Tuesday, July 04, 2023

It's the berries!

McLaren Park, the big park of the southeast corner of San Francisco in which I walk almost every day, is is kept in a state of loose order. Trails are cleared, fallen trees cut and new ones planted, and playing fields mowed. Poison oak allowed to grow? Nope. Most everything else that makes itself comfortable there? Yes. It is home to redwood groves and eucalyptus forests, open meadows and scrublands. Tucked into its center is an old green house (green house, not greenhouse) where the maintenance team keeps their offices and a large, fenced vegetable and fruit garden. Most of the fruit in McLaren Park, however, is outside of that fence. The park is full of blackberries.

Blackberries are in the rose family, clearly evident in their thorns, caning habit, leaf structure, and flowers. Two species of blackberry compete for superiority in McLaren.

This is a Himalayan blackberry, Rubus bifrons. It is a vigorous invasive plant that can take over whole hillsides if there is even a little water available. Himalayan blackberries have five (sometimes seven) leaves on each stem, arching canes with large recurved thorns, and relatively large white flowers.

Most of the berry thickets south of Mansell, the biggest road that splits the park, are Himalayan blackberries; there are also other large thickets on the park's eastern edges, and of course, near the "lakes" and the spring.

This is California blackberry, Rubus ursinus. It has three leaves instead of five on each stem, slender thorns that stick straight out of the canes, smallish white flowers, and the whole plant grows a little lower to the ground than the Himalayan blackberry. While the plants will grow with little water, they won't produce much fruit without access.

Most of the California blackberry I have found in the park is north of Mansell, near the two "lakes" or fed by spring water. In the park, I have only seen it growing in partial sun.

Both Himalayan blackberry and California blackberry produce very tasty fruit and every August and September, I fill containers of fruit to munch on and cook with.

But, they're not the only two varieties of Rubus in the park. There are others that are causing me a lot of delight as I try to figure out what they are.

Consider this, which looks to my eye, like a boysenberry, a hybrid of a bunch of different Rubus, including Rubus ursinus. Is it? Or, is it a different hybrid that emerged from the crossing of ursinus and bifrons? Or a crossing of one of the two and the maintenance team's berry bushes from behind the fence? A fence won't stop a bee. I have only seen one patch of this type, growing in a willow thicket fed by the spring. Its leaves are big and floppy, its fruit over an inch long, and its thorns slender.

And what about this one? It has smooth leaves, usually three per stem, completely thornless canes, and bright pink flowers. I've found several large thickets of them on either side of the meadow near Gambier Plaza. Could it be some kind of cross with a Rubus canadensis, a thornless berry? How would that cross even happen? And, where did that pretty pink flower come from?

In some cases, a couple varieties grow all tangled up together, like this.

I'm sure there are those who would like all the berry bushes gone in McLaren, replaced by well-tended flower beds or more pickleball courts, both of which are good, important things. But so is all this undefined wildness. Something inside me has to observe and and seek out plant patterns, then question and research. These Rubus thorns (or lack thereof) scratch me in ways I need. 

Thank you, maintenance team in the old green house. You keep the park just right.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Early June Wildflowers of McLaren Park


Lupinus nanus (unpollinated), Sky Lupine

Lupinus nanus (pollinated), Sky Lupine

Choloragalum pomeridianum, Soap Plant

Leptosiphon grandiflorus, Large Flowered Leptosiphon

Aesculus californica, California Buckeye

Lupinus arboreus, Yellow Tree Lupine

Lupinus arboreus, Yellow Tree Lupine

A mass of Triteleia laxa, Ithuriel's Spear

Triteleia laxa, Ithuriel's Spear

Eriogonum latifolium, Coast Buckwheat, in foreground and Allium peninsulare var. franciscanum, Franciscan Onion, in background

Friday, June 09, 2023

Plant Profile: Oregon Giant Snow Pea

If Oregon Giant snow peas are flat, they're good, but not as delightful as they will be when they get a little puffy. When they're a little puffy, the pod is sweet and the peas inside are sweet. They taste like childhood. This is a variety Jim Baggett created with the goal of deliciousness and disease resistance, and here in San Francisco, powdery mildew capital of the world, they live up to those goals.

Yes, the plants will eventually develop powdery mildew, but in my garden, that only appears at the end of the lifespan of this variety, when I've already collected which pods I'm saving for seed and harvested all that is harvestable. 

Catalogs list this variety as semi-dwarf, maxing out around 4 or 5 feet, and most vines in my garden follow that rule, but there's always an outlier or two that really go for it, extending beyond the 6 foot trellises.

I've tried Sugar Snap, Sugar Magnolia, Green Beauty, and a couple others in my garden, but this pea wins for me. It's productive, strong-vined, and so very delicious. 

