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Gardens of the California Missions

Articles: Gardens of the California Missions
Mission San Carlos, 1839
Mission San Carlos, 1839

The author was inspired lo look more deeply into the topic of California mission gardens by a paper prepared in 1978 by Cynthia Roberts, then a student in the landscape architecture program at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mention of California mission gardens evokes romantic images of jasmine blooming under arcades, geometric beds of exotic flowers, and balconies smothered in bou­gainvillea. Yet, despite the Spanish origins of the mission padres and the widening availability of exotic plants in the late 1700s when most of the California missions were built, the early mission gardens in no way resembled the elaborate pleasure gardens of the Spanish tradition.

The vagaries of climate and the preeminent need for agricultural crops to supply the largely self-supporting missions probably dictated that the orchard or food garden (the huerta) would be given preference over the ornamental or pleasure garden (the jardin). Life at the missions was often difficult, as contemporary records show. There were droughts in 1800, 1807, and 1809, heavy rains and flooding in 1816-17, drought in 1820-21, and flooding again in 1824-25 and 1827-28. Following a severe drought in the winter of 1828-29, crops were the smallest for the entire period from 1796 to 1834. In addition to regional difficulties, there were also more local problems. Each mission had its catalog of sorrows. In 1827, even with a dam and aqueduct, the mission at San Fernando Rey was generally producing what was necessary for its inhabitants, but “neither of corn nor of beans can more than one fanega be planted on account of lack of water; and even this fanega must be sown outside the regular time, otherwise the chapule [grasshoppers]will devour them.” The situation at San Juan Capistrano was worse. In late 1827 it was reported: “When there are no rains, the arroyos run dry. In that case, the little land now cultivated cannot be irrigated; but, what is worse, the herds die of thirst, as has happened the last five or six years in which, on account of the extraordinary drought, all the sheep and many head of cattle perished.”

The difficulties experienced by mission residents cannot be blamed on climate alone. The early mission padres were not skilled farmers and apparently not very good at selecting sites. Of the first four missions founded, three had to be moved later to sites with better soil, more water, or protection from flooding during winter rains. Mission San Carlos was originally founded in 1770, and crops were planted the following year. Everything grew, but nothing reached maturity because the soil, which at times was inundated by salt water from the bay, was “fit for nothing but nettles and weeds.” At the end of that year the mission was moved to a new site where it was hoped that crops would do better.

Technology was a limiting factor in the development of the California mission gardens. Most of the construction and horticultural technology available to the padres came from Spain, via Mexico, and Spain at the time was behind even the rest of Europe in many ways. The padres had to construct dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts much in the manner of the Moors or the ancient Romans; only a few decades later, in 1854, Americans succeeded in drilling over a hundred feet to artesian wells in San Jose, while in 1856 a steam pump was used to draw 300 gallons a minute from the American River, enough to irrigate 150 acres. The padres also had access to few reliable books on plants, soils, or cultivation. Most of the Spanish texts on horticulture, what few there were, were translations of French works with marginal applicability to conditions in California, or even to large parts of Spain, and many still drew heavily from ancient Roman writers.

Plan of Mission Santa Barbara
Plan of Mission Santa Barbara

Yet plants of many kinds were grown, and the results were often impressive enough to inspire visitors to write glowingly of their observations. The English explorer George Vancouver, who visited San Buenaventura in 1793, wrote: “… the garden of Buena Ventura far exceeded anything I had before met with in this region, both in respect of the quality, quantity, and variety of its excellent productions… not one species having yet been sown, or planted, that had not flourished, and yielded its fruit in abundance, and of excellent quality.” In 1827, French sea captain and trader Duhaut-Cilly described the walled garden, vineyard, and orchard at Santa Barbara as “large, well cultivated and planted with trees. Very fine olive trees shaded the straight paths, and you could see fruits of the temperate and torrid zones at one and the same time. The Adam’s figs spread their broad leaves between the apples and pears, and the gold of the oranges mingled with the red of the cherries.”

