June 1st, 2008
San Francisco: Conservatory of Flowers
The Victorian Era Conservatory of Flowers is one of the jewels of Golden Gate Park.
During the four days I was in San Francisco, I read that the weather back home in Austin was like a hothouse. That analogy provided a chuckle as I sat in the Aquatic Plants wing of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers and listened to visitor after visitor exclaim, “Oh! It’s hot in here!” Compared with the misty 55-degree weather in San Francisco, the room did feel a bit sultry. However, the Conservatory provides protection that my garden does not receive. Its panes of glass have been whitewashed to prevent the sun from searing the plants. No, Austin weather was not like a hothouse; it was like an oven.
The Conservatory of Flowers is one of those magnificent relics of the Victorian Age. Wandering throughout its rooms (each emulating a different climate), marveling at its architecture or reading its history, I find myself caught up in that thrilling age of discovery and collection. If, as some claim, science is just another religion, then the Conservatory of Flowers is certainly one of its cathedrals.
Plants from all over the world were collected, preserved, examined, and cataloged.
The wood and glass structure is the oldest public conservatory of its type in North America. It opened 1879 and survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. However, it almost didn’t make it to the 21st century. Funding for maintenance was a low priority during the Great Depression and the Conservatory was closed in 1933. In the decades that followed the Conservatory was reopened and underwent various renovations. Then major damage from a windstorm forced it to close in 1995 and it was listed as one of the 100 most endangered world monuments. Had it not been for the efforts of the National Trust’s Save America’s Treasures and then First Lady Hillary Clinton it might have been lost forever. The conservatory reopened in 2003 after a $25 million restoration effort.
During restoration the 100-year-old Philodendron speciosum could not be moved. It remained in the ground and a special structure was built around it to protect it. The 14.5 ton upper dome was lowered down on a crane over it. Special watering systems installed near the ceiling mist the tropical plants at regular intervals.
Even before I began pond gardening, the Aquatic Plants room was my favorite. (This is my third visit to the Conservatory of Flowers). This time I paid special attention to how plants were arranged in the ponds. Although some plants (like the white ginger or the elephant ears) are familiar, I wasn’t making a shopping list. I don’t really want a hothouse of my own.
The huge platters of Victoria amazonica can grow up to six feet across. Even if I could grow them, I can’t imagine them in my pond.
I am satisfied being astonished at the variety of plants that exist on our planet. Dr. Seuss couldn’t make this stuff up.
And, of course, it was fun to look at the various Nepenthes, those carnivorous pitcher plants that resort to eating insects because they grow in soil too poor to support them.
I easily spent the morning in the Conservatory. I could not begin to photograph or even mentally digest the over 1,750 species of plants on display. I also enjoyed just sitting and watching the various children on school trips troop by trying to find answers for their worksheet questions. Every once in awhile they would look up from their assignments and let their sense of wonder carry them away.
by M Sinclair Stevens