Where you can learn about plants while volunteering around Los Angeles

Where you can learn about plants while volunteering around Los Angeles

Hiking the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains as a child, I would be stabbed by yucca spikes, scratched by tough oak leaves, and soothed by the soothing scent of sage.

At the time, I knew very little about these native plants, not even their names. Although my mother was a gardener and would take me to visit local nurseries, my understanding of plants was not very deep. Like many of us, I assumed that lush lawns and tall, graceful palm trees were Los Angeles' signature plant life. Volunteering as an adult has changed that.

When I first went to visit the nursery at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, I remember being amazed by the tiny Joshua tree buds they were selling in tiny 4-inch pots—plants that had been present in our local Mojave Desert for over tens of thousands of years. I signed up to volunteer there because I had a feeling that these plants were part of the deep story of this place. I wanted to know more.

The first volunteer day I attended was a group clean-up of the grounds, which looked more like a natural park than most nurseries. There are puffed buckwheat and dramatically carved manzanita, as well as sage and a large palo verde tree with its long, spreading green limbs. Plants attract butterflies, bees, birds and other creatures. It was easy to spend time there.

We worked on doing chores around the nursery, pulling weeds and clearing leaves away from the bushes. Chats ensued between the 15 volunteers, and piles of weeds formed. We worked as a team, with people taking the lead or following as necessary, some carrying weights and others offering encouragement. We may have worked for the better part of three hours, but it doesn't feel like it.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was experiencing the seeds of many ads. I began to notice how even the simplest tasks like pulling weeds could act as meditation. Working outside with plants is not only relaxing but also makes you more aware of life in many ways. Being part of a group effort has shown me how much a few people working toward the same goal can accomplish in a short period of time.

Soon I was helping customers at yard sales, doing things like going out and moving plants into cars. I worked on computers at points of sale, entering items that people had purchased, and this helped me learn many plant names, both common and scientific. I began to learn about plants and gain basic recognition skills.

Yard sales staff are constantly talking with shoppers. Sometimes they talk to professionals, but often they talk to complete beginners about native plants, or even about gardening in general. I got to witness and be a part of these conversations, which helped me learn a lot very quickly. They have become part of a larger conversation about plants that reflects the story of California.

Since that first time at Theodore Payne, I've volunteered with a few other plant-related organizations, including the California Native Plant Society, Friends of Griffith Park, and Arlington Garden in Pasadena, where I now work. At Arlington Garden, a big part of my job is working with volunteers.

One day, I helped lead a group of college students who volunteered in an Arlington park, weeding and composting. Now I can see others experiencing the benefits of volunteering with plants—something I never could have imagined that day my little Joshua trees delighted me.

Almost every weekend, you can find volunteer opportunities in plant spaces throughout Southern California. Use this guide to get started. When registering to volunteer, confirm the event address with the organization. Events may take place outside of locations marked on the map. — William Hallstrom

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