He was born in Northamptonshire, England on June 19, 1872 and served an apprenticeship in horticulture. He first saw California native plants at The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in England in 1891. He moved to Los Angeles in 1893 and fell in love with the California flora, dedicating his life to its preservation.
Even in the early years of this century, native vegetation was being lost to agriculture and housing at an alarming rate. He urged the use of California native plants and lectured across the state on preserving the wild flowers and landscapes native to California.
California native wildflowers and landscapes were the specialty in his nursery and seed business, which he started in 1903 when he purchased the Evans nursery in downtown Los Angeles. His nursery location moved several times before settling permanently on Los Feliz Blvd. in Atwater Village, a suburb a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles, in 1923.
In 1915 he laid out and planted 262 species in a 5-acre (20,000 m2) wild garden in Los Angeles' Exposition Park. He later helped to establish the Blaksley Botanic Garden in Santa Barbara, planted 178 native species in the California Institute of Technology Botanic Garden in Pasadena, helped create the native plant garden at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, and advised the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden upon its creation and during its time in Orange County.
He was a founding member of the California Association of Nurserymen, the Wild Flower Club, the Nature Club, and other horticultural organizations. He was a member of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, including a stint as president of the organization. He was a member of many other local horticultural, scientific, and social organizations.
By the time he retired in 1958, Payne had introduced over 430 species of native plants to the public through horticultural practices in his nursery.
The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants was founded and incorporated in 1960 upon Payne's retirement to carry on his life's work. The Foundation is located in Sun Valley, California, a community in the City of Los Angeles. The Foundation promotes the understanding and preservation of California native flora by propagating plants for use by the general public, through educational programs related to the horticulture and botany of the flora, with the display of botanical art depicting the flora, among other programs. The Foundation hold Payne's business and personal papers, an archive that provides insight to the horticultural history of California.
Payne was indentured to J. Cheal and Sons, a nursery firm in London. After three years, in 1893, Payne completed his contract and traveled to the United States. He arrived in New York, traveled to Chicago where he visited the World's Columbian Exhibition, then set out for Los Angeles, California.
Upon arriving in California in 1893, worked for a week picking apricots, then found a job in charge of the gardens at the ranch of Madame Helena Modjeska in Santiago Canyon in Orange County, California. In his memoir, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties , he offers perhaps the best account of daily life on the ranch. It was there that he began his lifelong interest in California native plants, exploring the extensive natural areas surrounding the Ranch.
In 1898, Payne left the employment of Madame Modjeska for a position with the Germain Seed Company. He remained with this firm for five years, becoming head of the seed department.
In 1903, Payne opened his nursery at 440 S. Main Street, Los Angeles, California, at the location of the former Evans Nursery.
"Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties", by Theodore Payne, 1962.
"Theodore Payne In His Own Words: a voice for California Native Plants", by Theodore Payne, Many Moons Press 2004.