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Profiles in Horticultural History By Nancy Carol Carter
Reprinted from: January/February 2011, Volume 102, Number 1
By Nancy Carol Carter
All photos courtesy of Theodore Payne Foundation. Copyright Protected.
Despite a token wage and long work days, the demanding job Theodore Payne started in 1886 at age 14 was no hardship. He held a treasured apprenticeship with a nursery company in his native England, a place purchased with family money and secured by a legal indenture. Such apprenticeships were a proven path to a career in horticulture. During the next three years, Payne trained by rotating through every department of the nursery business, from practical growing and seed operations to office work and landscaping. He was hired in the seed department of the company upon the completion of his apprenticeship.
Payne’s widowed mother supported his career choice. Of her six boys, Theodore was the one who shared her passion for botany and was eager to learn about nature and gardening. He loved to find new wildflowers and learn their names. His pressed collection won a school prize and he received an early lesson in conservation when his natural history club began replanting a native flower threatened with extinction.
In 1893, Payne immigrated to the United States. While crossing the country to California, he celebrated his 21st birthday with a week at the Columbian Exposition—the great Chicago world’s fair. He picked apricots upon arriving in Los Angeles and visited nurseries and seed companies to inquire about permanent employment. He heard of an opening for a gardener on a ranch estate in the Santa Ana Mountains. While questioning whether his nursery training really qualified him as an estate gardener, he took the job. It paid $35 per month with room and board.
One of Payne’s new Los Angeles acquaintances vehemently discouraged his move to the wilds of Orange County, warning that it was a dangerous and lawless place. The frightened young Englishman purchased a revolver and nervously boarded the train for El Toro. He was met and taken by buckboard to the 400-acre cattle ranch in Santiago Canyon. He was assigned to attend a large vegetable garden, 30 acres of olive trees and the formal gardens surrounding the main house, a rambling bungalow designed by Stanford White, New York architect to the rich and famous.
Upon arrival, Theodore Payne received a friendly welcome from his unlikely employers, Madame Helena Mojeska and Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, darlings of the Warsaw intelligentsia and leaders of a small colony of Polish immigrants to California. Their colony had collapsed when its romantic idealists were confronted with the real work of self-sufficiency on the land. Madame Mojeska revived her acting career as funds ran short. She mastered English, made her American debut on the San Francisco stage and became a celebrated Shakespearian actress in New York and London. With financial success, the family purchased the Orange County property known as the Mojeska Ranch as a permanent home.
During almost three years on the ranch, Payne met famous visitors and enjoyed the “democracy” of the owners, who freely associated with the ranch hands and sometimes included them in family parties. Still, it was a lonely and isolated life and Payne wanted to return to the work for which he had been trained. Payne left the Mojeska Ranch with a new interest in California native plants and a special reverence for the rich variety of wildflowers he was discovering in his adopted home. At Madam Mojeska’s insistence, he had successfully domesticated a number of wildflowers for the ranch garden.
Payne started a new job in the seed department of the Germain Fruit Company in Los Angeles. He traveled internationally to forge business ties with nurseries and seed companies. Although he was promoted to a management position during his six years with the company, Payne left Germain in 1903 to strike out on
He again set off for England and Europe, this time lining up his own business contacts across the United States and abroad. Once back in Los Angeles, he purchased a struggling nursery business from his British countryman, Hugh Evans. Payne added a seed business to the nursery and in various locations operated successfully for the next several years. He became known as a one-person clearinghouse of nursery information and a source for tracking down specific trees, plants and seeds. His knowledge was gained through regular visits to nurseries up and down the state. He kept up with what was being grown or tried in various locations.
Eventually Payne began to focus on his first love: wildflowers. He grieved the disappearance of these and other native plants as population growth and development altered the California landscape. Scant success attended his initial efforts because customers lacked interest. He raised public awareness by creating wildflower demonstration gardens on vacant lots, issuing a catalog of wildflower seeds and exhibiting at flower shows. He published numerous articles on wildflowers, including a two-part contribution to California Garden in 1912.
A corner was turned when his five-acre “Wild Garden” planted in 1915 in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park won popular acclaim and international press coverage. He launched a lecture tour on “Preserving the Wild Flowers and Native Landscapes of California.” After a wealthy homeowner in Montecito hired Payne to landscape her large estate in 1919, native plantings became even more fashionable. Over the next 20 years, Theodore Payne narrowed his nursery business until he was devoting himself exclusively to native plants and wildflowers.
During his long life, Payne was active in horticulture and natural history organizations. Along the way, he provided inspiration for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, advised the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and worked on the planning and planting of other parks and public spaces across the state. In 1952, his work in preserving the native flora of California was recognized by the Southern California Horticulture Institute. In 1961 the 320-acre Theodore Payne Wildlife Sanctuary was dedicated in Antelope Valley. Concurrently, the Theodore Payne Foundation was incorporated “to promote, preserve and restore California native landscapes and habitats, to make native plants and seeds available and to educate the public about California flora and natural history.”
Recognized today as “one of the most fervent advocates” of native plants, Payne urged residents to be “good Californians” by planting the trees, shrubs and flowers of California. However, his contribution goes much deeper than advocacy. Theodore Payne is credited with introducing more than 430 wildflowers and other native plants into cultivation. Without his practical and pioneering work in domestication and seed distribution, more California native plants would be extinct and the variety available to us sorely diminished.
Horticulturist, nursery owner and seeds man, promoter of California native flora.
Born: Church Brampton, England, June 19, 1872
Died: Los Angeles, May 6, 1963
Dig deeper with:
Theodore Payne in His Own Words: A Voice for California Native Plants. Pasadena: Many Moons Press for the Theodore Payne Foundation, 2004.
“Theodore Payne,” in Victoria Padilla, Southern California Gardens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961, 162-167.
All photos courtesy of Theodore Payne Foundation. Copyright Protected
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.