May 29, 2008

Tree Walk: Common names derived from appearance

Tuliptree, bird of paradise, bottlebrush. Common names of commonly seen plants in Berkeley. The names derive from the appearance of each plant. The flowers of the tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipfera, look like tulips. The bird-of-paradise flower, Strelitzia genus, resembles the bird of paradise (Paradisaeidae family). Obviously the flower of the bottlebrush tree, Callistemon genus, resembles a bottle brush.

The 16th century name for the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) was ya-chio-tzu which means "a tree with leaves like a duck's foot," according to Arthur Plotnick in The Urban Tree Book.

Two common names for the catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), which I have not seen in Berkeley, are derived from the appearance of the plant's seed pod: cigar tree and Indian bean tree. I think the pods, pictured below, look like a green bean or vanilla bean.

Source: USDA Plants Database

Another tree with a common name derived from the appearance of its fruit is the sycamore or planetree, which is commonly planted in Berkeley. The tree is known as buttonball tree. Each button ball or fruit is an "aggregate of achenes." An achene is a "small dry, -1-celled, 1-seeded indehiscent fruit, the seed attached to the pericarp at 1 place" (Harrington, How to Identify Plants). If the tree has one seed ball per stalk, then it is an American sycamore versus the London planetree which would have two or three seed balls per stalk.

Imported Comment In response to: Tree Walk: Common names derived from appearance Comment from : nalini [Visitor] this post is great, beautiful pictures!

May 24, 2008

Photo du jour: Urban geyser

Broken hydrant on Bancroft Avenue The firefighters who shut off the hydrant from a manhole in the street received a hearty round of applause from the crowd. Imported Comment In response to: Photo du jour: Urban geyser Comment from : Rob [Visitor] wow, what a picture!

May 22, 2008

Bird Watch: Four birds common to my backyard

The Ecology Center in Berkeley is a great resource for many things eco, from reference books to housewares, from posters to playing cards like the ones pictured above. These six cards are from a deck titled "Local Birds - Northern California Backyard and Trail Birds." The six species pictured on the cards are commonly seen in my backyard. I have not done anything special to attract these species. All the plants in the backyard where there when I moved into the duplex four years ago. I have added new plants to the front and side yards. I borrowed a book from the library about attracting birds, but it is not useful for the Bay Area; it's perfect for folks living in the Prairies or on the Atlantic seaboard. I turned to my personal copy of American Wildlife & Plants, a text I have mentioned several times on this blog. The list of cultivated and wild plants visited by hummingbirds in warmer parts of the U.S. and on the Pacific seaboard are numerous, so I will only list the ones with which I am familiar: Butterflybush (a favorite of butterflies, hence the name) Sage (which I planted in the side yard) Lemon (my neighbor has a tree) Geranium (I planted several in the front yard) Hollyhock (my seeds have not germinated) Horsechestnut (no trees on my street) Rose (there is a pink rose in the backyard) The wild plants include manzanita and milkweed (I plant to sow seeds of the latter in the fall). Last week the backyard was visited by many House Finches. Its red crown stripe and specked belly are good markers. In California, filaree makes up at least 50% of the house finch's diet. Filaree is classified as a "weed plant" and Martin et al. note that the finch's "main diet consists of weed seeds." In my backyard they eat buds. The Cedar Waxwing is one of my favorite songbirds. I love the soft yellow color of its belly as well as its crown tuft. Waxwings, also known as cedarbirds, consume mostly fleshy fruits which in the Pacific are from the California peppertree, cultivated cherry and grape, mistletoe and strawberry. The waxwings also eat animals like beetles, ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and crickets.

I think I've seen a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, but according to Martin et al., the chestnut-backed chickadee is "found in relatively wild, timbered tracts" which my backyard is not. Joseph Grinnell and Margaret W. Wyth did sporadically observe Santa Cruz Chestnut-backed Chickadees in their 1926 (!) publication, Birds of Berkeley Campus). I've definitely seen the Song Sparrow though it's less common than the first four birds described above. Martin et al. describe it as "the commonest, best-known and most loved songster in the United States. It is nearly equally at home in town or in country." Although the bird is shy it eats in the open; it eats animals (beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, and ants - there are a lot of ants in my yard!) and plants which in California include pigweed (10-25% of its diet), knotweed, and minerslettuce. I'll close this Bird Watch with a quote from Suburban Safari about hummingbird physiology:

Like tiny bears, they slow their breathing and depress their heart rate from 1,000 beats per minute to just 150. On a cold spring morning like this [Holmes is writing about her yard in Maine], my hummers may need fifteen minutes to power up to flying temperature (13).

