Bringing Botany into Medical Science

In American Eden, Victoria Johnson tells the remarkable story of an American physician, David Hosack, who brought knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants to America at the end of the 18th century.  The medicinal properties of plants have been known to humans for thousands of years, but incorporating that knowledge into modern medical science began only in the 18th century. 

Traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants was closely tied to many religious superstitions.  The Doctrine of Signatures seemed a logical botanical belief at a time when plants were one of man’s few medicinal tools and religion was a powerful influence in human society.  The Doctrine of Signatures, which was actively promoted by the church in 17th century Europe, was based on a belief that God had “signed” plants with certain suggestive shapes and colors to inform humans of their medicinal properties.  For example, a heart-shaped leaf was considered God’s message to us that a particular plant would be beneficial to the human heart and this message was strengthened by a flesh-colored flower. Every plant was believed to be useful in some way if man could only discern its use.  Else why would they have been created, since the Garden of Eden was created for the benefit of man?  The church encouraged man’s study of plants as a way to worship God’s creation. (2)

David Hosack

Medical science was equally burdened with harmful, often deadly, medical practices such as bleeding and prescribing mercury.  When David Hosack began practicing medicine in New York at the end of the 18th century he was acutely aware of the limitations of the tools of his profession.  He could see the promise of prescribing plant extracts to his patients, but he was frustrated by his limited knowledge of plants, their uses and his access to them. 

He decided that learning more about botany and horticulture were the prerequisites for developing the medicines his patients needed.  He went to England and Scotland where he studied for two years under the tutelage of the pioneers of the botanical science that was beginning to transform medicine. 

The development of the Linnaean system of classifying species earlier in the 18th century enabled a more systematic study of plants based on their close relationships and similarities.  Physicians and apothecaries had for centuries relied on inaccurate rules to try to divine the medicinal properties of specific plants.  Medicinal properties cannot be determined by a particular color, shape, or smell.  Linnaeus’s new framework classified plants into orders, classes, families, genera, and species, groups with similar medicinal properties because they were chemically similar.  Plants in the same order were expected to share some of the same medical properties.  Plants in the same class share more properties, families still more and the most similarity is found within a genus. “By way of example, Linnaeus noted that the various known species of Convolvulus, a genus in the bindweed family that included morning glories, all appeared to have purgative effects on the body.” (1) 

In Scotland and England the knowledge of the medical uses of plants and the classification of plants according to the Linnaean system led to the development of botanical gardens where new plants with these properties could be studied and medical students were taught to identify the plants and learn their medical uses.  These botanical gardens enabled the incorporation of botanical knowledge into medical knowledge.  The gardens collected plants from all over the world that were recognized as the close relatives to plants from closer to home and were considered equally valuable as potential therapeutic drugs. 

These botanical gardens fostered a cosmopolitan view of plants that actively sought and welcomed new plants from the regions of the world that were being newly explored.  The Linnaean classification system made it possible for new plants to be incorporated into the global family of plants.  We have lost this sense of a global family of plants.  Instead of classifying plants according to their membership in families, orders, and classes, the plant world has been artificially divided into two meaningless categories:  native and non-native.  These categories prevent us from understanding the close relationships between plants.  The native plant movement has turned most of the plant world into aliens. Just as dividing the human race into white and non-white is prejudicial and harmful, dividing the plant world into native and non-native is equally pernicious.

The Consequences of Putting Plants into “Native” Strait-Jackets

Milkweed is an example of the consequences of classifying plants based on their native status.  There are about 200 species of milkweed in the Asclepias genus and they are distributed broadly across Africa, North America, and South America.  There are a few species of milkweed native to the Bay Area, but the most popular species of milkweed, tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), is not.  It is popular with home gardeners because it is a strikingly beautiful plant and it is a perennial, unlike our native milkweed, which is not available in winter months.

Monarch butterflies are dependent upon milkweed as its host plant.  They lay their eggs on milkweed and their caterpillars eat milkweed.  In the past, monarchs in California spent the winter roosting in trees along the coast of California.  They did not breed during the winter.  They moved inland during summer months where they bred.

Because of global warming, monarchs have begun to breed during the winter months in California and the existence of tropical milkweed in gardens in coastal California has made that possible:  “the [monarch] population boom in the Bay Area had not been seen before.  It was unusually warm that fall, which may have accounted for the numbers.  And tropical milkweed, which unlike native milkweed flowers through the winter and creates a suitable habitat for breeding, was abundant in gardens.” (3)

Scientists with a commitment to the survival of monarchs have welcomed this development:  “But the growth of local, breeding monarchs is seen, at least by some, as a sign of the resilience of the monarchs, their ability to find new ways to persist in the face of an increasingly threatened migration.  Might we be seeing the growth of a resident population of monarchs in the Bay Area?” (3)

The Nature Police have succeeded in getting the sale of tropical milkweed banned in Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo and Ventura counties.  Academic entomologist have pushed back against this harmful ban in an article published by The Monterey Herald, San Jose Mercury, Marin Independent Journal, and East Bay Times:

  • “Hugh Dingle, a retired University of California at Davis entomology professor who has studied monarch butterfly migration for more than two decades, said the bans are “basically a wasted effort” and that the focus should be on larger threats such as pesticide and herbicide use. All species of milkweed carry parasites that can affect monarch populations, Dingle said.”
  • “Arthur Shapiro, a UC Davis professor who has studied monarch butterflies for the past six decades, described the rationale behind the bans as “hogwash.”  Shapiro, Dingle and other researchers said winter breeding among monarch butterflies is a relatively new behavior and one influenced by warmer winter temperatures caused by climate change.”
  • “David James, an associate entomology professor at Washington State University who has studied monarch butterfly breeding and migration in the Bay Area, said there is a case to be made about the tropical milkweed as being a vital resource for the monarchs in a changing climate.”
  • “Leslie McGinnis, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate studying monarch populations and working with gardeners in the East Bay, said the bans take a “simplistic view” of the threats that monarchs face, including the fact that many native milkweed plants supplied to nurseries can also be sprayed with pesticides. The bans, she said, can work to disenfranchise or demonize people that have tropical milkweed who instead could be partners in working to help restore monarch populations.”

Native plant advocates are wedded to a past that is long gone.  The climate has changed and it will continue to change. Monarchs and other animals are trying to adapt to the changed conditions.  Their survival depends on their ability to adapt.  The native plant movement has become a form of climate change denial.  Their irrational hatred of introduced plants is damaging the environment with herbicides and harming wildlife. There is no evidence that tropical milkweed is harmful to monarchs.

Update:  Professor Art Shapiro has kindly offered this addition to the many benefits of tropical milkweed, which is also a reminder that both native and non-native plants often have medicinal properties:  “Asclepias curassavica is known as “cancerillo” in rural Latin America and a root extract is reputed to have anti-cancer properties. It has a huge number of ethnobotanical uses. Because steroid cardenolides are highly toxic, it should not be used except under the guidance of an expert herbalist. I do not know if the alleged anti-cancer activity has been formally investigated. Virtually every rural peasant I have asked about it in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Chile knows its reputation.”  Thank you, Professor Shapiro, for this useful information.  Professor Shapiro has traveled widely in Latin America to visit his butterfly friends.  October 1, 2022

Elgin Botanical Garden

David Hosack studied under the tutelage of the botanical pioneers in England who taught physicians how to use plants to treat their patients.  When he returned home in 1794 he was determined to establish a botanical garden in New York that would be available to medical students at Columbia College, where he taught.  The botanical garden was needed to collect plants from all over the globe, including the unsettled regions of the new nation.  That was his life’s work.

Hosack began his venture by trying to convince Columbia College that a botanical garden was needed to educate physicians and supply them with the medicines they needed for their patients.  It was his intention to collect plants from all over the world to study their medicinal properties and make more therapeutic remedies available to physicians and their patients. Every plant in the world was potentially useful in his opinion. He named the garden Elgin Botanical Garden after his father’s home town in Scotland.

Elgin Botanical Garden, 1810

When Hosack was unable to convince Columbia College to make this investment for their medical school, he built the garden himself at his expense.  He also tirelessly recruited plant specimens from all over the world.  Although he built a world-class institution, he was draining his personal resources.  He tried and eventually convinced the State of New York to buy the garden from him.  The State acquired the garden, but did not provide for its maintenance.  Hosack lost control over the management of the garden and it was quickly gutted by unscrupulous managers who sold the collection for personal gain.  The garden was in ruins when Hosack died in 1835.  The garden is commemorated by a small plaque on the Rockefeller Center that occupies the ground where the Elgin Botanical Garden was built. 

The Historical Context

The story of David Hosack’s extraordinary accomplishments takes place within the context of early American history.  Hosack knew every major player in American politics, government, literature, science, and business.  He was personal friends with both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  He was asked by Hamilton to attend the duel with Aaron Burr and he attended his death after the duel in 1804.  Hosack had strong feelings about the obligations of physicians to remain neutral in all political matters.  Although he had a strong affection for Hamilton, he maintained his friendship with Aaron Burr until his death.  Burr’s sad story appears many times in American Eden, as he descends into a life of obscurity because of his role in Hamilton’s death, a choice he is said not to have regretted.

