Amid the thorny cacti and red-tinged manzanitas of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, Paulino Rojas imagined that the border between California and Mexico was gone.
It is a vision that often strikes Rojas, a biologist at the University of Baja California in Ensenada, as he wanders through the 86-acre garden near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Surrounded by the plants of the California Floristic Province--a unique region of vegetation that extends from California into the Mexican state of Baja California--Rojas says man-made boundaries rapidly wither.
"We have the same ecological area," Rojas said during one of his frequent visits to the Claremont garden. "The border is just an artificial line."
That notion is firmly rooted at Rancho Santa Ana, which is the largest botanic garden to focus on the native plants of California and Baja California. The 1,500 varieties of plants on the lush grounds include nearly one-third of the region's native species, about half of which are found nowhere else in the world.
Similarities Span Border
The similarities between California and Mexico are more than just geographic, said Thomas Elias, Rancho Santa Ana director.
Because people on both sides of the border have traditionally used native plants for a variety of nutritional, medicinal and religious purposes, Elias said, the shared flora also reflect a shared culture.
"The plants form a bond between the two cultures," Elias said. "We should be aware of protecting that heritage and preserving it."
That theme, promoted recently during an "Alta California-Baja California" open house at Rancho Santa Ana, is kept alive by a diverse group of botanists, chemists, anthropologists and herbalists, as well as many Latinos and native Indians living in California and Mexico, who view the plants of this region as a kind of natural supermarket.
In numerous interviews, these scientists and amateur gardeners have described how this region's vegetation has for centuries been peeled, stripped, boiled, milked and fried by people of the Latino and Indian cultures for cooking, healing and religious ceremonies.
"It's interesting how people who might have had very little contact with each other managed to find similar uses for plants," said Eloy Rodriguez, a plant chemist at the University of California, Irvine, and a recent lecturer at the botanic garden. "A knowledge of those plants made it possible for people to survive."
Some of the plants growing at Rancho Santa Ana, for example, have been used to produce items commonly found in today's society, such as tequila, which is the fermented juice of agave, or jojoba oil, which is added as a cleansing agent to many cosmetic goods.
But most of the native plants yield products not found in the average kitchen or medicine chest, such as the meat of the nopal cactus or the acorn meal of the oak or the pungent teas of various wild herbs and shrubs.
"If you compare it with the dominant, white European culture, the native people had an understanding of plants . . . that they were to be used," said Dorothy Pool, who regularly discusses native plants on the "American Indian Radio Hour," a weekly program on KPCC, the Pasadena City College radio station.
"Rancho Santa Ana is preserving the heritage of native plants, as well as the heritage of early Californians and Indian people, from here and from Mexico," she said.
Despite some differences between the Latin and Indian cultures, as well as variations among the plant species used, the heritage being preserved at Rancho Santa Ana is still very much alive in many California gardens today.
Pool, for example, an expert on the native Gabrieleno Indians, uses many of the plants and herbs that grow in the backyard of her San Marino home for food, medicine and religious practices.
Examples of Uses
Wild berries are crushed and used for jam, flat-top buckwheat is steeped in water and applied as an eye wash, and white sage is dried and burned ceremonially by the Indians to purify the soul.
"Anything you put on you or in you is medicine," said Pool, as she pointed out native plants during a recent visit to Rancho Santa Ana. "Food is medicine, and that's closely tied to religion."
Guadalupe and Fausta Pinto of West Los Angeles use a variety of plants from their home garden, such as yerba del manso, a low-growing perennial thought to reduce swelling or infection, and ruda, an aromatic herb that they place under their pillows or in an ear to relieve a headache or ear infection.
"People eat a lot of junk food," said Fausta Pinto as she surveyed the plants in her lush backyard. "These have so many good properties."
And Josefina Garcia, who came to California from Mexico 65 years ago, says that a day hardly goes by that she does not eat the nopal cacti growing behind her East Los Angeles house.
"Nobody ever explained it to me," Garcia said of the plants and herbs she uses. "All the Mexican people know about it."
Tradition Faded Away