Marah macrocarpa, Wild Cucumber. All photos by Katherine Montgomery
Each spring, the landscape of Los Angeles erupts into lush abundance. Even in years with minimal rainfall there is enough moisture to feed the annuals that went to seed the summer before. Where last fall the hillsides were parched golden, today the meadows are blanketed soft green. This year is proving to be an exceptionally rainy one, and as a result, Los Angeles is exploding with greenery.
From a distance, the city’s hillsides look like they are covered in a monoculture of grass, but it’s actually a variety of leaves composing that green mass. Cool-season plants, including native and invasive species, take advantage of recently disturbed earth and seasonal rains and germinate quickly. Certain plants cycle through and are more dominant than others some years, but the varying conditions of LA’s wild spaces means a diverse ecosystem of weeds.
Or are they wildflowers?
It is necessary to understand how a plant impacts the local ecosystem is in order to judge its value. Calling something a weed usually discounts the plant’s worth. Their reputation as ugly, useless, and invasive is often deserved. The Bromusgenus of grasses are wildfire hazards, covering hillsides and desert regions, crowding out native grasses, and creating large swaths of tinder. Could our green spring lead to a larger chance of wildfires?
Carduus pycnocephalus, Italian thistle
Galium aparine, Catchweed
Geranium carolinianum, Carolina geranium
Brassica, or wild mustard, is more easily forgiven because of its bright yellow flowers. Chickweed, which is taking over my yard, is a short-lived edible with small white flowers. On my walk to the train this morning, I passed mallow and shepherd’s purse nested with some type of foxtail grass and dandelions. The parkways and tree wells were miniature wild parcels, with hosted a handful of plant species I couldn’t name.
Oxalis Stricta, Yellow Wood Sorrel
Identifying plants is part of understanding the bigger picture of our landscape, aesthetically and ecologically. I have begun photographing seasonal plants during local hikes and urban walks to create an informal log of what is blooming in Los Angeles. By photographing, researching, and keeping a log of the plants that naturally occur around Los Angeles, I hope to have a deeper understanding of our ecosystem, and how best to design with it. Which plants should be eradicated and which could we incorporate into a seasonal landscape?
Last year I attended the Chelsea Flower Show in London, and fell in love with the L’Occitaine Garden (above) designed by James Basson. It mimicked the wild, weedy, dry hillsides of Provence, but immediately brought Los Angeles to mind. They used plants native to Southern France like plantains, mustard, and artemesia to create a naturalized-looking landscape. I thought it was the most romantic and stunning exhibit in the show, and it surpassed the more traditional landscapes in its grasp of the ephemeral beauty of nature.
My landscape aesthetic definitely leans wild and unkempt. I approached the daunting task of designing my own garden as an experiment. It is strewn with native wildflower seeds, which have mixed with uncontrollable oxalis, polite chickweed, and delicious arugula. It looks like a mess, but until I have the time to design something proper, it is its own version of the wild – weeds and wildflowers together.