weeds of golden gate park: nasturtium

nasturtium in golden gate park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Nasturtium growing in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

A weed is “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”  Nasturtium is my favorite weed, of the many growing in golden gate park.   Its gray-green, disk-shaped leaves and bright orange-red-yellow flowers are undeniably beautiful, and I love how it brightens the ground under the trees in many places in the park.  But it grows so rampantly that you can practically watch it smothering everything in its path.  I’m reminded of this George Price cartoon that I cut out of the New Yorker many years ago:



Originally from South America, the plants that we commonly refer to as nasturtium actually belong to the genus Trapaeolum (confusingly, the genus Nasturtium is claimed by watercress).   There are about 80 species of Trapaeolum and they have the family Trapaeolaceae all to themselves.  The species we know so well, the one that has happily naturalized in the U.S., is Trapaeolum magus (Garden nasturtium).  It’s originally from the Andes, ranging from Bolivia to Columbia.  Carl Linnaeus named this genus Tropaeolum reportedly because the plants reminded him of an ancient Roman custom.  After winning a battle, victorious Romans used to set up a trophy pole called a tropaeum and the armour and weapons of the vanquished foe were hung on this pole. Linneaus thought the round nasturtium leaves resembled shields and the flowers, blood-stained helmets.  Not a pretty story to attach to such a lovely plant!

A prettier story has to do with the phenomenon of “flashing flowers” associated with nasturtium and discovered by Linnaeus’ daughter Elizabeth.  At dusk the small orange flowers sometimes appear to “flash” like tiny lights.  It’s not an electrical phenomenon, but an optical illusion in the eye caused by the contrast between the brilliant orange flowers and the deep green of the surrounding foliage.  Perhaps related to the green flash that we sometimes see when a bright, orange sun sinks into the sea at sunset?

You have to wonder if someone planted the first nasturtium in Golden Gate Park (could it have been introduced by John McLaren)?  Or maybe it just crept in from the Richmond or the Sunset all by itself?

Posted in blooming, plants, urban ecology, weeds | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

water in golden gate park: name that pond

A pond in the botanical garden (sketch by Heath Massey)

A pond in the botanical garden (sketch by Heath Massey)

A lovely pond just inside the Friend Gate in the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park is frequented by ducks and seagulls, stocked with large carp and home to turtles that particularly delight small children who were running around the verges and keeping their parents in a state of high alert there last weekend.  This water body anchors a large, shallow earthen bowl and is edged by lush planting, sweeps of lawn and picturesquely scattered rocks.  The backdrop of sculptural cypresses and pines silhouetted against the sky makes this spot, for me, one of the most iconic places in the park.

On a map of the botanical garden, I find that it’s called Waterfowl Pond.  Somehow that name, although arguably descriptive, disappoints me.  It seems inadequate to evoke the romantic charm of the place.  And maybe also because “fowl” is too close to “foul?”  It’s true,  the water is murky (the fish loom from shadowy depths when they briefly surface), but in such a rich, earthy, musty way.

Actually, come to think of it, romance doesn’t seem to have been much considered in the naming of water bodies in Golden Gate Park.  Many are named after benefactors (Stow, Alvord, Lloyd, Metson, Spreckels?).  The Lily Pond has an appealing name, although currently misleading (that may be remedied when it reopens after extensive renovation).   Mallard Lake beats out the more generic Waterfowl, I think.   North Lake, Middle Lake and South Lake occupy links in the Chain of Lakes,  suggesting an excursion that includes all three, like a hike in the wilderness.  Elk Glen Lake is my favorite;  the glen remains, if not the elk.

But, “what’s in a name,” as Juliette asks in Shakespeare’s classic romance?  The charm of water is magnetic regardless and every one of  these lakes is singularly romantic in reality.

Posted in birds, san francisco botanical garden, trees/urban forest, wildlife | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Australian tree like a benign serpent in the grass of golden gate park

Melaleuca in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Melaleuca in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Next to the Ghiradelli Rustic Shelter, a hang-out for chess and checker players just north-west of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, the serpentine trunks of an old (possibly dying?) Melaleuca tree must be an irresistible jungle gym for children.   Going by the needle-like leaves and the bottle-brush-like, white flowers, I tentatively identify it as Melaleuca armillaris (Drooping or Bracelet Melaleuca), although I could be wrong.  This species is discussed in Elizabeth McClintock’s Trees of Golden Gate Park,  and she pinpoints one in the Botanical Garden that is still there and looks similar.   But, as McClintock points out, there are more than 100 species of Melaleuca, most native to Australia and quite a few of them have been introduced in California. The interesting bark of this tree is not as shaggy as is typical; in fact  the undulating coils are worn shiny in some places, like the wooden bannisters in old houses after years of hand polishing.

