Seed lab sprouts up at Presidio Park nursery 

After a biologist reported spotting a shrub growing alongside Doyle Drive that was long thought to be extinct in the wild, Presidio National Park botanists arrived on the scene within an hour.

The Franciscan manzanita was transplanted using cranes to protect it from traffic and roadwork, but not before the horticulturists had harvested its fruit, seeds and cuttings.

The seeds and cuttings are growing into seedlings that have become the latest additions to a living library of hundreds of native species that once proliferated throughout the San Francisco Peninsula’s wintery northwestern coastline.

Centuries of military activity heavily modified the ecology of the area, which is now a park that is used for housing and commercial space. Much of its habitat is being painstakingly restored by federal officials.

“A lot of what we’re working on now is restoring areas that were landfills,” Presidio Nurseries Director Betty Young said. “We’re trying to connect up the different little remnant pieces of habitat so there’s a continuous connection. Then the animals can move and flourish, whereas now they’re in a little spot here or there and they have to run across streets and housing areas to get to more habitat.”

The goal is for 300 acres of restored habitat to flourish inside the park within 50 years, Young said. Forests planted by the Army are also being tended and replanted to protect nonnative botanical heritage.

Seeds from native species are gathered from throughout the park and propagated in nurseries.

A plant ecologist notes where seeds were gathered and then the propagated perennial plants are returned to the same location. Seeds from annuals are mixed with dirt and scattered around their original location.

Cuttings are used to grow perennial plants, but that produces only clones, so seeds are generally used instead.

Seeds are produced by two parent plants, which increases diversity and helps species evolve locally as the climate and other natural features change.

Work is led by a skeleton staff of park botanists, and much of the grunt work is undertaken by an army of volunteers. They work in the field and in nursery areas containing greenhouses and shade houses.

Until recently, much of the propagation work occurred around a decrepit and unsafe warehouse in the heart of the park, on Appleton Street southwest of the junction of Doyle Drive and Park Presidio Boulevard, which is flanked by greenhouses and a shade house.

But a modern plant and seed laboratory, which will eventually produce as much energy as it uses through solar panels, was recently installed to form the heart of a new stewardship and sustainability center.

The sunlight-flooded, well-insulated building was built in time for last year’s Urban Land Institute conference at the Moscone Center, where it was placed as an exhibit by manufacturer Zeta Communities. The company specializes in modular homes.

“With all of the sensitive work they’re doing here, indoor air quality is of paramount importance,” company official Andrew Silverman said. “We used no [volatile organic compound] paints or finishes and it was completed in the factory, so you’re really getting no off-gassing.”

Greenhouses are being built and relocated at the site and a classroom is planned once funding is available to help increase the number of schoolchildren that can be taught about native plants in a hands-on learning environment.

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John Upton

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