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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

'Extinct' Plant Discovered -- Right In Middle of Doyle Drive Highway Path

Posted By on Tue, Nov 17, 2009 at 12:01 AM

The incredibly rare Franciscan Manzanita - © CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
  • © California Academy of Sciences
  • The incredibly rare Franciscan Manzanita
A pair of the state's foremost experts in manzanita plants have weighed in that the bush recently uncovered during the Doyle Drive project is a living specimen of the Franciscan Manzanita -- a discovery akin to stumbling across a Dodo or Passenger Pigeon. The plant was last seen in the wild in 1947, when legendary local botanist James Roof ran in front of a platoon of bulldozers to grab a few samples of the bushes just before they were ripped from the ground as the former Laurel Hill Cemetery was converted into homes and buildings.

"It's a very big story," said a laughing Mike Vasey, a lecturer at San Francsico State called in by Presidio officials to examine the plant. Both Vasey and Professor Tom Parker believe the bush to be the genuine article. So they're excited. But two factors are mitigating their joy. First, they'll have to wait a month or two until the plant buds to do a chromosome count and determine it really is the Franciscan Manzanita. And, second, it's smackdab in the middle of where the highway is supposed to go.

"It's hard to say exactly what's going to happen," said Vasey. "My impression is that there's a good chance the individual may be relocated -- hopefully successfully -- and many cuttings will be taken so the genotype can be preserved."

Botanists are fortunate to have several different "bloodlines" of the Franciscan Manzanita -- the cuttings Roof ran in front of the bulldozers to obtain were successfully planted in the East Bay Regional Parks Botanical Garden, where their ancestors thrive still.

Vasey believes the plant in question -- the location of which is being kept guarded for obvious reasons -- may be 40 to 70 years old. It grew on a small outcropping of serpentine rock bordered by the concrete of the highway and the dormant seed may have been stimulated by highway work decades ago. During the current work, plants surrounding the manzanita were cleared, and the bush caught the eye of an ecologist. He called in officials from the Presidio, who, in turn, called in Vasey and Parker.

The Franciscan Manzanita is the close cousin -- and possible genetic precursor -- to the Raven's Manzanita. That extremely rare plant is down to its last genetic individual; the "mother plant" is believed to be more than a century old and sits in an undisclosed location in the Presidio some miles from the newly rediscovered Franciscan Manzanita

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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