San Diego Floral Association
Roots from California Garden
Profiles in Horticultural History


© SAN DIEGO FLORAL ASSOCIATION and © Nancy Carol Carter.
These stories may not be published in any form or copied onto another media without written permission from San Diego Floral Association.

Reprinted From: November/December 2010, Volume 101, Number 6







Mary Katharine Layne Curran Brandegee

Mary Katharine Curran before marriage
Courtesy The University & Jepson Herbaria, University of California, Berkeley

By Nancy Carol Carter

As the nineteenth century melted into the twentieth, one of the nation’s most famous botanical couples lived and worked on an undeveloped San Diego mesa now called Bankers Hill. Around their herbarium and home on First Avenue, between Quince and Redwood Streets, Katharine Brandegee established San Diego’s first botanic garden. Her husband, T. S. Brandegee, pioneered botanical explorations of the Baja interior and islands in the Sea of Cortez. Through their fieldwork, research and writing, the Brandegees are credited with elevating the quality and respectability of West Coast plant science at a time when all botanical wisdom and authority were thought to reside on America’s Eastern shore.

The Brandegees conducted much of their fieldwork independent of each other, enduring hostile and remote locations, broken bones and shipwrecks to study plants and retrieve dried and living specimens. In addition to trips to Mexico, each botanized throughout California. Katharine was especially conservative in proclaiming the discovery of a new species and carefully studied plant variations and relationships. A botanic garden allowed her to observe a plant through its growth cycle and analyze plant behavior in an environment different from its field location.

The Brandegees garden was enriched by contributions from a far-flung network of plant scientists. Local nurserywoman Kate Sessions also delighted in providing rarities. Shortly after the African fern pine tree (Afrocarpus gracilior, formerly Podocarpus) was introduced from Kenya, she presented the Brandegees with one of three saplings she had acquired. It also was Sessions who propagated the new and botanically undescribed palm tree found on a 1902 Brandegee expedition to Baja, the San Jose Hesper palm (Brahea brandegeei).

In 1902, this private San Diego garden was mentioned, along with the world-famous Missouri Botanical Garden, as a place where important investigations could be made on living-type collections of cacti. The Brandegees welcomed an array of visitors. One botanist described the garden as “a botanical paradise, rare flowers blooming on all sides, mockingbirds, quail calling, and other native songbirds making the air musical with song.” Another visitor mentions a “spacious botanical garden filled with rare natives.”

The longest and most intimate description of the garden is the first-hand account of F. A. Walton, editor of the British Cactus Journal, who visited San Diego in 1899. “The wild land around the herbarium,” he wrote, “is full of interesting plants that are growing in a state of nature while being studied and described . . . .” Mr. and Mrs. Brandegee are “enthusiastic botanists who have built a magnificent herbarium,” where they spend most of their time. “They are the kind of people that do permanent good work in this world. . . . . They live in the midst of nature, surrounded by a natural garden and have the very best opportunities of studying plant life at their leisure.”

Katharine Brandegee hoed a long row before reaching this point in her life. One of 10 children in an impoverished home, she received a spotty formal education as her restless father constantly moved the family. In Folsom, California, she found work teaching school and entered a difficult marriage. Eight years later, her husband died from complications of alcoholism. As a 31-year old widow, Katharine moved to San Francisco and, in 1875, became the third women admitted to the University of California medical school.

A rigorously trained émigré German scientist taught the compulsory courses in medicinal plants, taking his students on botanizing field trips around the Bay Area. Katharine’s interest and intelligence won her a mentor in Dr. Hans Herman Behr and eventually, when her medical practice failed to flourish, he invited the young doctor into useful service at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific institution in the Western United States.

As a volunteer in the herbarium, she received exemplary botanical training and developed a life-long zeal for exacting plant taxonomy. In 1883, Katharine Layne Curran was appointed curator of the Academy herbarium, thereby becoming the second woman in the United States to hold a paid professional position in the field of botany. She brought order to the once neglected herbarium. She singlehandedly revived the stalled publishing program at the Academy of Sciences and later founded and edited the scientific journal, Zoe.

Katherine’s meticulous scientific work and scholarly productivity earned credibility. At the same time, a naturally strong personality and her merciless critiques of slipshod science drew criticism for inappropriately bold and “unwomanly” behavior. Despite detractors, she became a force to be reckoned with at the California Academy of Sciences and beyond.
Katharine had passed her 40th birthday when an accomplished civil engineer and amateur botanist, Townshend Stith Brandegee, made his first visit to the California Academy of Sciences. Botany was just emerging as his prime interest and a legacy had recently assured his financial independence. He settled in San Francisco and joined Academy expeditions.

In 1889, Katharine met T. S. in San Diego for a quiet wedding upon his return from a scientific expedition to Baja. The honeymooners walked back to San Francisco, botanizing along the way. Contemporaries remarked on the passion in this mature meeting of hearts and minds and on the lifetime devotion of the Brandegees to each other and to plant science.








In 1894, the Brandegees relocated to San Diego. They camped on their new property while a building to hold their herbarium was constructed. Subsequently, a wing was added for their residence. (This building still stands at the property, now home to the Self Realization Center of San Diego.) By the time the Brandegees decided to return to the San Francisco Bay Area and donate their botanical specimens to the University of California in 1906, they had built the richest private herbarium ever assembled in the United States. Countless plant types were preserved from the San Diego botanic garden that Katherine Brandegee had created and nurtured. The Brandegees worked in the university herbarium for the rest of their lives.

For more than 20 years after the Brandegees had relocated, visiting botanical researchers sought out specimens among the surviving remnants of their San Diego garden. Locally, the significance of the region’s first botanic garden went sadly unrecognized and no special preservation efforts were undertaken. Only a knowing few lamented the loss of the enchanting collection of rare trees and plants that once crowned Banker’s Hill.

Katharine Brandegee on mule in Baja.
Courtesy The University & Jepson Herbaria, University of California, Berkeley

Mary Katharine Layne Curran Brandegee
Botanist, author, editor, creator of San Diego’s first botanic garden.
Born Oct. 28, 1844 | Died April 3, 1920

Dig deeper with:
Nancy Carol Carter, “The Brandegees: Leading Botanists in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History 55, no. 4 (Fall 2009). Future availability on the San Diego History Center website.

“Brandegee, Mary Layne Curran,” Notable American women, 1607-1950: a Biographical Dictionary, Volume 2, ed. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James. Available online at Google Books.


© SAN DIEGO FLORAL ASSOCIATION and © Nancy Carol Carter.
These stories may not be published in any form or copied onto another media without written permission from San Diego Floral Association.

Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.