Mission Photo
Mission Photo

Native American Gardens

Native American landscapes have been described in detail in the early correspondence and diaries of explorers, travelers, and traders who traveled to Alta California and the Pacific Coast as early as 1518. Their writings note that the landscape was often shaped by burning foliage but the traditional agricultural practices of tiling the soil, weeding, pruning, irrigating, sowing seeds, and selective harvesting were also used by Native Americans.

The Spanish Padres and Agricultural Arts at California Mission

As the site of each Alta California mission complex was selected starting in 1769, the Spanish padres provided food, supplies and animals as well as the materials for establishing agriculture and animal husbandry. The primary goal was to spread Spanish culture and religion to the citizens of new Spain, including Native Americans throughout Alta California. The padres expected each mission complex to become self-sufficient within five years. The group of missions in Alta California, New Spain, were known as the missions of Monterey. Monterey served both as the Spanish and the Mexican capital between 1776 and 1848. 

The first missions were established in the Sierra Gorda mountains of Mexico around 1750. After the buildings were built to house the workers, crops and seeds, livestock, and craftsmen, the padres planted seeds and trees. The padres were experienced in working in agriculture. They also had the skills to care for the cattle, livestock and horses. These Franciscan padres trained the native people in the agricultural arts to work both as overseers and workers. The people living in Sierra Gorda mountains were taught to sell grain, fruits and wine once there was a surplus of each. The proceeds provided the native population with tools, clothes and other items. Records show that the padres “instructed them and prevented them from being cheated.” Each mission complex was established with a working economic model to become self-sufficient. Fray Serra worked for eight years in the Sierra Gorda missions before he was chosen to plan and develop mission sites in Alta California as President of the missions.

Publications on the Agricultural Arts were available at the time. They discussed soils, seeds and methods of caring for plants from the initial planting to harvest.  These works were especially important in California where the coastal climates were similar to those of the Mediterranean climate of Spain. The most famous was Agricultura General, published in Madrid in 1777. Today it can be found in the archives of the Santa Barbara Mission and the library of the University of Santa Clara. Records show this book was sent to Fray Antonio Jayme, the missionary at La Soledad Mission. Other publications include Secrets of Agriculture, Fields and Pastures written in 1617 by a Catholic father and republished in 1781. Research by Edith Webb shows it was part of the library at the San Fernando Mission in Southern California. A third important work was found in the libraries of Mission Lá Purísima and Mission Santa Inès. It is entitled Secretos de Agricultura. The agricultural arts and techniques brought by the Spanish form the foundation of California agriculture today. Over 400 crops are grown in California today resulting in over 45 billion dollars annually added to the state economy.

Detailed records and diaries were kept at the missions and in Spain. The Spanish required detailed agricultural reports on the grains on each variety and the yield of each harvest. The padres were required to report on the size and number of vines in the vineyards, harvest yields and production of wine. Livestock was inventoried regularly and the increase in each herd was reported to Spanish officials. 

Strangely enough these reports were not required for fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants. We will share information on these agricultural endeavors based on the writings of visitors, travelers and traders who specifically commented on gardens and orchards.

Wheat – the Staff of  Life – Introduced to Alta California by Spain

Wheat was first planted in Alta California at the pueblo of San Jose in 1777. The previous year the new Spanish governor of Alta California, Governor Felipe de Neve proposed planting wheat in the fields surrounding missions, pueblos and presidios. The agricultural practices at the time involved wooden plows scratching the soil in which seeds would be sown. The first crop in San Jose failed because it was the wrong season. In San Diego there were three attempts before the crop successfully produced a large crop. To protect the fields, ditches or walls were constructed. Often the adobe walls were topped with rows of cattle skulls with long horns attached.

Michael R. Hardwick, an invaluable resource for information on early Alta California agriculture, describes the special ceremony conducted at the end of the wheat harvest. “The last four sheaves taken from the fields were tied to poles in the form of a cross, and were brought by the reapers in a harvest procession to the church. Bells were rung. The padre, dressed in his robes, carrying the religious cross, and accompanied by boys with tapers and censers, chanting Te Deum, marched and went forth to meet the sheaves. Usually this was the season of Indian festivals where often one-fifth of the Indian population were allowed to leave the Mission for a number of days to gather acorns, dig roots, hunt, fish, and enjoy a change of occupation.” This type of ritual was a blessing of the crop. There are specific blessings and ceremonies for grape and olive harvests.

