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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; submission@aol.com), or Jerry
Sortomme (644-2777; jerrysortomme@hotmail.com)).
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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