The Value of Native Plants

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Native plants evolved to live with the local climate, soil types, and wildlife and are crucial to establishing and maintaining a healthy San Francisco Bay. Save The Bay’s on-the-ground wetland restoration projects aim to re-establish native plants in the transition zone, creating important buffer areas adjacent to tidal marshes.

There are many benefits to native plants. For instance, native plants generally require less water than non-native plants and are often drought tolerant. Native plants attract and sustain native wildlife and help maintain the landscape by preventing erosion and enriching the soil.

The Bay Area is home to around 400 native plant species and over 70 non-native, invasive species. Invasive plants are both non-native and able to grow on many sites, spreading quickly and disrupting plant communities. Invasives degrade wildlife habitat and disrupt ecosystem functions. They are the second greatest threat to endangered species, after habitat destruction.

Our restoration staff works to remove invasive species from the Bay’s marshes and wetlands, planting native plants along these sites. Meet some of the native plants that are planted at our restoration sites along the Bay.

California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is the most important native source of honey in California. Our local bees love this plant, which is native to the Bay Area and can be found above the high tide line. It is often found around the Bay growing on rocky, dry slopes in a variety of plant communities. This species is extremely drought tolerant. CA buckwheat can grow to be a relatively large shrub, providing cover for wildlife and crowding out encroaching invasive species.

Fleshy Jaumea (Jaumea carnosa) can be found in the low zone of the marsh right by the Bay. These native plants form thick mats along the shoreline, which helps hold soil together and prevent erosion. Fleshy jaumea is in the Sunflower family, which is evident when you examine the flowers closely. Jaumea is a halophyte, meaning that it is a plant that is very salt tolerant and is commonly found in areas of high salinity.

Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) blooms from March to July and can be found in grassland, foothill woodland, and sage scrub around the Bay Area. Song sparrows, house finches and other songbirds eat the seeds of this native plant. It is relatively common but can be hard to identify when not in bloom. It is actually not a grass, but is in the same family as Iris.

Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) typically bloom from mid-spring into mid-summer and can be found above the high tide line. Hummingbirds and moths love the sweet nectar that these tube-like flowers hold. Mimulus is latin for comic or mime, perhaps named for the funny face of the flower. Sticky monkey flower are found throughout California, southern Oregon, and Baja California in a variety of plant communities.

California Aster (Symphyotrichum chilense) is an important plant for the larvae of the Field Crescent and Northern Checkerspot butterflies. Asters are late bloomers, blooming as late as November. This late flowering period is important for insects who still need nectar late in the season. California aster is native to California and is found only slightly outside of California’s borders. It is rhizomatous, meaning that it can propagate itself through underground stems and is often found in large clumps or colonies. CA aster is a perennial plant. It grows and blooms during spring and summer and dies back every autumn and winter, returning again in the springtime.

Learn more about the native plants that help restore our Bay shoreline. Sign up to volunteer.

Restoration at Oro Loma

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On July 14, I got the chance to join Save The Bay’s restoration team for fieldwork at the Oro Loma Demonstration Project nursery site. After spending 6 weeks working with the communications team, I was very excited to get away from my desk for a field day with fellow office volunteers.

I knew that we would be working on site at the Oro Loma Sanitary District to propagate restoration plantings, but I did not realize that we would be working within the wastewater treatment plant itself. Large gray buildings lined the site and construction materials surrounded the space where we our plants grow. In the midst of water tanks and service vehicles laid 15 nursery beds filled with native seedlings.

Digging in

Our Nursery Manager, Jessie, greeted us upon arrival and introduced us to the various native plants currently growing in these beds, including field sedge, Santa Barbara sedge, Baltic rush and willow herb. We were each given a safety vest, a shovel and a set of gloves. Accompanied by staff and fellow office volunteers, we worked to transfer plants from seedling trays into the nursery beds, remove weeds and collect seeds. Together we planted California loosestrife, mulefat, California aster, western goldenrod, creeping wildrye, and California mugwort.

Once I got into a groove digging holes and planting, I quickly forgot about our industrial surroundings. Sitting in the dirt and working with the soil, I felt grounded in the work that I was doing. I loved the fragrant smells of the California mugwort  and the company of my fellow office volunteers and staff.

Over the course of the day, I could see our work progressing quickly, as more and more green sprouts began to cover the surface of the plant beds. We all worked side by side, chatting about seed propagation, the excitement of our upcoming all staff outing, and dreams of swimming in a cool pool after a hard day of work.

