Who Would Possibly Complain About San Francisco's Lovely Weather? Our Plants -- If They Could

Categories: Environment

"If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason." -- Jack Handey

No, Virginia, plants cannot talk. But, if they could, San Francisco's would ape our human population -- and protest.

The unseasonably hot weather inducing San Francisco denizens to don flip-flops and sundresses in the dead of winter has, according to some of the city's most experienced gardeners, put our flora in a difficult spot. Plants that are irrigated or hand-watered will bloom -- only to potentially have their flowers literally nipped in the bud in a few days' or weeks' time when more traditional winter temperatures return. And plants that are not watered will either succumb to the hot, dry weather or not produce many (or any) seeds this year -- dooming the creatures who depend upon those plants for their sustenance.

"If the weather stays this way for two more weeks, then it'll start affecting the flowering sequences of cherries and plums," said Don Mahoney, the plant collections curator at the San Francisco Botanical Garden for 25 years. "And the problem is, cold weather may not be over. It could damage the flowers -- that's what happened last year with the avocado growers." 

For Mahoney's well-tended plants, beating the heat spell was merely a matter of expending summerlike quantities of water during the winter (during a drought, no less). But San Francisco native plants in the city's more untended areas are facing a dire fate.
Ely Huerta, the community programs manager for the Presidio Native Plant Nursery, confirmed that nursery staff recently planted scads of native plants throughout the former military base. This, ostensibly, is the rainy season -- and the hearty native plants are untended.

Jake Sigg, a retired longtime city gardener at Golden Gate and McLaren Parks, predicts a very high mortality rate among these young plants. Sigg thinks more established native plants will be largely all right -- he recalls San Francisco had an almost identical short and intense hot and dry spell in 1976. But the lack of precipitation this winter could lead to significantly reduced seeding and flowering. And that's bad news for the insects and mice who eat the seeds and plants, and the predators who eat the insects and mice.

Sigg also predicts difficult times for the custodians of the city's native plants. Recreation and Park Department staff overseeing the city's Natural Areas Program may be forced to form bucket brigades to reach ailing, remote vegetation.

"Everything is connected -- if you have less rain, you have fewer animals," Huerta said. "And the main thing is water. Everything needs the water -- plants, animals, insects. If you don't have that available, you'll see the little threads that connect everything come apart and affect the whole ecosystem."

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