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Surprising Discoveries from the Carport

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Through our new virtual programming series, Nature in your Neighborhood, we challenged volunteers to go out into their neighborhoods or backyards to see what plants sparked their interest. Whether plants are native or non native, we can all appreciate a connection to nature and the curiosity that it can spark!

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 pi