If you ask him, Mike Sullivan could spend hours narrating the life story of many San Francisco trees, complete with historical insights and funny incidents, with great botanical specificity.
The story behind a carved statue made from a dead tree in Cole Valley, a 16-pound cone that fell on a man’s head from a bunya-bunya tree, the history behind McLaren Lodge’s Monterey cypress tree — Sullivan knows them all.
“I am just a sponge for everything that is related to trees,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan has worked as a lawyer at Orrick, a San Francisco-based international law firm in the Financial District, for four years, and at law firms like Cooley LLP, Howard Rice and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman since 1984. He was honored in 2015 as a Northern California Super Lawyer.
As impressive as those credentials are, however, what he calls his “tree-credentials” are even more impressive.
Sullivan was a Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) board member for 12 years, is a member of the City’s Urban Forestry Commission, wrote a book called “The trees of San Francisco,” published in 2003, and has shared his knowledge and love of the city’s trees on his 10-year-old personal blog.
“It’s an opportunity to combine my environmental feelings with my love for San Francisco,” said Sullivan, who added he moved to the City in 1984 after being instantly attracted by the trees.
Sullivan calls himself an aficionado rather than an expert, since he does not hold a botanical degree.
“He has an extensive and encyclopedic knowledge of trees in San Francisco. He can easily compete with the best,” said Dan Flanagan, Friends of the Urban Forest’s executive director and a close friend.
Sullivan has been giving walking tours starting at the Transit Center from 10 a.m to 12 p.m with the Friends of the Urban Forest for 12 years. Sunday’s tour is already full.
Sullivan said his passion for trees grew when he volunteered with the FUF and planted trees every Saturday morning throughout the City in the late 90s.
When the Salesforce Transit Center reopened to the public on July 1, he published an extensive 30-minute walking-tour video of Salesforce Park, a 5.4 acre botanical garden and arboretum with more than 600 trees on top of the Salesforce Transit Center.
“People do not realize how amazing it is. It is the best collection of trees and plants in the City after the San Francisco Botanical Garden,” said Sullivan.
About three or four months ago, he published a list of “San Francisco’s Top 10 landmark trees,” a guide to noteworthy trees throughout the City.
The New Zealand Christmas tree at 1221 Stanyan St. (ranked #3), in Cole Valley, is Sullivan’s personal favorite because it is the only one to blossom yellow, while the 1,000 others in San Francisco display red flowers.
Sullivan also had a personal story about the California buckeye tree at 2694 McAllister St. (#2 on the list), in the Inner Richmond district, where he said a former law firm he worked at signed the first easement on a tree to help keep it from being uprooted for condo development in the 2000s.
Starting at 555 Battery St., where the sweet bay tree at #9 on Sullivan’s top 10 list is located, and finishing at the corner of Yosemite Avenue and Third Street, where the Brazilian peppertree that comes in at #10 is rooted, a walking-tour would take almost six hours.
Flanagan said he agreed with eight of the trees on the list.
“But I would not get into a conversation. He would obliterate my opinion,” he joked.
Sullivan said most of San Francisco’s trees are from Australia, New Zealand or China, because they have to sustain tough conditions like sandy soil, harsh wind and a lack of rain during summer.
“You need a unique set of trees to handle these types of conditions,” said Sullivan.
Climate change may soon endanger those trees, however. Sullivan said the City could lose its chilly and windy aspects and come to resemble to Southern California in 50 years.
“If you plant a tree that would survive 100 years, you want it to survive in a climate that we are going to have in 100 years,” said Sullivan.
You can find his blog at www.sftrees.com