On-line Book

Book Cover
Presenting Nature








Design Ethic Origins

Design Policy & Process

Western Field Office

Park Planning

Decade of Expansion

State Parks

Appendix A

Appendix B


Presenting Nature:
The Historic Landscape Design of the National Park Service, 1916-1942
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In keeping with the growing interest in gardening with native plants, concessionaires began planting natural gardens, many of which were already in place when Bryant issued the set of ideals. In the early 1920s, Yosemite's Curry Camping Company hired a wild flower expert, Carl Purdy, to establish wild flower meadows around Camp Curry. Although plants commonly grazed by deer were avoided, the project was abandoned after three years of unsuccessful attempts to keep out the deer. Longer lasting, and of far-reaching influence, was the Olmsted firm's development of the grounds for the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley in the late 1920s. [108]

Required by the park superintendent to use only native species, Olmsted Brothers developed a landscape plan in 1927 that preserved and enhanced the existing vegetation in the form of a wild garden and native plant reserve. The building was located so that the greatest number of trees would screen the building and shelter the grounds. The Awahnee was sited to provide superb views of Glacier Point, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the Royal Arches. It also offered an ideal all year site because it afforded a maximum amount of sunshine in winter and had sufficient forests surrounding it to relieve the extreme heat of the north wall of the valley in the summer. [109]

In 1927, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company reported on the public's favorable reaction to the "landscape development." The Ahwahnee was ideally situated for natural gardening, offering a location where the meadow and forest would gradually merge with the meadowlike lawn and where the plant life of several life zones could be restored. The company remarked, "Perhaps no where else in the valley could the combination of dry granitic rock plants (usually found in altitudes from 500 to 2,000 feet), wet meadow plants (commonly found in altitudes from 4,000 to 6,000 ft.) and shade-loving plants of the woods be grown with such a degree of success and in such close proximity to each other." [110]

The plan was to create a plant reserve that could be enjoyed by visitors from the windows of the lodge and by those who strolled the grounds. The concessionaire envisioned a reserve worthy of interpretation by nature guides as well. This purpose was described:

It was our general thought, therefore, to create a plant refuge at The Ahwahnee and restore the area to the condition it was ten and fifteen years ago. It is well remembered that the meadow many years ago were filled with evening primroses, godetias, Mariposa lilies and countless other wildflowers which have practically disappeared, owing to the grazing of the deer. We plan to restore this condition gradually, working from the hotel outward and attempting no more in a year than we could handle. It was also planned to give the Nature Guide Service free access to the area, in order that the nature classes could study many of the wildflowers that have practically disappeared from the floor of the Yosemite. [111]

Many of the first plantings were destroyed by grazing deer and elk. The elk were particularly destructive, grazing on manzanita, cascara, wild rose, and other plants and actually pulling great branches to the ground and killing entire trees. As a result, the concessionaire requested permission to erect "fences, ditches and wire entanglements" to "be an absolute barrier against deer and elk." In November 1927, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., visited the Ahwahnee site with Donald Tressider, President of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, and Eldridge T. Spencer, a San Francisco architect. Olmsted's purpose was to locate twenty-five cottages on the grounds and to consider the location for an eight-foot fence to keep out deer and elk. He recommended grading the lawns on the south, east, and west sides of the hotel so "that the hotel appeared to rest on a natural knoll." This was worked out in cross sections on site. He also suggested "bouldering" the slope cut into the east side of the brook and planting it with ferns and rock-growing flowers. As an interim measure until the fence could be built, he recommended planting only those plants that deer would not eat, such as ferns, bay trees, azalea, spruce, and pine. His assistant further suggested planting ferns and vines of the native California grape about the bases of the hotel's stone piers, noting that the grapevines would need to be protected by wire screens. [112]

By 1929, with the fence constructed and thousands of dollars having been spent for replanting by the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, the garden provided a splendid display of azaleas and was reported by Albright to be "the only place in the valley where native flowers" could "be seen in any profusion." [113]

There is little question that the landscape work at the Ahwahnee greatly interested Vint and his staff, and they drew on this splendid example of a naturalistic landscape in the wilderness. By 1933, resident landscape architect John Wosky likely had drawn up a naturalization plan for the government area of Yosemite Village. The planting of California azalea, California wild grapes, ferns, manzanita, cascara, and other native plants was part of a village beautification program. Other improvements included the construction of curbing and new paths, the repair of many old oak and apple trees, and the removal of a number of dilapidated buildings, borrow pits, and dumps. This program would be carried out through Emergency Conservation Work from 1933 to 1936. Ferns were planted along the boulder foundations of Lewis Hospital, wild grapevines were staked to climb up and cover the boulder walls of the museum and administration building, and azaleas and other shrubs were planted throughout the village around new residences. And a wild flower garden representing several life zones was developed in the yard of the Yosemite Museum. These plantings were largely in the same spirit as the grounds of the Ahwahnee. Furthermore, the work of the Yosemite concessionaire in wild gardening encouraged other concessionaires to plant displays and borders of wild flowers and other native plants.