These observers, however, were referring not to ornamental gardens such as are seen today by visitors to the remaining California missions, but to enclosed huertas, near but not generally attached to the mission itself, where food crops were grown to meet the needs of mission residents. When we talk about mission gardens we cannot ignore the context in which they arose or the place they held in the scheme of things at the mission. Though many plants were grown, apparently with some success, the romantic image of the ornamental garden at the heart of the California mission has no basis in fact, at least until after the missions were secularized in 1834.

Development of the Missions

California missions were founded over a fifty-four-year period, beginning with San Diego in 1769 and ending with Solano in 1823. Alta California had been largely ignored by Spain, but when Russian fur trappers began venturing south along the coast from Alaska, the Spanish government authorized Franciscan padre Junipero Serra to go north to found the first of what would become a string of twenty-one missions intended “to guard the Dominions from invasion and insult.”

The missions of California developed in response to varying local conditions, but a composite account may be constructed. A site first was selected, one that appeared to have good growing land, a water source, and, above all, a large number of Indians in the vicinity, for these were to be lured to the mission partly by the promise of a more stable food supply. Indians also were the labor force that built the missions under the direction of the padres and to whom, at least in theory, the assets of the missions belonged.

The first constructions usually were rude huts for the padres and the small military guard that accompanied them. Next came the beginnings of what would eventually include a number of adobe buildings, grouped to enclose a quadrangular open space or patio, a word that seems to derive from the Latin patere, to lie open. The church formed one side of the quadrangle, and at right angles to it another block of rooms housed the padres, guest quarters, offices, and storage areas. This wing often faced south and, with the church facade, served as the “front” of the establishment. Arcades often were added to the south-facing fronts, as they gave protection from the hot sun and the rain. Arcades or colonnades were affixed to the sides of the interior of the quadrangle for the same reason. The area between the building wall and the arches was paved, giving good footing in wet weather and protected storage or work space. Young men often slept there, wrapped in blankets.

The quadrangular form was basically a defensive one. Exterior walls had few windows, placed high and kept small. There were one or two gated entrances to the central open area or patio through which carts and animals could be driven for safety. The patio, with its arcaded verandas, resembled the cloisters of European monasteries, themselves an adaptation of the ancient Roman peristyle. Both the peristyles of the ancient Romans and the cloisters of the European monks contained small pleasure gardens with ornamental plants. The patios of the California missions shared this architectural form but were developed to accommodate different functions and much more activity. A well or fountain in the patio served domestic needs, but plants are mentioned only at San Luis Rey, where a few California pepper trees (Schinus molle) were grown from seeds brought from Chile about 1825. No mission patio was planted as a pleasure garden before secularization in 1834. A visitor to San Luis Rey in 1829 wrote: “The building occupies a large square, of at least eighty or ninety yards each side, forming an extensive area, in the centre of which a fountain constantly supplies the establishment with pure water… In the interior of the square might be seen the various trades at work, presenting a scene not dissimilar to some of the working departments of our state prisons.”

There were cultivated gardens nearby, however, and it was these huertas that weary travelers praised after long rides through a landscape that was, for much of the year, hot, dusty, and, for long distances, devoid of shade. These gardens were enclosed with high adobe walls or hedges of densely planted trees or prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus. Most missions had two such enclosures: an orchard and a vineyard. The plants they contained were somewhat interchangeable; fruit trees, for example, were planted in vineyards as well as in orchards, and grape vines were set out in gardens that also had flowers and fruit. Mission orchards ranged in size from three to forty acres; vineyards, from seven to 120 acres.

Further away were the outlying cattle ranches or grain fields, run by Indians who did not want to live at the mission. Wheat, corn, beans, and other crops were grown in scattered unwalled locations wherever adequate ground water or periodic inundation made cultivation possible. The introduction of cultivated grain crops changed the lives of the Indians, who had long maintained a stable population with a hunting-and-gathering culture. Wheat, cooked as polenta and flavored with vegetables and a little meat, became their staple food. Wheat stored well, and even in years of drought the missions were likely, at least at first, to have sufficient food. If the drought was prolonged, the grain ran out, the cattle and sheep died, the vegetable patches withered, and the orchard trees might drop their fruit or even die. At such times the Indians reverted to hunting for food.

