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The Living Library: Bringing California Native Plants to the Branches

Vibrant purple bell-like flowers of the Penstemon Margarita BOP grow in front of the LAPL's Cahuenga Branch in East Hollywood. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

April 14 to 21 has been designated as "California Native Plant Week" by the California Native Plant Society, highlighting awareness and appreciation of our state's indigenous flora, through educational events, garden tours, and visits to wildflower displays. A most appropriate time, coinciding with the springtime blooms that occur this time of year.

Appreciating and growing native plants is one of my personal passions, but four years ago if you asked this city dude anything about native plants, I'd probably say that they're "probably drought-tolerant, maybe good for the environment," and then try to change the subject. If you asked me to name any actual native plants, I'd just draw a blank.

That all changed in spring of 2010, when I was tasked with organizing a large Big Sunday Weekend volunteer event in my community. The grounds of my local public library, the Los Angeles Public Library's Cahuenga Branch in East Hollywood, had turned into a neighborhood eyesore, with trash, discarded clothing and furniture, and even human waste and discarded needles being spotted around the building. Community members had longed for some sort of community clean-up, and we planned to do just that.

The library was steeped in history, being one of the original six LAPL branches built nearly a century ago by grants from early 20th century steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, whose philanthropy created some 3,000 libraries worldwide. Even the library's name was historic -- it's the hispanicized name of the Native American village called Cahug-na, once located in the Hollywood area, which also lent its name to a local street, a school, and a mountain pass.

The idea to decorate the library grounds with native plants came initially from the drought-tolerant aspect. The sprinkler system ran inconsistently, and in a city budget crisis, saving a few bucks on water might be a good thing. I only wanted to coordinate the event, and delegate the whole native plant thing to some experts. I made calls and met some folks who were certainly more knowledgeable about gardening and native plants than I was, but I was chagrined to learn that none of them had the time to commit to our volunteer event, slated for early May.

That meant I had to handle "the native plant thing" myself.

The curse turned out to be a blessing, since it gave me a crash course in native flora. Through books, websites, and talking to more experienced gardeners, I learned why most native plants were drought-resistant -- because their root systems grow deep into less-dry soil. I also learned that they needed lots of water for the first year or two to get established. And as for the "good for the environment" thing, I discovered that native plants do not require any fertilizers because their roots already "know the soil," and that their mere presence attracts pollinating insects and birds, and provides food, shade, and habitat for other animals.

Douglas Irises bloom at the library garden. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

My native plant epiphany also taught this California native human more about my local geography: That the old adages of "L.A. is a desert" and "California has no seasons" were simply untrue. Prior to Spanish colonization, California was one of the most biodiverse nontropical regions on Earth, that our urban present and agricultural past were preceded by diverse ecosystems consisting of rich riparian wetlands, abundant coastal sage scrub, and dense chaparral hillsides. This was, of course, the land that the Tongva inhabitants of Cahug-na and other villages lived on and off. Our indigenous people used native plants as food, medicine and building material, centuries before "sustainability" became a buzzword. And as for seasons, when it comes to native plants, fall is when you plant, winter is when the plants grow from the rainstorms, spring is when the flowers bloom, and summer is when they start to go dormant.

Identifying plants was another matter, but for a guy who's already well-versed in spotting trains, planes, and musical instruments, plants shouldn't be much of a stretch. Plant identification became multi-sensory: from the full splash of color from the purples of Verbenas and Penstemons, to the stark radiance of California Golden Poppies, to the strong aroma of White Sage, to the high-pitched chirps of hummingbirds, attracted to the plants, ready to feast on native nectar. I loved how the Hummingbird Sage can grow via rhizomes, where a branch can be cut off, only to grow anew when replanted. Or how a broken stalk of Cleveland Sage can turn into an inexpensive car freshener when placed by the rear window. This was some pretty cool stuff. These native plants were, quite figuratively, growing on me. Purchasing the plants became a less daunting task each time.

The sweetly aromatic Cleveland Sage. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

With the blessing of LAPL Branch Services, the sponsorship of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, the assistance of a couple neighborhood gardening experts to coordinate planting volunteers and the additional support of some local businesses, we went forward with our urban beautification project.

On the big volunteer day in May 2010, we had nearly 100 volunteers, planted over 50 natives, bagged some 24 bags of trash, and we gave the library an extreme makeover. The library staff was impressed when they came in later that week. A sense of pride had come over everyone involved. Mission accomplished.

Well, not exactly. Not wanting the effort to eventually be totally forgotten, I organized a small volunteer group to do light cleanup and garden maintenance on the first Saturday of each month, which continues to this day. And then we had some serious challenges: the city of L.A.'s Department of Recreation and Parks, the entity that officially maintains the library grounds, has repeatedly destroyed a good number of our natives, mistaking them for weeds. It wasn't until recently when I was able to catch their supervisor and give him a garden tour (I still want to eventually formalize things with Rec & Parks via a MOU letter). Blight, theft, and vandalism have also claimed some of the plants over time. But each winter, we've been able to replace lost plants and place additional ones, thanks to our neighborhood council's sponsorship.

The garden has evolved in many ways. The Theodore Payne Foundation, named after a 19th century English botanist who was so enamored with California native flora that he dedicated his life to preserving it, designed the verdant shaded back entryway garden for us. It also helped knowing which plants thrive in full-sun, part-sun, or shade. And trial-and-error guided the design: the plants away from the street and the alley were less likely to be tampered with. It hasn't been easy bringing the chaparral to the concrete.

The state flower, the California Golden Poppy, in full bloom. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

There are other libraries with native plant gardens: community activists in Highland Park partnered with the Theodore Payne Foundation to plant some natives at the LAPL Arroyo Seco Branch, specifically the thorny Nevin's Barberry to eventually thwart taggers from getting near the walls. LAPL's John C. Fremont Branch has a few potted native sages tended to by a community volunteer, and a group called Urban Paradise has established a native garden on the rooftop of the Long Beach Public Library.

Most every LAPL branch has landscaped areas, usually adorned with L.A.'s official flower, the Bird of Paradise -- which is native to South Africa. Wouldn't it be something to have all 72 branches sport at least a section of their grounds to California native plants, to provide learning and ecological opportunities in every community?

Libraries are learning institutions. Albeit indirectly, I learned about California native plants through my local library, and the learning continues today.

The Roman philosopher Cicero once said, "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need." I'm trying to take those words to heart.

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