The original entertaining fable does not entirely stand up to scrutiny, but the facts about the fern pine’s voyage to California offer a satisfying substitute.
The ubiquitous African fern pine (Afrocarpus gracilior) was once new on the California landscape. Accounts of its introduction involve President Theodore Roosevelt, a San Diego begonia grower, and cases of mistaken identity— both human and botanical. As the tree took root far from its native East Africa, it sprouted its own horticultural legend.
Alfred D Robinson was profiled in a 1940 San Diego Union feature story. A founder and first president of the San Diego Floral Association, he edited California Garden magazine for many years. Privately, he developed Rosecroft Gardens on San Diego’s Point Loma Peninsula and became an internationally renowned begonia specialist. The Union article credited Robinson with producing a hundred new cultivars of begonia and growing 225 kinds of fuchsia. 1
Robinson’s lath house, the article said, was shaded by a large “screw pine” grown from a seed brought to California in Stewart Edward White’s vest pocket when he returned from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari in Africa. What an intriguing story of plant introduction! I wanted to know more about the owner of that vest pocket and its cargo of seed. Before getting to the bottom of the story, with genuinely authoritative sources, the tree species had changed, and I had rambled into several informational cul-de-sacs.
Researching screw pine (Pandanus utilis), I was puzzled to find that it is native to Madagascar—near enough to Africa, but not on Roosevelt’s 1909 itinerary. I also learned that the screw pine is usually propagated by vegetative means, not by seed.2 There was obviously some confusion about the identity and origins of Robinson’s shade tree. Additional reading only convoluted the story and embroidered its details.
San Diego horticulturist Kate Sessions, writing in a 1923 issue of California Garden, noted that Robinson’s tree at Rosecroft Gardens was propagated from seed sent to Santa Barbara by a member of the Roosevelt expedition named William (not Stewart) Edward White. A San Diego city guide prepared by the Federal Writer’s Project in 1937 includes Rosecroft in its Point Loma tour. In addition to the world-famous begonias, the guide comments that “an interesting specimen of a podocarpus tree, growing here, was raised from seed sent to the owner by Theodore Roosevelt and Steward [sic] Edward White from Africa.”3 Later publications credited Theodore Roosevelt himself with bringing back the seed from Africa and giving them to a Southern California horticulturist who shared them with Kate Sessions.4, “Podocarpus Gracilior,” California Garden 6:5 (Apr- May 1970): 15.] Part of this story was repeated in print twenty years later, with the added detail that the seed had been carried from Africa in the former president’s pocket.5 A legend was born, and it was growing.
Sessions clarified the identity of Robinson’s tree in her article. It was a Podocarpus elongatus, rather than a screw pine, as had been stated in the newspaper story. Sessions was correct in her nomenclature in the 1920s, but the tree was reclassified in 1941 as Podocarpus gracilior. More recently, the tree has been placed in a different genus and assigned the name Afrocarpus gracilior, by which it is known today. Unlike the screw pine, this tree is indeed from East Africa and is propagated from seed and cuttings. It was called an African yew by Sessions, who popularized the tree in San Diego. A member of the podocarpus family, not the pine family, the tree is commonly called fern pine or African fern pine. It is grown for its dense shade, as an evergreen specimen, and as a sturdy—and tidy—street tree.
Having established the correct identity of Robinson’s tree, I turned to uncovering the details of the fern pine’s voyage from Africa to California. Did either Stewart Edward White or William Edward White accompany Theodore Roosevelt on his African safari? Was there a link between one of these men and San Diego’s Alfred D Robinson? And finally, what about a possible Santa Barbara connection and the unnamed “Southern California horticulturist” who may have shared fern pine seed with Kate Sessions?
Stewart Edward White
If either Stewart or William Edward White knew President Roosevelt or traveled with him in Africa, he won no mention in any of six different Theodore Roosevelt biographies, nor in Roosevelt’s own book about his post-White House adventure, African Game Trails (1910). Roosevelt’s traveling party numbered in the hundreds, however, and fluctuated in size during the eleven months of his stay in Africa. He did not personally know or interact with everyone in the party. A number of adventurers placed themselves within the nimbus of this celebrated event simply by traveling in East Africa at the same time as the Roosevelt expedition.
Research on the commonplace name of William Edward White was unfruitful. I could find no connection between a William Edward White and the expedition, or Robinson, or Southern California horticulture. Although the pronouncements of Kate Sessions generally are reliable, she apparently supplied the wrong name when recounting the story of Robinson’s tree in California Garden. It was certainly Stewart Edward White who helped to introduce the fern pine to California, but with a few more degrees of separation than in San Diego legend.
