The aesthetics of native plant restorations in the San Francisco Bay Area

The goal of native plant restorations in the San Francisco Bay Area is to replicate the landscape prior to the arrival of Europeans.  This strategy is based on the assumption that the landscape was not radically altered by  Native Americans that lived in the Bay Area for approximately 13,000 years before Europeans arrived.

Though there were a few early explorers sailing along the coast of California, none were known to have entered the bay or set foot on the San Francisco peninsula until Don Gaspar Portolá in 1769.  Portolá, a captain in the Spanish army, was appointed governor of Alta and Baja California and assigned the task of establishing colonies here.

When Portolá set out on that mission in 1769, his destination was Monterey, which had been described in “glowing terms” by an explorer 167 years earlier.  Only because Portolá lost his way, did his party travel further north to stumble onto San Francisco Bay.  When Portolá realized he had gone too far north, he sent his men ahead.  They walked along Ocean Beach until they reached the Golden Gate, where they could see from the headland cliffs the entire panorama of San Francisco Bay in November 1769. (1)

This was not the destination Portolá was looking for.  They quickly turned around and left.  San Francisco was not occupied by Europeans until 1776 when the presidio (Spanish for “fort”) and mission were established.  Ironically, the same year that America declared its independence from Britain on the East Coast, the West Coast was just being occupied by the Spanish. 

The first European settlement on the East Coast was in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, nearly 200 years earlier than the West Coast.  Therefore the target landscape of native plant restorations on the East Coast is nearly 200 years earlier than those on the West Coast.

These pre-settlement dates are selected by native plant advocates as the “ideal landscape” based on their assumption that the population of Native Americans was small and their impact on the landscape minimal.  However, many archaeologists have concluded that by the time of the first European settlement on the East Coast in 1607, the native population had been nearly eradicated by disease brought to them by the earliest European explorers over one hundred years earlier.  This suggests that the landscape found in 1607 was in fact not the pristine landscape it is presumed to have been because the Native American population had been significantly larger than that which early settlers found when they arrived. (2)

Although there is less evidence of such early epidemics on the West Coast, archaeologists speculate that there may have been a similar decimation of the native population by disease introduced by early explorers before European settlement of the Bay Area in 1776.

We have an interest in what Bay Area landscape looked like in 1769/1776 because this is the landscape that native plant restorations are aiming for.  The oldest surviving description of the San Francisco Bay is by a sailor into San Francisco Bay, Don José Canizares in August 1775. He described the East Bay as “broken hill country with very little woodland, bay trees and oaks here and there making up what there is.”   He described San Pablo Bay asbordered by rough hill country without trees except for woodlands in two coves to the southwest, the rest is barren, irregular, and of melancholy aspect.” (3)


“Spanish establishment of San Francisco in New California” artist to von Langsdorff expedition, 1806. Bancroft Library

Other early visitors to San Francisco described the landscape they saw:

“…the sides of the hills, though but moderately elevated, seemed barren, or nearly so; and their summits were composed of naked uneven rocks.”

–          George Vancouver, 1792

“…we rode onward to the Mision [sic].  The road thither is through loose sand, and is not good for either walking or riding.  The surroundings are mostly bare, and the hills covered in places with low shrubs, afford but little of anything interesting.”

–          George Heinrich von Langsdorff, 1806

“The fogs, which the prevailing sea-winds blow over the coast, dissolve in summer over a heated and parched soil, and the country exhibits in autumn only the prospect of bare scorched tracts, alternating with poor stunted bushes, and in places with dazzling wastes of drift sand.”

–          Otto von Kotzebue, 1815

Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) in the Spring of 1837. First known print of San Francisco. Bancroft Library

 “Beyond, to the westward of the landing-place, were dreary sand-hills, with little grass to be seen, and few trees, and beyond them higher hills, steep and barren, their sides gullied by the rains.”

–          Richard Henry Dana, in Two Years Before the Mast, 1835

Bird’s eye view of San Francisco in 1868. US Library of Congress

These historical facts and observations of early visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area raise these questions in our minds:

  • Is there any historical or horticultural logic in selecting the landscape of 1769/1776 as the goal of native plant restorations?
  • Is the landscape of 1776 more aesthetically pleasing than the landscape of today?
  • Does the landscape of 1776 seem to be more “biodiverse” than the landscape of today?
  • How have conditions changed since 1776?  How do air quality, climate, and soil conditions compare to those that existed at that time? 
  • If growing conditions have changed significantly since then, can we expect the same plants to survive?


(1) Lewis, Oscar, San Francisco:  Mission to Metropolis Howell-North Books, Berkeley, CA, 1966

(2) Mann, Charles, 1491:  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Vintage Books, New York, 2005

(3) Cunningham, Laura, A State of Change:  Forgotten Landscapes of California, Heydey Books, Berkeley, CA, 2010

6 thoughts on “The aesthetics of native plant restorations in the San Francisco Bay Area”

  1. These questions you pose are precisely the same ones I ask. I agree with all my neighbors who think that “native plants” could be used in barren spots along sidewalks — let’s put them there! But they are aghast that entire existing forests and existing dense animal habitat should be destroyed for the purpose of replacing them with what amounts to dry grasslands. Thank you for this posting.

  2. I want to take the opportunity to thank you for your web-site and carefully documented writings on a vitally important subject. I have battled the hatred of and misinformation about non-native trees in Santa Cruz, CA for the past thirty years. I was thrilled when someone sent me your link a few months ago. I could add pages about the destruction of beautiful mature trees in Santa Cruz simply because they were deemed unfit to exist by “native” plant activists, but I’ll refrain and simply say you have a strong supporter and admirer here in Santa Cruz.

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