The Exotic Possibilities of Landscape Design in 1930s California

Armstrong Nurseries_Catalog_1931 coverOne of the most famous plant nurseries in California in the early 20th century was Armstrong Nurseries.  Started in 1889 in Ontario, California, it continued to be locally owned by the Armstrong family for nearly a century when the Bear Creek Corporation (who also owned its rival Jackson & Perkins Company) purchased it in 1987 and changed the name to Armstrong Garden Centers.

Flipping through the pages of their 1931 catalog (12 Mb pdf) provides a glimpse into the wide variety of plants available to Eastern homeowners who were settling into southern California, inspired by the Mediterranean climate to grow exotic species such as avocados, cherimoyas, loquats, olives, guava, oranges, lemons, palms, eucalyptus, carob, and California pepper trees (although originating in Peru).  These plants are now a common sight on the streets of Los Angeles, but at one time they were rare and fantastic.  A catalog like this must have felt like opening the pages to the possibility of never-before-seen gardens.

Armstrong became most famous for its roses, but in this catalog shows it is still in its infancy, the rose section coming in on page 29.  Perhaps in anticipation of its future, the only color photos in the catalog are among the roses.  A surprise is a section on page 58 featuring native California plants (although many are actually from other places such as Australia), such as ceanothus, fremontia, cotoneaster, daphne, escallonia, euonymus, lavendula, lantana, and grevillea with the advice that “because they will grow in comparatively dry soil, they should be used more frequently in our ornamental plantings.” It took fifty years for Angelenos to heed this advice in response to the continuing droughts.

If you’re thinking of restoring an historic garden or are looking for inspiration to create a modern garden with plants that were forgotten, the Armstrong Nurseries catalogs are a great place to begin.  For the best collection on Armstrong Nurseries, visit the Model Colony Room at the Ontario City Library.