Chauncy Jerabek, the San Diego tree man

Beneath the bunya-bunya

The evergreen pear tree is an early bloomer, showing white blossoms now by the fountain in front of Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre.
  • The evergreen pear tree is an early bloomer, showing white blossoms now by the fountain in front of Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

One afternoon in 1911, Chauncey Jerabek boarded a four-horse dray at Fifth Avenue and E Street in downtown San Diego and rode off to see about a tree-planting job on the Scripps ranch. He was twenty-one years old; a photograph records him as a homely Midwesterner, dark hair showing beneath the brim of his dark slouch hat, and one hand curled into a fist and pressed against his waist. His father in Peoria, Illinois, had offered him a share of his greenhouse business, but the young man wanted something of his own, and had come to San Diego to put his hands in the soil of tropical paradise.

Chauncey Jerabek. Kate Sessions had no work for Jerabek at her nursery but must have been impressed with his knowledge.

Chauncey Jerabek. Kate Sessions had no work for Jerabek at her nursery but must have been impressed with his knowledge.

San Diego Historical Society-Ticor Collection

Driven by a beefy Spaniard and loaded with supplies for the ranch, the dray rattled up Fifth Avenue toward the crest of the hill that sank into Mission Valley. Fifth Avenue then was drab, a shadeless dirt avenue with brick and wooden buildings, and though the yards of residences showed occasional patches of color, a bougainvillea, oleander, or hibiscus, it was not the floral wonderland that Jerabek had imagined.

They paralleled the trolley line that branched at University and went one way to North Park, and the other to Mission Hills. About a week before, Jerabek had ridden the trolley to its Mission Hills terminus, the nursery of Kate O. Sessions at West Lewis and Stephens streets. Miss Sessions as she was called. He'd ridden out to ask for a job, as it was natural that anyone new in town, and with any inclination for gardening, should look her up at once.

The queen palm dominates Sixth Avenue along Balboa Park.

The queen palm dominates Sixth Avenue along Balboa Park.

She was sixty-one years old that year and in the prime of her long life. All her eccentricities had ripened into a glorious, prickly bouquet. She wore men's shoes and a long tweed skirt with a pocket for seeds, shears, string — whatever her busy hands might need. Born of a genteel family in San Francisco, she had gone to UC Berkeley and had become a schoolteacher, but a girlhood trip to the Sandwich Islands and the exposure of San Diego’s climate had quickened her nascent love of plants, so that she had come to call them her children.

Mexican fan palms on Sunset Boulevard in Mission Hills. The trunk of a young tree is covered with the stubs of fronds in a crosshatch pattern.

Mexican fan palms on Sunset Boulevard in Mission Hills. The trunk of a young tree is covered with the stubs of fronds in a crosshatch pattern.

Moreover, she cared for them as children. She once grabbed a shovel from the hands of a man who had just bought a tree from her and was planting it in a hole too small. He watched her dig it to the proper size. When one of her workmen was chauffeuring her on errands in her flatbed truck (she didn’t drive herself since the time she'd gotten out of her two-cylinder Maxwell without shutting off the motor, and had to jump back on the running board, shouting “Whoa! Whoa!” while the car turned in circles), she always kept an eye out for anyone working outdoors with a plant. She would have the driver stop, and would descend to offer advice on the plant's behalf.

She had no work for Jerabek at her nursery but must have been impressed with his knowledge, for a few days later she sent word for him to visit the Edward W. Scripps ranch at Miramar on the prospect of a job planting eucalyptus. Five years before, the Santa Fe Railroad had bought up 9000 acres in San Dieguito, much of it comprising present-day Rancho Santa Fe, and had sent the chief of its timber and tie department to Australia to ship back six million eucalyptus seeds. Since then, three million seedlings had been planted as fast as they could be set out, as a future source of railroad ties. Edward Scripps had taken a look at that and felt it might not be a bad idea to put some acreage into eucalyptus himself. Hence his need for someone who knew trees, as Jerabek did.

Bunya-bunya/Balboa Park. This tree was Australian aborigines’ only form of private property.

Bunya-bunya/Balboa Park. This tree was Australian aborigines’ only form of private property.

The dray descended the Sixth Avenue grade, crossed Mission Valley, climbed Murray Canyon, and reached the mesa where the travelers had a rangy view of the countryside — smooth as seal skin, unstubbled by a single tree. Telephone poles flanked the road; otherwise they saw nothing but native chaparral, which is not so much a desert as a dry heath. The horses toiled over the hard dirt, taking all afternoon to reach their barn. “During this time,” wrote Jerabek years later, ‘ the only other living things I saw were one coyote, two jackrabbits, and a couple of buzzards circling overhead.”

