Citizen Tleilax

Mystery Plants and Identified Flora on the U-Vanu Trail off the Nancy Hoover Pohl Overlook in the Santa Monica Mountains

In the Santa Monica Mountains off Mulholland Drive just west of Laurel Canyon is the Nancy Hoover Pohl Overlook, one of my favorite places to hike. There are a couple different trails one can take from the overlook, one which connects to multiple other trail options in the area and one that is less than a mile long and dead-ends behind a neighborhood in the hills. The latter I believe is called the U-Vanu trail, but it’s hard to find an authoritative source for that–maps I’ve seen aren’t perfectly clear & the most confident sounding reference to it is from LAist here. Though the U-Vanu trail is short, it has a pretty diverse repertoire of flora to display, and I took all the following pictures in this lengthy post on the afternoon of February 20th, 2010. If you happen to download or post them anywhere, please credit to “D. Bene Tleilax” and a link back here would be nice. Thanks!

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Sometimes I’m not very good at distinguishing between species of a particular type of plant; I am also still very much an amateur with identification in general. If you see that I’ve made any errors please do me a favor and post your corrections!

First up are the mystery plants. Plants can be pretty difficult to search for when you don’t know their names and I haven’t had any success with these ones. Any tips would be appreciated.

mystery plant stalks
mystery plant stalk

This one has a somewhat similar growth habit to the Fuchsia Flowered Gooseberry (seen below) in the way its stalks protrude around its territory.


large mystery plant growth
large mystery plant

One of the most singularly prominent plants along the trail, there is only one of these creatures and it has staked out its claim on the steep hillside that descends into the canyon below. I am really curious about this particular plant. The leaves are very large and seem fuzzy, though I haven’t touched them since they are growing out the side of a cliff.


big leaves plant group

These leaves look really yummie to me, but I wouldn’t dare eat them without knowing what they are.


unknown herb

What is it?


purple flowers green berries
purple flower plant

The leaves look different in both of these pictures but I’m pretty sure they’re the same species of plant, the bottom just looks younger and less jumbled to me. In the bottom photo the leaves are shaped like hearts, much like sunflowers. Note the interesting and fairly large green berries in the top photo, which also sorta look like they could be flower buds except for how large some of them are.


spiky green plant leaves

These spiky leaves have a really nice light green color. They look really cool and I can’t wait to find out what this is.


white stalked herb

Another mysterious young spiny herb I’m quite fond of.


yellow & black flower group

These seem pretty clearly in the Asteraceae family but I’m not very familiar with flower species.


grass with seeds

I’m not up on my grasses either…


seashell leaves

These leaves look like seashells to me. The lighter green ones in the middle were actually that color even though it looks like it’s a lighting thing.


maybe toyon

The way the leaves all reach to the sky makes me think this is toyon (heteromeles arbutifolia), though this is a relatively new species to me and I could be mistaken.


maybe oak

This seems like some sort of oak, though I’m not sure.


maybe coast live oak (quercus agrifolia)

I think this might be a coast live oak (quercus agrifolia) based on the way the leaves all curve down, but it’s really hard for me to distinguish oaks right now since I haven’t studied them much and many of them seem quite similar.


young milk thistle (silybum marianum)

This appears to be a fresh patch of young milk thistle (silybum marianum) which hasn’t yet put up any stalks.


sugar bush group
sugar bush flowers (rhus ovata)

At first I thought this was laurel sumac (malosma laurina) since it has leaves very obviously shaped like taco shells. Then when flipping through a library copy of Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains I happened across sugar bush (rhus ovata) and saw that the flower style is significantly different from laurel sumac, and indeed that is actually what I had found.


ubiquitous black sage (salvia mellifera)

coastal sagebrush (artemisia californica)

The top is black sage (salvia mellifera), the bottom coastal sagebrush (artemisia californica), both ubiquitous shrubs in this area. Before I knew what sagebrush was I called it the “bubblegum plant” because of its strong gum-like scent. It’s one of my favorites. It’s also one of the plants I like to smoke when I roll herbal cigarettes from plants I harvest myself (mixed with mugwort, which can also be found along this trail though I didn’t take any pictures of it).