Under the leadership of Ansel Hall, who headed the Educational Division in the Western Field Office, and with the support of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation and the American Association of Museums, programs interpreting the natural history of the parks expanded in the late 1920s. By the late 1920s, they included flora studies, ranger talks and tours, museum exhibits, institutes, and the publication of "nature notes" in many parks. The educational program provided abundant information that could be used in the landscape naturalization program. Each park had a rich palette of native specimens that included herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees, which could be used to naturalize the grounds of museums, wayside exhibits, amphitheaters, and trail hubs. Native plants and curving paths edged with natural cobbles and boulders drawn from nearby streambeds became an important characteristic in the landscape design of these new facilities. By 1930, outdoor "zone" gardens had become a popular interpretive feature of national park museums.

The first wild flower garden was planned around the lookout at Glacier Point in Yosemite as a collaborative effort between the Educational and Landscape divisions in 1925. It was not until the end of 1929 that wild gardens were considered a regular feature. That year, gardens were planted at the newly completed museums at the Old Faithful formation in Yellowstone and Yavapai Point at Grand Canyon. In Sequoia, a wild flower garden was established at Giant Forest in an area approximately forty by sixty feet, adjacent to the museum and administration buildings. About seventy species of wild flowers were transplanted and labeled with metal signs, many of the specimens being carried from Alta Peak and other timberline habitats many miles distant, while others were brought up from lower elevations. [114]

A moist rock garden had been planted as a student experiment behind the Yosemite Museum, and the Castle Crest Garden was taking form near the headquarters at Crater Lake. At Yellowstone, naturalist Carl P. Russell integrated interpretive gardens and natural plantings into the design of branch museums at Fishing Bridge, Norris Geyser Basin, and Madison Junction and the trailside exhibits, nature shrines, and lookouts that were being developed throughout the park with the assistance of funds provided by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation and representatives of the American Association of Museums. The gardens were generally situated on one or several sides of the building and were laid out among shrubs and trees preserved during construction. Trees were planted at the entrances and corners of the buildings much as Davidson and Sager had done at Mount Rainier. What was different however, was the integration of plants and labels along the paths leading to the museum's entrance and to the outdoor garden, amphitheater, or naturalist's residence. [115]

In his annual report, Horace Albright commended the new nature gardens. In his opinion, they enabled visitors who, through lack of time or physical strength, were unable to visit all parts of the park to "see and enjoy as many varieties as possible of the exquisite wild flowers that abound in out-of-the way places." The Landscape Division, however, was not altogether in agreement with the Educational Division on the appropriateness of interpretive gardens. Throughout the 1930s, Davidson, with Vint's backing, opposed the development of a garden at Longmire. He wrote,

A "wildflower garden" is one of the most difficult of all gardening feats. To be successfully done it must have constant care and attention of an exceptionally good gardener. The entire park is a "wildflower garden" and an attempt to condense species and varieties into a small area for tabloid consumption, is partially defeating one main objective of the park, i.e. to get visitors to move about and enjoy the park—its scenery and its floral decorations. "Wildflower gardens" are artificial, unconvincing and more or less depressing in effect. [116]

Museum gardens were a direct result of the park service's expanding interest in natural history. Not only had Harold C. Bryant been appointed to the service's new position of assistant director for education in Washington, but parks had also begun to hire resident naturalists to direct the interpretation programs. Interpretation relied upon both plantings of native vegetation and the preservation of the natural ecology of the park. The advances and discoveries made by the naturalists contributed to the specialized horticultural knowledge of park landscape engineers and architects, who grouped native, wild species based on climate, elevation, soil, and water as they developed a palette appropriate to each location within a park. Selection of appropriate plants, the dynamics of natural revegetation, methods for transplanting, and the necessary conditions for propagating were all areas in which the park naturalist could help the landscape architect. Although no formal procedures existed for this interaction, the presence of landscape architects on site in the parks to oversee grading, sloping, and planting activities would have provided many opportunities for collaboration.

