Foote Botanical Preserve at Mt. George

Just east of the City of Napa, the Foote Botanical Preserve at Mt. George is a botanical treasure of high-quality habitat in the Howell Mountain Range. The Preserve features over 370 plant species and numerous habitat types including chaparral, grassland, redwood, and riparian. Foote is the founding preserve of the Land Trust of Napa County.

The original donors, June and Si Foote, intended it to be a permanent native plant preserve.

In their dedication of the property to the Land Trust, June and Si wrote:

“Our gift of this property to the Land Trust is made with our intentions that the entire property be utilized by the Land Trust for open space and botanical protection purposes.” – June 27, 1995

The Land Trust manages the Foote Preserve in conjunction with a group of dedicated volunteers for the protection and preservation of this beautiful property. The Preserve is open to the public by permission or through guided hikes scheduled by the Land Trust.

Natural History

The Foote Botanical Preserve lies on an arm of the North Coast Ranges, referred to as the Napa Range in early floras and identified as the Howell Range by local writers and historians. Mt. George is a prominent peak 2 miles east of the City of Napa (1,877 ft. elevation). The Preserve’s 770 acres include the Mt. George summit and a 1,392 ft. peak to the south. It also encompasses a portion of Sarco Creek, the seasonal Tupper Creek, and another unnamed perennial stream near its southeastern boundary.

Geology & Habitat – The geologic parentage of the entire preserve is of volcanic origin, formed 3-5 million years ago (Sonoma Volcanics). The low erodability of the igneous substrate is largely responsible for the extensive rock outcroppings and thin alluvial and rocky colluvial soils. The durable volcanic rock also entraps groundwater that escapes through a number of fractures as seeps and perennial springs. The impermeable surface of the rock creates seasonally saturated conditions, including ephemeral wetlands where the slopes are gentle. Forests are confined to steep north slopes and canyons.

Much of the Preserve is covered by brushlands (chaparral), dominated by chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) and five species of manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.). Chaparral grows in Mediterranean climates, characterized by hot, dry summers and mild winters. Most chaparral plants are drought tolerant and known for their rapid regeneration after fire. These plants have evolved in adaptation to high-intensity wildfires that historically occurred in the summer or fall every 30 to 80 years. Many have developed mechanisms to survive fire, such as resprouting after fire or producing seeds which are dormant until stimulated to germinate by fire. Chaparral is also characterized by nutrient-poor soils due to post-fire erosion.

Within the overall chaparral landscape, there are small areas of grassland, rock outcrops, meadow, and forest. The Preserve also has seasonal wetlands and drainages in which Zigadenus micranthus, Spiranthes porrifolia, and other riparian species grow. Grassland and rock outcrop habitats provide foraging and nesting environments for small mammals and reptiles. Annual plants dominate the more open grassland and meadow areas where there is more sun and water available. These areas provide a vivid display of wildflowers in the spring and attract a variety of birds of prey.

The Preserve is unique in having wetland habitats in this primarily dry community: a small redwood forest at the west side of the Preserve, a riparian zone along Sarco Creek, and several small creeks traveling down from three peaks. Redwoods, like chaparral species, are also adapted to fire. Adults can resist surface fire damage due to thick, fibrous bark, and may resprout if their canopies are damaged or killed.

Sarco Creek’s riparian zone, with its abundant water and cool air drainage, hosts an array of plants quite different from chaparral species. Trees and shrubs growing here are far more water dependent and more likely to be broad-leaved and deciduous. A high level of diversity can occur where biozones overlap. The creek also provides habitat for animals that have at least one aquatic life stage, such as frogs and dragonflies.

Flora – The Foote Preserve hosts numerous restricted plant species. The largest remaining population of the chaparral shrub Ceanothus purpureus, also known as hollyleaf ceanothus, exists on Mt. George. This plant is on the California Native Plant Society’s (CNPS) list of plants rare and endangered in California. Although locally common, Ceanothus purpureus is vulnerable to extinction due to its growth and regeneration requirements and the limited number of sites on which it occurs.

Another significant and widespread species on the Preserve is Arctostaphylos crustacea (brittleleaf manzanita). Discovered in 1975 at Mt. George, this is a major range extension for this species as it is the only population known north of the Golden Gate Bridge/San Pablo Bay/Delta area.

