Indian Penicillin and Native Oaks

acorn from an oak tree

acorn from an oak tree

When you think of Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, camellias, lilacs and roses come to mind. Home to the largest camellia collection in the world, the most extensive lilac planting in Southern California and an ambitious new rosarium, the gardens now have another claim to fame. A portion of chaparral, long preserved at the back of the gardens in its original condition, has been turned into a vehicle for learning about native plants and local ecology.
Thanks to a brochure titled “Descanso Gardens Chaparral Nature Trail,”  you can now see and learn about 15 of the most common native plants that grow in the hills and canyons throughout our area. The trail serves admirably as an introduction to the flora of the ecosystem surrounding us, precisely defined as “lower chaparral.”
The word chaparral is derived from the Spanish  “chaparro,” which means short. The Spaniards who settled here first used the term chaparro to describe the low-growing oaks found in the Pyrenees (mountains along the border between Spain and France). They found similar oaks here, including the scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia). This plant is the major source of food for local animals, including a rat that has built a large nest – more like a sumptuous villa, actually – along the Descanso nature trail.
The Indians living here when the Spanish arrived did not harvest from the scrub oak, but turned acorns from trees such as the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) into bread. The coast live oak is the tree on both sides of the Golden State Freeway (5) as you go north from the Valley toward Santa Clarita, and on both sides of the Ventura Freeway (101) as you go west from the Valley toward Thousand Oaks.
According to Edith Murphy, author of  “Indian Uses of Native Plants,” acorns were ground into meal and baked into bread. The meal also had a medicinal use:   “Indian penicillin,” writes Murphy,  “was made by covering the acorn meal closely, to make it sweat and mold. When the skin of the mold was firm enough to roll up, it was peeled off and kept in a damp place. If anyone had a boil or bad sore, this mold was applied to draw out inflammation.”
Perhaps the most ornamental plant on the Descanso nature trail is the golden currant (Ribes aureum). This time of year, its softly lobed leaves are complemented by clear yellow flowers. A deciduous shrub, the golden currant will produce edible orange berries later in the season.
As you make your way from chaparral to rosarium, you cross a planting of natives. One worth stopping for is Catalina perfume (Ribes viburnifolium). The leaves of this species are pleasantly aromatic, especially after a rain. An additional virtue of Catalina perfume is its shade tolerance.
Just before reaching the rose garden, you’ll see a most amazing ornamental tree, the Taiwan flowering cherry. Its botanical name is Prunus campanulata, referring to the campanulate or bell-like pink flowers, which are massed profusely throughout its still leafless canopy. It is a small, slender tree not reaching more than 25 feet tall. You wonder why nurseries don’t carry this tree. Is there anyone who wouldn’t want one?
On the opposite side of the rose garden, between fence and walkway, there is another remarkable ornamental that deserves more attention than we have been willing to give it. I’m talking about winter daphne, particularly the disease-resistant cultivar know as Daphne odora ‘Leucanthe’, which is the one planted at Descanso. Despite its matchless fragrance, daphne is seldom planted in Los Angeles because of our heavy soil, which harbors the phytophthora fungus that kills it. However, where a fast-draining soil can be created, whether in ground or container, it is worth giving daphne a try. It needs to be protected from hot sun but should still have its soil kept relatively dry.
Tip of the week: As soon as the soil is workable – not so wet that it compacts when stepped upon – start your vegetable garden. It is important that vegetables get off to a strong start before the first spring heat wave arrives. Typically, you can count on such weather visiting us by the end of March or the beginning of April.





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