A clear day, clearing out in the Canyon


Story and photos by Murray Schneider

 After taking off two weeks for Christmas and the New Year, nine members of Friends of Glen Canyon Park resumed volunteering on January 8. They were working along a trail high on the canyon wall that leads to Turquoise Way. Working under the supervision of Dylan Hayes, a Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program gardener, the neighbors extracted French broom, unearthed and removed radish.


Photo by Dylan H

The group fanned out along the higher slope. Houses on spider-like stilts hulked above them. They then spread down the hill. Swaths of Cape ivy blocked their way to Islias Creek, which was a dry creek bed because of the continuing drought.

The morning continued foggy and cold. Mini-blasts of frigid air darted between a stand of eucalyptus trees cloaked in fog drip.

While they stooped to their task, Hayes marched along the trail, checking their progress, answering a call from his NAP supervisor and issuing directions like a well-schooled instructor.

With a  professorial air, he explained the conundrums of canyon conservation.

“We want to prevent monocultures,” he said, holding up a carpet of Ehrharta. “If we don’t, it’ll blanket the hillside.”

Ehrharta is a mat forming perennial grass and native to South Africa and possibly spread throughout North America by accidental contamination of commercial seed mixes. It tends to grow in moist places (stream sides and fog drip) and forms thick underground root mats that usurp native plants such as California blackberry.

Hayes is quoted copiously in “The Canyon,” the sixth chapter in the bestselling Gary Kamiya book Cool Gray City of Love. He now knelt by some blackberry, which could be mistaken for poison oak except for its serrated leaves and thorny stems.

Fingering the Medusa-tangled leaves, he said, “Look at this, you guys! See the holes in the leaves. All sorts of insects have been feeding on them. We remove the Ehrharta from here, there’ll be more room for beds of blackberry.”

California blackberry (Rubus ursinsus) is a perennial, wide spreading vine-bearing shrub with prickly branches that boasts sweet, very aromatic and edible berries that Glen Canyon birds and mammals love to feast upon because of its low-lying, ground-level, fruity bounty.

Hayes replaced the tangle of blackberry, which blooms between February and July, and stood. “We want habitat diversity here.”

Inimical French broom competed with the Ehrharta for space, smothering the blackberry, which means that not only sparrows and rodents won’t have access to its summer berries, but neither will Glen Park children carrying annual collection pails.

French broom is a shrub, which has the potential to grow as large as a small tree. Native to the Mediterranean region, broom was brought to California in the 1850s as an ornamental plant and has since become a favorite in nurseries and gardens throughout the state.

Everything has its place, and French broom, which was used in the Azores to sweep cottages and to thatch roofs, doesn’t belong in Glen Canyon. While pretty, boasting showy fragrant yellow flowers in the spring, the plant is a strong competitor and can dominate a plant community, forming dense stands.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, French broom flowers are also toxic. French broom foliage and seeds contain a variety of quinolizidine alkaloids, especially in young leaves. In some livestock, ingestion of plant parts can cause staggering followed by paralysis.

It’s for that reason that the Natural Area Program is working to remove it from the canyon. The NAP manages the neighborhood’s 70-acre ecological wilderness. With a limited number of gardeners assigned the task, the NAP relies upon canyon neighbors to do some of the heavy lifting that keeps invasive weeds at bay. Their only reward at the end of the day is knowing they’ve been canyon stewards—and a libation and a bakery confection at NAP expense.

Some of the volunteers have been working together for more than a decade now. They spring from Glen Park byways such as Sussex, Laidley, Chenery, Monterey, Diamond and Farnum. This day they worked non-stop until 11:30 A.M.

Finally Hayes called an end to the shift, gathering up mattocks and loppers and collecting refuge bags choked with the tugged weeds. He’d eventually haul plants away because he didn’t want any to reseed.

He led the group back the way they’d hiked, threading single file down the trail until they dog-legged to the right and eventually came to Coyote Cave, a section of the trail that becomes impassable during the rainy season. Continuing past stringer and box steps on their left, the group rested and looked at the at Pool Two, a restored riparian environment they’d planted and continue maintaining with habitat-friendly natives such as columbine and sticky monkey flower.

On the other bank a thick mosaic of California blackberry quilted the incline. Hayes couldn’t stop himself. He was like a kid who couldn’t stop himself from taking the last cookie in the jar. He waved his arm at the shrub that stitched its way up the slope.

“This is what we’ll happen where we just finished working,” he said to his crew. “The critters will love it.”

Each of the volunteers is now retired. Two taught school, one was a postal worker, another a hospital assistant, one a City gardener and another a computer programmer. When they reached the Rec and Parks truck, one exclaimed “We get cookies and water now.”

Hayes turned around, looking sheepish. “Eh. I forgot the cookies.”

The group exchanged glances, smiling at its absent-minded horticulturalist. They’d give him a pass.



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9 responses to “A clear day, clearing out in the Canyon

  1. prc food

    Not a fan of the unnatural “natural areas” program. There was never a mandate to remove naturalized plants and trees. Plants are being demonized and removed that provide beauty, erosion control, and, most importantly, oxygen. The newly advertized “dangers” of various species have not been a problem for over 100 years, but are now being suddenly touted as a problem.


  2. prc food

    PS – this is “bad science” and outdated management. Ask Mother Nature, she loves a good monoculture, and I’ll bet you can think of quite a few examples yourself.

