(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on January 17, 2015.)
Few of the drivers zipping along Highway 101 just south of San Francisco probably notice a large, hilly expanse west of the freeway, although it’s notable for what it doesn’t contain — buildings, cars and concrete.
As urbanization has destroyed most of the Franciscan bioregion — the unique area including San Francisco and the land directly south of it — San Bruno Mountain’s 3,400 acres are the largest, richest remaining open space and indigenous habitat for many endangered species.
“It’s hidden in full view,” notes San Francisco biologist Joe Cannon. “Most people don’t realize that there are trails, canyons and a lot going on there.”
One of the most important happenings on the mountain — much of it a state and county park — is a program to protect and restore its biodiversity, led by Cannon and scores of passionate volunteers via the environmental nonprofit, San Bruno Mountain Watch.
The centerpiece of this decade-long effort is Mission Blue Nursery in Brisbane, named for one of the mountain’s three endangered butterflies and perhaps the best place in the Bay Area to buy native plants — not generic natives but flora that is “locally adapted,” he says. “A lot of people don’t realize there’s a lot of variation in ecotypes,” with these natives thriving where some others might not like fog or heat or other elements of local microclimates.
Including many “hard to kill” natives, according to Cannon, the plants available from Mission Blue Nursery are just part of his program. Seeds for these plants are gathered on the mountain and propagated by volunteers, brigades of whom also perform weed removal to give the natives breathing room.
With the mountain surrounded by urbanization, non-native weeds are an ongoing problem, says Cannon. Volunteers dig out the nasty invasives seen all around the Bay Area like pampas grass, fennel, aster, mustard, the broom family and Himalayan blackberry.
His crew is engaged in “long-term sustainability, not just local gardening,” he reports. “The goal is to get the first few invasives and keep coming back and get a few each year. If you wait 10 years, you’ve lost the site.”
This stewardship effort depends upon people who care about protecting the mountain’s 13 rare and endangered plant species as well as the endangered butterflies that feed on them. The threatened-plant list includes the fuzzy-leaved, sweet-scented coast rock cress, which bears pretty, purple flowers; the rare San Francisco wallflower, whose linear leaves send up stems containing clusters of cream-colored flowers; and hyper-local Montara manzanita, a shrub with deep red stems and gorgeous, seasonal, cone-shaped flower clusters of pink and white.
“In some of these areas where we’ve gotten rid of the invasives, in spring, it can be really breathtaking,” explains South San Francisco resident Chuck Heimstadt, who has been a volunteer weed remover with wife Loretta Brooks for several years.
So ardent is the couple that they trudge onto the mountain with their weeding tools daily — far beyond the twice monthly volunteer schedule. “We figure we’re getting more exercise than when we were jogging because the mountain is so steep,” chuckles Heimstadt.
Armed with their favorite weeder, the hand mattock, he and Brooks have cleaned up acres of land on the mountain. Says Heimstadt: “If you weed around a little poppy plant, if it doesn’t have competition on all sides, it will grow to two feet in diameter. A giant plant. But if it’s surrounded with grasses, it’ll stay the size of a softball.”
Although their work is literally never done, the couple still finds satisfaction in this volunteer effort. “It keeps me going,” reveals Heimstadt. “I remember what some of these areas looked like before we started. One thing I wonder is if there will be people picking up when we leave off.”
Finding long-term volunteers is certainly an objective for the San Bruno Mountain Watch organization, which uses proceeds from plant sales to raise much-needed funds aimed at protecting the land from always-encroaching development.
Those who support the environment over profits would say the funds are sorely needed. Cannon explains how the circa-1973 Endangered Species Act has been systematically weakened by “politics” over the years. Now developers have various avenues to legally destroy wildlife habitat.
How this has played out on San Bruno Mountain can be seen in a housing development sprawling on the hill overlooking the nursery that was built on butterfly habitat. Today, the only sign of these colorful creatures is the streets named after the endangered butterfly species that were driven away.
Plant Sales at Mission Blue Nursery
Quarterly public sales take place in February, May, August and November. Plants purchases — including expert advice on how and where to plant — are available by appointment on Thursday through Saturday with a minimum order. Call 415-467-6631. For more information about the nursery and stewardship program of San Bruno Mountain Watch, visit http://www.mountainwatch.org/.