Thanks to the contributions of two energetic people who know plants, chavezpark.org is publishing a complete botanical inventory of the park. Jutta Burger PhD is Lead Scientist for the California Invasive Plant Council, and Bob Huttar is a certified arborist and a consulting field biologist specializing in botany generally and rare plants in particular. Together they are photographing and identifying everything that grows in the park, both common and scientific names. They’ve done the scientific heavy lifting. I’m adding some background blog-talk. We’re publishing the results in a series, with a new installment every Friday.
Tall Willowherb (Epilobium brachycarpum)
Jutta found this Tall Willowherb (Epilobium brachycarpum) on the east side of the park in the slope of the Nature Area. The flower is smaller than a dime, and liable to be overlooked by the hasty walker. This plant is also known as fireweed or as panicled willowherb. It is native to the western USA, with distinct populations in the mountains and in the flats. The plant in the photo has full fruit bodies getting ready to burst and spread their seeds. Since the late 1970s, European botanists have noticed invasions of this plant in Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe, and have traced the DNA to the original populations in the US. Source. The online literature does not point to any commercial, nutritional, or medicinal uses for this plant. Many consider it just a weed often found in disturbed soils.
Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)
Don’t expect to rest in the shade of this mighty species of oak just yet. This individual is barely 18 inches tall. It is surrounded by weeds that match or exceed its present height. But given time and respect, it may attain a majestic stature of up to 100 feet. The Coast Live Oak is a California native and is the only oak that feels quite at home on the California coast, growing from Mendocino in the north down to Baja in the south. It can put up with summer drought if it gets occasional coastal fog.
This oak tends to grow in twisted, gnarly shapes with branches spreading at odd angles. Thanks to that habit, it mostly escaped being cut for timber, although great stands of it fell to urban sprawl in San Diego and San Francisco. Acorns from the Coast Live Oak formed a staple food for California native people for centuries. Now it’s in demand as a landscape and garden specimen.
Oppositeleaf Russian Thistle (Salsola soda)
This plant grows in the flat portion of the Nature Area on the north side of the park. Despite the common name, it’s not a thistle and is not Russian. It’s a unique salt-tolerant edible plant native to the Mediterranean. It’s much prized in Italian cuisine, and may be found on American gourmet menus under the name agretti. The leaves have a crunchy texture and a lively taste resembling spinach, but more so. They can be eaten raw, sauteed, or boiled and served while still al dente.
Quite apart from its gastronomic interest, this plant had an important and unusual economic role. When burned, its ash is high in soda ash (sodium carbonate), which was an essential element in the 19th century glass and soap industries. Famous crystalware from Italy had the ash of Salsola soda as secret ingredient. Spain had a huge industry cultivating and processing the plant. The development of synthetic sodium carbonate ended these industries.
This plant is one of a small group that thrive on sodium more than potassium. Potassium is essential and sodium is lethal to most plants. Salsola is one of a few that tolerates salt so readily that it can be irrigated with sea water. It and similar plants have been called “land seaweed.”
Although in demand by gourmet chefs, the plant isn’t so welcome in local salt marshes, where it forms dense mats that may cover hundreds of acres, rudely displacing imperiled native plants. Source. The California Invasive Plant Council gives it a “Moderate” rating for invasiveness.