Heart of the City Archives

Author/attorney Mike Sullivan

Author on City trees is a 'Mr. San Francisco'
by Hank Donat

Mike Sullivan has given many tours of his beloved Cole Valley neighborhood, but this one is different. In the warmth of history making sunshine on the first day of spring, Sullivan is strolling with his six-week old son and talking about his new book, "The Trees of San Francisco."

Sullivan, a 45 year-old attorney, is a true Mr. San Francisco. The founding member of the Political Action Committee "Plan C San Francisco" is also the author of a web site dedicated to his favorite made-in-SF movie, Harold and Maude. In 1994, Sullivan headed the legal team that handled the IPO for Netcom when it became the Internet's first public company. San Francisco's boom and bust would follow.

Along with baby Joseph - Sullivan's first child with his partner, architect Paul Loeffler - our focus this morning is on Cole Valley and "The Trees of San Francisco."

"It's the other project I've been gestating," Sullivan says of the book, which celebrates more than 200 landmark trees in the city and provides sidebars on San Francisco lore and tree-themed walking tours through seven neighborhoods.

Sullivan's book, which was published earlier this year by Petaluma-based Pomegranate, identifies some of the city's more unusual trees such as the great Cork oak (Quercus suber) in front of 4736 17th Street. The book is also valuable to locals when it provides understanding about the trees we see along the streets every day.

Victorian Box (Pittosporum undulatum) is the seventh most frequently planted tree in San Francisco. It's fragrance, similar to orange blossoms, is a sweet and an unmistakable mark of springtime in the City. I once wrote that Victorian Box smells like love. Sullivan writes, "Profuse clusters of creamy white, bell-shaped flowers emerge en masse in February, but trees often continue to bloom until May." He offers Sweetshade (Hymenosporum flavum) as a similarly fragrant alternative without the sticky fruit droppings of the Victorian Box, which will send you straight to the car wash.

Victorian Box is indigenous to Australia. According to Sullivan, 22 of the 50 most frequently planted trees in the city come from Australia and New Zealand.

The New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros ecelus) is one of San Francisco's most common street trees. They thrive here, Sullivan says, because they adapt nicely to the city's cool, foggy climate and sandy soil. The red flowers that bloom at Christmastime in New Zealand give this tree its name. Here, the species is also known as a sidewalk buster because of its aggressive roots.

It's easy to find hearty Chinese elms (Ulmus parvifoloia) in San Francisco, too. They can grow to 35 feet and are resistant to Dutch elm disease, which has claimed most of the American elm trees in the United States. American elms in the city have not yet been hit by the disease, Sullivan says, so it's possible to find one here and there.

The tree that Sullivan is most frequently asked about is the London plane (Platanus x acerifolia). The hybrid was created in the 1600s by crossing Oriental planes (Platanus orientalis) with American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). The branches of the London plane are commonly pruned into nubby shapes in a process called pollarding. The best examples are those that line the courtyard next to the Herbst Theatre and the promenade at Civic Center Plaza. The gnarled limbs of the Civic Center trees are used to great affect in the final scene of the 1978 thriller, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Sullivan's "Trees of San Francisco" Cole Valley walking tour includes highlights such as the former St. Aidan's Episcopal Church at 601 Belvedere Street, where the Grateful Dead jammed in the 1960s before the church became a private residence. Around the corner on Carmel Street, a pair of condos is revealed as a former City firehouse.

Sullivan says his interest in trees comes from the fact that they are, "symbols of life, symbols of beauty and the environment." He says he can't imagine San Francisco without the work of Friends of the Urban Forest. Since 1981, the nonprofit has planted more than 34,000 trees in the city and has provided essential care for countless others.

After a brief discussion about the natural areas movement - it's about balance, Sullivan says - it's back to the Sullivan-Loeffler residence and the rest of baby Joseph's busy schedule. (That would be eat, sleep, play.)

The stairway to Sullivan and Loeffler's home is adorned with an enormous vintage poster from Sutro Baths. "We had to have a crane lower it in over the roof," says Sullivan. The cost to purchase, frame, and install the original poster was a staggering five figures. I told Sullivan he could get a Picasso line drawing for that much. "I know," says Sullivan, "But it wouldn't be about San Francisco."

Mike Sullivan will greet readers and sign books at the Main Library on Thursday, April 8 from 6:30-8:00 p.m.; at the Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park on Saturday, April 10 at 1 p.m.; and at Stacey's Bookstore on Market Street on Wednesday, April 21 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. For more information visit www.sftrees.com

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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