Our gardens reflect who we are. Some of us plant edibles while others fill their gardens with fragrance. Some concentrate on native plants, attracting hummingbirds and wildlife while others have a bit of everything.
Our area is rich in history. I love to look at old photos and try to identify what the early settlers planted around their homes in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Most of this area was heavily forested until the late 1800’s. Boulder Creek, in 1899, was the 5th largest shipper of timber in the entire country. Quarry operations also used forest trees and shrubs to fuel the lime kilns. Early logging techniques were very hard on the environment. Clear cutting was common and included the understory madrone and tan oak. After the removal of the broadleaf trees, the conifers were cut, to be followed by burning. To clear the bark from the logs and thin the shrub growth to facilitate with log removal, a fire was set. This first fire in itself was no problem since the trees could and would re-sprout from the base. But after removal of the logs by ox team, another fire was set and since these fires were uncontrolled, they would burn surrounding areas as well. The result was a sequence of fires that would kill the growing sprouts and saplings and allow invasion of shrubs, thus delaying the natural reforestation. Burning plus severe soil erosion at times so damaged the land that it could no longer support trees. In other areas the forest did not return until a long successional sequence of brushland to woodland to forest had occurred.
So what could a woman do to make a house a home back in those days? Many settlers arrived from the east coast, the midwest and Europe and brought with them seeds and starts of plants. As early as 1871 nurseries in San Francisco were importing plants such as pittosporum tenuifolium and the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco allowed many more plants to become available to homeowners. Hebes from New Zealand were all the rage. The brochure for this world fair describes a Palace of Horticulture and Tower of Jewels as …" a great garden, itself, a marvel of landscape engineering skill… one side of a magic carpet on which these beautiful palaces are set with its floricultural splendors for a wondrous beauty, has never been equaled."
My interest in early local horticulture started after looking at a friends family photographs from the turn of the century. His family had a resort with a natural spring and rock-lined forest paths close to Hwy 9 in south Felton. This was very near the Big Tree Grove resort ( now Toll House ) that opened in 1867. I remember looking at the photos and marveling at all the flowers surrounding the dwelling. The redwood trees have now grown back but at that time there was lots of sunshine, a by product of clear cutting. I could see roses, lilacs and shasta daisies in the photo surrounding the wrap around porch.
Landscaping in the Santa Cruz mountains in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s could be lush or sparse depending on the location and logging activities. A picture from the 1880s of the Harmon cabin off Hwy 9 shows many palms that look like Canary Island date palms. Perhaps they were imported from a nursery in San Francisco and brought down here by railroad. The landscaping is lush and full of plants.
Pictures of the Locatelli barn in 1892 near the grammar school in Boulder Creek, however, show the hills nearly clear cut. Railroad tracks at that time ran right through downtown. Simple houses with picket fences were located very near the tracks and these yards had no trees, shrubs or flowers at all. It must have been quite hot for them in the summertime.
By 1905, residents of the area had settled in and planted fruit trees, vegetables and ornamentals. A photograph of a chicken ranch on Huckleberry Island shows lots of landscaping around the house. Certainly the available chicken fertilizer helped the roses and wisteria that appear in the pictures to bloom.
Up on Alba Rd. in Ben Lomond, the J.N. Walters family grew strawberries and peaches. Photos taken in 1915 show palms, and hollyhocks in their yard. Out on Bear Creek Rd., the Ercoli villa featured yucca which I saw in many other photographs. Most likely they originated from the deserts in the southern California and Mexico and were brought north by the missionaries.
California fan palms and canna lilies appear in many landscapes. The Middleton house in Boulder Creek was heavily planted with native western sword ferns. Black locust trees planted for their fragrance and flowers are still seen here today where they have naturalized. Originally planted for erosion control, particularly on strip mined areas, their durable timber was used for homes.
The 1915 Panama Pacific Expo introduced more plants to the public. In 1916, construction of a home in Brookdale featured timber, flooring and doors shipped from the expo to this area by Southern Pacific railroad. When the house was finished in 1926, photographs show a beautiful home surrounded by hollyhocks, roses and wisteria.
Also in the museum archives are the scrapbooks of the Valley Floral Club, later called the Valley Garden Club. Dating back to 1947 they contain old newspaper clippings as well as the minutes of monthly meetings, details of various speakers and pictures of plants and members. One old clipping from 1928 shows as ad for "Calif. Redwood Burl Ferns " for 75 cents that were a ..".guaranteed curiosity in any home for several years".
That’s my trip down the memory lane of horticulture. Many thanks to Linda Phillips and Maya Caldwell from the SLV Museum for their help in researching this information.
If you have any of these plants in your garden, remember the early settlers enjoyed them also. You might even plants a for the fun of it.