Krakatoa: A case study of species dispersal

Islands are intensively studied by ecologists because they are hothouses for evolution.  Physical isolation results in the evolution of new species that are related to their mainland ancestors and the result is many endemic species of plants and animals which exist only on that island. 

Some islands originated when continents broke up into smaller pieces as a result of continental drift.  Madagascar and New Zealand are examples of islands that were originally attached to a continent.  These islands brought some of the inhabitants of the continent with them.  But many islands arose from the ocean as a result of volcanic activity and were therefore born bare as a newborn babe without vegetation or inhabitants.  All subsequent life on these volcanic islands arrived by dispersal from elsewhere via ocean currents, winds, or carried by traveling animals, most recently by humans.

Krakatoa map

Krakatoa is such a volcanic island in the Indonesian archipelago.  It has a long record of volcanic eruptions which both destroyed much of the island and created new islands.  Many of these eruptions occurred during prehistoric periods, but many have been recorded by human history.  These recent eruptions have created an evolutionary laboratory that enables us to answer the perplexing question of how quickly the dispersal of species occurs. 

The cataclysm of 1883

Krakatoa eruption, lithograph 1888
Krakatoa eruption, lithograph 1888

In August 1883 a series of volcanic eruptions on Krakatoa produced one of the most cataclysmic events of recorded human history.  The force of the blast was the equivalent of 13,000 times the nuclear bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945.  The blast could be heard as far as 3,000 miles away.  Shock waves from the blast reverberated around the planet 7 times.  The blast sent an ash cloud 50 miles into the atmosphere. The weather of the entire planet was altered by the ash cloud.  The temperature dropped by 1.2 Degrees Celsius in the year after the eruption and the climate did not return to normal until 1888.  The blast and subsequent tsunami killed over 36,000 people and destroyed two-thirds of the island.

 Scientists believe that nothing living survived the blast:  “no plant, no animal, no seed, no spore.” (1)  The first scientists visited Krakatoa nine months after the blast.  They reported finding nothing alive except a single spider.  Spiders are notoriously successful dispersers because the webs they weave can become sails on the wind.

Krakatoa is quickly repopulated

In 1886—three years after the eruption—the first botanical expedition arrived on Krakatoa.  They found mosses, algae, flowering plants and eleven species of fern.  They speculated that the arrival of algae enabled the spores of ferns to become established on the otherwise bare ground.  Amongst the plants there were two species of grasses.  Scientists assume that most of these plants arrived via wind, but some species could have arrived as seeds carried by the surf.

Further colonization of the barren island then began to accelerate.  By 1887, young trees were found as well as dense grassland and many ferns.  Butterflies, beetles, flies and a single monitor lizard were found in 1889.   The species of monitor lizard found in 1889 is known to be a good swimmer and is a “versatile opportunist” on land, which means it’s not a fussy eater and it can eat less often than other lizards.

By 1906, there were a hundred species of vascular plants, covering the summit in green and a grove of trees along the shore, including tamarisk and coconut palm.  The coconut is found on virtually any sunny beach in the Pacific because its seeds float in their large protective shell wherever the current carries them.

Fifty years after the eruptions of 1883, the island was home to 171 species of plants.  One botanist estimated that 40% of the plants came on the wind, 30% floated on the sea and most of the remainder were brought by animals.   The eruption of 1883 produced huge quantities of pumice–a lightweight, sponge-like volcanic glass—that floated on the ocean creating rafts that were observed for years after the eruption:  “…a ship’s captain…who encountered pumice on the Indian Ocean, lowered a boat for a closer look, ‘It was curious and interesting to note how it had been utilized by animals and low types of life as habitations and breeding places.’”  (1)

These early arrivals were effective dispersers, but they also had to be capable of surviving inhospitable conditions on arrival.  The order of arrival is therefore an important factor in determining successful establishment.  For example, animals won’t survive if they arrive before needed food resources.  The plants most likely to survive are capable of self-pollinating, that is they don’t require a partner to reproduce.

San Francisco is not an island

How does this experience on Krakatoa compare to our experience in the San Francisco Bay Area?  We’re so glad you asked!!

