Love or Hate: The Daisies, Eucalyptus, and Native Plants of Sunset Cliffs – It’s All History!

by on October 13, 2020 · 2 comments

in History, Ocean Beach

Girls and their dog in a field of daisies at Sunset Cliffs Park- OB Exposed submission, Ocean Beach Historical Society

By Kathy Blavatt

What do you think of when you think of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park: Daisies, Native Plants, and Eucalyptus Trees?

As I was writing San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs: A History, over the last couple of years, I was surprised that the number one thing people were most passionate about was the park’s plants.

Just telling people I was writing a book about Sunset Cliffs Park’s history seemed to be a trigger to many people when it came to the park’s plants. The impassioned comments I received included: “Why are they taking out the daisies?”  “Why did they cut down the eucalyptus trees?” and “The park should be native plants!”

Native plants blooming in the spring at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.

Sunset Cliffs Park and the surrounding community have a unique and extraordinary history of horticulture, landscape, the development of food crops, and the propagation of plants that grow in coastal zones. I hope people read the book to learn the history of the plants and habitat, which is fascinating.

The Point Loma peninsula’s early human inhabitants included the native Kumeyaay. They migrated annually to the coast from inland. They brought many native plants to the Point Loma Peninsula to be used as food and for utilitarian uses.

At the turn of the 1900s, many changes came to the Point Loma Peninsula. Katheryn Tingley and the Theosophists formed Lomaland. Their properties included the (the now) Point Loma Nazarene University campus, properties to the east and north, other plots scattered throughout Point Loma, and the hillside section of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park south of Ladera Street.

The Early 1900s properties owned by Spalding and the Theosophists were planted by some of the United States of America’s most renowned names in landscaping. In 1901, Kate Sessions started the planting on the westerly slopes of the Theosophists’ properties. Others followed her.

Map of Lomaland documents trees planted, dated 1906- 1909.

Ninety-nine years later, the western hillside became part of Sunset Cliffs “Natural” Park.

Excerpt from San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs Book: A History— Another visitor attraction on the peninsula and Sunset cliffs was the beautiful vegetation. Over the years, several people worked on planting countless plants on the peninsula, which drew visitors worldwide. Among those involved were Katherine Tingley; landscape architect Kate Sessions; horticulturist Alfred D. Robinson; M.G. Gowell, formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey, who, in 1905, was placed in charge of Point Loma Forestry; and Fred G. Plummer of the U.S. Geological Survey and chief of geography in the U.S. Forestry Service.

Sessions designed the first stage of tree landscapes. Due to harsh conditions and little water, only part of the trees survived.

Under Plummer and Gowell’s team, the forestation went forward rapidly. Sunset Cliff’s vegetation took hold when an ample windbreak of eucalyptus trees was planted along the bluff overlooking the ocean.

Eucalyptus trees used as early wind blocks to protect foliage seen in early postcard.

Other varieties of trees were planted that included the Point Loma’s iconic pines, cypress, palms, pepper, acacias and other trees. By 1910,  twenty-two thousand planted trees were thriving on the theological estate, and an unbroken forest of forty acres stretched up the slope from the oceanfront to the area of the Homestead buildings.

Also planted were colorful flowers and a variety of plants, ranging from ornamentals to blooming ice plants. Tingley’s orchards of fruit trees, pines and olive groves covered much of the top of the hill and toward the east side.

Lomaland’s upland trees and greenery dotting the nearby hillsides could be seen from Sunset Cliffs Park. Torrey pines, Northfolk Island pines, and star pines shaded Lomaland’s Homestead and campus.

As the theosophists were creating a forested community, plans for the cliffs were being put into place by visionary Albert Spalding, who built the first in a series of Sunset Cliffs Parks in 1915. Spalding built his park toward the north bordering Ocean Beach, along the ocean side of Defoe Street (later changed to Sunset Cliffs Boulevard).

Albert Spalding’s 1915 rustic Japanese style Sunset Cliffs Park was landscaped with pickleweed as seen in this early postcard. Notice they called the Sunset Cliffs Park area Ocean Beach.

Many people referred to the park as “Spalding’s Park,” but he named it Sunset Cliffs Park. It was built in a Japanese style with rustic arched wood bridges, protected picnic areas, and benches. Sunset Cliffs Park was planted with low-water plants that grow well in harsh environments. These included a flowering ice plant called “pickleweed” and the purple flowering “Status.”

These were also used on the Lomaland sites.

Around 1969, my parents planted their front yard on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. A neighbor offered them mounds of with yellow and purple flowering pickleweed, that they were taking out. That low-water pickleweed saved my parents a fortune in water bills and has held up well over the decades. I feel very fortunate to have grown up at Sunset Cliffs.

As I was writing my latest book, I had a chance to immerse myself in the history of Sunset Cliffs Park, take photos and sort through historic postcards, maps, photos, and other materials. This project has brought a flood of beautiful childhood memories, such as playing in the daisies, building tree-forts in the Monterey Cypress Trees, and looking for butterflies among the spring blossoms. It has been fabulous to relive those childhood memories and expound upon the history of the cliffs. I hope readers enjoy the book as much as I loved writing it.

For San Diego Sunset Cliffs Park: A History information and book orders for go to: www.blavatt.wordpress.com

Photos from San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs: A History

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie October 13, 2020 at 10:21 am

Looks like Kathy Blavatt day at the OB Rag. All a coincidence.

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Citizen Cane Larry OB October 18, 2020 at 12:24 pm

This got me looking at google maps. I see a lot of new shrubs planted in the hillside park around the parking lot south of Ladera Street. What are they?

My favorite part of the cliffs is the intertidal zone. You can be Christopher Robin, Robinson Crusoe, or something in between. I love all the natural caves, coves, and ledges. I once snorkeled from the Ocean Beach pier to the stairs at Ladera Street. I stopped to rest and warm up at Bermuda Beach and No Surf Beach. The muscles in my butt hurt for two days, but the adventure was well worth it. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to keep the name of Defoe Street.

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