In San Luis Obispo County, wheat was grown in the fields near Santa Margarita de Cortona, the rancho established for the purpose of caring for herds of cattle as well as growing and storing wheat.

The Huerta, The Jardin and The Vineyard

The huerta is an orchard or food garden. The jardin is a pleasure garden planted with ornamental plants and flowers. The vineyard was planted with Mission grapevines occasionally mixed with Alicante Bouche vines to add deep red color to wines produced for sacramental purposes. This practice of planting a mix of grape varieties together in the vineyard to be harvested and fermented in the same vessels is often described as a field blend. 

The huerta was planted with a variety of plants which will be discussed in detail in a section below. The huertas varied greatly in size. They were surrounded by adobe walls or hedges of dense trees or Opuntia (often called prickly pear) cactus to protect the crops and orchards. The fruit trees were planted in orchards ranging from three to forty acres. Vineyards ranged in size from seven to 120 acres, sometimes with fruit trees or ornamental plants, planted among the vines. The large jardin was not often planted in the mission era. However, individual ornamental plants were planted on mission grounds, pueblos and presidios. The concept of the private jardin became more popular after the missions were secularized in 1833.

The First Agricultural Plants Arrive in San Diego in 1769

The padres, with horses and cattle, arrived in San Diego after traveling on foot by land in 1769. Three packet boats arrived with the horticultural supplies shipped from lower Baja by sea the same year.

The detailed list of horticultural supplies on these boats included:

2600 pounds of rice
4700 pounds of chickpeas
3000 pounds of lentils
3000 pounds of beans (variety is not specified)
3500 pounds of dates, figs and raisins
600 pounds of garlic
565 bushels of new corn
Large packets of seeds – vegetables
Large packets of seeds – flowers

Vegetables Introduced by the Padres from Spain


Herbs Introduced by the Padres from Spain


Ornamental Plants Introduced by the Padres from Spain

The following ornamental plants were introduced to Alta California during the Mission Period, 1769 – 1833:

Musk Rose
Sweet Pea
Madonna Lily
Pink Valerian
French Marigold

Calla Lily
Rose of Castille
Four ‘O Clock
Lemon Verbena
Sweet Scabious
California Pepper Tree

California Native Species used by the Padres Prior to 1834

Virgin’s Bower
Monterey Cypress

Matilija Poppy
Hollyleaf Cherry
California Bay
California Fan Palm

786 – King Louis XVI Sends Two Ships from France on a Four Year Exploration of New Lands, Trade Possibilities and to  Report on Activities of Other European Powers Along the Pacific Coastline

Two ships from France arrived off the coast of Monterey in September 1786. The ships, L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, were under the command of Jean Francois de La Perousè  who was accompanied by the king’s gardener, Mr. Collignon, who was one of many who worked in King Louis XVI’s garden. This gardener was assigned the task of identifying and collecting useful plants growing in the “new world.” But he is best remembered in Alta California as the man who introduced plants from King Louis XVI’s garden to Governor Pedro Fages. Mr. Collignon brought a large inventory of the following plants with him:

Apple kernels

Pear kernels
Grains (not specified)

La Perousè and Mr. Collignon purchased vegetables as they continued their expedition. La Perousè described his experiences in his journal, “the gardens of the governor and of the missions were filled with an infinity of plants for culinary use, which were furnished in such abundance that the ships of no country had been better supplied with vegetables.” Mr. Collignon gifted potatoes from Chile and grains he transported from Paris to both the missions and governor.