The many projects all over the Bay Area that destroy non-native vegetation are not isolated islands.  They are surrounded by more non-native vegetation which quickly re-populates the bare ground created by these projects.  Dispersal into small plots of land within San Francisco is much easier than onto isolated Krakatoa.  The majority of these projects do not have the resources to replant the areas in which non-native vegetation is eradicated.  The fiction is that native plants will magically reappear when non-natives are destroyed.  But we can see that the result is the return of the hardiest non-native weeds such as hemlock, star thistle, oxalis, and broom.  These hardy creatures don’t need to be planted.  Their seeds are carried by the wind or remain dormant in the ground to germinate when someone foolishly destroys the trees that provide shade and suppress germination of weeds.

California Academy of Sciences, April 2011
California Academy of Sciences, April 2011

Even when natives are planted, they are quickly out-competed by non-natives.  The best local example of that hard, cold fact is the living roof on the California Academic of Sciences.    When the California Academy of Sciences reopened in San Francisco in August 2008, its “living roof” was considered its most unique feature.  Thirty species of native plants were candidates for planting on the roof.  They were planted in test plots with conditions similar to the planned roof and monitored closely.  Only nine species of native plants were selected for planting on the roof because they were the only plants that were capable of self-sowing from one season to another, implying that they were “sustainable.”  A living demonstration of “sustainability” was said to be the purpose of the living roof.

Two of six of the predominant species on the roof after 2-1/2 years were native.  Four of six of the predominant species were mosses that are “cosmopolitan,” which means they are found everywhere.  They weren’t planted on the roof and were therefore “volunteers.”

The monitoring project divided the roof into four quadrants.  In February 2011, non-natives outnumbered natives in two of the quadrants.  Although natives outnumbered non-natives in the other two quadrants, non-natives were also growing in these quadrants.

The consultant who advised the Academy about what to plant on the roof would not be surprised by this monitoring report.  He advised the Academy to walk the streets of San Francisco and identify the plants growing from the cracks in the sidewalks.  These are the plants he advised the academy to plant because these are the plants that are adapted to current conditions in the city.  The Academy rejected this advice because they were committed to planting exclusively natives on the roof.

The many projects that are destroying non-native vegetation are not sustainable.  They are surrounded by non-native vegetation which is better adapted to current climate, soil, and atmospheric conditions.  Non-native vegetation will out-compete the natives that are not adapted to current conditions.  If these projects were merely futile, perhaps we could shrug and move on.  But we can’t turn a blind eye because these projects are harmful to the environment.  They use huge quantities of toxic herbicide and they are destroying healthy trees that are performing many valuable ecological functions.  These are not harmless experiments.

(1)    David Quammen, Song of the Dodo, Scribner, 1996.

(2) Some information for this post is from Wikipedia

California Academy of Sciences: “Evolution in the Park”

In 2003, when the great debate with native plant advocates about the future of San Francisco’s public parks reached a fever pitch, the California Academy of Sciences stepped into the fray by publishing this article in their quarterly publication, California Wild.  This article was written by Gordy Slack, free lance science writer and former editor of California Wild

Golden Gate Park in 1880. The trees are about 10 years old. In the distance, looking south, we see the sand dunes of the Sunset District. That’s what most of Golden Gate Park looked like before the trees were planted.

As you will see, “Evolution in the Park”  (1) urges the public to consider that the parks of San Francisco have been transformed over the past 150 years from predominantly barren sand dunes to green oases of non-native trees and plants.  Using Golden Gate Park as an example, Mr. Slack reminds us that the non-native trees provided the windbreak needed to protect the entire landscape which we admire today.  The park has changed and it will continue to change, because nature is dynamic.  The forces of evolution are stronger than human desires to freeze-frame our world.

At the time, we were deeply grateful to Mr. Slack and to the Academy of Sciences for taking a position on the controversy.  We remember thinking that the opinion of this prestigious institution would surely settle the controversy.  But we were mistaken, because native plant advocates would not even read this article, let alone heed its message.

As the Environmental Impact Report for the Natural Areas Program undergoes revision and the controversy heats up again, we reprint “Evolution in the Park.”  We can only hope that someday reason will prevail.

Tree ferns from New Zealand are one of many species of non-native trees that make Golden Gate Park the beautiful place it is today. Creative Commons


“When San Francisco officials asked the great nineteenth-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead how to turn the wind-scoured dunes of the western half of the city into a green, rambling park, he was happy to offer advice: Don’t bother, he said, it’ll never work.

