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The Legacy of Botanist Dennis Breedlove ’57: San Francisco’s MesoAmerican Cloud Forest
Today, a rare cloud forest is alive and well and living in San Francisco because of the work of Dr. Dennis Breedlove, who graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1957.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Breedlove, a botanist and curator at the California Academy of Sciences, began studying the plants and flowers of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.
He collected specimens, drawing the curiosity of the local Mayans, whom he towered over at 6‘ 6.” He brought back cuttings and seeds to San Francisco because he recognized the similarities in climate with Chiapas.
Among the cuttings he brought back were samples from a large bush with red and gold flowers. Botanists named it Deppea splendens. When Breedlove went back in 1986 to the site in Chiapas where he found it, the shrubs were gone and a cornfield had been planted. The plant has never again been seen in the wild, although it survives in San Francisco, due to Breedlove’s effort.
In Chiapas today, 90 percent of the cloud forest has been lost. Breedlove’s collection is the foundation of the Cloud Forest at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It thrives, as plants he started in 1984 now tower outdoors in the Botanical Gardens. Breedlove, for whom a genus of moss is named (Breedlovea), died last year.
“There are vey few gardens on the planet that grow these plants,” said Botanical Garden Curator Don Mahoney, who worked with Breedlove.
The landscape attempts to re-create the feeling of an actual cloud forest, employing trees, shrubs, groundcovers, ferns, vines and epiphytes to create masses of dense vegetation. The collection has matured into a realistic representation of cloud forest habitat. Oaks, pines, alders and other trees are now 20 or more feet tall, providing shade and shelter for a host of shrubs and flowers. Vines grow around some of the larger trunks and branches, creating a wild and jungle-like effect.