Many other important people appear in the story as Hosack befriends them and often plays a role in their success.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s botanist is among those who revered Hosack.  When Napolean sent him to America to collect new plants, Hosack took him under his wing.  He studied plants at the Elgin Botanical Garden while earning his degree as a physician.  Hosack and Alire Raffeneau Delile had a life-long correspondence.  Hosack’s son, Dr. Alexander Hosack, visited Delile in France after his father’s death.  Delile recognized him instantly as Hosack’s son and embraced him warmly.  He showed Alexander Hosack his prized possession, his long correspondence with David Hosack. 

David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who named many American native plant species during his expeditions in America was a friend of Hosack.  Douglas visited California where he named Douglas fir and Douglas iris, among others.  Douglas studied with Hosack and later acknowledged his importance to American botany by naming a new genus of wildflower he found in the Western US Hosackia, as a tribute to his favorite American.

Hosackia oblongifolia

American Eden is a rewarding book for many reasons, including an intimate glimpse into the lives and events of early America.  It is also a reminder of the heavy price of botanical ignorance that is relevant to the horticultural controversies of today.


  1. American Eden:  David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic, Victoria Johnson, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018
  2. Weeds:  In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, Richard Mabey, Profile Books Ltd, London, 2010
  3. “The Story of the Butterflies,” Endria Richardson, Bay Nature, Summer 2022

Tale of Two Butterfly Gardens

We visited two butterfly gardens on a recent trip to Santa Cruz.  The two gardens take different approaches to providing butterflies with what they need.  The different strategies contrast the nativist approach with an approach that emphasizes diversity.  The more diverse approach seems to be more successful in attracting butterflies, at least in the case of these two gardens that are located within a few miles of one another, in very similar climate conditions.

Natural Bridges State Park is the home of a eucalyptus grove that provides shelter for overwintering monarchs from November to February.  Only 550 monarchs roosted in the trees in November 2020.  The population of migrating monarchs in California increased greatly in 2021 and the site at Natural Bridges was no exception.  2,100 monarchs were counted at Natural Bridges in November 2021.  

Signs explain why eucalyptus trees provide the ideal shelter for overwintering monarch butterflies.  They shelter the butterflies from wind and rain.  Their canopies are open to the sunlight that provides the heat needed to keep the monarchs active and able to feed.  Eucalyptus are blooming when the butterflies are roosting, providing the nectar the butterflies need to sustain them.

Remarkably, signs also inform visitors that other non-native plants, such as English ivy, provide monarchs with the food they need to live through the winter months:

Natural Bridges State Park also puts its money where its mouth is.  Rangers have installed a butterfly garden in front of the ranger station that is an eclectic mix of native and non-native plants.  Many are non-native favorites of butterflies, such as Buddleia (butterfly bush), cosmos, and Scabiosa (pin cushion flower).  Both Buddleia and Scabiosa have been designated as “invasive” by the California Invasive Plant Council and are eradicated with herbicides by many public land managers.   Natural Bridges State Park seems to be an exception to that unfortunate rule, possibly because they have observed what butterflies actually use and need.

Butterfly garden, Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz

Proving that point, here is an Western Tiger swallowtail butterfly nectaring on Scabiosa at Natural Bridges.

The Flip Side:  UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden

The second butterfly garden we visited was in the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden, just a few miles away from Natural Bridges State Park.  The butterfly garden at the UCSC botanic garden is exclusively native and the narrative on its signs is consistent with the nativist agenda:

There isn’t much blooming in July in a garden of exclusively California natives.

No monarch butterflies were observed in the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden during their 2021 California migration.

The UCSC botanic garden is well worth a visit.  Its focus is the flora of Mediterranean climates:  California, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.  The garden is an opportunity to observe that many of our favorite plants come from other Mediterranean climates and observing them in July helps us to understand that planting a diverse, drought-tolerant garden can provide year-around blooms for pollinators and add color to our own gardens:

There’s not much blooming in the California section of the UCSC botanic garden in July.
Protea in the Australian section of the UCSF botanic garden is blooming like mad in July.
This is Bushy Baeckea from Australia, also flowering profusely in the USCS botanic garden in July.
This is the New Zealand section of the UCSC botanic garden.  “Electric Pink” (Cordyline australis) provides the color in this garden.  Our motel in Santa Cruz was landscaped with this stunning plant.

What does the tale of two butterfly gardens tell us?

I hope these pictures speak for themselves, but in case they don’t here’s the point of this post:

  • Butterflies and other pollinators do not care where plants are from.  They are looking for food and shelter.  If non-native plants provide what they need, they will happily use them.
  • Non-native plants from other Mediterranean climates are well-adapted to our climate.  They are also drought-tolerant. 
“Electric Pink” Cordyline australis captures the morning dew on its spikey leaves and funnels the moisture to the roots of the plant.  This is an adaptation to a dry climate. 

Pesticide use in public parks in the San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) is a 501(c)4 not-for-profit organization with a mission of inclusive environmentalism. SFFA fights to protect our environment through outreach and providing information. SFFA opposes the unnecessary destruction of trees, opposes the use of toxic herbicides in parks and public lands, and supports public access to our parks and conservation of our tree canopy.

With permission, Conservation Sense and Nonsense is republishing SFFAs annual report on pesticide use by San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department.  The report separates pesticide use in so-called “natural areas” from other park areas and finds that most pesticides are used in “natural areas.”  Conservation Sense and Nonsense is grateful to SFFA for compiling and reporting this important information. 

Conservation Sense and Nonsense follows pesticide use by the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), where the pattern of pesticide use is similar to San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department.  EBRPD has restricted spraying of glyphosate pesticides in developed areas of the park while continuing to use pesticides in naturalized areas to eradicate non-native plants.  In other words, most pesticide use in the public parks of the San Francisco Bay Area is devoted to eradicating non-native plants.

Conservation Sense and Nonsense


As we usually do, we compiled the pesticide usage data for San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department for 2021.  (We exclude Harding Park – but not the other golf courses – from this analysis because it’s externally-managed under a PGA contract to be kept tournament-ready at all times.) We’re pleased to note that SFRPD has reduced its pesticide usage in comparison to 2020 and 2019. 

NATIVE PLANT AREAS USE MORE OF THESE TOXIC HERBICIDES

But this is not true of the Natural Resources Division (this includes PUC areas managed in the same way – i.e. use of toxic herbicides against plants they dislike). Their usage has risen and is the highest it’s ever been from 2016.

The Natural Resources Department (NRD, formerly the Natural Areas Program or NAP) is the entity that is trying to bring “native” plants to more than a thousand acres of our parks, cuts down trees and restricts access to people and their pets.  NRD, which accounts for perhaps a fourth of the land area, used over 70% of the pesticides measured as active ingredients in fluid ounces.

NRD – and PUC lands that they are managing the same way – continued to increase their use of triclopyr since the new pesticide Vastlan has been designated Tier II (More Hazardous) instead of Garlon, which was Tier I (Most Hazardous). In both herbicides, the active ingredient is triclopyr. They also increased their usage of imazapyr, and continued to use Roundup, though in smaller quantities than before.

Here are the two earlier graphs lined up to show the comparison. The Native Plant areas used more herbicides in 2021 than they had ever used in the last six years – or that the other SFRPD departments together used in the same time. Their failure to reduce usage in 2021 is in stark contrast to the more than 50% drop in the other SFRPD.


SFRPD Other (i.e. other than the Native plant areas) uses mainly Polaris (imazapyr) and Clearcast ( ammonium salt of imazamox). The native plant areas, NRD / SFPUC, use large amounts of triclopyr, (Garlon and Vastlan), as well as some glyphosate (Roundup).

A FAILING STRATEGY

The NRD’s continually growing usage of the herbicides is a sign that this strategy is failing. They have been using hazardous chemicals on some 50 target species of plants year after year. Theoretically, the point of using toxic herbicides on unwanted species is to allow the desired species to replace them.  Instead, the growing usage of these chemicals shows that if anything, the situation is only made worse.

This stands to reason; “invasive” plants are successful because they are better adapted to current conditions. If they are destroyed with herbicides, the replacement is likely to be the next best adapted (thus, invasive) species. Given 50 target species, the bench is deep. This leads to a vicious cycle of hazardous herbicide use, clearly visible in the graph above.

PESTICIDES COME TO SHARP PARK 

For many years since we started compiling these data, Sharp Park has been off-limits for pesticides. We’ve seen very minimal usage – maybe 3 or 4 times over all the years. It’s home to the red-legged frog, and the San Francisco garter snake.

In 2021, that changed. In the space of one year, pesticides were applied 9 times. We did anticipate this would happen as NRD extended its grip on this park.

TIER HAZARD RATINGS

San Francisco’s Department of the Environment (SFEnvironment) assigns Tier hazard ratings to the various pesticides it uses. Tier III is Least Hazardous, Tier II is More Hazardous, and Tier I is Most Hazardous.  Over the years we have been following this usage, we have seen various chemicals being moved from one Tier to another. Milestone was moved from Tier I to Tier II; Glyphosate (Roundup, Aquamaster)  from Tier II to Tier I; and triclopyr (Garlon, Garlon 4 Ultra, Turflon, Vastlan) from Tier I to Tier II (for Vastlan and Turflon). Avenger was moved from Tier II to Tier III, which we think makes sense and makes analysis easier. We analyze the usage of Tier I and Tier II herbicides.

