Offering Leaf Relief : Fern Expert Volunteers to Help Griffith Park Restore Dell

Times Staff Writer

For 70 years, visitors have gone to Griffith Park's Fern Dell to escape the workaday world and enjoy the cool, green jungle of ferns and shade trees there.

But Barbara Hoshizaki doesn't leave her work behind during visits to Fern Dell. She checks the hanging Platycerium bifurcatum, the giant Cibotium chamissoi or one of the more than 140 varieties of native and exotic ferns there that she knows by sight and proper name.

Hoshizaki, a botany and biology teacher at Los Angeles City College, is one of the country's leading fern experts. She is an academician with dirt under her fingernails and a log of fern expeditions that have taken her around the world.

The East Hollywood resident's latest project, however, will be close to home. Hoshizaki has been asked to help the city restore Fern Dell.

Crime and Cutbacks

Built in a canyon at the southwest corner of Griffith Park, Fern Dell has been disturbed in recent years by vandalism and crime, as well as general neglect created by post-Proposition 13 budget cuts.

Last spring, the state gave the city Recreation and Parks Department $500,000 to install a computerized watering system, rebuild footbridges and improve picnic tables, drinking fountains, fences and handrails. The city also has asked a group of consultants, including Hoshizaki, to decide what trees and ferns should be added to Fern Dell.

Final plans are expected at the end of April, with actual construction and plantings expected to begin this summer.

Hoshizaki said she agreed to donate her knowledge to the project because "Fern Dell is the only fern garden of its kind." The only other such public garden in the state, she said, is in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It is much smaller than Fern Dell, Hoshizaki said.

Valuable Public Asset

She and other members of the Los Angeles Fern Society and the Southern California Horticulture Institute consider Fern Dell to be one of the city's most valuable public assets.

"Nearly everyone who has grown up in Los Angeles has some fond memories of Fern Dell," Hoshizaki said. She recalls enjoying her visits there as a schoolgirl.

Several groups that have donated plants to Fern Dell have become discouraged with the thefts of rare ferns and with the area's overall decline in the last 10 years, Hoshizaki said. To reverse that, she said, security must be added along with the other improvements.

"I could get horticulture groups and nurseries to donate money or plants, but I don't want to see the plants get ripped off," Hoshizaki said. "I want them taken care of."

Pleased With Help

City landscape architect Don Nelson, who is heading the restoration project, said he is pleased to have Hoshizaki's help. "She is the fern expert," he said.

Hoshizaki and others will develop what Nelson called "Fern Dell's plant palette."

"It will be a master plan of the trees, shrubs, ferns and ground covers that will be used in Fern Dell," Nelson said.

Work on Fern Dell began in 1912, when then-city Parks Supt. Frank Shearer decided that the Western Avenue canyon north of Los Feliz Boulevard would be ideal for creating a fern garden.

The City Council appropriated $1,200 to purchase water rights for the area. Within four years the city had built the stream, rock-lined pools and retaining walls that run along the 1,800-foot trail.

Later Development

By 1916, more than 400 native ferns were planted in what is now the southern half of the garden. The northern half was developed in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Although the 4 1/2-acre Fern Dell may have no equal in size, Hoshizaki's own fern collection might be a contender when counting varieties.

Hoshizaki said she has lost count of how many species of ferns she grows in the backyard of her home. Including the terrariums filled with particularly temperamental ferns and the trays of tiny fern spores inside her home, Hoshizaki estimates the number to be in the hundreds.

In her kitchen, Hoshizaki keeps rows of jars, each containing a fern that someone has asked her to identify. Adjacent to the kitchen is a small hothouse, where she keeps plants that are sick and those that grow only in tropical climates. Everywhere, it seems, are either ferns or books and periodicals relating to the plants.

1 1/2 Hours a Day

Hoshizaki said she spends about 1 1/2 hours a day tending her garden. "You learn shortcuts after a while," she said.

The largest of Hoshizaki's ferns is a species of Australian tree fern she named Brentwood, which is now its formal botanical name. The plant has grown to more than 20 feet in 10 years and now towers over the roof of her two-story house. But it grows too fast, she said. She plans to donate it to the Los Angeles Zoo.

Collectors from across the country frequently send her ferns to identify from among the more than 10,000 species that are known. After Hoshizaki identifies a plant or classifies a new one, the ferns are added to her garden. Her book, "The Fern Manual," is a widely used reference.

The patience and skill necessary to grow a fern from a spore, which can take up to nine months, is also evident in Hoshizaki's academic work. It once took her 12 years to identify a fern that had been given the wrong name.

Global Search

"I sent it to every specialist I could think of, and they would each give it a different name," Hoshizaki said. "I went to every herbarium in Europe. Finally, 12 years later, during a meeting of the International Botanical Congress in Scotland, I found a leaf pressed in a book there. The fern was from Japan."

The search for rare ferns has taken Hoshizaki to the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Japan, the Amazon River, the Galapagos Islands, Africa, Europe and most of the countries in North and Central America.

On her trips, Hoshizaki has tracked down ferns that have been used for birth control, cancer cures and anemia, as well those considered a delicacy in some Asian countries.

"In the old days, the fine hairs of ferns were used for upholstery and to stuff people when they were embalmed," Hoshizaki said.

Tomboy as a Girl

As a girl growing up in East Los Angeles, Hoshizaki said, she was a bit of a tomboy, preferring hiking and camping to more traditional domestic activities. "My family was very conservative," she said, "and they thought it was awful for me to be out getting dirty."

Hoshizaki met her husband, a plant physiologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a botany class at Los Angeles City College. She said they met in the same classroom where she now teaches.

Later, as a plant science major at UCLA, Hoshizaki said, a professor suggested that she research a class project on ferns. After becoming fascinated by the diversity of ferns, she said, "it became my life work."

During the 1940s and 1950s, scientific and popular interest in ferns was at a low point, she said. Now, Hoshizaki said with pride: "There is a growing interest. The rank-and-file fern grower goes the whole range, from professional to laborer. We all have an interest in preserving Fern Dell."

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