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Years of Melodrama Led to Nursery Closing

Times Staff Writer

In life and in love, the Sassafras Lady of Topanga Canyon never seemed to catch a break. Not in death, either.

Pamela Ingram certainly could have used some better luck as she battled to turn a poison oak-covered canyon gully into a delicate grotto with an international reputation for its British clematis vines and delicate perennials.

For nearly 50 years, the Englishwoman lived in the mountains midway between the dusty San Fernando Valley and the ocean shoreline that reminded her so much of home. Time and again, she was burned out by fire, flooded out by storms and shoved out by landslides that attacked the fragile garden she called Sassafras Nursery.

Until the very end, Ingram struggled to survive. When she died of emphysema in 2000 at age 81, she was fighting to rescue her beloved mountain flower patch from economic calamity -- and from a nasty family feud that is still being played out.

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Now the dispute over her estate has managed to do what even Ingram’s lifetime of bad luck couldn’t do: wipe out the Sassafras Nursery.

Ingram’s daughter is attempting to overturn the court-forced sale of the Sassafras grounds near the center of the canyon to an investor. Deborah Ingram Harper said she wants to reestablish the nursery and resume its operation in memory -- and the manner -- of her mother.

Some say it is amazing that the Sassafras Lady was ever able to establish her life in the canyon in the first place.

Born in India to a British army officer and his wife, Ingram bounced around the world, living in China, Denmark and England before marrying a Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust. After the war, they immigrated to Chicago.

But the husband, Henry Ingram, was a gambler. He had ducked out on a gambling debt and was on the run from the Chicago mob when he and his family sneaked into Topanga Canyon in 1952.

“My father found his best friend dead in the trunk of his Lincoln,” said Harper, 51. “He fled for his life. He wore a disguise for years and hid out in Topanga until he repaid the loan.”

Ingram was supporting the family by breeding toy poodles and Siamese cats when the family’s rented Entrado Drive cottage burned down in a 1956 brush fire. The couple had divorced by 1959, when Ingram used the fire insurance money to purchase a parcel on the stream in the middle of the canyon.

She dreamed of turning the sycamore-studded land into a lush garden where she could grow some of the flowers and plants she loved so much in England.

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Acquisition of the property at 275 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. seemed to be jinxed, however.

Instead of buying 5 1/2 acres, as she thought she was doing, Ingram was purchasing less than half that much. Part of the land she thought was hers was actually an unused and forgotten next-door parcel owned by the state parks system.

Ingram had constructed Sassafras Nursery’s retail buildings on the parkland and was running her business out of them in 1984 when parks officials noticed that she was trespassing. They eventually allowed her to continue using the park property after a land-use consultant convinced them that the Sassafras Lady had “thought she was buying the piece of land that the Realtor showed her.”

By then, Ingram’s usual bad luck had come into play. On Christmas Eve of 1983, an electrical short caused a fire that burned down her house on the Sassafras grounds. Losing all of her belongings in the blaze, she was forced into a smaller building on the nursery site.

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“I no longer care about possessions because I have lost so many of them,” Ingram said afterward.

She remarried, but the union didn’t last. Before they parted, her new husband, Bud Alley, was caught in one of the winter floods that ravaged Sassafras Nursery almost yearly.

He was trying to ford Topanga Creek at the Sassafras driveway when storm water swept his car a quarter-mile downstream. The auto was destroyed, but he escaped with minor injuries, Harper said.

Sassafras Nursery was closed whenever the driveway creek crossing was inundated. Every few years, the surging stream rose high enough to wash plants from growing areas and damage buildings. Severe flooding in 1995 that washed away part of Topanga Canyon Boulevard isolated the nursery from customers in Malibu and Pacific Palisades for nearly a month.

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Landslides caused by storm erosion and by an unstable hillside above the nursery also periodically damaged growing stock and structures. The 1994 earthquake caused even more damage.

By then, Ingram’s personal life had long been in its own upheaval. Her oldest son had died of a drug overdose in 1984. After becoming husband-less a second time, Ingram decided she was bisexual and entered into a relationship with a woman.

In 1988, she drew up a will that included her companion as a beneficiary of Sassafras Nursery, along with her daughter and her surviving younger son.

“I, her only daughter, was to retain the property and run the business with her lover and her lover’s sister, who had been in love with my older brother. So it was sort of a family thing,” Harper said.

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“That was all just fine and dandy. But then in 1994, my mother was drinking a little bit much, fell down and broke her hip and ended up in the hospital, very much concerned for her life, as she should have been. She needed to update her will -- her lover was no longer with her.”

A new will and trust were prepared, but Ingram was dissatisfied with it and never deeded the nursery property to the trust, according to Harper. Three years later, a new one was created, establishing the Sassafras Family Trust. But it excluded Harper’s brother, David Alley.

“After that, the family disintegrated pretty rapidly” as she and Alley clashed, Harper said. Ingram was disheartened by the acrimony. “She couldn’t stand us fighting. She hated it.”

Although a series of Small Business Administration disaster loans was secured in the mid-1990s to keep the garden operating after the string of natural disasters, Sassafras Nursery was forced to close in 1998.

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Harper said that she was falsely accused in the meantime by her brother of abusing their mother. About the same time, Harper was arrested for stealing food from a grocery store, she said.

“By this time, we had, part of the time, no running water and no electricity without a generator. It was very difficult. I was giving some of the food I took to my mother. She was very embarrassed,” Harper said.

Harper was jailed for 11 months. She was released two weeks before her mother died on Feb. 26, 2000.

After Ingram’s death, Alley sued to overturn the Sassafras Family Trust. As part of the negotiated settlement, the nursery property was ordered sold and Alley’s inclusion was ordered in the distribution of the proceeds.

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The land sold for $600,000 last November. After Ingram’s five disaster loans, payments to four former nursery employees and lawyers’ fees were paid, court records show, Alley received $74,545 and Harper $44,979. Harper said her share went to pay for her legal costs and the cleanup of the Sassafras site.

Alley, 41, who has a brush clearance business in Topanga Canyon and no longer speaks with his sister, declined to comment.

Harper was evicted from the Sassafras property at the first of the year as parks officials retrieved the land owned by the state. Final remnants of the nursery are being removed.

For now, Harper lives in a tiny travel trailer on a friend’s Topanga ranch. A large shipping container shaded by a corral oak tree holds mementos from Sassafras Nursery, including garden show award plaques that Pamela Ingram won for her beloved English flowers and plants.

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On a makeshift table in the steel container, Harper types out a legal brief that she hopes will lead an appeals court to overturn the sale of the property and clear the way for the reopening of Sassafras Nursery.

“My mother always said she didn’t want to live in a soap opera. And yet she wrote one very well,” said Harper with a shrug, glancing at boxes of Pamela Ingram’s belongings.

Some of the Sassafras Lady’s ashes were placed beneath a redwood tree at the nursery as a memorial. One friend, a 42-year-old onetime nursery worker, Walter Palahnuk, doubts that she is resting in peace.

“I imagine Pamela is trying to scoop up her ashes beneath that tree so she can come back and clean up this mess.”

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