Driving along the 134 to the 210 Freeway, then south on the 57 through the flurry of cities situated across the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley, you cannot miss the oversized mountain monograms neatly resting across the foothills. Each letter represents the name of a city or place nearby (like a university, such as Cal Poly Pomona).

When flying over the foothills from LAX, heading toward Midwestern cities like Minneapolis, Chicago or Detroit, one can spy the very tall profiles of Canary Island Pines (Pinus canariensis) from above.  Traveling so high and fast, even the tall pine trees blend together into green blobs, intersected by spider web patterns of concrete, and dotted with tiny gray and brown rooftops with the occasional flash of sparkling blue swimming pools.  The one thing that clearly stands out while comfortably seated in a plane is the letter on the hillside!  Once I spot the letter “A”, I know where to geolocate my home.

These oversized hillside letters are a type of geoglyph – large, land designs made with stones, trees and shrubs, earth or other elements. Some geoglyphs have been traced back to 2,000 years ago, with various meanings and purposes associated to them: way-finding markers for earthlings, spiritual symbols, or perhaps – if you are into theories a bit more otherworldly – something related to the extraterrestrial.

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Australian Andrew Rogers designs and installs geoglyphs all over the world. Built in 2008, it was his first installation in America. Whether they’re  still maintained in Yucca Valley, CA isn’t unknown.

Last week, my husband Adrian and I got our hair cut at the Covina salon where my stylist and friend Liz works. I saw on the Azusa City News Facebook page that her husband Patrick and friends recently volunteered to repair the “A” in Azusa on the steep, rattlesnake infested foothills.  I really appreciate that he and others like him are trying to keep our communities looking good and giving back through the “Big ‘A’ Project”!

Volunteers replace the tarp that keep the “A” in Azusa looking good. Photos via the Azusa City News Facebook page.

Recently, they went up the ridge and entered with permission onto private property so they could access the “A” that lies on hillside property managed by Joint Powers Authority, on behalf of the City of Azusa.  I always wondered what the “A” was made of.

“Tarps,” was the simple and short reply.

They are currently raising money through YouCaring to redesign the temporary “A” design into a more permanent one, as well as collect funds for regular maintenance around the site. In hearing about their plans, it was impossible for me not to think about which materials could create a more permanent design, especially when factoring in the limitations of a site where material could not be delivered via truck or crane. Plants would be cool. I could think of a few wonderful options, but there would be regular maintenance needed to keep the “A” looking neat and tidy, and it is not an easy location to reach, unfortunately.

Back in 1928, during high school, my late grandfather Martin set the rocks that make up the “M” in Monrovia .  The “M” was constructed with lots of rocks, each painted white, but likely reset years later. Whenever Monrovia High School wins a football game, the “M” is magically transformed by lights into a “V” for “Victory.” It made me think of all the materials that make up other letters on the hillsides of California, how it all started, and whether there is a future for these letters and hillside designs.

There are at least 80 hillside monograms set into the hillsides of California.  The oldest known letter is the “C” in UC Berkeley. The collegiate geoglyph rests neatly between a clearing of trees and turf.  A number of other mountain monograms reside right here in Los Angeles County:

 Monogram    City
 A  Agoura Hills, CA
 A  Azusa, CA
 B  Burbank, CA
 CLU  Thousand Oaks, CA (California Lutheran University)
 CPP  Pomona, CA (Cal Poly Pomona)
 D  Duarte, CA
 H  Glendale, CA (Hoover High School)
 LA  Hacienda Heights, CA (Los Altos High School)
 LMU  Los Angeles, CA (Loyola Marymount University)
 M  Monrovia, CA
 W  Whittier, CA

The 2009 Toyota Prius Harmony Floralscapes. Photo: Toyota

My favorite modern geoglyph was created in 2009 using what looked like an arrangement of 20,000 4” Petunias within a 30’ x 60’ display by the now defunct marketing firm Greenroad Media with advertising firm, M&C Saatchi Los Angeles. One of the seven floral displays was created along the 110 Freeway in promotion of the Toyota Prius brand. Unable to safely pull over to investigate, I drove in circles to just see how it was set up on the side of the freeway (Note: it isn’t uncommon while traveling with a horticulturalist that they may insist driving back in circles to investigate a particular plant or tree over and over again until their curiosity is satiated).  The floral installation appeared overnight, like a Banksy mural – a colorful, rising sun with what looked like a car around it, but it really had no connection to the Prius.

Photo: Toyota

After its installation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa remarked, “The commute for Angelenos will now be brightened by floral murals that embody the city’s progressive approach to solving environmental issues by merging beautification, sustainable design and reducing our carbon footprint.” Early into the region’s serious drought, the planting design with annuals may not have been as sustainable as the mayor proclaimed. It was a great start to something bigger, an interest in horticulture around the freeways – a living, beautiful branding opportunity paid for by a private venture. Nothing has happened since then on the slopes of the freeway, but it does not mean that something beautiful cannot bloom to feed hungry pollinators on the side of our motorways in the near future. There remains opportunities to further explore sustainable design in similar fashion.

As more people use Google Maps to virtually fly over hillsides and rooftops to way-find or seek out interesting points of interest, I can’t help believe we’ll see new geoglyphs come to life. Colorful, living, and sustainable designs may arise in relation to maximizing property use for commercial purposes. For example, the increasing use of drones could create a demand for marketing messages designed to be seen high above from a property. Just as cities brand their identity on a hillside, so will private property owners using their rooftops. Finding those arid-loving plants capable of tolerating reclaimed water and a small amount of substrate or soil on the rooftop will make the project even more complex. I am definitely interested in offering plants as a solution to the urban heat island in tight spaces or along steep slopes, as well as providing an opportunity to share a relevant message or colors through amazing sustainable planting design.

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