As a young girl, Rose Figueroa and her siblings would search near their home in Torrance for a wild grass whose tips her mother boiled and fed to them. The grass tips tasted like spinach and fed the large family in Torrance.
Now, Figueroa, a Blackfoot-Apache who teaches Native American cultures to children in the Los Angeles Unified School District with her husband, Manuel, are putting together a garden at the Southwest Museum that will teach children about indigenous plants and their uses.
The $60,000 ethno-botanical garden will include grasses that can be found creeping out of cracks in parking lots, elderberry bushes, acorn-producing oak and pinon pine that can all be sources of food; yucca, which provide fibrous brushes for painting, and indigo plants, which are used to make dye. The ways indigenous peoples used other plants for baskets, medicine, tools, shelter and clothing will also be demonstrated.
"The plan is for it to be an educational (garden)," said Manuel Figueroa, a landscape architect overseeing the construction.
Museum officials hope the garden, which occupies a hill to the east of the museum, will be open by Thanksgiving.
A winding trail will take visitors through seven North American environments, all set off by railroad ties. One area will include a pond planted with cattails and tule.
Children will also have a chance to plant and harvest vegetables and fruit. Museum officials hope to grow varieties of plants, such as corn of the blue, red, pink and even speckled varieties.
"I think for a lot of inner-city kids, just to see corn growing, whether it's Native American corn or not, would be just amazing," Rose Figueroa said.
With grants and donations, as well as volunteer labor from the Conservation Corps and the Telephone Pioneers of America, the hillside was cleared of all but the largest trees for construction. Arco donated $10,000 for the garden, which is considered a new exhibit, just as those within the museum's walls receive donations.
Plans also include starting a Friends of the Garden club, which will tend the garden, and an Adopt-a-Plant program to help pay for new plants.
"There are a lot of people interested in native plants," said Barbara Arvi, curator of education. "There is a resurgence in interest in native cultures and with that how people survived."
The garden will be dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Poole and Rose Marie Reynolds, who educated the public about their Native American ways, Arvi said. Both died last year.
The garden will also expand the number of visitors the museum can hold, Arvi said. The museum has had to turn away 60% of the children who want to visit, she said, because of a lack of space.
"This will greatly expand our educational capacity," she said. "We have 35,000 children come through annually and we figure we'll be able to have 10,000 more a year."
The museum, at 234 Museum Drive, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Information: (213) 221-2164.