Theodore Payne

Theodore Payne

If you have an interest in California Native Plants, you need to know about Theodore Payne. Theodore Payne was a horticulturist that pioneered the use of California native plants in the early 20th century. Much of what we know about planting California Native Gardens in 2022 is owed to his life's work.

Early Life

Payne was born in England in 1872 into a devout Quaker family. At the time, the Quaker faith encouraged the study of nature. In fact, the Quakers were early supporters of Darwin's new theories of evolution. The pursuit of knowledge in nature and natural selection were important to Payne, leading him to delve into the world of botany.

Moving to the New World

After apprenticing at J. Cheal & Sons Nursery in Sussex, Payne traveled to America. Arriving at Ellis Island in 1893, Payne declared his profession as a seed trader. Payne traveled across the continent, stopping at the World Trades Fair in Chicago before arriving in Los Angeles. After a few months working as a fruit picker in Los Angeles, Payne was employed as Head Gardener for the Modjeksa Ranch in Orange County, California. The grounds at the Modjeksa Ranch were renowned at the time and have been preserved as a historic landmark and public park.

The Seedsman

In 1896, Payne returned to Los Angeles to work as 'flower seedsman' for Germain Fruit and Seed Co.

In 1903, Payne started his own nursery, selling both plants and seeds. A few years later, Payne published his first seed catalog. Payne would go on to publish almost 50 catalogs, with an emphasis on California Native Plants.


The rapid colonization of California that started in the late 19th Century was already beginning to take it's toll on native habitats. Payne spent much of his life urging the use of native plants. He lectured all across the west coast on California native plant habitat preservation.

Landscape Designer

Payne was an accomplished designer as well as a nurseryman. In 1915, Payne created the wild garden at Exposition Park in Los Angeles. He was one of the founding designers of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in 1926. Payne later assisted Susan Bixby Bryant in the creation of the California Botanic Garden in Claremont. Payne designed numerous private and public gardens in Southern California. During his career he introduced over 430 species of California Native Plants to the public.

Theodore Payne Foundation

Payne retired in 1958 and in 1960, he created the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants to continue his work for future generations.

Today, the foundation has an extensive nursery and growing operation. They also offer educational classes on California Native Horticulture. The foundation's nursery is adjoined to undeveloped land in the Verdugo Mountains of North East Los Angeles and has trails with demonstration gardens around the property.

In addition to the nursery and educational facility, the Foundation has a mail-order seed service and has created extensive Gardening resources on their website, including a plant encyclopedia which is very handy for looking up plants in a hurry at your local Plant Sale!

Another useful resource is their Wildflower Hotline. The Wildflower Hotline has been in operation since 1983. Every Friday from March until June, a voice report is available by phone for updates on where to see wildflowers in Southern and Central California. This has now been updated to a weekly PDF report as well as a recording.

Tristam Bielecki

Tristam Bielecki

Garden Designer based in Los Angeles, California. Tristam specialises in planning drought tolerant and sustainable gardens with an emphasis on native plants.