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The Marrying Tree

At least one Los Angeles mission 'Married' Grapevines to Trees

In nature, wild grapes often grow up the trunks of trees and hang from the branches. That is the case for the native grape of Los Angeles, the Vitis girdiana (Nūshákut, in the Uto-Aztecan language spoken locally by Indigenous peoples) as it is for native grapes the world over. Winegrowers long ago adopted the method for their own grapes, planting trees specifically for the purpose, as well as to set barriers to prevent cattle from trampling the crops or vineyards within.

The method is called Vite Maritata or Married Vines, because it 'marries' the vines to the trees without strangling them. Developed by the Etruscans in pre-Roman central Italy, it had never before occurred to me that the method might have been used in early Los Angeles. But why not? The Franciscans were based in central Italy and would certainly have known about this ancient system. And L.A. had a lot of cattle, cattle being its earliest industry, before even wine.

I ask myself this question now, but it didn't even occur to me until I was given a tour recently of the San Fernando Mission by Archdiocese Archive Director Tod Tamberg, to whom I was introduced by Amy Luftig of the @AngelenoWineCompany. The San Fernando Mission grew grapes and made wine, he explained, but unlike its neighbor, the San Gabriel Mission, which has old vines going back almost two centuries as testimony to its winegrowing past, the San Fernando Mission's vines were removed years ago.

Tod led me into one of the buildings and we stopped in front of a mural painted by a #Tatavium artist that depicts the grape harvest. But this harvest was not like those I'd seen in old photographs of early Los Angeles, where the vines were bush-trained close to the ground. Instead, the painting showed bunches of grapes hanging down from the branches of a tree.

I'd seen depictions of such harvests before, but never associated them with Los Angeles, thinking of them as ancient relics of the past. This was in part because in the many photographs I'd seen of grape growing and grape gathering in Los Angeles, going as far back as the late 1800s, I had never seen the Vite Maritata system of training vines employed. And it had never occurred to me that, in those very same photographs, the lines of trees marking property boundaries may have hosted grapevines.

Which makes the mural at the San Fernando Mission that much more intriguing. The painting is stylized. When Tod showed it to me, he said at first that he thought it was an olive harvest. This is understandable since the painting does not show the grapevines growing up alongside the trunk of the tree, as is shown in the drawing below from a book by 19th century Italian oenologist Ottavio Ottavi.

In the painting at the mission, there are also very few leaves on the tree, the two depicted on the far right indicating not the olive nor the grape, but perhaps an oak.

The implications for the Interpretive Grape Garden are profound. As we trace this early history of Los Angeles through the grape, a row of trees with bunches of grapes hanging down from their branches, aligned along the northern edge of the Grape Garden so as not to block the sun from reaching the rest of the Grape Garden, will be a valuable addition to our understanding of this 'disappeared' time in the history of our city.


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