Who Was Theodore Payne?

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June 19, 1872

Theodore Payne was born in Church Brampton, Northamptonshire, England, a small village on the Althorp Estate. John and Pricilla Payne lived and worked at Manor Farm which had been in the family for five generations. During his tenure as manager of the Manor Farm, John Payne installed a garden that Pricilla, in her journal, said “brought [him] much pride and pleasure.”

The Paynes raised five sons and a daughter: Frederic, Edward, Frank, John,  Theodore, Raymond, and Annie.

John Payne passed away when Theodore was only five and Pricilla mourned his loss the rest of her life. Working in John’s garden brought some consolation and young Theodore was by her side. It was during these moments that his mother encouraged Theodore’s interest and passion for horticulture. Theodore’s other great horticultural influence in these early years was his uncle, Henry Headley. It was Uncle Henry’s approach to gardening that later inspired Theodore’s creation of the surprise wild flower seed mix.

Among the botanical treasures at Manor Farm was a mature Sequoiadendron giganteum, California’s largest tree. Sequoias had been imported to England in the early 1860s and John must have been one of the first to acquire seed or a seedling. The tree still graces Manor Farm today.

  Theo Payne at Manor Farm 

Photos, l to r

— Manor Farm, Church Brampton, Northamptonshire, England. Photographer unknown.

— Young Theodore carved his name into a stone windowsill at Manor Farm. Photo by Adrian Stockdale.

— Sequoiadendron giganteum at Manor Farm, September 2013. Photo by John Wickham.

The Paynes were a very devout Quaker family. In her journal, Pricilla expresses her deep faith and focuses on the spiritual well-being of her family. In one passage concerning young Theo she notes, “If anyone is in trouble or wicked, Theo maintains them in his prayers….He is growing into a fine and most interesting boy.”


Theodore’s mother Pricilla passed away when he was 12 years old, and he was soon sent sent to Ackworth Academy, a Quaker boarding school in West York, to study. His uncle had attended Ackworth, and his older brothers were presently enrolled.

In her biography of Payne, published in the British journal ‘Hortus’, Marie Ingram reminds us that “the Society of Friends’ doctrine of Divine Communion, Inward Light, encompasses cooperation with nature and faith in the Universe as a manifestation of the spirit.” At Ackworth, the Quaker faith supported and encouraged study of nature, the Quakers being early supporters of Charles Darwin’s new theories concerning natural selection and evolution. Payne’s curriculum included French, Mathematics, History, English Literature and Art, as well as Chemistry.

Scientific studies were an important part of the Ackworth curriculum, including natural history and botany. In 1887, he collected plant samples from the lands around Yorkshire. The botanical samples were carefully arranged and pressed, and fully documented. The resulting collection was submitted as  his herbarium project for the General Exhibition at the annual Gathering of the Friends. Payne’s collection earned First Prize as it was “beautifully mounted and thoroughly classified.” Second prize went to Charles Brightwen Rowntree. Theodore’s herbarium is one of the prized objects held, today, in the Foundation’s archives.

The Natural History Society, Ackworth School. Photo courtsey of Ackwoth Academy.

Ackworth School Natural History Society, circa 1885. Theodore Payne is on the second row, fourth from the left (starting from the Master) in a seated position. Photo courtesy of Celia Wolfe, archivist for Ackworth School.


Upon leaving Ackworth Academy, Theodore was apprenticed to J. Cheal & Sons for thorough training in the nursery and seed business. John Cheal was a leading horticulturist, offering a full line of services, including landscape and garden design, cut flower arrangements, plant propagation, seed harvesting and processing, and mail-order services. Theodore spent time in each of the departments at J. Cheal, learning all elements of the nursery business. During his apprenticeship, Theodore designed a wild garden for _____ and assisted in the installation of horticultural exhibits at the Crystal Palace and other garden exhibitions. J. Cheal traded in plants from all over the world, including a wide selection of wild flowers and trees from California.

J Cheal Catalog

Cover of a J. Cheal & Sons catalog, from the Theodore Payne archives.

June 10, 1893

Payne and the Cove family, West, Ellen, and their son William, left Southampton, England aboard the SS New York and arrive in New York on June 10, 1893. Ellis Island records indicate that Theodore brought 3 bags on the trip, described his profession as the “Seed Trade”, and expected to stay as a “Protracted Sojourner.” Though he indicated that his destination was New York, Payne was clearly continuing on to Los Angeles with the Cove family. On their way to Los Angeles, they stopped at the Columbia Exhibition in Chicago where Theodore celebrated his twenty-first birthday. The California Pavilion was particularly spectacular, with enormous displays of the rich agricultural products grown in California.