REDUCE OR ELIMINATE HERBICIDE USE

SF Forest Alliance has been trying to encourage SFRPD to reduce or eliminate Tier I and Tier II herbicide use. Some years ago, it appeared that pesticide usage was declining, especially after the Roundup revelations. When we wrote our Pesticides report for 2016, the other areas of SFRPD had slashed their herbicide use; the NRD accounted for 74% of pesticide usage. The 2021 data have renewed our hope that SFRPD’s other departments will adopt a cautious approach to the use of toxic herbicides. Unfortunately, this does not appear true of the nativist departments, NRD / PUC.


Every year, the San Francisco Forest Alliance also makes public comment at the annual review of San Francisco’s Integrated Pest Management program.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense is grateful for SFFA’s vigilance of pesticide use in San Francisco’s public parks.  Below is an excerpt from SFFA’s public comment to the Commission on the Environment regarding San Francisco’s IPM program.

Conservation Sense and Nonsense


Once again we are sending our comments emphasizing the self-evident truth that high toxicity herbicides are dangerous, unnecessary, and should never be used…

Below are the points we have repeated year after year for many years:

  • Herbicidal chemicals are more toxic, more persistent, more mobile and more dangerous than their manufacturers disclose;
  • The aesthetic or ideological “danger” from “weeds” is not a risk to health and welfare;
  • Scientific studies associate exposure to herbicides with cancer, developmental and learning disabilities, nerve and immune system damage, liver or kidney damage, reproductive impairment, birth defects, and disruption of the endocrine system;
  • There is no safe dose of exposure to those chemicals because they persist in soil, water, and animal tissue, so even low levels of exposure could still accumulate and harm humans, animals, and the environment;
  • Especially vulnerable individuals include infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems and chemical sensitivities;
  • Toxic runoff from herbicides pollute streams and groundwater, and therefore the drinking water sources;
  • Herbicides are harmful to pets and wildlife – including threatened and endangered species, plants, and natural ecosystems;
  • Herbicides are harmful to soil microbiology and contaminate soil into the future, reducing biodiversity in sensitive areas…

San Francisco Forest Alliance, July 11, 2022

Creating Tree Graveyards in San Francisco

At 13.7% of tree canopy coverage, San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies of any major city in the country.  When San Francisco’s Urban Forestry Council (UFC) announced its goal of planting 30,000 new street trees in the next 20 years, it seemed a modest goal.  Yet, Jake Sigg, the leader of native plant advocates in San Francisco, immediately objected to even this modest goal in his Nature News.  He announced the meeting of the UFC to consider the proposal and pronounced it a bad idea:

“JS:  Let’s start taking climate change seriously.  There is a prejudice—it is nothing more than that—that trees sequester more carbon than other life forms.  That is a simplistic view that, when looked at more closely, is found wanting.  To counter climate change we need to remove carbon from the air and put it where it will be for a millennium or more.  Removing it for a few decades or a century is pointless. 

“There are many reasons to plant trees on San Francisco streets, and many of our streets need them.  Climate change is not a stand-alone phenomenon; it is intimately related to diversity of biological elements.  That argues for planting native plants to invite dispossessed wildlife back into the city and you do that by planting the plants they need.  There are trees, shrubs, and perennials that ought to line our street to function in this way.  Carbon removal should not be a factor in our street plantings—biodiversity should be Number 1.”

Jake Sigg, Nature News, July 2, 2022

Yes, Jake, biodiversity is important because a diverse ecosystem is more resilient in a changing climate, but destroying all non-native plants does not make an ecosystem more diverse.  Climate change is the greatest long term threat to biodiversity, which makes addressing climate change a prerequisite to preserving biodiversity. 

I attended the Urban Forestry Council meeting of July 5, 2022, when this proposal was considered.  I was expecting to hear objections from Jake Sigg’s followers. Instead, the handful of written public comments objected to the meager commitment to plant only 30,000 new trees in San Francisco in the next 40 years. I learned more about the plan to plant more street trees in San Francisco:

  • There are presently an estimated 125,000 street trees in San Francisco.
  • Because the mortality of street trees is high, the expectation is that 50,000 street trees would need to be planted in the next 20 years to replace dead street trees.
  • According to the Urban Forestry Council it costs $1,500 to plant a tree and an additional $2,500 to water it for three years until it is established.
  • 4,000 trees would need to be planted every year to keep pace with expected tree mortality and to add 30,000 more street trees. 

These goals exist only on paper.  Between 1,500 and 2,000 trees per year are being planted in the city and no funding has been identified to increase this number.  After delivering this bad news about the sorry state of San Francisco’s urban forest, one member of the UFC spoke some much needed common sense.  Nicholas Crawford said we should “hold onto shabby trees” that are established and storing carbon.  He suggested that San Francisco should not remove trees that are at least stable because there are no trees to replace them. 

Existing trees in our urban forest are more valuable than ever.  They are storing more carbon than a replacement tree will store for at least 20 years.  They don’t need to be irrigated because they have the root and fungal networks needed to supply the tree with the moisture it needs.  Existing trees have proven themselves.  The fact that they are alive and well after 10 years of extreme drought proves they are adapted to current climate conditions.  So why destroy them? 

Jake Sigg acknowledged the value of forests to address the challenges of climate change in a recent newsletter:  “In order to have an impact on climate we need to stop deforestation and preserve, strengthen, and restore what is already here.” (Nature News, July 6, 2022)  But that principle does not apply to San Francisco for Sigg and his followers because the trees of San Francisco are predominantly non-native and they place a higher value on restoring pre-settlement treeless grassland and coastal scrub.  Because of the power and influence of the native plant movement in San Francisco our urban forest is being destroyed and planting trees is resisted.

San Francisco has made a commitment to destroying more than 18,000 non-native trees in San Francisco’s public parks.  The stated goal of that program is a landscape of native grassland and scrub.  UC San Francisco has also made a commitment to destroy most of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro.  Thousands of trees have been destroyed on Mount Sutro and more will be destroyed in the future.  The Executive Director of Sutro Stewards, the non-profit organization that is implementing the plans for destruction of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro is represented on the Urban Forestry Council, an odd choice for a citizen’s advisory council theoretically committed to the urban forest.

Tree destruction on Mount Sutro, January 2021.  Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

McLaren Park:  A Case Study

Today Conservation Sense and Nonsense will visit a relatively new project in McLaren Park that has destroyed non-native trees in order to create a small native plant garden.  We drill down into the project to understand why San Francisco’s urban forest is being destroyed.  We visit this project because it is an example of many similar projects that are planned in San Francisco. 

This is one of many attempts to plant native plant gardens on Sunset Blvd in San Francisco. The functional windbreak of Monterey cypress is dying of old age. Rather than replace the windbreak, native shrubs are being planted on Sunset Blvd that will not function as a windbreak in the windiest district in San Francisco. The lack of maintenance that you see here is typical of these gardens, which makes them unpopular with neighbors.

At 312 acres, McLaren Park is one of the largest parks in San Francisco.  Fifty-three percent (165 acres) of McLaren Park is designated as a “natural area,” which means that a commitment was made nearly 25 years ago to transform it into a native plant garden.  The new native plant garden that we visit today is not actually inside one of the designated “natural areas.”  The reach of the native plant movement in San Francisco extends far beyond the 1,100 park acres of “natural areas” that were claimed in 1998. 

The new native plant garden is located in the southeast corner of McLaren, south of the community garden at the intersection of Visitation Ave and Hahn St.  This is a photo of some of the trees that were destroyed to create the native garden:

©Lance Mellon with permission.  July 2020

And this is a photo taken in December 2021, after the trees deemed “non-native” were destroyed:

© Lance Mellon with permission

The plans for the native plant garden say that 18 non-native trees would be destroyed and 6 native trees would be retained.  The plan claims that tree removals of all non-native trees were based on “professional assessments.”  Such “assessments” are routinely used by the Recreation and Park Department to justify the removal of non-native trees.  Photos of the trees indicate otherwise.  Retention of only native trees suggests that assessments aren’t even-handed.  The claim does not pass the smell test. 

Plans for the native plant garden indicate that more native trees will be planted:

The trees will need to be irrigated for at least 3 years to establish their root systems and ensure their survival.  The entire garden will need to be irrigated if it is to survive.  Let’s be clear:  an established grove of trees with an understory of annual grasses that did not require irrigation or maintenance was destroyed and replaced with new plants and trees that will require irrigation.  Is that a suitable use of scarce water resources during an extreme drought that is expected to get worse, if not be a permanent change in the climate?  That is the question we consider today.

About 9 months later, the “native plant garden” looks more like a tree graveyard:

McLaren Native Plant Garden, July 2022
Some of the newly planted trees are holly leaf cherry. Signs on the trees indicate that the project was paid for with a CAL FIRE grant. One wonders how a garden full of dead wood is less flammable than a garden full of living trees.

Granted, the native plant garden is likely to look better as plants grow.  However, it will only look better if it is irrigated and taken care of.  Why should we expect it to be taken better care of than the existing garden that required no maintenance?  Wishful thinking will not make it so.

The death grip of nativism

Climate change is the environmental issue of our time.  We are seemingly incapable of doing anything substantive to address climate change.  Political gridlock prevents us from controlling the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.  The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate polluting emissions from power plants. 

We focus on the preservation of our forests because it is the only tool we have left to absorb carbon emissions from the fossil fuels to which we are wedded.  Native plant advocates have taken that tool away from us.  Our urban forests are being destroyed and replaced with grassland and scrub.  Claims that grassland and scrub store more carbon than forests are ridiculous.  Those claims earn native plant advocates the label of climate change deniers.  As the drought continues to plague California, established landscapes that required no water are being destroyed and replaced with native plants that require irrigation. 

Weeds are making a comeback!

While the native plant movement remains strong in California and locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, some communities are waking up to the fact that weeds make valuable contributions to our gardens and the wildlife that lives in them.  The British have always been ahead of us in welcoming plants from all over the world in their gardens.  The British have been enthusiastic importers of plants from all over the world for hundreds of years.  They had one of the biggest empires in the world, spanning the globe from India to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and America, which put them in a unique position to sample the botanical riches of the world.

The English garden, where plants from all over the world are welcome

In a recent article in The Guardian, an English gardener describes her journey from fighting the weeds in her garden to her new relationship with them:  “I remember writing, many years ago, about my fight to get rid of these dandelions. Clearly, I didn’t win. Now, when I am greeted by them, I am glad I lost the battle. These days, I truly consider them friends…they are welcome in my garden, because I know they do more good than harm.”

The English gardener reminds us that the war on weeds began only recently.  Going deep into agricultural history, weeds were natural forage that were a part of our diet. Weeds fed our domesticated animals, stuffed our mattresses and made twine and rope. Many have medicinal properties, but most have marketable substitutes now. They were tolerated on the edges of agricultural fields and in our gardens.

The typical American lawn, maintained with pesticides and fertilizer is not habitat for pollinators or other insects. Source: Pristine Lawn Care Plus

The war on weeds began after World War II, when chemicals were introduced to agriculture.  Pesticides were considered benign for decades.  We have learned only recently of the dangers of some pesticides. The promotion of pesticides changed the aesthetics of gardening, initiating an era in which weeds were banished from our agricultural fields and our gardens.  

Note the drone hovering over the children in a strawberry field. Drones are the latest development in chemical warfare. They are used to spot non-native plants in open space as well as to aerial spray pesticides. They are cheaper than other methods of application and for that reason are likely to increase the use of pesticides.

Do not underestimate the power of propaganda to promote the use of pesticides:  “A publishing company linked to the most powerful agricultural lobby group in the U.S. is releasing children’s books extolling the benefits of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers.”  Industrial agriculture begins the indoctrination of the public at childhood. 

Bumblebee in clover. Source: buzzaboutbees.net

Weeds made their way back into our gardens partly by evolving resistance to the pesticides we used for decades to kill them.  There is growing awareness of the impact of pesticides on insects and wildlife.  As populations of pollinators decline, we are more willing to indulge their preference for weeds such as dandelions and clover.  Weeds are often the first to arrive in the spring garden, as native bees are emerging from their winter hibernation in ground nests.  Weeds prolong the blooming season in our gardens, providing nectar and pollen before cultivated plants are blooming. 

“No Mow May” comes to America!

“No Mow May” originated in Britain out of concern for declining populations of bees.  Communities make a commitment to stop mowing their lawns in May to let the weeds dominate their lawns.  Weeds such as dandelions and clover give the bees an early boost in the spring that studies show increases bee populations.  Lawns maintained with pesticides and fertilizers provide poor habitat for bees. 

Two professors in the Midwest of the US introduced “No Mow May” to their community in Wisconsin in 2020.  They signed up 435 residences to participate in “No Mow May” and studied the impact:  “They found that No Mow May lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the bee species than did mown parks. Armed with this information, they asked other communities to participate.”  According to the New York Times, “By 2021, a dozen communities across Wisconsin had adopted No Mow May. It also spread to communities in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Montana.”

Farmers climb on board

Hedgerows are the backbone of the English countryside.  They are a complex bramble of woody and herbaceous plants that traditionally served as fences, separating roads from agricultural fields and confining domesticated animals.  They nearly disappeared when industrial agriculture dictated that fields be cultivated from edge to edge. They are making a comeback in the English countryside as farmers realize that their loss contributed to the loss of wildlife.  The concept of hedgerows as vital habitat is slowly making its way to America.

US Department of Agriculture reports improvements in agricultural practices in the past 10 years:  more no-till farming that reduces fossil fuel use and carbon loss from the soil; more efficient irrigation methods; broader field borders for pollinators and wildlife; more crop rotations that reduce disease and insect pests; reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous run-off; reduction in diesel fuel use, etc.  These are all well-known methods of reducing environmental damage from industrial agriculture, but there is now evidence that farmers are actually adopting them. 

Nativists are late to the game

We see progress being made to reduce pesticide use and provide more diverse habitat for wildlife, but nativists drag their feet.  They continue to use pesticide to eradicate non-native plants and they deny the value of non-native plants to insects and wildlife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

In a recent comment posted on Conservation Sense and Nonsense, a nativist explains the justification for using herbicides to eradicate non-native plants:  “No one likes herbicides, but in the absence of a labor force willing to abandon its modern conveniences to do very hard work, they are important tools in restoration ecology, and methods are improving as a result of careful science to determine how the least amount of them could be used to gain the greatest amount of benefits to the maximum amount of species. Throwing those tools away is about like tossing chemotherapy or vaccinations because of that “all-or-nothing” black or white point of view that native plant supporters are being (unjustly) accused of.”

For nativists, the harm done by non-native plants is greater than the harm done by pesticides.  This equation does not take into consideration the benefits of many non-native plants to wildlife and it underestimates the damage caused by pesticides to the environment and its inhabitants.   

A Natural History of the Future

“The way out of the depression and grief and guilt of the carbon cul-de-sac we have driven down is to contemplate the world without us. To know that the Earth, that life, will continue its evolutionary journey in all its mystery and wonder.” Ben Rawlence in The Treeline

Using what he calls the laws of biological nature, academic ecologist Rob Dunn predicts the future of life on Earth. (1)  His book is based on the premise that by 2080, climate change will require that hundreds of millions of plant and animal species—in fact, most species–will need to migrate to new regions and even new continents to survive.  In the past, conservation biologists were focused on conserving species in particular places.  Now they are focused on getting species from where they are now to where they need to go to survive.

In Dunn’s description of ecology in the future, the native plant movement is irrelevant, even an anachronism.  Instead of trying to restore native plants to places where they haven’t existed for over 100 years, we are creating wildlife corridors to bypass the obstacles humans have created that confine plants and animals to their historical ranges considered “native.” 

The past is the best predictor of the future. Therefore, Dunn starts his story with a quick review of the history of the science that has framed our understanding of ecology.  Carl Linnaeus was the first to create a widely accepted method of classifying plants and animals in the 18th century.  Ironically, he lived in Sweden, one of the places on the planet with the least plant diversity.  Colombia, near the equator, is twice the size of Sweden but has roughly 20 times the number of plant species because biodiversity is greatest where it is hot and wet.

Global Diversity of Vascular Plants. Source: Wilhelm Barthlott, et. al., “Global Centers of Vascular Plant Diversity,” Nova Acta Leopoldina, 2005

 

Humans always have paid more attention to the plants that surround us and the animals most like us.  Dunn calls this the law of anthropocentrism.  We are the center of our own human universe.  Consequently, our awareness of the population of insects that vastly outnumber us came late to our attention in the 20th century.  In the 21st century we learned that all other forms of life are outnumbered by the microbial life of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that preceded us by many millions of years.  Our knowledge of that vast realm of life remains limited although it is far more important to the future of the planet than we realize because those forms of life will outlast our species and many others like us.

Tropical regions are expanding into temperate regions

The diversity and abundance of life in hot and wet tropical climates give us important clues about the future of our warming climate.  We tend to think of diversity as a positive feature of ecosystems, but we should not overlook that tropical regions are also the home of many diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, zika, and yellow fever that are carried by insects that prey on animal hosts, including humans.  In the past, the range of these disease-carrying insects was restricted to tropical regions, but the warming climate will enable them to move into temperate regions as they warm. The warming climate will also enable the movement of insects that are predators of our crops and our forests into temperate regions.  For example, over 180 million native conifers in California have been killed in the past 10 years by a combination of drought and native bark beetles that were killed during cold winters in the past, but no longer are.  Ticks are plaguing wild animals and spreading disease to humans in the Northeast where they did not live in the cooler past. 

Human populations are densest in temperate regions“The ‘ideal’ average annual temperature for ancient human populations, at least from the perspective of density, appears to have been about 55.4⁰F, roughly the mean annual temperature of San Francisco…” (1) This is where humans are most comfortable, free of tropical diseases, and where our food crops grow best.  As tropical regions expand into temperate regions, humans will experience these issues or they will migrate to cooler climates if they can.

Our ability to cope with the warming climate is greatly complicated by the extreme variability of the climate that is an equally important feature of climate change.  It’s not just a question of staying cool.  We must also be prepared for episodic extreme cold and floods alternating with droughts. Animals stressed by warmer temperatures are more easily wiped out by the whiplash of sudden floods or drought.

Diversity results in resiliency

Diversity can be insurance against such variability.  If one type of crop is vulnerable to an insect predator, but another is not, growing both crops simultaneously increases resiliency.  That principle applies equally to crops that are sensitive to heat, cold, drought, or floods. 

Agricultural biodiversity. Source: Number of harvested crops per hectar combining 175 different crops. Source: Monfreda et al. 2008. “Farming the planet: Geographic distribution of crop areas, yields, physiological types, and net primary production in the year 2000”. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Vol. 22.

Historically, cultures that grew diverse crops were less likely to experience famine than those that cultivated monocultures.  The Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century is a case in point.  The Irish were dependent upon potatoes partly because other crops were exported to Britain by land owners. When the potato crop was killed by blight, more than one million people died in Ireland and another million left Ireland.  The population dropped about 20-25% due to death and emigration.  The diversity of crops in the United States (where corn is the commodity crop) and Brazil (where soy is the commodity crop) is very low, compared to other countries.  This lack of diversity makes us more vulnerable to crop failure and famine, particularly in an unpredictable climate.

Change in total use of herbicides, antibiotics, transgenic pesticide producing crops, glyphosate, and insecticides globally since 1990. Source: A Natural History of the Future

Instead of increasing crop diversity, we have elected to conduct chemical warfare on the predators of our crops by using biocides, such as pesticides for agricultural weeds and insects and antibiotics for domesticated animals.  The scale of our chemical warfare has increased in response to growing threats to our food supply.  This is a losing strategy because as we increase the use of biocides we accelerate evolution that creates resistance to our biocides. We are breeding superweeds, insects, and bacteria that cannot be killed by our chemicals.  This strategy is ultimately a dead end.

Evolution determines winners and losers

Inevitably, evolution will separate the survivors of climate change from its victims. Dunn reminds us that “The average longevity of animal species appears to be around two million years…” for extinct taxonomic groups that have been studied.  In the short run, Dunn bets on the animals that are most adaptable, just as Darwin did 160 years ago.  The animals most capable of inventing new strategies to cope with change and unpredictability will be more capable of surviving.  In the bird world, that’s corvids (crows, ravens, jays, etc.) and parrots.  In the animal world that’s humans and coyotes.  We aren’t helping adaptable animals survive because we are killing abundant animals based on a belief it will benefit rare animals.  Even in our urban setting, the East Bay Regional Park District contracts Federal Wildlife Services to kill animals it considers “over-abundant,” including gulls, coyotes, free-roaming cats, non-native foxes, and other urban wildlife throughout the Park District.  We are betting on evolutionary losers.

 

If and when humans create the conditions that cause our extinction, many of our predators are likely to disappear with us.  Bed bugs and thousands of other human parasites are unlikely to survive without us.  Many domestic animals will go extinct too, including our dogs.  On the bright side, Dunn predicts that cats and goats are capable of surviving without us.             

Timeline of the evolution of life. Source: CK-12 Foundation

However, in the long run Dunn bets on microbial life to outlast humans and the plants and animals with which we have shared Earth.  Humans are late to the game, having evolved from earlier hominoids only 300,000 years ago, or so.  The plants and animals that would be recognizable to us preceded us by some 500 million years, or so.  But microbial life that is largely invisible to us goes back much further in time and will undoubtedly outlast us.  Dunn says microbial life will give a big, metaphorical sigh of relief to see us gone and our environmental pollutants with us.  Then microbial life will begin again the long process of rebuilding more complex life with their genetic building blocks and the tools of evolution. 

Some may consider it a sad story.  I consider it a hopeful story, because it tells me that no matter what we do to our planet, we cannot kill it.  For the moment, it seems clear that even if we are not capable of saving ourselves at least we can’t kill all life on Earth.  New life will evolve, but its features are unfathomable because evolution moves only forward, not back and it does not necessarily repeat itself. 


  1. A Natural History of the Future, Rob Dunn, Basic Books, 2021

Open Letter to California Native Plant Society

A diverse garden of native and non-native plants will be the most resilient to climate change. Photo credit Marianne Willburn, Garden Rant

In a recent edition of Nature News, Jake Sigg published an announcement of a new publication and a brief description of it that was apparently written by Susan Karasoff, Outreach Chair of the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society:

San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) developed Making Nature’s City: A Science-based Framework for Building Urban Biodiversity, which summarizes the key indicators supporting urban biodiversity. Local native vegetation is the base of the food web for our wildlife, including our local native pollinators, our native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Biodiversity is biosecurity. Biodiversity only applies to locally native plants and wildlife. Introduced, invasive and non-local native plants contribute to landscape diversity, not to biodiversity. Our pollinators eat local native plants and pollen as caterpillar food. Introduced plant leaves feed few, if any, caterpillar species. Caterpillar species feed the rest of our local food web. Healthy urban ecosystems are measured by the health of contributors to their biodiverse food web and habitat.

Native plants planted in plant communities are resilient to climate change. Introduced and non-local native plants and trees are not resilient to climate change. San Francisco benefits from native plants planted in plant communities. San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI)’s Hidden Nature project, done in conjunction with the Exploratorium, maps the locations of plant communities in San Francisco prior to European arrival.

Jake Sigg’s Nature News, February 18, 2022

I compared the description to the SFEI document because the description contains several counterintuitive statements.  Although the SFEI document reflects a clear preference for native plants, it does not corroborate these specific statements:

  • “Biodiversity only applies to locally native plants and wildlife. Introduced, invasive and non-local native plants contribute to landscape diversity, not to biodiversity.”
  • “Introduced plant leaves feed few, if any, caterpillar species.”
  • “Native plants planted in plant communities are resilient to climate change. Introduced and non-local native plants and trees are not resilient to climate change.”

Here are a few studies, references, and public policies that explicitly contradict these counterfactual statements.

Biodiversity is not confined to native plants

“Biodiversity is the biological variety and variability of life on Earth. Biodiversity is a measure of variation at the genetic, species, and ecosystem level.” (Wikipedia)  The Simpson index and the Shannon-Wiener index are the two most commonly used measures of biodiversity by ecological scientists.   Neither index makes a distinction between native and non-native species.  In fact, such a distinction is difficult to make and is often hotly debated. 

In San Francisco, home of the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, public policy explicitly acknowledges that non-native species contribute to local biodiversity:  “Parks and open spaces in San Francisco include both native and non-native species, both of which can contribute to local biodiversity.” (Policy 4.1, Recreation and Open Space of San Francisco General Plan)

 Non-native plants are host to many butterflies in the Bay Area

Butterflies lay their eggs on plants called their host plants. The eggs develop through several larvae stages into caterpillars that feed on the host plant that is often confined to a particular plant genus or family.  Few butterflies are confined to a single plant species. For example, plants in the milkweed genus are the host of monarch butterflies.  There are many species within the milkweed genus and many are not native to the San Francisco Bay Area.  An introduced milkweed species, tropical milkweed, is a particular favorite of monarchs and it has the advantage of being available throughout the year, unlike native milkweed species that are dormant during winter months. Some have attributed the recent comeback of the California monarch migration to the widespread planting of tropical milkweed in residential gardens.

This article from the UC Davis Bug Squad says they plant tropical milkweed and two species of native milkweed in their experimental garden. Monarchs show a strong preference for tropical milkweed in their experimental garden: “In July, we collected 11 caterpillars from the narrowleaf [native] milkweed; we rear them to adulthood and release them into the neighborhood. But in the numbers game, the tropical milkweed [A. curassavica] won. From July through today, we have collected a whopping 43 eggs or caterpillars from A. curassavica. How many from [native] A. speciosa? Sadly, none.”

Anise swallowtail butterfly is another common butterfly species in the Bay Area that is dependent upon a non-native host plant.  Before non-native fennel was introduced to California, anise swallowtail bred only once each year. Now it is able to breed year around on non-native fennel and is therefore more plentiful than it was in pre-settlement California.

These butterfly species in the San Francisco Bay Area are not unique with respect to their need for non-native plants:  “California butterflies, for better or worse are heavily invested in the anthropic landscape [altered by humans].  About a third of all California butterfly species have been recorded either ovipositing [laying eggs] or feeding on nonnative plants.  Roughly half of the Central Valley and inland Bay Area fauna is now using nonnative host plants heavily or even exclusively.  Our urban and suburban multivoltine [multiple generations in one year] butterfly fauna is basically dependent on ‘weeds.’  We have one species, the Gulf Fritillary that can exist here only on introduced hosts.  Perhaps the commonest urban butterfly in San Francisco and the East Bay, the Red Admiral is overwhelmingly dependent on an exotic host, pellitory.  And that’s the way it is.” (1)

During the butterfly phase of life, butterflies eat pollen and nectar of many different plants, not just its host plant.  When native plant advocates eradicate important sources of food for butterflies, they aren’t helping butterflies.  For example, butterfly bush (buddleia) is as popular with butterflies as they are unpopular with native plant advocates because they aren’t native.  Butterflies don’t care if they are native because they are an important source of food. 

Butterfly bush is the host plant of Variable checkerspot butterflies. It is also an important source of nectar for butterflies and bees. It is being eradicated on public land because it is not a native plant. butterflybush.com

Native plants are NOT more resilient to climate change

The most dangerous of the counter-factual statements by the spokesperson for the California Native Plant Society is the claim that native plants are resilient to climate change, but non-native plants are not.  That claim defies reality and it prevents us from responding effectively to climate change. 

Here are a few samples from scientific literature that contradict this inaccurate claim about native plants.  There are many others, just Google “Are native plants more resilient to climate change.” 

  • “As spring advances across the Midwest, a new study looking at blooming flowers suggests that non-native plants might outlast native plants in the region due to climate change.”
  • “Warming temperatures affect native and non-native flowering plants differently, which could change the look of local landscapes over time, according to new research.”
  • ”Whether in natural areas or in our gardens, climate change is affecting native plants. According to the Maryland Climate Summary, our temperatures are expected to increase 5⁰ F to 11⁰ F by 2100.
    1. “Higher temperatures cause native plants to experience more heat-related stress. Heat stress causes higher water demand, a situation made worse by longer droughts.
    2. “Higher atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels preferentially promote the growth of invasive plant species, decreasing the space needed to support natural areas.
    3. “Elongated growing seasons cause earlier leaf out and bloom times, which in turn affects the animal species synchronized to the life cycles of native plants, especially pollinators.”

An appeal to native plant advocates

I am publishing this article today as an open letter to the California Native Plant Society as an appeal to their leadership to make a new commitment to accuracy.  CNPS and native plant advocates enjoy a vast reservoir of positive public opinion.  However, they put their reputation in jeopardy by advocating for policies that are not consistent with reality, with science, or with public policy.  CNPS can’t distance itself from the Yerba Buena Chapter of CNPS because Susan Karasoff has made several presentations for CNPS that are available on its website.  Native plant advocates can best promote their agenda by providing accurate information.


The Global War on Non-Native Trees

“In some cases, removal of urban trees because they are non-native may represent an ‘over-shoot’ where the removal of non-natives becomes an end unto itself… the non-native trees being removed are not necessarily highly invasive, and removal is more driven by a desire for native species rather than any real or perceived problems caused by the non-native species.”

An international team of academic scientists studied the many conflicts around the world between those who find value in introduced trees and those who demand their destruction. (1) Team members were from Australia, France, New Zealand, and South Africa.  Professor Marcel Rejmanek at UC Davis was the only American on the team.

Professor Rejmanek is well known to us as the author of the chapter about eucalyptus in Daniel Simberloff’s encyclopedic tome about biological “invasions.”  Rejmanek said, “…eucalypts are markedly less invasive than many other widely cultivated trees and shrubs…they have been orders of magnitude less successful as invaders than pines and several other widely planted trees…Where eucalypts have invaded, they have very seldom spread considerable distances from planting sites, and their regeneration is frequently sporadic.  He noted that eucalyptus is useful to bees and hummingbirds and I add here that it blooms throughout winter months when little else is blooming in California.  He said,  “Conclusions about positive or negative environmental and economic impacts of eucalypts are often anecdotal, highly controversial and context dependent.”    Professor Rejmanek’s assessment was instrumental in my effort to convince the California Invasive Plant Council to remove blue gum eucalyptus from its list of invasive species.  Cal-IPC downgraded its assessment of invasiveness of blue gum eucalyptus from “medium” to “limited” in response to my request. 

Professor Rejmanek is also the author of the most recent report on plant extinctions in California, published in 2017.  At that time there were 13 plant species and 17 sub-species native to California known to be globally extinct and another 30 species and sub-species extirpated in California but still found in other states.  Over half the globally extinct taxa were reported as extinct over 100 years ago.  Although grassland in California had been converted to Mediterranean annual grasses by grazing domesticated animals nearly 100 years before then, most of the plants now designated as “invasive” in California were not widespread over 100 years ago.  Only one extinction mentions “invasive species” as one of the factors in its disappearance.  Rejmanek speculates that livestock grazing is the probable cause.  He said, “Indeed, one needs quite a bit of imagination to predict that any native plant species may be driven to extinction by invasive plants per se.”

This recap of Rejmanek’s expertise about so-called “invasive” trees and plants establishes his credentials as a reliable witness as the co-author of “Conflicting values:  ecosystem services and invasive tree management,” which I will summarize for readers today.

Setting the stage for conflict

As Europeans colonized the new world in the 18th and 19th centuries, they often brought trees from home with them, motivated primarily by an aesthetic preference. When the colonial era came to an end, nationalism during the 19th century encouraged a new appreciation of indigenous flora.  When planting their own gardens and farms, America’s founding fathers had a strong preference for planting native trees.  While fighting the Revolutionary War, George Washington wrote to the caretakers of his farm at Mount Vernon instructing them to plant NO English trees, but rather to transplant trees from the surrounding forests.

Sources of conflict

By mid-20th century, this preference for indigenous trees escalated to the current belief that non-native trees are threatening indigenous ecosystems.  Conflict arises when there is a “failure to account for, assess, and balance trade-offs between the eco-system services or, at times, a failure to agree on the relative value of particular services.” (1) The study identifies the tree species that are the focus of such conflicts around the world and the ecosystem services those species provide:

Conservation Sense and Nonsense has reported on many of these conflicts around the world:

  • The stated purpose of the destruction of forests in Chicago was the “restoration” of grassland that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans.  Conservation Sense and Nonsense described the conflict regarding that destruction in one of my first articles in 2011 because the issues were similar to those in the San Francisco Bay Area. The debate raged in Chicago for over 15 years, but the destruction of the forest was finally accomplished, despite opposition.  Likewise, in San Francisco after 20 years of conflict, the eradication of eucalyptus forests is being achieved.
  • In 2012, we republished an article by Christian Kull about the practical value of acacia trees to Vietnamese farmers and their opposition to the attempt to destroy them.
  •  We republished an article in 2014 about opposition to the destruction of willow trees in Australia that were planted to control erosion.  Willows are one of many examples of a tree that is considered valuable in North America where it is native and hated in Australia where it is not. The authors of the article described the arguments used to justify the project, ‘Sure, it makes a big mess and causes erosion, and nutrient release, and carbon emissions, and local temperature increases, and loss of habitat, but it’s necessary because we’re going to make Australia a place for natives-only again.’
  • Conservation Sense and Nonsense published a guest post by Matt Chew in 2017 about the eradication of tamarisk trees that were introduced for erosion control in southwestern US.  In that case, the survival of an endangered bird is threatened by this misguided attempt to eradicate tamarisk by introducing a non-native insect.
  • Conservation Sense and Nonsense published a guest post in 2015 by a South African who objected to the destruction of jacaranda trees.  In that case, the beauty of these iconic trees was the primary objection to their destruction.
Jacaranda trees in Pretoria, South Africa

Many similar conflicts around the world are described by the study, which categorizes the conflicts as focused in three areas:  urban and near-urban trees; trees that provide direct economic benefits; and invasive trees that are used by native species for habitat or food.  I will focus on conflicts in urban and suburban areas because they are close to home.

Where is conflict greatest?

The study searched for examples of such conflicts around the world and found that most were in developed countries where ecological knowledge has suggested that eradication is necessary and democracy is strong enough to enable dissent.  Such conflicts are well documented in urban areas where many non-native trees have been introduced. Based on my experience with many of these urban conflicts, I can agree with the authors of the study that they are “frequently vitriolic, as seen in letters to editors, public protests, websites, and blogs.” (1)

How NOT to reduce conflict

The authors of this study dismiss suggestions that “educating” those who object to eradication projects can reduce conflict.  Their assessment of why that approach intensifies conflict is consistent with my own reaction to being lectured about the claimed benefits of eradication projects:

“However, the concept of ‘education’ implies that opponents of tree removal are inherently ignorant or unaware and discounts the importance of their views and values.  Sceptics of environmental issues are frequently highly educated and scientifically literate, with conflict driven by fundamental values, not lack of knowledge.  Further, what one party in a conflict views as education can be viewed as propaganda by those with opposing priorities.” (1)

The authors suggest that the planning process for such projects must be a two-way dialogue that recognizes shared values, such as a strong commitment to conservation of the environment.  The authors describe some of my own reservations about eradication projects:

“In some cases, removal of urban trees because they are non-native may represent an ‘over-shoot’ where the removal of non-natives becomes an end unto itself…Objective evaluation of the ecological services affected may not result in the removal of non-native trees being justified.  Indeed, in some cases the non-native trees being removed are not necessarily highly invasive, and removal is more driven by a desire for native species rather than any real or perceived problems caused by the non-native species.” (1)

There is no doubt that the demand to destroy eucalyptus in California is a case in which removal has become an end in itself that is not justified.  These are some of the accusations used to justify the destruction of eucalyptus that have been disproven by academic scientists without getting eucalyptus off nativists’ hit list.

Source: Conference of California Native Plant Society, 2018

Pessimistic conclusion

The study concludes that we should expect plant invasions around the world to increase and that increased wealth and democracy will make conflicts about tree eradications more widespread.  The authors “suggest that conflict should be seen as a normal occurrence in invasive species removal…Avoiding conflict entirely may be impossible…”

I can’t disagree with the authors of this study about the poor prospects of resolving conflict regarding the destruction of non-native trees that are the heart of our urban forest in California.  However, I am grateful to the authors for their understanding of the issues and their respect for introduced trees as well as those who advocate for their preservation. They understand that lectures by those who demand that trees be destroyed despite the functions they perform are condescending and exacerbate conflict rather than resolving it. 

A Postscript

Jake Sigg has been the leader of the crusade to destroy eucalyptus forests in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years.  He and I have debated this issue many times, without resolution.  In his newsletter of January 20th, Jake seems to acknowledge the futility of our debate as well as his motivation to create a native landscape. It seems he has reached the same conclusion as the authors of the international study of the inevitability of conflict about the destruction of non-native trees, although he concedes that he won’t quit trying…and neither will I. 

“For years I’ve been fighting tree huggers, who understandably don’t want to cut healthy trees down.  The blue gums are handsome brutes.  In my eye I see the rich diverse native biological communities that they displaced; those I fight with don’t see that and don’t value that.  So you can see the communication problem at the beginning.  The same consideration plagues many contentious issues in the world.

How do you explain this to them?  Mostly, you can’t; you do what you are able to do.  This is not an age for listening to fellow beings.  I find it hard to do.  David Brooks, a favorite, wrote a fraught opinion piece in today’s 
NYT.  He has just about thrown up his hands, as have I—except that I can’t—and neither can Brooks.”

Eucalyptus canopy on east side of Glen Canyon Park, taken from Turquoise Way December 2012, before tree destruction escalated beyond riparian areas. Glen Cayon Park is one of 33 parks in San Francisco where most eucalyptus trees are being destroyed because they are not native. Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

  1. Ian Dickie, et. al., “Conflicting values:  ecosystem services and invasive tree management,” Biological Invasions, 2014.

The need for diverse urban forest and the obstacles to achieve that goal

Matt Ritter is a professor of biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Director of Cal Poly Plant Conservatory.  He is the author of several books about California’s unique flora, including A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us.  He is considered an expert on the horticulture, ecology and taxonomy of the Eucalyptus genus.

Click on picture to view Professor Ritter’s presentation

In October 2021, Professor Ritter gave a presentation to the California Urban Forests Council, entitled “Underutilized Species for the Future of Urban Wood and Urban Forestry.”   He began by explaining why it is important to identify new tree species for our urban forest.

  • “Baja is moving to Oregon,” said Ritter to set the stage.  Within 50-80 years trees living in California now will no longer be adapted to the anticipated warmer, drier climate.  Trees killed by wildfire in California are not returning.  Forests are quickly converting to grassland and shrub.  As of 2018, California had lost 180 million trees to drought, disease, bark beetles, heat, and wildfire, which is nearly 5% of the total tree population in California.  Adding subsequent years to date, we have probably lost 7% of all of our trees.
  • Trees in urban areas will help Californians cope with warmer conditions because they cool our cities and reduce energy consumption.  Fewer trees will mean a lower quality of life, for us and for birds.  The loss of our trees reduces carbon storage, which contributes to more climate change. 

Ritter then explained why we must diversify tree species in our urban forests.

  • There are over 60,000 tree species in the world and only 7% of tree species are found in urban areas around the world.  In California our urban forests are even less diverse.  There are only 234 tree species on average in California’s urban forests.  The average number of approved tree species for planting in California’s municipalities is only 49 and few species on those approved lists are native to California.
  • Diversity of tree species ensures greater resiliency that enables our urban forests to survive changing conditions.
  • Only 9% of tree species in California’s urban forests are native. 
The native ranges of tree species in California’s urban forest.

An inventory of Oakland’s urban forest (street trees, medians, and landscaped parks only) was recently completed.  With 535 tree species, the diversity of Oakland’s urban forest is greater than average for California.  With 14% native trees, Oakland’s urban forest is more native than average. There are 59 species on Oakland’s list of approved trees, of which only 4 are native to Oakland.  The most significant finding of Oakland’s tree inventory is that our urban forest is only 64% “stocked,” meaning that of existing tree wells, only 64% are currently planted with trees.  When trees die in Oakland, they aren’t being replaced.  I don’t doubt there is a will to plant trees in Oakland.  I assume it is a question of means in a city with more pressing needs than resources.

Ritter and his colleagues at Cal Poly have created a website called SelecTree to help Californians choose the right tree for the right site and conditions.  There are 1,500 tree species described on SelecTree, using 60 characteristics, such as drought tolerance.  SelecTree rates blue gum eucalyptus “medium” for drought tolerance, the same rating as native coast live oak and bay laurel.  Ritter clarified that drought tolerance on SelecTree is a measure of how much water the tree species uses.  Claims that eucalyptus uses more water than native trees is bogus, like most bad raps about eucalyptus.  

Ritter recommended specific tree species, based on their drought and heat tolerance.  He said that when diversifying our urban forests “we have to think about Australia” because it is the hottest, driest, flattest, and oldest place on the planet, which is another way of saying that tree species in Australia have survived terrible conditions that are comparable to the challenging conditions in urban environments.

Ritter recommended oak species that are native to Texas; eucalyptus and closely related tree species; and several tree species in the legume family, especially acacia.  In each case he mentioned the suitability of tree species based partly on the quality of its wood.  Apparently, I’m not the only person in California who is disturbed by huge piles of wood chips wherever trees have been destroyed.  Ritter also thinks we should be thinking about how we can use wood when trees are destroyed, rather than building potential bonfires.  

Obstacles to diverse urban forests in California

When Professor Ritter took questions from the audience, we learned that the main obstacle to a diverse urban forest in California, adapted to our climate conditions, is the myopic focus of native plant advocates:

Question:  “Are we introducing new pathogens to our natives by importing new species?”

Answer:  There are many laws and rules that restrict the importation of plants to prevent that from happening.  We also import only the seeds of plants, not grown plants.  The seeds are sterilized and they don’t carry the pathogens that may exist on grown plants in their native ranges.

Question:  “Do we know how quickly birds and insects adapt to new species?”

Answer:  “No we don’t, but who cares?  We are facing a climate emergency.   We have 50 years before life in our cities becomes hell.  We have a responsibility to protect the quality of life in our cities.  We should stop developing the wild, but cities are different.” 

Ritter anticipated a question that is often a concern of native plant advocates by saying we should not be concerned about “weediness,” AKA “invasiveness.”  He said, “That should be far down on our list of priorities of what to worry about.  We need to be primarily concerned about what tree species will grow in our changed climate.”

Rhetorical Question:  “But insects need native plants!

Answer:  Ritter instantly recognized the mantra of Doug Tallamy.  He replied that it is not well established that there are more insects living on native plants than on introduced plants.  He mentioned a single study that inventoried plant and animal species in eucalyptus compared to oak forests, presumably Dov Sax’s study which concluded:  “Species richness was nearly identical for understory plants, leaf-litter invertebrates, amphibians and birds; only rodents had significantly fewer species in eucalypt sites.  Species diversity patterns…were qualitatively identical to those for species richness, except for leaf-litter invertebrates, which were significantly more diverse in eucalypt sites during the spring.” 

Rhetorical Question:  “We are still dealing with a legacy of blue gum eucalyptus in the Bay Area.  Why should we repeat that mistake?”

Answer:  Ritter agreed that blue gum eucalyptus is “inappropriate” in many places where it was planted in the Bay Area, but we’re not planting blue gums.  There are 800 eucalyptus species and many are ideal for our conditions.  He said, “Why not plant eucalyptus?  It would be dumb not to plant suitable eucalyptus species just because it shares a name.”

