Standing in the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve parking lot, ecological restorationist Craig Dremann held up a California postcard, aligning its picturesque landscape with the hills before him. The postcard, a photograph of a stretch of hills along Interstate 5, showed land awash with splashes of vibrant orange and purple, the wild poppies and lupines native to California. When he lowered the postcard, he was faced with acres of non-native grass.
"People see green grass growing on the hills and they don't see the problem there. They don't realize that's not what's supposed to be there."
The problem, according to Dremann, is that the many species of non-native European weeds, which cover the hills, keep California's native flora at bay and increase the flora's chances of extinction. In response, Dremann has started The Poppy Project, a bid to restore the 70 acres of grassland overlooking the preserve's parking lot to a native state, full of perennial bunchgrasses and wildflowers.
For the past three years Dremann, who is a co-owner of both an ecological-restoration consulting business and a mail-order seed company out of Redwood City, has been experimenting with different ways to kill off the non-native weeds covering the hills. Last year, he discovered that if he cut down the weeds and used them as a ground cover, he could deter new weed growth.
Dremann made his experiment come to life last September, when he cleared a 40-by-20-foot swath of land at the preserve. Dremann harvested a tablespoon of seeds from the poppies around the preserve and sowed them into the plot after determining that he had killed the weeds.
Today, the plot is home to 1,000 California poppy blooms and counting, and Dremann is waiting for the City of Palo Alto to approve an expansion of his project. Curt Dunn, a Palo Alto park ranger who has been a liaison to The Poppy Project since January, said that the city is "eager to see what the outcome is in the long run."
"So far it looks promising. We're encouraged," Dunn said.
But Dremann's vision of wildflower-covered hills, Dunn acknowledged, "would take a serious commitment of funds."
According to Dremann, The Poppy Project's major expenditures are hiring people to help with the project as well as obtaining more wildflower seeds. Donations to The Poppy Project are being handled through the private, San Francisco nonprofit organization Planet Drum Foundation.
Currently, the wildflowers local to the Arastradero Preserve are not available in bulk form, and seeds harvested from the preserve would need to be sent off to a seed company where they would be sown, harvested, tested for purity and resown over a number of years until there would be enough seed to cover the 70 acres, Dremann said.
The land became inundated with non-native weeds because of centuries of cattle over-grazing. Today it is susceptible to non-native species like the medusahead, which has been steadily creeping into the preserve, said Claire Elliott, a senior ecologist at Acterra, a local environmental nonprofit. Acterra is the official steward of the city-owned preserve.
But native bunchgrasses like purple needlegrass, the official California state grass are unlike most of the non-native annuals covering the hills. The purple needlegrass is better for the environment because its deep roots allow water to more easily infiltrate the soil. This infiltration ensures less soil erosion and decreases the amount of water runoff, which keeps the water flowing from the mountains to the Bay purer. Additionally, the perennial bunchgrasses hold on to their water throughout the dry summer months, which would make potential grassfires less intense.
"They stay green longer," said Elliott, "so they're not as flammable as the oat grasses that dry up totally in the summer."
Dremann plans to eventually plant bunchgrasses among the poppies, and his project has already begun to attract attention. Lately, it is not uncommon to see preserve visitors taking pictures of the striking orange blossoms.
For now, Dremman's goal is to have 40-50 species of native wildflowers covering the preserve's hills. He hopes that if he transforms Arastradero's hills, they "can be a genetic resource for the Peninsula." The flowers could be harvested and sown elsewhere locally.
One of the challenges Dremann faces is making sure that any seeds sown into the weed-free soil contain local genetic material. He said the newly planted native seeds will have a better chance of survival if they are used to the immediate local environment.
In addition to harvesting and resowing seeds that are from flowers scattered around the rest of the preserve, Dremann noted there are dormant native seeds buried beneath the non-native weeds. This week, Dremann saw some of these native dormant seeds come to life. Along with the poppies Dremann planted, there are now four sprouts of native tarweed, a yellow wildflower, which he did not plant. Without the removal of the non-native weeds, these sprouts from the dormant tarweed seeds would have never been able to sprout, Dremann said.
Dremann believes that time is running out when it comes to rediscovering native seeds.
"Every day we're not taking those exotics (non-native plants) off the hillside, the dormant native seeds that have been there for at least 100 years are losing their viability."
After watching insects feed on the poppies' protein-rich pollen on an unseasonably warm April afternoon, Dremann noted that he had seen a swallowtail butterfly, its presence formerly unlikely on a flowerless part of the preserve.
"The world looks a lot different when you're aware of it," he said. "It's amazing."
Editor's note: Craig Dremann is the husband of Weekly Staff Writer Sue Dremann.