It’s hard to know how old this particular tree is, but according to McClintock this species of Melaleuca was stocked by at least one California nursery as early as 1854 and many were available in California by 1871.  So this could be one of the older park trees.  The one in the Botanical Garden likely dates to the 1940s, when the earliest Australian plants were introduced there.  But by my distinctly unscientific estimate, this one seems more wizened and time-worn;  such depth of character takes a long time to develop.  Think of all the chess games it must have silently witnessed.

Posted in plants, trees/urban forest | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Local Bird Catches Gold Fish Cracker in Golden Gate Park | SF Weekly


Thank you Jim Herd (and SF Weekly)  for this wonderful photo!

“Oh, the unexpected things you will witness during a stroll in Golden Gate Park: teeny tiny tree houses, daytime robberies, and of course, urban birds living like a bunch of junk food-loving bachelors.Local photog Jim Herd captured this poignant image [of a Brewer's Blackbird] illustrating exactly what it looks like when a San Francisco bird “catches a fish.”Given that Goldfish crackers have remained our guilty pleasure since age 6, we cant really blame the little guy.”

via Local Bird Catches Gold Fish Cracker in Golden Gate Park | SF Weekly.

Posted in animals, arts, birds, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Recollections of a 50-year love affair with Golden Gate Park

I can’t resist posting this lovely recollection of Golden Gate Park written by Roselyn Rich Smith, printed in the Marin Independent Journal on June 6, 2024 (to see the original article follow the link at the end).

Japanese Tea Garden (photo by Heath Massey)

Japanese Tea Garden (photo by Heath Massey)

“I have bicycled through some grand public parks of the world — the Parmenio Pinero in Buenos Aires, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the Westpark in Munich, the Parc de la Granges in Geneva. None have been grander than the Golden Gate Park.

It all began five decades ago at the end of a road trip in a Chevy convertible from Boston to San Francisco with a dark-eyed, dashing lover, a king of romance and surprises. Before entering the historic City by the Bay, which I had never seen, he blindfolded me and drove to the highest peak. As the blindfold flew off, I could scarcely breathe. It was love at first sight; the pastel city, with her Victorian houses draped in soft powder blues and creamy whites, surrounded by the silver sheen of ocean and bay. High-spanned bridges glittered in the morning sun like necklaces tossed across the water. The emerald city’s golden park shimmered below us with five lakes and 1,000 acres of forests, meadows and flower-filled gardens that spilled for miles eastward from the ocean. At that moment, my life turned from black and white into technicolor.

This wild introduction to the new city of my dreams was only beginning. My pied piper had more tricks up his sleeve. From our wrap-around hilltop view, he whisked me down to the Golden Gate Park. After renting bicycles, we began an all-day magic carpet ride through a lovers paradise. O Fortuna, to be introduced to this city sanctuary on a clear, sunny day in April!Our bike tour began amid a Cirque du Soleil cast of bicyclists, roller skaters, parents with strollers, street musicians and bench warmers. For an East Coast girl used to drab, grey skies, who had never laid eyes on a eucalyptus, redwood or date palm tree, I was dizzy with pungent smells and vibrant colors. “We’re not in Boston anymore, Toto.”

Our first stop was at the Japanese Tea Garden. We sipped jasmine tea served by geishas in red silk kimonos in an open-air teahouse. We breathed in the scents of pink cherry blossoms and white magnolias while crossing arched bridges over curving ponds with golden fish.Next, a ride on a turn-of-the-centurey carousel with old fashioned organ grinder music and fanciful ponies handpainted with metallic blues and golds. Later, a picnic on the lush green grounds of the glass Conservatory of Flowers amid a sweep of 10,000 gold poppies, lavender primroses, scarlet azaleas and white rhododendrons.

If I could bestow a gift to city dwellers everywhere, I would travel the world like Johnny Appleseed and cast seeds for public parks. Then, I would seek out master gardeners like John McClaren, the original landscaper for the Golden Gate Park, who dedicated 70 years of his life as the first superintendent to bring the park to its full glory.My dark-eyed, dashing lover is long gone, but 50 years later I still bicycle in the Golden Gate Park every week. Who says that a love affair has to come in human form?”

via How it is: A 50-year love affair continues – Marin Independent Journal.

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pedestrian underpass in Golden Gate Park avoids cars and serves as impromtu bandshell

The underpass from Conservatory Valley to the Rockery and Fern Dell (sketch by Heath Massey)

The underpass from Conservatory Valley to the Rockery and Fern Dell (sketch by Heath Massey)

A pedestrian underpass beckons like an intriguing cave opposite the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, offering a vehicle-free means of traversing JFK Drive.  On a sunny day, the sunlit steps on the other side are an invitation to enter and the reward is the Rockery, with it rustic stone steps leading up the hillside to the back of the Rhodendron Dell.