They went ahead anyhow, establishing three-mile-long, 1,107-acre Golden Gate Park on April 4, 1870. The decades that followed saw an almost unbelievable transformation under the strong hand of the park’s first superintendent, William Hammond Hall. He shaped glades and grew forests, dug lakes and planted lawns, until people nearly forgot that under the acres of grass and trees and shrubs lay mountains of sand.

The invention of Golden Gate Park was an amazing engineering and horticultural accomplishment, but it was not an environmental one—at least not in the sense of conserving native natural resources. If the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) had existed then, it would never have allowed Hall to spread tons of exotic barley seed over the dunes as part of his plan to “reclaim” them. The barley achieved what Hall wanted—to create favorable conditions for the thousands of alien trees and shrubs he would soon plant. And yet the CNPS now meets in Strybing Arboretum and botanists love the park. Everyone does. It would seem as silly to criticize the park’s blue gum trees for being out-of-towners as it would be to criticize most of us for being exotics. The park is as much an urban invention as the parking lot or the shopping mall, only much better. There is nothing wild about it…except what goes on there.

Nancy de Stefanis is the Director of San Francisco Nature Education, a group that leads nature studies in Golden Gate Park. She is perhaps best known for her discovery in 1993 that great blue herons were nesting in the park’s Stow Lake, and for her efforts to protect those nests from raccoons and other threats (California Wild, Summer 2002). A few days ago, on an early morning walk in the park, she saw a great blue plucking endangered red-legged frogs out of a pond. She saw feral cats, gray squirrels, and a three-foot-long box turtle. All this, and she had intended to look for birds! She saw those, too: an albino robin, varied thrushes, ravens, white- and gold-crowned sparrows, and a courting pair of red-tail hawks doing loopty-loops and dives. She saw a bevy of seven California quail running through Strybing Arboretum, the only population of quail left in the park. “It was incredible,” she said. “We saw 25 bird species easy.”

Anyone who’s spent much time in Golden Gate Park has wild stories to tell. My own favorite took place a few years ago, after I’d pulled an all-nighter at the magazine and was tired enough to sleep dangling off of Half Dome. Half Dome was too far away, so I walked a few hundred yards east on Middle Drive and up a tiny path back to Lily Pond. I walked the perimeter looking for a place to sleep. The pond had steep vegetated banks all around except for a small, reasonably sloped patch of dirt on the east side. I kicked away some guano, put a newspaper under my head, and fell asleep.

I woke up half an hour later; something soft was tickling my arm. I raised my head slowly to find myself surrounded by mallards. There must have been 20 and they filled every inch of the dirt patch around me. One nestled comfortably between my outstretched arm and my torso.

Each duck had its head swiveled and tucked into the feathers on its back. When I lifted my own head, the birds next to me raised and turned theirs as well, and a couple of them stirred, causing a chain reaction of awakenings in the ultimate morning-after surprise. No one lost his or her cool, though. I tiptoed out of their realm and headed back to work, downy feathers clinging to my sweater and my hair. That was how I became the Man Who Sleeps with Ducks.

Raymond Bandar, a field associate in the Academy’s Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy, grew up in Golden Gate Park and has a thousand wild stories to tell. He says that in the 1940s, when he was a boy, it was a “biologist’s paradise.” He spent long summer days hunting for garter snakes, alligator and fence lizards, bush rabbits, Pacific pond turtles, weasels, and red-legged frogs. Peacocks roamed free in the park, and there Bandar courted his wife, Alkmene. They took long, moonlit walks from the beach to the park’s entrance on Stanyan, stopping to spoon in the Valley of the Moon.

Most old-timers like Bandar long for the good old days, when the park was “less manicured.” It’s hard to tell if this is because the park used to be wilder, or because the old-timers were. But there’s no doubt that the park refuses to cooperate by holding still. As Heracleitus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” (Or as Cratylus, Heracleitus’s follower, trumped, ‘You can’t step into the same river once.’)

The park’s “ecosystems” are a moving target, changing with park administrations and larger cycles of growth and death. In recent years, the Parks Department has cleared away much of the undergrowth that had been protecting ground-nesting birds—and homeless humans. Other forces originate outside the park but have an influence by increasing, diminishing, or eliminating the animals that live within. If there are no peregrines anywhere else in California, there aren’t going to be any in Golden Gate Park either.

Late Academy ornithologist Luis Baptista used to talk about the 1980s in the park. California quail were common then, running here and there on urgent business. Native bush rabbits lived here, too. The rabbits are now gone and the quail nearly so. I’ve heard speculation that the rabbit population may have collapsed partly under predation by humans, too. But both are most likely victims of the park’s shifting food web.

