Sessions, Kate O. (1857–1940)

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Sessions, Kate O. (1857–1940)

American horticulturist. Born Kate Olivia Sessions on November 8, 1857, in San Francisco, California; died of bronchial pneumonia on March 24, 1940, in La Jolla, California; daughter of Josiah Sessions (a horse breeder) and Harriet (Parker) Sessions; University of California at Berkeley, Ph.B. in chemistry, 1881.

Created Balboa Park in San Diego, California (1892); became co-founder (1909), officer, and member of the board, San Diego Floral Association (1909–30s); was the first woman to receive the Meyer Medal from the American Genetic Association (1939).

Kate O. Sessions was born in San Francisco, California, in 1857, the daughter of a prosperous horse breeder. When she was ten years old the family moved to rural Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where they lived on a farm and Sessions attended the local public schools. She also spent time examining the flowers in the garden her mother grew and the wildflowers she saw when she rode her pony in the hills around Oakland.

After graduating from high school in 1876, Sessions visited Hawaii, and was greatly taken by the beauty of the plants that grew on the island. The following year, she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1881 with a degree in chemistry. She then went to work as a substitute teacher in the primary grades in Oakland. In 1883, Sessions relocated to San Diego, where she took a position as an instructor and vice-principal at Russ High School (later San Diego High School). Two years later, she opened a nursery in the town of Coronado, with an office and retail outlet in San Diego. In 1892, she leased a 30-acre parcel of land from the San Diego municipal government to cultivate plants for her nursery. Under a stipulation in the

lease, she agreed to develop the land, in part by planting 100 trees every year; these 30 acres would become the city's Balboa Park. Sessions maintained her nursery operation continuously throughout the rest of her life, but she relocated the business periodically. In 1903, she moved the nursery to San Diego's Mission Hills neighborhood, and in 1909 she closed her retail operation in San Diego. Between 1927 and 1930, she operated the nursery in Pacific Beach, where she had lived since 1922. From 1915 to 1918, Sessions also worked as the supervisor of agriculture for the San Diego school district, providing instruction in gardening to the district's gradeschool students as part of her duties. In 1939, she was employed as an instructor for the University of California Extension program.

Sessions traveled in Europe and Hawaii, collecting particularly striking, drought-resistant plant specimens that she subsequently introduced into the urban environment. She is credited with bringing numerous plants to Southern California, including the popular palm tree and assorted varieties of poppies, shrubs, eucalyptus, juniper, oak, and vines. It was reported that nearly every turn-of-the-century homeowner in rapidly expanding San Diego sought her advice and bought her plants. She also maintained a close friendship and professional relationship with naturalist Alice Eastwood , who worked at the California Academy of Sciences. Sessions was responsible for establishing the Arbor Day observance in the city of San Diego, and contributed scores of articles to California Gardener magazine and other local publications. From 1909 until the 1930s, she served as an officer and board member of the San Diego Floral Association, which she was instrumental in founding. In 1935, the organizers of the California-Pacific International Exposition honored her with "K.O. Sessions Day" as part of the festival. Four years later, she became the first woman to receive the Meyer Medal of the American Genetic Association, for her work introducing non-native plants to the area.

Sessions, who as a young woman was often described as exceedingly beautiful, was usually photographed looking properly feminine, but as a general rule she tended to wear rough old clothes and men's boots, the better to grub in the dirt with. After her death on March 24, 1940, in La Jolla, California, an elementary school and a park were named in her honor in the city of San Diego, where the varieties of plants she introduced continue to grow.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Norwood, Vera. Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California