Golden Gate Park’s Rhododendron Dell

Golden Gate Park's Rhododendron Dell; photo by Matt Baume

Of all the ghosts haunting Golden Gate Park, the most frustrated might be John McLaren.

When McLaren died in 1943 at the age of 96, he’d served as Golden Gate Park superintendent for 52 years, during most of which he lived in the stately lodge at Stanyan and JFK. His was a life distinguished by a devotion to trees and a hatred of statuary – so how did they mark his passing? With a statue, of course.

You might’ve spotted it on a walk through Golden Gate Park. He’s the short man gazing at a pinecone, not far from the weekend roller-skaters.

That statue is more than just a commemoration of McLaren’s decades of work on the park, which was no more than a strip of sand dunes when first entrusted to his care in 1887. It also marks the entrance to the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell, which has been closed since mid-2009, only just re-opened this month.

Statue of Joh McLaren, Golden Gate Park; photo by Matt Baume

The revamped dell seems strangely empty at the moment, since most of the new plantings haven’t had an opportunity to grow in yet. Over the summer, the beds will become much more lush.

Until then, it’s still a lovely place to wander and get lost. Highlights include a winding staircase to a shaded mound with out-of-the-way benches, and various interesting narrow unpaved paths that lead up into the hillsides.

This facelift for the dell is just the latest upgrade in a difficult history. Created in the early 1950s, many species initially died. As more appropriate varieties of rhododendron were planted, the dell began to fill in – only to be decimated in the same 1996 storm that nearly destroyed the Conservatory of Flowers. Various rehabilitation projects have struggled to keep the dell healthy since then.

But it’s not as easy as simply planting a bush in the ground. A number of factors work against the success of rhododendrons in Golden Gate Park: direct sun can burn the plants to death, while strong winds can inhibit the flow of nutrients.

A 1955 article in the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society adopts an exasperated tone when discussing the failed plantings in the dell:

All rhododendrons are not for all people. Reluctantly we are forced to agree with many who have tried before us that the R. griersonianum hybrids are not going to live up to their rating in the San Francisco Bay area. We refused to accept the judgment passed on them and worked up a large stock of many varieties. These were placed in every conceivable location and condition that we could provide. The results have been far from satisfactory.

The article goes on to describe the meticulous breeding of various colorfully-named Rhododendron cultivars, including the R. Van Nes Sensation, R. Fastuosum Flore-plenum, and R. Prof. Hugo De Vries.

Interestingly, one of the few species of rhododendron to thrive in the dell was a clone named R. John McLaren. The ARS article praises the species’ “legginess.”

Today, GGP gardeners are able to ensure healthy vegetation in the dell. Over the next few weeks, the one-time sand-dunes will fill in considerably with blooming rhododendrons – an utterly fitting tribute to the park’s greatest steward.

Matt Baume is a San Francisco writer and photographer covering transit, ecology, and the science of cities.

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The Resurrection of Yosemite Creek

Yosemite Marsh, McLaren Park, San Francisco; photo by Matt Baume

“Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it.” –Lao Tzu

There’s something about San Francisco’s bodies of water that people just can’t resist. We abuse them, we bury them, we fill them in with rubble and toxins – and then finally when we realize the error of our ways, if we’re lucky we can pull them back from the brink.

Consider Yosemite Creek, a small but crucial part of the city’s watershed. The creek’s entire trip, from McLaren Park to Bayview, takes place in aging underground pipes. But it may not always be that way: the Public Utilities Commission is exploring nifty new ways to “daylight” the creek, ranging from creating new parks to placing watery channels alongside city streets.

The Marsh

Poor McLaren Park. It has a name, but sometimes it seems to lack an identity. Way out in the Excelsior – or is it Portola? – it boasts a head-spinning array of amenities: tennis and basketball courts, a pool, dog run areas galore, barbecue pits and an amphitheater, woodsy trails, and possibly soon a disc-golf course.

But among the Park’s distinguishing features, a spot called Yosemite Marsh may be the most unique. Unlike two nearby asphalt-contained bodies of water – one a reservoir, the other McNab Lake – Yosemite Marsh is a naturally-occurring wetland.

You could be forgiven for walking right by without noticing it. It’s small, and hidden by a thicket of trees. A wooden footbridge crosses through the thicket, spanning a thin gully. Nearby, and for no discernable reason, a concrete sculpture of a dolphin sits across from an always-empty park bench.

At this time of year, the creek is nearly completely dry; but during the rainy season, a steady stream of water emerges from the hillside to feed the marsh. The marsh, in turn, provides habitat to herons, quail, ducks, bullfrogs, lizards, and (thrillingly) wrentits.

Formerly a bit run-down, the Marsh enjoyed an extreme makeover in 2006 [PDF]. The most prominent upgrades are a nice footpath and seating, but there are more infrastructural improvements under the hood: erosion control, enlarged banks, and enhanced wetland plantings, thanks to a $150,000 grant and $150,000 in Rec & Park Department Funds. With riparian rehab projects such as this, it can take five to ten years for plants to mature; the hillside above the marsh still looks a bit scraggly, but you can definitely see where it’s growing in.

Hal Phillips put together this very “electric” edit of footage we shot recently at the marsh:

There’s still lots of work to be done elsewhere in the park. McLaren is currently in the running for a $30,000 grant from Sears (yes, Sears) to improve a particularly unkempt northern entrance to the park.

Of course, the marsh isn’t the only moisture in the area. Various trickles of water can be found throughout the park. (And in fact, I carelessly stepped into one up to my ankle when I visited after a rainstorm.) Why is McLaren so wet? Bedrock. Soil is slow to discharge moisture, so water tends to hang around a bit.

And when the water finally does trickle out of the park, it has quite a trip ahead of it. From McLaren, it winds its way underground past University Mound Reservoir under Portola and the Phillip Burton Academic School, under the 101 and the 3rd Street light rail, and then finally aligning itself with Yosemite Ave – its namesake – before emptying into the South Basin in an area known as Yosemite Slough.

The Slough

Yosemite Slough, San Francisco; photo by Spots Unknown

The most complicated step in Yosemite Creek’s journey lies at the very end, in Yosemite Slough. It’s a highly sensitive ecological area, decimated by decades of heavy industry. But there’s reason for hope: a massive environmental restoration is underway [PDF], featuring the planting of thousands of native species, soil remediation, and habitat construction.

But it is only hope at this point. As the video below shows, the area is currently an industrial dumping area. (The song is “33” by David Molina’s Ghosts and Strings.)

It’s not exactly an easy spot to access, and lord knows it’s toxic in several different ways; we’ve done the exploring so you don’t have to.

The Slough is part of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, which in general is well worth a visit. Don’t let the unseemly history scare you off. Yes, legend has it that it got its name because of all the burning abandoned ships nearby. And yes, for years it was used as a landfill. Okay, and the Navy didn’t exactly take great care of it during WWII.

But! You can’t beat that view. And apparently the birds agree: there’s no better place in San Francisco for spotting herons, loons, egrets, and avocet than nearby Heron’s Head Park. Environmental cleanup – much of it led by students – is gradually turning the area from a garbade dump to prime real estate.

With Yosemite Marsh stronger than ever, Yosemite Slough on the mend, and Yosemite Creek facing a new lease on life, there’s never been a better time to thank San Francisco’s watershed for sticking with us through thick and thin.

Matt Baume is a San Francisco writer and photographer covering transit, ecology, and the science of cities.

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