San Francisco Collinsia (Collinsia multicolor)

With the approach of spring, the San Francisco’s natural areas will begin their annual advertisement to the pollinators. Soon it will be time for all those who have been cooped up in stuffy offices and homes to get outside and watch nature show her stuff. And one doesn’t need to go far from home. There isn’t a neighborhood in San Francisco that doesn’t have some remnant of the Peninsula’s natural history nearby. It’s just that you sometimes have to look closely.

One of San Francisco’s more spectacular locales but most neglected pieces of real estate is Bayview Hill. This rock formation, jutting skyward behind Candlestick (oops, 3-Com) Park, is passed and ignored by thousands of motorists commuting to and from downtown every day. Granted, it doesn’t look like much at 55 miles per hour. But Bayview Hill supports one of the finest examples of native coastal scrub and grassland left in the City. Spring is the time to catch this gem in its full glory.

Last March, CNPS members requested and were granted access to the fenced off portion of the western edge of Bayview Hill owned by KOIT Radio. What we found was a veritable garden of native wildflowers. One of the more spectacular finds was the largest display of San Francisco collinsia seen in many, many years.

San Francisco collinsia (Collinsia multicolor), also known as Franciscan blue-eyed Mary, is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae). It is an annual herb producing loosely branched stems ten to 20 inches tall. Leaves are narrowly triangular, about one inch long and form in pairs that clasp both sides of the stem. Flowers are a lovely lavender to violet-blue with a whitish upper lip. They form a series of whorls, one stacked on top of the other, forming a very showy inflorescence as much as ten inches high. San Francisco collinsia flowers March through May.

First described by the John Lindley and Sir Joseph Paxton in 1851, this relative of the plants commonly known as Chinese houses is found in moist and shady areas in closed-cone coniferous forests, coastal scrub, and occasionally on grassy slopes, below 800 feet in the counties of Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Mateo and San Francisco, where it reaches its northern limit. In San Francisco County, the species is only found on Bayview Hill. The main population is on KOIT property, which is (thank goodness) fenced. One small population occurs further up slope among the eucalyptus trees and another occurs on the north end of the hill surrounded by French broom. Not too far away, San Francisco collinsia is also known to occur at several locations on San Bruno Mountain.

Although San Francisco collinsia is afforded no official protection under state or federal laws, it is presently on the CNPS List 4:1-1-3. This is a watch list for species of limited distribution and does not usually place any constraints on development. CNPS is, however, currently proposing to change the plant’s status to List 1B:2-2-3. This designation indicates species that are rare, threatened, or endangered in California or elsewhere; distributed in a limited number of occurrences; endangered in a portion of their range; and entirely restricted to California. The California Environmental Quality Act mandates that full consideration be given to List 1B species during the preparation of environmental documents.

Part of the rationale for changing the sensitivity status of San Francisco collinsia is a reevaluation of the extent, size and viability of the remaining populations. Invasion of coastal scrub and grassland areas by eucalyptus, French broom, sweet fennel, pampas grass, and other invasive exotic species poses a very serious threat to San Francisco collinsia. Nowhere is this more evident than on Bayview Hill. Threats from development are also very worrisome.

The City of San Francisco presently owns the top portion of Bayview Hill and a 100-foot wide easement stretching toward Highway 101. The land was donated to the City in 1915 by the Crocker Land Company. KOIT Radio owns the western end of the hill. The estate of Carl Donnelly owns the northern and eastern slope as far as Jamestown Avenue. The City has been in a very contentious battle with the estate to acquire the upper 30 acres of this land to add to its Bayview Park. The southern slope of the hill, where the hill was quarried, belongs to Executive Park.

If Bayview Hill supports any natural habitat, it is by pure chance. This fabulous outcrop of franciscan chert once represented a mini San Bruno Mountain, supporting extensive coastal scrub and grassland linked directly to other hillsides and valleys on the eastern side of the peninsula. Neglect and a few bad decisions have resulted in the loss of all but a tiny patch of these habitats. The top of the hill is now covered with tall eucalyptus trees, blocking what is one of the more interesting views of downtown and the Bay. Large stands of French broom have become established on the hill and this scourge is steadily claiming more and more of the remaining natural open areas.

The Yerba Buena Chapter of CNPS has long been involved in efforts to inspire the City to clean up the park and acquire the remainder of the hill, restore the native habitats, and protect and preserve the remaining biological gems that can still be found there. If you’d like to get involved, see our list of neighborhood restoration groups at Habitat Restoration.

Now is the time to head for the hills! But please, don’t pick the flowers!