Garden epiphany

Dear readers, there is something I am very excited about, and I hope that when I share it with you it doesn’t seem like a whole lotta so what. You ever have one of those moments where some little, seemingly inconsequential thing happens and, metaphorically speaking, you see a door opening behind it that is a portal to a new way of being? This was one of those moments for me. I hope I can do it justice here, but I probably won’t.

This is not where I live.

This is not where I live.

I’ve posted before about having a really hard time adjusting my local environment, which is hot and arid. It’s very different from every other place I’ve lived, and every place I’ve wanted to live. You cannot imagine how I long for something that looks like England’s green and pleasant land, where I can traipse amongst the hedgerows and commune with the forest critters I know from fairy tales of my youth. And as an herbalist, it can be an issue, because the herbs that form the materia medica of traditional Western herbalism come from Mediterranean and temperate Europe, and the North American herbs that have been incorporated are also mostly from temperate climate regions, especially the eastern woodlands. Even the literature that I found on medicinal plants of the southwestern US mainly seemed to focus on flora of the mountains in Arizona and New Mexico.

Where I live looks like this, except usually not this green.

Where I live looks like this, except usually not this green.

So my I had a twofold idea to learn more about the plants in my area: first, find out what plants grow in this ecoregion, and second, find out if any indigenous tradition has been preserved. But I hit all kinds of roadblocks.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find anything but the most general information about the ecology of this now densely urban region. I mean, you can describe almost all of Southern California as being a sage scrub zone, but anyone who has traveled around here can tell you there is a big difference between Santa Barbara and San Diego, or between Los Angeles and San Bernardino.  Where could I find information about my area? Many times I tried to visualize what it would have looked like here in the days before white settlers, but I just drew a blank.

The same thing happened with regard to the indigenous population. Most of the Native people here live modern city lives and don’t practice traditional ways. I mean, it’s almost impossible for anyone to live any other way, the region is so heavily developed. I’m not saying there’s no one left who knows about medicinal plants, but I don’t know where to look for them. I actually used to work as an assistant curator for a tribal museum down here, but I never heard word one about medicinal plants (sadly back then I didn’t know much about them myself). I got super excited when I found out there is an annual weekend workshop on indigenous traditional uses of plants, but my excitement cooled dramatically when I saw the price tag. For me it might as well cost a million dollars.

Then there’s the climate change. Before I moved here, I spent my summer and winter breaks here visiting my family. My mother moved here to be closer to her sister about 16 years ago. During that time, the climate has gotten markedly hotter and drier. I was never going to be growing rhododendrons, but our garden veggies did well and my mom grew a variety of typical annual flowers.But they just don’t work here anymore. Even if you shade them and water copiously–which you shouldn’t, because California is now at “exceptional” drought status, which is the worst category they recognize–you have to contend with bugs that temperate-climate plants just don’t have resistance to.


And then I also struggled with my own petulance. I never wanted to move here to begin with. I know the futility of resistance to change. In fact up until this phase of my life, I have always been very adaptable (after a short period of grumbling anyway), but this time I guess I was just a lot more stubborn and resentful and childish about it. I guess it was my own form of bioregional denial.

Well, the other day I was inspired to have another go at researching native plants. And this time I found exactly what I was looking for.

Although there’s little undeveloped land left here, I discovered that the native flora is a mix of coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and valley grassland biomes, with a few scattered areas of riparian woods and marshland. It seems that one of the reasons I had so much difficulty finding info on the native ecology is that it’s been so heavily developed. Most of the available information had to do with the few remaining wildish lands, mostly state parks in the coastal mountains around LA. Another reason, I suspect, is the fact that the lowland areas tended to have mixed biomes–as proved to be the case here–and couldn’t easily be summed up in one sentence.

Knowing the names of the biomes gave me the search terms I needed. I then found the California Native Plant Link Exchange, which provides a list of nurseries that stock the plant or its seeds, what family it belongs to, what counties it grows in, and what biomes. You can can search by plant or by biome, and when you’re on a plant’s page you can click “What plants grow with [plant name]?” to find other members of its community.

I was able to come up with a list of native plants that would once have grown here, that belong together in a community, and that have medicinal and edible uses, and some of which happen to also be very beautiful. (Well, I think pretty much all plants are beautiful, but one’s neighbors tend to prefer flowers over, say, scrub.)

In case it’s not obvious, I am super excited by the prospect of growing these plants myself. Among them are a variety of sages: white (Salvia apiana), black (S. mellifera), and Cleveland (S. clevelandii); California sagebrush (Artemisia californica, basically a local type of wormwood or mugwort); coyote mint (Monardella villosa); sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiaca, a.k.a., Diplacus aurantiaca); California poppy (Eschscholzia californica); beautiful centaury (Zeltnera venusta); and California goldenrod (Solidago californica). I will need to refine this list for my particular conditions, but right now I feel spoiled for choice.

native plants

Goldenrod and the sages have their European counterparts, and as I understand it, work in much the same way–I look forward to investigating them in greater depth. Sagebrush (Artemisia sp.) is widely used by Mexican curandero/as (healers) for strengthening the immune system, reducing inflammation, and treating skin infections and irritations (much like European Artemisia). Mimulus is one of the Bach flower remedies. It is used to treat fearfulness, when there is a known source of fear. The FES brand of North American flower remedies has two monkeyflower essences, pink and red, both of which help to promote emotional courage and honesty. Monkeyflower is an edible bitter and vulnerary. Coyote mint was traditionally used as a stomachic tea. I can’t find anything about medicinal uses of Zeltnera venusta, but as its common name indicates it belongs to the centaury family. Culpepper recommended centauries for practically everything, from cleansing and healing wounds, to stimulating the liver and gallbladder, to sciatica. Of course California poppy has become well known as a sedative, diuretic, and analgesic.

But back to that metaphorical door I mentioned, there’s more to it than wanting plants in my garden that actually stay alive. I get very frustrated by the large number of non-native plants used in landscaping which are so patently unhappy here. I don’t claim to be the plant whisperer–it doesn’t take a genius to know that plants native to New England are not going to get the requisite amount of water here. And I just don’t see the point when there are such lovely plants native to the region. I wrote before that this landscape was like a nut I couldn’t seem to crack–and all of a sudden it’s become like a flower softly opening to me. Part of why I have been so uncomfortable here is that it feels to me like the land needs a lot of healing. I know that sounds like a corny New Age greeting card sentiment, but there’s no question that this land and all its resident tribes–be they human, plant, or microbe–extirpated to make room for things that don’t belong. It’s too big a task for little old me, and I regret that in the face of daunting enormities I tend to kind of shut down. That’s what happened–I shut down.

But now these little plants, that endure in spite of the destructive prejudices of humans, are showing me where I fit in all this. And in the gentle way of worts, they make it all seem not so scary, so that little by little, season by season, bare earth comes back to life.


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