Nothing in his ken could tell him at the time, but he was headed for the paradise he’d heard about in Illinois. At the ranch, where the foreman approved him and offered him a job, he found groves of oranges and figs — groves of them. Back home the whole town had turned out to see one potted fig tree in Glen Oak park that the newspaper said had produced a fruit. After moving to the ranch, Jerabek ate so many figs that his mouth grew sore from the acid in the peels. Where oranges had been a wild luxury in Illinois, here Jerabek dined on them, staying in the grove while other employees went to table in the boarding house.

The Santa Fe Railroad sent the chief of its timber and tie department to Australia to ship back six million eucalyptus seeds.

The Santa Fe Railroad sent the chief of its timber and tie department to Australia to ship back six million eucalyptus seeds.

While at the ranch he also fell in love, meeting and marrying Hulda Schultz, a native of Alpine. They were different in ways that must have proved attractive. She shunned most company; he loved to talk. She was a schoolteacher with a degree from the San Diego Normal School; he had only a third-grade education, having dropped out of school at eight years of age with poliomyelitis. She was strong-limbed and he was weak in the joints. They had in common a Germanic ancestry, a love of God and of plants. From the beginning their marriage was a man-does-this, woman-does-that arrangement which satisfied them both. When she died many years later, Jerabek delivered a eulogy at her coffin, pleasant and dry-eyed, telling funny stories about her in a way that suggested his having lost her presence but not her friendship.

Silk oaks/Rolando Boulevard, East San Diego. The city banned them from parkways in 1964.

Silk oaks/Rolando Boulevard, East San Diego. The city banned them from parkways in 1964.

They lived on the ranch for six years. She became a trustee of the tiny Miramar School District, and he supervised teams of men in planting thousands of eucalyptuses, all together about forty percent of those that were set out on the ranch. (A good deal of planting had gone on before he arrived.) They planted the slender, sky-lining lemon gums on the hills and canyonsides, and the thick, shaggy blue gums on the mesas where the chaparral had been cleared away. (Blue gums, named for the color of their sapling leaves, have been planted throughout California as windbreaks for agricultural fields.) The trees never yielded the timber that Santa Fe had expected, but the groves created settings for the lovely suburbs of Scripps Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe. Jerabek liked to say years later that he’d been offered property in the area for a dollar an acre, but fool that he was, never saw any use for it.

In 1917 he and his wife moved to San Diego, where he had found work as a city gardener. They lived for a time in Balboa Park, in the caretaker’s cottage that stood near the site of the Navy’s hospital. He rose to chief horticulturalist for the city, charged in particular with planting and maintaining the parkland trees. Most of the trees in Balboa Park, and many of those in other public places — Old Town, for one — were planted by Jerabek. He learned as he went along, not only by experience but by study. He collected a fine botanical library, corresponded with horticulturalists elsewhere, and frequently on Sunday evenings visited with Miss Sessions at her home in Pacific Beach. Eventually his friends began to call him “Jerry,” or the “Tree Man,” both of which he liked.

“Trees don’t change much,” he once told an acquaintance, “I guess that’s why I love them so.” Everyone appreciates stability, but for Jerabek, stability, balance, continuity were almost divine — the qualities of a tree. When he and his wife had settled in a house on Date Street on the eastern side of Balboa Park — he called it the Green House, after its color — everything that went into it, the furniture and cabinets, had to be of the finest quality and built to last for generations. He rose before dawn, did pushups, situps, and read his Bible. He wrapped his knees to give them support and wore hightop leather shoes, which he purchased only at Len’s of Lemon Grove, to give strength to his ankles. He was dogmatic, particularly at the end of his career. A few of those who worked with him in the city nursery, selecting and propagating trees, have no fond recollections of him.

He was at his very best with strangers, telling them about his trees. A forceful talker, he once lectured a group of World War II recruits on the poisonous oleander, a shrub they might encounter in the Mediterranean, and when he had finished, they saluted. In Balboa Park, he loved to lead groups on what he called “nature walks,” since to him, nature consisted of plants.

