Once again we find ourselves preparing for fire season. This year an accidental event made me wonder what exactly is being whacked down all over the hillsides? A careful look disclosed mostly tan grass dried by the summer sun. One in particular caught my eye. I saw empty pods on dried stalks where presumably there had been seeds before the winds had scattered them abroad. How ingenious is Mother Nature that this plant should have sheathing to protect each seed? My attention to these grasses began with a vision for a lovely photograph of these grasses standing in the foreground against a flaming red sunset. Before I could capture my composition, the grasses had been rudely whacked in the name of fire safety.
But now I was curious. Were these the “amber waves of grain” that Americans sing about? “America the Beautiful” was originally written in 1893 as a poem describing Colorado wheat fields. I’ve been to the Midwest, but I don’t recall the amber grains being 2 feet tall. The lyrics seem to suggest taller grass. So the hunt was on to determine if I was looking at wheat stalks. I know that many of our local grasses are not native plants. Many drought tolerant plants have been imported. Was I looking at dwarf wheat of some sort?
I enlisted the help of Mrs. Norwood, who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. I had picked a few remaining stalks to show her. “Oh no” she said, “definitely not wheat” and she went on to describe what a dried wheat stalk would look like.
In developing my wheat theory I had considered the fact that the San Fernando Valley did plant wheat. I recalled that barley had also been planted. Is that my mystery grass? I had a house guest, Maro, who was Armenian. She’s a great cook and had served me barley as part of traditional Armenian cuisine. Why not ask her, I thought? By then I had done some research and learned that barley has a long history. It was one of the first crops of the Neolithic farming communities of the Middle East dating back as far as about 8500 years BC. When I showed her my stalks, without a second of hesitation she said, ”Yes, definitely barley.” So the mystery was solved. But one question remained, why was Middle Eastern barley all over the Los Angeles hillsides?
After more research I confirmed that barley crops had been planted in the Sherman Oaks/Studio City flatlands. From 1798 to 1832, it was reported that the San Fernando Valley had harvested over 156,000 bushels of wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas, garbanzos and broad beans. So is our barley a “volunteer” from the planting 200 years ago? Or was it here before the Spanish came to Los Angeles? Were the local Tongva tribes familiar with barley as a native food source? Mission historians record that the Indians living at the missions were fed barley. The commentary concluded that the grains made a poor dietm which was partially responsible for the degradation of their population. The padres brought barley to the Mission San Fernando Rey de Espaňa as a food source for the sheep and cattle they introduced to the colony.
A sad commentary on a plant with such a noble history.
Photograph Courtesy: Joann R. Deutch