How I grow them:
  • The plants need moderately rich, relatively moist soil. I do well planting them in late winter thickly (about 1.5" apart) around the edges of trellises. 
  • Bountiful dustings of diatomaceous earth on seedlings helps limit slug and pillbug damage.
  • I protect seedlings from birds with twigs or agricultural cloth.
  • I grow and save seed from at least 30 plants to keep a healthy genetic population. Peas suffer quickly to inbreeding. 
  • I aim to save an early, perfect pod from each healthy plant. Later in the season, the plants are more prone to mutation, so the early pods are likeliest to be stable.
  • I don't save seeds from undesirable (disease prone, misshapen, or otherwise struggling) plants.
This time of year is peas-at-least-twice-a-week season, soon to be swallowed by runner-beans-all-the-time season. I won't complain about either.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Springtime and an Old Dog

Indy is asleep at my feet. He and I just came back from a slow walk around a couple blocks that didn't include much of a hill. Earlier, he had begged me to throw his toy for him, over and over, and I did, but only for a few feet and only on flat ground. When we walked up the stairs after our short walk, his back legs slipped on the stairs, but he caught himself and kept going. He is happy. He is old. 

When Indiana first came home with me over twelve years ago, he was unstoppable, full of anxious energy and young dog enthusiasm. He would play fetch for hours. Six mile hikes up the steep Altadena hills hardly made him blink. He needed to move all of the time. In the first year of knowing him, I lost 20 pounds.

Young Indy was anxious. When my friend who was on a run passed us as we walked along the side of the street, Indiana chomped down on his hand. He bit several of the first people he met at our house. He got in scrabbles. Nowadays, he has two dog friends who he has worked hard to tolerate, and dislikes the rest of his own species. He's great around cats that don't run, but chases those who do. In his elder years, he has become affectionate. He mashes his head in my thigh, smearing me with slobber and waiting for ear rubs. When I sit down, he places his head on my lap and asks for me to rub his ears and neck. When he gets exactly the petting he hopes for, his tail wags madly and a mohawk along his lower spine rises. We call this the "happy hackles."

He can no longer hit the hills with me for long walks. To take care of myself the way that I need to in order to be the person I like being, I need these long walks, so I have to take them without Indiana. I hate leaving the house without him. My leash arm feels naked.

Without an anxious dog attached to me, I'm able to move through the territory of unleashed dogs. I don't have to worry about a potential fight, or some other dog owner who has no control over their off-leash dog blaming me for their dog attacking my own. There is a freedom, not a freedom I have wished for, but a freedom just the same. This freedom is coinciding with a spring after historic rains that have filled my local wild-ish park with very wild flowers. Walking without Indiana, I've been able to stop at every wildflower that catches my eye. The meadows in McLaren Park this year are beautiful.

Blue eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum

Suncups, Camissonia ovata

Footsteps of Spring, Sanicula arctopoides

Checker-bloom, Sidalcea malviflora, with footsteps of spring below it.

Baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesii

Ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata

California poppy, Eschscholzia californica

California poppies are just getting started in our park

After I take my long walk, I take Indiana for his own short walk in which he can take all the time he wants to sniff all the things that catch his attention, and when we return home, I pet his velvet ears and gray muzzle until his hackles rise; that's pretty beautiful too.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Kingfishers and Joy in Edinburgh and Glasgow

On our first full day in Scotland, we walked along the Leith in Edinburgh and a man stopped us: "There is a kingfisher about 250 meters ahead," he said. My heart leapt. A kingfisher! I had never seen one before, but how many times had I read the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem? So many times—I work at a Jesuit institution, after all. 

A few paces further, the iridescent turquoise of the small bird caught my eye. It was much smaller than I expected, but it swooped off its branch to dive, so quickly!, into the surface of the river, and flashed metallic in teal and orange, as if it really did catch fire. I smiled so hard and I didn't stop smiling for over a week.

We had decided to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary with a trip to Scotland, in the middle of the winter, the darkest, wettest time. Though the weather was dreary, the people were warm; the stone buildings damp and grey, the art vivid and thought-provoking; the trees leafless, the history present in every inch. Scott experienced food poisoning, and we walked about 8 miles a day. I wanted to gorge myself in every space and vista, so much so that sometimes it was hard for me to spend the time needed to absorb what I was seeing and learning. But Scott was the best companion, slowing us down with questions and reflection so that what I was walking through and reading about and seeing had even more meaning.

Here are a few highlights from our trip, starting in Edinburgh, to Glasgow, and back to Edinburgh.

The Dunstane Houses

We splurged for the Christmas package at the Dunstane Houses, which included special meals, Christmas stockings and crackers, and general good cheer. But, whether we had splurged for a special package or not at The Dunstane Houses, we would have received the warmest hospitality. Not only was our room beautiful and comfortable, the whole place smelled so good. When we asked about how good it smelled, we were told it was a proprietary scent. It was impossible to even buy that scent, a scent of pine and whiskey and age and leather and spice.

When Scott came down with food poisoning early in our stay, the staff worked to still help him feel like he was having a special experience, even though he couldn't feast. The refrain of the staff was "no worries," and they certainly helped us feel as if we had none.

We loved our stay here and would recommend it to anyone. Also, the Scottish breakfast? The best we had on the whole trip. The haggis is rich with black pepper and excellent smeared on brown toast.


