“It looks and feels like the beautiful Moorish gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.”
I had to agree with the well-traveled visitor to Mission San Luis Obispo. When Liz and I visited the Alhambra in the August heat, she said, “It’s like our Mission, but we’ve got more shade.”
Our docents, who give hundreds of tours to visitors and 4th graders, emphasize that what is now the “patio garden” area was once occupied with a blacksmith shop, tannery, saddlery, weavers’ rooms, a candle making and soap factory, and a pottery, not to mention a communal kitchen.
Gardens like we have today simply did not exist at any of the California missions during the Franciscan period from 1769 to 1833. Any fountains that existed would have been very utilitarian. Sometimes there was a more elaborate lavendaría for washing clothes, as at Missions Santa Barbara and San Luis Rey.
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Water was sequentially reused for drinking and cooking, then washing, then tanning and sometimes, as at Mission San Antonio de Padua, passed on in a trough to power a grist mill.
Why then do we have gardens at so many of the missions appearing like a page out of Sunset Magazine? That magazine, which often features these beautiful gardens, is part of the reason. Sunset was started as an in-house publication by Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1883 the “Espee” (as the railroad was often called) completed its “all weather route” from New Orleans to Los Angeles in 1883.
The following year, Helen Hunt Jackson published her novel, Ramona. Set in Southern California, it pictured a highly romanticized view of the California Mission and ranchero era. Both the “Espee” and local business communities saw mission tourism as a viable commodity. What I call “Mission Mania” was born.
This tourism continued in the automobile age when Miss Anna Pitcher and Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes started a campaign to place iconic bells along the new roads marking the route of El Camino Real.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was still in ruins. But a nice garden with a fish pond and fountains turned the ruins into a tourist attraction. The donations left by tourists funded the restorations we recognize today.
The garden at San Luis Obispo consisted of a large rustic grape arbor covering picnic tables. In 1948, Sir Harry Downie created the modern Moorish-style garden that one enters on Palm Street.
What historical elements should we represent in our Mission Gardens today?
The Franciscan padres brought narrow-bladed grasses, fig and olive trees, grapevines and pears to their working mission gardens, which were a distance from the Mission itself. They brought palm trees from Spain by way of Mexico and, of course, the famed “roses of Castile” which were actually from Mexico.
They introduced reservoirs and aqueducts to California. They often determined the location of a mission by its proximity to water sources. They taught us how to live in a “land of little rain.”
Today, our Mission Garden is beautifully laid out and illuminated by Deacon Jim Burrows, a landscape architect. It contains most of the plants introduced by the Franciscans.
As late as 2000, there was an olive tree awkwardly situated in the middle of the Mission parking lot. Olive trees are very allergenic. Even the Padres didn’t want them near their living space. After that tree was removed, mission olive trees were planted on the periphery of the Old Mission Cemetery, courtesy of Jerry Sortomme’s Huerta Project at Santa Barbara Mission.
If you would like to spend “An Evening in the Garden of Blessed Junípero Serra,” featuring fine wines and Spanish style hors d’oeuvres, you are invited to attend “La Mesa de las Padres,” “the table of the padres.” This historically-themed dinner, served in the gardens and restored Mission Hall, was begun in the 1990s to support the conservation of the historic features of our mission.
Come and support our mission on Saturday, Aug. 22nd at 6 p.m. Call 781-8220 for tickets.