Restoring Heritage Plants From California's Missions

Restoring Heritage Plants From California's Missions
By Jerry Sortomme

The Career Horticulture Program at Santa Barbara City College prepares horticultural trainees and apprentices in various skills, techniques, and art forms that allow them to gain employment in horticulture design, landscape construction, ground contracting, nursery/greenhouse technologies, and regenerative and restoration horticulture. The program articulates with four-year universities with horticultural emphasis, such as Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. "Learn by doing" is the key to success and Environmental Horticulture students at Santa Barbara City College have two outdoor classroom gardens to learn many horticultural skills. Off-campus community projects afford expanded practical learning situations.

In 1999, the Environmental Horticulture Department began working with Tina Foss, Curator of the Mission Santa Barbara Museum, to explore the possibility of finding and propagating the few remaining heritage plants that still exist from the time of the padres. Each of the twenty-one missions of Spanish Alta California was a self-sufficient outpost in which a year-around source of water and plants to provide food, utilitarian, spiritual and aesthetic needs were critical to the missions' success. Most missions eventually developed satellite ranchos that provided each establishment with domesticated crops and livestock. What made Alta California unique within the Spanish Empire was that it contained one of the few Mediterranean climates worldwide. It closely resembled the motherland of Mediterranean Spain in its arid lands and infrequent rivers. Introduced plants had to tolerate these situations of meager water. Through a few precious chronicles, drawings, some later period photos and narrative accounts, piecing together what plant materials were originally introduced and survived the Mission Era is not easy, but a revival of this horticultural history is now gaining authentic momentum.

The Environmental Horticulture Program at Santa Barbara City College is joining this effort. A surprising number of refugee plants are being located, rescued and propagated. Within a few more years, many of these plants will surely be resurrected. Twenty-first century genetic identification will help isolate and confirm authentic heritage plants.

In January 2000, an ancient grove of "mission" strain olives was located near Jalama, on land that was once part of a rancho of Mission La Purísima Concepción. Olives from the 200-year old trees were harvested and a token pressing of the fruit was completed. Hardwood cuttings were taken from the trees and various techniques of cloning the branches are being done at Santa Barbara High School by students and staff in a new class called "Horticultural Restoration." The college and the high school are working in tandem to clone the original plant stock. Olive seeds cannot be used because the seeds do not duplicate the chosen orchard quality. Vegetative reproduction of the plants is necessary to keep the original genetics intact. The first "mission" strain olive grew from seed planted in Spain. It is now believed to be extinct in Europe and can only be found in Alta and Baja California. It is still an ideal fruit for modern production of olive oil and for edible purposes. The California Olive Oil Council is funding an effort to encourage interested California missions to reestablish authentic olive groves and harvest and press their annual crops.

Other edible crops from early California being sought after are: fig, pomegranate, pome fruits, stone fruits, cactus tunas, fruits of palms and certain shrubs, vines, herbaceous perennials and seasonal annual crops.

In December 1998 and January 1999, Santa Barbara City College horticulture volunteers received permission to collect deciduous hardwood cutting material from a ranch in San Marcos Pass. Volunteers gleaned wood from plants purported to have come from Old Mission Santa Barbara. Amongst thickets and chaparral growth, several mission-era grape varieties were catalogued and collected. Also collected were various stone fruits, including heritage apricot and plum. Pome fruit apple wood was also collected. At an old home site an heirloom rose was located. A very old painting of the site helped us find this plant even though the house had burned to the ground in the 1970s. Other samples were taken from such plants as a true lilac, just in case it might be from the historic era.

A week later during winter dormancy, City College volunteers trekked to Mission La Purísima Concepción to get propagation wood from the last remaining original mission pear tree, the sole remnant of an extensive mission orchard. Also collected were a host of plants near the mission itself. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps relocated and planted many plants from the grounds of other missions onto the open land of La Purisima. Pear, apple plum, apricot, fig, pomegranate, Mexican cherry, Melia, grape, and some other ornamentals were collected.

Both treks were full of discovery and serendipity. Storytelling was contagious. Our host at La Purisima, Al Thompson, not only had wonderful stories to tell but also gave us the paperwork that documented the plantings, something generally hard to come by.

Back at the College, the tedious work of making cuttings of the collected wood needs to be done as soon as possible. The integrity and viability of plant material is lost if propagation is not done immediately. We did not know what cloning methods were best so the wood was propagated by tip, straight, heel, and mallet cutting methods. Various rooting media were used: perlite, potting mix, and sand. Rooting hormone was also employed. A few of the collected plants were already ground-layered, having taken root already. These layered plants were quite successful. Unfortunately, cuttings made of the pomes and stone fruits were mostly unsuccessful--much time and effort for naught. Fig, pomegranate, and rose were more successful from cuttings. However, grafting techniques were quite successful for pomes and stones fruits. Though more time consuming, it is worth the effort to graft heritage stone fruits onto existing stone fruits already growing in your own garden. For example, we grafted a mission plum onto a purple leaf plum and it is thriving. We grafted heritage apricots and apples onto their modem cultivars and had several successes. We were afraid to graft mission pear onto our college pear because of the fear of transmitting the bacterial disease fire blight, but, Dave Wilson Nursery has grafted some heritage pears onto selected rootstock and is awaiting results.

Another consideration is adaptability. When a candidate plant is located, propagated, and planted, it may not like the new location or niche. Soil, exposure, hours of chill, wind flow, and other environmental factors may affect success rates. Therefore, a rare plant should be distributed to many locations to analyze whether if can be sustained under an assortment of habitats.

Also, people care for plants in many different ways, and sometimes luck plays a part. Not everyone has the training or sophistication to successfully grow the plants. But if you are in doubt, try to clone the plants. One success is better than not trying at all. If you can photograph the plants and the site for documentation, do so! Recently, a box arrived at City College from Santa Rosa with nothing in it but quite dehydrated, leafless grape vines. Cuttings were made from this questionable pile of twigs and 16 very health grapevines are now growing in five gallon containers. From one successfully cloned plant, countless clones can be duplicated.

Imagine re-growing plants genetically identical to those raised by the mission padres. This is another approach to the quest for re-establishing the living history of California. Such adventures are happening all over the state. What is needed now is to locate the surviving specimens. Each year another remnant plant dies due to drought, fire, disease, land development, and other conditions. It is important to save the heritage plants that are remaining. These "old soldiers" need our help.