Kate the Great

One of her favorite sayings: “A 50¢ tree should be planted in a $5 hole.”

Katherine Olivia Sessions (1857-1940) was known to many as “Kate.” During her long career in San Diego (which began as a teacher) she became a world-recognized horticulturist, florist, nurserywomen and landscape designer, Kate imported, introduced, propagated and popularized hundreds of trees, palms, vines, shrubs and succulents. These include many of our most beloved plants: poinsettia, bird of paradise, Italian cypress, twisted juniper, queen palm, yellow oleander, Carolina yellow jasmine, banyan, New Zealand Christmas tree, Aleppo pine, Brazilian pepper tree, blue cypress, bougainvillea and star jasmine.

A fervent advocate of developing “City Park,” as Balboa Park was named until 1910, Kate Sessions became the official “City Gardener” as she began extensive plantings on the scrub brush acreage. Beginning in 1892, under contract with the City of San Diego, she planted more than 100 trees a year in the park and contributed more than 300 trees all over the city. In 1907 Kate was one of the founders of the San Diego Floral Association which was greatly responsible for the beautiful parklands for the wildly successful 1915 Exposition. She advocated many of the developed areas such as Palm Canyon and the Aloe and Agave Garden. Numerous trees in the park and throughout the neighborhood were planted with her own hands and exist to this day. One of her favorite trees is located at the southwest corner of First and Walnut where a small park honors her memory.

Katherine O. Sessions was called “the Mother of Balboa Park” because of her extraordinary horticultural contributions to Balboa Park. In 1892, after the park land was dedicated for public use, Sessions asked for 30 acres at the northwest corner of the park for a nursery. In return, Sessions pledged to plant 100 trees in the park each year for ten years. Kate inspired private citizens and school children to help her plant. Sessions is also credited with popularizing the jacaranda, Brazilian pepper trees and poinsettias in San Diego. In 2008 this great gardener was honored with a new geranium named for her.

The statue honoring Kate Sessions and her contribution toward the development of Balboa Park and the beatification of San Diego stands near the Laurel Street entrance to the park among some of the trees that she planted. Other tributes bearing her name include a park, elementary school, botanical garden, a canyon and a room at a local inn.

Dedicated to her plants, Kate never married. It’s been rumored that she was a lesbian, but in her younger years she also had a long list of male suitors, included John D. Spreckels.

Ruth HaywardThis statue honoring Kate and her many contributions to the quality of our life was created by a native San Diegan sculptor Ruth Hayward. Look around for the new “geranium Kate.”“I hope when children see the statue they get the message that one person can really make a difference.”

— Ruth Hayward

Dedicated in 1998, Kate is located at the southwest corner of Laurel Street and Balboa Drive (across the street to the north are three more honored figures from our past that Ruth has immortalized in bronze — Alonzo Horton, Ephraim Morse and George Marston.)

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