The Sun Cup on Albany Hill

sun cups on Albany Hill
sun cups on Albany Hill

No. 3, 13 February 1997
Barbara Ertter

Sun cup. AKA Camissonia ovata, formerly Oenothera ovata, in the evening-primrose family [currently known as Taraxia ovata]. Four yellow petals forming a cup, catching the sun and throwing it back into the sky. Flat on the ground, served up on a rosette of leaves, one of the earliest of the spring flowers. And, like most of California’s native plants, a treat to be enjoyed only by those people fortunate to be living within (or visiting) a relatively tiny portion of the earth’s surface. In the case of sun cup, this means near the coast from southwest Oregon to San Luis Obispo County. Period. And, within this region, only where the soil, the sunlight, and the seasonal moisture occur in whatever mysterious combination makes for perfect sun cup habitat, where the sun cup has been able to hold its own, generation after uncounted generation.

Which, to my regret, does not seem to include my garden, or any other garden I know of. So, when a scientist in St. Louis needs a handful of fresh leaves, so that he can have a tiny fragment of the DNA analyzed, he needs to ask someone who lives where the sun cup grows. Which is my excuse this day in early February to head again to Albany Hill, one of the few places in the East Bay where sun cup can be found. Sure enough, there are the yellow cups glowing on the ground, in the various places I’ve seen them in previous years. I gather leaves from a spot where the sun cups appear to be particularly vigorous, which sadly is a vacant lot that is probably destined for development. I’ll come back in a few months and look for seeds, a bit of a trick, since sun cup and its close relatives keep their seeds as buried treasure, in a sturdy capsule nestled in the ground beneath the leaves.

I notice some other early spring flowers in bloom: California buttercup with its many delicate yellow petals, and the blue-violet globes of the curiously named blue dicks (presumably a truncation of its Latin name, Dichelostemma, alternatively treated as a Brodiaea). Vines of wild cucumber trail across the ground, covered with cream-colored flowers. I wonder how big the root is that they arise from; some are large enough to have triggered the alternate name, man-root. I see the sprawling California blackberry is already in bloom, whereas the thickets of naturalized Himalayan blackberry will not do so until summer. Although most other blackberries have both pollen and fruit produced by every flower, plants of the California blackberry are either functionally male or functionally female. This may help explain why, even though plants are abundant, the tasty fruit are a seldom-found treat.

I notice the California buckeye starting to leaf out, earlier than the seedlings I planted in my back yard last year. The poison-oak is also leafing out, leaves glistening with their malevolent oil. A few butterflies drift by, a couple of monarchs and a swallowtail. Bumblebees bumble around, and a big black beetle stumbles across the ground. I find a small feather, perhaps that of an owl, perhaps of a hawk. As always seems to happen, I spend more time on the hill than intended. Not simply to seek out the spring treasures (are trillium and pink-flowered currant still in flower? have blue-eyed grass and wood rose begun to bloom yet?), but to do some weeding in this “garden-without-walls”. I pull some scattered French broom while the ground is still moist, but mostly it is the Oxalis pes-caprae that catches my attention at this time of year. Commonly referred to by East Bay gardeners simply as “oxalis”, with either fondness or distaste, this particular species has also somehow acquired the moniker of “Bermuda-buttercup”, even though it is neither a buttercup nor from Bermuda. Rather, like German-ivy, it is yet one more South African import that has transgressed beyond the boundaries wherein it is welcome. I am dismayed to see how much oxalis has spread on Albany Hill since I first began walking on the hill over a decade ago. In addition to solid patches, such a large one on the crest of the hill, I keep finding small patches, even individual plants, popping up almost everywhere I wander. Bob Ornduff, a professor of botany at UC-Berkeley who has a special interest in all species of Oxalis, thinks that the abundant bulbs, formed both underground and on stems, are spread by gophers, squirrels, and jays. At least, that’s his explanation for finding oxalis growing in the crotch of a tree!

As local gardeners know, oxalis makes a lovely ground-cover, with trumpet-shaped yellow flowers rising above a mass of delicate green leaves. But only in spring, after which the leaves and flowers turn to mush, and only if you’re willing to have nothing but oxalis, since just about everything else gets completely crowded out. As will the sun cups, California buttercups, blue dicks, and most other wildflowers on Albany Hill if the oxalis is allowed to spread unchecked. A diversity of what is uniquely Californian, what has helped make Albany Hill special, would be traded for a lowest-common-denominator uniformity. And the number of places worldwide where sun cups can grow ratchets down one more notch, an incremental bleeding away that is occurring cumulatively throughout the sun cup’s range.

So, even though the magnitude of the task is daunting, I find myself constantly stopping to pull the individual plant, the isolated patch that lurks within a meadow that still harbors a slice of Californian diversity. I know that I am not removing the oxalis, since the bulb remains behind, too deeply buried to be easily removed, fully capable of sprouting again next spring. However, as I know from fighting the plant in my own back yard, it can do this trick only so many times in a row before exhausting itself. The challenge is to act at a time that will do the most damage, when the oxalis has invested the maximum of its stored “capital” into production, without yet having had a chance to see a return on its “investment”.

I can’t help but thinking that, if everyone else who walked on Albany Hill did as I was doing, pushing back a few oxalis, or German-ivy, or French broom, the day would come when there would be no more on the hill to remove. As twentieth-century Americans, we are attuned to boldly visible solutions, quick and definitive. However, just as it is incrementally, too often imperceptibly, that we lose ground, so also must it be incrementally that we gain it back. Hence it will be through our persistence, and our patience, if future generations are to also experience the pleasure of seeking the sun cups on Albany Hill in early spring, cupping the sun and throwing it back into the sky.

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