, California
Dig deeper with:
Hugh Evans in Victoria Padilla, Southern California Gardens, Berkeley: UCPress, 1991.
Hugh Evans, New Plants for California Gardens, California Garden, May 1931.
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.