Noe Valley Voice October 2004

Trees--Noe's Got Some Beauties

By Corrie M. Anders

On the sidewalk in front of a chocolate brown duplex on Castro Street, a few steps from the 24th Street strip, is probably the most magnificent sweet shade tree (Hymenosporum flavum) in all of San Francisco. It is majestic in its leafy fullness, with a crown rising just above the roofline of the two-story residence. It is also exotic and sensual, with perfumed clusters of yellow blossoms that hint at romance and love.

"Smell this," said Mike Sullivan, as he plucked a bouquet of low-hanging blooms and offered it to two companions. "It has the most amazing fragrance."

He gave the flowers a gentle squeeze, and the soft scent of orange blossoms and jasmine and honeysuckle floated through the air.

"This tree is the biggest and the best of its kind in San Francisco," said Sullivan, a tree expert and longtime volunteer with Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF). "But anybody walking by would never know there's anything special about this tree."

Sullivan, 45, hopes his newly published book will rectify that and give local residents a better appreciation of the trees that adorn our city streets. The Trees of San Francisco features the city's best species and provides street addresses so that they can be easily located.

A Tree Hugger's Paradise

The book highlights 213 different trees that Sullivan says are the best of the best in San Francisco. Nearly 20 of them are rooted in Noe Valley.

Unlike some other neighborhoods, Noe Valley is full of trees. There are trees that delight the senses and trees that buckle the sidewalks. There are immigrant trees and California natives. There are mystery trees and trees so commonplace they don't rate a mention in Sullivan's book.

Sullivan frequently leads walking tours in San Francisco. At the moment, Noe Valley is not on any of his special routes. However, he designed a mini-tour last month for a Voice reporter and photographer. Sullivan, a San Francisco corporate attorney with Howard Rice Associates, brought along his 7-month-old son Joseph and their mixed-breed dog, Jake.

Sweet or Peppery?

The sweet shade tree in front of 1230 Castro Street was the first stop. The native Australian tree was planted about 20 years ago as an experiment to see how well it would thrive in Noe Valley--quite well, thank you. In fact, in Sullivan's opinion, the tree could live another 60 years.

"I've never seen one as big as this in San Francisco," he said. "I've wondered why it does so well in Noe Valley and has not done so well in other parts of the city."

Sullivan strolled a few steps further up Castro Street and paused under a California pepper tree. It is not San Francisco's finest; they can be found at 322 28th and 4019 26th Street. But the Castro Street version is representative of one of Noe Valley's trendiest trees.

"For some reason, you see more of them here than anyplace else in San Francisco," Sullivan said.

Despite its name, the California pepper (Schinus molle) is a native of the Andes in South America. Spanish missionaries brought it here in 1804, during their period of colonization. The pepper tree's long narrow leaves and drooping limbs create a willowy effect that seems stolen from a Savannah, Ga., landscape. A graceful, arching shape, dressed up with clusters of red berries that can be ground into peppercorn, makes it one of the city's most beautiful trees.

"The cliché of urban living is to have one of these drooping over the back patio," laughed Sullivan.

Where Once a Silk Oak Stood

Two blocks away, at 601 Diamond Street on the corner of 23rd Street, Sullivan wanted to show off an impressive example of a silk oak whose picture was featured in his book. The species (Grevillea robusta) is a shade tree that grows quickly to huge proportions, with fernlike leaves up to 12 inches long.

"Oh, my God, the tree is gone," Sullivan said as he rounded the corner of the intersection. "What happened?"

There was a large hole in the sidewalk where the 40-foot silk oak once stood, its branches extending all the way from the cars parked at the curb to the exterior wall of a two-story residence on Diamond Street.

Sullivan surmised that the tree, another Australian native, was deliberately taken out, because "it was probably breaking the sidewalk," forcing an unlucky homeowner to make costly repairs. He pointed to a bulge in the sidewalk caused by stout tree roots.

Sullivan's speculation was instantly confirmed by nearby resident Mary Haas. Haas said the tree's destructiveness was the main reason her landlords removed it a few weeks earlier.

