The Landscape Guide

Californian Horticulture, Mission Gardens and Landscape Architecture

The fact has already been remarked that North America is too large and too diverse for the gardens to be brought wholly under one point of view. While all regions have much in common, there are some important particulars for which exception should be made.

California is in many ways an empire to itself and develped its own style of garden design. Quite significant for the present study is the different character of the Californian climate, determining a style of  horticulture very unlike that of the central states or the eastern seaboard. There is also to be considered the history of the state, for it was at first a Spanish province, a part of Mexico, and its early traditions were Spanish instead of English. As to climate, California shares with the entire Pacific coast the warming influence of the Japanese current, which so ameliorates the temperatures as to make Oregon, Washington and British Columbia much warmer than regions in the same latitudes on the Atlantic coast. The effects of this warming are most important for horticulture in the winter season, making it possible to grow most species of plants far northward of their natural range. Thus palms, araucarias, eucalyptus and pepper-trees are characteristic of California horticulture, being grown freely as far north as Sacramento ; while in Portland, Seattle and Victoria there are luxuriant gardens of hybrid tea-roses and other half-hardy plants which can be grown in the east only under special methods of protection. The climate of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, in fact, may fairly be likened to that of England. And for a similar reason, for England, too, is warmed by the mild Gulf Stream which flows to her shores from the western ocean.

These similarities, however, seem to run deeper than the thermometer would indicate. There are doubtless other factors involved. Long ago the famous botanist, Asa Gray, pointed out the interesting fact that the flora of the Pacific Coast resembled that of western Europe more than the flora of eastern North America; while the flora of the eastern states is more like that of Japan and eastern Asia. This likeness, visible in the indigenous flora, extends to the artificial flora of horticulture. For example, the European grape, which thrives greatly in California, can hardly be grown at all in the eastern states. Thus it has come about that the horticulture and landscape gardening of the west coast have always had a more European cast than those of the east coast of America.

As to early history, it may be remarked briefly that the Spanish civilisation made a sufficient stand on Californian soil to leave a palpable mark and a considerable influence on the style of  its architecture and gardens. But as these settlements did not extend northward beyond the boundaries of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia were wholly unaffected. The early Spanish settlements mentioned were those of the Franciscan missions. The first was established at San Diego by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. From this point the missionaries moved steadily northward, building missions every day’s journey until a chain of these institutions, twenty-one in number, reached to the region about the Golden Gate where San Francisco now stands. Each one of these missions was an establishment of considerable proportions; some of them approached the dimensions of imperial colonies. Extensive buildings were erected, and large areas of land brought under cultivation. The work as a whole was prodigious and of a sort to fire the human imagination. Its romantic quality is certainly not dimmed for the present generation by being seen through the purple haze of one hundred and fifty years (Fig. 666). Santa Barbara Mission

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The Spanish mission buildings were of substantial construction, built necessarily from materials found at hand, mainly brick (adobe or native sun-dried brick) and stucco. The mission fathers also invented a kind of tile for roofing. In design these buildings naturally followed Spanish models, though they were modified towards a greater simplicity and a certain crude though pleasing ruggedness hardly characteristic of their prototypes. The total result was indeed æsthetically quite satisfactory; and as many of these structures have been preserved up to the present time, they have become an authentic source of architectural inspiration. “ The mission style of  architecture and gardens” is generally admired, and has been successfully employed in many modern works, both public and private, in California and neighbouring states. In more recent times this “mission style” has been subjected to many dilutions, some of them acceptable, others less praiseworthy (Fig. 667).
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Various strains of Spanish influence are blended in this modern architecture. Mention is made of “ Mexican,” “Mediterranean” and “Argentine” styles, though they are not fairly recognisable as types. Under the general head of “Mediterranean” style there are demonstrable references to Italian and Moorish prototypes. Occasionally some fairly pure Italian Renaissance architecture is seen. Another type, still more curious though of much nearer origin, is taken from the Indian pueblos of south-western America. There is also found, endlessly multiplied, the so-called bungalow, though these small dwelling-houses hardly carry any reminiscence of India, where their name originated. They are snug, one-story houses, usually built of wood, with varied roof-lines.The total effect of this modern California architecture is a kaleidoscope of oddities. The quieter examples of  “mission style” and of Spanish and Italian inspiration, are altogether agreeable and are widely accepted as characteristic of California. 

Consideration of Mission architecture is essential to an understanding of Californian gardens and landscape architecture, since the gardening receives its art impress primarily from the buildings. There has been much thought given, too, to the problem of making gardens which would give a proper atmosphere to the local types of architecture. 

One of the most fascinating problems in this field has been found in working out a “desert style “ of gardening. For it must be remembered that large sections of California and of neighbouring states are arid owing to lack of rainfall. Yet many of these arid and semi-arid areas are inhabited by prosperous and home-loving Americans, who must have comfortable houses and who want gardens too. Now the native desert has in it many species of plants, some very interesting, some incontestably beautiful. These are impressed into the local gardening. To them are added xerophilous types (cacti, opuntias, cordylines, yuccas, etc.) from all over the world. The results are highly interesting from a horticultural point of view, and are sometimes artistically effective.

But the coming of the Franciscan missionaries brought more to California than Spanish forms of architecture. To the other side of landscape architecture they brought an equal contribution, that of horticulture. Father Junipero Serra himself planted seeds of the date palm as early as 1770, some of which grew and made fruitful trees. He and his followers also brought other palms, and all the fruits of southern Europe, the olive, the pomegranate, the fig, the lemon, the orange, the apple, the pear, the peach, and above all the wine grape. Because of the climatic affinity between California and Europe already remarked, these importations throve. Most of them were soon acclimatised, and were widely propagated by the industrious missionaries. It is recorded that the Mission of San Gabriel near Los Angeles had over 2000 fruit-trees at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and even today there is exhibited at this mission an ancient grape-vine dating back to those early times.

Each one of the twenty-one missions on Californian soil was an active centre of civilisation. Schools were maintained, industries and crafts were promoted, and the native Indians were educated and to a notable extent taught the European handicrafts and the practices of agriculture, gardening and horticulture. There were also a good many immigrants from Spain and Mexico, Spaniards of both high and low degree, who received grants of land upon which they developed ranches for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and live stock. This was the condition of affairs in California in 1848, when the cession of that whole empire from Mexico to the United States was almost simultaneous with the discovery of gold. The California gold rush of 1849 filled the country with Americans—men mainly of English descent—and changed California abruptly from a Spanish colony into an American state. The Spanish influence lingered faintly in speech, in law and in customs; but its principal contribution to modern California is seen in Mission architecture and gardening, as already stated.