Replanting the Prairie: Restoration Gardening in L.A.’s “Flatlands”
Jun 1, 2020
While it may be true that Los Angeles is only able to support its current population of roughly 4,000,000 thanks to an enormous engineering project that imports water from faraway places, the city is not located – as is often asserted – in a desert. In point of fact, the average annual rainfall in the Los Angeles area, paltry as it may be during dry years, exceeds the upper limit of what would qualify as a desert climate.
In actuality, the land occupied by Los Angeles and environs consists of a variety of biomes, such as chaparral and coastal sage scrub, neither of which fall into the “desert” classification. In addition, much of the “flatland” area now occupied by our metropolis was once a prairie – rolling hills and immense fields consisting, most probably, of herbaceous perennials, grasses, geophytes and annuals stretching from the foothills to the sea.
I say “probably,” because the arrival of European civilization, with its grazing livestock, destroyed the natural habitat of the plains and valleys of the Los Angeles area so completely and so rapidly, that it had largely vanished before anyone had had a chance to study it in any detail. (The last remaining vestigial expanse of coastal prairie, near LAX, was extinguished by development in the 1960s.)
There were also distinct “coastal prairies” with vernal pools, marshes, sand dunes and bluffs as well as ribbons of riparian habitat along the numerous drainages that flowed across the plain to the sea from the surrounding mountains. The vast majority of these former creeks are now buried beneath asphalt roads or “channelized” (which is a nice way of saying they’ve been entombed in concrete. Whether or not this extreme measure was completely necessary is still being debated).
Faint echoes of these now hidden water sources remain in place names like “La Cienega” (a misspelling of the Spanish word “cienaga” or “marsh”) and “Pacoima” (Tongva for “running water”). I somehow doubt that the area’s birds, now confronted with miles of roads, sidewalks and sterile turf lawns, much appreciate the historical reference.
Faint echoes of now hidden water sources remain in place names like La Cienega and Pacoima.
Fun fact: Where you now regularly sit in your car, stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway, Grizzly Bears once roamed, drawn to the prairies for their seemingly endless supply of food in the form of tasty, underground corms and small burrowing mammals, the grubbing up of which, in turn, provided a cycle of renewal within the prairie’s ecosystem.
The Grizzlies are long gone, of course, although the Center for Biological Diversity has been circulating a petition calling on the California Fish and Game Commission to bring at least a facsimile of the now-extinct bears back to California (albeit to the Sierra Nevada, not Manchester Boulevard). Whether this admirably quixotic drive succeeds or not, its existence hints at a central question posed by the very concept of an urban “restoration” garden: when the historical record is spotty or non-existent, how do we know what plants truly “belong” to a given plot of land anywhere, but especially in Los Angeles?
In no other location in the city is this question more difficult to answer than our flatlands and surrounding valley floors. Given the near total obliteration of their natural state and the unfortunate scarcity of pre-European settlement documentation, is it really even possible to know at this point? And, more importantly, even if we were to know, would the information be of any practical utility when it comes to creating a true restoration garden in Central L.A.? In other words, would the answers, such as they might be under the circumstances, prove more problematic than helpful?
When the historical record is spotty, how do we know what plants truly “belong” to a given plot of land in Los Angeles?
For instance, we suspect that most gardeners living in the plains and rolling hills that stretch from downtown to Santa Monica wouldn’t be satisfied growing only one or two grasses, a few “weedy-looking” herbaceous perennials and some annual wildflowers, even if they happened to be interested in “gardening with natives.” For one, much of the year, such a front yard would look like a vacant lot. Recreating one of the area’s narrow riparian zones or marshland wouldn’t be an appealing prospect for most people either, given the amount of artificial irrigation it would require. How about a simulated vernal pool? Beautiful in spring, a dried-up mud hole pretty much the rest of the year.
Given those realities – if it is, indeed, your intention to nurture our remaining wildlife through your gardening practices – perhaps the solution would be for more native gardeners who live in the flatlands to reserve at least a spot in their otherwise vertically oriented, “Fantasy Native” gardens of manzanita and ceanothus for a more horizontal, prairie-ish habitat zone – of whatever size – that would at least restore a tiny slice of the obliterated ecosystem upon which their homes were built. (Sorry, but a ceanothus from Northern California in a Mid-Wilshire garden is as “native” to the land there as a citrus tree.)
I envision a vast network of such “mini-prairies” in gardens all across Los Angeles. Something as simple as a patch of Stipa cernua (Nodding Needlegrass) or Bromus carinatus (California Brome) plus an herbaceous perennial or two like Corethrogyne filaginafolia (California Aster) and a few local annuals such as Layia platyglossa (Tidy Tips) and Lupinus bicolor (Miniature Lupine) would do. Throw in some geophytes like Bloomeria crocea (Common Goldstars) and Dichelostemma capitatum (Blue Dicks) and you’d have a reasonably “accurate” L.A. prairie remnant.
I envision a vast network of “mini-prairies” in gardens all across Los Angeles.
It would be preposterously naive, however, to pretend that any number of little patches of land supporting truly local plants in L.A.’s flatlands, no matter how widespread, could ever bring back the softly beautiful prairies and their abundant wildlife (including, if you can believe it, herds of antelope). That said, it certainly will provide at least a small source of sustenance to any surviving local birds and pollinators, which is something. Irrespective of their potential as an animal food source, however, perhaps this patchwork of little prairies would serve a more abstract purpose – as a memorial.
Decades ago, while in New York, I stumbled upon a tiny pocket garden while walking around somewhere in Lower Manhattan. Completely fenced in, the garden’s gate was locked, but there was a plaque attached to it that told any passerby who happened to notice that the plant species in the garden were all native to the island before the Dutch arrived. (Is there anywhere on earth where the natural condition of the land has been more completely erased than Manhattan?) This was well before I had ever been much interested in plants – California natives or otherwise – but I remember being instantly pulled into the melancholy thrill of time past, and struck by the context this little patch of scruffy-looking plants suddenly conferred upon the surrounding urban scenery. For a moment, the noise of the traffic and the brick facades of the buildings faded away, and I could conjure up a pristine estuary and imagine a deep silence broken only by a heron’s cry.
Could even a small patch of Nodding Needle Grass, Chia and Golden Stars here in L.A.’s vanished prairie serve the same purpose – to occasionally remind us of where we actually are and what’s been lost?
While the historical record may be scant, here are some commonly available plants that had been observed and/or recorded at some point prior to the Los Angeles prairie’s disappearance. For a more complete list, see urbanwildlands.com.