I’ve put a walking tour of the Salesforce Park up on youtube - you can find it here (or just search youtube for “Salesforce Park Walking Tour”). It’s an iPhone video - in the tour, i walk around the park’s 4 block loop, identifying trees and plants as I go. If you prefer a tour where you can see the names of the trees, you can find that one here on this website: if you’re on a desktop or laptop, just click the link above titled “Salesforce Park Walking Tour”; if you’re on a smart phone, click the navigation link at the top of your screen, and choose the link by the same name.
[NOTE: if you’re trying to find the Salesforce Park Tour, click above to navigate to “Salesforce Park Walking Tour”.]
I read an article in this month’s Bay Nature about an app that can help identify plants. I’ve tried these apps before, and always found them useless, so I was skeptical. But the article made this one sound promising, so I decided to give it a try. The app is called “Seek”, and it’s a joint project of the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic. Here’s my report: THIS APP IS AMAZING - IT REALLY WORKS! You just give the app access to your camera, and then when you find a plant that you’re curious about, you tap the camera icon on the app and point it at the plant (hint - it’s best when you point the camera at the flowers of the plant, but I’ve seen it work from foliage and seeds also). Sometimes the app will just give you a genus, and not drill down to a specific species, but most of the time it will get you right to the species. And very helpfully, it then gives you a link to the Wikipedia page about the plant or tree.
Seek isn’t perfect, but I’d say that it works 80% of the time, which is far better than anything I’d ever seen. I’ve tried it on plants that i know, just to test it. I’ve also tried it on plants that I don’t know, gotten the results, and then looked up images on the web to confirm its accuracy. The app does make occasional mistakes, but they’re rare.
I know a fair amount about trees, but a lot less about other plants. This app is starting to change that!
The app is free - it’s called “Seek by Inaturalist” - just go to the app store on you iPhone or Android device, and download. I’ve also tried an app called “Pl@ntnet, which is also pretty good (I have actually downloaded Pl@ntnet also, as a backup to Seek, but I use Seek 90% of the time).
It’s nice to see that machine learning is finally getting to the point where these plant ID apps really work. I’m sure that they will keep getting better - something to look forward to :)
This small island in Lake Maggiore has been owned (together with several other nearby small islands) by the Borromeo family for 500 years. Virtually the entirety of Isola Madre is a botanical garden.
The most impressive tree on this island is a Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana). It was planted from seed in 1862, and grew to be an immense tree-the symbol of this garden. The tree was uprooted in a tornado in 2006 (photo below of the tree below showing it lying on its side after the tornado), but the Borromeo family used extraordinary efforts to save it - a helicopter and cables to right the tree, special chemicals to limit the perspiration of water from the leaves, and constant watering for several years. The tree is still cabled, as you can see from the photo below.
The island has a beautiful palm garden with over 10 species of palm, including Chilean wine palms, Butia capitata, and others that were beyond my palm abilities :) Coming from San Francisco, where ginkgos often don’t thrive, it was nice to see that one of the biggest specimen trees on the island was a giant Ginkgo biloba.
Today we visited Villa Melzi - a beautiful estate and garden created by Francesco Melzi d’Eril, count of Lodi and Vice president of the First Italian Republic in the time of Napoleon. He decided around 1800 to build a summer residence at Bellagio on Lake Como.
Melzi had a strong interest in botany, and European botanists at that time were very interested in “exotic“ trees, including many from North America. Europe is missing many species and genera that exist in Asia and North America (in Europe they were wiped out by the Ice Age, as their retreat trees had nowhere to retreat to the south was blocked by the Alps and the Pyrenees). So while the garden has many beautiful, huge European oaks, beech and pine species and cultivars, it also has Melzi’s “exotics” - tulip trees, Chilean wine palms, various pines from Mexico, and one of the largest deodar cedars I have ever seen (in the photo below, look for the human being in the photo to see how large it is).
The most famous trees in the garden are the London planes in a long allée on the border of the lake.
