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History of San Diego Botanic Garden


San Diego Botanic Garden

Each year San Diego Botanic Garden is visited by thousands of people from around the world who enjoy the scenic trails and inspiring vistas of this nationally recognized botanic garden. The history of Encinitas would not be complete without mention of this crown jewel and the visionary people behind the 37 acre urban retreat.

In the early 1900s, the Garden’s roots consisted of two parcels of land on a sandstone ridge with a view of the Pacific Ocean, and canyons and mesas covered primarily in southern maritime chaparral. Those parcels were never part of a Mexican rancho, but occupied uncontested land available to homesteaders after California won independence from Mexico. Barley was grown in some sections of the land by early residents.

In 1917, the first parcel of 16.5 acres was purchased by Donald and Nan Ingersoll, who built a small ranch house on its hilltop. Ingersoll was in partnership with developer J. Frank Cullen, who built much of Cardiff-by-the-Sea in Encinitas. The next occupant, Holland immigrant Anton van Amersfoort, was a successful landowner and avocado farmer who lived here from 1923 to 1943. The second parcel of 10 acres was owned by German immigrant Herman Seidler.

In 1942 and 1943, Ruth Baird Larabee acquired both parcels, and she and her husband Charles Wright Larabee brought their love for Latin cultures and their Midwestern aesthetic to the homestead. They were a well-educated, independently wealthy couple in their 40s who abandoned their privileged lifestyle in Kansas City for a taste of adventure. This slice of rural San Diego, with its ideal growing climate and rustic ranch house probably perfectly suited the couple, whose shared passions included gardening and exploring the Southwest.

The Larabees were unconventional transplants in this particular Encinitas coastal community. Their immediate neighbor, German poinsettia hybridizer Paul Ecke, Sr., inspired a large migration of growers here to cultivate exotic flowers, and by the mid-to-late 20th century the area was dubbed the “Flower Capital of the World.” But Ruth and Charles were early conservationists, and over a whirlwind seven years they developed a stunningly beautiful, primarily low water landscape with over 200 different species of trees, shrubs, cacti and succulents, many from Mexico and South America. Ruth typically began work in the garden at sunrise, dressed in her trademark overalls and green rubber boots. Under the Larabee’s stewardship the ranch rapidly developed into what Ruth christened “El Rancho San Ysidro de las Flores.”

They were also civic minded people, and though childless themselves, the Larabees each devoted time to sharing the outdoors with high school scouting groups, sowing the seeds for the Garden’s present day commitment to education.
After she and Charles divorced in 1950, Ruth remained alone at the ranch until 1957, when she generously deeded her 22.3 acres of land to the County of San Diego as a park to preserve the habitat of the resident California quails. Its potential as a botanic garden was later realized by a group of committed founders, among them board presidents Florence Seibert and Julia von Preissig, and local horticulturists Horace Anderson, Paul Ecke, Sr., and Mildred Macpherson. Finally, in 1970 Quail Botanic Gardens officially opened its gates to the public.

Today the renamed San Diego Botanic Garden is designated one of the “Top 10 North American Gardens Worth Traveling For” by the American Gardens Association. Four miles of trails wind through its 29 uniquely themed gardens, among them a tropical rain forest, a bamboo garden, and regional desert landscapes. Together with two acclaimed children’s gardens and the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory, it’s a hub for horticulture, conservation, education, and events. And thanks to the foresight of its founders, the Garden will continue to play a vital role in the growth and development of San Diego for years to come.

Cultivating Their Place in History
A brief record of the life of Ruth and Charles Larabee, who originated San Diego Botanic Garden.

Sowing Seeds of Wonder
The Stories of Ruth and Charles Larabee, and the Origins of San Diego Botanic Garden, by Sally Sandler.This 200-page book is for sale in The Garden Shops at SDBG, and it can be ordered through amazon.com.

Historical Timeline (PDF FILE)
Significant dates in the Garden’s history, from before the Larabees to the present time.

A Gift and a Puzzle
Explains how the land evolved from the concept of a park in 1957 to the botanic garden that opened in 1970.

Development of San Diego Botanic Garden
Tracks the Garden’s growth from the opening of Quail Park Botanic Garden in 1970 to the 37 acre urban oasis of today.

Legacy of the Ecke Ranch (Download PDF FILE)
Contributions and histories of the unique people who lived near the Ecke Ranch, 1880-1960. The Ecke Ranch (now the Leichtag Foundation) was immediately adjacent to San Diego Botanic Garden, and they shared a similar legacy.

Garden History 101 (Download PDF FILE)
Nuggets of history shared at the volunteer general meetings.  

Other Significant People in the History of San Diego Botanic Garden
(More biographies will be added as they become available.)

• Gerald Cullison

Peter Cuthbert

Paul Ecke, Sr.

Mildred Macpherson

P.J. Miller 

Bill Teague

Anton van Amersfoort

Julia von Preissig

Gilbert Voss

Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb