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).

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.

German Ivy on Albany Hill

German ivy on Albany Hill
German-ivy on Albany Hill

Barbara Ertter
[written in the late 1990’s]

On go the long latex household gloves, then over them leather-palmed garden gloves. Thus armored against dormant poison-oak, I am now prepared for today’s goal: a seek-and-destroy mission against a particularly shocking shade of bright purple. This happens to be the tell-tale color of the creeping stems of german-ivy, buried in the duff under the spreading oaks, elderberries, buckeyes, and hazelnuts. High in the branches above my head are dried dangling strands, reminders of what german-ivy will do if left unchecked. I remember how this area looked two years earlier, before we began our attack, when the german-ivy formed a solid green mass smothering everything on the ground and reaching high up into the trees. The visual result, reminiscent of bayous draped with spanish-moss, belonged in Florida, not California. Not only were the indigenous plants being crowded out, but a fire hazard was created when the greenery turned brown in mid-summer, forming a fire ladder into the vulnerable crowns of the otherwise fire-resistant oaks.

German-ivy, neither a true ivy nor from Germany, is actually a groundsel or ragwort from South Africa. It has the Latin name of Senecio mikanioides, though groundsel experts have reasons to believe that this name should be replaced with Delairia odorata. In its native South Africa, german-ivy is an innocuous component of the cloud forest of the Drakensberg Range, on the border of Lesotho and Natal. I would like to visit there sometime, where I could admire german-ivy (or whatever its local name might be) growing as a harmonious member of a flora as rich as that of California’s. I can easily understand how the winter-blooming sprays of yellow flowers, complementing the bright green semi-succulent foliage, would catch the eye of a horticulturalist looking for novelties with which to brighten gardens during dreary California winters.

Alas, as too frequently turns out to be the case, the invited guest did not settle for being a coddled garden plant, but instead found coastal California to be much to its liking. Whatever mysterious combination of factors (pathogens? parasites? predators?) kept german-ivy in balance seem to have been left behind in the Drakensberg cloud forests, and german-ivy is now on the top hit list of non-indigenous plants that represent the greatest threat to the continued existence of California’s own richly unique flora.

Which brings us to this day in October, in the best of the Bay Area’s fall weather before the winter rains begin. Now is the time when german-ivy is at its most vulnerable, reduced by the summer dry season to feeble fragments, ragged remnants of winter lushness. Soon, however, the rains will begin, and any surviving fragments will explode, recreating the smothering carpet and striving to reclaim the canopy.

So here I am, as I am on the last Saturday of most months, working with a group of other volunteers, learning what stewardship means. This month we tackle german-ivy and algerian ivy; once the rains soften the earth, we will also pull french broom. When the tender new growth of spring wildflowers and ferns makes an appearance, we leave the forest lest our efforts do more harm than good, turning to tasks appropriate to the season. There is no manual telling us what to do and when, no “Owner’s Guide to Albany Hill”. Our own attention to the cycles of the seasons and a willingness to learn from the results of our actions have been the primary sources of the necessary information. I feel like we are letting the hill speak to us directly, telling us what it needs from us in order to heal.

As I spend the next several hours hunting for pernicious purple, my mind reflects on what we are doing. Some of my companions had raised questions that I had never considered, such as “Who are humans to decide which plants have a right to be here and which not?” I realize my response involves ethical components, primarily reparation and responsibility. Humans are responsible for bringing german-ivy to California, which gives us not only the right but the responsibility to keep it from doing harm to that which was already here, including many plants that grow nowhere except coastal California.

Another question that has been raised is: why worry about Albany Hill? Such a tiny piece of habitat, harboring nothing critically rare or of global significance, certainly a far cry from the glamour of ancient redwoods and distant rainforests. Although such awe-inspiring treasures are obviously worth fighting for, our attachment to the earth is superficial, and the long-term battle accordingly futile, if we do not also learn to cherish the ordinary that is part of our daily existence.

I recall the lesson of the fox in The Little Prince, how caring for something is itself the act that transforms the ordinary into the special, and transforms the transformer in return. This hill was undoubtedly special, was in fact home, to the Ohlone who once dwelt here, grinding acorns and feasting on shellfish at the mouth of Cerrito Creek. It occurs to me that the very ordinariness of Albany Hill could be the greatest treasure it has to offer, the opportunity to cherish the ordinary. In doing so, we take the critical first step in the daunting task of regaining what the Ohlone had here, what my ancestors left behind in northern Europe. A sense of place; a sense of nature, not as something separate, but as home.