Gardens at Mission San Juan Capistrano

When most Californians think of Mission San Juan Capistrano, they think of swallows. Every spring, legions of American cliff swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano after spending the winter in Argentina 6,000 miles away. Local legend claims that once upon a time a local innkeeper chased the swallows away by destroying their nests, and they took up refuge at the mission nearby,

In 1910s, a savvy priest at the mission used the public’s interest in the swallows to generate support for his restoration efforts. Without Father O’Sullivan the mission might not be what it is today. In 1939, composer Leon René wrote a song called “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” that has lived on until today.


I had wanted to see Mission San Juan Capistrano for a long time. There hadn’t been an opportunity to visit until this April when on our way home from our spring break trip to San Diego we drove right through the town of San Juan Capistrano. I expected a sleepy mission, but much to my surprise, it turned out to be far more beautiful and interesting than I had imagined.


Ruins of the Great Stone Church (destroyed by an earthquake in 1812)

Founded in 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the 7th of the 21 Spanish missions established by Franciscan priests in what was then Alta California. If you’re interested in the history of Mission San Juan Capistrano, this Wikipedia article is a good place to start.
Since we only had an hour to spend, I focused on the 10 acres of gardens. I would have loved to explore the interior of the buildings that are open to the public, but that will have to wait until my next visit.
The gardens are lovingly maintained by a group of 35 volunteers called the Gardening Angels. The meet at the Mission every Wednesday, “pruning, mulching, fertilizing, planting and doing whatever else is necessary to make the Mission gardens look their best for visitors.” (1) The plantings far exceeded my expectations; they are water-wise and complement the architecture of the mission perfectly. (The big lawn you see a little later is another thing, but I understand the rationale for having it in a public site, what with so many school classes visiting.)
California poppies adding pops of color



Closer look at the ruins of the Great Stone Church


Entrance to the Sacred Garden in the courtyard next to the ruined stone church


Sacred Garden


Giant euphorbia


Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)




Euphorbia ingens fruit


Euphorbia ingens fruit









Prickly pear


Agave americana? after flowering

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Ghostly Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’


More opuntias




Flowering Dasylirion longissimum


Agave potatorum


Crown of thorns (Euphorbia millii) in front of blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae)




Outside the mission wall, on the south side, you’ll find a row of beautiful columnar cacti:



The tall inflorescence with the yellow flowers is from an agave inside the mission wall


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Palo verde in front of the Mission Store

What a great way to end our trip to Southern California!


Hoover Boo said…
Nice pictures on a blue-sky day--it's lovely there are volunteers taking care of the gardens.

There's a great nursery just nine-tenths of a mile south, too: Plant Depot.
Mark and Gaz said…
Fabulous blue sky as a wonderful backdrop! The volunteers are doing a great job with the gardens very well maintained and a planting selection that is very architectural and water wise at the same time. I'm sure you'll be back again soon, an hour it seems is not long enough :)
Kris Peterson said…
Those volunteers do a great job of maintaining the gardens and your photos give a good sense of the place. That columnar cactus outside the mission wall may be the first plant I've seen that can hold its own with a Bignonia vine. I've never visited that mission, which is amazing as my husband loves missions - I wouldn't mind visiting this one with its wonderful gardens.
ks said…
Growing up in LA, this was the mission of choice to visit and I went many times as a child and teen. And what along time since I was there last ! The gardens look wonderfully climate appropriate.
Denise said…
I well remember this mission, since we assisted our youngest in making a replica of it with its bell tower and little bells in the sacred garden in foam core board for an elementary school project. Haven't been back since! It has so much atmosphere. I agree, the gardens complement the mission well.
danger garden said…
Great gardens, thank goodness for volunteers.
Gard3nGirl said…
I love the gardens of Mission San Juan Capistrano. I am a midwest girl, and I try to take a vacation to southern California every year. I have so many pictures of the gardens. My dream would be to volunteer there.
Good thing I didn't know about Plant Depot. My family might have started a mutiny :-).
You should! It might make a nice weekend outing.
They should promote the gardens as a great example of water-wise landscaping. Most of it can be replicated in residential gardens.
Aah, the 4th grade mission project! Our older daughter did California counties instead of missions (must have been more politically correct that particular year), our younger daughter did San Juan Bautista.
If and when I retire, I'll volunteer at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. That is, unless I move to Tucson :-).
I'd love to volunteer there as well. What a beautiful space.