Canyon News
What's Safe Out There?
By Joann Deutch, Attorney
Apr 11, 2012 - 9:29:54 PM

LAUREL CANYONSpring has me wandering the hills, wondering “What I am looking at?” It might have started when I figured exactly how badly I react to poison oak. That put me on alert, always looking down to see if any was nearby. In the spring it’s easier to spot. Shiny green leaves with flame to mahogany tinting, and of course the “leaves of three” configuration. The leaves of three (three!) leaves growing on one stalk can be tricky, as they’re everywhere. I’m not totally obsessive... well, maybe.

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While I’m looking down, I see other plants which capture my interest.  There are lots of grasses out there. In the hills, it’s the stuff we always have to clear to get a passing report card for the Hillside Fire Inspection season. Somehow this sparks a question. These stalks don’t look like anything I see growing in local gardens. It doesn’t look like the stuff you need mow, even if you’ve let a little out of hand. It also doesn’t look like the bunch grass people plant such as Mexican Hair Grass or the ever-popular Red Fountain Grass used as an accent in gardens.

I always have three threads to my investigations. One: Can I eat it without killing myself? Two: Will it give me a rash? And three: Was it here for the native Tongva population?

Once again figuring out what this stuff is has set me on a scientific journey into Farmville. I am a little skittish about drawing any conclusions, since the last time I did this it turns out that what I swore was barley was in fact oats, which thankfully was not a potentially fatal mistake.

The stalks I see are not grasses, they’re cereal grains (okay, cereal grass) - the kind we eat - rather than the kind we mow. Now I know it’s edible.  The cluster of seeds at the stalk of cereal grasses is called an ear. This hardly makes any makes sense until you associate theses grains with the most populate grain,corn. Then you get the reference to an ear.

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Of course only part of the mystery is solved at this point. I need to figure out which grain is what. To me, barley, wheat, rye and triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid - they did that just to mess with me) all look fairly similar. I thought I was looking at wheat, but barley is described as growing in two rows, while wheat grows in four rows, so that must be the lighter colored cereal in the photo. I am fairly certain that the red grass is red winter wheat.

And finally, these grasses, while known as far back as 7-9 B.C.E. in other parts of the world, are not native to the Santa Monica Mountains. This means that the Tongva did not have them as a food source. It’s speculated that the cereal grasses first got here mixed in with the feed the padres brought here for their cattle. Later these grains were planted as part of the “dry farming” technique in the San Fernando Valley ranchos.  The grasses got whatever water was available in the winter months, and that was it.

I’m not ready to become a survivalist. Maybe I’ll gain the confidence I need. Sign me up for Hunger Games. No nightlock berries for me, though!


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