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Top 10 Things To Do at the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden

Aug 29, 2020 08:44AM ● By Jeanne Fratello
The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden is one of the greatest educational resources in Manhattan Beach - and it's free and open all day, every day.

Established 25 years ago as a "demonstration garden" to teach about earth-friendly native gardening (using no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers), it is now a thriving hub of year-round plant, insect, and bird activity.

It also makes for a great hands-on field trip or biology lesson during this time of distance learning, for any parents or kids who just need to step away from the screens.

DigMB toured the garden with its vice president, Julie Gonella, and picked out ten fun things (although there are many more!) to do when visiting the garden. Hint: You're going to use all five senses - seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and even tasting.

1) Look for Butterflies 

The garden attracts many different kinds of butterflies including monarchs, swallowtails, and the popular tiny yellow skipper butterflies. Currently you can see lots of Marine Blue butterflies (pictured) as you head in from the Peck Ave. entrance, because they are attracted to the Red Fairy Duster plant (the plant that looks a little bit like a bottle brush). These tiny butterflies, distinguished by wavy lines on their wings, are a relative of the endangered El Segundo Blue butterfly. Pro tip: You can use the signs within the garden to help identify the butterflies you see.

2) Check Out the New 'Butterfly Hut'

This brand new eco-friendly structure has a V-shaped roof that gave it the nickname "The Butterfly Hut." (It's called that because of its shape, not because it houses butterflies.) The V-shape of the roof collects rain, which then drains down into a rain barrel. Then the rain barrel gets emptied into a larger storage tank, which can hold 530 gallons of water. Although the garden has an irrigation system that uses reclaimed water, the volunteers use the stored rainwater for hand watering and sprinkling. Another fun fact worth noting: The front of the Butterfly Hut has a garage door that opens up for easy access to tool storage. Also inside the house is also a small office. (One young visitor asked Gonella, "Is this where you live?")

3) Spot the Official Manhattan Beach City Flower

The Beach Primrose is the official flower of the city of Manhattan Beach. A native local plant, it's easily identified by its cheery little yellow flowers. It's also found nearly everywhere in the garden; even the littlest child will be able to spot one. "These flowers still grow naturally on the dunes just south of the Manhattan Beach Pier," said Gonella. "They are just so happy here." (If you want seeds from the Beach Primrose for your garden, just ask the MB Botanical Garden this fall.)

4) Listen for Birds

More than 150 species of birds have been identified in Polliwog Park, and many of those come to the garden, according to Gonella. When she teaches young children at the garden, she tells them to close their eyes and tell her what they hear. "First they say, 'cars..a waterfall...' and then they start to really hear the birds," she said. "Then they start to listen more to see if they can differentiate their calls." You might also be able to watch the birds travel their favorite "circuit" - from the sycamore tree, to the melaleuca bush, where they scan for any signs of predators, and then into the water feature where they drink and take a bath, and then back up to the treetop. Again , use the signs in the garden to help identify any birds you might see.

5) Smell the Sage Leaves

There are plenty of amazing smells in the garden, but sage leaves have a distinctive and pleasing aroma. There are several different kinds of local native sages in the garden, so you can compare and contrast. (But please don't eat them; the sage plants in this garden are not for culinary use!)  While you're observing the sage plants, check out the seed pods on the Purple Sage plant. (They look like long sticks with pom-poms on them as seen in this picture.) While many gardeners might cut these seed pods off, the MB Botanical Garden leaves them on because they contain high-protein seeds that are important food for local birds. The seeds give the birds the energy they need to build nests and to migrate, said Gonella.

6) Taste the Saltbush Leaves

Yes! There is something you can "taste" in the garden (but please make sure you are tasting the right thing, and don't taste anything else). The saltbush, a plant once used by the Navajo to make flour, has edible leaves. Just break off a small leaf (make sure it is the leafy part, not the flowering branches) to take a small nibble. Tastes salty, right? It's a plant that is native to West Coast beaches and sandy areas.

7) Look for Baby Lizards

These skittish little creatures run all over the garden and it's fun to try to spot them (even though they have great natural camouflage). Lizards like to sun themselves on the rocks or on the brick path - and the heat helps them with digestion. There's a current batch that have just hatched in the past few weeks, according to Gonella. ("They are everywhere.") Lizards are great for the garden because they serve as natural pest control, she added.

8) Go on a Grape Hunt

The garden's prolific grape vines are probably the first thing you'll see when you walk into the garden (from either entrance). Hidden behind the enormous leaves are little bunches of green grapes. Lift up the leaves gently to find the grapes - How many can you find? These grapes are a hybrid of California native grapes and European table grapes, said Gonella. The grapes will ripen into small purple grapes that the birds adore (but please don't eat them yourself). As fall turns into winter, the grape leaves will put on a show of gold, orange, and brown.

9) Snap a Snapdragon

The Island Snapdragon is a plant that's native to California's Channel Islands and is beloved by hummingbirds. You can identify it by its small, bright red flowers that look like mini versions of the snapdragon flowers that you probably already know.  It's OK to "snap" them (gently): Give the flower a little pinch right at its "throat" and its "jaw" will pop open like a tiny dragon roaring.

10) Behold a Bee Working

You'll see busy bees all over the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden, but our personal favorite is the Yellow Faced Bumblebee. This bumblebee is a West Coast native, so it pollinates native plants. It's distinctive because of its yellow head and the bright yellow stripe across its butt* (*technically, the abdomen). Although bumblebees can sting, it's extremely unlikely you will get stung unless you are going out of your way to bother them. They're far too busy sticking their little fuzzy heads into the many flowers at the garden.

Last but not least, bees are the answer to a puzzling mystery at the garden: What causes some leaves to have these perfectly round cut-out holes? The Leafcutter Bee cuts out precise circles from leaves to make nesting material. The holes are so perfect that it looks like someone went through the leaf with a hole punch. Isn't nature amazing?


Of course there's plenty more to see at the garden, but these are just some highlights to get you started.

The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden is unique in many ways, not least of which is that it is entirely volunteer-run. It's also taken on a new project in the past year, which is to convert its display to entirely native plants. And again, it's an all-natural, pesticide-free, water-wise garden. 

Mike Garcia, the founder of Enviroscape LA and a board member of the garden, was at the garden on the day that DigMB visited. 

"This garden sets the standard for our society," with its eco-forward sensibility, said Garcia. "When you partner with Mother Nature, you will always have much better results." 

The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden is located at the Peck Ave. side of Polliwog Park. It is open from dawn to dusk. Volunteer work days are on Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Drop-in volunteers over age 16 are welcome. For information about making a donation to support the garden and its volunteers, click here. To follow along with its latest activities and sightings, join the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden Facebook group.

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