Botanical paradox: Joey Santore connects plants and people

Joey Santore
Botanist Joey Santore. (Photo by Jesse Will)

I called Joey Santore just after he got back from a botany trip to South Africa. “I’m darning envelopes,” he told me from his home in West Oakland. “Send stickers. It’s a big part of how I make my money.”

Santore has hundreds of thousands of followers online, but not because of the quality of the beautifully hand-drawn black and white flower stickers that he sells online. He is known for Crime pays, botany doesn’t, a self-proclaimed lowbrow approach to plant ecology that takes him everywhere from Oakland Rail Yards to New Caledonia, where he rants about plants, trains, liberals and conservatives, but mostly plants. His power-packed videos and podcast episodes are among the most popular botany-related shows in the English-speaking world.

Santore is not a trained botanist. He grew up in the Chicago area and then moved to the Bay Area in 2000. He attended college for two years “for sociology or something” before dropping out. He has worked on freight trains for most of his adult life. Before that, he rode them illegally, which fostered an early love for geology and plants. When he speaks, it’s with a distinctly non-academic Chicago accent (which he often disguises) that allows him to touch every rung of the social ladder at once.

“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 fuck my whole life, taking everything for granted and letting others tell me how the world works. I wanted to look it up myself.”

Part of his passion is seeing plants in their natural habitat, which was one of his key learnings from his trip to South Africa. “There are a lot of plants that I used to hate because they were used in California horticulture and were taken out of context,” he says. “But seeing them in their habitat gave me 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 live down there.”

With this in mind, I called him to talk about home rather than far away regions of the world. What does Joey Santore think is one of the most rewarding plants to observe in a Bay Area habitat?

Talus Fritillary
The Talus Butterfly (Fritallaria falcata). (Photo by Morgan Stickrod)

Fritillaria falcata

“Because of the way serpentine rock weathers, it crumbles into these cubic, marble-to-golfball-sized pieces of rubble,” he tells me. “You get these mountains that are made up of serpentine that have been lifted and because of the weather they are breaking into the angularity and size of these debris dumps. There is no bottom. There is only this stone. And then there are those cobblestones, those serpentine pebbles. And then they kind of collapse and something that might resemble an earth emerges underneath them.”

On these talus slopes grows the talus fritillary, known as Fritillaria falcata. Santore first saw the Coast Ranges as endemic in 2018. It almost never grows on flat ground and lives on serpentine rocks that, with high levels of magnesium and iron and low levels of nitrogen and calcium, make for notoriously harsh growing conditions. It is also very small, only 2 to 8 inches tall. “It’s not a plant you’re really going to trip over,” he says. He was specifically looking for it. Since then, he’s visited and revisited different populations probably a dozen times, he estimates.

The flower of the talus fritillary resembles that of the California checkerboard lily with mottled russet, green, and yellow tepals (essentially petals), but some morphological differences make them slimmer. Its anthers are a supple red, and the flower itself is often erect rather than nodding downward like most fritillaries. Finally, its leaves, often the plant’s only sign in dry years, are sickle-shaped and a light blue, waxy hue. “Without serpentine, ultramafic soils and the uplift that caused them to weather into these talus slopes at the foot of these cliffs, this plant would not exist. So it was specially developed for this habitat; it is remarkable.”

According to the California Native Plant Society, the talus fritillary has two disjoint populations, one in the hills south of Livermore and one around San Benito Mountain. Santore says there is a population in herbarium collections in the Monterey area, but to his knowledge no one has seen them in a long time.

“One of the populations is on private land,” he says. “There’s some guy in east Alameda County and he’s got cattle out there. And we went there and the cattle had run up the slope. You step on this stuff and it starts moving, starts rolling down. It’s basically like stepping on a pile of sand. So you can imagine what a 1,500 pound cow would do. That could easily be wiped out by some guy’s bad decisions. I mean he doesn’t give in. I’m sure he’s like a trumper. Maybe he’s even the type of guy who fills up his libs just to spite him – 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. Sometimes he pauses awkwardly, sometimes he talks about his guest. Nonetheless, he speaks with an inspiring tone of reverence and authority on a variety of plant topics, from selection pressures on a single rare buckwheat species to the geological ascent of flowering plants.