Ritter added that, “Planting only natives just doesn’t work in San Francisco.  There would be no trees in Southern California because we don’t have very many native trees in California.”  The pre-settlement coast of California was virtually treeless in most places and that’s a fact. For example, a study of historic vegetation in Oakland, California reported that only 2% of pre-settlement Oakland was forested with trees. “Vegetation before urbanization in Oakland was dominated by grass, shrub, and marshlands that occupied approximately 98% of the area.” (1)

San Francisco in 1806 as depicted by artist with von Langsdoff expedition. Bancroft Library

Oakland as a case in point

The San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article about a guerilla tree-planter in Oakland who is planting native oak trees on public land, wherever he wants.  Oakland’s Director of Tree Services, David Moore, gently suggests that many of these tree plantings are ill-advised:  “‘There is a part of all of us that loves with our hearts the coast live oak tree because of its heritage, the symbolism of our city, and just the legacy that they have,’ Moore said. ‘But we have to diversify, and we are diversifying to other ones that are recommended to be more adaptable to climate change…The reality is that we have created a world that is not the native conditions of these plants,’ Moore said. ‘If we want trees to survive in these non-native conditions, we have to pick trees from around the world that can survive these conditions.’…Moore said oaks, while beautiful, are not the ideal tree for today’s hot, dry and cramped urban landscape. Without careful and costly maintenance, he said, oaks could destroy sidewalks, block light from street lamps and grow their branches into streets and walkways, creating hazards for motorists and pedestrians. The city still plants oaks, but mainly in parks rather than streets because that’s where they do better, Moore said…”

Stalemate

So, here we are.  We have a pressing need for a more diverse urban forest that is adapted to present and anticipated conditions, but we are paralyzed by the ideological commitment of native plant advocates who are demanding that we destroy our urban forest because it is predominantly non-native.  In a recent edition of Nature News, Jake Sigg said, “Hysterical tree planting is worse than a waste of time and resources…”

I am grateful to Professor Ritter for being bluntly frank with members of the arborist community who should know better.  Dare we hope they learned something from that presentation? 

I wish you Happy New Year.  Please join me in my hope for a more peaceful year.  Thank you for your readership.


(1) Nowak, David, “Historical vegetation change in Oakland and its implications for urban forest management,” Journal of Arboriculture, 19(5): September 1993

When ideas remain unexamined and unchallenged, they intimidate ©

My last article of the year is a guest post by Marlene A. Condon, the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden:  Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information available HERE.)   You can read her blog In Defense of Nature.

Merry Christmas !

Million Trees

A birds-eye view of the University of Virginia (UHall seen in first photo) in Charlottesville, Virginia, makes clear that there are plenty of native trees to be found in developed areas.

The novelist E. L. Doctorow, in a 1989 conversation with PBS journalist Bill Moyers, said, “When ideas go unexamined and unchallenged for a long enough time, they become mythological and very, very powerful. They create conformity. They intimidate.”

He could have been speaking about the current environmental narrative regarding so-called invasive plants. Anyone who speaks out feels the wrath of the folks pushing their fictional environmental manifesto; I’ve lost jobs because of these people.

Most neo-scientists and -environmentalists, having arrived late to the party, have no clue as to why some alien plants exist in profusion along roadways, in former farm fields, and along trails in forests. The popular notion that native plants would otherwise be filling those areas is easily accepted by people who don’t possess knowledge of soil science, or who lack experience with gardening and/or closely observing the natural progression of plants in unmanaged, disturbed areas.

Knowing the prior history of the land is essential to understanding why particular nonnative plants fill some areas. Road building discomposes soil. Trail development/use and cows/farming-equipment moving over the land compact soil. Only “colonizer plants”—those capable of thriving under the altered and nutrient-poor conditions of these sites—can grow there.

Usually such areas, after many years, support a mix of native and nonnative pioneers, but sometimes alien plants outnumber the natives because they are best suited to the constraints imposed by the physical attributes of the site. Anyone (no Ph.D. required) can verify this statement by taking the time to observe the progression of plants in an area not revegetated by people. Doing so would make clear that alien plants do not “push out” native plants by “invading” and “taking over”, but rather, they fill disrupted areas where few native plants can successfully grow.

Yet, the desire by scientists and environmentalists is so great to get folks to remove supposedly invasive plants from the environment that we now have tall tales being spread. Herewith a sampling of some of the most egregiously untrue declarations regarding alien plants.

Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) wrote a New Hope [North Carolina] Audubon blog post called “Invasive Plants Are NOT for the Birds.”

  • He writes that, “The scientific literature on invasive plants and bird-dispersal is moderate but growing, and almost all of the research warns that this is a serious and multi-layered phenomenon. First off – birds either do not discriminate between native and invasive plants or often prefer invasives over natives. One reason for this is that a large proportion of invasives are high in carbohydrates, whereas the natives are often higher in protein and lipids/fats. Birds are consequently (pardon the analogy) choosing candy bars over cheeseburgers, which could affect bird nutrition, particularly during fall migration”.

The suggestion that birds are choosing “autumn olive berries [that] are sugary sweet treats, the junk food of the bird diet” is echoed by many people. This quote, from a letter to the editor of The Crozet Gazette by Susan A. Roth, William Hamersky, and Manuel T. Lerdau, Ph.D., is supposedly based upon a study published by the Wilson Journal of Ornithology in March, 2007, entitled “Fruit Quality and Consumption by Songbirds during Autumn Migration”.

Yet this study states that “Most common fruits on Block Island [where the study took place in Rhode Island] contained primarily carbohydrates…and little protein…and fat.” As the research paper’s authors were mainly speaking of native plants, this statement directly contradicts that of Mr. Randall that natives are often higher in proteins and fats than so-called invasives.

Additionally, the research paper’s authors state that “fruit selection by birds on Block Island was not simply related to differences in macronutrient composition between fruits…studies of wild and captive songbirds have shown that some species preferentially select high-fat fruits…or high-sugar fruits…”, which hardly implies that Autumn Olive fruits are a necessarily inferior food choice, as declared by Roth, et al.

A variety of foods exists to serve a variety of purposes. Turning sugar into something “bad” for birds comes as a result, perhaps, of this same application to human nutrition. But sugar is not in and of itself, “bad”. A runner in need of glucose who eats some jelly beans gets a quick burst of energy to continue exercising. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Sugar is only a problem if it’s eaten in excess, as might be done by children. But birds are not children; if they feel the need for protein and fat, they will search for insects and fruits that offer what they need.

  • Furthermore, Director Randall wrote that “Researchers have also shown that many invasive plants have fruits that persist longer than do native plant fruits into the fall and winter. The invasives are therefore available when our natives are not.”

In a world of disappearing habitat for wildlife because of human development, the fact that fruits on invasive plants are available when native-plant fruits are depleted should be seen as a positive rather than a negative.

Charlottesville, Virginia, residential area, has so many trees that you can’t see the roadways interspersed among them. In other words, insects and birds aren’t disappearing because alien plants have replaced native trees.

“Recent research published by Narango et al., in the October 22, 2018, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science demonstrates that native plants are best for birds. The research showed that yards landscaped with the usual garden center plants, which are mostly nonnative ornamentals, could not support a stable population of chickadees. Yards where native plants composed at least 70 percent of the plantings were able to do so. This is because native plants host more insects than non-natives and therefore provide the necessary high-protein food that birds need to feed their chicks.” [from a letter to the editor of The Crozet Gazette by Susan A. Roth, William Hamersky, and Manuel T. Lerdau, Ph.D.]

Narango’s study cannot be generalized to all birds, although many people have made the mistake of claiming it can. This study applies only to chickadees and certain other birds that inhabit forest because such species are dependent upon the native plants (trees) that comprise our forestland. In other words, if you want forest birds to reproduce in your yard, your yard must be forest. For a fuller explanation, please read “Chickadee Chicanery” at In Defense of Nature.

“These invasive species not only impact our forests, wetlands and streams, but also our economy, health and safety. They kill the trees that shade our homes and that our kids play hide-and-seek around. They increase the presence of other disease-spreading species like ticks. They diminish visibility along trails where safety is important”. [quote from an article from the Central Ohio Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management at a Nature Conservancy-sponsored website]

The only “forests” where you will see alien-plant species are those that are either managed improperly (overly thinned and thus allowing too much sunlight to reach the ground under the trees) or those that are actually “woods” in the process of succession (transforming from a field to a forest that has not yet reached maturity). “Invasive” plant species are sun-loving and therefore do not inhabit shady mature forests.

As for killing trees, if “they” refers to vines (a common complaint in the eastern U.S.) one must ask, why was the homeowner unable (or unwilling) to keep a vine from killing a tree in his yard that his “kids play hide-and-seek around”? However, if “they” refers to nonnative animals and/or diseases killing trees, that is a different situation altogether, which is not the point of this article. It’s unfortunate the writer did not make clear what “they” referred to. As far as I can tell, there’s no proof that “invasive” plants, in general—as stated above—increase the presence of organisms such as ticks. A study published in Environmental Entomology

purportedly shows that barberry-infested plots support more mice and thus ticks than plots in wooded areas with no barberry.

However, the “no barberry” plots were severely browsed by deer and thus “little understory vegetation was present.” In other words, these scientists compared two completely different habitats, which explains the greater number of ticks in the shrubby (Japanese Barberry) area that provided “questing habitat [for] blacklegged ticks [whereas] little other suitable vegetation exist[ed] in [the] severely browsed forests.”

“Questing habitat” refers to plants upon which ticks can wait at the appropriate height to grab onto an animal that comes by. Obviously, ticks are not going to be found in an area with little understory vegetation as they have nowhere to sit and wait for their quarry.

And we’re to believe “invasive” plants diminish visibility along trails, and native plants don’t? It sounds more like the folks who are supposed to be maintaining the trails have been derelict in their duties!

It’s clear that scientists and journalists are doing everything they can to assure that government and the general public view so-called invasive plants in a negative light. Yet, to my knowledge, no study condemning “invasive plants” exists that has the least bit of merit.

Marlene A. Condon


Addendum by Million Trees