Raptors returned when their populations rebounded from the DDT poisoning that largely ended four decades ago. Recently, red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper’s hawks have moved in, according to Douglas Bell, a biology professor at California State University in Sacramento. The park is now “probably a sink for white-crowns” he says. “It draws them in, but because of the intense predation, their survivorship is very low.” But even bigger players in the songbird and quail equation are the park’s resident feral cats. According to Baptista and Bell, white-crowned sparrow deaths in the park are probably due mostly to cats.

In addition to feral cats and other predators, floral changes affect park wildlife as well. Many of the Park’s trees are reaching climax now, says Peter Dallman, who is writing a natural history guide to Strybing Arboretum. The big trees are falling or are being cut down in anticipation of their natural collapse. The pygmy nuthatch, a bird that nests in the park’s climax Monterey pine forest, will likely flee the park when those trees come down.

Today, raccoons are plentiful. So are ravens, though Bell remembers that not long ago no ravens nested here. Exotic cowbirds have arrived, too; they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then raise ravenous cowbird chicks, often at the expense of their own young. Squirrels are multiplying out of control, says Dallman.

Cat populations are strong, but not as strong as their political lobby. The bison herd, introduced to the park in 1894, remains stable at eleven. But the reintroduced grizzly bears (Bandar remembers when there were at least two sad grizzlies in cages in the park’s southeast corner) are long gone. The last Golden Gate grizzly, Monarch, is now stuffed and on exhibit in the Academy’s Wild California Hall.

These changes and conflicts raise some uncomfortable questions about the park and its mission. By what standard can the costs or benefits of these changes be measured? Should we be trying to restore Golden Gate Park systems and populations that are at bottom artificial? Should we simply maintain the species we prefer, and get rid of, or let slip away, the unpopular ones? Should “maximum diversity” be the goal, and mandate mediations of conflicts that arise between incompatible species, such as cat and quail?

To maintain quail in the park for the long term, for instance, would require “intensive and sustained human intervention,” says Bell. “We’d have to rely on the full range of wildlife management techniques.” Predation would have to be monitored and protective habitat cultivated. New quail stocks would have to be introduced, and electrically charged wire cages (through which the quail could fit, but not cats or ravens or raptors) could be built around nesting areas. But without heroic and constant human support, the quails’ days in the park are numbered.

Like its creation, the park’s future will be shaped by human invention, its progression determined by our priorities.”

Golden Gate Park, aerial view. Gnu Free Documentation

(1) Gordy Slack, “Evolution in the Park,” California Wild, Spring 2003 [reprinted with permission of author]

A dialogue about insects and non-native plants

We received a comment on our “Wildlife” page from “entomologist” that deserves a comprehensive response. 

 Conversation with “entomologist”

 “entomologist:”  “Adaptation to exotic species by specialist herbivores is unusual.  Those butterflies that switch to exotics tend to be generalists already.”  

Webmaster:  “Entomologist” is mistaken that the butterflies now using non-native plants are generalists, by which we assume he means that they use many plants, rather than a specific species.  According to Professor Art Shapiro (UC Davis), 26 of the 82 species of California butterflies now feeding on exotic plant species, are using only one plant species.  In other words, nearly one-third of California butterflies presently using exotic plant species are not generalists.(1)  When butterflies have made the transition from a native to a non-native plant, the plants are usually chemically similar. 

Anise Swallowtail, Sutro Forest
Anise Swallowtail, Sutro Forest, March 2010

The Anise Swallowtail is a conspicuous example of a California butterfly that is now dependent upon a particular exotic plant, fennel. This relationship between a specific native insect and a specific non-native plant is one of the reasons why the Million Trees blog was created.  Non-native fennel is being eradicated by every native plant “restoration” in the Bay Area.   

Over ten years ago, a park advocate in San Francisco became enraged by the eradication of fennel in his park because he was aware of the dependence of the Anise Swallowtail upon the fennel.  He made every effort to convince the so-called Natural Areas Program to stop destroying the fennel in his park.  He enlisted the help of Professor Art Shapiro in that effort. His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.  The Natural Areas Program considered the non-native origins of the fennel sufficient reason to eradicate it, regardless of the needs of a native butterfly.  They continue those eradication efforts to this day. 