May 20, 2008

Neighborhood history hunting I went

The Neighborhood History Hunt Game designed by Gingi Fulcher took approximately 90 minutes to complete at a leisurely walking pace. The deadline for submission was May 19, but if you can get a copy of the hunt, I recommend doing the walk. Please note that in this post I do not present the items in the order given on the game form nor do I include all the clues and factoids on the game form.

I enjoyed searching for items in the hunt, but my favorite part of the game was discovering items not on the official hunt, like the checkered stepping stone in the tree lawn at 1806 Allston, pictured above. A few of the clues were located in the ground which I liked. For example, two of the last clues were found on utility covers, one at MLK and Haste and the other in the Civic Center Park.

The first item on the hunt was the Rainbow Ranch Cafe at MLK and Allston, pictured above. It used to be Robin's Sandwich Shop. Down the street from the cafe is a statue in memory of Sgt. Jimmie H. Rutledge. Adjacent to the police station is the former City Hall which is now the headquarters for Berkeley Unified School District. Around the corner on Allston is the City Hall Annex which used to house the Department of Milk Inspection, pictured below.

In addition to clues, the hunt game form also provided neighborhood factoids like the presence of two large redwoods that have been growing in the neighborhood for at least 70 years! The fourth item on the hunt was a lemon tree in the front yard of what used to be the site of S.J. Sill's house and stables. The current house was moved to 2208 McKinley from its location on 4th Street in 1979.

The railroad remnant at 2341 Roosevelt led to my discovery of a metal bunny sculpture, a metal woman sculpture, and a side yard of metal sculptures! Not far from the railroad object, on California, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company ran service from 1912-1933. Another sculpture - the ballerina figure at the Creative Arts Building - was a clue to item 10.

Energy was the theme for one of the items and one of the factoids. The item was the house that uses sunlight for interior lighting (via roof windows) and power (via solar panels). At 2423 McGee, I saw two electric vehicles or EVs. Gingi Fulcher noted that the vehicles were manufactured by a now defunct company Jet Industries between 1977 and 1981. Another factoid provided by Gingi is that electric engine technology is older than the internal combustion engine.

One of the last factoids on the game form related to architectural design. Two "classic examples" of Eastern Shingle Cottage style houses are located at 1733 (pictured below) and 1715 Dwight Way.

The houses at 2411 and 2409 MLK were not on the game form but they are so pretty. They remind me of icing on cupcakes.

Finally, on the other end of the spectrum in terms of design and aesthetics is the New Green/ECO building at MLK and Dwight. The building was not on the game form, but I have long been intrigued with its details, pictured below.

May 16, 2008

Planting for evaporative-cooling and water conservation

Yes, this book, whose cover features a squirrel on a patch of green lawn, holds insights about energy and water.

