John McLaren’s Legacy

John McLaren, 1927. San Francisco Public Library Historical Photo Collection

” Go into the natural forests of our hills and hillsides . . . and select [the scene] whose beauty most appeals.”
–John McLaren

John McLaren (1846–1943) was born on a farm in Scotland and educated in horticulture at the Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens before coming to the United States around 1872. He is perhaps best known as Superintendent of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. However, before starting this stage of his career, he served as gardener for many of the estates that dotted the Peninsula. It has been said that George Howard discovered him in Europe and sent for him. Between 1872 and 1887, in addition to Howard, he worked for Leland Stanford, Darius Ogden Mills, and William C. Ralston, among others. Local property owners joined together in making plans to line their estates and El Camino Real with the eucalpytus and elm trees which are so distinctive a feature of Burlingame.

McLaren not only planted trees for these estates, he also supervised vast agricultural duties, including planting vegetables, chopping wood, keeping irrigation records, and picking fruit. But it would be the trees that would provide him with his lasting legacy on the Peninsula.

Using Chinese and Irish workmen, “McLaren . . . reputedly planted more than 2 million trees during his lifetime,” it has been noted. [*1] Among them were 70,000 trees at Coyote Point, then part of the Howard property. McLaren’s trees also include the plantings on Burlingame Avenue.

Perhaps 90 percent of all tree growth on the Peninsula was planted, with about 80 percent of it planted by McLaren. [*2] McLaren’s daybooks, in the collection of San Francisco Public Library, often indicate what plantings he conducted day to day.

In 1887, McLaren was hired as assistant superintendent of parks in San Francisco, and he was promoted to superintendent in 1890. Golden Gate Park had been established in 1870, and a good portion had been planned before McLaren took the job of supervising its development, but it was McLaren who solved the difficult problem of planting on the shifting sand dunes that dominated the western section of the park.

McLaren was determined to have a great park, and to this end, he planted more than 5,000 varieties of trees. At the same time, he had an appreciation for the natural landscaping that characterizes Golden Gate Park. He advised those planning a garden to “Go into the natural forests of our hills and hillsides . . . and select [the scene] whose beauty most appeals. . . . Let the measurements of this part of Nature’s garden be carefully taken. It will be found that Nature seldom runs straight lines and shaped curves.” [*3] McLaren objected to the intrusion of buildings, statuary, and other man-made objects into nature’s domain. “When a statue was installed, he would quickly plant shrubbery to obscure it, and some statues to this day are still well-framed by plantings.” [*4]

McLaren would be remembered later as “gruff but tender-hearted,” a man who appreciated hard work, was loyal to his crew members, and was not too proud to catch a ride to church in a dump truck. The man lived to be 96 years old, “long enough to see the seedlings he set out on the Peninsula in the 1870s and 1880s grow into the stately giants we know today.” [*5]

[*1] “John McLaren’s Peninsula Legacy,” Peninsula Living, February 21, 1970.
[*2] “McLaren Land Revisited,” The Boutique, Burlingame, June 27, 1972
[*3] “John McLaren at Rancho San Mateo,” La Peninsula, June 1972
[*4] Peninsula Living
[*5] Peninsula Living