Cal Hort – The First 31 Years

From the California Horticultural Society Journal, October 1961, Vol 25, No 4
25th Anniversary Issue, 1940-1964

This issue of the Journal marks the completion of its twenty-fifth year of publication. Much could possibly be written of its past history with flowery words of commendation for the efforts of its past Editors but it seems to your present Editor that the Journal speaks for itself, and for them. The fact that the Society’s Council has each year seen fit to continue to budget its cost leads us to the happy conclusion that the purpose of the Journal, “to supply the California gardener with a publication in which educational information of serious horticultural value is recorded” — has been, and, we hope, still is being accomplished.

To commemorate this Silver Anniversary, it was thought fitting to include an account of the history and past accomplishments of the Society, and who is better equipped to write such an article than Victor Reiter, Jr., with his background of continuous concern for the Society?

Owen Pearce, Editor
© Copyright 1964 by the California Horticultural Society
Victor Reiter Jr (George Waters)
Victor Reiter Jr.
(photo by George Waters)

Victor Reiter, Jr.

In commemoration of our Journal’s organizations with minimal dosages quarter-century of publication, I was asked to prepare a brief history of its publisher, the thirty-one year-old California Horticultural Society.

At the very outset a decision had to be made. Was the history to be a chronicle about people, or about the evolutionary development of our organization, avoiding personal recognitions and specifics when possible? I have chosen the latter approach because credits are sometimes misplaced or overlooked in a society such as ours, where the membership’s endeavors for the organization and its purposes are so self-effacing. Then, too, the objectives of the society and its continuing evolution – its hopes and disappointments — are the important heritage left to us by our devoted leaders and workers of the past.

In its early years, a young member named Victor Reiter, Jr., was asked to prepare an article about the California Horticultural Society for the February 15, 1937 issue of the Womens City Club Magazine (San Francisco). At that time, our Society held a monthly dinner at the Women’s City Club. The article was intended to acquaint the City Club ladies with our purpose and to somewhat appease their curiosity regarding the strange plant people who made a monthly descent on their quiet institution, laden with plants and bubbling with enthusiasm.

In reading the extracts from the 1937 article which will follow, we must bear in mind that this group was a youthful organization steeped in hope, purpose and zeal. Many of them had participated as members or speakers in the activities of “garden clubs” of the ’20’s and ’30’s. These were somewhat social-clubbish organizations with minimal dosages of horticulture. To serious plantsmen, these clubs were most depressing and we of “Cal Hort” were convinced that ours was the responsibility to show the way.

Quoting from the 1937 article:

Big Freeze 1932 (Calisphere)
The ‘Big Freeze’
( collection)

The Nebula
Like so many other worthwhile enterprises, the California Horticultural Society is traceable directly to adversity, in this case the Big Freeze of December, 1932. The unprecedented icy blasts from out of the Arctic swept over Northern California leaving its gardens ravaged and its gardeners broken hearted.

There were at that time many keen plantsmen in the Bay Region who, because of the advanced or specialized character of their hobby, had never found a garden organization capable of holding their allegiance. They contended that the serious study of plants and scientific horticulture were incompatible with club politics and elementary gardening principles. Most of the clan was mutually acquainted but they had made no effort to share their experience through the convenience of an organization.

Probably no group suffered the marrow-chilling cold of that December more keenly than these enthusiasts. To them it not only meant the disfigurement of their gardens but in many cases the irreparable loss of historical specimens and rare new collections of untried plant materials.

The Idea
Credit goes to James West as the first to conquer his gardening melancholia and to look to the horticultural future. He felt that these plants should not have died in vain and with characteristic conscientiousness set out to record the results of that icy holocaust. In cooperation with Mrs. Cabot Brown and Mrs. Helen Van Pelt, he undertook to arouse the gardening gentry out of its dejection sufficiently to attend “A Symposium on the Frost.” Mrs. Brown graciously offered the facilities of her home in San Francisco and the grape-vine telegraph flashed the news around the bay that a frost meeting would be held in January.

The Big Freeze drove the dirt-gardeners out of their burrows most successfully. Seventy persons responded to the call and not only was the attendance gratifying but it also represented the important personalities of the region.

The spontaneous spirit of that first gathering was unquenchable. A thorough analysis into the hardiness of affected plants and the regional intensity of the cold was completed but the pressure of enthusiasm carried the gathering on into the small hours. Its work done, the group refused to disband and it was finally decided to hold further meetings. From these subsequent gatherings the CHS evolved.

