In its Spanish days, Mission San Juan Capistrano grew only the necessities. There were large plantings of wheat, corn and beans. Tomatoes and other vegetables were raised in a garden bordering what is now Ortega Highway, and an orchard southeast of the mission harbored trees bearing pomegranates, peaches, apricots and olives. A nearby vineyard grew grapes for the sacramental wines.
Historians believe a few flowers may have brightened the mission in the years after its founding in 1776, but the missionaries and their Indian charges put most of their energies into producing essentials for the isolated outpost.
Inhabitants from those early days would scarcely recognize today's mission. Freed from the necessity to grow food, 20th-Century caretakers have planted the historic site in lush gardens populated by plants gathered purely for their ornamental value. Visitors can view 140 species of plants and trees, more than 95% of them brought to the mission from other parts of the globe.
And while swallows are the mission's most celebrated spring arrival, the flowers of Mission San Juan Capistrano also make a splashy entrance in spring. Among the highlights now in bloom are the much-photographed bougainvillea along with California poppies and jacaranda trees in the central quadrangle. The roses now in bloom near the front entrance are still tended by Paul Arbiso, the mission's 94-year-old bell-ringer.
Homeowners seeking ideas for their own gardens can stroll the grounds and find the names of favorite plants on identification signs. The placards were placed in 1982 as part of a project coordinated by Theadore Mortenson, a biology professor at Chapman College in Orange.
"On a walk-through, (home gardeners) can see what is appealing to them and visualize where they would plant it," Mortenson said. Then they need only take the name of the plant to a nursery.
Mortenson, who had previously assisted with archeological studies at the mission, was asked by pastor Paul Martin if he would make a survey of the gardens. Planting for beautification at the mission started about 1910, but no written records were kept on the kinds of plants used or where they came from. Each successive pastor planted to personal taste, resulting in a hodgepodge of plants and trees.
"I thought three times before I said yes, because I knew what a big project it was," Mortenson said. But he accepted the task and spent the next 2 years, working weekends and during the summer, cataloguing the extensive gardens.
"We started at the front (of the mission) and moved back," Mortenson said. Working with two student assistants, he collected a flower, fruit or cone from each mission plant and tree and dried the specimens. "As material was collected I would bring it here (to his office at Chapman) or home, where I also work, to identify the plants."
Mortenson and his crew identified 140 species, representing every continent and 50 of the world's 350 plant families. That is "quite a diversity of families," he said. His work resulted in an 111-page report describing each of the species and where it is found at the mission. In addition, several hundred identification signs were placed throughout the grounds (multiple signs were used for many species that occur in more than one location).
"It's bound to have enhanced the experience for visitors," Mortenson said. His survey revealed no rhyme or reason to the gardens' evolution, but that is also the way many home gardens evolve. "There are no records anywhere of any systematic plans," the botanist said.
While the gardens make for attractive surroundings, they have proven to be a headache for Nicholas Magalousis, director of the mission museum and a professor of archeology at Chapman College. When he started his term as museum director, he found that some of the historic structures were threatened by the plantings.
First, simply watering plants that were too close to structures was causing the fragile adobe walls to slowly dissolve. Also, roots of trees and plants were damaging some foundations, and climbing plants such as bougainvillea were sending tendrils into the face of the walls. The romantic image of mission walls draped with climbing plants is a nightmare for historical preservationists.
"It's great to have gardens on historic sites," Magalousis said, but not at the expense of historic buildings. The mission has now cleared all vegetation from a 3- to 4-foot zone around historic structures.
To head off future clashes between preservation and aesthetics, Magalousis meets monthly with Joe Soto, owner of the Capistrano Beach-based Soto Co., which has maintained the gardens for 10 years under contract with the mission. Soto grew up in San Juan Capistrano, went to the mission school and once worked there for $10 a week, picking up empty feed packets dropped by visitors feeding the pigeons.
Now his company sends two to four gardeners to the grounds each day for general maintenance and clean-up. Highly attended special events, especially the annual celebration of the return of the swallows, take a particular toll on the gardens, as visitors tread on the plants and even clip flowers from the rose gardens.
Soto said his priorities in planning the garden are both visual and functional. There was some controversy when, at the request of the mission, his company began removing vines and shrubbery from historic structures. To compensate, Soto said he began planting more annual color, often in clay pots near the now-bare walls. His company has also planted some turf areas within the mission to make the area more usable for gatherings and special events.
Still, for Magalousis, the mission's modern gardens can prove sticky from an interpretive standpoint. The serene central quadrangle, for instance, is a flower-filled garden today but was a work area in the mission days, with nary a shred of vegetation.
Magalousis has taken steps toward historical accuracy in the mission's west garden, removing much of the ornamental greenery and replanting the area in native plants used by the Indians, and in food plants introduced by the Spanish. Magalousis is taking great pains to make the plantings as accurate as possible, using plants from the original Spanish stock whenever available.
Now there are tomatoes, corn, peaches, pears and grapes, along with such California native plants as red buckwheat, wild lilac, Indian tobacco, Oregon grape and sage. Magalousis sees a day when chickens, lambs and goats will roam the area, and wine will be made from the grapes in the traditional Spanish way.
Additionally, in front of the mission museum he has planted a cacti garden using native plants from Baja California. "The purpose for the planting we have done is educational, especially for the schoolchildren who come through," Magalousis said.
"I want to turn this entire area into a massive interpretive area for botany and history," the museum director added. "When kids come down here, they'll really get a sense of what it was like 200 years ago."