Youtube video of Salesforce Park

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.

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Amazing app to ID trees and plants

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[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 :)

Lake Maggiore - Isola Madre

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.

Kashmir cypress

Kashmir cypress

The Kashmir cypress in 2006, after being uprooted in a tornado

The Kashmir cypress in 2006, after being uprooted in a tornado

Palm garden

Palm garden

Butia capitata (I think)

Butia capitata (I think)

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Ginkgo

Ginkgo

lake Como - Villa Melzi

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!

Chilean wine palms next to the Orangerie

Chilean wine palms next to the Orangerie

Three tulip trees - “exotic” to an early 19th century European

Three tulip trees - “exotic” to an early 19th century European

Deodar cedar (for perspective, notice the humans on the right)

Deodar cedar (for perspective, notice the humans on the right)

Lakeside allée of London planes

Lakeside allée of London planes

Pinus devoniana (native to Mexico-known as Pino blanco there)

Pinus devoniana (native to Mexico-known as Pino blanco there)

cork oak

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Lake Como - Villa Carlotta

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.

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Yellow New Zealand Christmas Tree in full bloom

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. 

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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!]

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St. Francis Wood massacre

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. 

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Victor Reiter garden in bloom

 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. 

Campbell’s Magnolia (Magnolia Campbellii ssp. mollicomata)

Campbell’s Magnolia (Magnolia Campbellii ssp. mollicomata)

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Hoheria populnea foliage

Lilly pilly (Syzygium smithii) fruit

Lilly pilly (Syzygium smithii) fruit