The ship, La Boussole, carried trees, more accurately described as a small forest of 50 living trees as well as grapevines. I do not know where these trees originated but they included the following varieties:

Black Heart Cherry

White Heart Cherry
Montmorency Cherry
Hundred-Leaved Rose

Olives Trees – A Success at Mission San Diego

The Mission Olive was planted from both seedlings and rooted cuttings at almost every Spanish Mission by 1810. Archaeologists note that olive pits found in old adobe bricks at the sites are of various sizes and shapes.  The most successful olive orchards were planted on the lands of the Mission District in the San Diego area. The trees producing the best olives most likely were selected for these groves. An olive culture in the region became so successful that the missions of the San Diego district were able to supply olive oil to all the missions throughout Alta California. Artisans built the first olive mills and screw presses around 1800 in San Diego. The olive culture was established; documents show olive oil was produced in 1803 at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Olives and the oil they produce remain important to California’s economy in the 21st century. The first commercially produced olive oil was made by Camulos Oil Mill which was established in 1871 in Ventura. By 1936 the Mission olive was the most important olive in California, planted in over 50% of the acreage of the groves. By 1996 only 9% of that land was planted to Mission olives.

The First Grapes Planted in Alta California

One of the myths of California wine grapes is that Fray Serra bought grape vines to Alta California in 1769 when he arrived in San Diego. He did not. He did bring plenty of sacramental wine for Catholic Mass. However, by 1772, Fray Serra was writing about the shortage of wine, stating that the only source was the Spanish government storehouses where wine was kept for soldiers. Fray Serra complained about the high cost of this wine; he had to pay the same price as a common soldier. There was no discount for the clergy. 

In 1777 there was correspondence to Viceroy Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursùa in Mexico City from Fray Serra requesting that grapevines, figs and pomegranates be introduced to California. The request must have been granted in 1778 because grapevines arrived according to correspondence sent to Fray Serra by a friar at Mission San Juan Capistrano, dated March 15, 1779: “Snow is plentiful, wherefore, until the severe cold moderates and the floods subside, the vine cuttings which at your request were sent to us from the lower country have been buried.” Our best guess is that the grapevines arrived on the ship, San Antonio, on May 16, 1778 and were transported to the Mission to be planted. And why was Mission San Juan Capistrano selected?

The lands around Mission San Juan Capistrano hosted wild grapevines and so that site was selected to plant the domesticated Vitis vinifera, known for over a century as the Mission Grape.  It is the earliest vinifera grape to be cultivated in the Americas. It has been identified with modern technology as the Listán Prieto, which is believed to have originated in the Castilla – La Mancha region of Spain. Mission grapes were used for winemaking almost exclusively until California became a state in 1850. The California Gold Rush brought over 300,000 people to California. This sudden migration from around the world brought nurserymen from the east coast of the United States to establish nurseries and plant multiple fruit trees in orchards, grapevines and garden vegetables to feed the new settlers. Much of the horticulture was similar to the plants originally introduced by the Franciscan padres.

Vines were planted at most mission sites along the Pacific Coast. However, the climate in the southern and central coastal areas was more conducive to growing grapes. Wine was produced where the grapes were grown. 

Mission San Gabriel – The Mother of California Agriculture

Mission San Gabriel was described and known as the most successful agriculturally of all the missions and became known as “the mother of California agriculture.” The friars were famous for producing large staple crops of corn, barley, wheat and beans. But the friars at Mission San Gabriel were also known for their experiments in horticulture and their understanding of the importance of the Mediterranean climate in the San Gabriel Valley. The extensive gardens were described in 1834 as filled with oranges, citrons, limes, apples, peaches, pears, figs, pomegranates, and grapevines. At the peak of prosperity the Mission San Gabriel complex had a population of 3,000 Native Americans, 105,000 cattle, 20,000 horses, and 40,000 sheep. They produced 20,000 bushels of grain and over 500 barrels of wine and brandy annually.  

Mission San Gabriel became the largest and most successful grape grower and winery producing Mission wine and the brandy, known as aguardiente. The four vineyards at the mission were planted to more than 164,000 grapevines by 1833. The prize vineyard is known as Viña Madre. The wines were described by Father President Nareisco Durán in a letter to Governor Figueroa in 1833 as, “The best wines which I have found at the various missions are those of San Gabriel. There are two kinds of red wine. One is dry which is very good for the table, the other is sweet, resembling the juice pressed from blackberries and so rather unpleasant. There are also two kinds of white wine. One of them is from pure grapes without fermenting. The other from the same juice is fermented with a quantity of grape brandy. These two make a most (sic) delicious drink for the (sic) dessert. The wine from the pure grape juice is for the altar, the other for any use whatever.” 1833 was also the year when Jean Louis Vignes planted the first non-Mission vines in Los Angeles, including cuttings of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

The aguardiente (brandy)  was made from pulp pressed in wooden presses. The juice was collected in copper jars which were heated to induce evaporation. The concentrated juice was cooled in different containers. The process was repeated until the brandy was high in alcohol content. When Spanish rule ended, the Los Angeles area dominated grape growing and winemaking until the Anaheim disease decimated the Mission grape vineyards in the 1870s. 

