Noe Valley Voice July-August 1998

Poppies and Other Growing Things

By Florence Holub

Back in the '20s when I was a child, the steep hills surrounding Noe Valley had not yet been developed, so there were wide expanses where wildflowers grew and children frolicked. One year when the California poppies were in full bloom, I gathered a dazzling bouquet of fully opened orange blossoms to bring to my mother, who adored flowers.

I put them in a vase on the dining room table and waited for her to notice them. She was busy in the kitchen preparing dinner, so she did not finish until the sun had gone down over the crest of the hill. The dining room was dark when we finally entered it, but it was I who got the surprise, for the poppies were not at all like I remembered them!

The bouquet, which had been such a beautiful spread of orange color before, was now reduced to a sparse scattering of buds resembling the pointed tips of orange crayons! Every flower had closed up shop for the night, drawing its petals into tightly coiled capsules.

For my mother, it was the thought that counted. She was delighted with the bouquet, and even found the shrunken blooms amusing. But I was disappointed and puzzled. I pondered the mystery for years, until as an adult I learned that this is a survival adaptation, developed by many plants in the wild, to conserve life-sustaining moisture.

Flowers usually claim the interest of little girls, but one year my 12-year-old elder brother Mike, who always had a head for business, decided that he could use them to earn some needed pocket money. First, he plucked an assortment of flowers found on the hill -- purple wild irises, yellow buttercups, and other unnamed posies. Then he divided them into bunches and consigned them to me to sell, expecting that at the tender age of 7, I would be the more engaging (and profitable) salesperson.

I was completely lacking in the skills of a salesgirl, but since Mike was in charge when our parents weren't home, I reluctantly agreed to give it a try. But after I'd knocked on many doors and climbed even more stairs, the bouquets wilted in my hot little hands.

Nevertheless, one kindly gentleman actually gave me a quarter for one of my limp products, which I gladly presented to my brother as I tendered my resignation. Since the enterprise was hardly a financial success, my brother accepted my departure and turned his talents to other pursuits.

We enjoyed a great deal of freedom as children, because our working parents were away during the day. Our father was the strict disciplinarian. Our mother was more lenient. But they both expected us to abide by the rules they'd laid down for proper behavior in their absence. We generally obeyed. However, we did not always divulge the extent of our wanderings.

Soon my younger brother, Ward, and I began venturing farther and farther from home. On one trek we discovered a cave about 15 feet deep, set into the western slope of Glen Canyon. We entered the cave excitedly, expecting to find gold just like in the movies! Of course we found nothing, and 20 years later learned from Grandpa Holub, who had worked in the Grass Valley Mines, that gold is found in quartz deposits, not in the local "rotten rock," as it is sometimes called. After the canyon was excavated in the late 1920s to make way for O'Shaughnessy Boulevard, the cave vanished in the rubble.

Another time, we plodded all the way up to Mount Davidson, the highest point in San Francisco, where a huge wooden cross rose about a hundred feet. At the base of the cross was a small entry door, and upon closer inspection we found it to be slightly ajar, its lock broken. Our curiosity piqued, we entered the dark interior of the cross, which was empty except for a built-in ladder that went straight up.

Being young and fearless, we began to climb the wooden rungs. Going up was not difficult, and before long, we were standing on a floor within the arms of the cross. The view out the knotholes was breathtaking.

But the climb back down the ladder was truly frightening. While clutching tightly to the rungs with our hands, we had to blindly feel our way down with our feet. After what seemed like an eternity, we touched solid ground, and were filled with such relief that we resolved to cultivate a little more caution during future adventures. Needless to say, this excursion remained our secret.

The cross was destroyed about a decade later in the '30s, when a gang of adolescents set a fire and burned it to the ground. The arsonists were never apprehended. However, we all noticed one young man (usually a good kid) whose hand was burned and bandaged after the event but who refused to talk about it. By the following Easter, a new fireproof, cast-concrete cross was erected on the same spot. This cross still stands today (and now belongs to the Armenian-American community).

Every summer, our 7-year-old cousin Barbara would come from Berkeley to spend a week with us. She was a few years younger than we were, but willing and able to do anything we conjured up.

One day we decided to hike to the beach. We started early, striding up over Portola Drive and down past 19th Avenue to Sloat Boulevard, heading toward the ocean. After a few blocks, the houses grew sparse, and sand dunes loomed all around us. We threw ourselves into them, climbing up to the high tops, then rolling giddily down the slopes.

By the time we reached the ocean, we had spent most of our energy but not our streetcar fare, so we invested it in candy bars, then started the trip home. The journey was uphill all the way, but we still made it back before dinner time! My mother marveled at our hearty appetites, and at the huge amount of sand that had accumulated in our hair, pockets, shoes, socks, even our ears. And of course we left a trail of pebbles throughout the house.

Today the dunes and the wide open spaces that once nurtured the wildflowers have disappeared. But the poppies are still with us. It is a joy to see the bright-orange blossoms popping up in the most unlikely places -- through a thin crack in the sidewalk or along the tracks of the J-line.

I have found it especially pleasing to discover clumps of California poppies growing wild in the newly landscaped easement on 21st and Sanchez streets, across the street from the Tudor cottage built in 1930 by "Sunny Jim" Rolph.

This is most appropriate, because in the spring of 1912, following Rolph's inauguration as mayor of San Francisco, poppies were planted all over the hills of Noe Valley. I am not sure if this was done at the behest of Sunny Jim, who loved flowers, but I like to think so.

Long may they bloom!

postscript: To test the accuracy of my 70-year-old memories, I recently got up one foggy morning at 6 a.m., went outside, and climbed the 21st Street hill to the easement on Sanchez. I inspected the flowers there, and saw they were all closed up. Then I swiped a sprig of poppies from the front of Edith Duarte's house (forgive me, Edith) and put it in a jar on the windowsill at home. During the day, the blossoms opened. Still not satisfied with my experiment, I put the jar of poppies in a covered bucket in a dark closet for a few hours, and sure enough, they closed up. I put them back on the windowsill, and as the sun came up the next day, they opened once again. After two rather stressful days of being subjected to my manipulations, the poppies began to look frazzled. But all things considered, they proved remarkably resilient.