tree tobacco flowers
young tree tobacco plant

Speaking of smoking, this is tree tobacco (nicotiana glauca), the bottom being a handsome youngster. I’ve never actually tried smoking this even though I would like to, because I can’t find enough reliable information on it being safe to do so. I’ve seen references to it being smoked normally, but also seen references to it making your head feel like it’s going to explode. It’s tempting, but the fact that it has definitely killed people who ingested it in other ways gives me pause.


poisonous castor bean plant (ricinus communis)

The castor bean plant (ricinus communis) knows a bit about killing people, as its seeds are highly poisonous. As the genus name suggests, it contains the toxin known as “ricin”. It kinda looks like a wicked plant, doesn’t it? I think it looks really cool, and before I knew what it was it always stood out to me since it looks so strange and unique.


wild cucumber (marah macrocarpus)
wild cucumber tendril

Another deadly but neat looking plant, the wild cucumber (marah macrocarpus) has large spiky green seed pods containing seeds that were once used by the Chumash in a tea to peacefully euthanize those who wouldn’t be able to recover from some sort of accident that had befallen them, according to medicine woman Cecilia Garcia. The bottom picture displays a blurry and curly tendril grasping onto the branch of another plant, an easy way to spot this common vine.


canyon sunflower (venegasia carpesioides)

I’m usually more into weeds, herbs, and other plants which have definite practical usages than wildflowers, but ultimately I’m interested in learning all of the plants which grow around me. The canyon sunflower (venegasia carpesioides) is a pretty looking native and I love its large, healthy looking leaves.


buck brush shrub (ceanothus cuneatus)

Another new one for me, which I believe is the buck brush shrub (ceanothus cuneatus). It has taken me a while to see the differences between all the shrubs of the chaparral plant community; at first glance they all appear somewhat similar and non-distinct. Once I really started paying attention and focusing on their individual traits, they each became much more distinguished.


chamise (adenostoma fasciculatum)

This is chamise (adenostoma fasciculatum).


fuchsia flowered gooseberry (ribes speciosum)
close up of gooseberry flowers

The magnificent fuchsia flowered gooseberry (ribes speciosum). I love the way the stalks all protrude from the center, it looks very spidery and tentacled in a way. This really is a beautiful plant. The hanging flowers, dark, glossy leaves, and bright red or pink thorns make it quite unique and one of my favorite discoveries. Not to mention the berries that develop are edible.


horehound (marrubium vulgare)

Horehound (marrubium vulgare). There is lots of this weed along the trail. I like it.


sweet fennel (foeniculum vulgare)
sweet fennel

Finally we have sweet fennel (foeniculum vulgare), another common weed of the area. A long time ago I ordered fennel seeds in bulk for culinary usage, and it was a while before I discovered that they came from this plant (or one of its relatives). You can break off stalks of this plant and chew them right then and there, and it will fill your mouth with a licorice taste. Careful though, as it is said to look very similar to poison hemlock, which will fill your mouth with a death taste right then and there, or at least within about 15 minutes of horrid suffering. I’ve seen poison hemlock many times and to me it looks pretty different, but I suppose similar enough for everyone to always warn about it when talking about fennel. By the way, that dead stalk in the bottom picture is from a past generation of the plant–they can get pretty thick and tall.


I hope this collection of plants I’ve spotted along the trail is useful for anyone who may be trying to identify plants they’ve seen, though of course it is by no means comprehensive and I am no expert. The reason I made this post is mainly because nobody else has done something like this for that particular trail or portion of the mountains. I wish somebody had, because it makes learning about the plants you see on hikes much easier if you can look up pictures someone has taken from that exact location and match them to what you saw when you were there. Perhaps I will do more of this in the future.

Decorating Public Space with Non Profit Promotional Materials and Various Objects Which Might Otherwise be Thrown Away

I’ve donated money over the years to several non-profit organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Co-op America (now called “Green America”), FINCA, and many others. I feel very strongly about using the privilege I have been gifted with to try and improve our social and physical environment, and to aid those in significantly worse circumstances than I. While things may often seem bad for us middle-class types, various elements of our lives which we take for granted are still total luxury to a massive amount of people around the world. Thus, I don’t mind sacrificing a tiny amount of my own luxury to send a few dollars to serve the greater good. However, that is not the point of this post.