The Plant Materialists Are Born
On May 11, 1933, the second meeting, a dinner, was held at Il Trovatore, on Montgomery Street. The decidedly Bohemian atmosphere included the caterwaulings of other restaurant guests and the competition of heavy crockery. The management, realizing our dilemma, supplied an empty upstairs room into which we were able to squeeze part our membership and from whose door casement the gathering was addressed. From the embrasure of this doorway our first plant material was displayed. Here, the decision to perpetuate the group was definitely determined and thereafter we marched forward under a strange title, The Plant Materialists.

The Plant Materialists Organize
No definite organization had been contemplated and the Materialists apparently hoped to operate as an ideal anarchistic body, a group with infinite spirit, no objectives and with a very nebulous outlook. The third meeting, however, proved the turning point. After a botanical tour of Golden Gate Park, conducted by Mr. Eric Walther, dinner at the Koffee Kup and an evening meeting with Miss Alice Eastwood, in the Herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences, an entry in the minutes of The Plant Materialists shows the election of an “Informal” Board of Directors. Thanks to the vision of this first Board the present Society was conceived.

Enthusiasm Gives Way to Purpose
The fourth meeting was again held at Il Trovatore but somehow the Bohemian spirit was waning, the Big Freeze was passing into history and our meeting place was losing its glamor. In short, The Plant Materialists were getting cold on our hands. The time had arrived when the group must either have a purpose or accept the shroud.

Sydney B Mitchell
Sydney B Mitchell

Thanks to Sydney B. Mitchell’s leadership, the place of meeting was shifted to a downtown hotel where conditions were more suitable and our speakers had less extraneous competition. After holding two reasonably successful meetings here the Society migrated to its present location, the Women’s Gity Club, where it now holds its ten annual dinners.

While the membership was being accommodated more satisfactorily the Board of Directors drew up a constitution, changed the name of the group to The California Horticultural Society and imbued the entire movement with a purpose. The reorganized leadership, now called the Officers and Council, was looking forward to filling the need in Central California for an authoritative serious-minded horticultural group. Mr. Mitchell and several members of the Council who were aware of the splendid work done by the Royal Horticultural Society of London felt that it might not be amiss to pattern some of the features of our fledgling after that great organization whose objective is the advancement of horticulture in all its branches.

The Meetings
From its very inception the Society held to certain fundamental principles in conducting its meetings:

The Council has never bored its membership with futile discussions on policy and organization. Budgets, constitutions, by-laws and the rest of this time-consuming impedimenta were relegated to the Council leaving the general meetings free for horticultural discussion.

The study of plants, particularly new items, and their application to garden ornamentation has always been the important feature of the meetings. Specimens of new plants brought by members are discussed in a most informal manner and it is no uncommon occurrence to have a speaker brandishing a specimen while answering questions posed by other members. The Council feels that this spirit of instructive informality is our most precious heritage from The Plant Materialists and we all hope the CHS will continue to attract the superior type of well-informed membership that makes these discussions practicable.

We are all emphatically opposed to the reading of elementary cribbed papers and, although organized talks and special features have been included to augment the general discussions, there is no intention of allowing the collective membership to submerge its own important contribution.

With the continued increase in membership the problem of planning and arranging meetings became increasingly involved and Mr. Robert E. Saxe was persuaded to organize and take over the chairmanship of a Program Committee. Mr. Victor Reiter, Jr. accepted the task of creating a Plant Material Board to give the informal “Plant Materialist” phase more effectiveness.

Thanks to Mr. Saxe’s efforts the meetings were smoothed out, programs were mapped, interesting speakers were contacted and the general routine was given a consistent policy whose success is evidenced by ever increasing attendance.
In order to retain the spontaneity of the Plant Materialists, the meetings were divided into two parts, first the more formal discussions which are conducted during the earlier part of the evening and second the informal plant material period when the seasonal flowers brought to the meetings are discussed.

The organization of this second period proved a delicate task. The problem was to conduct the study of the heterogeneous mass of plant material brought by members in such a way that informality would be retained while expanding the usefulness of the period.

To expedite matters a Plant Materials Board consisting of willing and capable members was created 1) to handle the material with dispatch and efficiency. 2) to keep the discussion on a high level by discussing the facts disclosed authoritatively and 3) to serve members before and after meetings in answering the simple problems not important enough for general discussion. It seems to work. (It still does).

Oakland Spring Garden Show (postcard)

The City Club article continues by describing various committees: Dr. Emmet Rixford’s (Plant) Record Committee, the Show Committee’s participation in the Oakland Spring Garden Show under the leadership Mrs. Cabot Brown, the formation of an award committee which consisted of Dr. Sydney B. Mitchell, H. M. Butterfield, Dr. Emmet Rixford, Mrs. J. D. Scannavino and Eric Walther. James West could not serve because he was plant collecting in South America for the Botanical Garden of the University of California. However, the most important note, at least to this Journal is the one on the Publication Committee.

