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23 March 2008

Dry Green: Go Native

Want to go green and still have green in your yard while conserving water?

Consider California native plants, which are more than just succulents and cactus. Many are flowering and many were used for food or medicinal purposes by Native Americans. Theresa Richau, the Herbs of the World garden curator at the LA Arboretum & Botanic Garden, feels people come to the Arboretum "to be healed" and gardens have that special power.

As a member of the Tongva tribe (who lived in the LA Basin), she feels that we should think of the "landscape of the universe" and that conserving water in a semi-arid area is part of the deal.

Currently, Richau is refurbishing and redeveloping a native California section of the herb garden with the help of her tribal elder, Mark F. Acuña, an ethnobotanist who has written his own personal guides to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont as well as for the Bernard Biological Field Station at Claremont College and the Pitzer College campus.

Richau, Acuña and Marcela Singleton, the Grace Kallam Perennial Garden and Meadowbrook curator, are involved in the relatively new section of the Roots & Shoots Children's Discovery Node, the wildlife garden.

"A donor had an idea of creating a wildlife garden, and while studying wildlife-attracting plants, I found they are all native plants," Singleton explained. "They don't require soil amendments because they are designed to be here." Singleton also insisted that no irrigation system be installed, so plants are watered by the rains or by hand. Without irrigation, this garden is in bloom with orange, blue, purple and yellow flowers.

Acuña pointed at the silver-leaved Artemesia tridentate. The Tongva, who called it "wikwat," gathered the seeds and ground them into a mush. The leaves and branches were used in sweathouses. A medicinal tea for stomach-aches was made from the leaves, which were also used to make a green dye for tattooing. For the Tongva, this is a most sacred plant because it came from their original homeland, areas like Nevada before the climate changed. Like most silver foliage, this plant is great for a moonlight garden, reflecting light.

The seeds of the juncus, or wire grass (Tongva name soar, pronounced with two syllables) were used to make little edible cakes, the roots and leaves to make a diuretic tea, and the reeds for making baskets. The village women were responsible for maintenance - cutting, pruning and harvesting to keep the plant healthy.

According to Acuña, the local tribes had families who were responsible for different plants and even specific oak groves. The idea that the Native Americans "had no concept of ownership of the land was started by the Europeans," he explained.

In times of drought when the plants are stressed, families were responsible for oak groves and other useful plants, giving them extra water. This was true for Native Americans throughout California, he said.

The Tongva also used the state flower, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), for food - though it requires special preparation or it can be toxic, Acuña warned. The pollen from a field of poppies was collected by women and used as a cosmetic.

Similarly, the Tongva used the toxic blue-eye grass (Sisyrinchum bellum), a member of the iris family, called mantaka. The Tongva used it primarily for medicinal reasons, but it must be handled with care.

In the herb garden, volunteer Rafael Carrera Oliva, who is of Mayan descent, noted that his people used ruda, commonly known as goat's rue, to calm the stomach. Yerba mate is commonly used in Latin America as a tea.

The LA Arboretum plans to put up educational signs in the wildlife garden in the near future, but if you're lucky, you can also ask volunteers or the curators for information. Acuña will be giving lectures but his next one in May is already full. Both Richau and Acuña will be leading the refurbishment of Tongva dwellings on April 20, 25 and 27 at the Arboretum. Volunteers are welcome to help while learning more about Tongva culture and history.

Acuña is also working with the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and other Tongva elders to produce an ethnobotanic book, but until then, you'll have to catch him at one of the gardens to pick his brain.

Singleton recommended the Theodore Payne Web site to help identify plants in the meantime and for purchasing wildflowers and California natives.

The Theodore Payne Foundation, located in Sun Valley, has its fifth annual native garden tour on April 12 and 13. This self-guided tour of 39 Los Angeles-area homes costs $20 per person for both days and is described online at www.TheodorePayne.org.

The tour includes homes in Altadena, La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Monrovia and Glendale among other locations that have at least 50 percent native plants. On Saturday, April 12, at 6:30 p.m., there's also a free talk by Alrie Middlebrook, "Designing California Native Plant Gardens," at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood.

--originally published in the Pasadena Weekly

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