June 1st, 2008
San Francisco: Conservatory of Flowers

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.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers
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.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

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.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

I am satisfied being astonished at the variety of plants that exist on our planet. Dr. Seuss couldn’t make this stuff up.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

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.

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

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

13 Responses to post “San Francisco: Conservatory of Flowers”

  1. From Michelle:

    Oh, my gosh! That conservatory is AMAZING. I am now adding that to my top 5 list of places I want to visit.

    I can’t believe such a treasure was almost lost. Good thing people came to their senses and saved it!

    And look at that pitcher plant – Amazing! They are so alien looking.

    The Conservatory of Flowers was incredible and there is even more to see in Golden Gate Park. Stay tuned for additional installments. — mss

  2. From Jan:

    Looks like you had a great trip. I have always been fascinated by the Victoria amazonica since I saw it in a picture as a young child. Great post.

    Always Growing

    Apparently they can support the weight of a small child. They are amazing. — mss

  3. From Annie in Austin:

    Welcome back! It must have been very difficult to return from a ‘normal’ place to this sweltering city, MSS. Keeping all the window blinds closed against the sun is my equivalent to whitewash, I guess!

    The conservatory building looks wonderful and how amazing that the philodendron survived. If I ever get to San Francisco this will have to be on the sightseeing list.

    But the pitcher plants? Vendors had dozens of similar plants for sale at Flora-Rama earlier in spring at Zilker Park. They may not be inexpensive but the are attainable if you get a hankering for growing something weird.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    PS How is your white ginger doing? I do not want you to be without this plant so let me know.

    No. I enjoy looking at these plants but I don’t feel the need to grow them. The white ginger still lives! (I think it’s the only plant you’ve given me that I haven’t managed to kill–but I’m trying hard to keep it alive because I love the scent so much.) –mss

  4. From Sue:

    Stupendous. If I ever get to San Francisco, it’s definitely on my list of places to visit.

  5. From Layanee:

    A beautiful trip! Thanks for taking us along. Love the conservatory and the Dr. Seuss plant comment made me laugh. I always call the large alliums “Alice in Wonderland” plants. On the previous post, your lawn looks cool and inviting! We are barely hitting 75 degrees here in New England but it is quite nice for gardening.

    Whenever I see a collection of plants like this I think Science Fiction/Fantasy writers have pretty undeveloped imaginations. — mss

  6. From Gail:

    What a jewel box, MSS. I don’t think I ever thought about why carnivorous plants were, well meat eaters, thank you for that! I found an old postcard from the St Louis 1904 World’s Fair with a photo of a small woman standing on one of the giant lily pads…I wonder where I filed it!

    I wish people had more opportunity to be amazed by the natural world. Growing up in apartments or in the sterile suburbs doesn’t provide much chance to cultivate that essential sense of wonder. — mss

  7. From Les, Norfolk:

    When I go to a wonderful place like this, it is so easy to suffer species overload. I usually just forget the names, relax and try my best to take in the whole picture and forget about all the parts.

    I did that the first time and the second time I was distracted by sharing the experience with AJM. This time I wanted to see with more informed eyes so that I could get more out of the experience and do a better job of reporting on it. — mss

  8. From cindee:

    All I can think of is WOW that is amazing. I love all those plants. How exciting to visit there.

  9. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Beautiful building and interesting plants.

  10. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    Thanks for giving us a look into this historic treasure and some background on it. Fascinating. I’d love to see it in person someday.

    Your first picture looks like it could be a postcard! It’s gorgeous.

    Thanks. I liked the contrast of the Victorian structure in such an obviously Californian setting. San Francisco is full of wonderful sights for any gardener. What a place to garden in. –mss

  11. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    This is my kind of conservatory! I’m glad the building was saved. I’ve been to SF before but somehow mamaged to miss the conservatory, how careless of me. Must go there again and enjoy the vast collection of plants they have there.

    The Victoria amazonica is also found in one of the conservatories of the botanical garden of Leiden, the Netherlands.

    And also at Kew Gardens. I think the design of the Conservatory of Flowers draws heavily on Kew. — mss

  12. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    Ahhh….thanks for the little blast of cool Pacific air…Fort Worth was most definitely an oven yesterday at almost 100 degrees. That conservatory is a jewel!

    I did not want to come back to Texas. AJM kept saying SF was cold but I kept thinking how perfect it was for walking and working outside. And the plants love it! — mss

  13. From Linda MacPhee-Cobb:

    What an amazing botanical garden! I’m partial to the more exotic plants any how.

    Thanks for all the photos.