Big trees, strange plants and even deer tracks became props in an outdoor nursery last week when the Palisades-Malibu YMCA offered parents and their small children one of a series of Nursery Nature Walks scheduled for areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Guides DeAnn Rushell, Judy Burns, Harriet Bennish and Andrea Pokono led a contingent of mothers and fathers, who pushed strollers or carried babies in backpacks, up a mountain trail in Temescal Canyon north of Sunset Boulevard.
Toddlers were encouraged to touch the leaf of the sycamore tree, to feel its velvety smoothness. They were shown how to crush the blossoms of the mountain lilac to make a soapy, cleansing paste.
Sycamores grow near water and, even during the dry season, a thirsty hiker can tap through its bark and extract potable water, docent Burns explained.
The Chumash Indians shampooed their hair with the sudsy product of the mountain lilac, she added. Parents craned anxiously to better identify the
poisonous castor bean plant. They carefully skirted the three-leafed poison sumac, more commonly known as poison oak.
A 2-year-old boy giggled as he leaned into a stand of rye grass, letting its fronds tickle his neck. Burns noted that rye grass is only one of many edible grasses in the local mountains. Another is buckwheat, she said.
The hikers paused to look at the tracks of deer and wild cats. Guides identified Indian tobacco, black walnut trees, nasturtiums ("they're edible," one noted), and the California sequoia.
Rushell plucked a leaf from a laurel bush."This is a bay leaf. Smell it. You use it in cooking and it's good for keeping moths out," she said.
Benish, who initiated the nursery nature walks after her 2-year-old daughter, Jessica, was born, cautioned parents about the high grass, warning them that it sometimes hides rattle snakes.
The Nursery Nature Walks are led by YMCA staff and volunteers who have undergone eight weeks training, which includes early childhood development, infant/toddler cardiopulmonary resuscitation, geology, ecology, plants, animals, insects, poisonous plants, first aid and interpretive techniques. The training is conducted by experts in the various fields.
Walks are held in Will Rogers State Park, Malibu, Temescal and other locations in the Santa Monica Mountains. Programs are also planned for the Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains and the Verdugo Hills.
Inquiries about time and location of walks and of new docent training classes can be made by contacting the Palisades-Malibu YMCA, 821 Via de la Paz, or calling 213-454-5591.