By: Kristen Adams
Like many apartment dwellers in San Francisco, my partner and I sadly haven’t had the luxury of a backyard during the shelter-in-place order. However, out of curiosity I looked out our back window and was surprised just how many volunteer plants were popping up from the brick retainer wall surrounding our concrete carport. So, I went downstairs to investigate and these were a few of my discoveries.
One of the first things I noticed peeking out from a mess of grasses and vines were the brilliant orange flowers of the Garden Nasturtium, or Tropaeolum majus. The Garden Nasturtium is an annual herb that I was surprised to find out is not native to California, but originates in the Andes, growing from Bolivia north to Columbia. Aside from the roots, all parts of this plant
are edible, and the leaves are said to have a subtle peppery flavor which make a delicious addition to any salad. What’s even more surprising is the nutritional value of the flowers, which contain about 130mg of vitamin C per 3.5 oz. as well as vitamins B1, B2, B3, magnesium, iron and calcium. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to avoid scurvy, just look around for your nearest nasturtium flowers! Fun fact: Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named this plant Tropaeolum majus because it reminded him of the ancient Greek custom
of raising a trophy pole (in Greek: tropaeum) outfitted with the armor and weapons of the conquered enemy. It is said that the round leaves of the Nasturtium reminded Linnaeus of shields, and the flowers blood-stained helmets.
The next thing that caught my eye were long clusters of dark purple berries and bright reddish-pink flowers reaching for the top of our neighbor’s fence, which looked rather alien in our little brick wall landscape. Turns out this plant is called Pokeweed, or Phytolacca. There are several varieties of Phytolacca which are native to South America, East Asia, and North America, but not California. It’s a perennial herb, so it keeps coming back every year, and to my surprise I discovered that it is incredibly poisonous. All parts of the plant are toxic and pose a health risk to humans and mammals, but apparently not birds. The seeds of the Pokeweed berry have a hard shell that passes through the bird’s digestive system intact, which likely accounts for how this plant spreads. According to some (dubious) internet sources, these berries can be "properly prepared" as both food and medicine to treat a variety of internal and external maladies. Several sources also said to avoid even touching this plant, so best to approach with caution! We do know that the berries, when safely handled, can be used to make a bright pink ink and dye - which likely accounts for this plant’s alternate name: the Inkberry.
Tucked in between the Nasturtiums and Pokeweeds was also some Latin American Fleabane,
Sow Thistle, a cluster of ivy, possibly some type of bamboo, as well as a variety of grasses.
Unfortunately, none of the plants I observed in our “yard” were native to the area. In fact, after taking a walk around the Outer Richmond/Seacliff neighborhood I was surprised to find how few plants I observed growing wild were actually native to this region. I think maybe two out of twelve plants I observed were native, and those were Coyote Bush and California Buckwheat
which I believe were part of the Lobos Creek dune restoration project. Having gone out
plant-hunting in a romantic attempt to forge a connection with native plants growing wild in my backyard, I was honestly left a little disappointed. I recently watched an inspiring documentary named “Call of the Forest” with botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger which got me thinking a lot more about biodiversity, native plant species, and what effect we can have on our local ecosystems. In this film Beresford-Kroeger proposes a simple strategy for each of us to combat climate change by planting one native tree in our own yards and neighborhoods every year for six years. While I don’t necessarily have the space to plant any native trees in our carport, after doing this research I’m definitely thinking more about how I can contribute to enhancing the native biodiversity of my neighborhood. Who knows, maybe next spring I’ll secretly sprinkle some native plant seeds in the cracks in the wall surrounding our carport and see what happens!
Calflora: Information on California plants for education, research and conservation, with data
contributed by public and private institutions and individuals https://www.calflora.org/
CalScape: Comprehensive database for native plant gardening with filters to apply by location,
type of plant, habitat value, etc. https://calscape.org/
iNaturalist: Helps you identify the plants and animals around you using your phone’s camera. By recording and sharing your observations, you’ll create research quality data for scientists
working to better understand and protect nature. iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. https://www.inaturalist.org
The University and Jepson Herbaria: The University Herbarium (UC) and Jepson Herbarium
(JEPS) have a current combined total of about 2,200,000 preserved specimens that are
irreplaceable physical records of biodiversity. https://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/uc/
Wikipedia: an online free-content encyclopedia project that aims to help create a world in which everyone can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. https://en.wikipedia.org