Kate Sessions 1857-1940

Kate Sessions  1857-1940

Katherine Olivia Sessions was born on Nob Hill in San Francisco November 8, 1857. After graduation from high school in Oakland, she spent two months traveling with family friends in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). After a brief time in business college, she entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1877, where she studied science and graduated in 1881. Her essay for graduation was entitled "The Natural Sciences as a Field for Women's Labor".

Miss Sessions' horticultural career began after teaching briefly in San Diego where she accepted a position in 1884. She accepted a teaching position in San Gabriel, but returned to San Diego after a short time there. In 1885, she joined her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Solon Blaisdell, as partner in a new venture -- the purchase of the San Diego Nursery.

As owner of a flower shop and a succession of nurseries in Coronado, City Park, Mission Hills and Pacific Beach, she became a central figure in California and national horticultural circles with her landscaping, plant introductions, and classes. She published articles in newspapers and in California Garden, the publication of the San Diego Floral Association, which Miss Sessions helped to found in 1906. Appointed supervisor of agriculture and landscaper for the city schools in 1915, she taught horticulture and botany to the schoolchildren and supervised their school gardens traveling from one school to another during the year.

Kate Sessions' correspondence with leaders in the field of horticulture kept her current with new discoveries and spread her knowledge and reputation. Her work in plant introduction won for her international recognition and, in 1939, she was awarded the prestigious Frank N. Meyer medal of the American Genetic Association. She was the first woman to receive the award.

It is in Balboa Park that the legacy of Kate Sessions is most obvious. She leased land in what was then called "City Park" in 1892 for a nursery. For this privilege, she was to plant one hundred trees a year in the park and furnish three hundred more for planting throughout the city. In 1902 she was instrumental in the formation of the park Improvement Committee with her friends George Marston and Mary B. Coulston. Their work resulted in assuring the park's place in the life of the community.

Kate Sessions died March 24, 1940. She has come to be called the "Mother of Balboa Park" and a bronze statue of her was erected there in 1998.

Never having had children, she once wrote to her longtime friend, the renowned botanist, Alice Eastwood:

Our friendship developed through flowers...our children, which I am growing and you are naming.

Kate Sessions is remembered through these and other SDHC Oral Histories:

  • Frank Antonicelli tells of Kate bringing his father from Italy to work at the Mission Hills Nursery, which she sold to his father in 1922 (interviewed 11/20/1985 by Craig Carter)
  • Milton Sessions tells of his father and his Aunt Kate growing poinsettias at their Mission Hills Nursery and of the Tipuana tree, shown below, which she planted at her Pacific Beach nursery.


Photograph by John Rojas

Tipuana tipu tree planted by Kate Sessions
still stands on the former site of her nursery at
Garnet and Pico in Pacific Beach, and is
now a California Registered Historical Landmark

Further reading is available from our SDHC gift shop.