The Publication Committee
The Society’s newest brain child, the Publication Committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Saxton T. Pope. Jr., is just hatching. The two preliminary leaflets already distributed to members were well received and regular publications are contemplated this year.

The Society’s greatest gift to horticulture, The Journal of the California Horticultural Society, was to spring from these leaflets three years later. Dr. Mitchell, our president, was already planning.

On reading the yellowing pages of the 1937 article one is struck by the continuity of policy which has been followed by the CHS since these early dinner meeting days. Soon after this City Club article was written, the membership swelled beyond any reasonable club or restaurant facilities and dinner meetings had to be abandoned.
We then moved to the San Francisco Commercial Club on California St., below Montgomery, where the procedure at our meetings was further refined to almost the exact pattern of our present meetings.

The CHS had created a distinct new kind of gardening society that conducted meetings without business, minutes, raffles and even without the petty rivalries characteristic of small organizations. We had assumed that our members were interested in plants and that sound experience and knowledge shared among enthusiasts would be profitable to California horticulture and our membership. The Society intended to serve as a medium for sharing and encouraging progress in horticulture and nothing else. We wished to serve “dirt gardeners” whose sights were raised to inquisitive levels in the areas of botany, ecology, genetics, nursery practicums and all the other challenging facets of our “hobby” or profession.

Dispensing with the dinners actually intensified the spirit at our meetings and this early Commercial Club era could be called the “Golden Age” of our society. In the pre-war years there was a horticultural fervor among professionals and amateurs which has abated in this age of the computer.

The leveling of society and the more equable sharing of wealth has eliminated exploitable garden labor, garden plots have diminished in size and, in our complex busy world, less time can be budgeted for the chores and the study demanded by a garden hobby. The purveyors to our hobby, the nurserymen, have been forced into becoming cost conscious specialists and rare indeed is the nurseryman who can still concern himself with the collector and the niceties of advanced horticulture.

During the Commercial Club era, the guiding council of our Society was a devoted group – as it is today. They approached horticulture with a reverent attitude and to them the Society bearing the title “California Horticulture” was a weighty responsibility.
This paper is not intended to be a chronicle about people, but we cannot pass this point without giving recognition to two individuals.

The primary architect of our Society was unquestionably the late Professor Sydney B. Mitchell, Dean of the Library School at the University of California, Berkeley, and fondly called the Dean of Western Horticulture. He was our first president and the first editor of our Journal, but most of all, it was his sober, organized judgment and his high standards which formulated and guided the basic policies underlying the California Horticultural Society. Without Dr. Mitchell and his wife, the transition from the Plant Materialists into our present Society could never have materialized.

Another credit must go to the late Cora Brandt, who served as Honorary Secretary for many years, including the trying war period. Under her auspices, the Society opened an embryonic “library” in 1941, at 300 Montgomery Street, near our meeting hall. She organized the affairs of the Society into a complete, smooth-running operation. capable of handling any potential growth.

From her office, substantial correspondence kept the Society in close contact with islands of horticultural interest all over the world. This nucleus of stability kept us on course during the difficult post-war years and to Miss Brandt we owe our continuity. No single person in the California Horticultural Society has given more, with greater purpose, than did Miss Cora Brandt.

It has been mentioned that there was a lively organization of high order during the Commercial Club years with a very talented leadership. The late war years robbed us of our formative enthusiasms and the post-war aftermath called for the kindling of a new spirit. There would never be a resurgence of the old days. The world of horticulture was changing and a group of happy Plant Materialists could never again create a Cal Hort. In the midst of these shifting values, we were forced to move our meeting place. Rising overhead costs at the Commercial Club made our tenancy impractical and the orphaned CHS was on the street. Fortunately, the California Academy of Sciences made their Morrison Auditorium available to us and there we have remained. Some memberships were lost in the shift, as is usually the case, and there was a period of deficit budgeting. An office with paid part-time assistance was opened in the Academy, but the rising costs of Journal publication and the loss of membership demanded realistic economics. A choice was made and the office was eventually closed, but the Journal was continued, thanks to the then editor, Dr. Donald Pratt, whose tremendous personal sacrifice of time, effort and money maintained the Journal during its uncertain hours.