I highly recommend Suburban Safari by Hannah Holmes, pictured above. Here are a two excerpts related to landscape and energy. It's unusually hot in the East Bay and we are on the cusp of summer water rationing, so Hannah Holmes's observations and well-researched findings are salient!
...the flood-irrigated neighborhood where we began our tour was cool and shady, wasn't it? That shade keeps the entire city a little cooler. And those water-hog trees, grasses, and shrubs cycle water much faster than desert plants do, and that evaporation cools the city even more. So which would you have? More water use and less air-conditioner use? Or less water use and more AC? A water shortage, or fossil-fuel smoke in the air? Chris chuckles. Heh heh. He has no easy answer. However, the university owns a plot of Phoenix houses and plans to landscape them three different ways to compare the effects. Not that Chris expects science to change anyone's mind about his or her lawn (p. 127).
Nothing 's clear with energy and ecology....Grass, like most plants, cools itself, and the air around it, by releasing moisture. Measuring the effectiveness of this trick is as easy as stepping barefoot from the lawn to the street on a hot day. A thirty-degree difference isn't uncommon. The contrast is strongest after sunset, when the grass cools quickly but the street throbs late into the night. All this cooling around the house reduces the amount of air-conditioning we need indoors. Grass is even better than trees than trees at the evaporative-cooling business. (Trees win overall because their shade prevents sunlight from soaking the city in the first place.) (p. 116).
Surprised by the previous statement? According to Dr. Cynthia E. Rosenzweig at NASA, "all else being equal," there is a small difference in the urban heat island effect in going from impervious cover to grass versus going from impervious cover to trees. On the other hand, in a city like Manhattan with more area to plant sidewalk trees, street tree planting is a more effective strategy than planting trees in open space, i.e. parks composed of lawn and widely-spaced trees. If you are considering planting vegetation to capture the "evaporative-cooling" effect, consider water-conserving plants in light of the water shortage in the Bay Area. EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District) has over 100 pages of water-conserving plants from trees to ferns in its publication, Water-Conserving Plants and Landscapes for the Bay Area (1990). I purchased my copy used at Black Oak Books in North Berkeley. Remember though, plants, even natives, require regular watering in their first year to establish well. If you are unmoved by the "evaporative-cooling" effect of the lawn, alternative grasses, recommended by EMBUD, include California fescue, blue oat grass, zebra grass, deer grass, fountain grass, and needle grass (view a purple needle grass). Chamomile and moss verbena, of the ground covers, seemed most suitable for recreation, "the lawn's least debatable benefit" according to Holmes. Planting dwarf sedge in an "urban forest" garden is recommended by the U.S. Forest Service. Suburban Safari is available in our bookshop. Proceeds from the bookshop will support our efforts to document citizen nature makers.

Ecological design titles in the bookshop include

Redesigning the American Lawn Rain Gardens Imported Comments In response to: Planting for evaporative-cooling and water conservation Comment from : nalini [Visitor] that is so interesting! i love your blog! In response to: Planting for evaporative-cooling and water conservation Comment from : jordan [Visitor] Hey! Thanks for the great info, I am always looking to find good books about being eco-frinedly. I was browsing through a bunch of green websites and blogs and I came across yours and found it very interesting. There are a bunch of others I like too, like the daily green, ecorazzi and I especially like’s carbon calculator ( I find it really easy to use (it doesn’t make me feel guilty after I take it). Are there any others you would recommend? Can you drop me a link to your favorites (let me know if they are the same as mine). In response to: Planting for evaporative-cooling and water conservation Comment from : Georgia [Member] Jordan, for environmental issues/news, I read Gristmill and Treehugger.

May 14, 2008

Tree Walk: BART parking lots & spring buds and flowers

Could parking space become the next living space? asked Elsa Brenner of the New York Times in an article of the same name. Brenner wrote of a Westchester County Department of Planning study that proposes to increase housing for moderate-income households by building on office park parking lots. Brenner, quoting from the study, notes that office parks, constructed with roads and utilities, lower development costs on these sites.

Where do trees fit? Well, the article (I am really enjoying my Times subscription) reminded me of photographs I took of the North Berkeley and Ashby BART parking lots. I'd like to share some thoughts about both lots. First, note the large stature trees, pictured below, that provide visual privacy between the North Berkeley station and houses to its west. Also note the small stature trees, pictured above, in the expanse of asphalt on the western side of the North Berkeley BART station. Then, compare the shade profile of a short stature tree, in this case, a purple leaf plum to that of a larger stature tree, a sweetgum (photo below). Importantly, the sweetgum is not at its mature size.

My look at the two BART station was not a compare and contrast exercise. I did not photograph the western parking at Ashby BART which more closely resembles the North Berkeley station. I did photograph the eastern lot at Ashby which has remarkable trees, pictured below.

_________________________________________________________ Spring has definitely arrived. In its earlier days I meant to post about buds, leaves and flowers. Better late than never. The following material is quoted from two of my favorite botany books: Botany for Gardeners by Harold William Rickett and Trees: Their Natural History by Peter Thomas.

This is a bud. This complex structure, beautifully and symmetrically formed of successively overlapping young leaves and including the apical meristem of a stem-all this is comprised in that simple three-letter word. Any bud is potentially a length of stem with the leaves that will adorn it. As the cells lengthen, forming a region of elongation, the leaves which were at first so close-packed at the tip become separated. The cells which were once included in the shirt, broad meristem of the apex now form the length of stem beneath the tip; and leaves which were once crowded on the apex are now attached on the sides of this length of stem, often at wide intervals.