Unlike buildings, which could be constructed in a single season, it took several seasons to establish life-zone gardens and achieve splendid displays of park flora. Donations of time, labor, and funds contributed to the development of many park gardens. At Grand Canyon in the area surrounding the Yavapai Point Observation Building, an extensive garden of native wild plants was begun as soon as the museum was completed in 1929. By 1931, plants from the Canadian Zone of the North Rim and from the Lower Sonoran Zone within the canyon were installed in defined plots along tightly curving paths studded with local boulders. The rest of the area was landscaped with plants of the Upper Sonoran Zone, which is the natural habitat at the South Rim. The Boy Scouts of America, which made a naturalist-expedition to the park in 1930, contributed the initial planting for the garden. Later, plants were added by park naturalists. [117]

The development of interpretive gardens extended to the national monuments as well as the parks and became increasingly popular features in the 1930s. Casa Grande, which was also the headquarters for the southwestern monuments, had installed an interpretive desert garden in the late 1920s. By 1930, a garden of southwestern plants and cacti had been planted at the entrance to Carlsbad Cavern, attracting visitors and furnishing an excellent opportunity for a nature guide service. By 1931, there were plans to reestablish lost flora at Muir Woods, including the azaleas, dogwoods, and other flowering plants that were almost exterminated in the past. Many of these gardens were plotted in the master plan for each park. [118]

When photographed by National Park Service photographer George Grant in November 1936, the zone garden at the Yavapai Point Observation Building in Grand Canyon National Park was laid out in tightly curving, rock-edged paths and had gardens that displayed the native flora of the various zones within the park. Begun in 1929, the planting occurred over several years and was carried out under the supervision of the park naturalist. (National Park Service Historic Photography Collection)


The interaction of the natural history and landscape design program was probably its greatest at Yosemite, which had the oldest and most extensive interpretive and educational programs in the national park system. Herbert Maier's design for the park museum completed in 1926 included a back porch for open-air exhibits, including one depicting the living plants of the region. The first flower exhibits consisted of freshly cut flowers displayed in individual vases on a pyramid-shaped stand on the rear porch during the summer months. The stand was especially designed so that fresh water constantly circulated through the vases. Once a week, a nature guide would travel to different parts of the park to collect flowers, including meadow pennyroyal, yarrow, Queen Anne's lace, giant hyssop, yawning penstemon, St.-John's-wort, Indian hemp or dogbane, tiger lily, knotweed, buckwheat, calycanthus, wild ginger, alumroot, asters, azalea, columbine, clarkia, broadiae, pinedrops, and evening primrose. This type of exhibit, however, presented several difficulties. Keeping specimens fresh during the journey from distant points of the park was not easy. Many plants could survive only for brief periods, and the numbers of rare plants, such as snow plants, that could be exhibited were limited. The exhibits were especially popular with park visitors, and by 1928, efforts began to create "live" gardens in the area behind the museum. [119]

The museum garden evolved in several stages. It began in summer of 1929 as an experimental student project in the form of a moist rock garden behind the museum on a section of the alluvial fan at the mouth of Indian Canyon. The following year, a dry or moraine garden, requiring special soil, sun, and watering conditions, was added. A well-drained bed of soil imitating the dry soil and rocky crevices of the glacial moraines was prepared, and plants were gathered from various locations among the cliffs of the valley. In 1932, with a gift of $4,000 from Marjorie Montgomery Ward, a two-acre area was fenced, a flagstone path was laid out, and over one hundred different types of wild flowers were planted. An "ancient" spring was revitalized, and a stream and several pools of fresh water were created. Faucets were installed and hoses supplied. The area was the warmest section of the valley and had been a hot and dusty area before being cultivated. Ranger Naturalist Enid Michael recognized the value of the garden as a valuable interpretive tool, and by September 1932, the National Park Service was committed to maintaining the garden. Additional native species were to be added to the collection each year to represent the park's various life zones, so that the visitor could observe wild flowering plants of the valley floor, the trailside and roadside, meadows, and even the higher altitudes of the park. The Civilian Conservation Corps overhauled the garden and grounds of the museum beginning in spring 1935 and continuing over several work periods. The enrollees improved the soil, constructed paths and log benches, and planted many trees and flowering plants. [120]

