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Guest opinion by Jan Siegel
Almost all of the plants and flowers that we associate with Southern California were brought in by the missionaries. As the missionaries traveled from Europe, Africa, South America, Latin America, Mexico and into California, they brought with them plants and flowers that they liked from different parts of the world. When they came into the Capistrano Valley, the native plants included mainly cacti, scrub oak, wild berries, and wild herbs. The native population had an abundance of wild animals, large and small, and fish, but their diet did lack fruits and vegetables associated with the Western culture.
Pepper trees were once seen all over town, but recently we have lost a lot of them to disease. The missionaries found these trees in Peru, and they really liked the little red peppers. They planted them on their trek northward. In some places, they grew, and in some they did not. They flourished in San Juan Capistrano.
Roses that are such a popular flower in Southern California were also brought by the missionaries. They were originally found in Turkey. The missionaries brought the olive tree to San Juan Capistrano, because they needed the oil for cooking and for the Sacraments.
In a book about California gardens from 1800-1850, it states that at the time that the Forster family was living in the Mission, “only a few old fruit trees, such as pears, peaches, figs and olives, remained. Records tell about frost damage to some of the pepper tree branches in 1830. Grapevines were still there but without leaves or shoots, having surrendered to the vine disease.” Remember, it was Saint Serra who brought grapevines to the Mission and started the wine industry in California at the San Juan Capistrano Mission. Serra is also responsible for bringing chocolate into California. He enjoyed chocolate as a young man in Spain.
While Abraham Lincoln is known for returning Mission land to the Catholic Church in California, he should also be remembered for encouraging farmers to come to our state. The Morrill Land Grant Act, which “granted federal lands to each state to establish colleges for the teaching of agriculture and allied arts,” passed in 1862. The MLGA was the creation of the U. S. Department of Agriculture Homestead Act, which “granted western land to those who would farm” and the Pacific Railway Act, “which cleared the way for the transcontinental railway.” All were all signed by Lincoln.
Following the Civil War, Pam Gibson wrote in her book Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano that Richard Egan settled down for farming barley and Joel Congdon planted English walnuts, thus starting the walnut industry in Orange County. The Daneris, Rosenbaums, and Lacouagues planted oranges. By 1914, oranges had become the major crop for the valley.
Just as the Mission land led to the Rancheros and the Rancheros led to sheep herders, walnut and citrus farmers, the cost of maintaining the orange groves led to the planting of strawberries. Following WWII, Japanese-American farmers found that they could grow strawberries in small areas and make a good profit to offset some of the costs of raising other crops. They were also a good rotation crop. The year 1968 was the biggest year for growing strawberries in Orange County.
The same Charles Francis Saunders, who wrote Capistrano Nights with Father O’Sullivan, wrote many books about the flora and fauna of the West on behalf of the railroads to entice people to visit or move westward. Writing in 1927, Sauners wrote about what had happened to our many wild and cultivated plants:
“Plowing them up, grazing them up, burning them up, burying them under concrete and asphalt, tearing them out of the roots to gratify a passing whim and cast aside until, like her Indians, her wild flora has been desolated and largely driven away from the homes of the people to find refuge, too often only in deserts and mountains”.
As we enter into spring, spend a Moment in Time and think about planting a little bit of history in your yard and think back on all the beauty this land has to offer.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.