Palm trunk is carved with images to represent Pacific Beach resident’s memories
Palm is on the site of Kate Session’s former home; could have been planted by famed horticulturist
When Carol Mulcahy couldn’t keep her decades-old palm alive in her yard on Los Altos Road in Pacific Beach she did the next best thing.
With the help of a local tiki carver, she turned it into a work of art, covered with images representing many of her fondest memories.
“I have the eagle at the top of the trunk, for my husband, the (Marine) Corps and for freedom,” she said.
Mulcahy added that the doves represent peace and love; her mother collected turtles and they also kept tortoises back in the day; the fox is a reminder of one the family once caught and the skunks used to come in their kitchen and eat the cat food.
“I had horses here as a teenager, before my father sold the land, and I also boarded horses for other people,” the life-long PB resident said. “When I was 16, I had a Morgan/Arabian cross mare named Sheba. I used to ride to the top of Mount Soledad and down the other side and meet my cousin from Solana Beach with her horse halfway.”
Mulcahy said she used to have a koi pond, but the raccoons kept eating the residents so she “gave up on it.”
Other carved images represent people or things important to her. The large cross at the top represents the one on Mount Soledad.
“I have poinsettias and birds of paradise to represent Kate Sessions, as they were flowers that she loved,” Mulcahy said.
There is a very special reason why incorporating symbols representing Sessions was important to Mulcahy.
Nearing her 80th birthday, she lives in Pacific Beach’s Soledad Terrace neighborhood on a property that also happens to be the former home of the famed horticulturist.
Known as “The Mother of Balboa Park,” Sessions planted many trees in San Diego. According to Wikipedia, she struck a deal with the City of San Diego in 1892. The city leased her 30 acres as her growing fields and she agreed to plant 100 trees a year in City Park (later named Balboa Park), as well as 300 trees a year in other parts of the city.
In addition to her growing fields, Sessions owned a flower shop and nurseries in Pacific Beach, Coronado and Mission Hills. She imported seeds from all over the world, as well as collected, propagated and introduced many plants native to California. She died in 1940 at age 82.
It was a couple of years after Sessions’ passing that Mulcahy’s father, Kenneth MacLeod, bought Sessions’ former house.
“I’m not absolutely sure, but I believe the palm tree was planted by Sessions when she owned the property,” Mulcahy said. “My father bought her home in 1942, and the two acres that came with it. The tree has been there as long as I can remember.”
The tree isn’t just any old palm; it’s a Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis). Native to the Andes Mountains foothills in central Chile, the evergreen palms can grow up to 60 feet tall, with leaves up to 15 feet long. The trunks are the thickest of any palms and often have a unique bulge in the middle. The trunks appear smooth, but a diamond pattern of old leaf scars can be seen when up close.
Similar to the palm, Mulcahy also has roots to Sessions’ former home site.
“I was born in April 1943,” Mulcahy recalled. “Soon after my birth, dad’s sister moved in, along with a daughter my age and a son who was eight years older. My 5-year-old sister, Lois, who was independent and strong-willed, suddenly had a big brother and another baby sister. Plus two adult people acting like parents.”
Because it was during World War II and the house was so large, Mulcahy said her father’s younger brother also moved in, with his wife and baby daughter, and the arrangement lasted a year or more.
Mulcahy said her father sold Sessions’ “big house” and half the property in 1949, but kept an acre. He started building what would become Mulcahy’s current home that same year. The family lived in Crown Point for two or three years while it was being built. Mulcahy grew up in the house, surrounded by family pets, native animals and trees she came to know personally.
Mulcahy married her first husband, who was in the Navy, in 1964, when she was 21. She said she did odd jobs and electrical jobs while her husband became a groundskeeper and played in professional golf tournaments. After 10 years of marriage they divorced and she moved back to her childhood home.
She married her current husband, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Mulcahy in 1996. She described her husband as a “wonderful man I met at church.”
It was around 1989 or 1990 when Mulcahy said her mother wanted to donate the palm to Balboa Park. She said officials declined to take it because they said it was diseased.
Mulcahy had the palm treated and for the next 30 years it continued to thrive. But it recently succumbed to damage from the South American palm weevil, found in San Diego County in 2017.
“I didn’t know the weevil had gotten into the Chilean palm; by the time I did, it was too late,” she said. “I feel bad the tree died on my watch after it lived all these years.”
With the huge tree located in Mulcahy’s front yard, she decided that rather than cut it down, she wanted to have it live on as a piece of art.
Through the recommendation of a friend, she called Dan Bialk, aka “Tiki Dan,” who is know all over San Diego for his tiki and totem tree trunk carvings.
“When Carol called me, she said she wanted me to carve all these different animals into the trunk,” Bialk said. “She knows exactly what she wants.”
A professional arborist for more than 30 years, Bialk’s first task was removing the dead leaves from the top of the tree.
“I topped off the first seven or eight feet of the tree. Since the top part weighed about 1,000 pounds, I had to drop it just right,” Bialk said, adding it took him about a couple of hours.
Mulcahy said when the cut portion of the tree hit the ground, it “spewed out all the rot and the larvae went everywhere.” The beetles came out a day or two later, and she kept a few of them in a jar. They are still living.
After the tree topping, carving began. The work was no small task on a trunk about 5 feet wide and 20 feet tall.
“It’s pretty epic. She had horses as a kid and had me carve a horse; she also had me carve an eagle on top,” he said.
With each carving, a memory was brought to life. Many of the images — such as the various birds, wildlife and horse — represent pets or animals she grew up around.
Before the work is finished, Mulcahy would like Bialk to carve a deputy sheriff’s badge to represent her sister and brother-in-law. The two met through the Sheriff’s department, were married more than 50 years and both have since died.
“When you get older, sometimes memories are all you have,” she said.
Meanwhile, Bialk is enjoying his unique work experience on the giant palm trunk.
“I try to make it as cool looking as I can,” Bialk said. “Carol and her husband are both so cool. And the art is pretty amazing; she did what she wanted with the tree and I think everything is coming out looking pretty nice.”
Being an artist herself, Mulcahy can be a self-proclaimed “stickler” for how she wants things done. Learning to adjust to Bialk’s schedule was a new experience.
“He often worked until 10 at night. So in the morning, I’d go out and see what he created. I did get what I requested,” she said, noting she appreciates Bialk’s work. “Now it’s an art form instead of a dead tree.”