By Parish Rye.
Rising on the hill just east of Old Town is the site of one of the most significant historic sites in the state of California. Nearly 250 years ago, on July 16, 1769, Father Junípero Serra founded the mission, San Diego de Alcalá, in a simple church on Presidio Hill with the intention of proselytizing locals from the Kumeyaay village of Kosa'aay (today's Old Town) and the Mission Valley area. Two months earlier, El Presidio Reál de San Diego was established by Gaspar de Portolá, who led the first European land exploration of Alta California. This was the first permanent European settlement and the first mission (out of a total of twenty-one) and presidio on El Camino Real. It was the original operations base for Spanish colonization in Alta California, though Carmel Mission Basilica later served as headquarters of mission operations.
While the cultural history is interesting and certainly worth exploring at the Mission Revival-style Junípero Serra Museum, learning about Presidio Hill's horticultural history is also a valuable way to connect with San Diego's past.
Not surprisingly, the landscape that we see in and around Presidio Park today bears no resemblance to the land that the indigenous peoples saw, excepting topography—and in some cases, not even the height and shape of the hills are the same. Historically, Presidio Park would have been populated with low shrubs, possibly an oak or two, and perhaps some cacti. The ground was very rocky and in some areas very steep.
Presidio Plants of Long Ago
When Father Junípero Serra arrived in 1769 and established the initial base for his missionary work just to the west of and downhill from the modern day Junípero Serra Museum, working the rocky ground was difficult. On the precipice of Presidio Hill and adjacent areas, he would have likely encountered, among other plants: Rhus integrifolia (lemonade berry); Opuntia littoralis (coastal pricklypear); Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon); perhaps Eriogonum fasciculatum (California buckwheat); and maybe an occasional Quercus agrifolia (coast live oak).
This should be considered a generalization as other native plants existed and would have been encountered by Serra. For example, the riparian environment in the nearby river bed would have been flourishing with other species of oaks and sycamores, but on the Hill, the five species mentioned above serve as a good starting point for understanding what existed before the California horticultural explosion of the 1880s.
Marston Initiates Presidio Landscape Transformation
After the abandonment of Presidio Hill by about 1835 (the Mission had moved to its current location eleven years earlier), the area fell to ruins. It was all but forgotten until philanthropist George W. Marston seized the opportunity to preserve one of San Diego’s greatest historical treasures by embarking on what became a twenty-two-year effort to develop the land and, eventually, culminated in the building of the Junípero Serra Museum and the creation of Presidio Park.
Marston's intention to preserve Presidio Hill began in 1907 when he and Charles Kelly, John D. Spreckels, E.W. Scripps, and A.G. Spalding purchased fourteen lots. Following five frustrating years of not being able to persuade the City of San Diego to purchase the property for public preservation, he decided to manage the project privately. Over then next two decades, Marston bought out his partners and purchased a total of about twenty acres. He consulted John Nolen, famed urban planner and landscape architect, and he commissioned the building of the museum, which was designed by William Templeton Johnson, notable San Diego architect. This was a significant project in that, in addition to the museum itself, it involved grazing the roads, installing irrigation, and planting. In the late 1930s, Work Projects Administration (WPA) funding provided the financing for much of the cobblestone work along roadside gullies and the building of other smaller structures. And thus began Presidio Park's historical preservation and horticultural experiment.
In 1932, Marston hired Percy Broell as Presidio Park's foreman, and he later became its first superintendent, a position he held for ten years. Broell resided in the Park in what is today called the Grotto area in a home that no longer exists, lying upslope from the corner of Taylor Street and Presidio Drive. He was directly responsible for the original horticultural development and the original plantings in the Park, though Marston also sought advice from others, including John Nolen and the beloved Mother of Balboa Park, Kate Sessions.
Presidio Plants Seen Today
Today, there are a few trees and other botanical specimens in Presidio Park that have survived the decades and continue to thrive. Most plants documented by Percy Broell (in 1937) have long since vanished and the landscape has evolved over time.
Years later, Chauncy I. Jerabek ('the tree man of San Diego' and head gardener for E.W. Scripps's Miramar Ranch in the early 1900s) published A Plant Tour of Presidio Park for California Garden magazine, which was reprinted in 1962 for the Journal of San Diego History and can be read online at the San Diego History Center's (SDHC) website. In 1969, an updated version, with revisions by then Park Supervisor Williams Evans, was published by the Journal.
If your interest is piqued, enjoy a visit to Junípero Serra Museum to learn more about the cultural and horticultural history of Presidio Hill. The Museum is operated by SDHC, which is funded in part by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and by the County of San Diego. SDHC was previously the San Diego Historical Society, founded by George Marston in 1928. Also, you can read Marston's account of how he acquired and developed San Diego’s Presidio Park and Junípero Serra Museum in this 1986 Journal article.
Parish Rye has been a Park Ranger for the City of San Diego for fourteen years. He conducted a comprehensive plant survey of Presidio Park, documenting all native and non-native plants within the park, which can be viewed on his Presidio Park Horticulture Facebook page.
Editor's Note: This article was revised on July 9, 2018 to reflect the author's clarifications.