If you seek a peaceful place to explore nature and local history on foot or by bicycle, it may be time to explore Verbena Fields. This 20-acre site was historically a floodplain for Lindo Channel and later became used as a gravel mine for road construction.
It is now the home of a visionary restoration project within the City of Chico Lindo Channel Greenway. You can find Verbena Fields by following East First Avenue to its terminus in a quiet residential neighborhood. In addition to walking and biking opportunities, the site offers visitors a chance to explore the history of local wetlands, salmon lifecycles, gravel mining, and the culture of the Mechoopda Indians. It's a pocket of urban wilderness, designed to delight and inform.
Verbena Fields poppies and bioswale, Laura Lukes
The area was restored in partnership with state and local agencies, including the California Water Resources Board (a major funder), the CSU, Chico Research Foundation, Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, Streaminders, and the Mechoopda tribe. The restoration plan included input from neighbors, along with experts in wetland restoration, urban runoff mitigation, native plants, and local fauna. Together, these entities transformed a pile of rocks, broken asphalt, and noxious weeds into a natural refuge for humans, animals, and plants.
A combination of native and non-native plants reflects the site's mixed-use history. As part of the restoration, the site was planted in natives, including western redbud, California poppy, buckwheat, cottonwood, willow, and yellow and purple lupine (to name a few), and they exist side by side with walnut, mimosa, datura, and even a clump of bearded iris. Unfortunately, yellow star thistle is also becoming more abundant; early in the project's history, goats were introduced to control and eradicate this nuisance weed, but it is a tenacious and formidable intruder.
Verbena Fields Overview, Laura Lukes
An attractive sign along the southern border of the site greets visitors by detailing the site's history and offers a project map and overview. You can expect to see information about native vegetation, the basics of wetland expansion and floodplain restoration (including the function of stormwater bioswales), and artful drawings of wildlife. A portion of the sign is devoted to the history of the Native American uses of the area, as well as the purpose of the on-site Mechoopda Maidu Interpretive Garden – so named because the project includes plants traditionally used by the tribe. The sign explains that the Interpretive Garden “will serve the community as a model of collaboration on the combined strengths needed to preserve, sustain, and protect the land. Together we embrace this mutual obligation to honor, protect, and steward the land with gratitude.” These words are, like Verbena Fields itself, inspiring and moving.
Verbena Fields floodplain restoration sign, Laura Lukes
Let's take a walking tour of this site, exploring what it has to offer along the way,
Verbena Fields oak vista, Laura Lukes
A wide, level path of crushed gravel (handicap accessible and suitable for small children and strollers) meanders along the perimeter of Verbena Fields. A second path bisects the site approximately at its midsection. We enter at the southwest corner, where Verbena Lane and East First Avenue intersect. Signage lets you know that your dog is welcome, on a leash, and at this corner there is a drinking fountain and a dog bag dispenser. To the left, a level strip of small trees, shrubs, and wildflowers borders the backyard fences that make up the western boundary of the site. To the right, desire lines (informal paths) lead from level ground to the Mechoopda Gathering Circle, a lowland area that features a beautiful tile mosaic depicting aspects of tribal life.
Back on the upland path, and moving north towards Lindo Channel, a large grove of diverse trees is clustered on the right. An old walnut, an almond, a couple of oak species, and other mature trees create a dense wall that is growing up against an artifact from the past: a huge mound of river rock. Continuing east to follow the path as it runs parallel to Lindo Channel, a footbridge spans a side channel created to link the Channel to the low-lying wetland areas. An open, rocky floodplain flanks the Channel, and here yerba santa and naked buckwheat are interspersed with poppies and lupine. A short trail leads to an interpretive sign about floodplain restoration, complete with cross sections and a definition of floodplains and their important functions in urban and natural settings.
Verbena Fields Mechoopda mosaic, Laura Lukes
To the right is the open grassy area that comprises the bulk of the site and surrounds the wetland expansion portion of the project. The bisecting trail runs through the lupine and poppy (and also star thistle) that grow among the grasses. This middle trail affords access to a heavily shaded grove in which someone has fashioned a 10 to 12-foot- tall teepee from lumber scraps. An old rug has been placed inside, and it looks like a peaceful place to meditate, or the perfect place to play a game of fort.
The northeast corner of the project site is at the intersection of Lindo Channel and the backyard fences of the neighbors. As it heads back towards East First Avenue, the path is bordered by redbuds and oaks.
Verbena Fields footbridge over Side Channel, Laura Lukes
Springtime at Verbena Fields is particularly beautiful: grasses are green and supple, redbuds, poppies, and lupines combine to make a palette of bright color, and fresh leaves bud from the limbs of the deciduous trees. Summer is dryer and crisper, but the shady groves of large trees and the low-lying cool spots offer respite from the heat. Fall brings the changing of colors when the grasses mellow to shades of heather, and in winter (if we are lucky with the rains) one can appreciate the value of the bioswales and wetlands features, as well as the view of the foothills to the east.
Whatever the season, Verbena Fields is a delightful place to visit. Just follow East First Avenue eastward, away from the busy bustle of traffic, to find it.