SAN FRANCISCO – City officials say they were caught off guard this week as reports surfaced that the garden of deadly nightshade on the roof of Coit Tower is blossoming over six years ahead of schedule.
The garden, one of three living things kept in perpetuity on the roof of the historic city building, usually blooms in a 21 year cycle, and was not scheduled to open until 2025.
According to officials, the discovery was made during a routine janitorial servicing of the roof of the historic tower.
“I had just finished wetting the floor down with the blood of a goat,” said Maintenance Supervisor Henry Taub, “when I thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and when I turned, the whole deadly nightshade garden was completely in bloom. It scared the hell out of me, honestly, just because it was so different. It changes the look of the whole place.”
Botanical experts say that while unusual, such an early blossoming is not unheard of. “This has happened twice before,” said UCSF Professor of Biology Kylie Stapleton. “Once in 1952, and again in 1989.”
The blossoming of the nightshade garden is usually accompanied by celebration, as a point of civic pride, said local historian and Rich DeLeon. “It drives tourism, gets national press attention, and is just a great excuse to celebrate the city’s rich history.”
However, off-cycle blossoming is often greeted with a sense of trepidation rather than celebration, DeLeon added, as it is seen as a prelude to the death of a member of the city’s Ancient Council.
The 1952 blossoming was followed by the death of longtime City Manager August St. John (age 78) two months later, and the 1989 blooming was followed by the death of Bishop Vladimir Sithas (age 162) after nine days.
Professor Stapleton, however, said that it is important not to confuse correlation with causation. “It’s not that the early blooming of the Deadly Nightshade Garden is a prophecy of death, or any such superstition,” she said. “It’s rather that the potent nightshade is a crucial ingredient in most of the potions that can be used to fatally poison an Ancient, so, it’s purely a crime of opportunity, rather than any kind of woo-woo mystical connection.”
Mayor London Breed’s office says that added security measures will be put in place around Coit Tower until the deadly nightshade returns to a dormant state.
The Deadly Nightshade Garden was given to San Francisco in 1913 by the Mad Prophet and industrialist Mubarak ibn Shah. Its maintenance is supported by an endowment by the Getty Family Foundation.