Cultivating Community

A conversation with Kathy Musial

Kathy Musial is a vital member of the West Coast horticultural cognoscenti. Curator of living collections at Huntington Botanical Gardens and an avid world traveler, Kathy still has time for her home garden and is passionate about world handicrafts, folk art, Islamic art, and architecture.

Kathy’s home garden reveals her passion for plants and handicrafts. Photo: Kathy Musial

Kathy’s home garden reveals her passion for plants and handicrafts. Photo: Kathy Musial

A conversation between editor Lorene Edwards Forkner and Kathy Musial.

LEF: What came first, the garden or your work?

KM: In my case, the profession became an avocation. I wanted to be an astronomer. I enrolled at UCLA in 1976 to study astronomy, but a childhood interest in the natural world—mostly birds, reptiles, rocks and minerals, and plants—led me instead to the Biology department. I never even heard the word “horticulture” until after I graduated from college, and I never had my own garden until I bought my house in Pasadena 1998.

LEF: Describe the arc of your professional life.

KM: After graduating from UCLA and completing the Certificate in Horticulture program through UCLA Extension, I decided I wanted to work in a botanical garden. Frank Almeda and Dave Verity greatly influenced my decision to pursue plants as a career. I had visited the wonderful Huntington Botanical Gardens many times so, out of the blue, in 1982 I called. I was hoping for an internship but was fortunate enough to be hired as an assistant botanist doing inventories of the collections. Subsequent changes in staffing meant I quickly moved into the lead botanist position, a title that later changed to curator. I’ve been there ever since.

Today, in addition to keeping the inventories up to date, I oversee plant selection and acquisition for the non-specialty collections, and determine plant placement in several areas of the garden. My many administrative tasks include keeping records and plant identification and nomenclature updated and correct. I also select and purchase most of the books in the botanical library. My work is a mix of indoors and out; tasks change with the seasons and, of course, everything is weather dependent. Recent heat waves drove me indoors where I focused on book buying.

In the mid-80s my experience with professional organizations outside of work began ramping up. I joined the Southern California Horticultural Institute and in 1984 was asked to sit on their board. There I met Don Walker, Elmer Lorenz, Bill Paylen, Jack Catlin, Chris Rosmini, Ralph Crane, Bob Spangenberg, Lili Singer, Bill Baker, and Gary Hammer. A few years later, Barbara Joe Hoshizaki hosted a gathering at her garden for us horticulture “newbies,” where I met John Greenlee and Dick Turner (who was then on the board of Pacific Horticulture). I met Steve Brigham on a visit to Kartuz Greenhouses, Randy Baldwin at San Marcos Growers and soon met other nursery people like Luen Miller and Nevin Smith. Colleagues I’ve met from other botanical gardens have become good friends, like Bart O’Brien, Carol Bornstein, Dylan Hannon, and Jim Henrich. I was a member of the Sunset Western Garden panel, and the Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles panel convened by Don Hodel. I felt privileged to be among so many horticultural legends.

I joined the board of Pacific Horticulture (then Pacific Horticulture Foundation) in 1991. That same year I moved to San Diego County, and in 1994, along with Steve Brigham, the late Fred Meyer, the late Bill Teague, and most importantly, the late Don Walker, helped found the San Diego Horticultural Society.

[Ed: San Diego Horticultural Society was founded by Steve Brogham, Kathy Musial, Don and Dorothy Walker, and Linda Teague. Fred Meyer and Bill Teague were good friends and colleagues.]

Intrepid world traveler and bird lover—this shot is from a trip to New Zealand in the late 90s. Photo: personal collection

Intrepid world traveler and bird lover—this shot is from a trip to New Zealand in the late 90s. Photo: personal collection

LEF: How has world travel figured into this mix and shaped your work with the collections at The Huntington?

KM: Southern California is blessed with a climate that allows the cultivation of a wide variety of plants; this was Henry Huntington’s vision for the gardens and I’m happy to continue it.

Though I love studying plants in books, I’m a firm believer that one cannot really understand plants or their horticulture without seeing them in their natural habitats. Travel has opened my eyes. When it comes to mediterranean-climate plants, I’m a bit of a heretic. As much as I adore the Western Australian flora, after seeing it in situ I realized we would never be able to grow those plants here at the Huntington—our soil type and the pH of the soil and water here are completely unsuitable. Ditto for the Western Cape flora of South Africa and that of Chile’s fog-influenced desert. As for plants from the Mediterranean proper, guess where some of California’s most invasive and potentially invasive plants come from? (Think Spanish broom.) I’ve become much more circumspect about what I choose to grow from that area.

For additions to the collections, my focus is on plants that aren’t a part of or well represented in other public gardens. This is typically because they can’t be grown outdoors in most of the U.S. or even other parts of California.

I’ve come to realize that the plants that do best here are the species that are inherently adaptable, no matter where they come from. This is something that can only be learned by growing them and, of course, noting what’s long been cultivated here.

LEF: What’s next?

KM: I retired from my board work in 2012 but I hope to continue working at the Huntington forever. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to work with an amazing group of people. The horticultural community is really all about the people—plants just draw us all together.