Botanical paradox: Joey Santore connects plants and people

Botanist Joey Santore. (Photo by Jesse Will)

I called Joey Santore when he was returning from a botanical trip to South Africa. “I’m stuffing envelopes right now,” he told me from his home in West Oakland. “Sending stickers by post. It’s a big part of how I make my money.

Santore has hundreds of thousands of subscribers online, but not for the quality of his beautiful hand-drawn black and white flower stickers, which he sells online. He is known for Crime pays but botany doesn’t, a self-proclaimed approach to plant ecology, which takes him everywhere from Oakland train stations to New Caledonia, ranting about plants, trains, liberals and conservatives, but mostly plants. His swear-filled videos and podcast episodes are among the most popular botany-related shows in the English-speaking world.

Santore is not a botanist by training. He grew up in the Chicago area, then moved to the Bay in 2000. He went to college for two years “for sociology or something, before dropping out. For most of his adult life he worked on freight trains. Before that, he drove them illegally, which fostered an early love for geology and plants. When he speaks, it is with a clearly non-academic Chicago accent (which he often accentuates) which allows him to touch all rungs of the social ladder at the same time.

“I just realized that I didn’t know anything, and I just had this desire to learn,” he says of his early years. “I didn’t want to be an ignorant asshole all my life, taking everything for granted and letting people tell me how the world worked. I wanted to look it up myself.

Part of his passion comes from seeing plants in their native habitat, which was one of his main takeaways from his trip to South Africa. “There are a lot of plants out there that I hated before, just because they were used in California horticulture and therefore taken out of context,” he says. “But seeing them in their habitat, I gained a whole new appreciation for them, from some of the pelargoniums, to the weird geraniums, to some of the cool members of the Asteraceae that are out there.”

With that in mind, I had called him not to talk about distant parts of the world but about home. According to Joey Santore, what is one of the most rewarding plants to see in the Bay Area habitat?

fritillary slope
The fritillary slope (Fritallaria falcata). (Photo by Morgan Stickrod)

Fritillaria falcata

“Because of the way the serpentine rock weathers, it crumbles into these cubic talus, the size of a marble to a golf ball,” he tells me. “You get these mountains made of serpentine that have been lifted up, and because of the way they’re weathering, they’re fracturing in the angularity and the size of these talus slopes. There’s no soil. There’s just this rock. And then there’s just these pebbles, these serpentine pebbles. And then they kind of break down, and you get something that looks like maybe ground underneath them.

On these scree slopes grows the scree fritillary, known as Fritillaria falcata. Santore first saw the endemic Coast Ranges in 2018. It hardly ever grows on flat ground and lives on serpentine rock which, with high levels of magnesium and iron and low levels of nitrogen and calcium, creates notoriously difficult growing conditions. It is also very small, only 2 to 8 inches tall. “It’s not a plant you’re really going to stumble upon,” he says. He was looking for it precisely. Since then he has visited and revisited various populations probably a dozen times, he estimates.

The fritillary talus flower resembles that of the common California checkered lily, with mottled rust-red, green, and yellow tepals (essentially petals), but a few morphological differences make it more elegant. Its anthers are supple red, and the flower itself often stands upright, instead of drooping downward like most fritillaries. Finally, its leaves, often the only sign of the plant in dry years, are sickle-shaped and a pale, waxy blue hue. “Without the serpentine, the ultramafic soils and the uplift that caused them to infiltrate these talus slopes at the base of these cliffs, you wouldn’t have this plant. It was therefore developed specifically for this habitat; It’s amazing.

According to the California Native Plant Society, the Fritillary Slope has two disjunct populations, one in the hills south of Livermore and one around San Benito Mountain. Santore says there is a population around Monterey in herbarium collections, but no one he knows has seen it for a long time.

“One of the populations is on private land,” he says. “He’s a guy in eastern Alameda County, and he’s got some cattle there. And we got there and the cattle had come up. You step on this thing and it starts moving, rolling. It’s like walking on a pile of sand, basically. So you can imagine what a 1,500 pound cow would do. It could easily be wiped out by one guy’s bad decisions. I mean, he doesn’t give like–t. I’m sure he’s like a Trumper. Maybe he’s even the kind of person who, just to spite the libs, would stock up – I don’t know. Purely hypothetical, but…”

inarticulate eloquence

Joey Santore’s inviting paradox is his inarticulate eloquence. When he interviews guests on his podcast, his questions are often rambling. He sometimes stops awkwardly, sometimes speaks above his guest. Yet he speaks of a wide range of plant subjects, from selection pressures on a single rare species of buckwheat to the geological rise of flowering plants, with an inspiring tone of awe and authority.