Yosemite's natural history program provided a ready-made palette for planting the recently completed Wawona Road. Michael observed that native flowering plants were taking hold in the raw road cuts along the three-year-old Wawona Road in 1933. Prominent were several species of the genus Lupinus, members of the pea family, and creeping lotus. Shrubs of the ceanothus group also made good cover for the slopes, but best was the tough, crawling cuneatus, which formed dense leafy clumps. Michael noted the plants that grew most readily, recognizing the value of such information for the planting of park roads. The roadside planting program began as the conservation work of the Cascades Camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps beginning in spring 1933. One of the most important projects in the National Park Service's Emergency Conservation Work program, the work was directed by the renowned plant ecologist F. E. Clements of the Carnegie Institution. The project included collecting seeds and planting them in the cut-and-fill slopes of the new road. An experimental plot was set aside in the museum garden to cultivate many of the seeds collected. [121]


Landscape naturalization required a readily available source of native plants. In reviewing the location for new facilities, the landscape architects carefully identified the trees that were to be saved and protected during construction. Other plants, trees, and shrubs were dug up and transplanted to other locations where they were needed for naturalization. The road construction program provided large numbers of trees and shrubs for this purpose. In many cases, however, the number of native plants was insufficient to fill the demand, especially for the mass plantings of large areas or the replanting of special species such as the giant sequoia. The demands of a landscape naturalization program for plants materials exceeded the available supply.

Sequoia was one of the first parks to establish a nursery for the holding of transplanted materials. The idea to reseed the giant sequoias as they died had originally been Punchard's. In the mid-1920s, after the forest pathologist E. P. Meinecke made the startling discovery that man's presence in the Giant Forest was the prime reason for the dying trees, a nursery was started at the Ash Mountain headquarters. By 1930, the nursery provided stock for ref oresting trampled areas in the Giant Forest, planting in the administration area, and furnishing sequoia seedlings to selected institutions and organizations. The seeds of many native plants were gathered to increase the variety of planting stock. In 1930, the nursery was enlarged, and by 1935, it had outgrown its space and was moved outside the headquarters area. [122]

Although the main purpose of the park nurseries was to provide large numbers of native trees and shrubs for mass plantings in areas whose native cover had been destroyed by forest fires and previous destructive uses, the nurseries also became useful places to hold plants removed from construction sites that were not immediately planted elsewhere in the park. Moreover, construction sites rarely provided sufficient numbers of plants and trees for large reforestation projects; in these cases the nurseries became important centers of propagation and cultivation. A nursery for reforestation was established in Acadia before 1930. At Yellowstone, the Game Ranch located near Gardiner was developed as a nursery and propagating center, making use of irrigation and the area's low elevation, sunshine, and iron gauge fencing, which kept out wild predators. Here in specially prepared beds, sheltered by rows of locust, plants such as Douglas firs and roses were started and nurtured, transplanted, and moved as needed. [123]

Another source of trees was the U.S. Forest Service. Public Act 319, 71st Congress, approved on June 9, 1930, which authorized the Department of Agriculture to enlarge the tree-planting operations of national forests, also authorized the Forest Service to provide seedlings and young trees for replanting of burned-over areas in any national park, upon the request of the secretary of the interior. Although the Civilian Conservation Corps was assigned to clean up areas burnt by forest fires in Yellowstone and Glacier, the extent to which the National Park Service used this authorization to restore burnt areas is unclear. [124]

In the 1930s, the National Park Service became a partner in a larger movement that was occurring in various state institutions. State agricultural experiment stations, and consequently the state extension services and nursery programs, were the main promoters and practitioners of the use of native vegetation for roadside and forestation purposes. These institutions were also sources of native plants used in Civilian Conservation Corps projects in state and national parks. In his 1939 book on California's flowering shrubs, Lester Rountree noted the pioneering nature of this work, saying, "Work in this field is all pretty new. We don't know very much yet about the cultural treatment of native shrubs." He praised the experimental work done by botanic gardens, government departments, and individuals, who collected seeds for propagation. In California this work was being performed by the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden, the California Forest and Range Station at Berkeley, and the CCC camps, especially the nursery at La Purissima Mission in Santa Barbara under the direction of the National Park Service. [125]

As the National Park Service took leadership of Emergency Conservation Work in state parks in the 1930s, it became apparent that most state parks, especially those developed from submarginal farmland, were in need of planting stock. Nurseries were established at some parks—for example, Virginia Kendall State Park, near Akron, Ohio. In parks such as Ludington State Park in Michigan, native trees, shrubs, and other plants were trucked in from other state parks or state nurseries. At Palmetto State Park, materials were donated by an adjoining landowner, and in many other parks commercial sources were used.

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