San Francisco Cloud Forest

One day in our neighborhood in early January, we hit 66F right around 3pm. Yesterday, June 7th, we hit the same temperature around the same time. In January and now in June, the sky greys out in the west, and from the top of my yard, I can watch the fog erase the lower elevations of the city until a few hills and the SalesForce building are all that poke above it. This is my neighborhood weather: warm sunshine followed frequently by cold and grey, and lots of wind. Most evenings, the fog doesn't make it all the way up our hill, but it sometimes does, and then the house and garden feel like they are floating somewhere outside of space. Sometimes, in the winter, we get a little frost, but it's rarely much. Sometimes in the late summer and early fall, we get extreme heat, but we know it won't last long. The air is temperate and moist, but it doesn't rain a lot except in the winter. Foggy days feel rainy under a tree, though, when the condensation forms huge drops that always seem to target the very center of the top of your head. A cold, wet explosion of surprise.

With weather like this, it's no wonder that food plants that hail from cloud forests perform very well in our San Francisco gardens.

Here are a few cloud forest transplants in my garden:

Ugni molinae: Ugni berries taste like zingy strawberry candy, the flowers are fragrant pale porcelain bells, and the whole plant smells kind of like wintergreen. It's a pretty, tough in our climate bush, with small shiny leaves and a slow but nicely shaped growth habit. The only problem I've had with it in my garden is spider mite attacks when I let the whole plants get a little too dried out. I have two plants along my back fence under the edge of the old apple canopy, and they have given me a few flowers and fruit each year. This spring, however, they're loaded with flowers. I've never seen Ugni berries sold in any produce market, so to sample fruit and decide whether this is a plant you want in your own yard, you'll have to do a little exploring. If you go at just the right time in the fall to the cloud forest in SFBG, you can find the bush that is loaded with fruit each year and sample them yourself. There is also a huge bush on the north side of the house at Filoli, near the gate that usually has a pretty good crop in the fall, too. Don't tell anyone I told you.

Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus): I've written about runner beans before. I grow them for their beauty and for the food they produce. So much goodness in a plant.

Pepino dulce (Solanum muricatum): If you have a pepino dulce plant, your neighbors can, too. These plants grow so easily from cuttings. Despite their name, they are not cucumbers, and their round purple flowers place them firmly in the Solanaceae camp. The fruits are zeppelin-shaped, creamy yellow striped with purple, and thin-skinned. The fruit inside tastes like a cross between a cantaloupe, a cucumber, and a banana. So far, my favorite application for them is fresh salsa. I peel and dice them with red onion, garlic, chiles, cilantro, a little mint, salt, and lots of lime juice. 

Rocoto and Manzano chiles and other Capsicum pubescens: I have one three-year-old red Rocoto and one two-year-old red Manzano in my garden, and they are both healthy plants. The Rocoto is unstoppably productive, producing hot chiles all year except spring, but the Manzano is more elegant with larger, prettier fruit. The thick-walled fruits are like miniature bell peppers, but very hot when raw. When cooked, however, I find the heat tempers quickly. The plants are productive, but I find the older branches get ugly and sad, so regular pruning out of old branches keeps the plants happier and much prettier.

Tamarillo: I grew out several plants from seed last year, kept one and gave the rest away. I planted mine in a pot, where it languished. On the other hand, a friend put the seedling I gave to her in the ground, where it has grown mightily and is threatening to overshadow her semidwarf orange tree. Inspired by her success, I recently moved my tamarillo from a pot to the ground, where it has taken off. There is a beautiful specimen I pass on one of my walking routes through Vistacion Valley, and another very healthy one I've seen in a front yard of an Outer Sunset home. Both have a healthy crop of fruit each year. We'll see how long it takes for mine to reach fruiting size. I haven't had much experience eating tamarillos, so I'm not even sure I will enjoy the fruit mine provides. If I don't, I'll pull it out. In the meantime, it is a fun experiment.

I'm finishing my morning coffee right now, sitting in my east facing room where the morning sun streams in. Looking west through my kitchen, I see the sun hitting my sloping garden. Farther to the west, the sky is leaden. The fog that will haunt the ocean-side of the city today will likely sneak up on us tonight. If it does, my cloud forest plants will welcome the cool blanket of damp.


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