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The Natural Inhabitants of the Gateway to the Peninsula


The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone’s livelihoods in one way or another, resulting in a time when outdoor contact is limited to ensure the safety of others. For instance, as a second-year student at the University of San Francisco taking Pollination Biology, a course known for working labs in the field and volunteering for various organizations, the pandemic has drastically changed the dynamics of the class. Nevertheless, when I was introduced to Sutro Stewards’ “Nature in Your Neighborhood” program during one of our Zoom sessions, I saw an opportunity to learn more about and connect with my natural surroundings. Even though I attend school in San Francisco, I have lived in Daly City for my entire life, an area unfamiliar to most people. Though the two cities are fairly close to each other and are similar in some ways such as weather, I find the environment much tamer here in Daly City compared to the bustling city of San Francisco. Because of these subtle differences in atmosphere, I wondered whether or not the local fauna in Daly City would be different than the plants commonly found in San Francisco. Thus, for my project for Sutro Stewards, I decided to identify and research plants within my area.

My Neighborhood

To start, I first explored my neighborhood for any notable plants and flowers. My immediate area is filled with roads and houses, along with a nursing home for the elderly and a church nearby, leaving relatively little room for plant growth. However, there is surprisingly a wide variety of plants outside each household. Although I found many unique species of bushes and flowers throughout people’s front yards and around various buildings, the following are the ones I thought were interesting and common to the immediate area.

Blue Lily (Agapanthus praecox)

The blue lily was one of the first flowers that caught my eye due to its vibrant blue color. A. praecox is a perennial that is nonnative to California; it is native to South Africa, primarily the Western and Southern Capes. A. praecox is botanically divided into 3 subspecies based on their native origin and characteristics: subsp. Minimus, subsp. Orientalis, and subsp. Praecox. The one I found is likely subsp. Orientalis, which originates from the Eastern Cape and the southern KwaZulu-Natal region. Also known as the “African lily” or “lily of the Nile”, it consists of evergreen leaves and tubular flowers with 6 petals each that typically bloom from around summer to fall. They grow to about 1m tall and attract pollinators such as hummingbirds and bees, but are slightly toxic when ingested (likely to dissuade predators), which can result in mouth ulcers and/or burning sensation. The plant is extremely durable; it can live for more than 7 decades and can grow within a wide temperature range (about 0°C - 40°C) and in most types of soil.

Because of the blue lily’s durability and ease of growing, it is primarily used as an ornamental plant that can also provide soil stabilization. However, A. praecox has the potential to have pharmaceutical uses. Some African tribes, aside from using the plant for its magical properties as a love charm or to ward off thunder, utilized the blue lily to treat people with heart diseases, coughs, and chest pains. This is because A. praecox contains saponins and sapogenins that have anti-inflammatory, anti-edema (reduce swelling due to accumulation of fluid), antitussive (relieve coughing), and immunoregulatory properties. However, more studies need to be performed to analyze the true pharmaceutical effects of the plant.

Blue Blossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

When walking around my neighborhood, I noticed several blue blossom shrubs. To my surprise, blue blossoms, or C. thyrsiflorus, are native to both Oregon and California. These evergreen shrubs can grow up to 30 feet tall, but can also only be about 2-3 feet tall. Blue blossom’s most distinguishing factor is its flowers, which are individually really small, have a vibrant blue color, are dotted with yellow stamens, and bloom in either winter or spring. The flowers grow in puffy clusters that cover the whole shrub, which makes sense given the plant’s common name. C. thyrsiflorus typically grows in California’s chaparral habitats, as the plant can tolerate rocky/sandy soils and drought-like conditions. But, it can also grow in damper, shadier areas as well.

Blue blossoms attract a wide variety of pollinators, including bees, moths, butterflies. After blooming and providing pollen, the flowers mature into a dry, 3-lobed seed capsule, which serves as an important food source for small mammals and birds. The shrub itself is also essential, serving as a habitat for small animals. C. thyrsiflorus, however, is vulnerable to scale insects, honey fungus, and phytophthora root disease (caused by the pathogen Phytophthora sojae, resulting in root and stem rot).

