Sunday, August 22, 2004

The Return of the Natives in Los Angeles

Seven years ago the island in Alondra Park near Lawndale and Torrance, two Los Angeles’s southern suburbs, was used as a junkyard. Residents would abandon rabbits, roosters, and hamsters they didn’t want on the barren, muddy clay. There were few native plants, a little grass, and a couple of palm and pine trees. In a time of budget cutbacks, LA County had accepted this island as an ugly wasteland.

Once the whole Los Angeles plain was a garden teeming with native plants and animals. Father Juan Crespi, diarist for the first Spanish Sacred Expedition, described in 1769 camping along the Santa Ana River lined with “sycamores, alders, willows, and other trees.” Crespi reported that the land was full of wild antelope. Beside the antelope there were hares, coyotes, deer, and wild goats.

As Crespi moved over the Los Angeles plains, he noted that the plains were covered with grasses; the Indians gave the Spaniard baskets of seeds of sage and other grasses. By the Los Angeles River, the Spaniards walked through thickets of wild grapes and rosebushes in full bloom. Crespi said the “soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted.” As the Spanish party headed west to the sea, Crespi described a stream lined with herbs and watercress next to a grove of alder trees.

By the early 1990s many native plants have been wiped out or replaced with exotics in Los Angeles; large parts of the city were an ecological wasteland like the island in Alondra Park. The LA Times Times’ article “From Wasteland to Showplace for Native Plants” by Nikki Usher tells how Jeanne Bellemin, a zoology instructor from El Camino College in Torrance, got permission from Los Angeles County officials to replant 1/3 of the island at Alondra Park and encouraged volunteers from her environmental biology and field entomology classes to garden with her. For decades Southern Californian gardeners avoid planting native plants so there have been few urban native gardens, but Bellemin decided to use natives because they are tough, need little water, defend themselves well from attacks by bugs and squirrel. I wonder why this preference for exotic plants. Is it because gardeners compete with each for the showiest gardens? But Bellemin decided for the natives.

In the beginning, Bellemin had problems gets a hose to work properly on the island. During Crespi's time the Santa Ana and Los Angeles Rivers would regulary flood the plains, but now the rivers have been channelized to avoid such floods. A few times Bellamin found that the the poorly working hose flooded out sections of Bellemin’s garden. Another problem is that L.A. County gave her no money, so she spent her own money for seven years, haunting sales for native plants. El Camino College once gave her $5,000 grant while Dow Chemical gave her $700 but mostly she used her own money to buy plants.

For the garden she and her students planted the natives she bought: she chose “white, purple, and black sage, yellow native poppies and flannel bush, with soft fuzzy leaves and 2-inch yellow flowers. There are a wooly blue curl, a plant with purple flowers; California fuchsia; and island snapdragons, native to Catalina island.” The Times reported that the snapdragons have attracted “unusual varieties of hummingbirds and a rare orange-crowned warbler.” The garden has 85 different kinds of plants, 20 species of butterflies and 155 bird species have been seen there. Bellemin has even gotten a crown-beard sunflower, an endangered species, to grow in the garden.

She credits most of the work in creating and maintaining her garden to her El Camino College students, ten of whom work at the garden on Fridays and Saturdays 8-10 hours. Former students return to help out in the garden. For seven years she and her students have been gardening for free for L.A. County. The students do get credit or extra-credit for their work. “I’m trying to teach them that with a little hope and love you can turn something really ugly into something beautiful,” she said. “They’re seeing that what they can do can really make the community more beautiful.”

The Western Society of Naturalists gave her their Naturalist of the Year award while The LA County Department of Parks and Recreation said she was one of their top volunteers in 2004. But the recognition Bellemin gets she gives to her students and the park. Robert van de Hoek, Alondra Park supervisor, has recognized the wonderful work she’s done on the park: “There are so few real urban native gardens in Southern California, and Jeanne has created one worth driving to from far away to visit.

The county is thinking differently now about Alondra Park. In a time of budge cutbacks, they are talking about nature centers. “Who knows if the next nature center will be here,” Van doe Hoek said. There should, of course, be many more parks with gardens of native plants in the Los Angeles plains. Amidst the endless miles of concrete streets, freeways, factories and malls, the native gardens would be the true nature centers, helping bring at least islands of land back to the beauty it once had in 1769 at the time Father Crespi walked through the thickets of wild grapes and rosebushes in bloom, walked on plains well-covered with grasses, and and walked by rivers lined with herbs, watercress and alders.

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