San Francisco Treasure #16: Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park

“A cloud forest habitat and several others in a series of climates all their own can be found inside a fairytale palace building erected in the park in 1878-1879.” – Rebecca Solnit in an Infinite City: An Atlas of San Francisco.

Visiting this treasure, the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, feels like one is going back in time. The Conservatory’s brochure shows a picture of Victorian-era residents sitting outside the whitewashed and glass structure, showcasing a building that looks the same today at it did 120 years ago.

Conservatory of Flowers

Built from a legacy kit by architectural firm Lord & Burnham in 1879, this gem of the city looks like why it was constructed – to host plants from exotic locales like Southeast Asia and Central and South Americas. Its central bulbous dome pops out from two long glass and wood greenhouse wings.  This structure houses several climates to host the exotic flora and fauna inside, no match for San Francisco’s foggy, cold climate.

On the day I visited, there was a temporary exhibit, Wicked Plants, inspired by the author Amy Stuart’s New York Times bestseller of the same name, a book dedicated to poisonous, and sometimes murderous, plants.

The Galleries

When visiting this treasure, one can walk leisurely through the four mainstay galleries of the Conservatory.

Lowlands

Lowlands Gallery

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These “lowland” plants grow in rainforest canopies and display roots that suck nutrients from the air rather than the soil. The area is humid, but not hot, one can remain comfortable in the layers required in San Francisco. The plants are large palms with broad leafs. There are a few colorful flowers peaking through with bright red and magenta flowers.

Highlands

Highlands Gallery
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These plants grow at elevations of 3000 to 7000 feet and find lush growth in cloud forests. Most interestingly, these plants are <i>epiphytes</i>. They grow on other plants to take advantage of the home plants location and height – using others to reach towards the sky themselves. This gallery is home to the exotic and brilliant orchids; perfectly symmetrical, stunning flowers that mirror the pollinators they hope to attract.

Aquatic Gallery

Aquatics Gallery

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Arriving in this gallery means full coat and sweater removal as it is damp and hot. A narrow pathway leads visitors around a large pond complete with divine lotus flowers and water lilies. Farms of pitcher plants hang in copious quantities from the ceiling. They are greedy carnivorous plants that will gulp any insect or protein source that happens to wander into their open mouths.

Close to the ground are Bromeliads, which are known as “bucket” plants and provide homes for insects, frogs, and other plants. At the north side of this gallery is a wrought-iron replica of an Amazon water lily to replicate how large the actual flower grows in the wild – up to eight feet in diameter.  This gallery was my particular favorite – the calm lotus in the serene pool in the center was a direct contrast to the hungry pitcher plants strung above.

Potted Plant Gallery

Potted Plants Gallery
This gallery is seasonal, reflecting housebroken plants instead of the wild zoo menagerie from Amazon rainforests and Indonesian cloud forests found in the other galleries. These varieties are resting fat and squat in terra cotta homes. There were a variety of pink flower sthat hung lazy lanterns, fuzzy red flowers begging to be touched, delicate lavender paper flowers strung like paper lanteres, more orchids, and a Zen Japanese screen in the center, framing the gallery.

Wicked Plants

Conservatory of Flowers
This exhibit set the stage of darker Victorian times with Victrola music playing amidst a second more haunted-house soundtrack of creaking doors and cemetery on a dark night winds. The display looked like a normal greenhouse, but artful placards told stories of wives using Oleander to murder their husbands, the tobacco plant being responsible for millions of deaths and the slave trade, and seemingly benign, but deadly houseplants.

Visiting this Treasure

The Conservatory of Flowers is surrounded by a wide green lawn and located near the entrance of Golden Gate Park from the Haight Ashbury side. There is space to sit for coffee, lie in the grass, listen to gypsy musicians, and witness the brides or Quinceañera girls use the grand greenhouse as a backdrop for their stunning costumes. Inside, there are flowers to mimic the later. The Conservatory is a treasure of San Francisco – the past and the exotic are a worthy destination and afternoon retreat.

The Details

  • Conservatory of Flowers web site
  • Hours and Admission: The Conservatory is open Tuesday through Sunday between 10 and 4:30. Admission is $7.00, but $5.00 for residents of San Francisco.
  • The Conservatory’s address is Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, 100 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco, CA, 94118 and phone number is 415-831-2090. Here is the Google Map.
  • Getting There: Take the #21 bus from downtown San Francisco along Market Street all the way to Stanyan and Hayes, which is at the edge of the park. Walk from there into the park about 5 minutes or .3 miles to the Conservatory. It is on the right.

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