Topiarian, horticulturist worked on a grand scale

Times Staff Writer

Charles Coburn, a horticulturist and topiarian who practiced on a grand scale, first as the overseer of the San Diego Zoo's plant collection then as co-creator of massive shrub-based sculptures that playfully decorate Legoland, Disney theme parks and other destinations around the world, has died. He was 62.

Coburn died of cancer Jan. 25 at his home in Elfin Forest, Calif., said his wife, Jennifer, who was his partner in their San Diego County topiary sculpture business.

His favorite gigantic construction was a 17-foot-high, 34-foot-long metal dinosaur named Dorio, one of two duckbill dinosaurs the couple built in 2002 for a park in Nagoya, Japan, and which was designed by the Jerde Partnership, a noted architectural firm. He delighted in using a crane to piece the creature together on site and appreciated that the sculpture's patina rivaled the beauty of the Japanese yew planted with it.

A philosophy major in college, Coburn "was sensitive to the needs of plants and animals" and pointedly related to both as chief of horticulture at the zoo, his wife said.

When a Sumatran rhinoceros was depressed and dying, Coburn sought out a native food that he thought might perk up the animal, and the resulting fig leaf did the job, his wife said. Soon he was trying to meet the dietary wishes of other animals, growing various eucalyptus trees for koalas or bringing in bamboo to feed the pandas.

"He wanted to make sure that the animals had what they were used to. It was like a 'duh' moment, but he thought that was a wonderful contribution he had made," his wife said.

Coburn joined the zoo's Wild Animal Park as a gardener when it opened in 1972 and earned a master's degree in business from the University of Phoenix in San Diego. By 1987, he was the zoo horticulturist, managing a staff of about 25.

For the debut of the rain forest exhibit Tiger River, Coburn spent four years collecting hundreds of exotic trees and plants. His knowledge of plant and climate systems helped create the panda exhibit, an early rain forest environment in Gorilla Tropics, and the East African Kopje exhibit that showcases animals that thrive on an African plain, said Mike Bostwick, who succeeded Coburn as zoo horticulturist.

When Legoland commissioned a large topiary order that included a small herd of buffalo, several sheep and an 18-foot-tall Jack and the Beanstalk, Coburn retired early from the zoo in 1997 to join Coburn Topiary & Garden Art full time.

"Chuck had an amazing gift of creativity," Kyle Silrum, Legoland's landscape manager, said in a statement to The Times. "One of the biggest challenges they faced was in designing the buffalo topiary. . . . They were designing the body while the bust and head were being built out of Lego in another country."

Jennifer Coburn, an artist, did most of the sketching while her husband and a sophisticated computer-controlled plasma cutter helped execute the work. After the cutter sliced the steel plate sheets into parts, the Coburns hand-welded the topiary frames.

The resulting handiwork could be seen in the larger-than-life baseball player topiary sculptures in front of the Lake Elsinore Storm baseball stadium or in such far-flung places as Hong Kong Disneyland and Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Florida. When the original topiary menagerie in front of Disneyland's It's a Small World ride wore out, the couple replaced them.

"We had many all-nighters creating different displays at Disneyland," his wife said. "To wake ourselves up, Charles would say, 'Let's go on a ride,' and usually it would be Indiana Jones."

Among their work for celebrities were topiaries for Aaron Spelling's Beverly Hills estate and a bear-shaped piece for Elizabeth Taylor.

A producer commissioned a work in the shape of an 8, which is laden with numerological meaning, for actress Shirley MacLaine, Jennifer Coburn said.

Born in 1945 in Pomona, Charles Coburn grew up in San Diego, where his father was an electrician in the Navy.

After earning a bachelor's degree from San Diego State, Coburn studied metal art through ironwork and blacksmithing. He found it challenging to make a living and turned to horticulture.

At a 1991 topiary conference that Coburn organized, he connected with Jennifer. They married three months later, and Coburn suddenly had an outlet for his latent artistic longing.

"Jennifer was the incarnation of art," Coburn said in The Times earlier this year, "and here was my opportunity to do what I'd been talking about. It has been a learning process ever since."

In addition to his wife, Coburn is survived by three daughters, Heidi Rose of Carlsbad; Laura Coburn of San Diego; and Melodie Coburn of San Marcos; father George Coburn of Vista; and sister Marie Coburn of Dixon, N.M.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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