Articles,  Features

Big Fern Tree Garden Pride of Park Builder (Part 8)

Thursday, January 21, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the eight in a series of intimate articles describing the life of “Uncle John” McLaren, famed “father” of  Golden Gate Park. The series was written by J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman.

By J. Lawrence Toole

They called John McLaren a landscape engineer and the world acknowledges he was without an equal in that profession. But McLaren didn’t like the title, or any title. First, last and all the time, he was a gardener, and had been since the first day he was able to toddle among the flowers around the humble Scotch cottage where he was born. 

Golden Gate Park was his garden and nothing delighted him more than to go out of a fine morning and toddle among the trees and gardens he brought into being.

Like everyone who knows the park intimately, John McLaren had his favorite trees and flowers and plants and beauty spots. Few days passed that he did not have the car, in which he drove round on pilgrimages of work or pleasure, or health, to pass beside these. On one sunshiny morning his car passed a rough little road leading down to what you’d call Laveaga Dell. It didn’t look as if a car could get down.

“Stop,” ordered McLaren. “Let’s go down here and see Quarry Lake and the tree ferns. I’m verry fond of the tree ferns and the Lillies that will come oot of that bit lake in a wee while. You get out and look, the ferns are worth looking at.”

Story of Lake

The car got down the rough little road, not much wider than itself, and stopped beside a small lake under tree ferns that ranged from about three to thirty feet in height and opposite a cliff-like rock wall much higher. The guest with him got out and looked, and thrilled a bit, asking McLaren inane questions out of the depths of botanical ignorance. 

But bit by bit as the car rolled on past the bear pit and around Stow Lake McLaren told the story of Quarry Lake and the tree ferns.

“D’ye mind I was tellin’ you the other day,” McLaren said, “there was one or two things in the park I could claim as my ain. Well, that tree fern grove is one of them. When I first came here, and you know how long ago that was, yon wee place was just a quarry hole, left after they’s dug out a lot of rock and clay to make roads. 

“I used to wonder what could  be done with it. There was nothing there but a hole in the ground and I don’t like a hole without a lake in it and trees around it. A long time after I met a visitor walking around the park and we got to talking. He was from New Zealand, I’ve forgotten his name now, and he told about the big tree ferns that had down there, and how they grew. Of course, I knew about them but I doubted they would grow here. Anyway, I asked the New Zealander to send me some wee shoots. 

“Ye ken the tree ferns have no seeds. They are propagated by spores that grow on the fern itself.”

Ferns Grew Here

Speaking of tree fern seeds reminded his guest of an ancient Irish belief in their magical properties and of how the “little people” and the witch doctors used them to make from them magical philters, but he knew the fable and broke in:

“Aye, we’ve had folk, maybe Irish, maybe no, visit Quarry Lake to see the fern trees and ask if they could get some fern seed. And maybe they are magical, like the fairies. But I’ve never seen one and I don’t know of anyone who has. No, none of the tree ferns you’ve just been looking at came from seeds. 

“The first fern trees we had in the park came from wee bits of young fern stalks, without roots or leaves, sent me by that New Zealand man I met in the park. They were put in the ground there by Quarry Lake and they grew. I remember the first. They came in, I think, a cigar box.

“The fern is supposed to be a tropical plant, and experts thought they would not grow here. But look at them. To me that fern grove is the most beautiful spot in the park, and it didna cost you, the city, I mean, a cent.”

John might have added, if he’d felt inclined, that in no other city on this continent is the equal to his fern tree grove to be found growing out of doors. Almost everywhere, except New Zealand and Australia and the tropics, they are greenhouse plants. In the tropics, they have been grown to a height of more than eighty feet. In Golden Gate Park McLaren kept their height down to between twenty and thirty feet because the topmost leaves suffer in chill weather.

‘It’s Our Climate’

“We have six different kinds of tree ferns in the park,” McLaren added. “San Francisco is the only place in this country I know where they will grow outdoors all year around. Aye, it’s our climate.”

Much more than a thing of sheer beauty is the fern grove by Quarry Lake. Botanists see in the ferns a veritable time table of the evolution of the earth. The Quarry Lake grove, they will tell you, is an almost perfect little picture of the earth’s vegetation in the carboniferous ages. Coal they’ll tell you, comes from the tree fern and the age of the coal deposits all over the world can be told by fossilized fern stalks found in the deposits. So next time you admire John McLaren’s fern tree grove you’ll be looking at vegetation that covered a large part of the earth when the world was young. 

