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.