Also considerable for its location, the redwood grove (Sequoia sempervirens) on the Preserve serves as the easternmost stand naturally occurring in California. Redwoods are generally found along the coast due to their reliance on fog for the capture of moisture. Mt. George receives seasonal fog, supporting this small and unique redwood stand.

Several other significant plant species can be found at Mt. George. While these are not found solely on the Preserve, their presence adds to its value and they are worthy of management considerations. These species include: Nodding madia (Harmonia nutans), Napa lomatium (Lomatium repostum), Northern California black walnut (Juglans californica -var. hindsii), Green coyote mint Monardella villosa), Dark-mouthed triteleria (Triteleia lugens), and Marsh zigadenus (Zigadenus micranthus). The Chaparral checkermallow (Sidalcea hickmanii ssp. viridis), occurs on the southeast side of Mt. George, outside of the Preserve. This plant seems to respond to disturbance and may occur on the Preserve following a fire. The fire poppy (Papaver californicum) appeared on Mt. George after the 1964 fire; this is one of only two known locations for this plant in Napa County.

Napa County botanist Jake Ruygt conducted a Botanical Survey of the Foote Preserve in 2003. A list of 372 taxa was compiled for the preserve representing 78 of the 130 plant families found in Napa County. About 82% of these species are endemic to the Preserve. Nine special status plant species were found. A number of the species found do not have any rarity ranking by CNPS but are significant because of their rarity in Napa County. A few significant findings were made on Mt. George relative to previous records of the flora of Napa County. The most notable is the presence of California beaked rush (Rhynchospora californica). This rare plant was not previously known to occur in Napa County. It is known from less than 10 locations in the world and holds the highest rarity code assigned by the California Native Plant Society. Dwarf flax occurs at number of locations on the Preserve. This is near the southern end of the range for this species. Mexican lovegrass (Eragrostis mexicana ssp. virescens), growing in the same wetland with California beaked rush was also not previously known to occur in Napa County.

Special Status Plants on the Foote Preserve (CNPS Ranking)

  • California brodiaea: Brodiaea californica ssp. leptandra (1B)
  • Napa ceanothus: Ceanothus purpureus (1B)
  • Rock-loving daisy: Erigeron angustatus (1B)
  • Nodding harmonia: Harmonia nutans (4)
  • Napa dwarf flax: Hesperolinon serpentinum (1B)
  • Chaparral lily: Lilium rubescens (4)
  • Napa Lomatium: Lomatium repostum (4)
  • Green coyote mint: Monardella viridis ssp. viridis (4)
  • Long-beaked rush: Rhynchospora californica (1B)

(List 1B is considered rare and endangered by the California Native Plant Society; List 4 are plants of limited distribution)

The following plants, considered rare in Napa County, also occur on the preserve:

  • Nuttall’s quillwort: Isoetes nuttallii
  • American dogwood: Cornus sericea ssp. sericea
  • Western wood anemone: Anemone oregana
  • Kellogg’s snapdragon: Antirrhinum kelloggii
  • Harford’s sedge: Carex harfordii
  • Yellow-eyed grass: Sisyrinchium californicum
  • Leopard lily: Lilium pardilinum
  • Lemmon’s canary grass: Phalaris lemmonii
  • Lemmon’s needlegrass: Achnatherum lemmonii
  • Mexican lovegrass: Eragrostis mexicana ssp. virescens

The Role of Fire – Fire is a natural occurrence in chaparral and integral to the maintenance of native vegetation. Chaparral plants have adapted to a regional wildfire cycle and developed mechanisms to survive. Not only are these plants able to persist following a fire, but many species (such as Ceanothus purpureus) require some factor from fire-heat, chemical byproducts, increased light, or increased soil nutrients for regeneration.

Three major wildfires have occurred on the Foote Preserve in the 20th century. The first fire, in 1913, burned most of the mountain’s vegetation. The most recent fire occurred in 1964 and also consumed the majority of the vegetation here. The majority of shrubs whose seeds only germinate after fire are therefore about 40 years old.

Cultural History

The primary road into the Foote Preserve leads to the remnants of a home site, which burned down in 1964. The remains include a brick oven, part of the concrete foundation, a natural spring, rock walls, and various landscaping plants.

Other remaining evidence of past human activity on the Preserve include an abandoned mine, a stone smelter, and remnants of an old pioneer homesite and old stagecoach road. For the most part, human presence on the rest of the Preserve is apparent only in foot trails and non-native plants accidentally introduced.

