Los Angeles wildflower project welcomes brown flowers

03/02/2014 12:00 AM

03/02/2014 3:43 PM

A city known for its maze of freeways, sprawl and moderate clime is sprouting many new yellow, purple and orange blooms this winter, reminding Angelenos the town has seasons.

Jeremy Jarin and Ernesto Perez scan the mound of tidy tips they planted. A few weeks from now, all that yellow may turn brown, but the gardeners are eager to see the plants evolve.

“The brownness is natural – it’s part of their life cycle,” Jarin said. “We’re so conditioned as Americans to notice the greenness, but that’s not typical of what you would have seen 300 years ago. It’s always a shifting mosaic.”

Jarin and Perez, both seniors majoring in landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, helped plant the flowers on campus in November as part of a project at 50 sites across Los Angeles County.

Tidy tips, poppies and bluebells are among the native flora highlighted through Wildflowering L.A., which aims to beautify vacant or underused lands, from Northridge to South Los Angeles to Pasadena and Pomona, by restoring the area’s natural landscape.

Artist Fritz Haeg, who came up with the idea for the project, wanted to focus on the four ecologies of Los Angeles: coastal, flatlands, hillside and roadside, inspired by Reyner Banham’s book, “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.” The flowers have been planted at businesses, homes, parks and schools.

“I was interested in telling the story of our unique climate and landscape and seasons,” Haeg said of his adopted hometown. “If you follow the story of these wildflowers through a season in L.A., they perform differently.”

Part of that story includes documenting how people care for the flowers and plants, the full cycle of the plants and the effects of the state’s historic drought.

“The beauty isn’t just when flowers are here,” Haeg said. “It’s also when they turn brown.”

He said the drought is an important part of the story the project is telling.

“It’s a reality that’s happening,” he said. “The drought is a reckoning of how we’re living.”

Haeg created “Edible Estates,” where lawns in 15 cities were replaced by edible gardens.

The nonprofit Los Angeles Nomadic Division, an arts organization, and the Theodore Payne Foundation, dedicated to California native plants, are project partners. Funding came from a grant by the James Irvine Foundation.

The project is unusual but also part of a larger trend in urban planning that integrates nature with built elements, said David Sloane, professor of urban history, planning and development at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at USC.

“People forget that this is a fascinating flora and fauna environment. This highlights that, and I like that,” Sloane said.

For Los Angeles, infamous for its freeways, subdivisions and miles and miles of concrete, the project works “to bind together the city” by reinforcing that “we are part of the same ecological environment,” Sloane said.

Participants sent emails with pictures and descriptions of their land, said Samantha Frank, curatorial manager at Los Angeles Nomadic Division. Fifty were chosen from about 150 submissions. Determining factors were the availability of irrigation and sunlight and visibility to the public.

Instructors from the Theodore Payne Foundation prescribed which seed mix would be best for the land, and participants were given free native wildflower seed mixes. The instructors demonstrated soil preparation, seeding and wildflower tending.

Many were beginning gardeners fueled by enthusiasm, said Lili Singer, the foundation’s director of special projects and adult education. The participants are in charge of watering and maintenance of the plants and flowers.

“Native plants give you a sense of place and connect you with the natural rhythm of where you live,” Singer said.

The idea is to have a “continuum of color,” beginning with tidy tips and goldfields through late May, with blazing stars and farewell-to-springs, Singer said.

An exhibition is planned the weekend of April 26 and 27, when the flowers are expected to reach peak bloom.

Although the project and Haeg’s involvement is limited to this year, the artist hopes the effort will spur a movement toward celebrating the region’s natural flowers and plants and “thinking of a new way we can treat our urban landscape in Los Angeles,” Haeg said.

Jessica Gramcko of South Los Angeles said she has learned how much a personal garden can stir others in her urban neighborhood.

“People will be driving by or walking by and people will actually stop their cars and look,” said Gramcko, who took part to spruce up her front yard. “Some people have actually stopped and helped me weed.”

At Cal Poly Pomona, the work began with a group of students who removed the turf that was on the flat plot outside of the College of Environmental Design, then designed and constructed the mound and spread the seed for six types of flowers. They also installed a bench for visitors.

“Being in landscape architecture, we’re inside a lot,” said Jarin, 21. “We’re used to coming up with designs but not making them come true.”

Perez, 25, said that the planting was “an opportunity to know that I did this with my own hands,” and he enjoys monitoring the growth.

Their instructor, James Becerra, wants the project to create a shift in how people view their environment.

“This is not an experiment,” Becerra said. “This is a design intervention.”

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