The Rockery (sketch by Heath Massey)

The Rockery (sketch by Heath Massey)

On an overcast day the underpass is a little more foreboding and you may choose to brave the traffic up above instead of entering such a shadowy grotto.  Unless, of course, it’s a weekend, when music issuing from the darkness is an irresistible lure.  This impromptu bandshell is a favorite of local musicians because of the lovely acoustics.

Actually the underpasses in Golden Gate Park were probably inspired by those in Central Park, New York, on which Golden Gate Park was closely modeled.  The design of Central Park relied heavily on the concept of separating vehicular and pedestrian traffic via under and overpasses, as the concept for that park was a seamless “Greensward” uninterrupted by cross-town traffic.

Calvert Vaux's design for Playmate's Arch below 65th St Transverse Rd. in Central Park (Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University)

Calvert Vaux’s design for Playmate’s Arch below 65th St Transverse Rd. in Central Park (Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University)

William Hammond Hall, in his 1871 submittal of the original plan of Golden Gate Park to the park commissioners wrote that, ” it is to be regretted that these crossings could not have been arranged so that the traffic and the pleasure travel would be kept separate, by the crossings for the former being carried over, or under, the avenue roads and walks.”  Although not part of the initial plan for Golden Gate Park, pedestrian underpasses like this one in Conservatory Valley were added later, including one leading to the tennis courts from the Rockery (under Middle Drive), one to the Music Concourse from the north playground (under JFK Drive) and one from Alvord Lake to Mothers’ Meadow (under Kezar Drive).  They may be piecemeal in terms of traffic management, but I think they add to the mystique of the park.  And the music wafting out over Conservatory Valley may not be what its designer had in mind, but is definitely a plus.

Posted in arts, concerts, history, infrastructure | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

the conservatory of flowers in golden gate park

The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

The Conservatory of Flowers is the emblem and pride of Golden Gate Park.  With its elegant symmetry, white-washed glass panes and delicate wooden fretwork it commands an imposing prospect overlooking formal flowerbeds and gracious green lawns.  More than anything else, the Conservatory establishes the park’s nineteenth century pedigree, its pretensions of grandeur and continental style.  It’s easy to imagine ladies in long dresses with parasols and gentlemen in top hats strolling there.   So romantic!  I notice that couples seem particularly drawn to it, many pushing strollers or chasing toddlers.

Although a magnificent sight on a sunny day, brilliantly white against a saturated blue sky, I think the best time to visit the Conservatory is on a typical damp, gray, foggy San Francisco day.  On such a day stepping through those doors into steamy, thick air that smells like peat and moss,  visually accosted by greens, looking up into that magnificent dome  .  .  .  I always feel like a time traveler or as if I had stepped through the wardrobe, instantly transported from a dreary present to the tropics and adventure.

Thank you James Lick (!) and the group of wealthy tycoons who got together after his death to purchase his still-crated greenhouse and donate it to the park.  With the help of funds appropriated by the state legislature it was erected at its present site and opened to the public in 1878.

The 1848 Palm House of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England is often cited as inspiration, probably because of a certain likeness in form.  The Kew Greenhouse, designed by Richard Turner and Decimus Burton,  is famously an early example of the iron and glass construction that made glass conservatories of this type so much more efficient to manufacture and maintain in the second half of the nineteenth century.  But, curiously, the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park, although built thirty years later, is made of wood and glass.

In fact, mystery pervades the history of this revered landmark.  Nobody actually seems to know where it originated.  Although legend holds that it was shipped in crates around the Horn, no record of this shipment has been found.  Furthermore, tests conducted on it in 1997 found that two-thirds of the wood used in it was redwood.  This large amount of redwood cannot be accounted for solely by various restoration efforts over the years, so it seems likely that it was manufactured on the west coast, not the east coast or England.

In any case, the wood framing has made it more susceptible to fire and hastened its aging.  In 1883, only five years after it opened, fire purportedly caused by a faulty heater severely damaged the original dome.  It reopened with a slightly taller dome in 1884 and survived the 1906 earthquake, but age, poor maintenance and winter storms led to severe damage and necessitated its closing in 1995.  In 2003 (eight long years later!) it reopened with about 45% of the original wood replaced and the rest treated with rot-retardant chemicals.  Let’s hope sufficient funds are currently allocated to its upkeep.

Posted in Conservatory of Flowers, history, infrastructure | Tagged , , | 6 Comments