The missions also changed the landscape that surrounded them, setting in motion a process that continues to this day. Grazing cattle ate tree seedlings and native bunch grasses down to the dirt, and their hooves compacted the soil surface. With less moisture in the soil, introduced annual grasses such as rye and oats were favored and replaced the native perennial grasses. Trees were cut down for wood and the clearing of fields. The transformation was gradual, but by the time Americans and other foreigners began filtering into the state, the landscape had already begun to change.

The Early Mission Huertas

While the cattle ranches and outlying fields were the mainstays of most missions, it is the enclosed food gardens or huertas that are of most interest here. Information on what these gardens contained and how they were laid out is sparse and must be gleaned primarily from the accounts of visitors to the missions, since the padres were required to keep records only of grain crops and not of the products of orchards and vegetable gardens.

The huertas, generally walled or surrounded by impenetrable hedges of prickly pear to protect their contents from cattle and other animals, were a welcome relief from the barren California landscape. A visitor to San Fernando Rey in 1846 wrote of “two extensive gardens, surrounded by high walls,” noting that “a stroll through them afforded a most delightful contrast from the usually uncultivated landscape we have been travelling through for so long a time.” Another visitor to the same mission ten years later wrote: “On turning the point of a hill, we came suddenly in sight of the Mission buildings, which, with the surrounding gardens, stood isolated in the seemingly deserted plain, and produced a most beautiful effect.” It is perhaps from such accounts that the notion of paradisiacal mission gardens derives.

Mission San Diego, 1846
Mission San Diego, 1846


* Archivo Historico Nacional (Madrid), Papeles de Jesuitas, Legajo 120 (3), Doc. 88. Translated by Eric Beerman and edited by Amelie Elkinton, the document was made available to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.


A remarkable document came to light a few years ago in the National Historical Archives in Madrid. It is a combined list of the personnel and materials of the first expedition to Alta California, in 1769, sent to establish the mission at San Diego.* The expedition comprised three packet boats, one of which was lost at sea, and two land forces. The ships arrived in April, several days apart; the land division of Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada arrived in mid-May and that of Governor Don Gaspar de Portola at the end of June. Of horticultural interest in the list of supplies are, in round numbers, 2,600 pounds of rice, 4,700 pounds of chickpeas, 3,000 pounds of lentils, 3,000 pounds of beans, 3,500 pounds of dates, figs, and raisins, 600 pounds of garlic, and 565 bushels of new corn (probably wheat, not maize). These items evidently comprised the dietary staples of the expeditionary forces, but they also may have been used as planting seed. A further entry tantalizes by its vagueness: “Two drawers with diverse seeds, vegetables, beans (chickpeas, lentils, etc.) and flowers to plant.” How large was a drawer? Which flowers? Unanswerable questions, but later accounts establish that importations continued by means of an annual supply ship sent from San Blas.

Mission San José, 1856
Mission San José, 1856

The Franciscans introduced dozens of plants to Alta California from Mexico, many of which had initially come from Spain. In the mission orchards thus were found oranges, lemons, figs, and olives. Grapes were grown successfully, as were apples, walnuts, pecans, plums, quinces, apricots, peaches, and pears. Captain George Vancouver found in the garden of San Buenaventura “apples, pears, plums, figs, oranges, grapes, peaches, and pomegranates, together with the plantain, banana, cocoa nut, sugar cane, indigo, and a great variety of the necessary and useful kitchen herbs, plants, and roots.” At San José, one of two huertas, a fifteen to twenty-acre plot enclosed by high adobe walls, was described as containing, in addition to grape vines, “about six hundred pear trees, and a large number of apple and peach trees, all bearing fruit in great abundance and in full perfection.” Unfortunately, names of these fruits often were not provided, though we know from French texts of the period that hundreds of cultivated varieties were available. Where names are mentioned, tracing them is no easy task. Pears known by name at Mission San José, for example, included Presidenta, Bergamota, Pana, Lechera, and Pera de San Juan. The last of these is the French Pome de St Jean, also known as Madeleine and first described about 1625 as Citron de Carmes, from a Carmelite monastery near Paris. Still in commerce in Spain today, it was reintroduced into California before 1850 by Americans as Madeleine.

