Photograph by Mike Sullivan

Photograph by Mike Sullivan

January 2014

Potrero Hill Tree Pilgrimage

Mike Sullivan

1745 20th Street is an ordinary enough address, a corner building in Victorian style; dime-a-dozen in San Francisco. Even after years of cataloguing San Francisco trees, I knew nothing about it until I was on the block one day and out of the corner of my eye saw a large tree that I didn’t recognize. I stopped to take a look, only to discover half-inch thorns covering the tree’s trunk; not an everyday sight in San Francisco’s urban forest! Looking around the property, I discovered a wild, “ten-car pileup” of rare tropical trees and plants; local tree expert Jason Dewees prefers the term “pilgrimage site.”

If you make the pilgrimage, the tree with the thorns on 20th Street is the City’s largest silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) from South America. The corner tree that surrounds a lamppost is a rare tropical coral tree (Erythrina speciosa). On the Wisconsin Street side of the house, close to the structure, the tree with yellow protea-like flowers is an Australian coast banksia (Banksia integrifolia). On the 20th Street side, the knee-level plants with the giant leaves are aptly named “poor man’s umbrella” (Gunnera insignis). 

Keeping with the tropical theme, there are many palm trees, including a large queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffianum) at the property line on 20th Street; several windmill palms with hairy trunks (Trachycarpus fortune) near the corner of the building); and rarest of all, a Nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida), New Zealand’s only native palm, to the right of the garage door on Wisconsin Street.

The history of this tropical oasis? Larry Masnada, a former owner of the building with an unfulfilled yearning to live in Hawaii, decided instead to bring the tropics to Potrero Hill. Starting with his own collection of tropical plants, he enlisted garden designer Davis Dalbok to search out unusual species not typically found in San Francisco. The result, even 30 years later, is eye-popping! 

This is an excerpt from the second edition of The Trees of San Francisco, available at Christopher’s Books, which features suggested walking tours, including Potrero Hill. 

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