There is nothing quite as uplifting as a Los Angeles park on a holiday weekend. Under the shade of tall trees, clusters of Angelenos gather to cook, play, and relax. Barbeque smoke rises, and the smell of grilled food seems to season the air. Many folks play soccer, cornhole, horseshoes, and other communal games. The trees themselves are used for a wide variety of purposes -- piñatas hang from the branches, and children's decorations mingle with the leaves. Hammocks are strung between two strong trunks and swing gently in the breeze. Children dart and shriek around the hammocks, but they rarely seem able to disturb the adults lying in them.
On July 5, the sea of celebration at Elysian Park made it difficult for me to find what I was looking for. To the untrained eye, one rolling hill of green grass and trees can look much like the other, especially when it is covered in people. When I finally found the Chavez Ravine Arboretum (near the Grace E. Simons Lodge), it was not what I expected. It looked like every other part of the sprawling park, which hugs Dodger Stadium in the hills above Echo Park. But when I finally looked past the people and up to the trees, I began to appreciate the wide variety of specimens before me. I was standing in the oldest arboretum in Los Angeles, started in 1893 by a group of pioneering horticulturists who wanted to create an impressive "breathing space" for everyday Angelenos. The grounds may not be quite as exceptional and grand as they had dreamed, but one imagines that the sight of hundreds of people enjoying themselves in nature would make them very happy indeed.
Wild Waste Among the Hills
For a long time this rough land was considered almost worthless, and was finally set aside by the city under the name of Elysian Park on April 5, 1886. Mayor Hazard, coming into office, became enthusiastic over the prospect offered by the ground as a public place of resort, and immediately set about in the endeavor to secure appropriation or assistance for that purpose. First of all, he advocated the planting of trees on the hillsides, but his idea was laughed at as absurd, for neither the Park Commissioners nor the council could be brought to believe that trees would grow in that soil without water. When it was demonstrated that they would grow, and thrive, too, one step was made toward the desired end, but the Mayor realized that his plan would not succeed without a roadway leading through and over the ground...Los Angeles Times, January 1 1893 1
By the early 1880s, Los Angeles' leaders were already worrying about the city's lack of public parks. The massive economic boom had made open land scarce within the heart of the city. Urban parks, including Westlake Park, Echo Park, Central Park, and Hollenbeck Park, were increasingly packed with Angelenos desperate for fresh air and amusement. In 1886, a new park called Elysian Park was fashioned out of 500 acres of "unfashionable" land in the "unfashionable" northwestern part of the city. There were rumors that the park had been created simply because the city thought the barren land was worthless and saw it as a way to increase property value in the area. Many politicians denounced improvements made to the site as a waste of public money. However, the fledgling park had many powerful supporters, including former mayor Henry Hazard and the bullish editorial staff at the Los Angeles Times.
By the beginning of 1893, over 150,000 trees had been planted. On New Year's Day 1893, a triumphal procession of carriages traveled from downtown to the opening of the new Camino Del Burro (Elysian Park Boulevard), which ran through the length of park. The Los Angeles Times described the scene:
Those who rode over the gradual incline of the roadway enjoying the sights yesterday, throughout the length of the big park, saw only the pleasant features, without fully realizing what an amount of time and energy, yes, and even tact, has been called into play to render those hilly acres accessible, and make possible the scheme of converting the same into a picture of beauty rather than one of bareness. 2
The Boulevard's construction had a dramatic effect on the park's popularity. Only ten days after Camino Del Burro's formal opening, the L.A. Times reported:
The people are beginning to understand that there is a park, known as Elysian Park, in the northwestern part of the city. Before the opening, a few days ago, a very small portion of the citizens of Los Angeles had ever heard of the place...since the attention of the public has been called to the scenic wonders of Elysian Park it is becoming a very popular drive. Over two hundred carriages were driven through the park last Sunday afternoon. 3
These carriage rides could be precarious journeys. The park was still mostly wild and ungoverned and hunters frequently stalked the grounds looking for mountain lions and other wild game. One man was shot in the arm by an errant bullet while out on a drive with his wife and children, and a Times reporter recorded that bullets had also whizzed by his head. Water, that constant thorn in L.A.'s side, also proved to be a consistent barrier to the park's success. In June, the Park Commission urgently requested $600 from the city council to water young trees in the park, who were in great danger of dying of thirst.
But the Los Angeles Times continued to promote the improvement of the park, despite its problems. The usual L.A. insecurities were evident in the insistent boosterism -- if the East Coast and Europe had great city parks, then by golly, Los Angeles should too!
