Francis Ching, Director Emeritus of the Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens of the County of Los Angeles, an honorary life member of APGA and past President of AABGA, died peacefully at his home on Memorial Day, May 28, with his wife Elaine, and their sons, Byron and Darryl by his side. Francis served simultaneaously as the Director of the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia, Descanso Gardens in La Canada, the South Coast Botanical Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the Virginia Robinson Garden in Beverly Hills from 1970 until his retirement in 1990.
Ching was born in Hawaii, attended the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and received a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University in 1953. He received the Master of Science degree in Ornamental Horticulture, with minors in Botany and Soil Science from the University of Michigan in 1956, and began his career at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum the same year. He served LASCA as Grounds Maintenance Man, Research Assistant, Horticulturalist and Superintendent, becoming Director of the Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens in 1970. His guiding belief, rare at the time, was that public garden were exempt from taxes because they were to benefit the common good: “Gardens are for People.” Under his leadership many new programs were initiated, and new gardens and collections were added, notably the cycad collection and the prehistoric garden. With the demise of the Los Angeles International Garden Show, he brought landscape contractors, architects, designers and nurserymen together to produce an annual event at the Arboretum that became a fixture in the southern California horticultural calendar. All these changes led to a dramatic increase in attendance. He initiated one of the country’s first internship programs and revitalized the plant introduction program, bringing more than 60 trees, shrubs and perennials to the region, changing the face of landscapes in the arid west. Introductions were distributed through plant sales, donations to schools and public institutions, and through cooperative efforts with nurserymen. Ching was a Board member and active participant in “Los Angeles Beautiful,” an exemplary program to introduce outstanding trees to the freeways, streets and parks of the County.
For most of his professional life, Francis Ching worked with the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (AABGA, now APGA), serving on its Board of Directors from 1974 to 1984; becoming President in 1980. While on the Board, he championed the publication of the Directory of Living Plant Collections of North America, and worked tirelessly to establish the North American Horticultural Certification Program, a short-lived attempt to set uniform basic standards for horticultural training across the continent. In addition, he served on the boards of the American Horticultural Society of Arboriculture, the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation, the International Society of Arboriculture, the Zoological Society of San Diego, and as an advisor to California Polytechnic State University, Longwood Gardens, and the U.S. National Arboretum.
Perhaps the highest tributes to the positive contributions made over his productive career are the honors he was afforded by those with whom he worked most closely: the APGA Honorary Life Member Award (1986), the International Shade Tree Conference (Western Chapter) Honorary Life Membership (1974), the California Arboretum Foundation Honorary Life Membership, the Friends of the Virginia Robinson Garden Lifetime Member Award, and the Descanso Gardens Guild Honorary Life Member Award. In 1989 Ching was awarded the Arthur Scott Garden and Horticulture Medal and Award at Swarthmore College.
Francis Ching, in spite of his many obvious accomplishments in the public horticultural sphere, was a very private person, a sage who kept his counsel and preferred to work out complex problems in a consultative way. He had an easy sense of humor, and used it to ease the tensions that invariable arise when difficult decisions must be made. He was a man of principle, and this caused him and Elaine much pain, when, in 1970, he applied for the position of Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens and, for reasons possibly related to racial discrimination, his candidacy was opposed by the Board of Directors of the Arboreta Association, an advisory group to the County, this in spite of his twice scoring highest on the civil service exam for the position. Ultimately the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors approved his appointment, but not before a bitter fight that divided the community. He was the first Chinese/American Department Head in Los Angeles.
I will miss Francis. He was a long-time friend and mentor for me as we worked together to advance public horticulture in America. The public garden community is better for the work he and other “young Turks” in AABGA in the 1970’s did to professionalize the organization and bring it to the position of respect it now occupies. My thoughts go out to his family, in whose home I spent many days over many years.
Richard W. Lighty
June 10, 2012