19 October 2007

Slender Wild Oat

This morning I visited a friend at the Urban Life Center at 1031 Franklin Street. I arrived a little early so I poked around the back parking area and checked out the grasses growing next to the lot. I saw tall fescue and what I now think was slender wild oat or Avena barbata. At first I thought it was Purple Needlegrass (the California state grass), but spending a bit of time with on-line and book sources, I now think it is slender wild oat. I went running in the Presidio this afternoon and suprisingly noticed a patch of slender wild oat growing next to Presidio Avenue.

Slender wild oat (shown above along a highway) is far different than the ordinary wild oat (Avena fatua), which seems to be more common and far more scraggly than Avena fatua. The seedhead of slender wild oat is very attenuated and from it projects a long (2-inch) awn that looks like an antenna from a large insect. Slender wild oat was brought to the region from either Russian or Spanish settlers. It was an important presence in the landscape before the Civil War and was often noted by early visitors to the state.

As is often the case, the John Rawlings website, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, has a wonderful entry on Avena barbata.

St. Mark's Lutheran Church at 1111 O'Farrell Street built the Urban Life Center in 1964. The Center was built at the same time as the Martin Luther Tower--a 12-story senior housing project. The Urban Life Center was originally built to be a community center for the neighborhood and as a senior center for tower residents. It now has a wider use, both as offices for the church and as rental office space. The Urban Life Center is a classic mid-1960s building, comprised mostly of steel and concrete. This building would look at home at any college campus built around the time of the Vietnam War--including buidings at Stanford (especially the Stanford bookstore) as well as much of UC Irvine.

16 October 2007

No more day-old bread at Folsom and 16th

There's a chain link fence around the Rainbo Bakery Store at 16th Street and Folsom in the Mission. The store is closed and it is likely that bulldozers will come and demolish the one-story building. I expect that soon this space will be occupied by live-work lofts or another new housing development.

The Rainbo Bakery Store sold day-old bread as well as milk, sodas, and a few other grocery items. I used to stop here on the way home from work if I needed something for dinner. The building was oriented at a 45 degree angle to 16th and Folsom streets and looked out onto the intersection.

This bakery store always felt like a little patch of Queens, NY. There was something about the 1960s architecture of the building, the litter in the parking lot, the dirty exterior walls and floors of the shop that just reminded me of some of the more rundown sections of Queens. Homeless guys often sat against the building or stood in the vast parking lot.

Inside, the shop was always lively. No one seemed in a particular rush and often long conversations between a patron and the clerk had to finish before I could pay for my hot dog buns or soda. It seemed to truly provide a service to those folks in the neighborhood, especially those who were on public assistance.

In the little square patches of dirt in the sidewalk outside the shop I managed to find many examples of Red Brome or Bromus rubens. This is one of the most common plants found on the street in San Francisco and I haven't been able to identify it until now.

Red Brome would be a good name for hard-boiled detective or a guy who puts out oil well fires.

Red Brome is a spiky plant with a seedhead that rises right above the main stem. Red Brome is not a native grass (it seems to have arrived in California during the early 19th century.) It is considered invasive and crowds out native species. It burns easily and is said to be a fire hazard. It's hard and spiky texture make it unpalatable for grazing animals. But it seems to have taken a real liking for the open patches of dirt in the South of Market neighborhoods.

(The photograph of Bromus rubens comes from the UC Davis Global Invasive Species web site.)

15 October 2007

The known world

As this project continues into its second month, I wonder about my quest to identify local grass species. What does one gain by being able to name each grass I see on my walks? Is this linked to some Enlightenment dream of naming all parts of the world and thus feeling I have more control over the landscape?

Am I really interested in appreciating nature or is this more like the effort in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to catalog and display the natural world in zoos and botanical gardens?

And how much of my interest in the common landscape of grasses is linked to the English 19th century fascination with the natural world? The Victorians believed that the study of nature was in some ways an act of worship--a way to study the bounty of God's gifts to the world. (Some of this can be seen in Thoreau's own writings as well.)

While I do believe that looking and admiring the natural world is a worthy goal, I also know that my esteem for nature is derived from the British and American conception of nature as both divine and a healing force.

In my defense, the point of this exercise is not just to memorize dozens of local grasses, but merely to look at the diversity of the ordinary landscape. I may never be able to identify half the grasses I see, but I have learned to look closer, to focus on what makes each species different--from the complex seed head to the way the small stems shoot off from the larger stem or culm of the plant.

Image from the Smithsonian (American Memory Project) website: Baboon sitting in a cage in the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, 1927.

14 October 2007


Got a chance to visit a farm in the Capay Valley on Saturday. It was beautiful to drive through the golden hills and olive groves. There were many grasses at the farm--and people who could identify them. Of course, I remembered only a few of the names of the native grasses pointed out to me. I did managed to write down the name of Elymus glaucus or Blue Wildrye on a napkin

Blue Wildrye is a native and perennial bunchgrass that serves as a great shelter for birds and mammals. It can be eaten by animals as well. It grows throughout the western United States.