A unique project

I learned from restoration staff that Oro Loma is a demonstration project  to research a new model of shoreline restoration. If it proves successful, lessons learned from this project could be implemented at other sites around the Bay. More than 70,000 native seedlings will be propagated at the site by our restoration staff, which got me thinking about how many seedlings we must have collectively planted that day. When I followed up with Jessie she estimated that we installed about 11,389 young plants in addition to the work we did weeding and collecting seeds.

Reflecting on the day, I feel very lucky to have experienced working at Oro Loma early on in the project. Most of our office staff haven’t gotten the chance to visit Oro Loma yet, so it was pretty cool to see it and familiarize myself with the innovative work that Save the Bay’s restoration staff and its partners are doing at the site.

From Drought to Downpour


An artist’s rendition of California’s flooded State Capitol circa 1862
An artist’s rendition of California’s flooded State Capitol circa 1862

“Extreme river and creek flooding has broken many records, and swept away hundreds of homes”  -CNN, May 2014

“The frequent sight of houses floating, air-like, along the swift current was novel indeed, some of them being upright, some bottom up” -Union Democrat, December 1861

Two similar quotes that strangely tie events from today into our roots from the past. The first quote is from present day Texas, where millions of dollars in infrastructure damage has lead the President to declare the event a major disaster. The second is a piece from our own state’s history, an event not often mentioned in the textbooks or the classroom.

If you grew up in Northern California you’ll undoubtedly remember being given a small pan filled with rocks and soil to sift through in search of that infamous, luminous element known as gold. But how many of you remember being told the stories of our state capitol underwater just a decade after we discovered gold, our own governor having to be rowed from his house to the capitol building for his inauguration, or of the thousands that lost their possessions, property, or even their lives because of a torrential downpour that lasted 43 days straight?

History of a hundred year storm

The flood of 1861-1862 started off as a welcomed rain after a major drought throughout the state. While Native Americans of the Delta and Bay Area warned the post-gold rush era settlers of the floods that were about to ensue, many newly established citizens and towns were ill-prepared for such an event. What started as a quenching relief for many farmers soon turned into their worst nightmare, as the Central Valley turned into an inland lake and swelling rivers took down entire towns, a quarter of the state’s livestock, and thousands of lives.

The floods were so bad that, after attempting to run the state from underwater, legislatures decided to move the capitol from Sacramento to San Francisco until it could recover. While San Francisco was in better shape that the inundated Central Valley, most of the low lying areas around the Bay were covered in water. During the peak of the storm, so much water poured in from the Delta that our Bay shorelines didn’t experience low tide for a week.

Haven’t heard of the 1861-1862 flood before? It’s OK, neither had I until I caught one of Joel Pomerantz’s natural history lectures, but surely this is something we Bay Area residents should be aware of considering this was not some freak event but rather a natural occurrence.

Due for another downpour

Every 100-200 years we get a visit from the deceptively named “Pineapple Express”, or stream of warm air and moisture that starts at the equator and makes its way up the West Coast. What most meteorologists refer to as Atmospheric Rivers, these streams of warm air and moisture are important in the global water cycle and can bring up to four times the annual rainfall amount to areas of California.

A deluge of rain may sound like relief given our current dry state, but the reality would be overwhelmingly damaging. Today one of these great storms is estimated to wrack up $10.4 billion dollars in damages, almost the cost of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.  What’s worse is that many of these damages would likely be to our shoreline infrastructure and low lying cities on the Bay.

A recent study calls for large scale restoration of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands to help prepare our communities for the next big storm. You see, wetlands act as natural buffers for our communities. One acre of wetlands can hold a million gallons of water – water that would otherwise be in our streets and at our doorsteps if these wetlands didn’t exist. Save The Bay has been working on restoration projects that further help protect our cities from the negative impacts of flooding and support clean Bay water.

While we can’t stop these large storms from occurring, we can educate and better prepare ourselves for when they do arrive. To learn more about the flood of 1861-1862 and what you can do to help support the Bay join us for a restoration event.

Education Programs Grow Bay Stewards

8th grader Anya's class connected with the Bay through Save The Bay's Restoration Education Program.
8th grader Anya’s class connected with the Bay through Save The Bay’s Restoration Education Program. Watch her story.

Budding Bay Saver Anya Tucker is busy. From writing her first science fiction novel to persuasively advocating for a healthy environment, she is an impressive example of what’s possible when you invest in the next generation of creative problem solvers, scientists, and stewards.

An 8th grader from Oakland’s Julia Morgan School for Girls, Anya’s class spent a day doing tidal marsh restoration work and studying the science of the San Francisco Bay with us in April.