What we want in Los Angeles is not so much a fashionable resort for society people, but a large breathing place where the mass of citizens can take their families and lunch baskets on Sundays and holidays and enjoy themselves under the trees. The need for such a park increases from year to year, as the city becomes more densely populated. It is indeed a disgrace to Los Angeles that with her wonderful climactic advantages, scarcely anything has yet been done in the way of establishing a park similar to those which are found in most cities of this size in the eastern states, where plants have been wrapped up in blankets during the winter to keep them from freezing to death. 4
Every Known Plant, Shrub or Tree
Elysian Park, with its hill and dale, its warm and tropical nooks, its wooded dells and running streams, and its vast and bold perspective, offers every inducement for improvement. We doubt if there is another park in the country which commands such a panorama of beauty and grandeur...-Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1893 5
In the summer of 1893, the Horticultural Society of Southern California began formulating a plan to plant an arboretum in Elysian Park. Many of the members had spent decades collecting exotic seedlings and cuttings from all over the world, and wanted a place to exhibit them permanently. On August 19, 1893, they met at the park to discuss the proposition. The Mayor and Park Commissioners were scheduled to attend but were forced to cancel due to L.A.'s most current water crises:
After a few introductory remarks by W.S. Lyon, president of the society, and others, J.C. Harvey arose to outline the proposed plan. In brief, he said that all the horticulturists desired was to secure ten acres of land in Elysian Park with water piped conveniently, upon which to start the nucleus of a botanical garden. If the city would simply furnish the ground and water, the society would do the rest, and see to it that plants were set out and properly cared for. Dr. Franceschi, the well-known botanist, recently from Europe, added a few thoughts on the value of such a garden. Southern California, he said, possessed that great variety of conditions which rendered it possible to grow almost every known plant, shrub or tree. They would all, or very many at least, thrive here with reasonable care. 6
Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times immediately endorsed the society's proposition:
The movement by the Horticultural Society of Southern California to establish a botanical garden in Elysian Park...is an excellent idea, and should receive the encouragement of the Park Commissioners and the City Council. All the society asks is to secure ten acres of land in the park with water piped. With a little effort Elysian Park might be made the most attractive and unique park in the United States. There is no other park in the country which has such magnificent views, or possesses a climate where the most delicate plants will flourish all winter in the open air. Let us have that botanical garden. 7
The society formally petitioned the Park Commission for the tract in September, 1893. The commission agreed to give the society ten acres, and to supply piped in water to the site as long as the costs "were not too great." In December, the commission accepted the bid of a man named J.D. Hooker to furnish 4000 feet of pipe for the botanical garden at a cost of $411.20.
The botanical garden was now a reality -- at least on paper.
A group of civic boosters set out to convert the park into a unique botanical garden, with trees from all parts of the globe. It was a labor of love for them, and it brought the park not only the cape chestnut but many other rare trees as well -- a kapok, thought to be the only one in the United States; a hummingbird tree, whose honey-rich blossoms attract hordes of these little birds; an Australian nut tree, whose fruit has never been tasted by anyone because the squirrels get there first -- and don't miss a single one. Through the years other trees were added, until in 1935 a group of 44 seedlings from the cape chestnut was planted, and a grove of baby California redwoods two years later. This was the high water mark of the wave of tree planting. 8
It appears the society began to plant rare trees at the botanical garden, though not on the scale it had hoped to. It seems seedlings were planted piecemeal, perhaps at the whim of individual society members. On a whole, the arboretum's subsequent history is rather mysterious. One fact is certain -- Elysian Park itself did not flourish as its supporters had hoped it would. Other parks, like the mammoth Griffith Park and the ever trendy Westlake, continued to eat up public attention and funds. By 1899, the Los Angeles Times had given up its fight to make Elysian Park a great city park, and began advocating for a "first class" botanical garden in Griffith Park. The paper did concede:
In Elysian Park there is already a small collection of rare and beautiful trees and shrubs collected by a former citizen of Los Angeles, which gives some idea of what may be accomplished in this line. 9
Who this "former citizen" is remains a tantalizing mystery.
Over the years, dedicated horticulturists continued to add trees to the little arboretum. By the 1920s, the arboretum included more than 50 species of trees. In 1947, the huge L.A. County Arboretum and Botanic Garden opened in Arcadia. The arboretum in Elysian Park was eventually renamed the Chavez Ravine Arboretum, and became a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument in 1967.
In 1993, 35 saplings were planted to commemorate the arboretum's centennial. The Parks Department worked with the Southern California Horticultural Society to affix metal nametags to most of the trees. In 2005, a visitor listed some of the more impressive specimens:
Owing to their age and the horticultural savvy of their planters, many trees in the Chavez Ravine Arboretum are the largest, finest, first or only specimens of their kind in California. You can see the tallest Queensland kauri (Agathis robusta) in the continental U.S., a neck-bending 120 feet high; the first Cape chestnut (Calodendron capense) and perhaps the mightiest bo tree (Ficus religiosa, sometimes called a Bodhi tree) in the state; a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. nutans) of superlative form and fall color; and the Avenue of the Palms, a magnificent double row of Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) lining Stadium Way, between Academy Road and Scott Avenue... [There is a] Baphia chrysophylla, a small-scale South African species with pea-like blossoms...The gnarled specimen at Chavez Ravine is part of the arboretum's original planting and still produces white blossoms and plenty of viable seed. 10
Today, the arboretum boasts 140 species of trees from all over the world. They are magnificent to look at, but the shade and comfort they afford is even better.
1 "Camino del Burro: Formal opening of Elysian Park Boulevard" January 1, 1893
3 "The people are beginning to understand" Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1893
4 "Elysian Park: As we have frequently pointed out..." Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1893
5 "Park improvements" Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1893
6 "Well Started: Horticulturists to establish a botanical garden" Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1893
7 "The movement by the Horticultural Society of Southern California" (LA Times, August 22, 1893
8 "The Elysian Trees" by Don Taylor, Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1955
9 "A botanical garden" Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1899
10 "The California Garden" Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2005