Stewart Edward White (1873-1946) was easily identified as a prolific writer of travel and adventure books. A likely candidate for an African safari, his book, African Camp Fires (1913), verifies that he and his wife Betty were hunting in Kenya contemporaneously with or shortly after Roosevelt. The author’s photograph shows White in a trophy room crowded with pelts and the mounted heads and horns of big game animals. In later life, Stewart Edward White published books on spiritualism and his wife’s powers as a psychic. He believed that Betty White communicated with the “invisibles on the other side.”6 Learning about this interest in spiritualism opened up a line of inquiry that might connect White with Alfred D Robinson.
Alfred D Robinson
In 1902, Robinson moved his family from San Francisco to San Diego’s Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society Homestead, a utopian settlement on Point Loma. Plausibly, the Whites could have been among the many visitors drawn to that spiritual mecca. Stewart Edward White could have known Robinson and personally handed over the fern pine seed, as implied in the San Diego Union article. This tantalizing conjecture is not corroborated by any discoverable facts. There are no grounds for concluding that White and Robinson ever met, despite their coincidental roles in the fern pine’s cultivation in California.
A possible role by the United States Department of Agriculture in the introduction of the fern pine to the US was suggested in a report by David Fairchild, head of the department’s Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. While touring San Diego in 1919, he commented on various exotic plants that had originally been imported through his office. Upon visiting Rosecroft Gardens and seeing Robinson’s fern pine, Fairchild wrote that it originated from the Podocarpus sent in by the Roosevelt Expedition.7 This suggested that the Department of Agriculture had received some of the fern pine seed retrieved by the African game hunters a decade earlier. The USDA commonly distributed plants andseeds to experimental growers all over the country. Kate Sessions received many newly introduced plants in this manner and certainly could have received the fern pine seed from the USDA and cultivated the plant in San Diego. While a rational possibility, this did not happen. It is well established that the first California fern pines entirely bypassed any federal agency.
The Santa Barbara Connection
Maunsell Van Rensselaer’s Trees of Santa Barbara (1948) moves the story forward. In this account, all the fern pines in Santa Barbara “and perhaps all the older ones in California,” were propagated by Francesco Franceschi from seed brought from Kenya by Mr and Mrs Stewart Edward White. Kate Sessions and Santa Barbara’s Franceschi, a botanist and nursery owner, engaged in a lively business trade between their two nurseries and became personal friends.8. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.] If a special new plant came to Sessions from Santa Barbara, it assuredly was acquired from Franceschi, although Sessions did not mention his name when writing that Robinson’s fern pine was grown from seed sent to Santa Barbara.
This conclusion about the origin of the fern pine in San Diego is substantiated by other sources, uncovered late in this information quest. While “sauntering” in the lath house at Rosecroft Gardens, a San Diego tree expert, Chauncey I Jerabek, reported coming across the largest fern pine in town, a specimen with an eight-inch diameter trunk. Writing in a 1932 issue of California Garden, he stated that the Podocarpus “seed was collected by Stuart [sic] Edward White on his trip to . . . Africa and was raised by Franchetti [sic] of Santa Barbara . . . ” While Robinson is not directly quoted, this information was published within weeks of Jerabek’s visit to Rosecroft Gardens and may reasonably be attributed to Robinson.
California botanist Elizabeth McClintock presented a scholarly version of the fern pine story in 1963 in the California Horticultural Society Journal (a predecessor of Pacific Horticulture). Her article appeared after the first apocryphal tales of the tree’s introduction had been spun and had gained a life of their own. McClintock shows that two separate US importations of Afrocarpus gracilior, from the same region of Kenya, occurred in the 1910-1911 period. She compares the African narratives of Theodore Roosevelt and Stewart Edward White to demonstrate that each camped in the same location while in Kenya. Roosevelt referred to the “huge African yewtrees” in his description of the campsite, while White only mentions “tall and refreshing trees.”
McClintock built her account on an obscure 1941 article by John T Buchholz published in Madroño, A West American Journal of Botany.9 Buchholz authoritatively clears away all remaining cobwebs. He communicated directly with Stewart Edward White to confirm that the seeds were brought to California directly from Kenya in 1911 and that Francesco Franceschi raised a number of seedlings from this importation. Kate Sessions personally told
Buchholz, in 1936, that she had obtained three of the original seedlings from Franceschi, one of which was growing at Robinson’s Rosecroft gardens in San Diego. Buchholz describes a “chain of custody” for the rare African tree from Betty and Stewart Edward White to Franceschi to Sessions and finally to Robinson’s lath house. Subsequently, when it was learned that the tree could be propagated from cuttings, thousands of Afrocarpus gracilior plants were grown from a single stock tree at the Coolidge Rare Plant Garden Nursery in Pasadena, and the tree ceased to be a landscape oddity. Buchholz identifies Edgar A Mearns10 Edgar Lexander Mearns Papers, Record Unit 7083, Smithsonian Institution Archives. https://siarchives.si.edu/findingaids/FARU7083.htm.] as the member of the Roosevelt expedition who collected specimens of Afrocarpus gracilior for the National Herbarium while in Kenya. The two separate importations explain Fairchild’s comment when he recognized Robinson’s fern pine and declared that the plant had been “sent in [to Washington] by the Roosevelt Expedition.”
