SAN FRANCISCO’S TOP 10 “LANDMARK TREES”
This is my own personal, 100% subjective list of San Francisco’s top 10 landmark trees. How do you know that a tree is a “landmark tree”? I’ll admit that I use the standard that Justice Potter Stewart famously used to identify hard-core pornography in a 1964 Supreme Court pornography case: he said “I know it when I see it”. Size matters, and the the visual impact that the tree makes is important. Rarity is also a plus - there are some trees that wouldn’t be on the list but for the fact that they’re so rare in San Francisco. And it helps to have a good story associated with the tree - something historical that connects the tree to its neighborhood or the fabric of the City. WIth that said (cue the drumroll…), here are my top 10, in reverse order, saving the best for last.
#10 FERN PINE - 15 BRONTE STREET IN BERNAL HEIGHTS This tree is likely the least well-known tree on the list, but it’s a fantastic tree - a huge example of its species, thriving on a narrow sidewalk on a street just off Cortland on the south side of Bernal Heights. Sometimes referred to as African fern pine, the scientific name of this tree is Afrocarpus gracilior. We don’t have many trees in San Francisco that are from Africa; this tree is native to higher elevation locations in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. For many years there were legends that the tree had been brought to America by members of a 1909 safari led by Theodore Roosevelt. However, academics (including San Francisco’s own Elizabeth McClintock) later determined that the tree was brought to Santa Barbara from Kenya in 1911 as seeds by Stewart Edward White (1873-1946), a prolific writer of travel and adventure books. (This may seem obscure, but you’ll appreciate that it’s not easy to fill up a paragraph about fern pines.) I visited this tree not long ago, and happened across a neighbor who’d lived on the street for many years, and grumbled that the tree, once small, was now ruining his views. I’m glad that he and his neighbors have tolerated this tree, which I’m declaring to be one of San Francisco’s top 10 trees.
#9 BRAZILIAN PEPPER TREE - 3RD STREET AND YOSEMITE IN THE BAYVIEW This tree is in the triangle median where 3rd and Yosemite intersect. I don’t think anyone knows much about the history of this tree, but it’s a giant of its species and has been officially landmarked by the City. Brazilian pepper trees (Schinus terebinthifolius) are native to southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. The tree has become an invasive pest in many subtropical areas; in southern Florida, it covers some 700,000 acres, and the tree cannot be legally sold or imported in Florida or Texas. The tree is in the Anacardiaceae family, the family that also brings us poison ivy and poison oak. Like their to-be-avoided relatives, Brazilian peppers have sap that can cause skin reactions in very sensitive people (though most of you will be OK).
#8 SWEET BAY - 555 BATTERY STREET IN THE FINANCIAL DISTRICT This is the classic laurel of antiquity, the symbol of victory and honor. We call it sweet bay, Italian bay or Grecian laurel - but botanists call it only one thing - Laurus nobilis. The Greek word for laurel is dhafni, after the nymph Daphne in Greek mythology. According to the myth, the gods helped Daphne escape Apollo’s attempted rape by turning her into a laurel tree. Apollo made the tree sacred, and it became a symbol of honor. The Greeks also began the tradition of crowning victors and distinguished persons with a wreath of laurel, from which we get the term laureate. This is also the traditional bay leaf used in cooking - not to be confused with our California bay (Umbellularia californica), which is native to the Bay Area but is much stronger as an herb. A native of the Mediterranean region sweet bay, is a good San Francisco street tree, embracing our own Mediterranean conditions (dry summers, wind, fog, sandy soil). This tree is San Francisco’s largest sweet bay, and it has a special location in front of the Beaux Arts U.S. Customs House at 555 Battery Street. It has also been given official landmark status by San Francisco.
#7 NORTHERN RATA AND TITOKI - DOUBLE NEW ZEALAND ON VALLEJO STREET Neither one of these trees would make this list on their own, but together they’re a “don’t miss” for tree lovers. They’re both extremely rare trees from New Zealand. Near the iron-gated Italianate Victorian home at 1772 Vallejo Street, you’ll find two very rare trees from New Zealand. To the left of the driveway at this address is a northern rata (Metrosideros robusta), a close relative of the much more common New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa). In the yard to the right is one of my favorite trees in all of San Francisco—a gorgeous and extremely rare titoki tree (Alectryon excelsus). Anyone walking past without much tree knowledge would just see a couple of green blurs, but these two make my list because of their size, rarity, and their origin (how did two such rare New Zealand trees end up here??). The northern rata (tree in the photo on the right) was nominated in 2018 to be an official City of San Francisco landmark tree. I happen to be on City’s Urban Forestry Council, which does the landmarking, and I voted “yes”, but my vote didn’t carry the day.
#6 SIX BLUE GUM EUCALYPTUS -1661 OCTAVIA STREET Mary Ellen Pleasant, an African American woman often called California’s “Mother of Civil Rights,” planted the row of six giant blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus) at 1661 Octavia Street, between Bush and Sutter Streets, in Pacific Heights. Though born a slave in 1817, she came to own a sprawling 30-room estate at this address, which has been called the western terminus of the Underground Railway that ushered fugitive slaves to freedom in pre–Civil War times. Once freed herself, Pleasant spent many of her early years helping fugitive slaves escape the American South. Pursued by the law, she headed to gold rush San Francisco in 1852, where with her business acumen she parlayed an inheritance from her first husband into a small fortune. She used her wealth to continue supporting African American rights. In 1868, long before the civil rights battles of the next century, Pleasant brought a lawsuit against two San Francisco streetcar lines that had denied her the right to ride because of her race. Her suit ultimately went to the California Supreme Court, where she won the right for all African Americans to ride the streetcars. Later in life, Pleasant suffered tabloid-driven scandals and financial reverses. She died in San Francisco in 1904 and is buried in Tulocay Cemetery, north of the city, in the town of Napa. All that is left of her opulent mansion is the row of six giant blue gum eucalyptus she planted in front of her property on Octavia Street. There are larger blue gums in the city, but these trees make the list because of their historical significance. Set in the sidewalk amid these trees, a historical marker identifies these trees as something special—a part of San Francisco’s history.
