W.S. Head writes in his slim and profoundly quirky volume, The California Chaparral, An Elfin Forest, Naturegraph, Happy Camp CA, 1972 that,

"The Yucca is known to most all Californians and especially to travelers who have passed through the Chaparral area during the blossoming period"


"Even after the Yucca has completed its cycle of life; blooming, bearing fruit, and maturing seed, lifeless flower stalks continue to stand, blackened by the elements, as though resentful of relinquishing the over-seeing position held through an eventful life."

This last weekend, Lorrie and I, along with Margot Griswold our neighbor, found a way to revive both this awareness of the chaparral yucca (yucca whipplei) and to preserve something of its pre-eminence, even after death, amongst the chaparral flora. Plucked from a south facing slope along Koenigstein Road, the twelve foot bleached-blond carcass of a yucca was carefully balanced on its spiney base on our living room floor, the tip of the stalk brushing the lower reaches of the sloping ceiling. It looked, for all the world as though it had lived and died in situ, having burst through the concrete slab in all its spring-green glory just about a year ago, bloomed and then, through the late summer months, dessicated by the sun and stripped of its color it emerged - an ashen, straw-complexioned armature, its seed pods hanging like bronzed ornaments - as our Christmas Tree.

It was in this festive guise, topped with a glittering golden (plastic) star-burst that it was presented to upwards of 500 Holiday Home Look-In visitors who trouped through the house as part of the annual Ojai Music Festival fund-raiser.

The yucca anchored our (to readers of Urbanwildland, perhaps predictable) decorative theme: A Chaparral Christmas. We three were captivated by the cleverness of the conceit - our guests perhaps less so - but the opportunity to display the riches of the local ecology and indulge in a little education (both Margot and I are hopelessly addicted to didacticism) was irresistible. At the same time it was an interesting exercise in isolating the beauty of several chaparral species of dried seed heads, fresh foliage and live plants and using them as floral decoration. We provided ethno-botanical notes on all species along with a diagram illustrating their location in the house.

Margot produced an assemblage on a limestone slab (our kitchen island) which drew on her extensive knowledge of native plants, her years of collecting seed-pods, galls, leaves, stones, feathers, snakeskins, nuts and berries - and her great artistic sense. The centerpiece was a crow's nest collected after it had blown out of an oak and within which was placed a dark ceramic egg glazed with Hawaiian volcanic ash that served as the omphalos, or center of the world, for this profoundly resonant piece.

While the arrangements through the house were celebrations of the bounty of the surrounding landscape and were both aesthetically pleasing and evocative in a seasonally approriate way (the caterpillar phacelia, for instance referenced the snow laden boughs of skeletal winter trees and lent the living room a winter-wonderland aspect) the kitchen assemblage struck a deeper chord - resonating with the sustained timbre of 30,000 years of chaparral fauna and flora upon which we humans have latterly stumbled.

The ethno-botanical cheat sheet we provided for the docents of The Music Festival Women's Committee was based on Harrington's work in the early twentieth century. John Peabody Harrington (b.1884 d.1961) was a scholar of wildly taxonomic persuasion: he grew up in Santa Barbara, graduated in linguistics from Stanford and spent his life recording the nearly lost languages of the Western United States. Along the way, he collected botanical and zoological specimens. He was the most significant ethnographer and linguist working in America in the twentieth century. His research materials are still being catalogued and are housed in several major institutions throughout the United States and many more anonymous warehouses. His field notes cover more than a million pages. Copious doesn't quite capture the logorrheic nature of his work, but he could also be extremely concise: his notes on Californian botanical specimens were often attached to small, manila cardboard luggage tags.

While these contained the local Native American names (there were for instance, in Harrington's time, still six Chumashan languages) and the Spanish names it was usually left to botanist associates of the great man to provide the scientific descriptions - this work was incomplete, however, and ethno-botanists such as Jan Timbrook continue the identification of the Chumashan "voucher specimens" stored at the National Anthropological Archives located in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD. This collection forms the principal source of information for her Chumash Ethnobotany, Heyday Books, Berkeley, 2007 (as well as our cheat sheet).

While the yucca was billed as our Christmas tree and festively wrapped packages were scattered under its spiney leaves - the plant itself presented the Chumash with a variety of gifts: they roasted the basal portion of the plant (with leaves removed) and would also scoop out the white pith from the stalk (which reputedly tastes like banana); it was useful in the production of cordage, sandals and dried, the stalk made fine kindling.

When dead and skeletal, the yucca's seeds fall in a radius around the base of its spine-tipped leaves when shaken by the fall Santa Ana winds. In a wet year they will germinate and with relentless optimism continue their genetic tradition. We usurped this process to make a minimalist gesture that references a latter-day symbol of Christmas that dates back no further than nineteenth century England, when Prince Albert presented his bride Victoria with a lit tree.

Come Twelfth Night I will take the yucca down and shake it vigorously over our front bunch-grass lawn. With any luck, we will harvest our next yucca about a year from now from that slope and continue the tradition of a Chaparral Christmas. By then, the shrubland lily will be firmly established (in our minds, at least) in its new role as a yuletide symbol and thus join with its many, more traditional uses  that reach back to the Oak Grove people of the Milling Stone horizon- first settlers in the local Chaparral.

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