Southern California 3

BY JUDY WIGAND / San Diego, California, USDA Zone 10

Mission Style


La Purisima Mission State Historic Park

Take a trip to La Purisima, situated in the small valley of Los Berros, just five miles east of Lompoc, California. The mission’s gardens are considered one of the finest collections of early-California flora, with about four acres of historical mission plantings. They also feature an intricate re-creation of the mission’s original watering system. La Purisima Mission State Historic Park is located at 2295 Purisima Road, Lompoc, California. 805-733-3713;

It was clever irrigation that turned the semiarid landscape along California’s Pacific coastline into the agricultural mecca it is today. Many of the first gardens were started as early as 1769 by the Franciscan missionaries who came to California to convert the indigenous people to Christianity, and stand today as reminders that drought-tolerant gardens can be both beautiful and productive.

From San Diego to Sonoma, the priests built a chain of 21 missions, each a day’s journey from the next, connected by a path of flowering mustard along the El Camino Real foot trail. In those early mission days, the need to survive prompted the tremendous effort that went into planting the first vineyards, orchards, olive groves, and vegetable gardens, including flowers, herbs, and grains. It took several years of trial and error, leading to near starvation, before the missions and their gardens were flourishing, each one a miniature oasis surrounded by a barren landscape.

Fires, earthquakes, and floods were just some of the hardships the missions faced, but perhaps the most constant challenge was drought. The padres, working hand in hand with the Native Americans, were able to channel their water resources to irrigate what they planted. Those that had nearby natural springs led water through a series of flumes and clay pipes to the mission gardens and their crops, and eventually perfected their water-storage capabilities by building dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts. It’s not certain whether mission gardens were created with the intention of being drought tolerant, but water conservation was key to growing their life-sustaining crops, and the mission denizens knew full well that a constant supply of water was essential.

Today, the 18 million people living in Southern California are dependent on imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California to supplement local reservoirs. Our region is famous for its almost year-round growing climate, yet with anywhere from 30 to 70% of water being used outside the home, water conservation is necessary to maintain our gardens and crops today. With rainfall occurring almost exclusively during winter and early spring (and then averaging only 10 to 15 inches in non-drought years), it’s not unusual to endure eight months out of the year without a drop of rain.

Nevertheless, through the use of drought-tolerant plants, natives, ornamental grasses, and succulents, our gardens can remain artistic, tasteful, and water thrifty. If the padres of the mission era were asked how to solve our water problems, they may have reminded us to work together as they did, to conserve, and to have faith, which, even as small as a mustard seed, can accomplish great things. H


Romneya coulteri ‘White Cloud’

Matilija poppy, one of California’s most dramatic perennial natives, needs little or no summer irrigation. Flowering in late spring to early summer and spreading by rhizomes, the upright stalks reach six to eight feet. The glaucous foliage sets off showy, single nine-inch flowers with distinct yellow stamens surrounded by white crepe petals. ‘White Cloud’ is a vigorous cultivar that blooms more profusely. Often difficult to establish, plant in full sun during late fall or early winter. If winter rain is minimal, water and fertilize to encourage new shoots to emerge. Cut low to the ground in late fall.

Sources, page 76.

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