December 1, 2007
San Francisco is following me around.
You know what I mean — it probably happens to you too: wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, something pops up to bring your attention back to the City Formerly Known as Yerba Buena.
Which brings me to my point: I’m in the midst of a short trip to coastal Oregon, visiting the uncle of my Lady Friend. He and his wife live in a fabulous little cabin in the mountains outside of Creswell, tucked into the foothills of the Coast Range — hundreds of miles from San Francisco.
As I woke up this morning I was greeted by the pattering of rain and the aroma of a freshly brewed pot of Yerba Buena tea. Yerba Buena! If that name doesn’t ring a Bay Area bell, you just haven’t been paying attention!
When William Richardson named his one-man pre-San Francisco settlement “Yerba Buena” back in 1835 — the aromatic plant (whose name means “Good Herb”) grew wild on the sandy hills all over the peninsula.
And if it hadn’t been for the little town of Benicia trying to stake a claim to the San Francisco Bay by threatening to name itself “Francisca”, our little hamlet would *still* call itself Yerba Buena. Our local powers that be issued a hurried proclamation “ordaining” that Yerba Buena “hereafter” be known as San Francisco, and beat the East Bay to the punch. The island on which the Bay Bridge drops a toehold still retains the name, and was also once loaded with the stuff.
But what *is* it exactly? It’s an unassuming creeper, a member of the mint family — satureja douglasii to be precise. You see it peeking out from the litter of the forest floor, tiny pairs of delicately lobed leaves tinged with purple adorning long, trailing vines. Tiny white flowers appear in the spring and summer. The leaves give off a lovely lemony smell when bruised, and when dried, brew a very pleasant cup of mildly minty tea.
The tea has medicinal qualities too, but what those are is not quite clear. My Lady Friend’s uncle (who, in another case of San Francisco Syndrome, gave Herb Caen tennis lessons at Lake Tahoe years ago) has been picking, drying, and brewing the herb for twenty years, and swears by it … as did the Native Americans, and then the Spanish padres who named it.
Yerba Buena no longer grows in San Francisco proper, but the plant is ubiquitous on the West Coast, thriving in mountains from southern California all the way up to Alaska.
The crazy thing is, after a lifetime in California, surrounded by mountains practically crawling with it, I’d never even glimpsed Yerba Buena. It took a trip to Oregon — hundreds of miles away — to finally encounter the Herb that Once Named San Francisco.