Mission Gardens Honors the Ancient

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Trees enriched by Padre Kino’s legacy have deep roots in Tucson’s desert landscape: Pomegranate, quince, fig, peach, apricot, olives, and other fruit trees thrived centuries ago along the mission lands of the Pimeria Alta region. In an area at the foot of Sentinel Peak, (“A” mountain) that represents the longest-known history of cultivation in the United States, Tucson groups are reviving traditions of agriculture and fostering an oasis of hope, tradition and education.

A four-acre Mission Gardens, envisioned as a historically-accurate cultural showcase and interpretive agricultural museum, is being built on the original site of the San Agustin Mission, along the floodplains of the Santa Cruz River. Leading a group of diversified community and government partners in this ethno-historical adventure is Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace. This volunteer-based organization has raised funds to complete Phase One of Mission Gardens, a re-creation of the Spanish Colonial walled garden once part of the mission. (A $25,000 USDA grant also provided funding for this first phase.) Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace is now rallying efforts to complete the project, which was part of the Rio Nuevo Plan’s Tucson Origins Heritage Park, approved by voters in 1999.

Jesús García in the garden
Jesús García in the garden

The Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project, a major partner in the Mission Gardens effort, has been on a quest since late 2003 to locate, propagate and replant historically and horticulturally-appropriate varieties of fruit trees brought to region by the first Jesuit Missionaries in the late 1600s. In a first effort, the Kino Trees Project successfully planted over 60 heirloom fruit trees in the historic five-acre orchard site at Tumacácori National Historical Park in March 2007. Now it is working with Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace on Mission Gardens, which will be a replica of the original late 1700s orchard. Thus far 119 trees and 24 grapevines have been planted in the Kino Heritage Tree Orchard and Mission Grape Vineyard. A traditional mesquite and ocotillo ramada also has been built and irrigation installed in a living Timeline Gardens.

Critical in the project is ensuring the fruit tree stocks can be traced to those introduced in the late 17th century by Jesuit missionaries. Jesús García, education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum who has worked on the Kino Trees Project since its inception, was part of the team that researched the origins and then identified authentic fruit tree stock, which were discovered in mission orchard communities (in Sonora, Mexico, throughout Southern Arizona and also locally on the University campus and in backyards of private residences). Once identified, cuttings and seeds were propagated at local nurseries, including Native Seeds/SEARCH farm in Patagonia and Desert Survivors Nursery in Tucson, before being re-planting in Mission Gardens.

“Trees are our living history,” says García, who also is a Tucson Meet Yourself tradition-bearer, demonstrating the regional art of horsehair rope making.

“At a time when communities are distanced from agricultural legacies, Mission Gardens and the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project can refocus us on the traditional offerings of our lands.”

A Phase Two of the Mission Gardens project will focus on native plants and educational features. To learn more visit the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace and Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project websites.

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