Immigrants (the plant kind) Assimilate in Montecito

When Francesco Franceschi moved his family onto Charles Frederick Eaton’s estate in December of 1893, the Southern California Acclimatizing Association was born. Franceschi’s purpose was to introduce plants from around the world and acclimatize them to Santa Barbara so that each succeeding generations would be hardier and more adapted.

Elizabeth Eaton Burton, the daughter of Charles Frederick Eaton, recalls her first impression of Franceschi, a famous botanist. “He was grey and much bent and had a very long nose and near sighted eyes, and a rather weak treble voice,” she wrote in her memoirs.

That first year, while the lathhouse was being built and the first seeds were being set out, Franceschi spent a great deal of time taking stock of the Santa Barbara botanical scene. He met with other horticulturalists in the area, people like Mrs. Judge Fernald, Eugene Sheffield, E.H. Sawyer, Kinton Stevens, and I.G. Waterman to see what they had imported and which plants were doing well.

He found that Mr. Kinton Stevens had numerous large specimens of cocos plumosa as well as many other kinds of palms and predicted that someday “these noble plants will impart a special character to our town.”

“Over thirty distinct species of palms have already obtained citizenship in Santa Barbara,” he wrote. “Many remain to be introduced, and our efforts must work in that direction.” His efforts were prodigious for Cold Spring Road was originally called Palm Drive.

Only two of the ahuacate or alligator pears (avocado trees) brought to Santa Barbara by Judge Ord in 1870 were still alive in 1894 – one at Ord’s residence on de la Vina Street and the other on E.H. Sawyer’s land in Montecito. Mr. Packard, however, was still growing the cherimoyas he introduced 24 years previously, and the bananas, which were introduced so long ago no one remembered exactly when or from where, still thrived on Mr. Ferl’s farm off Sycamore Canyon.

Franceschi published his findings in “Santa Barbara Exotic Flora: a Handbook of Plants from foreign Countries Grown at Santa Barbara, California” in 1895. Having assessed what had already been done in the way of acclimatizing exotic species, he was able to make his own efforts new and unique.

In August 1894, the first advertisement for the Southern California Acclimatizing Association hit the news stands. Over the next several months the public would be invited to join “Chas. Frederick Eaton, Landscape Architect, and Dr. Francesco Franceschi, Botanical Collector, at the Greenhouses and Experimental Grounds at El Montecito, Santa Barbara, California.” The duo offered plans and estimates for planting and beautifying city or country grounds as well as seeds and plants “supplied at Best rates.” Price List Number 1 was ready by September and contained many valuable novelties.

In 1895, an Abstract from Price List Number 2 advertised potted cherimoyas and Cape chestnut for $1, mangoes and coffee for $.50, Tabasco pepper and ahuacate seedlings for $.25, and strawberry guavas for $.10. The partnership seemed to be doing well.

In fact, at the annual flower fest of 1895, the Southern California Acclimatizing Association won a $5 first prize in the category of General Collection of Flowers and Ornamental Plants in Pots and Boxes. The Morning Press described the display as a scene of beauty with its tent lighted by Chinese fairy lanterns, which illuminated a circular pyramid of 350 new or rare tropical trees and plants. In November, 37 new introductions were exhibited at St. Louis, Missouri.


Of Franceschi, Elizabeth Eaton Burton wrote, “…one could see that he was a true lover of plants from the botanical aspect. When it came to the aesthetic one, that was a different matter. I felt a lack of bright blooms on our lawns and asked if Dr. Franceschi might plant out a bed of flowers for me. I shall never forget waiting patiently for those plants to bloom, but I had qualms at quite an early stage in their growth when I saw they had furry, spiky grey leaves. Arrived at about three feet in height, the poor plants obliged by blossoming into a tiny flower, and I, thoroughly disgusted, had the bed dug up and planted it out in my own fashion.” (Susan Chamberlin, horticultural historian, surmises Franceschi’s plant may have been germander.)

On January 24, 1895, Helen Justice Mitchell Eaton died at Riso Rivo. Besides her husband, she left behind three adult children and their much younger sibling, 5-year-old Dorothy. Eaton was devastated. Elizabeth wrote, “What would happen now she was gone so early in life, and I married and away from the home? It resulted in our going to my father for a time, until he again built up his life and resumed his all-consuming occupation of landscape gardening.

By the end of 1895, Franceschi had sole control of the Southern California Acclimatizing Association and in December planted 500 specimen trees and shrubs at State and Gutierrez streets where large propagating and growing houses were being constructed. He brought with him the live stump of the Santa Cruz Island ironwood which he had collected and planted in his lathhouse in Montecito.

No one knows what caused the break-up of the partnership. In light of the mourning at Riso Rivo and Eaton’s incapacitation, perhaps Franceschi felt his presence intrusive. In Santa Barbara his business continued to do well and his influence on Santa Barbara horticulture continued to be strong through his civic projects, writings and botanical experimentation.

Eventually, he would build a home and a nursery on the Riviera that he operated until 1913 when he was recruited by the Italian government to set up a horticultural program in Libya. Although he always planned to return to Santa Barbara, Dr. Francesco Franceschi died in Tripoli in 1924. Montarioso, his former home and nursery, was donated to the city as a park and as a lasting monument to his gifts and accomplishments.


Today, Montecitans and Santa Barbarans can see evidence of Franceschi’s contributions each day. According to Susan Chamberlin, Franceschi propagated and planted the Italian Stone Pines on Anapamu Street and the palms on Las Palmas Drive in Hope Ranch. Thanks to him the purple orchid tree (Bauhinia variegata), floss-silk tree (Chorisia speciosa) and coral tree (Erythrina corallodendrum) add brilliant tropical color to the Santa Barbara landscape. Asparagus ferns (Asparagus sprengeri) add texture and Clivia miniata contributes brilliant color to shady areas. Agave attenuata have given us a spectacular show this year as their gigantic flowered spikes arched majestically throughout the city. And then, of course, depending on one’s attitude toward the ubiquitous green cylinder, one can either bless Franceschi or curse him for introducing Italian zucchini to the United States.

Charles Frederick Eaton eventually became active again as a landscape architect, but also started working as an arts and crafts artisan, creating intricately designed wood and metal chests, albums and other items that received critical acclaim at various art shows throughout the United States.

His daughter, Elizabeth Eaton Burton, who was an arts and crafts artist in her own right, tried her hand at landscape design as well. She was recruited by I.G. Waterman to landscape Mira Vista in Montecito. Arriving at her State Street art studio one day in high agitation, he insisted she start the job immediately as the stone masons were already on the property.

She reluctantly agreed and tore down the narrow terraces about the house and had the lemon orchard removed so that wide Italian stone terraces could be built. She designed roads that wound up beside the canyon bed and rock gardens and a pool on the first terrace. Waterman’s gig was her first and only foray into the world of landscape architecture.

Though it didn’t last, the partnership between Eaton and Franceschi had a lasting effect on Montecito and Santa Barbara. Without it, it is unlikely that Santa Barbara would have become a chief horticultural and botanical center on the Pacific Coast.

(Sources: Susan Chamberlin, Elizabeth Eaton Burton’s “My Santa Barbara Scrapbook,” Will Beittel’s “Dr. F. Franceschi: Pioneer Plantsman,” contemporary news articles.)