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The forgotten garden

Jon Nicholls
15 April 2014

Directors' Correspondence digitiser, Jon Nicholls, uncovers the story behind the forgotten California Botanic Garden.

The Garden

Hidden away in the Directors' Correspondence (DC) collection of Kew's archive is evidence of a huge botanical garden which, sadly, no longer exists. Not many know of it and even a basic Google search fails to recognise its existence. It was called the California Botanic Garden, a giant botanical garden in the United States, which lay in Mandeville Canyon among the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles. The Garden boasted artificial ponds, micro climates and a variety of altitudes, which supported a vast amount and variety of plant life. The canyon's climate was well-suited for a botanic garden: it allowed the growth of temperate, sub tropic and tropical plants. This mega-garden might have rivalled all other botanical gardens around the world, had it been able to thrive.

Many letters and maps were sent to Kew during the early days of its formation. The DC collection still has all these documents in Kew's archive, including those below.

Map showing the location of Californian Botanic Garden

The location of the Californian Botanic Garden in relation to the west coast of the United States (Archive ref: DC 203 f. 89)

A brief history

In 1925 a group of naturalists set out to acquire the site in the Santa Monica Mountains from the 'Santa Monica Mountain Park Company'. Partnering with businessman and naturalist H.C. Oakley, they set up a non-profit organisation called the 'Garden Foundation'. The Los Angeles Mountain Park Company sold most of Lower Mandeville Canyon to the Garden Foundation, a whopping 3200 acres, worth 20–30 million dollars at the time. Only 800 acres was used for the Garden while the remaining 2,400 acres were placed as financial endowment in a trust company aptly named 'The Metropolitan Trust Company of California', for the sole benefit of the garden.

On the 2,400-acre slopes surrounding the garden they hoped to develop and sell homes: the Garden would not charge an entrance fee, but the land required a mortgage, and selling the properties which overlooked the Garden would provide financial stability. 

Extract from pamphlet (Archive ref: DC 203 f. 89)

The Garden as an institution was to serve as an attraction, while research and plant science were to be conducted behind the scenes. Agricultural and commercial work would be undertaken and domestic and foreign field work would be initiated.

This map from Kew's archive, the Directors' correspondence, shows the location of the Californian Botanic Garden in relation to the west coast of the United States.

The expansive valley of the garden's original site (Archive ref: DC 203 f. 89)

The first year

In 1928 the California Botanic Garden opened to the public. In its first year over 1,200 species were introduced, lots of trees and plants were sent as gifts from  many governors of states, and the silent screen star Mary Pickford planted the first tree there. Seed exchange with other botanical gardens was established and scientific research was undertaken. Tea and cotton were propagated in the hills of the canyon as well as various fruits suited to the Californian climate. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew acted in an advisory role during the first year, senior members of the California Botanic Garden asking Kew Director Sir Arthur William Hill for instructions on botanical matters. Throughout the year, many movie stars, celebrities and dignitaries continued to plant trees in the 'forest of fame' to commemorate their visits.

Mary Pickford planting the first tree (Photo courtesy USC Digital Library)

The Depression

Unfortunately, the timing couldn't have been worse as the Wall Street Crash, the stock market crash of 1929, and the subsequent Great Depression meant it was difficult for the garden to sell off the properties it had already built and slowed down the development of new homes. The mortgage demands were too great: the garden managed to survive for a few years but, sadly, closed its gates permanently in 1935. The bond-holders took control of the entire 3,200 acres and renamed the land a 'Botanic Garden Park'. Most of the canyon floor was divided up and sold off individually as country estates.

The present

The base of Santa Monica Mountains is now home to Brentwood, an affluent neighbourhood in L.A., a stone's throw from Beverly Hills and Santa Monica bay.

Country estate in Mandeville Canyon (Photo courtesy Mark Singer photography)

The California Botanic Garden's exotic plants and specimens, imported from around the globe, are still there today but are now hidden among the back gardens of celebrities and the super-rich.

Mandeville Canyon is home to Hollywood film stars such as Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Some of their neighbours included the likes of Steven Segal, and Mandeville Canyon was once home to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Recent divorcees Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin bought a house in the Canyon in 2012 which is worth 10.45 million dollars! For this rather hefty sum the residents enjoy a variety of magnificent vegetation such as huge Redwoods, ferns, palms and fruits such as papayas and an abundance of wildlife including coyotes, mountain lions, deer, and roadrunner birds.

The California Botanic Garden once held the promise of being globally recognised and scientifically important. Sadly, it is now a forgotten place but, although the Garden is gone, its incredible story still lives on in the DC collection in Kew's archive.

- Jon -

Keep up to date with the DC project via our twitter feed @kewDC.

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