Golden Gate BioBlitz: Lots of Nature to Explore

I really wish I could participate personally in this Golden Gate BioBlitz, because I grew up in San Francisco and became fascinated with nature – first mainly insects, then plants – in the City and around the Bay Area, from the 1940s onward. 

There is no area more fascinating in its biology, with many differences in relatively small geographical areas.

I was born 90 years after my ancestors arrived in Central California from the Donner Party, and the City, tiny before the Gold Rush, grew explosively over the years, a growth that soon led to the destruction of most of the native vegetation. 

Notwithstanding all this growth, 75 years ago there was a lot more of wild San Francisco than exists now.  The spectacular hills and view of the Bay dominated the attention of visitors, as they do now, but a great sweep of flat sand dunes extended south from Sigmund Stern Grove to the City limits beyond Lake Merced.

All of the land around Lake Merced, with its gullies and high spots, was wild, except for the Olympic Club Golf Course, and plants and animals thrived on the sand.  One of these was a little yellow-flowered annual member of the sunflower family, Lessingia germanorum, which was found only in and near the City.  I used to see it in the sandy patches near the University of San Francisco as well as in the western part of the Presidio, where it survives in small numbers.   

Laurel Heights Cemetery was initially located at the western edge of the City but became central after the Earthquake and Fire of 1906 as the built-up area of the City expanded westward to the Pacific.  In Laurel Heights, trailing shrubs of the manzanita Arctostaphylos hookeri subsp. franciscana were abundant; they were all destroyed when the area was developed, but one individual survives in the Presidio, having been discovered just a few years ago.

Wild spots were, and are still, abundant in the Presidio.

Wild spots were, and are still, abundant in the Presidio, one of my favorite spots to roam and look for plants, and thanks to the Federal designation it is now preserved with as much wild land as possible, and a good deal of effective restoration is going on.

Founded as a military reservation in 1776 as Spain’s northernmost outpost in the New World, the Presidio has been maintained as a relatively open area ever since. It passed from Spanish to Mexico control and then in 1846, as California was incorporated into the United States, was managed by the U.S. Army.  In 1994, the Presidio has been a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The stately forests of Monterey pine, Monterey cypress,  and eucalyptus that now dominate much of the Presidio were planted from the 1860s onward, replacing the open dunes and sandy slopes that had occupied the whole area. These even-aged stands, not the natural vegetation of the area, are dying out now and how to manage the areas where they were planted becomes a difficult problem with emotional overtones.


Clarkia franciscana. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Clarkia franciscana. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


In 1994, the Presidio passed from military hands to become a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  In the early 1950s I rediscovered in the Presidio the single shrub of another manzanita, Arctostaphylos montana subsp. ravenii, and also a species of farewell-to-spring that we named Clarkia franciscana.  Discoveries even in the City will continue indefinitely, and I am sure that the current BioBlitz will gather specimens of some undescribed species of insects and perhaps other groups as well.

Golden Gate Park was developed from what was then the western edge of the City all the way to the Pacific starting in the 1870s.  When I was visiting the Park in the 1940s, it was still immaculately cared for, and there were only a few places where “fugitive” weeds could be found amongst the neatly-trimmed hedges and plantings – a very different appearance from the abundant weedy patches in the Park today, where I would have found much of interest while we were working on the flora of San Francisco!

Both the Richmond and Sunset districts, which were developed out along the areas north and south of the Park starting around 1910, originally presented good-sized patches of dunes, built out now with the loss of their native plants and animals. Around the central hills, Twin Peaks and Mt. Davidson, as well as Bernal Heights and other high spots, there were good-sized patches of grassland with native plants, still there but diminished in size by the houses creeping up their slopes.

San Francisco was a great place for a budding naturalist to grow up.

Restoration is being carried out now in the salt marshes near Hunter’s Point, and my son Francis as a member of AmeriCorps taught young children from the nearby housing developments about nature, to their delight and satisfaction.


In short, San Francisco was a great place for a budding naturalist to grow up – lots of nature within easy reach everywhere to explore and enjoy! Everything was in reach of an excellent public transportations system, and I spent many weekends on the hills and in the uncultivated places scattered through the city.

It is essential that such places be preserved in cities, with their biodiversity, so that the people who live there can know about the world of nature that ultimately supports them in every way, even though that may be easy to forget in a world that is increasingly urban.  Certainly the Jerusalem crickets, cabbage butterflies, and fascinating beetles of San Francisco’s sandy soils inspired me to become a naturalist, my attention later turning to plants.

There is also the simple joy of seeing beautiful and intricately adapted plants and animals that makes a life much more interesting and fulfilling than it could ever be otherwise.  What is left of wild areas should be kept, and what can be restored, should be restored – a sound investment in the future, with their biodiversity, so that the people who live there can know about the world of nature that ultimately supports them in every way, even though that may be easy to forget.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Peter H. Raven, a leading botanist and advocate of conservation and biodiversity, is president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis.  In addition, Dr. Raven is a Trustee of the National Geographic Society and Chairman of the Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. For more than 39 years, Dr. Raven headed the Missouri Botanical Garden, an institution he nurtured to become a world-class center for botanical research, conservation, education, and horticulture display.  During this period, the Garden became a leader in botanical research and conservation in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and North America.   He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science, highest science award in the country, in 2001.  Described by TIME magazine as a "Hero for the Planet," he has received numerous prizes and awards from throughout the world.  He served for 12 years as Home Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, to which he was elected in 1977. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society, of the academies of science in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Chile, China, Denmark, Georgia, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, Taiwan, Ukraine, the U.K. (the Royal Society), and of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS).  He is coauthor of Biology of Plants, the best-selling textbook in botany.