Nonindigenous plants won’t be uprooted

“Stopping San Francisco’s biggest land grab,” Sally Stephens, Dec. 4

The native plant garden and the eucalyptus forest do not need to cancel each other out. Sally Stephens, defender for the latter, and Jennifer Dever, proponent of the former, are both justified in supporting their causes.

Dever is correct in saying that in the late 19th-century eucalyptus was seen as a potentially profitable lumber source. If his 10,000 acres of western and southern San Francisco real estate didn’t sell, Adolph Sutro could always count on moving the timber that he planted on much of it. However, merchandising the trees was not the mining magnate’s primary goal. An avid amateur horticulturist — after one trip to his native Germany, he sent back 14 cases of seeds and plants — Sutro earnestly cared about trees. But he was also fully aware that real estate was a lot easier to sell when forested.

As Stephens rightly asserts, the late 19th-century inhabitants abhorred their stark, wind-roiled surrounds. The extent of the fanfare that surrounded the 1886 celebration of California’s first Arbor Day on Yerba Buena Island testifies to that. At that much-hyped event, a crowd of some 2,000 people, including Sutro, General O.O. Howard, the First Infantry Band, the Oakland Canoe Club, a doddering General Vallejo, the poet Joaquin Miller and a labor force of 700 school children, converged on the planting of pines and eucalyptus on Yerba Buena Island.

All over California, the eucalyptus — specifically, the easily grown Eucalyptus globulus — played a huge role in this 50-year forestation drive. Removing the vestiges of that landscape would be the horticultural equivalent of the architectural clearance of blocks of ornate Victorian residences when that period was out of favor, not too long ago.

There are few natural objects more beautiful than a mature California live oak, or more fragrant and attractive than a spread of russet arctostaphylos and sky blue ceanothus. As a counterpoint, the San Francisco eucalyptus forest is damp, peaceful and majestic. May California native gardens bloom on our hills, along with the turn-of-the-century forests. But not too close.

To whatever degree the Natural Areas’ agenda is adopted, The City’s scant maintenance budget should be kept in mind. Nonindigenous plants have been present in San Francisco for more than two centuries. They won’t take exclusion lying down.

Phoebe Cutler, Landscape historian

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