The SS New York

July 1893

In Los Angeles, Theodore became acquainted with James Denham, a Scotchman who ran a seed store. After spending three months picking apricots, Denham referred Theodore for the job as head gardener at the ranch of Madame Modjeska in Santiago Canyon, Orange County.

Theodore’s life at the Modjeska Ranch is captured in his 1962 book, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay 90s, republished in 2004 as Theodore Payne In His Own Words: A Voice for California Native Plants.

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Photos, l to r:

— Madame Helena Modjeska

— Modjeska Ranch, “Arden”


Theodore moved back to Los Angeles when he obtained a position at Germain Fruit and Seed Company as “flower seedsman.” For seven years, Payne was responsible for Germain’s flower, tree, and palm seed department. Among his responsibilities was preparing the annual catalog of seed offerings.

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Two Germain Seed and Plant Co. catalogs, from the Theodore Payne archives.

November 3, 1903

After training at one of England’s finest nurseries, tending a large estate, importing plants from Europe, and running the seed department for a major California enterprise, Theodore finally set out on his own. Payne purchased the Evans nursery at 440 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. This location had been a nursery since 1890. H.A. Brydges initially owned the site, which was then taken over by William S. Lyon. Payne acquired the nursery from Lyon, who discovered the Catalina Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus) and went on to become the first Forester of California. Payne’s nursery included a full range of flowers, vegetables, and trees, and he introduced a seed department.

Theodore Payne nursery at 440 S. Broadway, Los Angeles; photo from the Theodore Payne archives.


The Payne Nursery moved to 345 S. Main Street, adjacent to a prominent burlesque theater, in November 1905, and his office remained there until 1931. During this era, Theodore began to develop his specialty in California wild flowers and native plants, as well as eucalyptus. In order to grow a larger inventory, he also purchased growing grounds at 33rd St. and Hoover.

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Exterior and interior of the Theodore Payne Nursery at 345 S. Main Street, Los Angeles, CA; photos from the Theodore Payne archives.


Published the first catalog of seed offerings from the Theodore Payne Nursery. Payne went on to publish nearly 50 catalogs offering plants, bulbs, and seeds for sale. These included the comprehensive “Payne’s Garden Guide,” which appeared annually through 1932, as well as specialty catalogs for bulbs and California wild flower seeds. These catalogs show Payne as the consummate salesman, promoting the “integrity” of his seeds and the wide range of horticultural services offered by his nursery. His catalogs also offered concepts for a unique style of California gardening and detailed horticultural information for the wide range of vegetables, flowers, and trees he sold, as well as the California wild flowers he became known for. One of the first catalogs Payne published featured California wild flowers exclusively. An image gallery of the Payne catalogs can be found on the “From the Archives” page on this website.

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Covers of the first two Theodore Payne Nursery catalogs, from the Theodore Payne archives.


Social and professional organizations were a significant part of Theodore’s life. He supported many and was often a board member and founding member. He was founder and president of the Los Feliz Boulevard Business Association, president of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, and a founding member of the California Association of Nurserymen (CAN). The first CAN conference was held at the Doheny Gardens in Los Angeles. Proceedings were published by Arthur Kruckeberg and included a report by Payne on the subject of the value of growing Australian plants in California.

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Attendees at the First Annual Conference of the California Association of Nurserymen, from “Proceedings….”

December 26, 1907

Theodore Payne married Alice Noyes in San Francisco. Born and raised in California, Alice worked for many years as a teacher. She accompanied Theodore on many trips into the wild areas of California. Their vacations and visits with friends often included stops to collect seeds. It was on such a trip that Theodore and Alice found the orchid-flowered clarkia. They were married for 56 years.


Alice and Theodore Payne at their home in Atwater Village, date and photographer unknown, from the Theodore Payne archives.


Became President of Wildflower Club of Southwest Museum. While associated with the Southwest Museum, he laid out its native garden and developed a herbarium.

October 23, 1913

Theodore Payne becomes a naturalized citizen of the United States. He notes his religion as “Society of Friends,” still identifying himself as a Quaker.