It is such mindless destruction of non-native plants, regardless of their benefit to fauna (or other benefits) that has made the Natural Areas Program so unpopular with people with a broader view of nature. We value the Anise Swallowtail butterfly as much as any theoretical benefit from eradicating a non-native plant.

“entomologist:”  “This idea that exotic plants are as good for wildlife as natives is just plain pathetic, especially for anyone who knows about herbivory  patterns on native and exotic plants.”

Webmaster:  By “pathetic” we assume “entomologist” means that he does not believe that insects eat non-native plants.  He is mistaken that insects do not eat non-native plants.  Returning to Professor Shapiro, he reports that 82 of 236 (35%) total species of California butterflies feed on non-native plants

Professor Dov Sax (Brown University) compared insects living in the leaf litter of the non-native eucalyptus forest with those living in the native oak-bay woodland in Berkeley, California.  He found significantly more species of insects in the leaf litter of the eucalyptus forest in the spring and equal numbers in the fall.(2)  Professor Sax also reports the results of many similar studies all over the world that reach the same conclusion.

The California Academy of Sciences finds that several years after planting its roof with native plants, it is now dominated by non-native species of plants in the two quadrants that are not being weeded, replanted and reseeded with natives.  Their monitoring project recently reported that there were an equal number of insects found in the quadrants dominated by native plants and those dominated by non-native plants. 

Damselflies (probably Common Blue) mating on non-native ivy in Glen Canyon Park.

We also use our eyes when we walk in our parks.  We often find insects in non-native plants.  Those non-native plants are often targets for eradication.  The damselflies in a San Francisco park are another example of the contradictory strategies of the Natural Areas Program.  They have made several attempts to reintroduce the rare Forktailed Damselfly to one of the parks in San Francisco.  Although those attempts have not been successful, we see other species of damselflies in that park, using the non-native plants that are repeatedly sprayed with herbicides by the Natural Areas Program.  We wonder if the herbicide use in that park is contributing to the failure of attempts to reintroduce the Forktailed Damselfly. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

“entomologist:”  “Insects eating plants are at the base of the food chain and native plants have more insect herbivores and support more native birds.”

Webmaster:  We can agree that many birds eat insects and those that do are likely to benefit from greater populations of insects.  But, there is substantial evidence that insects are as likely to be found in non-native plants as in native plants and we trust that the birds know where to find them.  However, unlike “entomologist” we are as interested in the welfare of non-native birds as we are in native birds. 

“entomologist:”  “Doug Tallamy’s work shows this in the eastern US conclusively.”

Webmaster:  Professor Tallamy’s (University of Delaware) publications do not seem to be available on-line, which prevents us from reading his publications.  However, since he studies the insects on the east coast we don’t think whatever he reports trumps the studies that we have cited of insect populations here in the Bay Area. 

“entomologist:”     “I certainly feel for the loss of trees, but the alternative is that we accept a homogenized set of urban-tolerant plants and wildlife.  Maybe that’s ok if you don’t know the difference, but for those of us who actually pay attention it is profoundly sad.”

Webmaster:   We don’t see the logic of “entomologist’s” vision of a “homogenized” ecology.  If we destroy non-native plants and animals, our ecology will be less diverse.  And we hope that the readers of Million Trees will agree that we are, indeed, “paying attention.” 

 The Big Picture

 We suggest that “entomologist” and other native plant advocates step back from their deeply-seated prejudices against non-native plants and consider the big picture.  The fact is that insects are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they live in relatively narrow temperature ranges. (3) Although they are adjusting well to changes in vegetation, they are not likely to be able to make an equally successful adjustment to changes in temperatures.  Therefore, if our top priority is insects, we would be wise to reconsider destroying millions of non-native trees that are sequestering millions of tons of carbon, contributing to greenhouse gases and thereby to climate change.    


(1) Arthur M. Shapiro, “Exotics as host plants of the California butterfly fauna,” Biological Conservation, 110, 413-433, 2003

(2) Dov Sax. “Equal diversity in disparate species assemblages:  a comparison of native and exotic woodlands in California,” Global Ecology and Biogeography, 11, 49-52, 2002.

(3) “Mountain plant communities moving down despite climate change, study finds,” Los Angeles Times, 1/24/11

A dialogue about the living roof on the California Academy of Sciences

We encourage native plant advocates to comment on our posts because we learn from them.  We learn more about their ideology and the assumptions that support it.

