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.

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