After meeting with a prospective client for a landscape design project in the Simi Valley, Theodore went exploring in the local canyons. Driving up Tapo Canyon, he found a large lupine in full bloom. It was very tall with profuse blooms of a wide range of colors. He collected samples of the plant, thinking that it was a new species. He sent these samples to Dr. Harvey Hall who was unable to make a full identification and surmised it was L. longifolius. Four years later, Payne returned to Tapo Canyon to collect more samples as well as seed. He again sent material to botanists in northern California, to Dr. Leroy Abrams at Stanford University. Abrams thought it “the most beautiful lupine he had ever seen and recommended that Dr. Anstruther Davidson in Los Angeles attempt to identify the plant. On review, Davidson determined that it was, indeed, a new species and named it Lupinus paynei. Several years later, C. Piper Smith conducted a full review of the shrubby lupines in California and decided that L. paynei was actually a form of L. excubitus var. hallii. Despite this name change, Payne continued to offer seeds and plants for sale as Payne’s lupine. After many decades, recent DNA analysis has determined that this particular lupine is a unique species, Lupinus paynei.


Racemes showing the diversity of color forms in the Lupinus paynei, 2010; photo by John Wickham.


In advance of the expositions of 1915 in both San Francisco and San Diego, Payne attempted to develop gardens that would exclusively feature California native plants. Deciding that it would be too difficult to manage these faraway projects, he decided to focus on creating such a garden in Los Angeles and, following approval by the Board of Park Commissioners, Payne began his planning process. He was eventually given five acres at the corner of Figueroa and Martin Luther King Blvd, current site of the Sports Arena. The California Wild Garden contained 262 species of California native trees, shrubs and wild flowers, planted according to ecological areas and centered around five native trees: sycamore, redwood, oak, giant sequoia, and Monterey and Torrey pines.

In the Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, Payne described the wild flower plantings:

Enter the garden from the north entrance on Figueroa Street the general color scheme was yellow. One of the first flowers to be noticed was the little Sunshine (Lasthenia gracilis) covering the ground with a perfect carpet of yellow, broken here and there with the large cream-colored blossoms of the Malacothrix californica, opening to the early morning sun. Then came masses of yellow mountain daisies, and beyond these a perfect sea of tidy-tips with here and there a patch of cream-cups, while large bushes of yellow lupine, sticky monkey flower and other shrubby plants rose above the smaller flowers. A few stray plants of blue lupine, blue gilia and baby-blue-eyes added greatly to the color effect. Further down the walk and near the sycamore grove the color scheme changed to blues, lavenders, and purples, produced by masses of wild heliotropes, blue gilias, penstemons and large blue bush lupines. Beyond this was a field of orange poppies enhanced by splashes of blue and lavender from lupines, gilias and thistle sage, while in the southeast corner was billow upon billow of blue and white lupines. Then to the west were golden blazing stars, lilac gilias, violet Canterbury bells and many others. In the oak grove the baby-blue-eyes seemed perfectly at home while the collinsias peeped out from beneath the shade of elderberries. There were mariposa lilies too and brodiaes scattered among the other flowers; floral firecrackers and tiger lilies mingled with the bracken ferns under the redwoods. Artists painted pictures of it, every day students and nature lovers visited it, birds, bees and butterflies made it their home. As visitors came down the main path they felt the breath of the wild and forgot they were almost in the heart of a big city. “Why its just wild” they would exclaim. This spontaneous expression of their feelings was very gratifying to me for I felt that I had really achieved MY WILD GARDEN.

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The prominent landscape architect Ralph D. Cornell studied at Pomona College and Harvard University. Upon his discharge from the army after World War I,  Cornell and Payne formed a five-year partnership. During their short time together, they designed several important landscape projects, including work for Pomona College, Occidental College, and Torrey Pines Park.  They had a standing contract with the City of Pasadena, under which they designed Washington Park and prepared a survey and plan for street trees throughout the city. Cornell and Payne first met when Cornell was a student at Pomona College. Charles Fuller Baker, head of the Department of Biology at Pomona, advised Cornell to seek out Payne, whom he considered “a man among men.” On his first visit to Payne’s nursery on Main Street, Cornell found Payne napping at his desk. It was the start of a 54-year friendship that Cornell described as “a deep, personal friendship we both cherished.” They spent many days exploring California, seeking wild flowers. Throughout their acquaintance, Cornell referred to Payne as “Boss.”