These dialogues with native plant advocates are embedded in our posts and are therefore not as accessible to our readers as they often deserve to be.  Occasionally, we will create a post from these exchanges so that all of our readers can benefit from them.  In so doing, we hope not to discourage native plant advocates from posting comments, as they are essential to improving our mutual understanding of the complex issues we are debating.

We recently received a comment from someone who seemed to believe that our post about the green roof on the California Academy of Sciences is essentially fraudulent.   His accusations deserve a response.

California Academy of Sciences, April 2011

Comment from “Name Here”

May 6, 2011 11:43 am

Name Here:  “Since you don’t have the confidence to post your identity, I thought it only fitting to return the favor. Your argument would have much more strength if you were not anonymous.

You claim on your home page to provide citations, yet in this article you fail to tell us who “We had the privilege of meeting the ecology consultant who designed the plant palette for the living roof for the academy and many other institutions around the world.” is referring to. The “ecology consultant” does not have a name? By then throwing out Peter Del Tredici’s name it would appear as though you wish your reader to assume that he was the “ecology consultant” you refer to.”

Webmaster: The ecology consultant for the living roof on the Academy was Paul Kephart of Rana Nursery. He is the person we are quoting in our post about planning for the living roof.  Our readers can confirm Mr. Kephart’s role in the design of the roof by reading this article:  “High Maintenance Superstar,” Linda McIntyre, Landscape Architecture, August 2009.  This article is not available on-line, but the edition of the magazine in which it was published can be purchased on-line.  However, Mr. Kephart’s statement quoted in our post was made in a lecture to a group and does not appear in this publication. 

Our post did not state, nor did it imply that Peter Del Tredici was the ecology consultant for this project.  He is a scientist who has published articles about native plant “restorations,” particularly in urban settings.  We quote him in our post because his observations about native plant gardens are directly relevant to the living roof.

Name Here:  “On another note, you mention this third predominant species on the roof as “a moss” and then tell us it is non-native, yet offer no proof of this. Citing another blog with no standard of journalistic integrity is not a valid source. You might want to present the scientific name of this moss to prove your point, though I do not believe, judging by your writing, that you actually know the name, or you would have presented it.”

Webmaster:  At the time that we published our posts about the living roof, we did not know the names of the mosses on the roof, which is why we quoted the “From the Thicket” blog.  The author of the “From the Thicket” blog, Heath Schenker, is Professor of Landscape Architecture at UC Davis.  Her background and credentials are described on her blog.  She wrote her post about the living roof at the California Academy of Sciences after attending a symposium at the Academy about their monitoring project.  Our readers can judge for themselves if this was a credible source of information to document our post at the time it was published.

 Name Here:  “There are many different species of mosses out there, some native, some non-native. Many moss are very cosmopolitan in their range and therefore may occur natively all over the world. The actual quote from InTheThicket is as follows: “Nobody knows where the mosses came from, but they appear to be varieties of early-succession mosses, the types that commonly show up in disturbed soil.” I challenge you to show me where this says they are non-native.”

Webmaster:  After we published our post, the Academy made their monitoring report available on-line:  The report contained the names of the mosses on the roof: Bryum sp., Rosulabryum sp., Ceratodon purpureus, Leptobryum pyriforme.  We took that list to the Jepson Herbarium at UC Berkeley to confirm that our description of the mosses was accurate.  The staff at the Herbarium looked up those mosses for us and described them as “cosmopolitan,” which means they are widespread and cannot be considered either native or non-native.  Since these mosses were not amongst the 9 species of native plants originally planted on the roof, we felt comfortable with our original description of them.  They are clearly “volunteers,” not part of the original roof top planting.

Name Here:  “I think it is important for anyone reading this blog to be reminded that it is just that, a blog. It is written by an anonymous source who can say whatever they like with no fear of reprisal other than these comments, and with no need to live up to journalistic standards of any kind.”

Webmaster:  Yes, the Million Trees blog is “just a blog.”  However, I invite our readers to consider the difference between this accusatory comment from “Name Here” and the information we present.  We provide citations for most statements we make.  Those citations are usually of publications by academics at major universities, published in peer-reviewed journals or journalistic articles about their publications.  We often resort to journalistic articles because they are easier for non-scientists to comprehend. 

We know that we are confronting firmly held beliefs in the community of native plant advocates.  Therefore, we cannot expect to challenge their assumptions without providing well-documented information.  And since we have often been on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks by native plant advocates, we do our best to protect ourselves from such attacks by standing on firm scientific ground and by remaining anonymous.  (One wonders what “reprisals we should fear” for providing information with which “Name Here” disagrees.)