  3. Dylan

    To generalize about our City’s Natural Areas Program management strategies and so called mandate to always remove naturalized plants from all areas is to have a false understanding of the Program; not to mention demonizing as well. All of those attributes to colonizing plants “prc food” mentioned are true and wonderful…they are also taken into consideration to the care of different sites’ attributes and species/habitat protections. I guess you don’t like willows and adore cape ivy, or are happy to point fingers while diversity is lost. The Natural Areas Program protects and plants trees.
    We understand plant succession, (“monocultures” and otherwise). Depending on the time frame and goals, (of which you may or may not agree with), there will always be different approaches and philosophies concerning land/ecological understanding and management.
    The conversation and understandings are far more nuanced than you lead readers here. I understand your point of view (more along the PermacuIture purist’s), and the sensitivities and connections you see. I also value them.
    I hope you can find some intellectual humility and quit making assumptions about the the Natural Areas Program and the folks who work there with the amazing people they do! Thank you Friends of Glen Canyon!

    • APGlik

      I guess you love the herbicides which “Natural” Areas Program so generously applies too…. Didn’t NAP cut several willows along with many eucalyptuses in the Glen Canyon? Don’t you remember huge eucalyptuses on Alms road? Do you call the plan to cut 18,500 trees by “Natural” Areas Program – the tree protection plan?

  4. prc

    Dear Volunteers – I do appreciate your willingness to work so hard – but “the emperor (NAP) has no clothes!” Question the reasons, the science behind all this destruction. It’s because….. huh? And the scholarly articles are….. where?

    Scientists all over the world, all over this country, in Berkeley, in Stanford, are recommending adding natives and leaving naturalized plants. Mother Nature is a changeable force, she is not a static product. We are behind the times, but have a lot of $$ and “face” invested in this program.

    Many voted for this plan thinking it meant saving some natives, not destroying magnificent naturalized city areas. Now they go to their parks, only to wonder where their parks went!!

    I am uncomfortable in more and more of our city’s “wild areas” – and hope to be able to stop destruction, thinning and meddling in my local park – or I will have to drive out of the city to find untouched mature areas that have not been steeped in herbicides and pesticides. (Don’t want to be tracking that home on my shoes or on my dog’s paws.)

    (Question authority.)

  5. prc

    …and question those who tell you that the reasons for their plans and actions are too big, too complicated, too nuanced, for you to understand. Do you want your beautiful mature land, your lovely eucalyptus. The network of trees that has been standing together, providing wildlife homes and pumping out oxygen for over 100 years?


  6. Dylan

    APGlik: I don’t think anyone “loves” herbicides. They are a last resort for reasons you simply don’t agree. It would seem your problem should be with the “Best Management Practices” adopted by the City of SF as a whole and the resulting herbicides that are deemed “least toxic” by the Department of the Environment. The City’s IPM Program is among the strictest in the nation, yet you hold your clearly extreme view comparatively. As so you insist on scapegoating the Natural Areas Program as “the source” of your herbicide disdain.
    Trees are removed with reasons, not randomly. THINK about that. YOU don’t have to clean up the constant mess on the trails! Everyone I know loves eucalyptus including myself. (Luckily there are plenty to enjoy that are not hazards, discarding dead branches over trails, Recreation Centers etc.). If you are really interested in helping the historic plantations you should volunteer to help manage ivy around their bases. The young ones are being completely over run, the historic ones’ lives shortened, crashing down. The NAP only manages eucalyptus in certain areas: for safety, and to help maintain balance to other habitat types that deserve to exist as well.
    You are misguided in your efforts continuing to focus and scapegoat the Natural Areas Program. You should count your blessings you have effective services which help maintain our open spaces.
    I do want to however thank you for your passion! Happy New Year!

  7. Dylan

    You did not listen prc. You are still painting the Natural Areas Program and it’s managers as a one-trick pony with set science and management approaches. “Invasion biology”. Black or white. That’s it. In other words there are countless conscious reserves of naturalized plants and landscapes being conserved.
    All you see is “destruction” and short-term thinking. Your mind is made up as to cause and reasons of the human-hand and what should be done or not. It seems in your view, NOTHING. Contrary to your beliefs and values, science, etc. there IS a whole lot of common sense being used, not “science” solely working to conserve and balance our urban open spaces. Things like safety and basic human usability etc. have to come into play.
    Guess what? You can get “science” or scientists to support anything you want. Top scientists mostly disagree. All of our work evolves and changes. Nature is not static and the NAP do not strive for static results. We and it are all connected. We share these values and your sentiments in being at home here are felt.
    Once again, I’d ask that you quit making assumptions about the Natural Areas Program operations and folks. The pigeon-holing is convenient, but too easy. I hope you can see a lot of the positive changes too. Take care.

  8. prc

    Perhaps you think of yourself as a midwife for Mother Nature. It is a kind thing to do – but it is hard to be convinced that she needs help. Take care that the cure doesn’t kill the patient.

    Again, I think you all are acting out of a heart full of love for nature, but perhaps should question your methods, take a little time to do nothing and assess – look deeper into the science. Few of the leading biologists advocate for cutting down healthy mature trees or depending on the use of poisons in the environment.

    There are lectures on the subject coming up at the Commonwealth Club – I hope that you can attend:

    January 30: Conciliation Biology

    April 9: Bay Area Eucalyptus

    Thank you for your passion.

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