The History of Commonwealth Nursery

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Griffith Park is steeped in history. Whether one is strolling around Fern Dell, exploring the ruins of the Old Zoo, or riding the carousel, a visitor to the Park is immersed in an environment that harkens to the past while it simultaneously enriches the experience of the present.

There is, however, one slice of Griffith Park’s history that is largely unknown to the public, the Commonwealth Nursery. Situated in a canyon at the northernmost border of Commonwealth Avenue, the remnants of Commonwealth Nursery endure, revealing just a glimpse of a majestic nursery that was, according to accounts in The Los Angeles Times, “made larger than any municipal undertaking of its kind in the country.”

The nursery was officially established on May 26, 1928, around the same time that Roosevelt Golf Course was created, and approximately two years before the official opening of the Greek Theatre. The nursery operated on nearly 12 acres of land and produced 500,000 plants within its first year. Its purpose was clear: to locally produce all the trees, shrubs, and flowers for city parks and public buildings and according to The Times, makes “Griffith Park one of the largest gardens of native flowers and shrubs in the world.”

These were admirable goals, and the nursery was well-equipped to achieve them. Fully staffed from the onset with 19 men from the Los Angeles Parks Department as it was known then, 26 W.P.A. men and women workers, and with chief propagator Joseph Kladler at the helm, the nursery expanded its capacity every year and produced between one and two million plants annually during its heyday.

Fortunately, hundreds of thousands of these plants were our very own native plants of Griffith Park, such as rhus, ceanothus in variety, fremontias, manzanita, barberries, mimulus, prunus, rhamnus and others. In one planting bed alone, 75,000 coast live oaks were growing from locally collected acorns, a sight which astonished and amazed the 500 park employees who attended the nursery’s official grand opening in 1928.

The nursery featured acres of growing ­­beds, a one-acre lath house, a general office, a caretaker’s cottage, a research library, storage rooms for bulbs and tubers, bins for materials, a manufacturing area for pots, and two large greenhouses. The design of the greenhouses was ahead of its time, as it captured rainwater from the roof and stored it in a great underground tank for use six months out of the year rather than relying on municipal water.

While contemporary concerns have made rainwater harvesting and water conservation a large priority in Los Angeles, it is now evident that Commonwealth Nursery operated with a sustainability ethic long before the more recent green movement. Unfortunately, water conservation was not always a priority outside the nursery, as simultaneous plans were being made to establish an extensive network of irrigation throughout the entire Park that would give the recently planted native plants the irrigation and care that is commonly given to a modern lawn, artificially increasing the rainfall of the Park by 400%. Luckily, this costly and unsustainable endeavor was never fully realized, while plant propagation at the nursery continued to flourish.

In addition to plant production, the nursery also supported a robust horticulture education program whereby interested individuals could apprentice at the nursery to learn from experts and work their way up into the Park department. During its first official year of operation, there were 12 apprentices participating in the program.

As the years went by, the nursery continued to offer horticulture education and operated as a training ground for Recreation and Parks grounds maintenance staff, as well as providing a site for schoolchildren to learn about horticulture and native flora.

Yet despite the public benefit that the Commonwealth Nursery provided to Griffith Park and Los Angeles as a whole, the entire horticulture program ended in the 1970s after the passage of Proposition 13. Budget cuts made supporting the facility and its staff untenable and as a result, the nursery fell into great disrepair.

Today, walking around the site of old Commonwealth Nursery, one sees dilapidated remnants of the buildings and once striking structures. Growing grounds have made way for asphalt parking lots and holding yards for park maintenance vehicles, shuttle buses, dumpsters, and equipment. Two greenhouses are slowly collapsing with massive downed eucalyptus limbs caving in its roofs. The lath house is no longer visible, and a system of tattered shadestructures remains in its place. The nursery office, research library, storage rooms and materials bins have been repurposed as offices and storage facilities.

The millions of plants that once lined the ground on the entire 12 acres are mostly gone, leaving behind tangles of weeds, occasional pot-bound palm trees, escaped bamboo thickets, and overgrown bougainvillea.

Yet in the face of all this, one can still sense the latent vibrancy of the people and plants that once animated the site during the glory days of the nursery. The excitement of designing and innovating, the fervor of transplanting and potting, the joy of teaching and learning, and the quiet energy of millions of plants growing, are echoed with every step of the site. Fortunately, as a result of the infusion of Prop K funds – thanks to the joint venture of the Department of Recreation and Parks and the LA Parks Foundation – a portion of the nursery will soon be renovated, and the enchantment of Commonwealth Nursery will once again become a reality for an entire new generation of Angelenos.

Currently, the nonprofit Grown in LA has established an initial proof-of-concept native plant nursery on the site, restoring the original goal of the nursery to grow the plants that benefit our parks, create habitat for our local wildlife, and provide an opportunity for horticulture and ecology education. Many plants grown at the nursery have already been earmarked for various habitat enhancement projects within Griffith Park, such as the Bird Sanctuary and Anza Native Garden restorations spearheaded by Friends of Griffith Park.

If you’d like to support the reinvigoration of plant propagation at Commonwealth Nursery, please contact Katherine.pakradouni@growninla.org.

Let’s see what we can grow together!

~Katherine Pakradouni

Katherine Pakradouni has enjoyed Griffith Park for much of her life and is fortunate to be giving back to the Park by growing California native plants at Commonwealth Nursery with nonprofit Grown in LA. Prior to her work with Grown in LA, Katherine worked for four years at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants where she was able to inspire others to garden using our local, habitat-supportive flora.

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