La La Landscapes: Mission San Gabriel Gardens, 1806-1826

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the admission that the environment of greater Los Angeles before the Europeans arrived in 1769 constituted a natural garden of sorts and certainly impressed Father Juan Crespí when he came through the area with the Portolá expedition of that year, the first formal gardens in the region were likely those planted at the missions.

The preeminent figure in the horticultural and agricultural development at the “Queen of the Missions”, San Gabriel, was Father José María de Zalvidea.  After he became the administrator at that mission in 1806, a position he held for twenty years, a transformation took place that was described in some detail by Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland who took an avid interest in the history and social organization of the native aboriginal Indians and the mission.

SV 265 Mission San Gabriel Established Sept 8th 1771 2008.101.1.
This early stereoscopic photograph by Henry T. Payne from the mid-1870s in the Homestead’s collection shows the Mission San Gabriel at least forty years removed from its heyday.  Note the wooden tree supports, however, placed along the southern elevation of the old church and the recently laid track of the Southern Pacific Railroad (these tracks have just been lowered revealing a wealth of archaeological material and data about the area.)

Reid, in a series of letters published in the fledgling newspaper, the Los Angeles Star, in 1852, just prior to his death, credited Zalvidea with the improvement of the landscape at San Gabriel, writing:

He it was who planted the large vineyards, intersected with fine walks, shaded by fruit trees of every description, and rendered still more lovely by shrubs interspersed between; who laid out the orange garden, fruit and olive orchards, built the mill and dam; made fences of tunas round the fields, made hedges of rose bushes, planted trees in the Mission square with a flower garden and hourdial in the center; brought water from long distances. . .

In the remote “Siberia of Mexico” where access to the outside world was generally limited and supplies of water often strained in the Mediterranean climate, Zalvidea’s achievement was nothing short of extraordinary.  It has been said there were over 2,300 fruit trees and 160,000 grape vines at San Gabriel during the Zalvidea era and ornamental and practical plants could have included lillies, roses of Castile, lavender, lemon verbena, carnations, delphiniums, poppies, marigolds, oleander and pepper trees.

SV San Gabriel Mission 2014.1052.1.8
Another stereoscopic image of the mission by Payne shows portions of the tree supports, but the fence in front seems to indicate that the photo is dated slightly before the one above, once the Southern Pacific Railroad track was laid down by early 1874.


Of course, it has to be said that most of the labor utilized to establish the vineyards, orchards, and ornamental gardens at San Gabriel was done by neophyte Indian labor and the treatment of the aboriginal peoples by the Spaniards is a topic loaded with controversy.

Zalvidea left San Gabriel in 1826 to tend to the Mission San Juan Capistrano and was the only priest at San Juan after 1831.  His efforts at the mission could not have been anywhere near as successful as at San Gabriel, mainly because the secularization (essentially the shuttering) of the missions by the mid-1830s meant the practical end of the missions.  Zalvidea did stay on at San Juan until 1842.  The dramatic decline in the Indian population due to mistreatment, disease and other factors was also an enormous issue.

SV No 238 San Gabriel Mission Los Angeles Co Cal 2007.65.1.2
Several years after the Payne photos, Alexander C. Varela, a transplant from Washington D.C. [and, incidentally, brother-in-law of famed composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa), took this photograph, circa 1878.  The pepper trees lining the southern side of the church are those that were planted in the wooden supports shown in the Payne images and remained there for many years.

As for the fruits of Zalvidea’s work at San Gabriel, it did not take long for much of that to vanish under secularization, though remnants remained by the time Reid wrote his material in the early 1850s.

Still, the expansive horticultural and agricultural enterprises at San Gabriel constitute the earliest formal garden work done in our region, though the treatment of the native Indian labor force has to be taken into account when discussing the situation.

The next post in this series looks at some examples of gardens established on the ranchos of our region, specifically those owned by members of the Workman and Temple families.

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