Posts tagged San Gabriel Valley

Over a year ago, I began feeling a little worried after reading renowned Cal Tech semiologist Dr. Lucy Jones’ prediction about the catastrophic earthquake that is bound to strike Southern California one day – or as Angelenos refer to it, “The Big One”. I was specifically concerned about all of the surrounding dams located in the San Gabriel Valley holding back extraordinary amounts of water.

Photo: Big Dalton Dam – Library of Congress, HAER CAL, 19-GLENDO 1-11

When I first moved to California, my uncle and I drove to see the Morris Dam in Azusa. I told him that I had never seen a dam before; in northwest Louisiana water just runs about everywhere, filling up an impressive network of locks and bayous. After our tour of Morris Dam, I realized what an amazing engineering feat it was to build such an impressive structure between the mountains of the San Gabriel Valley.

Big Dalton Dam – Library of Congress, HAER CAL, 19-GLENDO 1-15


The bench in front of the Engelmann Oak at the Los Angeles Arboretum. All photos by Kathy Rudnyk.

Just as my family tree in the San Gabriel Valley has changed over the generations, the various native plant communities within the same area have also been compromised. None more apparent than Southern Oak Woodland.  This community includes principal trees such as the Engelmann Oak (Quercus engelmannii), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Black Walnut (Juglans californica).  Of those three, the Engelmann Oak has suffered the greatest impact, but it has the treasured opportunity to be recognized for its beauty and unique distinction to San Gabriel Valley.

Once found throughout the San Gabriel Valley, the Engelmann Oak has most recently suffered greatly from insect and fungal pathogen damage, followed by poor cultural practices like overwatering. Urbanization and stress caused by drought and fires have also posed a greater threat to these legacy trees. The population has also been afflicted by a lack of availability in the trade until now. I was so inspired by seeing beautiful Engelmann Oaks at The Huntington Botanical Garden, Los Angeles County Arboretum, and this year’s Theodore Payne Annual Native Plant Tour, that I wanted to learn even more about its roots within the Southern Oak Woodland native plant community.

On the right: A young Engelmann Oak at the Huntington Library Botanical Garden.

For some unknown reason, my family and I have always enjoyed learning about our ancestors. Maybe it’s because we are all scientifically and oddly inquisitive – a family of nerds right at home in the land of JPL, CalTech and SpaceX. And we are all also surprisingly of sturdy stock like an oak tree.

My late grandfather respected the oak so much that he asked that the California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) be etched onto his tombstone. He also planted a White Oak (Quercus robur) close to his home. Exploring the genealogy of the Genus – Quercus and its relationships has helped me learn more about my own roots within Southern California.

Sadly, you can’t just go to for answers about the roots of an actual tree. You need to go to a library of natural history. So off I went on a Saturday to the Los Angeles Arboretum. I culled the stacks and found a manuscript written by Bruce M. Pavlik titled, A Natural History of Southern California Oaks, with Emphasis on Those Occurring within the District.  After reading it, I hiked around the park for further inspiration about the Southern Oak Woodland native plant community.

Published in 1976, Pavlik’s manuscript shared many of the same concerns about the California native oaks within the Los Angeles district that are threatened today. Most significantly, he called for the protection of Engelmannn Oaks in response to the rapid urbanization of the San Gabriel Valley in the 1970s.  Prior to development, Engelmann Oaks were only threatened by horse and cattle grazing, which destroyed any opportunity for seedlings to flourish into trees around the valley floor. The young trees survived only along the ridge lines, because it was too dangerous for cattle and horses to graze upon their foliage.

Within its family tree/taxonomy, the Genus amongst California native oaks resides in the order of Fagales, consisting of the families Betulaceae and Fagaceae.  Birch (Betula), Alders (Alnus), and Hazelnut (Corylus) reside in the family of Betulaceae, and they are the closest of relatives of California native oaks.  Within the family Fagaceae are the Genus of oaks and their relatives, such as Chrysolepis, Quercus, and Lithocarpus.