Her teacher Jess Dang connected with Save The Bay when she was looking for real-world science opportunities for the school’s Go Girl! Leadership program. “Quality, hands-on science is so important for youth, but girls especially. Even though the achievement gap is being closed in schools, women still lag behind men in engineering, math and science careers,” says Dang.

When Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick founded Save The Bay in 1961, women made up just 7.3 percent of the United States’ Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) PhDs.

We’ve come a long way since then. Today, 41 percent of STEM PhDs are women. It’s a heartening statistic, but a PhD does not translate into a life in science and community leadership. When it comes to the actual STEM workforce, only 27 percent are women.

Empowering women in science means showing girls they belong in the field. For Ms. Dang, working with Save The Bay is a no-brainer. “The girls can really see the change they are making in the Bay.”

Anya has always hated cigarettes and smoking, but her field program with Save The Bay gave her an environment-wide view of the problem. “I never realized how many of those cigarette butts dropped on the ground actually end up in the Bay… We get one planet to live on and it’s our choice how we treat it.”

At Save The Bay, we are grateful for the strong, passionate scientists on our team who foster an educational experience that emphasizes creativity, inquiry and getting your hands dirty to restore tidal marsh one seedling at a time. Every year, 2,000 youth join us on the shorelines and tidal marshes, and through our work we hope to inspire the next generation of Bay scientists and stewards.

Save The Bay is always looking for new ways to share the stories of our restoration programs, so we were excited to use Adobe Voice to transform Jess and Anya’s experience into the video above.

The Story of Cullinan Ranch

Update 1/6/15:

In a dramatic moment, on Jan. 6 work crews breached the levee that has kept Cullinan Ranch, 1,200 acres of diked wetlands in the Napa River Delta, unnaturally dry for more than a century. Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, Habitat Restoration Director Donna Ball, and I joined representatives from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and other partners to celebrate the culmination of a decades-long effort to restore the site. What’s next? Project designers expect near-immediate resurgence of waterfowl and shorebirds, and with tidal waters already beginning to carry natural sediment to the site, native plants will eventually take root and re-establish habitat for our Bay’s wild creatures. Read the full story of Cullinan Ranch below. -Cyril Manning

The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via
The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via

Cullinan Ranch is a 1500-acre parcel of former tidal marsh at the top of San Pablo Bay, part of the Napa River Delta. As you can see from the map at right, it is an important puzzle piece in the sprawling restoration of the whole northern part of San Francisco Bay, work that has been described as an “aquatic renaissance… turning back the clock 150 years and transforming the area between Vallejo and Sonoma Raceway.”

Like nearly all the tidal marsh around San Francisco Bay, Cullinan was diked off in the 1880s to be farmland (see this nice timeline covering the history of the site). A proposed residential marina community nearly destroyed the area 25 years ago, but the proposal was defeated in 1987.

After the site was proposed for development, Save The Bay joined with local residents in Vallejo and hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to sue over the “Egret Bay” development, which proposed thousands of homes on this restorable site, below sea level. Getting involved in the battle was a first for Save The Bay – actually advocating for restoration of a diked former wetland, not just against new fill and inappropriate shoreline development.

That successful lawsuit, along with the denial of construction permits by BCDC and the US Army Corps of Engineers, put a stop to Egret Bay, making possible Cullinan’s purchase by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1989, and protection as a wildlife refuge.  Now, this site — one and a half times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park — is being returned to marsh as part of the West Coast’s largest wetland restoration effort.

After the site was first diked off for grazing and oat hay, the marshland dried out and compacted like a sponge, and now lies six to nine feet below sea level.  When the levees are opened later this year, the site will initially be open water and mud flats, then sediment from the Napa River and Bay will eventually build up, so that tidal marsh vegetation can begin to grow back.

Another key challenge is restoring the property while protecting the critical infrastructure that runs through and around it. A levee to protect Highway 37 from the new tidal action is the single most expensive element in the $16 million wetland restoration project. The SF Bay Don Edwards and San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuges are crisscrossed by much of the region’s critical transportation, electrical and water supply infrastructure, which add expensive urban complexities that are not usually a part of refuge restoration projects.

As local scientists, communities, and conservationists work together to bring us closer to the 100,000 acres of tidal marsh needed for a healthy Bay, sites like Cullinan Ranch serve as a valuable model and inspiration.  They show we can succeed in preventing projects like Cargill’s proposal to build homes in a Redwood City salt pond, and instead ensure that site is restored along with other ponds, together restoring the Bay for people and wildlife.