Often charming, occasionally gritty, surely up-and-coming -- witness the real estate renaissance of Bernal Heights, S.F.'s neo-boho neighborhood where once-dilapidated homes now zoom at the speed of commerce beyond the million dollar threshold. Yet a liferaft floating at the center of this frothing urban sea remains undeveloped: Bernal Hill Park, a peak with a far older balance sheet of life, death, and rebirth.
Start your walk on the south side, where all good rags-to-riches stories begin. There on the wrong side of Bernal Heights Blvd. (south of the road), a proud blooming patch of hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) bears up in a weed-choked vacant lot. This plant grows in oak woodlands, chaparral, and scrub along the coast of central and southern California, reaching its upper limit in the Bay Area, where it thrives; it spreads by rhizomes and makes an outstanding groundcover in both sun and shade. The lance-shaped leaves give the finest fragrance of any sage you'll find, and the dramatic pink blooms draw squadrons of hungry hummingbirds. The rogue patch in the vacant lot is the last (known) survivor of the naturally occurring species on Bernal Hill -- so if you find it, please treat it with care.
Continue north and uphill, where 20 acres of grassland house other jewels from the pre-Colombian flora. Shooting stars (Dodecatheon spp.), for example, have burst aloft early and prolifically this year; these members of the primrose family develop shuttlecock flowers pointed like rocket ships, peppering the meadow with gorgeous violet flames. The botanical name is Greek for "twelve gods," and with as many easily intergradable species in the genus, the promiscuous taxonomy of Dodecatheon feels worthy of those old landlords of Olympus. Bernal Hill is the type locality for Dodecatheon clevelandii ssp. patulum, a noteworthy subspecies that thrives on serpentine. Go see it now in plenty on the north and northwest slopes beneath the microwave tower, facing the skyline of downtown.