The mid-sized, evergreen Engelmann Oak has the distinct characteristics of a California Live Oak, yet, instead of green leaves that are slightly serrated, it has vibrant blue-grayish-green leaves that are rather long in length and relatively unserrated edges.  The tree’s acorns have a slightly hairy underside on the cap. The acorns of this particular tree were harvested last by the native peoples for food, as acorns from other species like the Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) and Coastal Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) tasted better or offered more nutrients.  Unfortunately for the Engelmann Oak, it was most preferred by the locals as firewood, as its wood seemed to burn the longest of all local hardwood trees.

An Engelmann Oak finds a few admirers during the 2017 Theodore Payne Native Plant Tour.

These impressive trees are rarely found north of Pasadena, and only along the northern side of a foothill, generally in thick stands within shallow soil supporting aromatic plants White Sage (Salvia apiana), California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), and California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica).  Along the valley floors and around mesas, Engelmann Oaks were surrounded by California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Purple Needle Grass (Stipa pulchra) growing around the base of these majestic trees. I bet this was a very beautiful sight my ancestors enjoyed living in San Marino, Sierra Madre, and Monrovia prior to the mid-1850s. Engelmann Oaks were once spotted along a 50 mile wide beltway from Pasadena, all the way to Mexico, always at least 15 to 20 feet from the nearest coastline.

The Engelmann Oak shares the growth rate of the Coastal Live Oak, growing about 8’ in 5 years.  Of all the oaks, the Valley Oak grows the fastest at 15’ in 5 years. Lucky for us, the Engelmann Oak is now available to purchase from a local tree nursery, and it can still be found around growing within neighborhoods of Duarte, Pasadena, Azusa, and Glendora. The Los Angeles Arboretum and the Huntington Botanical Garden have a few that you can see, touch, study, and enjoy.  I really found walking through the tree’s dense pillow of foliage debris lining the way toward a bench underneath the massive tree at the LA Arboretum unlike anything I have ever done in Los Angeles.

Two Engelmann Oaks discovered in Pasadena using Google Earth.

I went onto Google Earth to continue searching for more EEngelmann Oaks within the area, looking out for a particular hue that helps identify the trees from others.  The Engelmann Oaks are fairly easy to spot based upon their color of foliage depicted on Google Earth.  It was like finding members of your family tree that you did not know existed. The activity made me want to look for even more Engelmann Oaks and determine how to enable further protection of them or build more colonies of these special trees unique to San Gabriel Valley.

Engelmann Oaks can help make the San Gabriel Valley a better and more beautiful community, while strengthening the native plant community of the Southern Oak Woodland. So hopefully everything I’ve shared above will compel others to appreciate and plant some of these wondrous native oaks.



Coffee Hyanggee (커피향기) a Korean coffee shop on Olympic Blvd in Koreatown, Los Angeles CA serves espresso coffee preparations such as cappuccino (카푸치노) and caffe latte (카페라떼) as well as iced coffee (아이스커피) and various flavors of the shaved ice dessert known as patbingsu / bingsoo (팥빙수). Creative Common photo by Nathan Gray.

Coffee Hyanggee (커피향기) a Korean coffee shop on Olympic Blvd in Koreatown, Los Angeles CA serves espresso coffee preparations such as cappuccino (카푸치노) and caffe latte (카페라떼) as well as iced coffee (아이스커피) and various flavors of the shaved ice dessert known as patbingsu / bingsoo (팥빙수). Creative Common photo by Nathan Gray.

“Because I’m closer to so many restaurants…”

That’s the explanation I’ve offered friends when they’ve asked me why I decided to move to the San Gabriel Valley, the biggest Chinese ethno-burb in Los Angeles County. It wasn’t just the food that influenced my decision to move, but San Gabriel’s dining and shopping landscape was a very important influence in determining where I wanted to call home. The 626 has developed into a unique combination of immigrant tastes and Los Angeles infrastructure, a neighborhood that looks like a 1950s suburb, yet smells like an enticing Sichuan hotpot.

One big plus of living in Los Angeles is this proximity and diversity of authentic cuisines available all within the sprawl of our city’s county lines. So, instead of thinking of our urban landscape in relation to infrastructure or traffic, I began thinking about Los Angeles in relation to where we eat and how we get there. The San Gabriel Valley, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown specifically.