One day there stood on McLaren’s desk, in a vase, two gorgeous rhododendrons. If any particular flower was John McLaren’s favorite it was the rhododendron. So he was asked the specific name of the beautiful flowers on his desk.

“To say the truth,” grinned one of the world’s greatest gardeners as he tenderly fingered the flowers with a hand that shook, maybe, just a little, “I don’t rightly know this one. Today’s the first time I’ve seen it. Better ask Eric Walther, our botanist, its name. But it’s bonny, isn’t it? Yes, it’s very bonny. I like rhododendrons a lot. Have you not seen the rhododendron gardens here in the park in bloom? Man, the flowers then are a sight for the eye. A grand sight.”

McLaren Flower

Though the modest master gardener wouldn’t say it, the flower on his desk that morning had a name, a very distinguished name. It was the John McLaren Rhododendron. 

McLaren wouldn’t talk much of it, so Botanist Eric Walther, who worked under his direction, was enlisted. 

“Yes,” said Walther, “that’s the John McLaren Rhododendron, though I’m not sure whether Mr McLaren knows it yet, and it’s quite a new variety. The flowers you saw on his desk are the first and were put there today to surprise the old man.

“We got it by crossing the early flowering Rhododendron Cornubia with the Rhododendron Facolneri. The first of these two, a bright red flower, made a sensation at the 1915 exposition when Mr McLaren brought big beds of it to flower. The second, the Falconeri, a white flower, was to Mr McLaren in the eighties by his friend, Sir Joseph Hooker, then director of the Kew Botanical Gardens in London.

“That big rhododendron tree you can see from the lodge windows was started by Mr McLaren then from the seeds sent him by Hooker. It’s the biggest in the park and a great favorite of Mr McLaren’s, that and the flowering camellia tree he showed you the other day. That Falconeri Rhododendron comes from the Himalayan Mountains. The other, the Cornubia Rhododendron got its name from a famous queen in Asia Minor, said to have been a great beauty. 

“Well, we crossed these two and got the John McLaren  Rhododendron, a great beauty too. We worked on it for 12 years and now we hope to have beds of them in the park before very long.”

Flowers at Fair

No one who remembers the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 can have forgotten the endless wealth of flowers John McLaren had blooming there from the day it opened until the day it closed. And of this wealth, spread all over the grounds, richest, most unforgettable were the brilliant beds of rhododendrons in the Court of the Universe. The flowers rivaled in their beauty by day the beauty of the Town of Jewels by night. 

There was something of John McLaren’s native Scotch thrift in a story they tell out at the Park Lodge about the Exposition rhododendrons, a story of the swap of a horse for a rabbit, which is a Scotch idiom. The story runs:

When the time came near for the closing of the Exposition John McLaren wanted these rhododendrons badly for the park, where, he had found, rhododendrons thrived and were ideal. So, to make the story brief and spare the Exposition moguls, the exchange of other flowers for the rhododendrons was arranged. The rhododendrons he lifted bodily as they stood, carted them to the park, and gave the Exposition in exchange a great number of blooming hydrangeas. That, the Exposition people were told, was a fair bargain, and it was till a long time after they awoke to the fact that canny John McLaren had a lot the best of the bargain. 

He didn’t call it a horse for a rabbit swap, but he’d laugh like a boy if you reminded him of the bargain and change the subject.

Cup Valued Gift

But it was not the rhododendrons or all the other flowers and plants John McLaren arranged and planted to make the ground beautiful  that he remembered most vividly. In the little parlor of his home at the Lodge he had a memory of the work he did there, a big silver cup that was the dearest and proudest of his possessions. Not all the medals and plaques and honors he had stored up, and never looked at, could rival his pride in that silver cup which was before his eyes every day and night.

“Yes,” he said, pointing out the tall cup which stood on a bookcase in his parlor, “I care more for that than almost anything I’ve got. Why, it’s bigger than the Lipton Cup the big yachts race for. Aye, and it’s worth more. But it’s not its size nor its value I care for. It’s the way I got it I care for. Why, man, every penny of money that was spent on that cup was given by the children of San Francisco, and not a one of them was allowed to give more than 10 cents. Read the inscription on it.”

The inscription on the cup, which is of silver about three feet high, with little pictures of flower scenes chiseled delicately in the silver of its base reads: 

“To Superintendent John McLaren – 1915.

“For the Sweetness and Gaiety of Blossoming Flowers, that was his greatest contribution to the San Francisco Exposition.”

Small wonder McLaren treasured that silver tribute to his genius from the children of San Francisco about all the material trophies of his life.

(To Be Continued.)