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The Payne Nursery moved to a 10-acre site in the Los Angeles community of Atwater Village, located at 1969-99 Los Feliz Blvd., across the street from the Tam O’Shanter restaurant and adjacent to property owned by Gladding McBean, manufacturers of Franciscan Pottery. Payne obtained an architectural rendering from Myron Hunt for the nursery building and developed a full-service horticultural operation. He propagated and sold plants in the nursery, and had enough acreage to grow row crops of wild flower and collection of seed that he would then sell to the public.

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Provided ideas and plant materials for Blaksley (now Santa Barbara) Botanic Garden.


Assisted Mrs. Susanna Bixby Bryant with siting and design of original Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Orange County.  (He helped relocate the Garden to Claremont in 1951.) Maintained private estate landscaping commissions throughout Southern California:  Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Pasadena, and Santa Barbara


Payne became a presenter on the Foster and Kleiser radio program,”Garden Clubs of the Air” and used this opportunity to describe the beauty of the wild flowers of the Pacific Coast and their value in the home garden.


Created native plant garden with 176 species at California Institute of  Technology, Pasadena (later site of Norman Church Laboratory).

August 1941

The past decade had been particularly difficult for Payne with regard to financial matters. The City had taken some of his land to improve both Los Feliz Blvd. and Perlita Ave., as well as building stormwater improvements. Rather than compensate Payne for the taking, the City assessed the property over $19,000 for the cost of the benefits constructed (approximately $325,000 in 2013 dollars). Changes in State law in 1935 prevented such takings without adequate compensation, but that came too late to assist Payne. He sought support from friends to raise money to cover these costs. He also sought relief from both the City and the County, both to no avail. Bank of America foreclosed on three of the parcels held under mortgage, as he was unable to make the payments. The State later confiscated another parcel. In the end, Payne lost ownership of his nursery properties on Los Feliz Boulevard. He was, however, able to remain on a small portion as a renter to continue his work. The Payne Nursery no longer offered fruits and vegetables, watsonias and amaryllis. It was now  exclusively devoted to California native plants.

Mcgroarty letter


Celebrated 80th birthday on June 19.  Honored by Southern California Horticultural Institute (now Society) and given honorary life membership.



In 1950, publishing magnate Manchester Boddy arranged for Theodore to visit his estate in La Canada, “Rancho de Descanso.” Boddy wanted to devote an area of the estate exclusively to the native plants and wild flowers of California and asked for Theodore’s help with the idea. Payne identified an area of the estate which would be ideal for the native garden, but Boddy sold his estate to the County of Los Angeles, to create Descanso Gardens, before initiating the native garden. Some years later, the supervisor of Descanso Gardens contacted Payne to again discuss the idea of a dedicated area at Descanso for the California flora. A small committee of botanists, landscape designers, and others interested in California native plants was assembled and the project was initiated in 1958 with design, building trails, and grading. Over the next two years, Theodore planted several hundred species of native plants in the garden.

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Incorporation of The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants, Inc., a non-profit organization to perpetuate California’s native flora, on January 6.



Dedication of 320 acres in Antelope Valley near Llano as The Theodore Payne Wildlife Sanctuary by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on January 28.

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Published Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties. This charming book provides insight into life in southern California in the early 1890s, as well as stories of young Payne’s discovery of the diverse and beautiful California native flora.

Modjeska book

Celebrated 90th birthday on June 19 at Administration Hall of Los Angeles County Supervisors. Attending the celebration are friends such as Supervisor John Anson Ford; Dr. Bonnie Templeton, head of the Botany Department at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; and Tasker Edmiston of The Nature Conservancy.


January 19, 1963

The Theodore Payne Foundation was working overtime to find a new location for its nursery, having been given notice by Gladding McBean that they would no longer be able to remain on the Los Feliz property. Efforts were made to identify land to continue Payne’s work and build the Foundation’s nursery program, including sites in Pasadena and Irvine. Efforts seemed successful when a site was found at Whittier Narrows. A dedication ceremony was held at the site on January 19, 1963, with Mr. Payne speaking to a gathering of distinguished guests. The site was owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who shortly after the dedication withdrew the Foundation’s rights to use the land because the Foundation would be selling plants.

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May 6, 1963

Theodore died on May 6, 1963, in Glendale, California. His friends had worried over his health for many months. His admittance to the hospital didn’t seem much at first, but he quickly declined. He was cremated and interred at Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, California. A presentation copy of Payne’s Life at the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties formerly owned by Eddie Merrill was found in the Foundation’s library. The inscription on the inside cover shows that, even in his last moments, Payne’s beloved California native plants were on his mind and his instruction to all of us was to “make the Foundation a success.”

Merrill Inscription