Although I personally prefer tea to coffee, I alway enjoy going out to cafes in KoreaTown. These coffee drinking spots, both small and big, are a perfect example of what Claes Oldenburg once described as the “third place” in urban context: a lively semi-private/semi-public social space outside of the home or office. People come to these Koreatown cafes both day and night – meeting friends, studying, working, or even just to people watch. Similar to Korea, Los Angeles’ K-town cafes offer tons of menu options compared to American chains.

Coffee isn’t the singular focus at a Korean cafe; the furniture setting, interior design, background music, backyard/loft seating, are all highly valued features that distinguish a Korean cafe from its American counterparts. Moreover, as Instagram has become a powerful grassroots marketing tool, the presentation of food and drinks at these K-town establishments are designed to garner Instagrams and followers’ “likes”.

Little Tokyo Village Plaza in Los Angeles - Creative Commons photo by Justefrain

Little Tokyo Village Plaza in Los Angeles – Creative Commons photo by Justefrain.

Little Tokyo
Speaking of appetizing looking food, the Japanese are famous for their presentation, from the traditional kaiseki dining experience to ramen houses and to enticing street snacks. In the northeast section of Downtown LA is the historical district known as Little Tokyo, a  cultural landmark neighborhood that exists like a vignette of the Los Angeles’ larger and longstanding Japanese-American community. Differing from the Koreatown “coffee-scape”, which focuses more on an interior experience, the Japanese “snack-scape” blurs the boundaries of interior and exterior with alternative outdoor seating, pedestrian-friendly avenues, big shop and restaurant windows for peering in, and comfortable pedestrian shading with pleasant landscaping…basically everything William Whyte proposed that made for a vibrant social life in urban spaces.


San Gabriel Valley
Finally, let’s talk about the Chinese “foodscape”. It should be no surprise food is deeply ingrained into Chinese culture. Every festival seems to revolve around a specific type of dish or ingredient. In China, we have something similar to the late night beverage and dining options of Korea’s “coffeescape” and the Japanese “snackscape”, the tea house. However here in Los Angeles, and even more so in the San Gabriel Valley area, I noticed something I’d refer to as the Chinese “supermarket-scape”.

Chinese supermarkets are noticeably different in both size and scope of groceries sold, offering an abundance of live fish and shellfish. The quality of produce is highly prized in Chinese cuisine, and the markets here reflect this attention to freshness. In many Asian countries, people still prefer to go to poultry markets than purchase their fowl prepackaged.

Another uniquely Chinese practice is supermarket shopping as a group activity. In the last decade China’s economic prosperity fueled middle class growth, and with it, the popularity of supermarkets. Thus, friends and family have come to congregate at the supermarket as a social activity, where purchasing goods might come secondary to just “hanging out”. This might have changed how Chinese shop, but the cuisine still remains a family-style experience, with shared dishes and large portions the norm. Because of this communal nature of dining, shopping for food is usually a serious weekly errand, requiring a plethora of different kinds of vegetables, meats, tofu, condiments, and spices to feed appetites. In many ways the supermarket plaza in the San Gabriel Valley is an extension of this cultural shift, with shopping centers becoming the communities unofficial center.

Back within Chinese households the ingredients, cooking tools, and cooking techniques have all shaped the suburban landscape in subtle ways. For example, a Chinese kitchen has to have a suitable ventilation system, since traditionally a great deal of dishes cooked require stir-frying or boiling, thus producing a plentitude of steam and smoke. As a controversial 2014 LA Times piece about the influx of Chinese into the San Gabriel suburb of Arcadia noted, “Nearly all of [the homes on sae] have a second ‘wok kitchen’ next to a larger and showier main kitchen. Some of the Asian cooking requires a lot of BTUs for the burner, and it gets oily and messy, so that’s a must-have.”

This Sunday will be the Lunar New Year. Many Chinese people start shopping for their big new year’s eve dinner. The decorations, music, and food displays in supermarkets at this time will all reflect the importance of this special festival to the Chinese community (alongside other Asian communities who recognize the date).

If you’ve never stepped foot inside a Chinese supermarket, I’d say now is the best time to visit and experience something much different from your Ralph’s, Whole Foods, or Trader Joes. These ethnic supermarkets, restaurants, and snacking/refreshment spots dotting Los Angeles are all what make Los Angeles an ever evolving landscape of flavors.