If you donate without requesting that the organization not share your information, many will give your name and address to a million other non-profits who then send you their own solicitations, describing what they’re all about and asking for donations. I have never minded this for the most part, because I like to know what kind of conscientious and helpful action is taking place about this or that issue.

Much of the time unique promotional materials are included, such as greeting cards, dream-catchers, pins, stickers, etc. Often there are photographs, with a little story on the back about the situation relating to what’s shown on the front. I’ve usually kept those, but without much purpose. Recently I thought of the best use for them–the decoration of public space.

Every once in a while I take a staple gun and walk around my area stapling them in visible places on trees or telephone poles. Sometimes I like to staple them to the very edge of a tree, so they will stick out and people on either side can see either the photo or the story. I figure they will garner at least a little attention from random pedestrians before being ripped down by apathetic kids (since there are multiple schools in the vicinity, there are lots of kids around all the time) or unimaginative adults. Hopefully some people will stop and really look at them, read what they’re about, and ideally even devote a little time into researching and possibly helping. That’s the kind of person I am, at least–I’m always interested in random things I see everywhere and I like to look into them more. I only hope that others share that sort of openness.

bear photograph on a telephone pole

Decorating public space is also a great idea for any sort of object that might otherwise be thrown away for want of practical use. Sometimes things aren’t appropriate for donating to a thrift store and have limited appeal for giving to someone you know. In these instances, it is fun to find a spot to install such an object where it can provide a bit of unusual and interesting augmentation to the public environment. I think it’s healthy for there to be unexpected elements in normally boring and predictable spaces, and the object may even find a new home in such a way.

A while back my girlfriend constructed some wearable fairy wings for a performance she participated in at the Hive Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. Recently they’ve been sitting around in limbo, too neat to throw away but not exactly desired anymore, by us or anyone. I suggested that we tie them to a fence or something, and we went out to find a spot. We spotted a suitable tree, and she climbed up and tied them around a branch–a strange little surprise for anybody observant enough to look up into the center of the tree.

fairy wings up in a tree

Now go and leave some of your unused stuff somewhere in public!

Bathroom Graffiti – An Exercise in Collaborative Folk Art

The scrawlings found in public restrooms are a strange exercise in collaborative folk art. While often mundane and inane, much like the YouTube comments which I also consider a natural folk art of sorts, they function in an interesting way. Written conversations develop from an original statement or question of some sort, via individuals who add a single part to what was there when they arrived, frequently pointing an arrow to what they are responding to. This often leads to rather lengthy arguments or speculations, yet each contributor likely never sees what else was added after they said their own piece.

Obviously the content of such “latrinalia” varies widely, but I find the phenomenon very attractive in general. I am particularly fond of bathrooms which are completely unregulated in terms of user-contributed decorations, veritable museums of the artform. There is something magical about a bathroom that has been completely covered in numerous layers of tags, art, stickers, and sentences–the depth and texture is astounding. Such a space appears to me like a secret lair within a deep and complex urban cave, a massive collision of culture and energy that would take years to fully dissect & uncover all the origins behind each ingredient in the mix.

I find such a space refreshing and comforting, because in addition to it frequently indicating the presence of potent creative spirit, it reflects the trappings of an autonomous zone. It is a space, limited as it may be, where freedom of visual expression is complete and uncensored, nothing removed or hidden aside from when other participants use their freedom to cover a part with their own contribution, whatever that may be. It truly is a social, community space in this way.

Below are a few old photographs I’ve taken of bathroom graffiti. They aren’t perfect examples of the types I was specifically referring to in this post, but interesting nonetheless.

Bathroom graffiti at Foufounes Electriques, Montreal
Foufounes Electriques, Montreal, December 2006

Bathroom graffiti at Chain Reaction, Anaheim
Chain Reaction, Anaheim, March 2003

Bathroom graffiti in southern California restroom
Unknown location, Southern California, February 2004