The history of San Diego Botanic Garden would not be complete without mention of the visionary woman behind our 37-acre urban oasis. In the early 1940s, Ruth Baird Larabee and her then-husband Charles Wright Larabee purchased two parcels of ranch land where the Garden currently sits today.
Ruth and Charles brought their love for Latin cultures and their Midwestern aesthetic to the homestead. They were a well-educated, independently wealthy couple in their 40s who abandoned their privileged lifestyle in Kansas City for a taste of adventure. This slice of rural San Diego, with its ideal growing climate and rustic ranch house, perfectly suited the couple, whose shared passions included gardening and exploring the Southwest.
Ruth and Charles were early conservationists, and over a whirlwind seven years they developed a stunningly beautiful, primarily low water landscape with over 200 different species of trees, shrubs, cacti and succulents, many from Mexico and South America. Ruth typically began work in the garden at sunrise, dressed in her trademark overalls and green rubber boots. Under the Larabee’s stewardship, the ranch rapidly developed into what Ruth christened “El Rancho San Ysidro de las Flores.”
They were also civic minded people, and though childless themselves, the Larabees each devoted time to sharing the outdoors with high school scouting groups, sowing the seeds for the Garden’s present-day commitment to education.
Ruth Larabee posed with Campfire Girls after a field trip to Mexico, 1947.
After she and Charles divorced in 1950, Ruth remained alone at the ranch until 1957, when she generously deeded her 22.3 acres of land to the County of San Diego with the stipulation that it be used as a park to preserve the habitat of the resident California quails and native plants. Its potential as a botanic garden was later realized by a group of committed founders, among them board presidents Florence Seibert and Julia von Preissig, and local horticulturists Horace Anderson, Paul Ecke, Sr., and Mildred Macpherson. Finally, in 1970 Quail Botanic Gardens officially opened its gates to the public.
Today the San Diego Botanic Garden is designated one of the “Top 10 North American Gardens Worth Traveling For” by the American Gardens Association. Four miles of trails wind through its 29 uniquely themed gardens, among them a tropical rain forest, a bamboo garden, and regional desert landscapes. Together with two acclaimed children’s gardens and the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory, it’s a hub for horticulture, conservation, education, and events. And thanks to the foresight of its founders, the Garden will continue to play a vital role in the growth and development of San Diego for years to come.