New Zealand Hebe (Veronica speciosa)

I also found that New Zealand hebes were a common occurrence in my neighborhood. Just like its common name suggests, V. speciosa is native to New Zealand and is named after the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe. On average, this evergreen shrub grows 2-3 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide, but can be only a foot tall or can grow over 6 feet tall. Its spiked flowers, which can range from being pink to purple, contain two long protruding stamens, which resemble whiskers. They typically bloom in summer or autumn and serve as an important source of nectar. Though I didn’t personally see any pollinators nearby, these flowers are attractive to butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.

In California, New Zealand hebes are typically grown as ornamental plants. Since V. speciosa is native to New Zealand, which typically has a cooler climate, they thrive in cooler temperatures一perfect for the usually fog-filled Daly City! For people looking for plants to grow in their gardens, the New Zealand hebe is an excellent choice, as it requires little maintenance: it can grow in a wide range of temperatures/conditions, doesn’t require a lot of pruning or fertilizer, and is resistant to many pests and diseases.

The Trip to San Bruno Mountain

As you can probably tell, there are few native plants around my neighborhood, likely due to the urbanization of the area. It mostly consists of non-native, ornamental plants. As a result, I decided to look around San Bruno Mountain, a naturally conserved area, which makes it a good representation of Daly City’s native life not affected by urbanization. Thus, I went to a trail near Brisbane in hopes of finding more native plants. Though I only walked around for a few hours, I was surprised to find so many in a relatively small section of San Bruno Mountain. The following plants are ones I saw during my trip and thought would be interesting to delve into a bit more.

Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae)

The Bermuda buttercup was one of the first plants I saw on the trail and the only plant I found during that trip that also appeared in my neighborhood (for a not-so-good reason!). O. pes-caprae is an invasive species originally from South Africa that was brought to California in the early 1900s to be grown as an ornamental. Unfortunately, this low-growing perennial quickly took over California’s coastal habitats because of its propagation mechanism. Invasive O. pes-caprae reproduces through growing taproots containing numerous underground bulbs. Subsequently, when people try to pull these weeds out of the soil, many bulbs inevitably remain to sprout into new Bermuda buttercups, making the species very hard to control. As a result, O. pes-caprae crowds out native flowers for light and space preventing other plants from gaining a foothold in the land. It is so widespread in California that organizations are currently choosing to focus on limiting the growth of other invasive species instead.

The flowers of the Bermuda buttercup typically bloom in the late winter or spring. Although O. pes-caprae is edible, its flowers contain a significant amount of oxalic acid, which is representative of the “Oxalis'' part of its scientific name. This oxalic acid results in the plant having a sour, acidic taste. Thus, animals will usually leave with disgust after a taste; however, if an animal eats Bermuda buttercups in large quantities, it becomes toxic and fatal to the animal. Lastly, the “pes-caprae” part means “goat’s foot”, which depicts the shape of its leaves.

Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis)

Though Bermuda buttercups were present in large quantities, I saw even more coyote brushes during my trip to San Bruno Mountain. B. pilularis is a native, perennial evergreen shrub that is generally 1-3 meters tall that has leaves that are 8-55 millimeters long and white/yellow flowers at the tips of its branches which bloom during late autumn or in the winter. These flowers provide food to many species of bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies. The woody shrub itself also provides a substantial amount of cover for many insect species. B. pilularis is dioecious, so each plant either bears male flowers or female flowers only.

Interestingly, early Californians used the coyote brush for medicinal purposes. They either heated the leaves and applied them to swellings for relief or boiled tea from the leaves to treat remedies such as stomach issues. They also used the branches for building arrow shafts and construction materials. Today, coyote brushes are used primarily for ornamental use, landscaping, and land restoration projects. For instance, brushes can be grown near creeks to control erosion. Though the plant requires a good amount of sunlight, it tolerates drought-like conditions and poor soil, is fire-resistant, and doesn’t require much water, making it fairly easy to take care of.

Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)

While exploring the ground level of the trail (and constantly walking past coyote brushes), I came across some poison oak without realizing it (until I identified the plant using iNaturalist!). It can either grow as a dense shrub or as a vine that can climb up bigger shrubs or trees. Occasionally, it can also bear clusters of berries and white flowers that bloom in the spring. The reason T. diversilobum is “poisonous” is that the leaves of the plant contain a surface oil called urushiol. When urushiol comes in contact with the skin, an allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) occurs, resulting in skin blistering, irritation, rash, and/or itchiness. This same adverse reaction can also be caused in the lungs if the plant is burned and the smoke is inhaled.

Although we typically associate poison oak with being extremely dangerous, it is an important plant that provides many benefits to both humans and the ecosystem. For instance, Native Americans used the root and stem to make baskets and the leaves to treat rattlesnake bites. Today, we use poison oak in habitat restoration projects, using it as a nurse plant for other species after an area has been burned. Additionally, many indigenous animals are immune to the adverse effects of poison oak and can take advantage of the plant for their survival. For instance, species such as black-tailed deer and California ground squirrels can eat the leaves of poison oak, which serve as a rich source of phosphorus, calcium, and sulfur. In addition, several bird species utilize its berries for food and the poison oak itself for shelter. Its flowers also provide a source of nectar for pollinators such as bees and beetles. Lastly, because poison oak is native to California, it can limit the spread of invasive species by competing with them for resources.

California Golden Violet (Viola pedunculata)

After surveying the trail at the ground level, I decided to follow a road up the hills of the trail to see if anything interesting popped up as I traveled higher in elevation. Though a strong wind was constantly blasting through my entire body, I continued trekking onwards and found several beautiful species of flowers scattering along the hillside, appearing akin to a sort of “secret haven”. One of these species was the California golden violet or yellow pansy, notable for its 5-petaled bright yellow flowers which bloom in the Spring and its heart-shaped leaves. V. pedunculata is usually low-growing, as I personally saw, but can grow up to 40 centimeters tall. This native perennial herb prefers to grow in rich soils and is generally found on open, grassy slopes or chaparral.

The California golden violet is especially important to many species of Fritillary butterflies, many of which are considered endangered. The leaves of the plant provide food for the caterpillars, while the flowers provide a source of nectar once those caterpillars turn into butterflies. In addition, the butterflies may lay their eggs on the ground surrounding V. pedunculata, thus serving as a shelter for the Fritillary butterflies. Lastly, the leaves and flowers of V. pedunculata are edible to humans; both can be eaten raw or cooked. A tea can also be made using its leaves. However, large amounts of the flower can lead to diarrhea.

Silver Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

Another native plant I witnessed in abundance was the silver lupine. Growing 2-5 feet tall, this evergreen perennial shrub is distinguished by its silver, feathery leaves and long stalks bearing clusters of pea-shaped flowers (colors ranging from blue to purple) that bloom in the spring or early summer. Its flowers attract a wide range of pollinator species, especially butterflies and bees. One such pollinator is the mission blue butterfly (Icaricia icarioides missionensis), an endangered species native to the San Francisco Bay Area, with San Bruno Mountain being one of the few locations where this species can still be found (although I didn’t see them during my visit). The mission blue butterfly requires certain species of lupines such as L. albifrons to survive because their stems, leaves, flowers, and seed pods provide a location for the butterflies to lay their eggs. Once they hatch, the caterpillars only eat the lupine leaves, making lupines the only food source for the species. Thus, preservation of the silver lupine is essential in making sure Icaricia icarioides missionensis doesn’t go extinct.

L. albifrons are fairly resistant to predators because the plant contains anagyrine and lupinine, which are bitter-tasting alkaloid toxins that deter predators. Interestingly, when the mission blue butterflies feed on the silver lupine, they gain the plant’s toxic properties. This makes the butterflies bitter-tasting themselves, which also helps them deter predators.

