August 22, 2004

From Wasteland to a Showplace
Native Plants

A Professor and Her Students Transform an Island in an Urban Park,
Instead of Something Awful,' She Says, "I Saw Opportunity"
Nikki Usher
Times Staff Writer

"There are so few real urban native gardens in Southern California,
and Jeanne has created one worth driving to from far away."

Robert van de Hoek, Alondra Park Supervisor and Resident Naturalist

Before Jeanne Bellemin got to it, calling the island in Alondra Park's lake an eyesore would have been considered a compliment. There were a few palm and pine trees, a little grass and a lot of barren, muddy clay.

Many Torrance and Lawndale residents would cross the small bridge and use the island as a dumping ground for unwanted rabbits, roosters, and hamsters.

In a place where very little grew, the hungry, abandoned pets in a non-native habitat perpetuated an ecological wasteland.

Bellemin, a professor at neighboring El Camino College in Torrance, didn't see what others saw, "Instead of something awful, I saw opportunity," she said.

So the zoologist enlisted willing students in her environmental biology and field entomology classes to transform the space. County officials gave her access to a gated entry and a third of the island to turn into a garden.

Seven years later, the island is the gem of the park. There are more than 20 species of butterflies and at least 85 kinds of platns, and 155 bird species have visited the area, according to the county. A naturalist employed by the county leads nature walks on the island the first saturday morning of every month.

Bellemin is paying out of her own pocket to keep the garden growing. But at least her labors are being noticed.

The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation named her one of the top volunteers of the year for 2004. The Western Society of Naturalists, a group of scientists and nature lovers from all of the western states, honored her with the Naturalist of the Year award this year.

But Bellemin, a soft-spoken academic, credits her students with keeping the effort going. About eight to 10 of them put in a total of eight hours on Fridays and Saturdays.

"When I get recognition, it just brings more recognition to the park and to all the wonderful things that are going on here," she said. "I did this for the community and for my students, and I owe it to them."

The garden is filled with what many gardeners in Southern California have scorned for decades: plants native to this environment. They require little water, and are generally hearty, fend off attacks from squirrels and insects, and need little moisture.

"There are so few real urban native gardens in Southern California, and Jeanne has created one worth driving to from far away to visit," said Robert van de Hoek, Alondra Park supervisor and its resident naturalist.

Now there are white, purple and black sage, yellow native poppies and flannel bush, with soft fuzzy leaves and 2-inch yellow flowers. There are the woolly blue curl, a plant with purple flowers; California Fuchsia; and island snapdragons, native to Catalina Island.

And the Catalina plants have brought unusual varieties of hummingbirds and a rare orange-crowned warbler. "They think the [park's] island, well, is a real island when they fly over," van de Hoek said.

Bellemin has also managed to cultivate a crown-beard sunflower, which is on the federal endangered species list.

She goes to native plant sales and picks out new native species. She used to have some grant money helping her out - $5,000 from El Camino in better budget days, and $700 from Dow Chemicals, used up a few months ago.

Rabbits, squirrels and other animals routinely plague the younger plants on the island, so Bellemin and her students heve put fences to protect them.

"Even when things are far from perfect, Jeanne will go into the garden or talk to whomever and be tolerant, patient, and follow through to fix the situation," said Lindsay Smith, an environmental activist who was also instrumental in starting the garden.

Smith remembers what a struggle it was just to get a working hose on the island. A few times the hose didn't function properly and flooded out sections of the garden.

Smith said the zoologist handled the setbacks with the "grace and determination she always has."

The key for Bellemin, though, is the loyal group of students each semester who take charge of the garden's upkeep. And many, though no longer her students, come back to help her work.

She's such a good educator, concerned about the education of her students and the environment at the same time, and combines it," said Lori Bennett, a regional recreation director for the county's parks.

Bellemin requires her environmental biology students to turn a space in their community into a small garden.

"I'm trying to teach them that with a little hope and love you can turn something really ugly into something beautiful," she said.

Many of her students wouldn't ordinarily have the chance to work in a garden, so gardening for credit or extra credit exposes them to what is literally grass-roots community activism. "They're seeing that what they do can really make the community more beautiful," Bellemin said.

Her efforts have refocused the county's attention on the park. Now, instead of speaking about eyesores, Los Angeles County officials are talking about nature centers.

"Who knows if the next nature center will be here," Van de Hoek said. If it is, "a lot of it might be thanks to Jeanne."

Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles Times article, From Wasteland to a Showplace for Native Plants, is accompanied by a great photograph, taken by Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times. The photograph shows Jeanne Bellemin watering some of the native plants, including a large patch of white-flowering Seaside Heliotrope, which this author, Roy van de Hoek, planted in 2003, on Alondra Island. I rescued this plant from the Ballona Wetlands, where the Playa Vista Land Speculation Company and Development Corporation had coerced the City of Los Angeles into destroying wetlands on Culver Boulevard. It was argued that that the road needed to be widened as traffic mitigation for the increased traffic that would be generated by the new Playa Vista housing project for wealthy people. The caption of text that accompanies the photograph reads as follows: "DEDICATION: Jeanne Bellemin, named one of the 2004's top volunteers by the L.A. County Parks Department, tends the island garden. She says she is trying to teach her students "that with a little hope and love you can turn something really ugly into something beautiful."

The article was written by Nikki Usher, a professional investigative journalist, career employee, at the Los Angeles Times." The article appeared on a Sunday, August 22, 2004, in the weekly special feature focus, called GOOD TURNS. The investigative journalist, Nikki Usher, visited the island, as did a photographer, Lawrence K. Ho. Finally, I believe that this news article can also be interpreted symbolically as about hope, as suggested by Jeanne Bellemin in the article.