This article was orginally published in Pacific Horticulture, v62 n4, Oct/Nov/Dec 2001
By Frederick Coe
In 1932, the vagaries of our usually stable Bay Area weather led to the founding of the California Horticultural Society. That winter, a mass of cold air drove temperatures well below freezing for a number of days in early December; the ground froze several inches deep in shaded areas. Many plants, including established trees, were damaged or killed outright.
A number of horticulturally minded people affected by the freeze—nurserymen, estate owners and their gardeners, academics from the University of California at Berkeley, and backyard gardeners—gathered in a North Beach restaurant to assess the damage. After a few meetings, rapport was established and a permanent society emerged as the California Horticultural Society, usually known today as Cal Hort.
In the early days, the monthly meetings featured a lecturer on plants or culture, followed by a show-and-tell of unusual plants, and ending with a plant sale. Before WWII, large estates on the peninsula had full-time gardeners and sent large quantities of unusual plants for display and discussion. Both Golden Gate Park and the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley provided plants as well. Study groups were organized for different kinds of plants; these groups gave lectures on their findings. Occasional field trips were scheduled to private or botanical gardens, as well as to specialty nurseries.
In 1936, Cal Hort began giving awards of merit for plants exhibited at meetings; many of the exhibitors would play a significant role in the history of West Coast horticulture: Sydney B Mitchell of UC Berkeley, EO Orpet of Santa Barbara, Victor Reiter, Jr of San Francisco, and Toichi Domoto of Hayward. To date, over 6000 plants have received recognition.
As the organization grew in numbers, the downtown dinner meetings of the early years gave way to regular monthly meetings at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, where Cal Hort continues* to meet on the third Monday of each month.
In 1940, the society began publishing the quarterly Journal of the California Horticultural Society, edited by Sydney Mitchell; he was followed in that role by Cora Brandt and Donald Pratt. The journal’s name was changed to California Horticultural Journal in 1963, with Owen Pearce as editor; Owen continued as editor and provided many photographs for the cover and for articles until the launching of Pacific Horticulture in 1976.
Victor Reiter, Jr guided the society from its founding until his death. He held many official positions including president and was a founder in 1968 of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation. Eric Walther, first director of Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens [now the SF Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum], played a leading role in the founding of Cal Hort and was an ardent supporter of the journal and contributor to the meetings. Elizabeth McClintock played a large part in the society, acting as botanical editor for the journals and contributing numerous articles over the years.
Other individuals who have been closely associated with Cal Hort include: James West of the UC Botanical Gardens, and his close friend, photographer Imogen Cunningham; San Francisco landscape architect Ernest Wertheim; nurseryman Ed Carman of Los Gatos; nurserymen and hybridizers Frank Reinelt and William Schmidt; and Margedant Hayakawa, editor of Fremontia and a founder of Pacific Horticultural Foundation.
In the late 1980s, the membership decided to take a more active role in improving horticulture in the Bay Area by establishing an annual program of scholarships and grants for research, publications, and public garden development.
Written descriptions of the plants brought in for exhibition and discussion at each meeting have appeared regularly in the monthly newsletter of the society. The thousands of plant descriptions have now been gathered, organized, and placed on a CD-ROM by member Richard Wagner; this exceptional record of plant grown in the Bay Area is available through the society’s website.† With the advent of digital photography, newletter editor Bruce Peters now places images and decriptions of plants shown at each meeting on the Cal Hort website.‡
The best way to trace the life and growth of our organization is the browse through the two magazines that have followed its course.§ The Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture at Strybing Arboretum has complete sets of both series and any number of pleasant hours can be spent looking through the articles contributed over the years.