Blue Dicks (Dipterostemon capitatus)

Because of the similar flower color that blue dicks had with the silver lupine, I initially thought I was observing the same plant species, but they are very different plants! D. capitatus, a perennial native to California, grows to about 2-3 feet tall and consists of twisty fleshy stems with clusters of purple-blue or white flowers at the ends. Each cluster typically contains 2-15 individual flowers, with each of them containing 6 fertile stamens. The flowers bloom between March and June and attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Besides supporting pollinators with its flowers, blue dicks act as an important food source. D. capitatus grows from underground corms, which are specialized underground stems that act as a durable storage organ for various species of plants, allowing them to survive environmental stresses such as droughts and heat. Numerous cormlets are attached around the base of the “parent corm”, all of which are rich in carbohydrates. As a result, many herbivores, such as black bears, pocket gophers, and deer utilize the corms of the blue dicks as an invaluable source of food. As such organisms eat the corms, numerous cormlets inevitably become detached and land in other places, thus being capable of growing into another plant. The corms of blue dicks also served as an important starch source for early indigenous tribes, possibly being more important than acorns. For instance, Native Americans treated the blue dicks as a crop, harvesting them with long digging sticks and eating the corms either raw or cooked.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Last but not least is the California poppy. It was first discovered in 1816 by Adelbert von Chamisso, a German botanist on board the Russian expedition ship Rurick. He named the plant after another German botanist/surgeon who was also on the ship, Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, hence the scientific name Eschscholzia californica. This native flower is particularly special because it has been the official state flower for California ever since 1903, which is fitting; after all, its bright orange/yellow color perfectly represents California as the “Golden State”. E. californica grows up to 2 feet tall and is either perennial when growing in mild climates or annual when growing in harsher climates. The plant’s orange/yellow cup-shaped flowers each consist of 4 petals which bloom from February to September. California poppies demonstrate nyctinastic behavior; responding to environmental stimuli such as temperature or light intensity, the flowers open up during the day and close when it is nighttime, windy, or cloudy. The poppies I observed appeared to be somewhat closed, which makes sense considering it was very windy when I was at the trail. Like the other native flowers, E. californica attracts many pollinators, such as various species of bees, butterflies, and moths.

Besides being cultivated as a garden plant because of their ease of care and their beauty, California poppies have potential medical uses. Native Americans used the plant to treat toothaches, stomach aches, headaches, and to help their children go to sleep. E. californica exhibits these sedative and analgesic properties because of the presence of naturally occurring alkaloids, producing an effect similar to the opium poppy, but are much milder and non-addictive (it contains no opiates). As a result, California poppies have the potential to treat pain, anxiety, or insomnia; in fact, liquid extracts of the poppy are currently sold as supplements for their sedative properties. However, its medicinal features still require more testing and research to confirm its effectiveness and safety.

Concluding Thoughts

Those are all the plants from Daly City that I have to share with all of you! Although there are some problematic invasive species and nonnative species, there are luckily still many species of native plants in Daly City, especially in the areas that are still naturally conserved. Though I didn’t see any pollinators during my trips, these plants support a wide variety of pollinators, especially bees and butterflies. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure the safety of naturally conserved areas to protect the mutualistic community between native plants and their pollinators. Ultimately, I am grateful to Sutro Stewards for allowing me to work on this project. Not only have I taken a deeper dive into knowing the plants within my area for the very first time, but I have also grown closer to my city by taking peaceful walks outside and appreciating the nature around me, which is something that many of us don’t take advantage of because the constant busyness that society promotes us to have. I hope that, through this project, people become more aware of the natural diversity and richness of Daly City, an area unfamiliar to many. With this information, we can start to draw connections between the plants found in Daly City with other native plants in different areas and identify similarities/variances in the types of plant species present. Though we are still living in a world affected by the pandemic, it is never too late to consider or start exploring your natural surroundings. You may never know what surprises you may find!

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