Santore’s perspective from outside of academia allows him to approach plant ecology with a mixture of harsh evolutionary science and an off-kilter form of humor and wonder (you’ll find it hard not to describe Italian cypresses as “butt plug trees.” describe). That, in turn, got him interviews with botanical giants like Dr. Contributed by Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

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

To judge Santore from a traditional academic, I spoke to Chris Pires, dean of the International Plant Science Center and chief science officer at the New York Botanical Garden. After all, two hundred thousand YouTube subscribers do not guarantee scientific accuracy. Pires appeared on Santore’s podcast in September 2021 to talk about monocot taxonomy.

“It’s like reaching out to an MC Hammer on Twitter or something,” says Pires. “Of course they are not experts and specialists with a doctorate. But when they get interested in science and bring a new group of people to the table, I find that exciting. So that’s the spirit I appreciate about Joey, even if his style isn’t for some people. It’s good. There are other people out there for them.” (Hint: Santore is more of a plants expert than almost all celebrities. No shade on MC Hammer.)

Santore’s impact on a younger generation is palpable. JoeJoe Clark is Assistant Park Steward at the Napa County Regional Park & ​​Open Space District and Conservation Technician at the Sonoma Ecology Center. Clark works with state park visitors each week, trying to translate nature into the urban mindset. “One thing about Joey is that he’s a straight shooter,” Clark says. “He’s just not a filter. When people who are definitely in the role of science have a shell, he breaks it. He has no record. He’s more of 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 life sciences technician for the US Forest Service’s PacFish/InFish Biological Opinion Monitoring Program in Logan, Utah, Santore’s videos helped determine a career path. After earning his bachelor’s degree in marine biology, he applied for a variety of seasonal jobs in the aquatic and plant sectors. Over the winter, waiting for answers, he discovered Crime payswatch Santore videos almost every day.

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“It made me 200 times more curious,” he says. Santore inspired him to download books from the file sharing website Genesis of the library and create flashcards to learn the characteristics of plant families. “I think it helped me feel more confident that I wanted to move towards the plants and more excited to explore them on my own, just walking around and photographing everything. And it also fueled an obsession with iNaturalist, as well as a place to collect all my photos.” As the recruitment season drew to a close, Van Dyke settled into his current job in forest service, where he works 40 hours a week roamed streams in the Intermountain West and identified plants.

“I often look at them [videos] while I’m going to sleep, and he kind of lulls me to sleep. If I can’t fall asleep I can watch an interesting video I think. I wouldn’t recommend it if you have trouble sleeping. There are much more soothing voices.”

Mandela Parkway

When I first met Joey Santore, he asked me to meet him near his then home in West Oakland in the spring of 2021. Standing on the Mandela Parkway, I noticed that the landscaping was obscenely complicated for a West Oakland city block. When Santore arrived 15 minutes later, I was engrossed in a feast of perennials, shrubs and small trees. I noticed he was wearing leather gloves and after saying hello he got out and started pulling weeds as traffic rushed by on either side of the median.

It turns out that in recent years Santore has been involved in guerrilla
planted the park. About four blocks are heavily planted, but his work can be seen the entire mile-long stretch from 12th to 34th Streets. The long median is a mix of native plants and Mexican cloud forest plants that can thrive in the Bay Area’s Pacific air. He wanted to try to grow Fritillaria falcatabut could not gather any seed from it.

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

Santore no longer runs freight trains. He makes enough money Crime pays, botany doesn’t to travel around and look at plants all day long. With recent episodes on the island of Hispaniola and Shasta County, west Texas, east Montana, the Dakotas and South Africa, it’s hard to remember when Santore is dormant. When I left him, he was still weeding a rhizome-like Peruvian nightshade from his streak on Mandela, about a block from where we started.

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