Plan of Mission San Carlos
Plan of Mission San Carlos

Many plants and seeds also came from ships that put in along the coast of Alta California. Monterey, only three miles from Mission San Carlos, was made the capital of Alta California in 1777 and remained so under both Spanish and Mexican rule. All vessels were required to call there for inspection of papers and cargoes. As the principal point of entry, the town and mission profited horticulturally.

In 1786 Jean François Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse touched at Monterey on his voyage around the world. He was charged with taking European plants and seeds to French colonies in the South Seas and bringing back to Europe “such as may enrich this quarter of the globe.” His manifest included a great variety of fruit tree seeds, grains, roots, herbs, vegetables, and fifty-nine living fruit and nut trees and vines. The flowering shrubs included Rosa centifolia, lilacs, and tuberose. Supplies were taken on board at Brest, and plants were added at Santa Catarina, an island a few hundred miles south of Rio de Janeiro. Apparently, still more items were added as the ship made its way north along the coast of Chile. In Monterey, wrote La Pérouse, “We enriched the gardens of the governor and the missions with different grains which we had brought from Paris, which were in perfect preservation, and will add to the sum of their domestic enjoyments.” The manifest says the grains were to be procured at Brest and included various kinds of wheat, maize, barley, buckwheat, piedmont rice, rye, and oats (other plants may have been included, as graines is the French word for seeds). “Our gardener,” La Pérouse continues, “gave to the missionaries some potatoes from Chile; perfectly sound; I believe this is not one of the least of our gifts and that this root will succeed perfectly around Monterey.” His optimism may have been misplaced, for the Rev. Walter Colton, U.S.N., writing of his visit to San Carlos in 1849, remarked: “In its soil were raised, in 1826, the first potatoes in California. So little did the presiding padre think of this strange vegetable, he allowed the Indians to raise and sell them to the whalers that visited Monterey, without disturbing their profits.”

Mission San Gabriel, 1856
Mission San Gabriel, 1856

Although the huertas were food-producing “kitchen” gardens, the padres could not have been immune to the pleasures of sight and scent that such gardens can provide. At San Gabriel, one of the richest missions agricultur­ally, early plantations of fruit trees were made by Padre Zalvidea. By the end of his tenure in 1826 the gardens are said to have contained 2,333 fruit trees — oranges, figs, pomegranates, peaches, apples, limes, pears, and citrons — while the four vineyards held more than 160,000 vines. A settler in the area wrote of Zalvidea and his gardens: “He it was who planted the large vineyards, intersected with fine walks, shaded by fruit trees of every description, and rendered still more lovely by shrubs interspersed between…”

Ornamental plants also were grown, though most had practical uses. Ornamentals introduced by the Franciscans prior to secularization included jasmine, nasturtium, calla lily, rose of Castile, musk rose, four o’clock, lavender, pennyroyal, sweet pea, lemon verbena, Madonna lily, hollyhocks, stock, carnations and pinks, sweet scabious, delphinum, larkspur, pink valerian, iris, narcissus, poppy, and French marigold. Loquat, oleander, and the California pepper tree also were planted. Acacia farnesiana reportedly was grown at San Fernando Rey “for the perfume of their flowers, which are the sweetest of the large family.” Native plants used by the Franciscans prior to 1834 included virgin’s bower, matilija poppy, toyon, hollyleaf cherry, elderberry, California bay, California fan palm, and Monterey cypress. At least one palm (usually the Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis) was planted at every mission, and fronds were used in religious ceremonies during Holy Week.

The essentials of a pleasing garden, at least in hot, dry parts of the world, are shade, water, food, and the soothing green of foliage to contrast with the dust and glare outside the walls. Water was supplied to the huertas by irrigation systems, laid out at different times at different missions but in general not fully developed until about 1800. By this time there had been sufficient experience with drought to demand more permanent solutions to the problem of providing a constant water supply than the ditches that led from unreliable streams and springs. Dams and aqueducts were constructed to store and carry water to the mission gardens, as well as to washhouses, reservoirs, and the fountains shown on most mission plans. The most highly developed irrigation system was at Santa Barbara, where water traveled by aqueduct for two miles from a dammed creek to a storage reservoir and thence to a settling basin and another reservoir before making its way to the orchard, gardens, and the famous fountain in front of the monastery. It was irrigation that turned the mission gardens, created out of barren landscape, into legendary oases, images of which, however misleading, survive to this day.

