Dune Gilia (Gilia capitata ssp. chamissonis)

Prior to 1835, Spanish andMexican settlements were restricted to the area around Mission Dolores and thePresidio, which were founded in 1776. Even as late as the 1880s, the city ofSan Francisco was primarily confined to the northeastern corner of thepeninsula. Western San Francisco was usually described as a barren, treelesswasteland supporting only scattered grasses and shrubs. It was considered to beof little or no value for grazing or agriculture and supported no usabletimber. Extensive sand dunes stretched from Lake Merced to Point Lobos, fromthe ocean shore to the western bases of Mt. Davidson, Mt. Sutro and Twin Peaks,across the length of Golden Gate Park to Buena Vista Park, and across thenorthern end of the city, around and over rock outcrops, from the ocean to thebay. Lakes formed on the leeward sides of the dunes at Lake Merced, Pine Lake,Laguna Honda, the chain of lakes near the western end of Golden Gate Park, andMountain Lake. Following World War II, vast housing projects began to cover thedunes. Carlos Kaufeldt’s 1954 observations on the last major sand dune inSan Francisco documents the destruction of the area between Rivera and OrtegaStreets, Sunset Blvd. and 41st Avenue in July 1952. All that remains of thisonce extensive dune system consists of highly altered habitat fragments locatedat Hawk Hill, Grand View Park, Fort Funston, Lobos Creek and Baker Beach.

In past newsletters, we havealready discussed two other rare members of this plant community, San Franciscolessingia and San Francisco campion; another is dune gilia. While most membersof the phlox family (Polemoniaceae) are not necessarily considered maritime species,three of the eight subspecies of the genus Gilia capitata are restricted entirely to California’s coastalstrand communities. Considered by Howell, Raven and Rubtzoff (A Flora of San Francisco,California, 1958) as “one of SanFrancisco’s most attractive flowering plants”, dune gilia representsanother rare and exciting gem among the City’s dwindling coastal dune habitats.

This exquisite annual herbproduces copious pale to light blue flowers in dense clusters. Flower heads areup to an inch and a half across and contain 50 to 100 funnel-shaped blossomsthat develop from May through July. Stems are fairly stout, very glandular andgrow up to two feet tall. Bipinnate (twice dissected) leaves to four incheslong form a basal rosette. Leaves are fleshy, glandular and have the sameskunk-like odor characteristic of many navarretias (in the same family). Uppercauline (stem) leaves are gradually reduced in size.

San Francisco is the typelocality for Gilia capitata , whichwas first collected here by Eschscholtz around 1824. It was originally assignedthe name Polemonium capitatum .Subsequent name changes have included Gilia chamissonis (Greene), G. achilleaefolia (Brandegee), G. a. subsp. chamissonis (Abrams), G. capitata var. regina (Jepson) and back to G. chamissonis (Howell). Verne Grant, a Polemoniaceae systematist with the Rancho Santa AnaBotanical Garden gave it its current name, which has remained unchanged forabout 45 years.

Dune gilia typically formssmall to extensive colonies on loose sand and disturbed sites near the coast.It is restricted to sand dunes in San Francisco, Point Reyes and possibly AngelIsland in Marin County, and Bodega Bay and the mouth of the Russian River inSonoma County. In San Francisco, dune gilia can still be found in abundance onthe Presidio at the Lobos Creek dune restoration area, above Baker Beach andjust north of the Marine hospital along Battery Caulfield Road. Last year, CNPSYerba Buena Chapter searchers discovered a new population of dune gilia on HawkHill above Lincoln High School and several populations on the west side ofYerba Buena Island. Historic locations for dune gilia in San Francisco includeLone Mountain, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Lake Merced and the Sunset District.

Currently, dune gilia has nostate or federal status as a rare, threatened or endangered species. As such,it receives no protection under the state or federal endangered species acts orthe California Environmental Quality Act. Based on its limited distribution andperceived threats to its continued existence, the subspecies will be listed asa 1B:3-3-3 taxon in the sixth edition of the CNPS inventory of rare andendangered California plants. This status indicates that the subspecies is rareand endangered throughout its range, limited in distributed to several highlyrestricted occurrences, and endemic to California.