We halted on the banks of a lake or spring of very fine water near the mouth of the port of San Francisco…Near the lake there were so many yerba Buena and so many lilies that I almost had them inside my tent.
~ from the journal of Padre Pedro Font, who camped at Mountain Lake after traveling up Lobos Creek with the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition to the San Francisco peninsula in 1776
Native plants provide the house, furniture, and pantry for wildlife. They help to attract, enhance, and sustain native wildlife species. For example, chestnut-backed chickadees rely on coast live oaks for nesting and providing insects for snacks. Every March, in a millennia-old rite of spring, banana slugs munch footsteps-of-spring wildflowers.
Plants are inextricably linked to insects, birds, and mammals. They provide food to animals yet are dependent on those animals for reproduction, dispersal, and survival. One native plant may provide food to a native insect, which in turn pollinates a second plant and so on. However, what this means is that removing just one link in the chain can have consequences for countless other species. For instance, the last Xerces Blue Butterfly fluttered across Lobos Creek Valley in the 1940s, most likely because of the loss of its native host plants.
At the Presidio
There are 13 different ecological habitats in the park supporting 300 native plant species from the California poppy, the state flower, to the tiniest wildflowers like the barely visible pygmy weed, whose fully bloomed flowers are no bigger than a fingernail. On a short walk through the Presidio a visitor might pass through a sun-dappled cypress grove, see a charming neighborhood garden, or pause to enjoy a sand dune covered with wildflowers.
Sixteen of the Presidio’s native plant species are rare plants, including five endangered species. Two of these endangered species, the Presidio clarkia (named for the Presidio and William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame) and the San Francisco Lessingia, are found in only two spots in the world, with the Presidio being the type locality, or the first place a species was found.
A third plant wonder of the Presidio, the Franciscan Manzanita, was thought to be extinct in the wild until it was discovered in 2009 along the Doyle Drive corridor by a passing biologist. The find was surprising not only because the Manzanita had been thought to be extinct in nature for 70 years, but also because there was no previous record of it in the Presidio. The plant, a large, sprawling shrub, has since been transplanted to a protected location with the ultimate goal of reintroducing it into the wild and reestablishing a diverse population in a variety of locations to help ensure the species’ survival.
“We have a chance to rewrite the last page of a million year old story and to keep this story alive,” says Dan Gluesenkamp, the biologist who discovered the plant. “It’s extremely exciting.”
The Franciscan Manzanita was last seen in the city for which it was named in the late 1930’s at the Laurel Hill cemetery, near what is now the University of San Francisco campus. That particular plant was preserved in gardens by local botanists, but was lost to the wild when the cemetery was bulldozed to make way for residential development.
The Manzanita is one of several plants discovered by Presidio staff in recent years:
- Smooth Owl’s Clover - the bright yellow flower had not been seen in the Presidio in 92 years when it was found poking through the soil near Fort Scott in April 2009.
- Chinese Caps - not seen in the Presidio since 1936, it was presumed to be extinct in the park until it was found on the coastal bluffs in 2009
- Sticky Cinquefoil - found in the landscape behind the Golden Gate Club in 2008, records show it had been seen in the Presidio in 1999 and 2001 as well. Prior to 1999 it had not been seen in the Presidio since 1894.
- Baby Blue Eyes - like Chinese Caps, it was presumed extinct in the Presidio until 2009, when it was seen for just the second time in 118 years. Records indicate it disappeared from the park from 1891-1980.
Native plants are an important part of the cultural history of San Francisco. The city was originally named Yerba Buena after a native mint that still grows in the Presidio. Members of the Ohlone and Miwok tribes, who were among the first to populate the pre-urban Bay Area, would have eaten native plants every day and been able to identify their medicinal properties. When the Gold Rush came to San Francisco, many pioneers turned to miner’s lettuce for sustenance. Today, people don’t have to rely on native plants for food or medicine, but native plant communities tucked amongst the cityscape offer children a sense of place, a connection to the past, a glimpse into what their backyard originally looked like. The presence of plants assures encounters with birds, butterflies, and other wild creatures that spark the imagination and nourish the soul.