In contrast, “Name Here” questions our credibility without providing any evidence to substantiate his claim that we are fabricating information. Therefore, his comment seems more an attempt to discredit than to illuminate. 

The Living Roof: A failed experiment in native plant gardening

Living Roof, California Academy of Sciences, March 2011

When the California Academy of Sciences reopened in San Francisco in August 2008, its “living roof” was considered its most unique feature.  Thirty species of native plants were candidates for planting on the roof.  They were planted in test plots with conditions similar to the planned roof and monitored closely.  Only nine species of native plants were selected for planting on the roof because they were the only plants that were capable of self-sowing from one season to another, implying that they were “sustainable.”  A living demonstration of “sustainability” was said to be the purpose of the living roof. 

So, 2-1/2 years later, what have we learned from the living roof about the sustainability of native plants in San Francisco?  The results of monitoring the roof since June 2009, are reported on the “fromthethicket” blog about Golden Gate Park.

Two of three of the predominant species on the roof after 2-1/2 years are native.  The third–moss–is not.  It is described by “fromthethicket” as “varieties of early succession mosses, the types that commonly show up in disturbed soil.”

The monitoring project has divided the roof into four quadrants.  Non-natives now outnumber natives in two of the quadrants, those which are not being weeded.  Although natives outnumber non-natives significantly in the other two quadrants, non-natives are also growing in these quadrants.

California Academy of Sciences, April 2011

We had the privilege of meeting the ecology consultant who designed the plant palette for the  living roof for the academy and many other institutions around the world.  He would not be surprised by this monitoring report.  He advised the Academy to walk the streets of San Francisco and identify the plants growing from the cracks in the sidewalks.  These are the plants he advised the academy to plant because these are the plants that are adapted to current conditions in the city.  The Academy rejected this advice because they were committed to planting exclusively natives on the roof.

The designer also advised the academy not to irrigate the roof, because the point of the roof is that it is a demonstration of sustainability.  Again, the Academy refused because they knew that without irrigation most of the native plants would be brown during the dry season, roughly half the year.  They wanted the public to believe that the plants that are native to San Francisco are beautiful year around.

There is a lesson to learn here for anyone who is willing to learn from it.  The living roof is not natural because it is irrigated and intensively gardened (e.g., weeded, fertilized, replanted, reseeded), yet non-natives not only found their way there on their own, but are dominating it within only 2-1/2 years.  Native plants are not sustainable in San Francisco without intensive gardening effort.

Peter Del Tredici has been telling us this for several years.  He is a Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University and a Lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

In a recent publication*, he advises the managers of public lands in urban areas to abandon their fantasy that native plants are sustainable in urban settings:

“The notion that self-sustaining, historically accurate plant associations can be restored to urban areas is an idea with little credibility in light of the facts that 1) the density of the human populations and the infrastructure necessary to support it have led to the removal of the original vegetation, 2) the abiotic growing conditions [e.g., temperature, salinity, moisture, etc.] of urban areas are completely different from what they were originally; and 3) the large number of non-native species that have naturalized in cities provide intense competition for the native species that grew there prior to urbanization.”

Sure, he says, we can grow native plants, but they require at least the same amount of effort as growing any other plant and are therefore just another form of gardening:  “Certainly people can plant native species in the city, but few of them will thrive unless they are provided with the appropriate soil and are maintained to the same level as other intentionally cultivated plants.”

He concludes that native plant advocates are making a “cultural value judgment:”

“…people are looking at the plant through the subjective lens of a cultural value judgment which places a higher value on the nativity of a given plant than on its ecological function.  While this privileging of nativity may be appropriate and necessary for preserving large wilderness areas or rare native species it seems at odds with the realities of urban systems, where social and ecological functionality typically take priority over the restoration of historic ecosystems.”

We hope that the managers of our public lands in the San Francisco Bay Area will soon catch up with the scientific literature as well as acknowledge the actual experience of years of failed “restorations.”  Aside from the waste of scarce resources, these efforts are poisoning our parks with toxic herbicides and destroying beautiful and healthy plants and trees to no useful purpose. 

* “Spontaneous Urban Vegetation:  Reflections of Change in a Globalized World,” Nature and Culture. Winter 2010, 209-315.