Opinion: A reason to study native plants at Cesar Chavez Park

The Cesar Chavez Park Conservancy wants Berkeley’s parks department to restore the Native Plant Area.

Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley. Credit: William Smock

This past April, I saw a bright blue ceanothus bush blooming under the umbrella of a yellow acacia tree, about a hundred steps north of the parking circle where Spinnaker Way meets the Bay. As I wrote in my daily park blog, the ceanothus, a California native, had pollinator insects swarming over it: bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and others. The abundant yellow blooms of the acacia, an Australian import, attracted not a single bug of any description.

A band of pioneers facing seemingly impossible odds established ceanothus and many other California natives here in the early 1980s.  No one had tried to set up native plant communities on a Bayshore landfill. Organized as a nonprofit under the name Design Associates Working with Nature — DAWN — this handful of evangelists worked from sunup to sundown and beyond to build a landscape of native plants. David Amme and Charli Danielsen, both legendary names in native plant circles, were the senior figures; David Kaplow, with a UC graduate degree, became its president. 

DAWNers roamed throughout the Bay Area, up and down the coast, and occasionally farther afield, to collect seeds of native plants. They built greenhouses to sprout those seeds. They spent endless hours weeding and cultivating the terrible soils that lay over the cap that sealed in the tons of garbage underneath. Irrigation frequently broke. Salt winds, downpours, drought, weeds, and gophers challenged and sometimes defeated their plantings. A grant from the California Coastal Conservancy, partially matched by the city of Berkeley, paid for equipment, supplies, and minimal wages. They worked out of passion, not for the money.  

Today, 35 years later, we can see the result.  Look north of the parking circle. A lush forested grove greets the eye. This is the Native Plant Area that DAWN created. Here, dense rows of bushes and a ridge of tall evergreens create a year-round green oasis in the park landscape. For many park visitors, this is a prized refuge, a shelter from wind and sun, a feast of plant perfumes and colors, an echo chamber for nature’s sounds, a platform for naturally framed views of the Bay, a place to meditate or play quiet music, a hideaway for lovers, a playground for children of all ages. Many consider this 3.5 acre the beating heart of the park.

But there are problems. A year ago, when members of the Chavez Park Conservancy began to focus on the area, major portions were so densely overgrown that they invited covert overnight campers. The jungle atmosphere frightened park visitors. Broken and suspended tree branches threatened mayhem to those who passed underneath. Invasive weeds, notably Kikuyu grass, crowded out native grasses and overtopped shrubs. Later additions such as acacia and ngaio trees, fast-growers and aggressive spreaders, smothered native sages and towered over native buckeyes and ceanothus. Some of the native shrubs have reached the end of their normal life spans and have not reseeded.

Without savvy intervention, the project will degenerate into a jungle patch of invasives and weeds, the very opposite of what the DAWN pioneers worked to establish. In early 2020, the Conservancy applied for a grant from the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund to pay for an expert study of the area with recommendations for recovery and improvement. The study would be supervised by Prof. Joe McBride of the College of Environmental Design, an internationally recognized authority on park restoration. Licensed landscape architect Chris Kent of the local PGA Design firm and veteran native plant contractor and consultant David Kaplow, one of the original DAWN members, would perform the study. The Chancellor’s Fund approved our grant application and set aside $5,000 of UC money.  The Conservancy raised additional funds from private philanthropy. No city money and no city staff time would be required. The Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, Berkeley Partners for Parks and others submitted letters of support.  

Representatives of the Berkeley mayor’s office, Jacquelyn McCormick, and the city manager’s office, Shallon Allen, sat on the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund committee that unanimously approved our grant application. They were overruled by the parks director Scott Ferris, who said at the time that he did not have staff time for the project. Ferris’ decision killed the project. In fact, the only city staff time required would be to read the study report when done.  

With the study killed, the future of the Native Plant Area lies under a heavy cloud. However, we have not given up. On a number of Saturday mornings, the Conservancy organized groups of volunteers to go into the Native Plant Area and pull up Kikuyu grass and similar invasives.  In the process, we got to know this habitat much more intimately. Then in November last year, nudged by our efforts and by public opinion, the city sent a contractor crew with chainsaws and brushcutters into the area. They did rough major surgery.  They trimmed the broken tree branches, thinned out the densest jungle patches, and restored a north-south passage that had been overgrown. In the process, the contractors butchered a number of native plants, cut down a rare native Sitka spruce and a manzanita, and created conditions for a big resurgence of weeds. But on balance this work was positive.  It was the first meaningful maintenance the city had done in the Native Plant Area in decades.

Thanks to our weed work and to the contractor’s deep intervention, many of the questions we had wanted the experts’ study to illuminate are now laid open. We can see more clearly now what needs to be done.  Expert consultation is always useful, but we need not wait for a new grant cycle to work on practical restoration.  

Recognition that we need native plants is not new, but the issue has greater urgency today. In the early 80s, the chief attraction of natives was lower water use and less need for maintenance. Climate change, drought, wildlife extinctions — including the death of insect species — and massive wildfires have shaped a newly awakened consciousness where native plants stand in the spotlight for broader reasons. We now know that our whole food chain depends on pollinators, and, as Dr. Doug Tallamy among others have demonstrated, pollinators largely depend on native plants. A postage-stamp-size new native pollinator garden in San Pablo Park and similar efforts elsewhere testify that Berkeley Parks is aware of the issue.

Recent discussions at the City’s Parks and Waterfront Commission have highlighted the importance of charismatic projects in galvanizing voter interest and gaining support for parks. In today’s climate-conscious universe, a Native Plant and Pollinator Garden in Cesar Chavez Park is perhaps the ultimate charismatic project. What other park projects can defy drought, sequester carbon, generate oxygen, attract pollinators, feed and shelter birds and other wildlife, reduce fire risk, provide shade and respite, offer educational value, and look beautiful all at the same time, at minimal cost? The core elements of such a brilliant project are already in place in the 3.5-acre area north of the parking circle, thanks to DAWN.  What we need now is political and staff leadership to restore and renew the Native Plant Area in the spirit of the DAWN pioneers.