#5 MORETON BAY FIG ON VALENCIA STREET, NEAR CESAR CHAVEZ The address of this tree is technically 3555 Cesar Chavez Street, but the location is around the corner on Valencia Street. It’s a giant Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). This tree was planted during the time of Hubert Howe Bancroft, who amassed the famous Bancroft Library of books on the history of California that was located here from 1881 until 1906, when the library was purchased by the University of California and removed the following year to its Berkeley campus. There is a historical marker about the library near the tree, to the right as you face it. Moreton Bay fig is a rare tree in San Francisco (it is much more common in southern California, where there are even larger specimens in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego), and it’s by far the largest specimen of the species in the City. The tree is getting on in years, and has lost some big limbs in recent years, but it’s still a mammoth tree. On March 24, 2008, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom added this tree to the City’s official landmark tree list.
#4 BUNYA BUNYA -201 VICENTE IN WEST PORTAL Bunya-bunya trees (Araucaria bidwillii) have a distinctive silhouette - the tree’s branches are spaced evenly along the trunk, giving the tree a symmetrical look. Bunya bunyas are closely related to Norfolk Island pines, monkey puzzle trees, and other southern hemisphere members of the ancient Araucaria genus, all of which share a certain reptilian symmetrical look. The tree is native to the Bunya mountains of Queensland in northeastern Australia. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the bunya-bunya is its football-sized female cone, which looks something like a pineapple and can weigh 10–15 pounds (the record is held by a 17-pounder). The cones, which set every three years, are produced high in the tree’s canopy and can cause serious injury when they fall. An entire grove of bunya-bunyas was removed from a park in Fisherman’s Wharf after a 16-pound cone fell on a man, causing serious injury. You’re safe under this tree in West Portal - it must be a male specimen, as I’ve never know it to have the large female cones. So what boosts this tree to #?? It’s a large, spectacular example of a rare and interesting tree, and I’m giving it some extra credit for its location - how did this tree end up in a front yard in West Portal?
#3 NEW ZEALAND CHRISTMAS TREE AT STANYAN/17TH The large, mature tree at 1221 Stanyan Street, near 17th, is a New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsus) - one of San Francisco’s most common trees, popular for its showy red bottlebrush flowers. And indeed all of the many hundreds of New Zealand Christmas trees on the City’s streets have red flowers - except for this one. Every June, this tree pops with spectacular yellow flowers. The reason why brings us to some interesting history that helps elevate the tree to its near-the-top ranking on this list. The story goes back to Victor Reiter, San Francisco’s most famous plantsman from the 1940s until his death in 1986. In 1940, there was a natural mutation of the species on tiny Motiti Island in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. Reiter was one of the first Californians to obtain a cutting of the yellow-flowering mutant. As the Reiter family lived in several homes in a three-block wstretch of Stanyan Street, they planted the curiosity in front of their 1221 Stanyan address - still occupied today by a family member. And 75 years later, the tree is still thriving, a giant specimen that has been lovingly cared for by the Reiter family, and which recently received landmark tree status by the City. It’s a beautiful mutant with an amazing history and pedigree.
#2 CALIFORNIA BUCKEYE TREE AT MCALLISTER/WILLARD STREET NORTH California buckeye trees (Aesculus californica) are San Francisco natives, existing within the current city limits before the arrival of Europeans. It’s one California’ most beautiful native trees, growing to 20 feet in height in the state’s coastal range and Sierra foothills. The tree produces showy, long-lasting clusters of white flowers in May and June. By far the largest California Buckeye in the City is at 2694 McAllister Street, near the University of San Francisco. The tree was scheduled for removal in 1999 in connection with new construction on the lot, but after a neighborhood outcry, plans for the house were changed to build around, and preserve, the tree. As part of the settlement, the property owner signed a tree easement in favor of Friends of the Urban Forest, proteting the tree from future removal - and making this the only tree in the city protected by a contract.
#1 MONTEREY CYPRESS AT MCLAREN LODGE This tree had to be #1! Probably the best known tree in San Francisco, the massive Monterey cypress tree in front of McLaren Lodge (headquarters of the City’s parks department) was planted around 1880, when Golden Gate Park was run by William Hammond Hall, who started the effort to plant thousands of trees to create a park out of what had been sand dunes. Each year during the holidays, the tree is lit with Christmas lights, a tradition that dates back to Hammond Hall’s sucessor, John McLaren, a brilliant botanist who took over the park in 1990, and continued experimenting to find trees that would succeed in the park’s challenging climate and sandy soil. In 1929, McLaren had the tree (and, in those days, other trees along Fell Street) lit for the holidays to cheer up City residents then enduring the Great Depression. On his death bed, McLaren supposedly requested that the tree lighting tradition be continued. His wish was granted, and 90 years later the tree has become the official Christmas tree of San Francisco. It’s not surprising that a Monterey cypress would thrive on former sand dunes - the tree is native to coastal Central California, where similar conditions exist. However, only two native stands of Monterey cypress exist. One is at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (3 miles south of Carmel), and one is in Pebble Beach. This limited natural range is the smallest of any tree in California.