A fitful breeze wafted across Southern California last December. It was a collective sigh of dismay when Bart O’Brien left his post as Director of Special Projects at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) for his native Northern California and a new position as Director of Regional Parks Botanic Garden (formerly known as the Tilden Botanic Garden). You don’t often hear the term “icon” in the horticultural world (outside of references to big trees), but it crops up again and again regarding Bart.
That achievement is entwined with the rise of California’s native plants in the realm of horticulture. Ever since Theodore Payne and other likeminded plantsmen began championing the unique flora of the region and bringing it into cultivation, devotees have challenged traditional landscape aesthetics that were transplanted from back East as the West was settled. Relentless native plant advocates and dwindling water resources are changing conventional wisdom, and Bart is one of the key players in that transformation.
After earning degrees in environmental planning at U.C. Davis and landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Bart joined Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden staff in 1990, where he further cultivated his expertise in the native flora of California and northern Baja California, Mexico. He eventually served as Director of Horticulture and then Director of Special Projects.
In 1993, Bart joined the Southern California Horticultural Society (SCHS) board of directors and, over the course of 20 years, served as author and editor of Green Sheets (see below), newsletter editor, and four years as SCHS president. In 2005, he was named Horticulturist of the Year. During Bart’s tenure with SCHS, one of his major accomplishments was aiding fellow board member Laura Bauer’s efforts to digitize and archive all the past Green Sheets, and his role in drafting a legal agreement with the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, to house SCHS archives.
Truly a Renaissance man, Bart’s knowledge of and passion for plants has manifested in writing, curatorial and propagation endeavors, and photography. He collaborated on several major editorial projects, notably Selected Plants for Southern California Gardens with Joan Citron, Elmer Lorenz, Mary Brosius, and Pam Shriver. Bart also served as editor of Fremontia, the journal of the California Native Plant Society. He co-authored, with Betsey Landis and Ellen Mackey, the bilingual Care & Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Bart joined forces with Carol Bornstein (director of the North Campus Gardens for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) and David Fross (Native Sons Nursery) for the 2006 book, California Native Plants for the Garden (Cachuma Press), which was honored by the American Horticultural Society. The same power trio teamed up for 2011’s Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-Conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs. In August 2006, Bart was named one of “The 100 Most Powerful People in Southern California” by the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times/West Magazine.
Achieving icon status means more than possessing a store of knowledge and the vision to apply it. Bart transforms the histories (natural and horticultural) of plants into compelling stories, whether they are garden-variety cultivars or rarities from remote wild habitat. As one Yelp reviewer (Katherine R. from Glendora) wrote about her visit to RSABG, “I used to bash about California native plants, until I went on a tour with Bart O’Brien. Welcome me to the nunnery as your newest convert…”
His charismatic insights about plants will be sorely missed. The legacy of Bart O’Brien’s work will keep growing in California as it evolves into an increasingly arid place—but you’ll have to travel north to enjoy his distinctive interpretations of that changing landscape.