Santore’s perspective from outside academia allows him to approach plant ecology with a mix of hard evolutionary science and a messy form of humor and wonder (you’ll be hard pressed not to start calling the Italian cypress “butt plug trees”). This earned him interviews with botanical giants such as Dr. Peter Raven of Missouri Botanical Garden fame.

“For me, it’s always been fun because I don’t have a reputation to lose,” Santore says. “I have no academics to satisfy. I don’t have anyone to rely on to give me grants to do my research. I just go out there and look at the plants and make it fun. I mean, it’s the happiest thing I’ve ever felt is being in these places, looking at these life forms that have been there for millions of years.

To get a traditional academic’s perspective on Santore, I spoke to Chris Pires, Dean of the International Center for Plant Science and Scientific Director of the New York Botanical Garden. Two hundred thousand YouTube subscribers, after all, is no guarantee of scientific accuracy. Pires appeared on the Santore Podcast in September 2021 to talk about monocot taxonomy.

“It’s like engaging with an MC Hammer on Twitter, or something,” says Pires. “Of course, they are not experts with doctoral training and specialized knowledge. But if they get into science and bring a new group of people to the table, that’s exciting to me. So that’s the spirit that I like about Joey, even if his style isn’t for some people. It is very good. There are other people out there for them. (Note: Santore is more of a plant expert than almost any celebrity. No shade on MC Hammer.)

Santore’s influence on a younger generation is palpable. JoeJoe Clark is an assistant park steward at the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District and a restoration technician at the Sonoma Ecology Center. Clark works weekly with state park visitors, trying to translate nature to the urban mindset. “One thing about Joey is he’s a straight shooter,” Clark says. “He’s just unfiltered. If the people who definitely play science have some kind of shell, he breaks it. It has no protocol. He is no longer a family guy character. I’m more of a Disney character, but we come to the same conclusion.

For Mitch Van Dyke, a 25-year-old seasonal biological science technician for the US Forest Service’s PacFish/InFish biological opinion monitoring program in Logan, Utah, Santore’s videos helped chart a career path. After earning a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, he applied for a wide range of seasonal jobs related to water and plants. During the winter, while waiting for answers, he discovered crime payswatching Santore’s videos almost every day.

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“It made me 200 times more curious,” he says. Santore inspired him to download books from file sharing website Genesis Library and create flash cards to learn the characteristics of plant families. “I think it helped me to be more sure that I wanted to orient myself towards plants and more enthusiastic about exploring it on my own, walking around and taking pictures of everything. And it also spurred an obsession with iNaturalist, as well as a place to collect all my photos.When application season ended, Van Dyke chose his current job at the Forest Service, which takes him to roam the creeks of the Intermountain West and identifying plants 40 hours a week.

“Often I look at them [videos] while I go to sleep, and he kind of puts me to sleep. If I can’t fall asleep, then I can watch an interesting video, I guess. I wouldn’t recommend it if you have sleep issues. There are many more soothing voices.

Mandela Walk

The first time I met Joey Santore, he asked me to meet him near his home at the time in West Oakland in the spring of 2021. As I stood on Mandela Parkway, I was struck by the fact that the landscaping was obscenely complex for a West Oakland block. When Santore arrived 15 minutes later, I was absorbed in a festival of herbaceous plants, shrubs and small trees. I noticed he was wearing leather gloves, and after saying hello he came downstairs and started weeding, traffic swirling on either side of the median.

Over the past few years, it turns out that Santore has been guerrilla-
planted the walk. About four city blocks are heavily planted, but his work can be seen all along the one-mile-long stretch from 12th to 34th Streets. The long middle stretch is a mix of native plants and Mexican cloud forest plants capable of thriving in the peaceful air of the Bay Area. He wanted to try to grow Fritillaria falcatabut was unable to collect the seeds.

“If this was a restoration effort, I would plant all the native plants,” he says. “But it’s not. It’s the site of an old double-decker highway where people still dump used needles and human excrement.

Santore no longer drives freight trains. He earns enough money with Crime pays but botany doesn’t travel and observe plants full time. With recent episodes on the island of Hispaniola and Shasta County, West Texas, East Montana, the Dakotas and South Africa, it’s hard to get carried away when Santore is resting . When I left him he was still weeding a Peruvian rhizome nightshade on his strip on Mandela, about a block from where we started.

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