Katherine Olivia Sessions
Yesterday a local San Diegan saw me reading a book written by Kate Sessions. She asked who Kate was. I was surprised. I thought every San Diegan should know who this woman was and what she accomplished for San Diego. Obviously, what I know not everyone else has learned.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn about Katherine (Kate) Olivia Sessions due to my appreciation for horticulture and being friends of Toni and Fausto Palafox, current proprietors of Mission Hills Nursery. Sessions founded Mission Hills Nursery in 1910. In 1926 she sold it to her employees the Antonicelli brothers. In 1988, Frank Antonicelli sold the nursery to Toni and Fausto Palafox.
Sessions also started several other nurseries, in Coronado, City Park (now Balboa Park) and Pacific Beach. She became a central figure in California and national horticultural circles with her landscaping, plant introductions, and classes. In 1907, with the assistance of Alfred D. Robinson, she co-founded the San Diego Floral Association, the oldest garden club in Southern California. The garden club was influential in teaching San Diegans how to grow ornamental and edible plants, at a time when most San Diego landscaping consisted of dirt and sagebrush.
As we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Balboa Park it is important to recognize the legacy of Kate Sessions. She leased land in what was then called City Park in 1892 for a nursery. For this privilege, she was to plant one hundred trees a year in the park and furnish three hundred more for planting throughout the city. In 1902 she was instrumental in the formation of the park improvement committee with her friends George Marston and Mary B. Coulston. Their work resulted in assuring the park’s place in the life of the community.
This arrangement left the park with an array of cypress, pine, oak, pepper trees and eucalyptus grown in her gardens from seeds imported from around the world; virtually all of the older trees still seen in the park were planted by her. Among many other plant introductions, she is credited with importing and popularizing the jacaranda, now very familiar in the city. She also collected, propagated, and introduced many California native plants to the horticulture trade and into gardens.
Her work with plant introduction, as well as her extensive writing on the subject, won her international recognition. At the California Pacific International Exposition on September 22, 1935, the day was dedicated to Sessions, where she was named the Mother of Balboa Park. In 1939 she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Frank N. Meyer medal of the American Genetic Association.
A bronze statue of Sessions, dedicated in 1998, is situated in a prominent location in Balboa Park, in the southwest corner of Sefton Plaza, near the Sixth Avenue entrance to the park. It is the only full sculpture in San Diego of a real woman who made incredible contributions to beautifying San Diego.
In 2006 the Women’s History Museum of California inducted Kate Sessions into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame. She was given the title of Trailblazer.
She was a trailblazer who demonstrated through action that great successes are possible. As we look around our San Diego neighborhoods, we should thank Sessions for her contributions and commitment to beautifully landscaping San Diego. And, for those of us who frequent Mission Hills Nursery, we can visit the site of where her legacy continues.