As we have already indicated, our Society is not endowed, nor has it any outside source of revenues. It is a bootstrap operation and its revenues, almost entirely from dues, are absorbed in the Journal and in the operation of its general meetings. There is no public trough and no substantial gifts to lighten the load; nor has the Society ever indulged in drives or other solicitations.

Ours is a group that must budget its funds carefully to accomplish its objectives and maintain a secure solvency. This calls for devoted officers, councilors, committees and general members, all willing to share their time and wisdom for the operation of the Society.

In the early Academy days, the reforming pattern of the group made the problem of this “do it yourself” organization most acute and at this point, I wish again to mention two members who were essential to us in bridging our changing worlds.

Elizabeth McClintock (photo by Imogen Cunningham)
Elizabeth McClintock
(photo by Imogen Cunningham)

Elizabeth McClintock served as Secretary during these shaky transitional years. Hers was the problem of bridging the period which saw the complex routine management created by the retiring Miss Brandt change to the retracted operation of the new regime. Simultaneously, she served in her botanical capacity, filling the void left by Eric Walther when his manifold duties as Director of Strybing Arboretum overwhelmed his other activities. Dr. McClintock carried us through and her authoritative knowledge makes the botanical information at our meetings and in our monthly bulletin indispensable to to the serious student.

Mr. Ernest Wertheim is the other post-war name I have chosen to recognize. We can remember Ernest as a nice young member of our Society in the pre-war years but when he came back as a military officer and a full-fledged landscape architect, he was ready to lead in the reconstruction of Cal Hort. In the interest of the Society, which he has served as President and as a councilor, he is indefatigable and his dynamic example has pushed and driven us relentlessly toward now goals and purposes. He was certainly not alone in this effort, but he is an outstanding example of dedication to the Society in the post-war years.

The continued fashioning of the old and the new CHS is the result of many minds and the resolved conflicts of viewpoints. The Council has never been a docile group following a strong leader. It has been, rather, a group representing the multiple opinions of the membership. However, it has always had the faculty of resolving problems into a constant logical pattern, acceptable to the old and the ever-changing new directions.

The thirty-one year old Society has come a long way since the Plant Materialists. It has had great expectations and great disappointments; it has weathered a great war and continuing social changes; and it has seen the rise of new organizations patterned after its format. Yet, today, it still has a membership of enthusiastic plant lovers who enjoy the same sparkling meetings that have been its hallmark. It still continues, after twenty-five years of effort, at great financial sacrifice, to publish the Journal with volunteer editors, committee, contributors and staff! Its library, now available in the Maillard Library of the California Academy of Sciences, continues to add volumes, and its monthly bulletins keep adding additional plant names to the long list of those exhibited at our meetings.

Now operating under a tax-exempt constitution, the California Horticultural Society still remains the great plant society of central California. It has abandoned projects and espoused others and its leadership has changed with the ticking years, but its spirit and purpose continue unchanged. The open curiosity and the love of living plants in nature and in the garden are still paramount.

Too often organizations reach their twilight years in the twilight of their founders. Bridging generations and infusing new blood while retaining the wisdom of old experience is seldom accomplished in gardening groups. In the immediate post-war years our society showed the absence of younger people to carry on and the author was deeply concerned for the future. He feared that interest in serious horticulture was waning and that the CHS was destined to follow the all too common pattern of age isolation. However, to everyone’s delight, younger faces appeared at our meetings and now in 1964 we see a society of all maturities in both sexes, some giving, some learning and all enjoying the marvels of earth’s green mantle.

This has not come by chance. We have attracted young people because the Society’s spirit has remained young. It continues its ageless interest in horticultural subjects and these young people recognize this area of common interest. It is true that trends have shifted in our thirty-one years, as they should, but at Cal Hort “The plant is (still) the thing”.

Earlier in this paper we noted social changes that have modified the tone of the Society. Today, even the small estate owner is rare, his gifted gardeners are almost extinct and most of his nurserymen suppliers have sold their lands to developers. Consequently, although the bulk of our membership is still recruited from among gardening enthusiasts and nurserymen, our professional membership has been greatly enlarged. It has shifted more toward the personnel of Parks, State Bureaus, Botanical Gardens, Universities and Horticultural Foundations. In addition to the shift from private to state-employed members, there has also been the shift toward landscape design. The end use of plants has become a more important segment of our curiosity and the landscape architect now stands alongside the botanist and the plantsman. Closer ties have been developed with local universities, drawing professors and students into our entourage, maintaining the spirit of youth and awareness so essential to a purposeful organization.

Today the flexible old society continues to serve a new generation and its future depends on the strong shoulders of younger dreamers.

© Copyright 1964 by the California Horticultural Society