The Value of Albany Hill

View of Albany Hill from the Albany Bulb
View of Albany Hill from the Albany Bulb

Barbara Ertter
[written in the late 1990’s, scientific names updated 2015]

As an island in an urban sea, Albany Hill and adjacent Cerrito Creek provide a haven for a diversity of plants and animals that once thrived in the mosaic of flower filled meadows, thickets, and tree lined riparian corridors where now spread the cities of Albany, Berkeley, Richmond, and El Cerrito (ironically named for the hill just beyond its border!).

Few of the species qualify as globally rare, threatened, or endangered; among the plants, only Michael’s rein orchid (Piperia michaeli) and marsh gumplant (Grindelia stricta var. angustifolia) appear on the California Native Plant Society’s list of such species, and then only as the lowest category List 4). The natural value of Albany Hill lies instead in the surprising richness of the flora and fauna that remain, such that the Hill is both refuge for and reminder of what has been lost from the surrounding lowlands. The current tally is 134 native plants reported from hill and creek, including 2 orchids, 3 different roses, and 7 kinds of fern. Many of these plants were of great importance to the local Ohlone tribes whose grinding holes remain in the bedrock, such as coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

A further unique feature of Albany Hill is that it is essentially the only significant topographical feature in the East Bay that is immediately adjacent to the Bay, directly across from the marine winds blowing from the sea through the Golden Gate. As a result, the hill is one of the few (or only) sites in the East Bay where one can find several plants that otherwise grow closer to the coast: stinging phacelia (Phacelia malvifolia), coast horkelia (Horkelia californica ssp. californica), and Nootka rose (Rosa californica var. orthocantha).

Unfortunately, this haven of natural diversity cannot be taken for granted. Of the 134 native plants that have been reported from Albany Hill at one time or another, eight may have already disappeared and several others known from only one or two remaining plants. The more habitat that is preserved, the greater the likelihood that the remaining species will persist in the face of chance events, small and large, that allow the establishment of new individuals and populations to balance the loss of others. Even if all the remaining open areas on Albany Hill were saved from further development, however, an equally serious threat remains. Without active control of several aggressive non native species that have become established (e.g., Algerian ivy, French broom, German ivy, and ehrharta grass), most other native species will eventually be crowded out (as has already happened on Dimond Creek in Piedmont). Since such plants tend not to pay attention to property boundaries, stewardship activities to control these invaders need to take place on all remaining open spaces independent of ownership. The parcel in question (uphill from end of Madison Avenue) contains both live oak forest and grassland meadow. An addition to the importance of this property as an integral part of the natural diversity of the entire hill, as discussed above, several aspects of this parcel have special significance.

While the understory of the oak forest east of the meadow, next to the path, is badly choked with Algerian ivy, the oak trees themselves are particularly magnificent specimens. The oak forest west of the meadow has a richer understory, with California hazelnut, blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea), shield fern (Dryopteris arguta), and cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum). The meadow grassland itself, while largely dominated by non native annual grasses (wild oats, brome grass), does include some native bunch grass (blue wildrye, Elymus glaucus) and could potentially be managed to encourage the spread of others. This is also the only site on the hill where ookow (Dichelostemma congestum) is known to grow, a small blue flowered lily whose bulbs were an important food for Native Americans.Bracken fern, yarrow, and an occasional California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) are also present in the meadow. The greatest diversity, however, is found at the border of meadow and forest, a phenomenon known as edge effect. Some of the noteworthy plants that comprise this diversity are Douglas’ mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana), California figwort (Scrophularia californica), hedge nettle (Stachys rigida var. quercetorum), manroot (Marah fabacea), Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus), soap root, wild rose (Rosa), and goldenback fern (Pentagramma triangularis). And these are only the plants whose presence was still evident in late fall; the same area also supports several spring flowering plants found in few other sites on the hill, including the California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus).

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