I recommend a visit for tree-lovers!
I’m lucky to be visiting Italy’s Lake Como for a week. Just south of the Alps, 10 miles from Switzerland open but as a semi tropical climate. One of the reasons we decided to visit was the multitude of amazing gardens in this region. Our first visit was to Villa Carlotta - a gorgeous Chilean wine palm has clearly survived many winters here. Gigantic tulip trees, European sycamores (Platanus orientalis), some pretty coral trees (Erythrina sp.) and gorgeous gardens.
Two observations from Europe so far-European lindens (Tilia x europaea) are everywhere, and in bloom now with sweet perfume. These trees are a naturally occurring cross between bigleaf (Tilia platyphyllos) and littleleaf (Tilia cordata) lindens.
And second, the European beeches are amazing here in their native region! The tree in the photo below I thought was amazing ports long, straight trunk.
I’m often asked about my favorite tree. Not the type of tree I love most, but my favorite individual tree in the entire city. This tree, at 1221 Stanyan Street in Cole Valley, is my personal number one.
For starters, the tree is one of the city’s best specimens of New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa), popular for its showy red bottlebrush flowers. And, indeed, all of the many hundreds of New Zealand Christmas trees on San Francisco’s streets have red flowers, except for one—at 1221 Stanyan Street. Every June, that tree pops with spectacular yellow flowers. And it’s at its peak right now, as I write this post on June 23 (almost six months from Christmas in New Zealand).
How did this tree end up with yellow flowers? The story goes back to Victor Reiter, San Francisco’s most famous plantsman from the 1940s until his death in 1986. (See p. 73 in my Trees of San Francisco book for more on Reiter.) In 1940, there was a natural mutation of the species on tiny Motiti Island in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, and Reiter was one of the first Californians to obtain a cutting. As the Reiter family lived in several homes in a three-block stretch of Stanyan Street, they planted the curiosity in front of their 1221 Stanyan address—still occupied today by a family member. And more than 70 years later, the tree is thriving. It’s a beautiful mutant with an amazing history and pedigree—and my favorite tree in San Francisco.
[The paragraphs above are mostly copied from my book, so a few years old - but here’s a June 2019 postscript: I have a cousin who lives on the west side of Stanyan Street, and her back yard fronts onto the Reiter family garden. She took me into her back porch recently, and I saw another yellow specimen, even larger than the one at 1221 Stanyan, in the garden. There are other specimens of this variety of the tree (the scientific name of the yellow-blooming variety is Metrosideros excelsa ‘Aurea’) in off-street locations - there are a couple in the San Francisco Botanical Garden, at the entrance on the left; there are a couple near the entrance to Fort Mason - they alternate with red-blooming species, which is a cool effect, and I was recently informed that there are a few in Golden Gate Park near the horse stables. It would be nice if the nursery trade had more of them!]
In November 2016. San Francisco passed Proposition E (now referred to as “Street Tree SF”), which moved responsibility for tree sidewalk tree maintenance from homeowners to the City of San Francisco, and created a fund of approximately $20 million per year to pay for tree maintenance. Homeowners would no longer be responsible for pruning their trees, and would no longer have liability if the trees in front of their homes trees buckled sidewalks, or toppled onto neighbors’ cars or homes.
What many people didn’t realize when Street Tree SF passed, was that under the new regime, the City would also control what gets planted on City sidewalks. In the “old days”, most San Francisco street tree plantings happened through Friends of the Urban Forest. FUF guided homeowners to good choices for trees, and the City had a (short) list of prohibited trees, but the final decision was up to the homeowner. If he or she wanted a tree that was unique or unusual, or even a tree that was terrible choice for the location, he or she got what they wanted.
Under Street Tree SF, the City (actually, the Bureau of Urban Forestry of the Department of Public Works) has the final decision as to what trees get planted. FUF is continuing to do street tree plantings, and is continuing to handle most of the street tree plantings in the City, but the final decision now belongs to the City.
