Berkeley Neighborhoods Council


Dedicated to improving the quality of life for all
by creating a unified neighborhood voice
for promoting livability and resolving problems



BNC invites letters from its eNEWS readers.  Letters and photos should be sent to and should be about issues of neighborhood interest.  Letters should be no longer than 500 words.  All letters should state the name(s) of the author and at least the general area where the author(s) live or the neighborhood group they are affiliated with.  That information will be published with the letter.  Letters should also include a phone number and e-mail address where the author can be contacted.  That information will NOT be published.  We ask for it just in case we have any questions, and, of course, we need to verify who it was that sent the letter.

Giant Thistles in Cesar Chavez Park

Today's letter asks the question:  What Happened to the Giant Thistles of Cesar Chavez Park?  It was sent in by Curtis Manning, Sisterna Neighborhood Association (5th and Addison Streets).

A few years ago I used to frequent the Cesar Chavez Park, the old North Dike dump.  I used to admire the giant thorny and purple-flowered thistles that grew on the northern portion of the park, out beyond the mowed and watered lawns.

Recently, one early morning I felt moved to visit the park again.  I was shocked to see the dilapidated condition of the Park.  Vast areas that had been watered and mowed were now covered with dying grass.  The ground was dense with holes that animals had dug - ground squirrels, as I later learned.  As I went beyond the traditionally mowed and watered area, it looked, at first glance, much like it did - like a brown rolling hills.  I was looking for my beloved thistles that had amazed me with their vigor, there among that wasted landscape.  The last time I had been there, the thistles had taken root in a number of scattered locations among the hills.

I am told that the giant thistles have surface roots that pick up evening dew from the ground and sequester it in their deep root system.  Some bushes grew in excess of six feet tall, and when full grown, were festooned with myriads of purple flowers, some as large as a big man's fist.  So impressed had I been that I brought out my view camera, long packed away, and made a project of a photographing them.

Now, when I looked for the biggest cluster, I found only a hillside of anise plants.  The thistles had been gone for some time.  I looked all around, and only found one young plant.  A couple of weeks later I could not even find that plant.

I called the City's Waterfront Manager, John Mann, to ask whether poison had been used.  But it is against City policy to use poisons on the waterfront.  I asked why the land was not watered.  Mr. Mann told me that ground squirrels had dug down through the clay seal of the dump, so that when they watered the lawns, it went down the holes and into the landfill, causing problems for the Bay water quality.  That explained the dilapidated condition of the methane burning station; the methane now vents to the atmosphere.

It is my guess that the thistles have been eaten by the ground squirrels, attacking them from below.  Thistles, seemingly impervious to surface competition, have no defense from ground squirrels, and there are no effective predators of the squirrels.

In short, Cesar Chavez Park is an ecological disaster zone.  Carol Schemmerling, a Commissioner on the Parks and Waterfront Commission, confirmed that there is no plan for remediation.

As it stands, the park is certainly no glowing tribute to Cesar Chavez.  Perhaps gopher snakes could help control the infestation; they have been sighted along the jogging trail south of University Ave.  But the question of how to re-seal the landfill remains an outstanding problem.

Note:  BNC will report back about what can be done about this problem.