For the group’s convenience he passed out a list of the trees along the walk, giving the scientific and the common names. He was a crack at identifying trees, so much so that after he retired, the zoo brought him in for twenty hours a week to label the hundreds of trees in its collection. Thereafter he spent his retirement in cataloguing rare and beautiful trees around town, marking them in red on a wall map in his home, and creating lists of fifty trees worth seeing in Kensington, La Jolla, and La Mesa.

He left the Natural History Museum with copies of the lists, each of which carries the byline, “Chauncy I. Jerabek, the San Diego Tree Man.” His stated purpose was to give the addresses of particular trees so that anyone could look up a full grown specimen before planting a sapling in his yard. In effect, the lists were the outlines of nature walks that anyone could take on his own when Jerabek was gone.

The Cocos plumosa, or queen palm, at 5128 Marlborough Drive in Kensington, is one of San Diego’s most common street trees: the one with the naked gray trunk and long plumelike fronds. The queen palm dominates Sixth Avenue along Balboa Park. (Another common street tree is the Mexican fan palm. When mature it is one of the tallest trees in San Diego. A row of them stands on Sunset Boulevard in Mission Hills, looking like mops on parade. The trunk of a young tree is covered with the stubs of fronds in a crosshatch pattern.)

The coral tree at 4036 South Hempstead Circle in Kensington is an early bloomer, sending out cockspur red flowers on the ends of its branches and holding them for weeks before the green leaves appear. The Mexican variety contains an alkaloid drug that the Aztecs used by throwing crushed leaves into streams to stupify fish. Several coral trees are coming into bloom on the banks of the freeway interchange between Interstate 5 and Interstate 8, at the flare of Mission Valley. (Another early bloomer is the evergreen pear, showing white blossoms now by the fountain in front of Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre.)

The silk oak at 4011 South Hempstead Circle is tall and roughly conical in shape, and has heavily indented leaves, like loose hands, that are silvery underneath and make the tree spangle in the wind. In spring the bloom occurs in horizontal combs of bright orange. It is a popular choice for tea gardens in India. A magnificent stand has grown to maturity on Rolando Boulevard in East San Diego — the last we’ll see of them as street trees, since they shed heavily and underroot sidewalks. The city banned them from parkways in 1964.

The bunya-bunya at 324 La Canada in La Jolla looks like a Christmas tree with dreadlocks. It is a native of Australia, where aborigines fed on its nutlike seeds. Traditionally, each family fed from a particular tree and passed it to the next generation, making the bunya-bunya the aborigines’ only form of private property. A towering bunya-bunya stands at Sixth Avenue and Ivy Street in Balboa Park.

Jerabek’s lists go on and on, as he himself was prone to do. He liked to call out the names of trees as he passed them in a car — red box, iron bark, Kafir fig — although later in life his memory started to lapse. Still, his last years spared him most of the indignities of age. He did suffer a nervous condition called tic douleureux, however, a twinge on one side of his face that caused him much pain. It disappeared for months at a time, but seemed to return suddenly with a blast of cold weather. For this reason he sometimes wore a ski mask, a knitted hood with holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth.

He told a story about the time he was in La Mesa, wearing his ski mask, when he needed to make a phone call and walked into a bank. He went up to a desk and asked the person sitting there if he might use a phone. Yes . . . he . . . could . . . use . . . the phone on the desk, an employee said, showing Jerabek a seat and moving away. “Boy, was I being watched,” Jerabek recalled. He left the bank without realizing what everybody was so nervous about.

In November, 1978, he attended the opening ceremony of an elementary school in Scripps Ranch that had been named in his honor. He had been asked to give a speech, and the fear with which he approached the task had left him almost speechless. He’d lost whole nights of sleep. He knew he could talk about trees, but what else? This childless man had no idea what children would want to hear. He arrived, dressed in a three-piece suit and his hightop leather shoes, and when his moment came, began his speech with the tat-tat-tat sound of a woodpecker knocking on a log. That sound, he explained, was what his wife used to hear while she taught in a one-room school in Miramar — a sound so loud that it sometimes stopped the class.

That introduction got him from schools, to woods, to trees, and after that he was all right. He was deeply honored that a school had been named for him, for he felt he hadn’t done anything special in life, only what he liked. Two weeks later he died of a stroke, quite suddenly in the afternoon. He had made arrangements to have his library split up among his friends, even though from a scientific point of view it was better to keep the collection intact. But he'd said no, he wanted to give the books away as favors. One friend remembered how heavy his books were, and was reminded of his heavy, solid, furniture.

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