Catalina Island News

Ada Wrigley's Hidden Garden

Catalina Island Conservancy

Mark Hoefs stood alone with a shovel in one hand and a pick in the other. He was on a narrow dirt path in the middle of what is now the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden. This was not the well-maintained, well-marked Garden of the present. This was 1970.

Thirty-five years earlier, the widowed Ada Wrigley had entombed her late husband, William Wrigley Jr., in the imposing mausoleum she had built at the head of Avalon Canyon. While the mausoleum, 180 feet tall and 232 feet wide, honored the patriarch of the fabled clan, Mrs.  Wrigley added a touch of her own. A lover of exotic cacti, she enlisted the aid of renowned Pasadena horticulturalist Albert Conrad to plant a magnificent Desert Plant Collection consisting of cacti, succulents and other desert plants from all over the world.

A gate kept Islanders and visitors out, as only members of the Wrigley family were allowed in. At the start of World War II, all maintenance ceased on the land. After the war, in 1947, the family removed Mr. Wrigley's remains from the mausoleum and transferred them to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif. 

 For the next 23 years, the Garden languished. Native and non-native plants reclaimed Mrs. Wrigley's beloved Desert Plant Collection and the magnificent memorial to a great man.

Then, in 1970, the Wrigley family contacted Hoefs with an offer to bring the garden back to life.

Hoefs, a 28-year-old self-taught botanist, had moved from his native home of Catalina Island five years before to start his own landscaping business on the mainland.

However, Hoefs loved Catalina Island more than he loved selling palm trees, exotic plants and turf.  Hoefs, his wife, Pat, and their two small sons packed up their belongings and headed back across the Channel. Hoefs brought over his own pickup truck and the Island Company gave him some tools and an old map of where the cactus garden was supposed to be. 

For six months, Hoefs worked alone. He hacked through the poison oak, the toxic sap blistering his skin and burning his eyes.  A huge agave plant punctured Hoefs' elbow with an inch-long spine. "My entire arm was swollen up for several weeks."

And the rattlesnakes! "There was a reason that part of the canyon was known as Rattlesnake Canyon," Hoefs said.

To make the garden more attractive to visitors, Hoefs spent the next six months at the quarry on the Island's east end, sorting though thousands of rocks he used to create walkways among the cacti.

By the end of 1972, Hoefs had added 500 new plants to Ada's garden. All of them may be viewed today.

Soon, the entryway was constructed and the garden literally grew. Hoefs, along with Dr. Robert Thorne, Herbarium Curator of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, Calif., scoured Catalina and the other Channel Islands, for seeds and cuttings. These were planted just beyond the cactus collection to give visitors a sense of the wonderful native and endemic species of the region.

Hoefs became Vice President of the Wrigley Memorial Garden Foundation and oversaw the addition of underground utilities and other buildings on the property. The entry building that stands today was built in 1974. The interpretive exhibit area and restrooms were added in 1985.

In 1996, the Foundation merged with the Catalina Island Conservancy. Hoefs retired in 2009, but longtime Conservancy employees Murray Crow and Jorge Hernandez continue to keep the Garden in pristine shape.

Hidden no longer, Ada Wrigley's garden continues to mesmerize and inspire its nearly 50,000 visitors each year. Visitors can enjoy many interpretive videos in the outdoor Visitor's Center and climb the stairs of the Memorial for a breathtaking view of Avalon Canyon and the ocean in the distance. Visitors who obtain a free hiking permit from the admission booth can pass the Memorial, and take the Wrigley Memorial Road that begins just to the right of the Memorial up to Divide Road, where they can see the other side of the Island and, on a clear day, San Clemente Island to the southeast.

The Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission Booth services are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except major holidays.

Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for seniors over 60. Admission is free for children 12 and under and Conservancy Members. Joining or renewing a Conservancy membership provides the member with free entrance to the Garden throughout the membership year, as well as other benefits. For more information, call (310) 510-2897.