La Huerta Project

Restoring S.B. Mission’s Crop Garden

By Virginia Hayes

California natives will have studied the history of its Spanish missions in grade school, but for the uninitiated, the missions pose a curious link to a historic time when the state still belonged to Spain. Twenty-one outposts were built in the period from 1769, when the first mission was established in San Diego, to 1834, when the young Mexican government (having achieved independence in 1822) finally took a look at Alta California and decided to secularize the missions. While commerce between the missions was possible, they were essentially isolated and had to rely on their own resources. Native American people were conscripted to construct the mission complexes and to provide the labor force that served the fathers.

Santa Barbara boasts one of the most well-preserved of these early missions and visitors to the Santa Barbara Mission are able to get a glimpse into the way of life experienced by these early settlers. The “queen of the missions” was built in 1786 and original furnishings from the living quarters of the Franciscan monks who labored there are on display in several rooms. Not on display is the key to how these pioneers were able to prosper far from their original base in Spain and Mexico. A project is underway, however, to recreate the huerta, or garden, where the friars cultivated the food and utilitarian crops they relied on.

Lists of plants grown during the mission era have been compiled through research into the writings of the church officials as well as other early visitors and residents. They reveal an astonishing array of non-native as well as native plants that were cultivated on mission property. Documented food crops included corn, cauliflower, lentils, and garlic as early as 1769. Grapes, barley, wheat, lettuce, figs, peppers, squash, pumpkins, beans, and onions were all grown starting in the 1770s. Apples, pomegranates, oranges, and many more fruits were in place by the 1790s. Herbs and medicinal plants such as anise, basil, borage, cilantro, cumin, dill, epazote, horehound, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, and valerian all found a place in the huerta. Utilitarian plants valued for fiber included agave, cotton, flax, and hemp. Teasels provided the combs to card wool, while indigo was harvested to make a dye. Cochineal insects that parasitize the opuntia cactus were also scraped off to make another dye. Palm fronds provided thatch and brooms, and the giant reed (Arundo donax) could also be used to cover ramadas providing shade. Gourds were cured and carved into bowls and spoons, catsclaw acacia and Peruvian pepper tree sap was used for glue, and castor beans were processed for their cathartic oil.

Native trees were propagated to be harvested for their wood. Livestock were fed with grains, legumes, melons, and squashes (including pumpkins) as well as opuntia pads cultivated for that purpose. Beginning in 1999, the curator of the Santa Barbara Mission Museum, Tina Foss, joined forces with Jerry Sortomme, professor emeritus of the Santa Barbara City College Environmental Horticulture program, to locate and propagate plants for a new mission garden. In 2003, they created the Huerta Project. In a small plot on the mission grounds, which had been a dump site for debris dating as early as the 1925 earthquake, they have begun planting a garden that is designed to showcase all the plants typical of the self-sufficient mission huertas. The plantings fall into several different categories. Of prime interest are the heritage plants. These species represent living material obtained from plants documented to be from a particular place and time. The original plant may have been growing at one of the missions or could be documented from the site of an early rancho, for example. Sadly, many of these historic varieties are now lost. To represent the diversity of the early huertas, the Huerta Project is also collecting heirloom plants of similar age or provenance or more modern examples when necessary.

Some outstanding specimens of heritage plants the Huerta Project has collected include a cutting from a grapevine growing at the San Ignacio Mission in Baja that is reputed to be at least 250 years old. Pear trees have been propagated from La Purísima Mission and the ‘Padre’ pear established at Rio Hondo circa 1800. And a cutting of a 100-year-old grapevine from the Gypsy Canyon Winery has been verified through DNA tests as the authentic ‘Mission’ grape. In all, the list of plants now growing at the site is near 400, including seasonal crops such as corn and beans. Sister Pat Callahan has entered them all into a database and tracks their sources and current status. Scrapbooks also document the origins and history of the heritage plants. The quest for additional heritage and heirloom plants continues and rumors of old plants are avidly run down.

All this couldn’t happen without a group of dedicated volunteers who show up every Wednesday morning to pull weeds, dig holes, turn compost piles, dispense with pesky gophers, plant, and transplant the precious new additions. More are always needed and welcomed. To learn about the volunteer opportunities, contact Tina Foss (682-4713 x150;, or Jerry Sortomme (644-2777; Students at SBCC may be able to earn credits through the Environmental Horticulture Department, master gardeners can fulfill work experience requirements, and scouts can also earn credits for work done at the project. But, most of all, volunteers experience history through their work as they cultivate these living reminders of early California life from 200 years ago.

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