the oldest trees in golden gate park: coastal oak woodlands predate the park

Coast live oaks in Golden Gate Park. (sketch by Heath Massey)

Oaks in Golden Gate Park. (sketch by Heath Massey)

In the north east corner of Golden Gate Park, along Fulton Ave. behind McLaren Lodge and the Conservatory of Flowers, a grove of native coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) offers a glimpse of what the San Francisco peninsula was like before the Presidio, before the Gold Rush, before the exotic landscape of the park was rolled out like a magic carpet.  These gnarly old trees maintain a low profile, hunkered down out of the wind and dwarfed by the towering Monterey Cypresses, Monterey Pine and Blue Gum Eucalyptus that dominate the park’s forest.

These trees aren’t showy or colorful.  Their small, dark green, prickly-toothed leaves stay on all year, collecting dust until they curl up at the edges, turn brown and fall off.  Their flowers are inconspicuous, yellowish-green tassels that produce small, bullet-shaped acorns, also inconspicuous.  They don’t put on a show of autumn color.  But with age they become like shadow dancers, their trunks lithe and sinewy, the gray-brown bark thickening with furrows and ridged like elephants’ trunks.

According to Elizabeth McClintock, these oaks are the only truly native trees in the park;  some of them predate the park.  She noted that the British surgeon-naturalist, Archibald Menzies, who visited the area of what is now San Francisco in 1792, described them as “scrubby oaks.”  They grew sparsely even then, in sheltered depressions, along with native horse chestnuts (Aesculus californica) and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

This corner of the park is one of the designated SF Natural Areas and benefits from having a “friends” group that has been instrumental in organizing volunteers for habitat restoration and working with the Parks and Recreation Department to install a new trail through the area, starting behind McLaren Lodge and heading towards the entrance at Fulton and Sixth Ave.  There’s a work party here on the second Saturday of each month.  Like other “restoration” efforts, this one is a herculean task and will require ongoing effort.  The invasive plants are relentless, especially the ivy and blackberry.  I wondered about the pile of blackberry cuttings under these oaks as I was drawing.  Was that left intentionally as a haven for birds and bugs, or just a temporary dump until picked up by maintenance?    I hope the former.  For more information on the restoration effort, go to: 



About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in events in Golden Gate Park, plants, trees/urban forest, weeds and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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