Conservatives attack Franciscan manzanita

April 20, 2012

Conservative talk radio took aim this week at San Francisco’s endangered Franciscan manzanita, attacking the effort to save the last known wild specimen as an example of wasteful government spending.

Glenn Beck called the 2010 rescue of the evergreen shrub the “untold story of the year,” while Bill Wattenburg surmised that it was “government agencies doing the most incredible things simply to justify their existence on the payroll.”

The plant was transplanted to an undisclosed location in the Presidio after a botanist spotted it in the path of bulldozers constructing the Doyle Drive highway project. The cost to move and re-establish the plant came to $205,075, according to a recent article on the conservative media outlet, CNS News, which seems to have spurred the latest badmouthing against the plant.

The conservative tagline is that Franciscan manzanitas can be purchased at garden stores for $15.95.

Dan Gluesenkamp, the botanist who noticed the plant on a drive-by, has been dealing with the aftershocks.

“I’ve gotten all this hate mail,” said Gluesenkamp, executive director of Calflora. “It’s nice there are more people out there who know the story [of the plant’s rescue]. Some of them looked a little deeper. But it also makes me frustrated that there’s such a poor appreciation in the public for conservation that the GOP can get away with what’s a fantastic success story to attack government spending.”

The $205,075 — if it indeed comes to that — comes out funds utilized for “environmental mitigation” in the $1.4 billion highway project. According to a blog post in the SF Weekly, transporting the plant was a “project expense” paid for out of project funds and not from outside fundraising or allocations.

Gluesenkamp said it’s misleading to equate the wild specimen of Franciscan manzanita with the domesticated versions found in garden stores, which has been hybridized for features like pretty flowers.

“You can go buy a dog for $15 or $230 bucks, but it’s not the same as a wolf in the wild,” he said.

The Franciscan manzanita found in garden stores is an offshoot of a wild specimen taken in 1947 from a Laurel Hill cemetery, one of the few remaining wild locations at the time. As the story goes, some of the last remaining wild specimens were salvaged by James Roof, the founding director of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Berkeley. In a clandestine nighttime rescue, plantswoman Lester Rowntree “garnered it ghoulishly in a gunnysack” and gave it a new home in her garden. A few more plants found their way into nurseries and botanic gardens, but the species’ known wild habitat was no more.

Gluesenkamp said the story shows how wild species sometimes create economic value — in this case for the gardening industry.

“We don’t have to discover a cure for cancer or athletes foot in this plant,” he said. “It’s already made money for people because it’s pretty.”

These days the wild Franciscan manzanita is happily basking in a sunny spot in the Presidio, he said. Resource managers are taking its cuttings and replanting them in various arboreta, hoping to give the species a new lease on life. Gluesenkamp visits it now and then.

“It’s putting out lots of flowers, insects are eating its leaves, and it’s really fitting in and doing what it’s supported to do,” he said.

Apparently the Franciscan manzanita is entirely unaware at the stir it has caused, and probably all the luckier for it.

About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.

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