What Happened to California’s Garden?

The typical knobby texture of a bunchgrass meadow, backed by coast redwoods in Sonoma County. Photograph by Ron Lutsko

The typical knobby texture of a bunchgrass meadow, backed by coast redwoods in Sonoma County. Photograph by Ron Lutsko

California. They thought it paradise.

This was a land still untouched but by the hand of its aboriginal people. Shimmering vistas extended across mountain and valley; ancient, leathery green oaks stood against the vault of crystal blue sky; wildflowers, orange and purple, shined joyously against boundless bunchgrass meadows. This was the country whose near-ideal climate and extraordinary native flora entranced the Europeans into an intense relationship with the land—a land hailed in the diaries and letters of those who partook of it as filled with spirit and inspiration, and as godly and good. This excitement, however, belied a truer impression of things; for even as all the enthusiasm for this exquisite and unspoiled country began to reach levels of romantic mythification, the seeds of ecological destruction were being irrevocably sewn. Before a few generations of European settlement had passed, the land had been catastrophically altered.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the main exports of the California Spanish—hides and tallow—came from cattle. The Spanish did not normally build fences to contain their herds, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands; the cattle grazed and roamed over hill and meadow. Millions of cattle (and sheep, as well) in about one century—a geological instant—devastated California’s native ecology.

One simple plant, the bunchgrass, holds the botanical key to understanding the early destruction of California’s native ecology. In their natural environment, the many species of California’s native bunchgrass covered thousands of square miles throughout the coastal ranges as well as in the great Central Valley. These bunchgrasses were perennial, which means that each individual plant did not need to reproduce itself annually for its species to survive. They were perfectly adapted to the dry soils in which they grew, some individuals living as long as two hundred years. With such longevity, seed production was not a priority; individual survival on available precipitation was. With extremely deep roots, these plants thrived on the precipitation falling during the annual winter rainy season and admirably controlled erosion. Characteristically, the plants grew with reasonable space between each individual, these spaces filled with annual wildflowers and bulbs whose blooming and dormancy cycles helped create the incredible floristic beauty witnessed and frequently reported by early California settlers.

When the European cattle and sheep browsed they ate the long-lived and relatively infertile bunchgrasses down to the ground, often uprooting them. (The native browsers, such as antelope and elk, ate only the tips in what seems a gratifying display of natural symbiosis.) As the Spanish cattle also ate the imported European feeds, the seeds of these non-native (and most importantly) annual ryes and oats were dispersed throughout the countryside in their dung. These exotic annuals, genetically imprinted for immediate and efficient reproduction, finally out-competed the native perennials; and so, through the excrement of Spanish cattle, the annual grasses and weeds of the Old World came to be naturalized in early California. The dry, straw-colored grass now covering the hills in summer is almost entirely exotic annual grasses that two centuries ago replaced the dormant, golden embers of the more indigenously beautiful and more nutritious native grasses.

Despite the early destruction of California’s native ecology, the last decades of the nineteenth century saw a California still, in many ways, a garden land. Highways had not yet scarred the hillsides and valleys, housing projects had not inundated the seemingly endless citrus groves full of golden fruit, and industry had not yet cast its blight on the land. In fact, California had already achieved by the 1890’s a long-established and world-famous (though somewhat exaggerated and fabled) horticultural heritage. Following the winter rains, wild flowers still spotted vast meadows. Orange poppies, like the color of the setting sun, brightened the foothills and mingled with fruit trees, with grape vines, and with roses nearly everywhere. As horticulture stretched out its hand to greet its wild cousins, sentiments of a “garden paradise” swelled, even if “paradise” now included a host of exotic plants.

The sine qua non of California’s transition to the new century was that resource so scarce in this other Eden—water. With its redistribution, the grounds of great estates became lush, extravagant parks landscaped with palms, evergreens, orchards, flowering and scented vines, and with plant combinations unimaginable elsewhere in the world. The nursery industry boomed as every new bungalow had its hydrangeas and jasmines for the shade; geraniums, roses, and honeysuckle for the sun; potted plants and hanging baskets of ferns, begonias, and fuchsias for the covered porches and porte-cocheres.

As January 1, 1900 arrived, prosperity was solidly established in the state, ushered in on the coattails of Industrialism. A modern age of progress, with all its optimism (albeit mixed with the inevitable, end-of-the-century, pessimistic foreboding), was now, for better or worse, upon the land. California’s mediterranean climate, rich countryside, and cultural youthfulness appealed to many from all over the world, but particularly to those whose temperament tended toward pioneering and the pursuit of individual dreams. People came to California for their health, to escape the cold, to start new lives, to live closer to the land—the reasons were many. California held an ineffable allure that was seductive in the extreme. Family, business, and art all sought good fortune here. The perennially-warming sun cast its rays on everyone, rich and poor, and on those who sought wholeness and well-being.

Perhaps, as some believed, Eden had once flourished in early California but was, by then, long gone, shrouded in mystery and legend, perhaps as the result of an Atlantis-like demise. For most, however, the opposite was true. Something new and exciting was astir. The state was at the threshold of a dynamic new era in culture and art, and, in this new golden age, hopes ran higher than ever before. If Eden had indeed been lost, then with the coming of the twentieth century, it was about to be reborn in a new “Arcadia,” that ancient and mythical land on which the pastoral pleasures of a life simple and good could be had by any and all.


Much credit goes to Louise Lacey for her excellent article in Growing Native (#1, 1990) on the same subject. Without her good work, I would never have written this article, which originally appeared in Style 1900: The Quarterly Journal of the Arts & Crafts Movement, volume 11, #1, Winter/Spring Edition, 1997. SDG