Rare plant sleuth
Botanist Toni Corelli takes a close look at epilobium canum, or a common plant with little fiery-red flowers, in her front yard.

From childhood, Toni Corelli knew her heart was in the outdoors.

"I knew I wanted to do work that involved the outdoors and the natural environment," said the Half Moon Bay resident, for whom growing up in the Redwood City hills led her to a career in botany.

That desire blossomed into rich and varied work that took Corelli into intimate contact with just about every green, blossoming, flowering, rooted thing in San Mateo County.

It has also taken her to the halls of academia, behind the controls of heavy machinery, to making a name as an author and into some hotly contested county and Coastside development issues.

But through it all, Corelli says she's just a botanist.

That might not always have seemed the case. She detoured through a first career in finance and then found herself on a political hot seat by surveying the sites of the proposed Wavecrest development and Montara Mountain bypass.

As a girl, she spent a lot of time in the Bay Area hills and the Santa Cruz mountains, and her teenage years in Sunnyvale attending Homestead High School.

Then she attended Foothill College to study ornamental horticulture and plans to go into landscape design.

But then she realized she was more fascinated with plant biology and classification. And she knew design was not her answer.

"I knew I wanted more," she said.

But not immediately. Following the advice of her mother, who "told me to do something practical," she earned a degree in accounting from Foothill and went to work in long-range financial planning with Stanford Medical Center.

She worked there for 10 years, married, supported her husband through school (he is Half Moon Bay psychiatrist Richard Corelli) and had a son, Alex, all while taking occasional botany classes.

After Alex was born, she began volunteering with the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). It works to preserve natural flora; the chapter covered Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

As a volunteer, she led nature walks, taught classes in plant identification, and made lists of the plants in specific natural areas for use by docents. As the rare-plant chair for the chapter, she was the undisputed expert in the counties' over 105 rare and endangered plants.

All the while, Alex was right there. "He'd be in the front pack, or the back pack" over his mother's shoulders, she laughed.

Ultimately she earned a degree in botany from San Jose State University. And when Alex entered school, she became involved with the Peninsula Open Space Trust, cataloguing the inventory of plants of the Skyline area.

Along the way, she found that a comprehensive, illustrated guide to the scores of plants in the area simply did not exist. So, "I took it on myself to write a book."

Begun in 1980 and published in 1985, her small book, "Rare and Endangered Plants of San Mateo and Santa Clara County," included descriptions, photographs, typical habitat and botanical associations.

It filled a void.

"People didn't have a clue what rare plants looked like, or where they occurred," she said. "This is for them to take into the field."

Just like she has done.

She has been contracted to work as an environmental consultant for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, and also for POST, Filoli Gardens in Woodside and the San Francisco watershed.

For each one, she listed plant species and mapped plant communities, with scientific and common names and whether the plant is native, rare or endangered. It all goes to the Department of Fish and Game and park docents.

Corelli has also mapped out similar information for Edgewood County Park, Pescadero Marsh, Bean Hollow beach and Montara Mountain areas.

Currently she is at work on a field guide of the Edgewood Park flora, with Half Moon Bay botanical illustrator Linda Bea Miller. It is due out in January, available through the CNPS.

Edgewood "is a floral hot spot," said Corelli. "You can go there on a spring day and see more than 300 plants and flora at one time."

That almost never happened. At one time there was a plan to build a golf course on the site.

The plan was opposed by the California Natural Plant Society and other groups. Corelli documented the plants and identified rare ones in the area, and wrote a petition to state government to protect them.

Following a year-long battle, the site became a park. Corelli lauds that decision.

"It's not only the fact of all the plants there and that it's a place of beauty," she said, "but the fact that those rare plants don't occur anywhere else."

Her current book, she says, "is a culmination of the work started there in the 1970s, (until) it was preserved."

It's not the only time Corelli has gone to bat for land facing development, though she says it's all in a day's work.

When the North Wavecrest

development was first proposed in the early 1990s, Corelli read the environmental impact report and, she said, noticed that the biological part was "inadequate.'

She did a survey and found a rare plant, the Choris popcorn flower, not documented in the initial EIR.

That resulted in the plant being protected under the California Environmental Quality Act.

She also cast an eagle eye over the Vallemar coastal bluff area, and noticed a plant not seen since the early 1900s - the Linanthus croceus or coast yellow linanthus.

That got that plant listed in the California Native Plant Society's comprehensive inventory.

And she was called upon to map rare and endangered plants at the site of the proposed Montara Mountain bypass, which predated the tunnel.

Despite the controversy, she nixes any political yens.

"I just present the data," she insisted. "I think you have to make too many compromises in politics. I don't want to get involved in politics. Just science."

But when those endangered plants were protected, "it was the highlight of my career. Every (thing) that helps promote the environment is a reward for me."

There are others, too.

Serving as a consultant to the Land and Resources Management Section, the Peninsula arm of the San Francisco watershed, she is working to help research and create fuel breaks or wildfire guards needed in areas where vegetation creeps right up to homes.

The work involves the "brontosaurus," a large mowing machine that Corelli says is "like a large weed-whacker" but which leaves root systems intact so that plants can grow back.

It is an attractive alternative to fire-break clearance that disrupts root systems and "leave huge scars on the landscape," said Corelli.

She is also the curator of two herbariums or plant libraries: the Carl Sharsmith Herbarium at San Jose State University (with 65,000 specimens) and the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve Teaching Herbarium (with about 2,000).

She wrote the section on land plants in the "Natural History of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve' book available at the Moss Beach reserve. And she teaches plant identification through Stanford University continuing education.

Whatever hillside she is trudging up in search of rare plants, she's a happy woman.

"I love my work," she said. "this is me. My office is out there" indicating with a sweep of her arm, the field leading to the oceanside bluffs beyond her window. "That's why I've set up (computer and papers) at my dining room table.

"I hope to make a difference," she said. "In my work, I hope to save everything that's left of natural areas, because they are so valuable. To me and to the future."

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