I will admit that I wondered if the change from homeowner-driven decisions to City control would change the mix of trees that get planted in San Francisco. If you change from a system where individual homeowners make the decision about what to plant (based on their own sometimes quirky reasons for what to put in the ground) to a system where a city department (even if it’s well-run and well-intentioned) makes the decisions, I wondered if we would end up with a lot less diversity in the mix of species that get planted.
So – I asked Friends of the Urban Forest to share data with me. I got a copy of the tree planting data from 2015 (a conventional year prior to Street Tree SF) and 2018 (the first full year after Street Tree SF, reflecting 100% City control over tree plantings). And I pored over the results, looking for any trends that might arise from the big change in who controls what gets planted in San Francisco.
Here is what I found.
A total of 1121 trees were planted in 2015, and 1481 trees in 2018. The total number of species planted actually increased from 74 species in 2015 to 75 in 2018.
The number of unique species (trees where only one or two trees were planted in a year) went down from 29 in 2015 to 22 in 2018, but the total species number stayed the same - and there were some very interesting trees that got planted in 2018 – 7 coast banksias, 5 lilly-pilly trees, and 24 gold medallion (Cassia leptophylla) trees, for example. So overall, we’re still seeing good species diversity in what is getting planted.
And the trees that were planted the most often in 2018 were trees that generally thrive in San Francisco - the #1 most planted tree was the small leaf tristania, #2 southern magnolia, #3 primrose tree, #4 brisbane box and #5 strawberry tree (Arbutus X marina). Not surprisingly, when experts make the decisions about plantings, the most commonly planted trees are good choices for our conditions and climate. (To contrast, in 2015, the top ranked trees were #1 southern magnolia, #2 small leaf tristania ,#3 strawberry tree, #4 olive and #5 peppermint willow.)
Interestingly, two trees that used to be hugely popular in San Francisco have basically dropped off the map. In the first edition of my Trees of San Francisco book in 2003, I got FUF data on the most commonly planted trees over the two decades from 1981 to 2001 – and the #1 and #2 most popular trees for those 20 yeras were the purple leaf plum and the flowering cherry. But in 2018 only 8 cherries were planted, and zero plum trees! Each tree lover will have his or her own point of view on that, but mine is that fewer plum trees is a good thing, especially if they’re replaced with species that will thrive, look good, and absorb more carbon than a plum.
The St. Francis Woods neighborhood has always had professionally managed street trees - when the neighborhood was laid out in the 1920s, the developer created a resident-funded homeowners association, and gave it control over the neighborhood’s street trees. The result has (usually) been beautiful and consistently cared for trees in the neighborhood.
So it was shocking to drive down Santa Clara Avenue and see dozens of eucalyptus trees topped so severely that not a leaf was left. It’s the worst example of pruning I’ve ever seen in San Francisco. I know that this neighborhood is unusual in the unusual local control it has had since the 1920s, but I have to believe that the city has the ability to levy fines for this abuse.
The Reiter family garden, wedged between Stanyan Street, Woodland Avenue and the Sutro Forest, was once a commercial nursery run by Victor Reiter, one of the founders of the California Horticultural Society and San Francisco‘s most famous grower, hybridizer and collector of plants and trees. The garden is still in the family’s hands, with two of Reiter’s children still residing on the west side of Stanyan Street. Reiter was a collector of unusual trees and plants, and many of his specimens are still thriving in the garden. The garden’s Campbell’s magnolia (a wedding present to Victor and his wife Carla from an English well wisher) is now in full bloom. Hoheria, firewheel tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus), lilly pilly (Syzygium smithii) , northern ratas - all trees that are rare or nonexistent on San Francisco’s streets, can still be found in the garden, hints of Victor Reiter’s hand, long after his death in 1986.
The garden is private, but you can catch a glimpse from the Sutro Forest trail that starts just a few feet above the corner of 17th and Stanyan streets - the garden is visible on the right after a short walk into the forest.
Hoheria populnea foliage
On Bush near Webster