Mission Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County

Mission San Luis Obispo

Mission San Luis Obispo was second in production as a friendly rivalry grew between the padres at these two missions. In the early 1820s, Father Jose Sanchez was producing 400 barrels of wine a year at Mission San Gabriel. Both vineyards’ production continued to increase.  Father Antonio Martinez was making over 100 barrels at Mission San Luis Obispo. Both missions sold surplus wine and brandy to traders. Father Antonio Martinez was the head padre and spent his entire career (1790 to 1830) at Mission San Luis Obispo. He was an excellent administrator, a strong businessman and very knowledgeable about world events in Europe and Mexico. He is the model for the fictional priest in the early California novel, Ramona, written by Helen Hunt Jackson and published in 1856.

The San Luis Obispo vineyards were located in front of the mission, on the eastside of San Luis Creek. The vineyard covered forty-four and sixty-six hundred acres. 

2022 is the 250th Anniversary of the founding of Mission San Luis Obispo. The church, gardens and museum are open daily. You can visit the website to sign up to arrange for guided tours.

In 1837 Hartnell, the inspector of the missions for the Mexican Government, determined that the San Luis Obispo Mission vineyard was the second largest in Alta California, after Mission San Gabriel.

Mission San Miguel

The Mission is celebrating its 225th Anniversary in 2022. The mission was founded by Franciscan Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuen in 1797. It was the sixteenth of twenty-one missions. It is located between Mission San Luis Obispo and Mission San Antonio in Monterey County. The actual site was located on the west bank of the Salinas River, just below the junction of the Estrella River. There are two broad valleys where native oak, cottonwood, willow and  sycamore trees were growing in abundance. Trails to the Pacific Coast were established. The Native Americans and the padres fished and traded with sea captains on the beaches of Cayucos and Cambria as we know them today. According to the mission website, the first administrator at the site was Fray Buenaventura Sitjar. He had worked for years at the Mission San Antonio and was fluent in the local language of the Salinan Indians. The first temporary buildings for worship were built in 1797 and legend has it that Fray Sitjar baptized 25 youth on the day the mission was founded. The church was not completed until 1821; the interior frescoes were designed by Esteban Munras and painted by artists in the local Salinan tribe. They are extraordinary, unlike any other California Mission frescoes.

The Mission lands were very large. They extended to the north for 18 miles, 66 miles to the east, 18 miles to the south and 35 miles to the Pacific Ocean. Father Juan Martin supervised the mission from 1797 to 1824. Vineyards were planted in several locations near water sources.  A small adobe house was built in the center of each vineyard for the caretaker. The “ranchos” that served the Mission were established as farms and stations to oversee the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle grazing on their lands. They were known as San Marcos Rancho and Paso de los Robles Rancho. Wheat, corn and beans were also farmed and stored in the granaries of each rancho. At the peak of production the mission owned 91,000 cattle, 1,100 horses, 3,000 mares, 2,000 mules, 340 oxen and 47,000 sheep.

Mission grapevines and fruit orchards were planted near the mission. There was also a thriving vineyard to the north of the mission in Vineyard Canoñ. The climate was perfect for raising grapes and growing fruit, particularly pears. Wine was made at the mission. Stucco covered vats were built into the walls of San Miguel Mission and can be seen today. There is a museum. Please visit the website for more information on tours of the mission and the grounds. Sunday services, festivals and occasional music events can be attended each year.

Other productive vineyard sites include Mission San Fernando, Mission San Luis Rey, Mission San Diego in Southern California, and Mission San Buenaventura, Mission Santa Barbara, Mission San Antonio, Mission Soledad, Mission Santa Clara and San Carlos in Central California.