Story and photos by Murray Schneider
After spending two hours pulling Italian thistle along a steep Glen Canyon hillside, five Friends of Glen Canyon Park volunteers and one Natural Areas apprentice followed Recreation and Parks manager Randy Zebell on a one-hour tutorial wildflower walk.
“Watch for poison oak,” Zebell said, as he guided the group along a twisting path above Alms Road, which eventually ended only a few yards from the scene of last year’s tragic Berkeley Way fire.
Only minutes before, the volunteers had left behind their mattocks, tarps and yellow pop-up bags. Now collapsed, the pop-up bags listed inside a Rec and Parks truck flat bed loaded with uprooted thistle, which, if left unabated, could lead to a monoculture inimical to the botanical diversity so highly prized by Natural Areas stewards.
“Be careful,” cautioned Zebell, as he directed the volunteers along the precipitous slope. “It’s slippery.”
The volunteers, all retired but not unfamiliar with the serpentining paths, were careful to negotiate a swath, loose with stones. Poison oak bordered both trail edges, its oily green leaves sweating in the morning sun.
The group, two former school teachers, one former postal worker, a former IT and an artist, passed blankets of purple needle grass and June grass.
“Look at all the yarrow,” said Zebell.
They inched upward, gaining purchase on the sliding pebbles. They passed hummocks of pink sticky monkey flower and purple coyote mint. Striding past some coastal oaks, they came into view of blossoming blue dick and some owl’s clover.
One of the volunteers asked why the native was called owl’s clover and was told that the tiny plant boasted owl’s eyes embedded among its leaves.
The group continued to climb, gathering its second wind as Crags Court came into sight.
California poppies canvassed the cliff and craggy chert formations erupted from the slope, serrated and a bit ominous.
Zebell went off trail. The group followed. He pointed above him.
“Up here,” he said, “I think we can find some brownie thistle.”
Zebell led the volunteers through native grasses, many he had personally reseeded in his effort to fight invasive radish and mustard that threaten native shrubbery and grassland.
“There,” he said. He pointed to a clump of cup-like white plants hugging the ground. Each had the appearance of sea-going anemone. They lay nestled among breeze-blown grass, spiny but benign, not at all like the Italian thistle with which the volunteers had earlier engaged in combat.
Kay Westerberg, a volunteer who lives on Chenery Street, pointed a camera and snapped a photograph while a chorus of robins sang near by. Bumblebees hovered above a stand of bee plant and a circling red-tailed hawk swooped, scouting for a meal of mice or gopher.
“Brownie thistle is uncommon in the City,” lectured Zebell, who has served the City for 12 years and holds a BA in biology and a MA in conservation biology.
Steven Uchida, a volunteer who lives on Monterey Boulevard, tugged a mattock from his belt, eyeballing a solitary stalk of Italian thistle. Kneeling, he swung the tool and it perforated the earth with a muted thump. Uchida pulled its root, unearthing it, tucking it away so he could dispose of it later.
The group soldiered past more yarrow and morning glory and a pocket of yellow sun cups.
Getting close to their weekly quitting time, they bunched together preparatory to their descent down the final incline. The trail was steep, and Indian file they gingerly navigated their way, leaving in their wake a forest of Italian thistle that cluttered the ravine.
Zebell gestured to a horizon of healthy grass where a year before he’d used a string trimmer to reduce mustard that threatened the slope’s biodiversity.
“This was a challenging place to work,” he said.
Now the mustard was all but erased. In its place, coyote mint and checkerbloom flourished.
The group reached the canyon floor, looking forward to its weekly ration of cookies and water, provided by its mangers, the cash-strapped Natural Areas Program, whose mission is to restore and enhance 32 City natural areas while developing and supporting community-based stewardship of these sites.
Veteran volunteer steward Kay Westerberg looked back over her shoulder where the California natives now comingled in harmony.
“That’s a success story,” she said. “It means it can be done.”
Anyone interested in volunteering for weekly Recreation and Park Natural Area Program Glen Canyon Park work parties can contact Jean Conner at 584-8576 or Joe Grey, volunteer coordinator at Joe.Grey@sfgov.org.