The article below was found in the Napa Historical Society library.

Napa Historical Society Record – Mt. George is first mentioned in the Geographic Survey of California in the Fall of 1861. In November of that year members of the survey were in Napa, wrapping up their work for the year. Some members of that group decided to climb the mountain to gauge its height and fix its position by transit.

Originally called Bald Mountain, the first inhabitant of record was a Mr. A. Hunt, who built a small cottage in the north meadow at the midpoint of the mountain, at the top of the Berryessa Grade beside the wagon road. His cottage was the starting point for day excursions by early residents for the one hour hike to the summit of the peak.

Following the discovery of gold in California, there was much excitement over prospecting in the east hills of Napa County. Mt. George was thoroughly searched for silver, quicksilver, and other precious metals. Some claims were staked, but no ore of value was ever found. Traces of mining activity are still in evidence at some locations on the mountain.

Mt. George rose to importance in the early days of settlement because the Berryessa wagon road wound up the west face of the mountain. This road was the main connection between Napa and the grain ranches of the Berryessa Valley, and the Reddington Mine near Knoxville. The road was the only link to these locations during the winter, because the road east from Berryessa Valley was impossible to travel during that season.

The Berryessa Grade road was constructed partly by a subscription of $4000, and partly through contributions from the county General Road Fund. The total cost of construction was $12,000. This road was only wide enough to allow the passage of one wagon. It was customary for drivers to sound bells attached to their horses harnesses as they approached switchbacks. This gave warning to opposite direction wagons to pull over and allow passage along the switchbacks.

Following Mr. Hunt, a 640-acre ranch was developed by Mr. A. Van Der Naillen, who was president of the first school of engineering established in Oakland. He constructed a bungalow, planted trees, and developed springs for drinking water. He also created a small water distribution system for irrigating small areas of tillable land.

Under his direction a four foot wide road was built from the meadow along the wagon road to the top of the mountain. He had built a two wheeled, one horse chariot which could take him to the summit. It was his habit to ascend the mountain each morning to greet the sunrise.

Mr. Van Der Naillen was a noted author of books dealing with mysticism and the occult, and many students, philosophers, and interested people found his mountain retreat a fitting environment in which to discuss these subjects. This ranch was later purchased by the Tupper family, whose home there burned in 1965. It was purchased in 1969 by Mr. and Mrs. F. S. Foote. The family made the ranch the founding donation to the Land Trust of Napa County, for use as a botanical preserve. The Trust continues to manage this preserve.

Conservation in Action

Exotic Species – The Foote Preserve has approximately 372 recorded pant species, of which 50 are nonnatives. The majority of the exotics are grasses or composites, which is typical for these California habitats. Exotic plants are of concern in natural areas as they degrade, alter, or displace native plants and communities; reduce biological diversity; and negatively impact natural processes and native fauna.

These plants are of primarily Mediterranean origin, but have made their way to our part of the world where they are without their native competitors and predators. This results in a competitive advantage over California’s native species. Over time, nonnative species can completely alter the plant composition and even soil chemicals of the area they have invaded. Active management of invasive species is imperative in conserving native species.

The Foote Preserve Management Committee is working in conjunction with community volunteers to eradicate the invasive exotic plants that pose the greatest threat to native plants. These invasive plants are:

  • Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor)
  • Yellow star thistle (Centauria solstitialis)
  • French broom (Genista monspessulana)
  • Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus)
  • Periwinkle (Vinca major)
  • Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica)
  • Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae)
  • Cala lily (Zantesdeschia aethiopica)
  • Blackwood acacia tree (Acacia melanoxylon)
  • Smilo grass (Piptatherum miliaceum)
  • Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.)
  • Century plant (Agave parryi)
  • Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus)

Academic Research – The Foote Preserve’s native habitat and limited public access make it an ideal location for academic research. Past work includes research on Ceanothus purpureus, Streamside monkeyflower and a fisheries survey in Sarco Creek. University-level research is welcome on the preserve, especially where research will benefit our management activities.

Trail Maintenance – The Foote Preserve has several miles of trails. Trail maintenance is a regular ritual on the Preserve, sometimes twice a year if it’s been a good rainy season! We are always looking for individuals and/or service groups to help us out with pruning vegetation, and installing water bars and other erosion control measures.