Buds of different trees vary in just how much of the next year's growth is preformed. In fact buds can be divided into three types of growth. In trees such as ashes, beech, hornbeams, oaks, hickories, walnuts, horse chestnuts and many maples and conifers, the whole of next year's shoot is preformed. Everything is preformed or fixed in the bud as it develops over the summer to be expanded into a branch the following spring. These species are described as showing fixed or determinate growth. Since everything is preformed, spring growth occurs in a single, rapid flush and is over in just ten days to a few weeks, and then the terminal bud takes on its winter appearance. In many others, however, only some of the leaves are preformed....Trees showing this free or indeterminate growth (sometimes called continuous growth) include elms, limes (lindens), cherries, birches, poplars, willows, sweetgums [pictured above], alders, apples, and conifers such as larches, junipers, western red cedar, the coastal redwood and ginkgo....Growth continues for longer in determinate species but still normally stops well before the end of the growing season, giving time for next year's early leaves to be preformed in the new buds.
While we are considering buds and stems, let's admire some flowers.

Chinese pistache

Norway maple

Buckeye/ horse chestnut

May 12, 2008

Hidden Gems highlights: a creek named for a quail, a block of war houses, Maybeck brick glass, and more

The weather could not have been better on May 10 - sunny but not hot and blue skies. The Grassroots Greening walk and the Hidden Gems bike tours were well attended and enjoyed by all. I won't recount the entirety of the tours here - join us next year for the full experience.

Atop the bridge over the Cordonices Creek along the Ohlone Greenway sit two quail sculptures. Cordonices is Spanish for quail (read more about Spanish derived place names in Berkeley). Note the step design of the bridge. The height from the trail to the top of the railing is appropriate for cycle safety while pedestrians can step up to the railing to view the creek below.

Dave Drummond of California Habitats Indigenous Activists met the walkers to discuss Ohlone culture and plant management. The grass to Dave's right is purple needle grass, California's state grass. The plants that comprise the coastal prairie restoration project are local to within three to four miles of the site (Ohlone Greenway adjacent to the Peralta Community Garden).

These folks are walking through a fence that has only been open for a year thanks to the efforts of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (a co-sponsor of the walk and bike tours). The small opening is significant, however; one can now (almost) walk from creek to creek. There is a continuous trail from University Avenue (just north of Strawberry Creek Park) to Baxter Creek at the El Cerrito-Richmond border. Also, Schoolhouse Creek runs beneath the feet of the walkers on the other side of the fence.

Both walkers and cyclists were able to visually appreciate the fruits - figuratively and literally - of labor of the Schoolhouse Creek Common group. In addition to the fruit pictured above, one can learn about the differences between the coast live and cork oaks, pictured below.

Bark: cork oak (left), coast live oak

Leaves: cork oak (left), coast live oak The photos in the remainder of this post were taken on the planning ride for the official tour. Before lunch at Strawberry Creek Park, the cyclists stopped at Bataan Avenue, a one-block street that runs east west between 7th and 8th Streets. Construction of the approximately 848 square-foot houses began in 1942. Only twelve of the initially proposed 24 houses were built. The project was known as the "Bay Shore Gardens." The street was named for a World War Two battle. I ably assisted in my research by Jeff, a librarian in the History Room at the Central Library.

Several of the buildings along Bancroft, west of 6th Street, like the one pictured below, feature fine examples of Maybeck's brick glass.

At Channing and 7th Street is another fine building and reminder of West Berkeley's industrial landscape: the former home of Edward Niehaus, owner of a planing mill in the neighborhood. Niehaus's craftmanship is displayed on the exterior of the house; note the various woodworking styles. My favorite is the sunflower relief, pictured below.

Click here to learn about West Berkeley's industrial history. You can purchase the Hidden Gems of Berkeley map from me (leave a comment to this post) or John S. (call 849 19 69). The Berkeley Path Wanderers Association pathways map can be purchased here.

May 6, 2008

Event: May 10 - Discover Berkeley's hidden gems, by bike, by foot

Participate in the 6th Annual Hidden Gems Tour of Berkeley this Saturday, May 10, beginning at 10 a.m.!

If you bike, meet at San Pablo Park (Mabel and Russell). If you walk, meet at the Cordonices Creek bridge at the Ohlone Greenway. Both the walk and ride will rendezvous at Strawberry Creek park for lunch. After lunch the ride will continue to Westbrae. For more details, click here for the full-size poster or click here for the event website.

