By Megan Robalewski
While it’s easy to forget what lies beyond the familiar campuses, 5C students can enrich their experience in Claremont by exploring what the surrounding landscape has to offer. Biology and Environmental Analysis students might be familiar with the Bernard Biological Field Station (BFS), which lies just across Foothill and is a short walk from the Harvey Mudd campus. Not only is the BFS incredibly close, it provides an opportunity for students to engage with the land where the Colleges are built as it might have been experienced before citrus groves and the colleges were established. During the Hive’s “Candy Invasion!” event on February 9, a group of students and members of the Claremont community ventured over to the BFS to harvest horehound, a non-native weed, and make candy from it.
The BFS is situated on an alluvial outwash from the San Gabriel Mountains and contains one of the largest remaining parcels of the native California Sage Scrub plant habitat that once covered most low elevation areas across Southern California. One section of the BFS has returned to a state of nearly all native plant species. In addition to the California Sage Scrub, the BFS is also home to a grove of native Coast Live Oak and Sycamore trees. Many invasive animal species that thrive right across the street on the 5Cs’ grassy lawns, such as pill bugs and Argentine ants, are absent here. Instead, native plants and animals such as wood rats – who use sticks to build impressive domed homes along pathways at the BFS – flourish here. However, not all of the BFS is a haven for native species; some parts, like the California Sage Scrub community in the southern area of the BFS, get invaded by non-native species at certain times of year. One of these species is horehound, a weed native to Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern and central Asia, which flourishes in the winter. Horehound has been used as a medicinal herb since the 1st century BC; colonizers of the Americas brought this magical medicinal herb with them. The lasting presence of this plant is one of many reminders of the colonizing history of plants and people that shaped Claremont as we know it today.
Not only did our group get to clear out portions of this invasive weed from the BFS to make room for native plants, we also learned about its medicinal benefits including pain relief, digestive aid, and cough relief (it is used to make cough drops such as Ricola, and horehound candies can double as throat lozenges). Guided by Wallace (Marty) Meyers, the director of the BFS, we meandered around the man-made lake, learning about the ecology and history of the place, as we excavated as many horehound plants as possible. The leaves were the only necessary ingredient for the candy, but the key to ridding the environment of the weed was removing the clumps down to the root. By the time we were ready to head out, we had so many horehound plants, it was difficult to carry them all. We headed over to the kitchen at Wolfe’s Market to learn from Harvey Mudd College Fellow Christy Spackman about the process of making candy from sugar and an infusion made from the leaves. After washing the horehound leaves, we steeped them in water with local Ponderosa lemons harvested near the Hive to make a tea (you can also drink horehound tea– it has a minty, earthy, bitter taste and has the same medicinal benefits of horehound candy). The next step was mixing the tea with sugar and corn syrup and heating it in a saucepan, stirring it until it boiled. We then let it sit as the temperature climbed to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and took a break for dinner.
The most exciting part of the candy-making process was forming shapes from the cooling syrup. In a race to shape the hot syrup before it hardened, we furiously rolled out drops, spirals, and even hearts and intricate twirls. Next we rolled them in powdered sugar (horehound candy is fairly bitter, so it helps to counteract it with some sweetness) and distributed them in small bags for everyone to take home.
After exploring the BFS and learning about the impacts of invasive species like horehound on our environment, I was amazed by how little I knew about the land where our colleges are built. This ecosystem has a rich history of adapting to the influences of people throughout history; engaging with this history is a beneficial exercise for anyone who calls Claremont their home, however temporary. This experience has made me more observant of the environment we live in. We often take the trees, squirrels, and especially the weeds, for granted, but the natural landscape has so much to offer anyone who is willing to look and taste.