History in the Homestead’s Native Garden

by Isis Quan with Matt Teutimez

Picnics at the museum are one of the best opportunities for our guests to wander our grounds and appreciate the beauty of our gardens. Our large sycamores, oaks, and pomegranates cast striking figures but sometimes it’s easy to miss our plants of smaller stature. Snuggled between the Demonstration Vineyard and the Water Tower is the museum’s Native Garden. At first glance, it may be tempting to dismiss the garden, after all many of the plants look like they could be found in your backyard (and some of them probably are).

native garden whole

The plants were selected for the garden with the aid of the Kizh/Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, and are all native to California. The plants hold historical, medicinal, or spiritual significance to the tribe. Here are just a few of the amazing plants that you can come see, smell, and touch at our Sunday Picnic on July 30.

Arroyo Willow:
The willow is very important to the Kizh because it was used in all aspects of life. Its importance is shown in that the willow is the symbol for Kizh women because of its ability to bend but never break. This strength of holding things together allows it to form the dome structure unique to Kizh houses, to be shaped into cooking and working tools, as well as animal shapes for kids toys, and was a valuable source of strong medicine. The Kizh used the bark to help reduce fevers and pains. The key to the willow’s medicinal properties is salicylic acid, an active ingredient found in modern day Aspirin. Chemists began extracting salicin from willow bark as early as the 1820s; however, salicin medication provided mixed results. Although it provided relief from fever and pain, it also caused afflictions like stomach ulcers. Willow bark, when consumed, contains an absorption device that allows the body to safely absorb salicylic acid and help protect the stomach. Early salicin medicines lacked an absorption device, and it wasn’t until the late 1890s, when Felix Hoffman introduced acetylsalicylic acid to the medicine, that Aspirin was created.

Toyon Berry:
Toyon berries served as an important food source for the Kizh, however, they were careful to harvest and eat the berries only when they were completely ripe, as they contain cyanide when unripe. The berries were eaten raw, dried in the sun, or cooked with other ingredients to provide both nutrients and medicine when eaten. The hardwood that the Toyon provides was used for digging tools and building materials.
Due to its resemblance to holly berries, Toyon berries became so popular in Los Angeles in the 1920s that they were at risk for extinction. As a result, California was forced to pass a law forbidding their collection on public land that is still on the books (CA Penal Code § 384a).

While the urban legend of Hollywood being named after the Toyon berry is false, it does have a local claim to fame. In 2012, the Toyon berry was designated the official native plant of Los Angeles!

Narrow Leaf Milkweed:
Historically, the Kizh used milkweed both for its structural integrity and its medicinal properties. Very strong twine and rope can be made from milkweed fibers and infusions from the milkweed’s roots and leaves were prepared to treat dysentery, typhus fever, asthma, and other bronchial issues. The key to the plant’s medicinal applications are in its alkaloids, which contain mild sedative properties that help relax the bronchial tubes and provide relief. As a bonus, milkweed can also be used to treat skin irregularities like warts!

The plant’s scientific name is derived from the Greek god of medicine, Asklepoios, and is a remnant of the medicinal reverence the plant once elicited from both Native Americans and Spaniards.

Milkweed is also the only source of food for Monarch Butterfly caterpillars. By feeding on milkweed monarch caterpillars develop a bird deterring toxicity that is retained even after metamorphoses. Monarch butterflies are under decline, but you can help support their populations by planting milkweed in your own gardens, thus creating sanctuaries for their larvae. During migration season the adult butterflies will make for an enchanting sight.

native garden milkweed
Narrow Leaf Milkweed

The native garden provides us with an idea of what California would have looked like before the days of the Spanish. Unfortunately, the state has a long history of adopting invasive plant species and expelling native varieties. The beautiful mustard flowers that erupt across hills, or the stubborn ice plant that takes root in our yards, are both examples of invasive plant species that have had detrimental effects on California’s biome.

So what can we learn from the Homestead’s Native Garden? Well, beyond serving as a window into the history of the Kizh, the garden also teaches us the benefits of supporting and proliferating California’s native plants. The museum estimates that the native garden uses over 60% less water than a traditional lawn or ornamental flower garden would in its place. Although California has left its recent drought days behind, we Californians know that it is only a matter of time before a deficiency of water returns. If you’ve been considering replacing your water-hungry lawn or garden, look into purchasing California native plants from the gardens of the Kizh Tribe themselves (www.gabrielenoindians.org), or nurseries like the Theodore Payne Foundation (where 90% of our plants where purchased). The plants not only help out native critters but are perfectly adapted to survive in southern California’s unique climate.

Come and visit with members of the Kizh tribe at our upcoming Sunday Picnic on July 30 from 12 to 4 p.m. Bring a picnic lunch or cool drink and have fun exploring the grounds of the museum.

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