Writings published over four decades confused the facts about Robinson’s fern pine, but the resulting legend deserves a corrected rehabilitation. Admittedly, the tree did not directly spring from a single seed, pocketed by an adventurous African traveler and delivered to San Diego. True, President Theodore Roosevelt was not personally responsible for seed transportation or the plant’s introduction in California. In fact, the California introduction of the fern pine was only tangentially connected to Roosevelt and his African expedition.
Despite these dampening facts, the story of the fern pine’s voyage is reinvigorated by a detail not reported in the earlier San Diego accounts: it was Mrs Stewart Edward White, the spiritually-minded and psychic Betty, who retrieved the Afrocarpus gracilior seed while on safari with her husband in Africa. According to Van Rensselaer in Trees of Santa Barbara, she did so by shooting them from the upper branches of a very tall and beautiful fern pine growing in its native habitat.
Formerly known as Podocarpus gracilior (and still often sold under that name), the fern pine is a handsome evergreen tree that grows easily with little care. Native to the mountains of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, it has recently been reclassified into the new genus Afrocarpus on the basis of its fruiting structure, with some botanists considering it a variety of Afrocarpus falcatus and others retaining its separate species designation.
The fern pine grows at a moderate rate to an eventual fifty to sixty feet tall and wide. Young trees are upright, with narrow, two- to four-inch-long, dark green leaves, but as trees mature they develop a spreading canopy with a dense foliage of somewhat shorter leaves. Clusters of light green new leaves at the ends of the branches contrast nicely with the darker green older growth. Fern pines are technically conifers, but, instead of cones, mature female trees produce fleshy fruits that contain a single seed if a pollinating male tree is nearby.
The fern pine tolerates a variety of adverse conditions, including drought, poor soil, ocean winds, and air pollution, and is cold-hardy to around 15°F. For a sturdy tree, seed-grown plants are preferred. Occasionally, cutting-grown or grafted plants are available under the name Podocarpus elongatus, but these are propagated from lateral shoots so that they stay small and shrubby, to be used as espaliers or in containers.
Adapted from Ornamental Trees of San Diego, by Steve Brigham and Don Walker, published by and available from the San Diego Horticultural Society, www.sdhortsoc.org.
- Naomi Baker, “Begonias: San Diegan Creates 100 New Types in World-Famous Point Loma Gardens,” San Diego Union, 1 September 1940. ↩
- Edward F Gilman and Dennis G Watson, “Pandanus utilis Screw-pine,” US Forest Service Fact Sheet ST-430, October 1994, https://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/trees/PANUTIA.pdf. ↩
- San Diego: A California City (American Guide Series), prepared by the San Diego Federal Writer’s Project: Works Progress Administration. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1937. ↩
- A boxed description of a cover photograph of a tree identified as Podocarpus elongatus (Afrocarpus gracilior) includes the statement, “It is claimed that Podocarpus seeds were brought from Africa by Theodore Roosevelt. Some were given to a Southern California horticulturist who shared them with Kate O Sessions. She planted the first in San Diego which may be seen at Rosecroft.” California Garden 56:5 (Oct-Nov 1965): 15. Five years later the story was repeated. BJ [Barbara Jones ↩
- Edalee Harwell, “Of Dreams and Treasure Hunts,” California Garden 81:5 (Mar-Apr 1990): 38. ↩
- Stewart Edward White, The Unobstructed Universe. New York: EP Dutton, 1940. ↩
- David Fairchild, Western Trip 1919, August 21 to November 8, incl. (typescript) 289. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Archive, Coral Gables, Florida. ↩
- Kate O Sessions letters, Francesco Franceschi Papers, 1904- 1918. Collection number: BANC MSS 70/11 C. “Incoming Letters” [Boxes 5-19 ↩
- John T Buchholz, “Podocarpus Gracilior in Cultivation,” Madroño 6 (1941-42):119-122, 120. ↩
- Edgar Alexander Mearns (1856-1919), an army surgeon and field naturalist, studied birds, mammals, and plants at each of his domestic and foreign posts. At the invitation of Theodore Roosevelt, he served as naturalist on the 1909- 10 African expedition. [Introduction ↩