Story and photos by Murray Schneider
After taking off two weeks for Christmas and the New Year, nine members of Friends of Glen Canyon Park resumed volunteering on January 8. They were working along a trail high on the canyon wall that leads to Turquoise Way. Working under the supervision of Dylan Hayes, a Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program gardener, the neighbors extracted French broom, unearthed and removed radish.
The group fanned out along the higher slope. Houses on spider-like stilts hulked above them. They then spread down the hill. Swaths of Cape ivy blocked their way to Islias Creek, which was a dry creek bed because of the continuing drought.
The morning continued foggy and cold. Mini-blasts of frigid air darted between a stand of eucalyptus trees cloaked in fog drip.
While they stooped to their task, Hayes marched along the trail, checking their progress, answering a call from his NAP supervisor and issuing directions like a well-schooled instructor.
With a professorial air, he explained the conundrums of canyon conservation.
“We want to prevent monocultures,” he said, holding up a carpet of Ehrharta. “If we don’t, it’ll blanket the hillside.”
Ehrharta is a mat forming perennial grass and native to South Africa and possibly spread throughout North America by accidental contamination of commercial seed mixes. It tends to grow in moist places (stream sides and fog drip) and forms thick underground root mats that usurp native plants such as California blackberry.
Hayes is quoted copiously in “The Canyon,” the sixth chapter in the bestselling Gary Kamiya book Cool Gray City of Love. He now knelt by some blackberry, which could be mistaken for poison oak except for its serrated leaves and thorny stems.
Fingering the Medusa-tangled leaves, he said, “Look at this, you guys! See the holes in the leaves. All sorts of insects have been feeding on them. We remove the Ehrharta from here, there’ll be more room for beds of blackberry.”
California blackberry (Rubus ursinsus) is a perennial, wide spreading vine-bearing shrub with prickly branches that boasts sweet, very aromatic and edible berries that Glen Canyon birds and mammals love to feast upon because of its low-lying, ground-level, fruity bounty.
Hayes replaced the tangle of blackberry, which blooms between February and July, and stood. “We want habitat diversity here.”
Inimical French broom competed with the Ehrharta for space, smothering the blackberry, which means that not only sparrows and rodents won’t have access to its summer berries, but neither will Glen Park children carrying annual collection pails.
French broom is a shrub, which has the potential to grow as large as a small tree. Native to the Mediterranean region, broom was brought to California in the 1850s as an ornamental plant and has since become a favorite in nurseries and gardens throughout the state.
Everything has its place, and French broom, which was used in the Azores to sweep cottages and to thatch roofs, doesn’t belong in Glen Canyon. While pretty, boasting showy fragrant yellow flowers in the spring, the plant is a strong competitor and can dominate a plant community, forming dense stands.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, French broom flowers are also toxic. French broom foliage and seeds contain a variety of quinolizidine alkaloids, especially in young leaves. In some livestock, ingestion of plant parts can cause staggering followed by paralysis.
It’s for that reason that the Natural Area Program is working to remove it from the canyon. The NAP manages the neighborhood’s 70-acre ecological wilderness. With a limited number of gardeners assigned the task, the NAP relies upon canyon neighbors to do some of the heavy lifting that keeps invasive weeds at bay. Their only reward at the end of the day is knowing they’ve been canyon stewards—and a libation and a bakery confection at NAP expense.
Some of the volunteers have been working together for more than a decade now. They spring from Glen Park byways such as Sussex, Laidley, Chenery, Monterey, Diamond and Farnum. This day they worked non-stop until 11:30 A.M.
Finally Hayes called an end to the shift, gathering up mattocks and loppers and collecting refuge bags choked with the tugged weeds. He’d eventually haul plants away because he didn’t want any to reseed.
He led the group back the way they’d hiked, threading single file down the trail until they dog-legged to the right and eventually came to Coyote Cave, a section of the trail that becomes impassable during the rainy season. Continuing past stringer and box steps on their left, the group rested and looked at the at Pool Two, a restored riparian environment they’d planted and continue maintaining with habitat-friendly natives such as columbine and sticky monkey flower.
On the other bank a thick mosaic of California blackberry quilted the incline. Hayes couldn’t stop himself. He was like a kid who couldn’t stop himself from taking the last cookie in the jar. He waved his arm at the shrub that stitched its way up the slope.
“This is what we’ll happen where we just finished working,” he said to his crew. “The critters will love it.”
Each of the volunteers is now retired. Two taught school, one was a postal worker, another a hospital assistant, one a City gardener and another a computer programmer. When they reached the Rec and Parks truck, one exclaimed “We get cookies and water now.”
Hayes turned around, looking sheepish. “Eh. I forgot the cookies.”
The group exchanged glances, smiling at its absent-minded horticulturalist. They’d give him a pass.