A Catalina Oasis Offers the Mortal and the Vital
Only buzzing crickets pierced the silence at the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden.
Visible from its peak were the turquoise waters of Catalina Island’s busiest harbor, where sold-out commuter boats deposited tourists and cabin cruisers zipped about.
Yet deep into Avalon Canyon, at this garden uphill from the town of Avalon, quiet reigned amid towering cactus and plants that grow naturally nowhere else on the planet.
William Wrigley Jr., head of the world’s largest chewing gum manufacturer, bought Catalina in 1919, and loved to ride horses through Avalon Canyon, said Mark Hoefs, director of the garden, who has known the family for decades.
After Wrigley died in 1932, his wife, Ada, decided the canyon would be a lovely spot to have a mausoleum constructed as a final resting place for him and the family, a plan that would later change. The public garden that remains was first planted in 1935 with many of the desert plants found there today.
“It’s beautiful. I would like to live here,” Rosalba Jimenez of Downey said with a sigh, gazing out over the vine-draped memorial at stands of elephant foot and Catalina ironwood as her 7-year-old son, Steven, balanced on a stone wall.
The 43-year-old Mexico City native, who enjoyed the native plants of her own country, found the Wrigley garden a respite from the everyday stress of her trucking delivery business.
“This,” she smiled, “is a place to go slow, relax.”
A tram runs on the half hour from waterfront locales to the gate of the garden, which is open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Walking the roughly two miles from downtown Avalon is an option for those able to tackle a moderate incline.
The hilly oasis boasts eight plants endemic to Santa Catalina Island, including what the garden brochure calls the rarest, the Catalina Mahogany, stating that “only seven of the small shrubs or trees occur naturally in a single canyon.”
There is a large collection of cactus and succulents from various parts of the world, and scores of plants exclusive to the Channel Islands off the coast of California and Baja.
But a reward for hiking to the garden’s summit is the striking Art Deco monument originally designed as a crypt for the chewing gum magnate.
The brochure doesn’t mention that Wrigley’s body was once entombed here, but it was, and then later moved, said Jeannine Pedersen, curator of collections at the Catalina Museum.
While Pedersen said exact details are not widely known, the assumption has always been that the son had the body moved amid World War II scares about attacks on the island, which was then occupied by the U.S. military.
Hoefs knows the lore and chuckles. “The biggest fiction on Catalina Island is that Wrigley was moved off during the war, and by his son,” Hoefs said. “But his wife decided to move him to the family’s mausoleum so the garden could be made public. And he was moved in 1947, after the war. I know, because I talked to the family about it and the people who moved it.”
Completed in 1934, the monument is 234 feet high from the base of its circular staircase to the top of its 80-foot-tall tower. It is adorned with Catalina tile, as well as marble, blue flagstone and striking copper doors with bas-relief ravens.
It has architectural elements of Mission style and Art Deco, and provides a cool resting place with vistas of sea and the mainland.
Although the marble that lines the tower was quarried in Georgia, a goal was to use as much island material as possible to construct the monument. The blue flagstone found on the ramps and terraces comes from Little Harbor on the island’s less populated southwest side. The decorative tiles and red roof tiles were handmade and glazed at the Catalina Pottery, which operated only from 1927 to 1937 but whose products remain valuable today.
An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people a year visit the garden, Hoefs said.
“The island can get to be like Disneyland in the summer,” said Hoefs, who grew up on Catalina and worked at the garden since it opened in May 1970, “but it isn’t like that here.”
The garden has 3 to 4 acres on the canyon floor, which are easiest to traverse. Some of the foliage is on steeper land and can be hiked with a special permit from the Catalina Conservancy, which oversees the land.
The Conservancy’s goal is to preserve both the plants that grow only on the island and native types that can be found elsewhere.
The botanical garden features 500 native plants found on Catalina, as well as plants found on others among the 16 Channel Islands.
By midday on a recent Sunday, statuesque elephant yucca cast long, spindly shadows across the main trail that climbs to the monument.
The garden was dotted with colorful blooming bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus, and with the white flowers of the Catalina ironwood.
Seven thousand years ago, the land was home to Native Americans. Several of the garden plants remain important to that culture today, said Cindy Alvitre, a doctoral student at UCLA’s Department of Folklore whose specialty is Southern California’s Indians. She is Tongva -- one of the Native American tribes that populated L.A. and Orange counties -- and once lived on Catalina.
“Not all the plants in the Wrigley garden have significance, but a lot of the native plants do,” Alvitre said. “The white sage and tobaccos, the Catalina cherry, which was very, very important as food. And even today, we still honor those plants.”