The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Scott and I walked here easily from The Dunstane Houses. Here, I learned about Eduardo Paolozzi, the Future Library, and so much more. Scott and I were both moved and delighted by the collection, and we are still talking about it. 

Scott has a friend who backpacked with his brother through Europe and ended up here on his trip, and was so struck by it (and by the time with his brother) that he wants his ashes sprinkled in the pond out front. It's that kind of of museum. We didn't spend enough time here. We couldn't have.

The national museums in Scotland are free. 


The Water of Leith Walkway

We found ourselves using The Water of Leith Walkway to move between different parts of the city. It's a beautiful, peaceful walk. It's where we saw the kingfisher and many other birds and animals. It's where we saw many, many of the dogs of Edinburgh out with their people. It's also how we walked through Dean Village, a gold-toned mill town that Edinburgh swallowed, and how we got a sense of how both the mill and maritime industries fed Edinburgh.


Walking everywhere in both Edinburgh and Glasgow

We are walkers, and there's no better way to feel a place. On our walks through both cities, we experienced surprise, awe, longing, and joy. We heard and felt the textures of voice and cobblestone. We stopped for good coffee when we were tired, and everywhere encountered gracious people. During our whole trip, we did not hear one horn honk, one person curse in anger at another, or any expression of impatience.


Kelvinbridge Museum

We stopped in Kelvinbridge in Glasgow and saw some amazing things. But it is so much and all mashed together so there's hardly a breath between exploring Scottish wildlife and the Spitfire and Art Nouveau architecture and classical sculpture. We enjoyed what we saw, but if we were to go again, we would have chosen a wing or a section on which to focus and maybe made a couple visits, with a different focus each time.

Also, Scott decided this was a prime photobomb location.


Mixed Up Records

On a mega-walking day in Glasgow, we stopped in an art gallery and talked to the owners for a bit. One of them had been a DJ in the 80s and had been a very present part of the 80s Glasgow scene. His wife said to us, "You're from San Francisco. When I think of San Francisco, I think of its moment as the Summer of Love. Glasgow's moment was 80s punk." Scott, a former punk rocker, found his people with this couple. The man gave us a list of record shops that still existed—his focus was on the past, and he mourned the loss of so much that no longer existed. But he did mention a new shop, Mixed Up Records, that happened to be just off our walking path for the day. 

It was pouring outside and rain dripped off the jackets of those inside. It was warm. It seemed like people came in pairs or small groups; each entrance or exit was more than one person, and quite frequently, the group was multigenerational.

There, the pickings were good. Scott found records he couldn't find in the US. 


Riverside Museum

This was an unexpected delight. We learned so much about the history of Scottish culture through interactive, transportation-focus of the museum. We learned about Glasgow's tram workers, who volunteered together to fight World War I, and Dorothée Pullinger, who started a car company, hired women engineers, and when she couldn't find women engineers, trained women to be engineers. She was also a race car driver and general badass. We learned about how the UK has struggled to meet the transportation needs of their disabled population, and we learned that some cars might just be too cute to survive. This museum is great for little kids who can enjoy crawling in the tram cars and walking through the reconstructed city street, but it's also great for adults, because the stories are poignant and the combination of art and science beautiful. And the building? I've never been in anything like it.


Clydeside Distillery

We didn't do the tour here because we didn't have time, but I'm sure it would be fascinating. But, we stopped for lunch on our last day in Glasgow—the best lunch on our trip—and I tasted both the whiskeys the distillery produced on site.

Clydeside COP26 single malt. Delicious.


The Best Airbnb Ever

Yes, we had to carry our luggage up four flights of stairs through a dingy hallway, but once we were there, heaven. An art filled space with a view of Arthur's Seat, a fully stocked kitchen, a comfortable bed, and a feeling of a new experience in a very old space. The host, Carrie, was incredibly responsive and her recommendations were great. We wished we could have spent another day here. I wanted to stop in at the butcher down the block and imagine that we really lived in the Leith neighborhood of Edinburgh.


The Leith Collective

On the day we spent exploring Leith, our last full day in Scotland, both of us were a little grumpy. The day started out beautiful and sunny, but got wet fast and we weren't sure what we were looking for. We were disappointed by The Roseleaf Cafe for lunch—we had such high expectations—and didn't know where we should spend our last waning minutes. We were in a limbo: looking forward to going to our own home, bed, and dog, but also trying to grasp the last Scotland specific pleasures available to us. Luckily, when I was desperate to find a bathroom, we entered the Ocean Terminal mall to use the facilities. And while there, we discovered The Leith Collective, a shop that sold local art and used records. We could have easily purchased half the store, but we would have had to carry it all home. Scott found more record treasures that he is happy to have brought back with him. I eyed some art that I'm still thinking about.


How do you leave a place that you've barely made a dent in and may never make it back to without feeling a sense of loss? I hope we get to go back some day, perhaps during the long days of summer in which we can explore the highlands and visit islands. I hope we get to walk through the narrow, ancient passageways of Edinburgh again. Before then, however, there are many other places to see and feel. 

But right now, my own bed is feeling mighty fine.