Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.
My entire perspective of the urban landscape changed one day while studying to become a landscape architect. I had decided to take a course titled, Plant Identification, with the hopes of improving my knowledge of everything growing around me. Before this class, I did not know the names of the plants and trees commonly found growing within the urban environment of Los Angeles. I came out with an entirely different view of the world.
Through the course of three quarters, we learned about the native origins, habits, scientific names, and characteristics of various plants and trees that thrive across several Southern California ecosystems. We also spent class sessions walking through campus with the purpose of identifying and discussing plants, with supplementary visits to botanical gardens, nurseries, and native habitats to strengthen our understanding of what, where, and how plants grow in urban environments. The Plant Identification course turned out to be my favorite class throughout my term as a student in the landscape architecture program. The tree that was once simply referred to as the “tree with pink flowers and spikes across its trunk” became Chorsia speciosa, aka the Floss Silk Tree; I now knew its South American origins and preferred habitat, alongside the protective nature of those spikes across its trunk evolved to “keep Amazonian animals, especially monkeys, from chewing on the trunks“. The class entirely changed my perspective and perception of the landscape.
During the span of this class I began to recognize my perception of the landscape was previously quite narrow. The only trees I could readily identify were those already associated with personal memories, those growing edible fruits, or ones connected with a spatial experience. The most easily identifiable trees were tied to childhood memories: the avocado tree, jujube tree, pomelo tree, and the mulberry tree. An avocado tree growing in my neighbor’s yard during my childhood would occasionally drop their creamy fruit over onto our yard, allowing us to make various recipes using the ripe fruit. The jujube trees were planted by our landlord; we would harvest them as snacks, drying some out to use later in soups. The leaves of the pomelo tree were gathered by my mother as she walked me to school; she would tie them in bunches to use in a bath – a traditional Chinese medicinal and spiritual practice believed to ward off evil spirits. The leaves of the mulberry tree were harvested for my science project, to feed my family of ravenous silkworm caterpillars.
Ever since this change in perspective, I can’t help but dissect the various layers of the landscape everywhere I go, with various layers of thought processes that lead me to asking: “What kind of tree is that? How does the landscape enhance the experience? Is it a habitat for animals? How often does it shed its bark?”
I now often find a desire to photograph plants and trees while hiking, walking around neighborhoods, or while traveling, all with the purpose of identifying them later. You never know when photos of the landscape can be used in a future project, or when they may again lead to a change in perspective about the landscape all around us.