Skip to main content

See also:

Santa Barbara's Authentic Mission Garden - La Huerta Historic Gardens

La Huerta Historic Mission Gardens Museum, Santa Barbara
La Huerta Historic Mission Gardens Museum, Santa Barbara
David Laws

Colorful courtyard gardens at many of California’s historic Spanish missions owe more to the mythical Arcadian paradise portrayed in Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel Ramona than to the realities of the past. These areas were typically utilitarian work spaces with a hard-packed dirt surface. Today’s flower-filled beds and bougainvillea-draped adobe walls were planted early last century by civic organizations and church groups to attract visitors.

Living wall at Hotel Indigo, Santa Barbara
David Laws

Gardens were however extremely important to supporting mission life, but they comprised culinary plants grown in separate huertas -- food-producing enclosures protected by strong fences and spiny cactus hedges. In several locations they grew sufficient fruit and vegetables to trade for supplies from visiting ships. Most varieties were introduced from Europe and South America as few indigenous species yielded food palatable to the missionaries. Popular delicacies with the locals included acorns, pinenuts, chia seeds and brodiaea corms.

Beginning in 2001, curators at Mission Santa Barbara established a living museum to preserve and exhibit plants introduced to California by the Spanish colonists during the 1769 to 1834 Mission-Era. Called the La Huerta Historic Gardens, the one-acre plot includes trees, shrubs, vines, edible perennials and herbs as well as seasonal crops and vegetables. An area is also devoted to native California plants and ethnobotanical flora.

Maintained by volunteers under the direction of Jerry Sortomme, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Horticulture at Santa Barbara City College, the garden is located in a restricted zone at the rear of the mission. It is open to the public for docent-guided tours by reservation. Call 805.682.4713 ext 166 or email to for information.

Where to Stay?
Santa Barbara offers numerous fine accommodations from intimate B&Bs to luxury resorts. The Hotel Indigo is a convenient choice for visitors who choose to arrive the old-fashioned way – by train. Adjacent to the Amtrak station, the hotel is a short walk from Stearns Wharf, beaches, cultural attractions, shopping, and dining. With sleek, space-efficient touches on a smaller footprint, it claims to be the city’s only environmentally friendly hotel. Garden lovers admire a plant-filled living wall on the second floor. [Reviews: 4.0/5, Price: $$]

California Gardens Mobile App
California Gardens is mobile travel app, free from iTunes, that describes over 200 gardens that are open to the public on a scheduled or occasional basis. It includes arboretums, botanical gardens, public parks, college campuses, hotels, nurseries, wineries, and private estates that showcase the extraordinary variety of plants that thrive across the diverse climate regions of the Golden State. Download California Gardens from the Apple iTunes App Store (free) or Google play for Android