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21st century Ice Age Eden

Using fossil evidence to choose the plant species, a team of specialists has re-created a prehistoric landscape next to the La Brea Tar Pits.

August 12, 2004|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

Paleontologists at the Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park have a saying: The asphalt can't talk, but the fossils can. And from their graphic tales of prehistoric life, of struggle and survival, a garden has arisen.

Open since June, it is the ultimate native garden -- a sycamore-shaded, sweetly scented union of sage, sagebrush and sedge -- featuring the plants that were in this same spot eons ago. There's no doubt they belong. So say the scientists, and so also the giddy native bees that tumble into blossoms and passersby who slow down for a whiff. Frisky birds find water, shelter, seeds and berries. And gall wasps lay their tiny eggs in silver-backed willow leaves, just as they have for thousands, perhaps millions of years.

The park itself is a powerful place, thick with memories of predator and prey that perished together in the gaseous pools, smack in the heart of Los Angeles, 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. Some died out permanently as the Pleistocene -- or Ice Age -- ended and our climate grew warmer and drier.

But according to collections manager Chris Shaw, the image is not altogether grim. Most of the animals -- humans and gophers included -- and virtually all the plants that lived here then still exist today.

Surprisingly, of the 650 species excavated from the pits, the majority are plant, not animal. Yet, Shaw says, our fossilized plant life is rarely studied. Now the unsung floral legacy of this fertile basin is on permanent exhibit.

The concept for the exhibit, called the Pleistocene Garden, was proposed by chief administrator Jim Gilson. Scott Dennis, manager of Page education, was intrigued. "It sounded like fun, a total learning experience. None of us had ever done anything like it."

A segment of the park was selected for the garden, an irregular area northwest of the museum, partly shaded by mature trees and intersected by a natural spring and a well-traveled walkway. Native-plant specialists Clem Hamilton and Bart O'Brien of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont offered input. Pacific Palisades garden designer Stephanie Wilson Blanc was added to the team, and the project took flight.

She assessed the site and its many microclimates, and negotiated which existing plants could stay. Redwood, alder, lemonade berry and western sycamore -- elegant remnants of Ralph Cornell's 1960s planting plan for Hancock Park -- were also in the fossil records and would be preserved.

Working from museum lists, she grouped plants by associations typical of this region, then and now -- riparian, coastal sage scrub, chaparral and deep canyon -- and drafted a plan. Most plants on the lists were included, with cocklebur and poison oak among the few exceptions. "Guess why?" she asks with a smile.

Last fall, Dennis organized his crew of museum staff, docents, volunteers and their families and began the clearing. A soggy troop of Eagle Scouts ripped out (and later replanted) the riparian section. Chris Peterson, former school groups coordinator, and his helpers erected a retaining wall.

Before planting started, Wilson Blanc recommended that a layer of Soil Drain/P.A.M. (available from Wallace Laboratories, be applied to help restructure the existing soil, and 12 to 24 inches of sandy loam was added and tilled in. A load of granite stones was subtly placed. "We'd like to add really large boulders," Wilson Blanc says, "but the forklift got stuck in the stream and tar when they brought in the small ones."

Clusters of trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers, mostly from one-gallon cans, were installed this January and dressed with a thick mulch. The survival rate has been excellent, despite certain challenges.

Weeds, specifically Mexican palm seedlings and assorted broadleaf invaders, are a problem here as are the tar pits sticky seeps. "Be careful where you step," Wilson Blanc cautions. (For the record, the stuff is actually asphalt, the lowest grade of crude oil. "Tar" is a misnomer.)

"Some things seem to love this environment," Wilson Blanc says. She gestures toward explosive mounds of native buckwheat, snapdragon and morning glory. "Others are not as happy, so we'll change them out in the fall. Once the larger plants are all in place and weeds are more controlled, we'll add the little stuff, the colorful annuals and perennials."

Across the path, the looming sculpture of a now-extinct short-faced bear awaits its fragrant skirt of chaparral and shady canopy of juniper and oak, both scheduled for fall planting.

This week, the youthful garden is all abuzz. Master muralist Robert Reid is at work on a low wall in the deep canyon section. His stunning panorama of prehistoric flora and fauna will become a stage backdrop as the project develops.

Dennis recently led the first clutch of youngsters through the garden. They learned how early humans used the plants for food, basketry and medicine, and each child went home with a seedling sycamore -- the nucleus of his or her own Pleistocene garden.

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