Mission Santa Cruz, 1856
Mission Santa Cruz, 1856

Decline of the Missions

Around 1821 the missions generally had reached their most prosperous point, after which the system began an irreversible decline. In that year, after a ten-year struggle, Mexico gained her independence from Spain. The annual supply ships from San Blas, interrupted in 1811 and 1817, came no more. The now Mexican military garrisons were forced to rely increasingly on requisitions from mission stores, accounts for which were regularly kept but seldom paid. Material goods became more scarce, and the number of Indian converts declined as well.

The lack of labor at the missions was acute. Some Indians, mistreated by soldiers, fled to distant rancherias. European diseases, particularly smallpox, claimed thousands. At San Carlos, in 1825, Father Abella informed the superior that the adobe garden walls had fallen down and it was not possible to rebuild them due to a lack of hands. In 1837, when Abel du Petit-Thouars visited San Carlos, the garden showed “scarcely any signs of cultivation. Formerly very fertile, the garden produced in abundance all the vegetables and fruits necessary not only for the establishment, but also for the town of Monterey and for vessels in port. At present it is entirely abandoned, the fence no longer remains, and the few fruit trees which are still to be seen here yield scarcely any produce …”

After independence, Mexico had more pressing concerns than her distant province of Alta California, and Mexican governors, poorly supported from Mexico, had to govern and defend the territory as best they could. In 1822 instructions came from Mexico that the missions were to be turned into secular villages or pueblos and the Indians liberated, with land granted to those who could maintain themselves. These instructions were not much observed until the Mexican Congress passed a law of secularization in 1834. Ten of the missions were secularized in 1834, and six more the following year. Many padres left, or took up residence at the pueblos. The remaining Indians were encouraged to leave the missions, in effect being tricked into giving up their rights to land grants, which went to Mexican civilians and the military.

The crowning blow was delivered by Governor Pio Pico, who held an auction on December 24, 1845, at which those missions already decayed or without lands would be sold, while those that had lands or otherwise might be partially salvaged were to be rented. Only church structures then in use were reserved. Thus were sold San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel, La Purissima, San Luis Obispo, San Miguel, and La Soledad; San Fernando, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, Santa Inez, and San Luis Rey were rented. The northern missions had never been particularly profitable and, except for San José, had no takers.

Unattended missions were looted and plun­dered for building materials, roof tiles being especially in demand. Some roofs caved in from lack of maintenance. Then the adobe walls, exposed to abrasion by wind and to softening by rain, began to crumble back to clay. The padres who stayed on had all they could do to keep a roof over their heads and perhaps keep up the church a little longer. It was in this sorry period that the patios, bereft of their Indian populations and even, in some cases, their buildings, were made over into orchards and gardens for the remaining clerics.

Of these later patio gardens, that of Santa Barbara has survived best. It dates from around 1840, when Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno, first Bishop of the Two Californias, chose it as his residence. It was he who planted the famous cypress in the patio near the fountain, which blew down in a storm in 1909. The garden was a series of geometric paths and planting beds, edged with rocks, as is shown in photographs from the turn of the century. Similar developments are evident from plans of the patio gardens at San Luis Obispo and San Buenaventura, which show them also to contain plants not available to the original builders of the missions.

It is ironic, perhaps, that the mission courtyard or patio should have become more beautiful as the mission system itself decayed. A few padres, no longer able to cultivate souls for God, turned instead to cultivating gardens. The great land grants, carved out of the formerly vast holdings of the missions, became the source of wealth for those Mexican families who stayed on and the source of a new mythology in California. The era of the rancho, roughly 1820 to 1845, is commemorated in the fictional stories of Zorro and of Ramona. Significantly, in both of these works, an increasing number of Europeans and Americans figure as an ominous shadow of change. It was these interlopers who would write the next chapters in the story of the missions, and it was they who ultimately would endow the humble missions with gardens the like of which few padres had ever dreamed.




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