This year we’ll explore the many eclectic hidden gems of West Berkeley and the Westbrae. John Steere, John Coveney, Georgia Silvera Seamans, Susan Schwartz, Jen English (of Walking Berkeley), and guest historians/guides will conduct this 4 mile ride through curiously historic and creative features of the flatlands. Discover exciting citizen-led projects near the old Santa Fe rail route. Community members will introduce you to a new volunteer-built park, a playground transformed by young artists, native plantings, gardens, public art, plans for a exciting new plaza, and more. Bring a lunch, water, and your curiosity!

This tour is sponsored by Berkeley Partners for Parks and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition (as a part of Berkeley Bike Month), Livable Berkeley, and by Whole Foods Market - Berkeley.

May 4, 2008

Tree Walk: On the street names of Berkeley

I’ve written about Philadelphia’s tree-named streets for this blog and have seen tree-named streets in Berkeley, but it was a recent Times article that sparked this post. The Times reporter, in walking Flushing, NY, found several streets named for trees: Ash, Beech, Cherry, and Holly. He writes,

The streets’ names, like the stately trees that shade them, are reminders of a horticultural tradition thought to go back to French Huguenots who came to Flushing around the same time as the Quakers, also seeking religious freedom. Lewis and Clark sent plant specimens to the commercial nursery founded here by Robert Prince in 1737.

I did not learn of a similar horticultural tradition in Berkeley, but the Quick Index to the Origin of Berkeley’s Names published by the Berkeley Historical Society provided some information about streets like Pine Avenue in the Elmwood. It was named for the pine tree. As was

Acacia, Bay Tree Lane, Cherry Street, Cypress Street, Elmwood Ave and Court, Eucalyptus Path and Road, Hawthorne Steps and Terrace, Laurel Street, Linden Avenue, Magnolia Street, Oak Path, Street, and Street Path, Oak Knoll Path and Terrace, Palm Court, Poplar Path and Street, Redwood Terrace, Thousand Oaks Blvd, Walnut Street, Willow Trail, Walk, and Path, and Spruce Street.

Pine Avenue is surrounded by other tree-named streets.

Cedar Street was a case of mistaken identity; a cypress was mistaken for a cedar. Encina Place is named after the Spanish word for live oak; Roble Road was named after the Spanish word for oak. Ensenada Avenue, it follows, was named for the “place of many oaks.” Nogales Street, another Spanish derivative, was named because it was the “place where walnuts grow.” Live Oak Park was named for the “multitude of oak trees there.” Oak Knoll Terrace was named for a “particular oak tree” and Pepper Tree Lane was named for the pepper trees that used to line the road.

Fresno is the Spanish word for ash tree, so Fresno Avenue is named for the ash. The Latin term for the genus to which ash species belong is Fraxinus. Although maligned for is shallow root system that lifts sidewalk panels, Arthur Plotnick (in The Urban Tree Book) notes that the ash tree is sacred in Norse mythology - “honey rained and beer flowed” from the ash, also known as the “Tree of Life.”

May 1, 2008

Bird Watch: Pigeon watching three blocks away, almost

I’ve found pigeons to watch; three blocks away, pigeons hang out on the overhead wires across from a 7-Eleven store. I received my Urban Bird Studies/ Project Pigeon Watch a few months ago and have been looking for a spot to observe pigeons for ten-minute stretches. I can submit my data online as well as share essays and photos. The project is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Four of seven color morphs from the Project PigeonWatch poster are show below (red, spread, white, and checker - counterclockwise from top left).

In response to my post about International Bird Day, Mary Guthrie of the Cornell Lab commented

thanks for your support of the Cornell Lab. I thought you might like the url for IMBD - From their home page “Now, IMBD is celebrated almost year-round. Most U.S. and Canada events take place in April and May, while fall events are the norm in the Caribbean and Latin America.” Come visit us in Ithaca!

Susan Bonfield of the International Migratory Bird Day NGO wrote

I ran across your blog and wanted to let you know that International Migratory Bird Day is alive and well, and I’m sorry you had trouble finding information about it. Please visit our website ( for lots of information, downloadable materials, and ideas. Officially, IMBD is celebrated on the second Saturday in May each year; May 10 in 2008. Because birds’ schedules don’t coincide in all locations, we encourage groups to host in event at the best time.