A patch of dirt still occupies the space where fruits and vegetables will grow next spring, but the rest of the ethno-botanical garden at the Southwest Museum is thriving with native vegetation that will be used as a teaching tool for visiting schoolchildren.
Beginning in January, docents will guide students through the garden that occupies a hill on the east side of the museum, teaching them how Native Americans used plants such as sage, yucca, prickly pear cactus, pinon pine and deer grass for medicines, baskets, tools, dyes and food.
The garden is divided by railroad ties, and a path leads to seven different North American environments where mostly California native plants have been placed. A desert section includes cactus, lupine and yucca, while the bog area has a pond planted with tulle and cattail.
"It's a swamp!" said fifth-grade students visiting last week from Kenmore Elementary School in Baldwin Park. Others declared, "It's a swimming pool."
Demonstrating the use of a certain yucca plant, Barbara Arvi, curator of education, took strips of a leaf and pounded it between two stones until the flesh had broken away, revealing long fibers that can be tied together to make a paintbrush.
"Some of the things they did you can see comes out of their plants," Arvi told the students, holding up the fibers.
Special care must be taken with some of the plants to show how people used them in everyday life. Deer grass, for example, must be pruned a certain way to produce the plumage used for the inner cordage, or foundation, of baskets.
With $60,000 in donations and volunteer labor, the garden has taken root over the last three months. But now the money has run out, and Arvi hopes to find new resources to complete the garden.
She hopes to plant a vegetable and fruit garden that students can study and harvest, with Native American red, blue, pink and speckled corn. Each section of the garden will have a learning station where children can put their knowledge to work with the help of docents.
"They will be pounding acorns and grinding corn, so the kids can actually see the use of these plants," Arvi said.
The garden will expand the number of visitors the 80-year-old museum can hold, giving some of the students a chance to roam while others tour the inside. One of the reasons for the garden, in addition to its educational value, was to accommodate the 60% of children who are turned away from the museum each year because of a lack of space, Arvi said.
About 35,000 children visit the museum each year, and another 10,000 will be able to visit once the garden is open to the public, she said.
The museum, at 234 Museum Drive, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Information: (213) 221-2164.