Federal Government Comes to the Rescue of San Francisco Shrub

A nearly extinct plant in the Bay Area has been placed on the Endangered List

A lowly shrub in San Francisco’s Presidio is getting some help from high up, after the federal government on Wednesday placed the nearly extinct Franciscan Manzanita on its Endangered List.

Up until a couple years ago, biologists thought the shrub had completely disappeared from San Francisco. But a Presidio biologist glimpsed the “white whale” of California native plants while driving past construction for the new Doyle Drive replacement project. Work to thin the trees and foliage uncovered the plant from its hiding place. 

Using a crane, biologists moved the plant out of the path of the construction work. It was replanted in an undisclosed location, where cuttings of its vines could be made and replanted throughout the Presidio.

“So in order to create that highway where it needed to go, we thought it could successfully be moved to another location where it would be protected,” said Presidio biologist Lew Stringer.

So far the Presidio has replanted about 30 cuttings around the park, with the expectation about half will survive.

“Now that we’ve found it again, we’re trying to bring it back to the Presidio,” said Stringer, eyeing on of the small cuttings near Inspiration Point.

Botanists said the Franciscan Manzanita prefers Serpentine rock found throughout San Francisco. They said the manzanita once thrived in the Laurel Heights Cemetery which was removed in the 1940s.

“There’s a story of Ms. Lester Roundtree going in the dead of night with her gunnysack to dig up plants before the bulldozers came,” said Holly Forbes, curator of the U.C. Berkeley Botanical Garden.

Forbes said cuttings from the cemetery’s manzanita shrubs were replanted all over the Bay Area, including Berkeley’s Botanical Garden.

Forbes pointed out a large, sprawling Franciscan Manzanita planted in the garden in 1953, believed to be a descendant of the original Laurel Heights Cemetery plants.

“We feel every species plays a role in the environment,” said Forbes. “We may not understand what that role is, but that’s all the more reason to not let it go by the way.”

The botanical garden is among several Bay Area institutions who have taken clippings from the Presidio’s recently discovered shrub, and are cultivating them to replant.

The new Federal designation will exact penalties and criminal liability for anyone who should mess with the mother plant.

The hope is that with a little protection and a few green thumbs, the plants will eventually reclaim some of their old turf within the Presidio.

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