Not only was the sprawling tree a hazard--the low limbs often forced passersby to duck, and strong winds frequently left the sidewalk littered with broken branches--but it almost filled up the huge picture window of her first-floor unit, she said.

Still, Haas finds the tree's absence a mixed blessing, since the shade tree helped maintain a comfortable temperature in her unit. "Now, without the tree, it's too hot," Haas said.

Sullivan, a certified arborist, nodded knowingly.

Sullivan's Outdoor Classroom

Sullivan is a New Yorker who delighted in the Adirondack forests of maples, birches, oaks, and other prestigious specimens. He moved to San Francisco in 1984 and, taken with the variety of trees in the city, joined FUF as a volunteer a few years later.

"I was spending a lot of Saturdays out in the neighborhoods planting trees. I grew up on the East Coast, and all the trees [here] were alien to me," he said. "I became interested to learn where they came from and why they adapted so well in San Francisco."

He learned a lot. He also began organizing tree plantings in his Cole Valley neighborhood. Sullivan created a web site,, after so many people began asking for his help in figuring out the best species to plant in their neighborhoods. His book, published by Pomegranate of Petaluma and available at Noe Valley's Cover to Cover bookstore, was a natural follow-up.

He says San Francisco was a tree-challenged city until the late 1960s and early '70s, when the city embarked on a campaign to plant trees in most neighborhoods. FUF took over when the city effort ran into budget troubles in 1981, and that same year the group staked its first tree in Noe Valley.

"It's a very well-treed neighborhood," said Sullivan. "Some trees that will do well in Noe Valley won't do well in the Sunset or Richmond. It may be the soil. It may be that it's a little less windy than in some other parts of the city."

It helps that Noe Valley is "a reasonably liberal environmentalist neighborhood. Your average Noe Valleyan is more likely to be a tree hugger than the rest of the city."

Our Share of Mystery Trees

Which may be the reason three swamp mahogany trees grow at 905­07 Diamond Street, near Jersey. Sullivan thinks they are the only specimens outside of Golden Gate Park--and he isn't sure how they got to Noe Valley.

"It's a mystery from the past," he said of the swamp trees, which are members of the eucalyptus family. "Oftentimes, someone with an interest in plants who wants something exotic will go to a nursery and say, 'Give me something unusual.' Then they move, and it gets lost in time."

And speaking of mysteries, Sullivan says there are at least 20 trees in the city whose identities baffle him. The list was even longer before he got some help last winter from Scot Medbury, executive director of Strybing Arboretum.

"We got in the car and drove around, and he helped identify trees," said Sullivan.

Five of the mystery trees are in Noe Valley. Sullivan is particularly challenged by one in front of 3770 24th Street near Church Street. "It's a eucalyptus of some kind, but not a common one," Sullivan said, and probably has Australian origins.

For the record, the purple-leaf plum and the Japanese flowering cherry are the two most popular tree species in Noe Valley, as well as in San Francisco. (For a good local example of the purple plum, go to 495 Eureka Street at 25th.)

They've become so overplanted, however, that a few arborists consider them the "plain Janes" of trees, despite their profusion of colorful flowers in the spring.

Sullivan doesn't mind them--he is a fairly laidback guy. But he does get irritated at homeowners who plant flowers at the base of their sidewalk trees. Flora such as lavender, ivy, and rosemary can rob young trees of the water and nutrients they need to thrive, he said.

As the tour ended, Sullivan pointed out one such tree surrounded by ornamental flowers. All he could do was sigh at people's well-intentioned but misguided handiwork.

"I gently chastise them, but they don't always take my advice," Sullivan said. "I've gotten jaded, so I don't do it as frequently."

Instead, he extols the virtues of trees--both native and immigrant species--because San Francisco would be a dreary place without them.

One needs only look at the barren Marin Headlands just across the Golden Gate Bridge, said Sullivan, to be reminded "what San Francisco looked like" not so long ago.