Tuberous Sanicle (Sanicula tuberosa)

Here in San Francisco, with relatively little undeveloped land and three quarters of a million inhabitants, you might be inclined to think that there isn’t much left to discover. After all, San Francisco, home to the California Academy of Sciences, was the jumping off point for so much early botanical exploration. Yet here we are, nearly 200 years since Chamisso and Eschscholtz made their first botanical collections at the Presidio, and plant species long thought lost are still being rediscovered.

One such miraculous reappearance is Sanicula tuberosa (tuberous sanicle). Thanks to the efforts of Michael Chasse, Marie Fontaine, and Emily Magnaghi, working with the Golden Gate National Parks Association, a population of this species was found on serpentine soil at Inspiration Point in the Presidio in the spring of 2001. (The significance of serpentine-derived soils is discussed in our June 1995 Yerba Buena News.) Tuberous sanicle, also known as turkey pea, was recorded by Katherine Brandegee in 1892, who listed it as “not common.” Howell, et al., indicate in their 1958 A Flora of San Francisco, California that the species “would be expected on dry, rocky slopes, perhaps on serpentine, probably in the eastern part of the city,” but Sanicula tuberosa was never collected in San Francisco County.

Tuberous sanicle is a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), whose members are often referred to as umbels, after the older family name, Umbelliferae, and the type of inflorescence characteristic of the group.California is host to 169 native umbels belonging to 29 genera. Some other California genera you might know include Angelica, Eryngium (button-celery), Heracleum (cow parsnip), Lilaeopsis, Lomatium, Perideridia (yampah), and Tauschia, to name a few. Worldwide, there are some 3,000 species in 300 genera, distributed throughout sub-boreal North America, Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. The family has even made the leap across Wallace’s Line, occurring throughout Indonesia, southern and eastern Australia, and New Zealand. As you might think, members of the carrot family have important economic uses, most notably as foods (carrots, parsnips, celery) and spices or flavorings (parsley, fennel, dill, anise). Others are sources of gum resins, medicines, and perfumes, and some are used in gardens.

Of the approximately 40 species of Sanicula worldwide, 22 occur in the continental United States, and 13 of those are native to California. This past spring, if you were hiking on any of the northern peninsula’s grassy knolls, you undoubtedly came across footsteps-of-spring (S. arctopoides). Two other common members of the genus found in San Francisco are purple sanicle (S. bipinnatifida) and Pacific sanicle (S. crassicaulis). Another member long since lost from the San Francisco Peninsula is adobe sanicle (S. maritima), last recorded here in 1891.

Tuberous sanicle is a low-growing biennial producing, as its name implies, a small round underground tuber; all of the other California sanicles produce taproots. In outline, the leaves are triangular to ovate, one to five inches long, and three-times divided. The small yellow flowers occur in umbels (think “umbrella” to imagine the arrangement of this type of inflorescence), appearing March through May. The species occurs on open to wooded gravelly slopes below 8,000 feet in elevation. The habitats it is typically associated with include meadows, chaparral, foothill woodland, red fir forest, and yellow pine forest.

Tuberous sanicle has been recorded in every California county except Modoc, Mono, Inyo, and Imperial. Its range extends into southwestern Oregon and Baja California. With such a distribution, you would rightfully assume that the species is not rare. Indeed, it is not, but it is locally rare. While the San Francisco population does not represent a range extension or even an occurrence at the outer edge of the species’ distribution, it is of local significance because it has not been recorded in the county for more than 100 years. It is also locally rare in San Mateo County, occurring only at Edgewood County Park.

Any time a long-lost species is rediscovered anywhere it is cause for excitement. So next time you are looking over your favorite hillside thinking to yourself that there’s nothing new to be found, keep an open mind and open eyes-you could become a local hero for making a new discovery!