Mapping the Urban Forest


I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
–Dr. Suess


Howard Street Tree Photo by:  P. Nixon

Howard Street Tree
Photo by: P. Nixon

This tree is visible from a window in the San Francisco office where  Dave and I spend  a few days each month. For years I have looked around it, walked past it, taken pictures of the green neon shamrocks above it, but  never once did I give it a second glance.

It took this sign posted on a barricade protecting a newly planted tree on the other side of town to make me take a closer look at my neighborhood.

Photo Credit:  P. Nixon

Photo Credit: P. Nixon

Friends of the Urban Forest is affiliated with a mapping project that began five years ago–its goal to identify and catalog all of  San Francisco’s trees with the help of city government, nonprofits, and citizens.  The result, the  urban forest map, quantifies CO2 reduction, water and energy conserved, and pollutants reduced because of the trees.

I went to the online map certain that my newly discovered tree on Howard Street between First and Second would be on it and it was.  Tree number 150163.  That was it.  No species identification, no trunk diameter to calculate it’s ecological impact.  Just the number, waiting for someone to finish its profile.

Suddenly, it became my tree.

I walked over to get a closer look.  The lone tree stands in front of the Southside Spirit House, a small bar in a one-story building huddled together with four or five other old structures in a neighborhood filled with cranes busily erecting office buildings and condominium towers.

I took pictures and studied the trunk and leaves.  Sitting down at my computer I used the urban tree identification guide, step-by-step, but couldn’t figure it out.

Dave went with me to take another look.   We gathered leaves and seed pods.

Back at the computer, this time armed with samples, I tried again.  Were the leaves compound or simple?  I followed both paths, but still couldn’t identify the tree.   Was it a floss silk or a cape chestnut or a Chinese fringe?  Maybe it was a ficus, my first guess.  I couldn’t be sure so for now it will have to wait.

On my next visit I’ll go into the spirit house, order a beer and ask the bartender if she knows when the tree blooms and what color.  For now I am calling it the truffala tree in honor of the Lorax.

3 thoughts on “Mapping the Urban Forest

  1. We’re delighted to have played a role in inspiring you to take a closer look at your urban forest! We have no record of planting at 575 Howard Street, so our database does not shed light on the species of that tree (perhaps the city planted it). Based on the photos, our arborists think the tree is a Victorian Box (Pittosporum undulatum). Have a look at the photos and description at and see if you agree.

    Ben Carlson
    Friends of the Urban Forest

    • Thanks, Ben. I looked at the photo you sent and think that may be the tree. When I return to San Francisco in a couple of weeks I’ll take a closer look.

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