Strolling San Francisco with a special guidebook to street trees

  • San Francisco framed by trees in the Russian Hill neighborhood.

    Bjorn Bakstad, Istock
  • A flowering Prunus serrulata "Kwanzan."

    Courtesy Friends of the Urban Forest
  • Author and tree enthusiast Michael Sullivan.

    Leath Tonino
  • Magnolia soulangiana in the Castro District.

    Courtesy Friends of the Urban Forest
  • Diverse plantings along Bocana Street, in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco.

    Courtesy Friends of the Urban Forest
 

Page 2

Pacific Heights. The Castro. Potrero Hill. The city's 30-plus neighborhoods are famous for their variety of styles and moods. One has rainbow flags, another gaudy mansions, a third great sushi restaurants, a fourth strip clubs, a fifth art museums, and so on. The neighborhoods are distinct in terms of topography and microclimate, too, and to the discerning eye, they're distinct because of their trees.

Here's a quick rundown in Sullivan's own words:

Cole Valley (Sullivan's home neighborhood): "It's one of the densest parts of our urban forest and has some of the best trees and diversity -- people here absolutely love trees!"

Mission District: "A warm part of the city with good soils and less wind and fog. You see some types of eucalyptus that love warmth. Also, the jacaranda tree from Brazil with its great purple flowers."

Outer Richmond: "Really tough for trees. If there are, say, 100 species that will do well in San Francisco, there are maybe 10 that will do well in the Outer Richmond. They tend to do better on the north-south streets because those streets are protected from the winds coming off the ocean. The east-west streets out there are just death for trees."

North Beach: "It's a dense neighborhood so there isn't a lot of room for big trees. You don't see as much of the little craftsman cottage with a single-family owner who lovingly plants an unusual tree. There's a little less diversity here, more of the so-called 'normal trees' like the ficus and Brisbane box."

Financial District: "Surprisingly, it's got some amazing trees. The city's largest gingko is down here, the largest bay tree too. And there're gorgeous tulip trees around the old Federal Reserve at Sacramento and Battery."

For the gourmand, this city has olive and avocado and lemon trees, as well as Italian stone pines, a species whose seeds humans have been harvesting for an estimated 500,000 years. For the crafty, there are cork oaks, from which wine corks are made, and black walnuts, a native of the Eastern United States used in furniture and rifle stocks. And for the flowery, there are hawthorns, gums, magnolias, plums, acacias and bottlebrushes -- thousands upon thousands of blossoms coloring the streets all through the year.

The deodar cedar at 625 St. Francis Boulevard is a native of the Himalayas and takes its name from the Sanskrit devadara, meaning "tree of the gods." The New Zealand Christmas tree at 1221 Stanyan (Sullivan's favorite tree in the entire city) is an extremely rare "Aurea" variety that blooms yellow rather than the normal red. Catalina ironwoods grow beside a church on Connecticut Street. Strawberry trees front the German Consulate General on Jackson Street.

And at 17th and Folsom, nearing the end of the walking tour though the crowded, noisy, mural-splashed Mission District, there's an otherwise dismal parking lot fringed with floss silk trees, flame trees, bottle trees and mountain she-oaks. A block away, you can buy coffee and a pastry, sustenance while you linger in this surprising oasis. The trees rise up through holes in the filthy sidewalk, their branches brushing at power lines and pigeons, and above it all they reach for the sky. Look around.

The flame tree's lobed leaves are larger than your hand. The mountain she-oak is as magical as she sounds, her crown of droopy needles almost the color of rust. A homeless man sleeps in a cardboard bed. A red-shouldered hawk flies by, pursued by seagulls. The floss silk tree here at the corner -- this crazy one with the thorns erupting from smooth bark -- has been vandalized, graffitied up and down. No worries. When it flowers in a couple of months, the taggers' black scrawls will contrast nicely with the magenta blossoms.

Leath Tonino’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Orion, Sierra, The Sun and other magazines. He recently finished a series of essays about a year traveling the length of his home state Vermont by hiking, hitchhiking, skiing, biking, canoeing, swimming and flying. For the time being, he lives in San Francisco, Calif.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...