Mountain of Youth: Natural Longevity on Montara Mountain

Here in earthquake country, the land moves in puzzling ways. Take Montara Mountain, a San Mateo landmark at the uppermost edge of the Santa Cruz Range, whose steep heights plunge dramatically through the fog down into the sea at Devil's Slide. It looks like the western edge of North America, but in fact this granite and sandstone formation sits on the eastern edge of the Pacific plate, a tectonic "island" riding north along the shear of the San Andreas Fault. This mountain originated with the sierra of Southern California, and has been grinding its long, bumpy way up the coast toward San Francisco for millions of years, at speeds approaching one meter per century.

Now protected as San Pedro Valley Park in Pacifica, the slopes of Montara Mountain support a relict plant community more like those of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands than its neighboring natural areas on the Peninsula. A strenuous switchback trail climbs to the North Peak through dense coastal chaparral of Montara manzanita (Arctostaphylos montaraensis) and minor giant chinquapin (Chrysolepsis chrysophylla var. minor), two noteworthy specimens. The former is a local endemic found nowhere else on earth, growing 3-15 feet tall with tightly clasping silver-green leaves held upright, stems covered in white bristles, and the red gnarled trunk for which manzanitas are prized; the latter is uncommon in this region, a large shrub or a small tree with boat-shaped leaves dusted with gold on their undersides.

A less grueling hike -- and a more diverse plant community -- can be enjoyed along the Hazelnut Trail, which traverses the north-facing slopes of the ridge between the middle and south forks of San Pedro Creek, where the steelhead still return to spawn. This path is named for Corylus cornuta var. californica or California hazelnut, which grows here in healthy abundance. These 8- to 12-foot deciduous trees have flexible branches once used for basket-making, and their edible seeds are delicious. This early in the season, the trees are merely in catkin, with pendant buds that later will mature into separate male and female flowers.

But early birds can look forward to other, more unusual treats. The month of February finds many Bay Area botanizers on their knees with a hand lens paying homage to the elusive "foetid adder's tongue" or Scoliopus bigelovii. This plant is small and well camouflaged, so keep a sharp eye turned down to the trailside -- or perhaps a nostril cocked for the disagreeable odor said to attract carrion-feeding beetles, its principal pollinators. The name Scoliopus comes from the Greek for "crooked foot," referring to the downward-curving pedicel of the flower stem. These beautiful orchid-like blossoms are yellowish-green, delicately striped in purple or brown, with multiple stems per plant sheathed in a single pair of clasping leaves pushed up through the soil like the open mouth of a subterranean serpent, or two hands raised from below in benediction. Scoliopus most often grows in moist, shady coastal areas (esp. redwood forests) from the Santa Cruz range to the outer coast ranges of Mendocino and Humboldt counties; the population on Montara Mountain ranks among the largest and most easily found.

Trillium also emerges in February, to the delight of many native plant fanciers. This beauty grows from a rhizome, producing a single whorl of three egg-shaped leaves subtending an exquisite blossom of white fading to pink. Look for Trillium in the shadows of larger trees and shrubs, especially in seeps where moisture collects. Regardless of its difficult nature in cultivation, this remains an all-time favorite for the garden.

Alas, with the rise of civilization in general (and of the automobile in particular), the native plant populations of California have been infiltrated by numerous invaders from foreign shores. Here along our central coast, Pampas Grass (Cortaderia jubata) ranks among our most notorious pests. This massive bunchgrass with the vertical white plumes was imported from Bolivia in great quantity during the 1950s, and Caltrans planted it for erosion control on road cuts up and down the coast. Within a decade or two, the disaster was in full swing. Each fertile plume produces thousands of windblown seeds, which sprout in any patch of disturbed or otherwise open soil they can find. This noxious weed easily outcompetes native plants, swiftly replacing diversity with monoculture -- and due to its remarkable size, tenacity, and reproductive prowess, it remains costly and difficult to eradicate.

Here on Montara, huge swaths of land along Devil's Slide and Highway One have been subsumed by Pampas Grass, and the interloper is making swift progress into the coastal scrub and chaparral of the mountain itself. Help arrives regularly in the form of volunteer weeders, a devoted team of naturalists both professional and amateur who donate their time and energy for the ecological health of San Pedro Valley, but they face a daunting task. Of all these volunteers, the chief Pampas Grass Assassin is surely Jim Pommier.

Jim moved to nearby Linda Mar in 1963 "when this was just a fish farm" and began weeding the slopes of Montara as a volunteer in the early 1970s. His herculean efforts redoubled since taking retirement 10 years ago. With the trim, rugged build of a long distance runner (he has 35 marathons under his belt), the spry septuagenarian bounds up the path at a trailblazer's pace, fast on the lookout for rogue Eucalyptus saplings and proliferating Pampas Grass. According to a mutual friend, Jim habitually carries a pulaski with him at all times.

"What's a pulaski, some sort of sausage?"

"Certainly not. A pulaski is a larger and heavier version of a mattock."

It turns out a mattock is a long-handled landscaping tool with a pick on one side of the head and a hoe on the other. Meanwhile, a pulaski is not merely larger but far more fearsome: half pick and half axe, this tool is favored by firefighters, horror movie villains, and dedicated weed-busters like Jim. Short of industrial pesticide, the pulaski is likely the only weapon to which a mature Pampas Grass will yield.

During a walk we took together on the mountain, Jim eagerly pointed out to me the numerous spots he has cleared of exotic invasives, thus to allow the native flora to flourish. This kind of relationship between man and mountain demonstrates the symbiosis of a lost time. We humans once recognized ourselves as a small part of the larger community of life, but increasingly we view the landscape merely as potential sites for development, or resources to be plundered.

Is it possible that Jim Pommier's tremendous vitality derives from spiritual quid-pro-quo? With some perspective, the moral of our tale grows clear: take care of the mountain, and the mountain will take care of you.

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Madroño founder Geoffrey Coffey is a freelance writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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