The Mission Fathers introduced a number of useful plants, from citrus to olives and even cactus-the latter served as forage for their livestock. The area’s landscape really began to change, though, when some enterprising growers started expanding the plant palette even more in the 1800s. The now ubiquitous eucalyptuses, palm trees, and other nonnative ornamental plants were brought here by a small band of men and women who sought to improve the aesthetics of their lives as well as those of their new community.
Joseph Sexton was one of the first to establish a nursery in the area. He brought stock from his father’s nursery in Petaluma, in Northern California, as well as a 120-pound sack of Persian walnuts imported from Chile. Among his commercial endeavors were the growing of pampas grass for the decorative trade and establishing a seed and flower shop downtown. He introduced several varieties of cherimoya and avocado, as well as developing an improved variety of walnut. His wife, Lucy Foster Sexton, was very interested in the native flora and was responsible for preserving 50 acres of land known as Foster Glen.
Ellwood Cooper is famous (or infamous) for introducing all those eucalyptuses to the area. He grew as many as 150,000 trees in 24 species and wrote and lectured on their utility. Like other farmers of his time, he grew a variety of crops including figs, citrus, walnuts, and olives. He operated the second largest olive mill in the U.S. and won honors for his oil. He also pioneered the use of bio-control by importing ladybugs from China to control scale insects in his walnut crop. Sara Cooper, his wife, also collected plants, and the garden at their home became a “must see” for visitors.
Theodosia Shepherd moved to Santa Barbara from the Midwest in hopes of curing her tuberculosis. She settled in Ventura and began collecting plants into a garden that was considered one of the best in the state; she was said to have put Ventura on the map. In 1885, she was the first woman on the Pacific Coast to enter the nursery trade and the first to go into business raising flower seeds in Southern California. Shepherd became an internationally renowned hybridizer of petunias, cosmos, and nasturtiums. She was also a pioneer in the collection of begonias, perfected the popular ‘Heavenly Blue’ variety of morning glory, a strain of miniature roses, and was one of the first to experiment with zonal geraniums. She also made selections of the California poppy noted for their size and brilliant color and brought the Matilija poppy into cultivation.
Charles Frederick Eaton was an artist and landscape architect. His large estate, Riso Rivo, extended from Cold Spring Road (then a private road called Palm Avenue) to Ashley Road and from Mountain Drive down almost to what is now Lotusland. (Parts of that estate are still preserved at El Mirador). He collected plants from around the world for his own garden and designed other gardens such as those around the old El Encanto Hotel. He and Italian horticulturist Francesco Franceschi founded the Southern California Acclimatizing Association in 1893, which intended “to introduce plants from other countries having a climate similar to ours, and through appropriate culture, make them thrive and bear.”
R. Kinton Stevens moved to Santa Barbara from England (after a short stay in Los Angeles) and established a nursery and farm. He experimented with several crops, from wheat to apricots, but was one of the first to sell a large selection of exotic landscape plants including lotus, dracaena, and a number of palms. His biggest crop was olive and lemon trees that he sold to area ranchers engaged in starting commercial operations.
Francesco Franceschi, although he lived in Santa Barbara for a mere 20 years, had perhaps the greatest influence on early horticulture here. He introduced as many as 600 different species of exotic plants to California and Santa Barbara. They include palms, flowering shrubs, and trees such as Rhaphiolepis, Bauhinia (orchid tree), ornamental vines like grape ivy, and even the zucchini. His home on the Riviera is now a beloved park. Franceschi also was a prolific writer, and his writing sums up what was special about the Santa Barbara area: “Above other cities in southern California, Santa Barbara is acknowledged to enjoy the privilege of having had, from the earliest date, the largest number of settlers impressed with intense love of plants and flowers, and to possess in her gardens, the most remarkable and older specimens of trees from foreign countries.”
So hats off to these fathers and mothers of Santa Barbara horticulture. Their vision has left us with a garden paradise.