California Seablite (Suaeda californica)

It’s not often, in the course of our amblings, that we happen upon an endangered species. Not the kind whose days just seem numbered because of Sudden Oak Death, strip malls, or red roof disease (i.e., sprawling Spanish-style housing), but an honest to goodness, listed by the government, covered under the Endangered Species Act, with a capital “E” Endangered species. Of course, when you’re on a specific quest, that’s one thing. But to happen upon one in the course of some unrelated activity, well, that’s just plain fun.

I was recently doing a survey for the Port of San Francisco in the heavily industrial area around Pier 94. After looking at roadside swales, vacant lots filled with rubble and supporting an unimpressive array of weeds, I needed to get away from the incessant roar of truck traffic and machinery, dust, and the breathtaking (literally) stench of used restaurant grease being processed (I’ll never eat another French fry!). So I walked over to the Bay’s edge for some peace and quiet, and a stench of another, the almost pleasant odor of the Bay muds. After a quick inventory of the plants and birds inhabiting this industrial shoreline, I found myself standing over the top of something that made me say to myself, “That’s different!” What I was standing over was a large, healthy specimen of California seablite, a federally listed Endangered species! More on what it’s doing there in a moment.

Of course, San Francisco County has its share of Endangered species, which have avoided extinction only through the grace of people. Presidio clarkia, Presidio manzanita, San Francisco lessingia, all of which are being actively protected, have the good sense to occur in a national park, while species like marsh sandwort, beach layia, San Francisco popcorn-flower, and adobe sanicle have been long since lost, at least to our peninsula.

California seablite is an evergreen shrub belonging to the… wait a second, well, it used to belong to the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae). OK, so now it’s in the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae). It would appear that the Chenopodiaceae has fallen out of favor as all of its former designates have been shunted into the Amaranthaceae. Where was I? Oh. So, the now extinct goosefoot family included such genera as the saltbushes (Atriplex), pickleweeds (Salicornia), goosefoots (Chenopodium, go figure!), and everyone’s dinnertime favorites, beets (Beta vulgaris) and spinach (Spinacia oleracea). There is an ecological theme with this bunch and it has a general propensity for growing where conditions are otherwise inhospitable to plant life. Saline soils, intense heat, prolonged drought, and even total inundation by saltwater characterize the locales where many of these plant thrive. The physiological mechanisms accounting for this feat of survival are fascinating but a topic for another day. Suffice it to say, this is a remarkable group of plants, no matter to which family it is assigned. Most members are halophytes (salt-tolerant plants), with deep, penetrating roots and with either mealy-textured or hairy leaves or succulent stems and no leaves at all. When it was still a valid entity, the Chenopodiaceae included some 100 genera and 1,500 species occurring in temperate and subtropical regions of six continents. Now, well, who knows?

Also known as broom seepweed, California seablite is one of five species of Suaeda native to California. It forms a mounding shrub up to about two feet tall. The spreading stems are surrounded by somewhat succulent, narrowly-linear gray-green leaves, one-half to one-and-a-half inches long. To me, the stems are reminiscent of the completely unrelated burro tail (Sedum morganianum) of horticulture. The inconspicuous flowers appear July through October.

California seablite is restricted entirely to California and has been recorded from Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and San Luis Obispo counties. Its natural habitat is the upper intertidal zone of coastal salt marshes on coarse, well-drained sediment deposits composed of sand and shell fragments. Extirpated from the San Francisco Bay around 1960, presumably as a result of shoreline development, the remaining two natural locales are Morro Bay and near Cayucos in San Luis Obispo County. It was first described in 1874 based on material collected in the Bay Area. It was originally believed to occur as far south as Baja California. However, the southern California plants have since been determined to be estuary seablite (Suaeda esteroa).

So, how did it get to Pier 94? Heron’s Head Park is an urban greening and restoration project located at Pier 98. Completed in 1999, the project resulted in the restoration of five acres of tidal salt marsh on filled shoreline originally intended as the site of a container shipping terminal or as the landfall for a second bridge crossing to Alameda County. The 25-acre public park is managed by the Port of San Francisco, which offers a variety of educational and public participation programs dealing with the ecology and wildlife of the Bay. A couple of small seedlings of California seablite were planted out at the park around 2001. Those first plants have thrived and multiplied, and now about a dozen robust specimens have become established there. And, based on the species’ spontaneous appearance at nearby Pier 94, it is spreading.

About the same time, the National Park Service attempted to reintroduce California seablite at the restored Crissy Field Marsh. Using seed collected from Morro Bay, 28 plants were produced and planted out at the site. Unfortunately, the attempt to reintroduce the species there has not met with success, as none of the plantings have survived.

California seablite was first proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1991 and it was formally listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1994. At the time of its listing, the only extant stands of California seablite were estimated to support as few as 500 plants. Because the species occupies such a narrow ecotone, it was predictably sensitive to human activities that affect its micro-topographic position, such as increased sedimentation rates, dredging, sand mining, recreation, and development. It was never particularly abundant in the San Francisco Bay, even in the late 1800s. At that time, its core populations were San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro; it was last collected here in 1958. It was also known from Palo Alto and Richmond. California seablite is on the CNPS List 1B.1.

So, if you want to see a real Endangered species, take a stroll over at Heron’s Head Park. And for those of you who are mourning the demise of the Chenopodiaceae, don’t worry. I hear rumors that it will be reinstated. Maybe we should start a movement to prohibit taxonomists from coming within 500 feet of each other!


Article about Pier 94 Californica Suaeda

Recovery Plan 

2004 article in the Chronicle about Heron’s Head Park