Native Americans used this grass in basket making. Also, it can be used as a cereal grain. One of the more hardy native grasses, it can survive fires and flooding and can easily grow to cover large areas. This grass can grow up to five feet tall, with flat leaves that can turn a shade of blue-green. It tends to grow in meadows, fields, and along roads.

From as far as I can tell, most traditional landscape architects don't value blue wildrye as an ornamental grass, but it is becoming more important in western gardens, especially in its native California. It seems to be used more often in erosion control projects or to replant sites like logging roads and clear-cut forests.

(photo from Flickr, from Dale Hameister's photostream)

12 October 2007

Karl Blossfeldt

A recent comment on this blog brought up the name of Karl Blossfeldt, the German photographer. Blossfeldt (1865-1932) dedicated his life to photographing plants (an example of his work is above--two photos of Dutch Rush (Equisetum hyemale). Blossfeldt was interested in capturing the symmetry of plants and using these sorts of photographs in his classes at the Berlin’s Charlottenburg School of Arts and Crafts to teach how one might design using nature as a model. He is best known for his book, Art Forms in Nature (1928).

Blossfeldt never bought his specimens at florists. He preferred to find them on country roads, along railway tracks, or other “proletarian places.” He also focused on common weed-like plants, which he considered far more interesting than more ornamental flowers like orchids. Blossfeldt took more than 6,000 photographs using a wooden camera he designed himself.

It is hard not to see some of his photographs as somehow emblematic of the emerging age of mass production and urbanization. These are not images of grass waving in the wind or next to rushing rivers. These are species captured magically alone and often 12 times their original size. At times they look like skyscrapers from a unknown Fritz Lang movie, others look more like wild, surrealist sculpture, part M.C. Escher, part Hieronymus Bosch. To be honest, it is difficult to look at some of his images—and to know that these horrifying explosions of plant life are actually living in parks and vacant lots.

Equisetum hyemale, which is not a true rush, is also used by clarinet players to improve reeds.

Taschen, the publisher, put out a very nice paperback on Blossfeldt in 2001. Much of the information above came from this source.

11 October 2007

White Man's Foot

There are a million grasses in this city and, yes, each species has its own story.

Though individual plants often just survive a season or two, the biological heritage of each species reaches back hundreds of years.

For example, some grasses were brought over by European settlers as forage for livestock (i.e., Reed Canary Grass or Phalaris arundinacea). Others were ornamental grasses brought over from Asia (Chinese Silver Grass, Miscanthus sinensi) then "escaped" from gardens and ended up growing along highways. (I do like the idea of runaway grass, making a fast break from a rich man's landscape and heading out to the highway).

The history of Plantain Major or broad-leaved plantain is a good example. OK, it's not a grass (but it appears in Lauren Brown’s Grasses: An Identification Guide). It is a common weed you can find easily in lots and roadsides in the United States, including the Bay Area.

Plantain major was brought to the states by Europeans who valued it for its medicinal qualities. It was said to cure everything, including epilepsy, hemorrhoids, and ulcers. References to Plantain major appear in Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Native Americans called the plant White Man's Foot or Englishman's Foot because it seemed to spring up wherever the Europeans settled in the New World.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to White Man’s Foot in his 1855 poem “Hiawatha”:

Wheresoe'er they move, before them
Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo,
Swarms the bee, the honey-maker;
Wheresoe'er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the White-man's Foot in blossom.

(Photo from David Three Rats' photostream via Flickr)

10 October 2007

Ship of Grass

Yesterday I walked along Terry A. Francois Street. This narrow road runs through a small seam of undeveloped land between the new UCSF Mission Bay campus and the eastern shore of the city. The street is a remnant of old, industrial San Francisco, lined with modest wood buildings, vacant lots and forgotten boat ramps.

A wooden boat has been left in front of one of the buildings on the street. The boat is filled with dirt from which blooms several species of flowers and grasses. Ripgut Brome (Bromus diandrus) has taken root near the bow. Ripgut is distinguished by its nearly-two-inch-long attenuated seed pods (spikelets) and its long awn, the antenna-like projection that pushes out from the spikelet.

Bromus diandrus came to the United States from Europe and, according to Crampton, can be found often in California in vacant lots, on sidewalks, and in fields that have recently been excavated.

While livestock can easily feed off of younger plants, more mature versions of the plant can hurt the eyes, mouth, feet, and intestines of animals—thus the term ‘ripgut.’ Parts of the spikelet are covered with backwards-facing hairs and easily get caught in fur and feet of dogs and cats.

Of course this ability to hang on to animals is one of the ways that Ripgut helps spread its seed. Other seeds can spread via water or on the wind.

It’s hard to figure out why this boat is beached in front of this building. Was this an old, informal boat or fishing club? Who filled the boat with dirt?

With the redevelopment of this flank of the city, we will lose these sorts of mysterious landscapes. No matter how much we appreciate the tidy landscapes of new urban parks and campuses, new development takes away the old, weird San Francisco—the foundations of old factories, the abandoned uniform shops, the vacant lots that only homeless men know well.

Photo on left by author; right: © Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College.