San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

Welcome to the Conservatory of flowers!

Visiting the conservatory of flowers is like visiting a fairy land. Parks and gardens foster an appreciation for nature that often instills in visitors a sense of-responsibility for the caring of and protection of the environment.

The Conservatory of Flowersis a greenhouse and botanical garden that houses a collection of rare and exotic plants in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California and it is the oldest building in the park. It was one of the first municipal conservatories constructed in the United States and is the oldest remaining municipal wooden conservatory in the country. For these distinctions and for its associated historical, architectural, and engineering merits, the Conservatory is listed on the National Register and the California Register of Historic Places. It is a California Historical Landmark and a San Francisco Designated Landmark.

Here comes the history of the Conservatory. The history of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park’s begins with eccentric businessman, piano maker and successful real estate investor James Lick. James Lick’s name is familiar to residents and visitors to San Francisco from the James Lick Freeway, James Lick Observatory, James Lick High School, the James Lick Mansion in Santa Clara and many other enduring Bay Area landmarks, sculptures and monuments. In the mid-19th century, James Lick, ordered the greenhouse for his Santa Clara estate. Unfortunately, Lick died before it was erected, and the parts remained in crates, unused for decades. The kit was put up for sale by Lick’s trustees in 1877, and purchased by a group of prominent San Franciscans who offered it to the City. The civic-minded group of donors included Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University and Governor and Senator of California, and Charles Crocker, the industrialist responsible for much of the railroad system in the West. The Conservatory opened to the public in 1879. It was an instant sensation and quickly became the most visited locations in the park.

Since its opening, the building has seen more than its share of accidents and natural disasters. Charles Crocker came to the rescue with $10,000 for the restoration work. During this restoration, the dome was raised by six feet and the eagle finial on top of the dome was replaced with the planet Saturn, likely a reference to the ancient Roman god of agriculture. In 1918, the dome and adjoining room burned again, and in 1933 structural instabilities caused a 13-year closure. The most devastating damage was done by a wind storm in 1995 and as a result, 20 percent of the trees in Golden Gate Park were toppled and wind patterns changed. As a result, a relatively mild windstorm severely damaged the newly exposed Conservatory. Forty percent of the glasses smashed, a portion of the rare plants were lost, and this magical wonderland was closed for several years, leaving a deep hole in the hearts of the public.

In early 1998, the Conservatory was placed on the 100 most Endangered World Monuments list by the World Monuments Fund. The National Trust for Historic Preservation adopted the Conservatory into its Save America’s Treasures program, launched as part of First Lady Hillary Clinton’s Millennium Council project. Publicity from these efforts eventually led to a fundraising campaign to raise the $25 million for the rehabilitation, which included support from the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund. The Conservatory was reopened in 2003 to flocks of visitors who had before only dreamed of rare tropical finds and breathtaking blossoms hailing from across the globe.
The main sights of the conservatory include the Lowland Tropics, Aquatic Plants, Potted Plants, Highland Tropics and Special Exhibits. The luxuriant jungles of the Conservatory that makes up the lowland tropics present a low-key version of the sweltering paradise that promotes the growth of pineapple, starfruit, timber bamboo, horseradish trees, and strawberry guava. The enlightening scene exhibits the beauty of tropical rainforests scattered about South America, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Central America, Southeast Asia, and Central Africa. The Cascading waterfalls greet the foliage surrounding the scene and it includes the stump of an imposing kapok; multicolored fruits; and tantalizing scents that tease the senses. A wide-range of economically utilized plants fills the space as well. Specimens of commonly eaten foods, such as coffee, vanilla, cashew nuts, and chocolate are presented in their natural habitat, as they wildly grow about the gallery. It is here that the oldest and most coveted plants in the collection are situated, including the 100-year old giant Imperial Philodendron, and a host of cycads which thrived before T-Rex ever trampled the Earth’s soil.
The sound of water in motion greets you as you enter the miraculous surroundings of a haven that expresses exquisite samples of aquatic plants hailing from the rivers, lakes and bogs of the lowland tropics. Destinations, such as Borneo, Brazil, and India are represented throughout the gallery. Giant lilies and other flowers float to the surface of glistening pools of water, as inviting glass art and metal-made plant hangings decorate the space and leaves congregate to form natural architectural presentations of green. Victoria Amazonica is one of the largest water lilies in the world and it is one of the primary sights to see in the Aquatic Plants gallery. With leaves outstretching at least six feet in diameter, they have been known to support the weight of a small child. The carnivorous plants in the gallery also bring flocks filled with curiosity.

As the seasons change, so do the displays held at the Potted Plants gallery. Scattered colors decorate the scene, where an assortment of rare flowering plants are presented in an array of ornamental urns and pots that depict the culture and flair of international artistic expression. Some of the containers offering a breath of fresh air, as well as color, also hold history as you pass by the significant urn representing San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which took place in 1915. Additional features to take note of include intriguing copper containers from India, lofty palm pots from Java, the Golden Trumpet from Brazil, the Queen’s Wreath from Central America, and the Tortoise plant.

Humidity and the blanket of warmth escape your grasp as you head into the Highland Tropics gallery, which greets you with a misty welcome. It is the forests and mountaintops of the world that serves as home to the impressive display of orchids, knotted trees, thick moss, and delicate ferns. The Conservatory is proud to deliver one of only four attractions throughout the United States to feature a display regarding the highland tropics. The environment highlights the cloud forests found in Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Vietnam with many of the terrestrial plants originating from Southeast Asia and Chiapas, Mexico. Joining the remarkable orchid collection, you will discover epiphytes, bromeliads, Diviner’s Sage, Poor man’s parasol; Hawaiian tree fern; and the Central African parrot plant.

Throughout the year, special exhibits are offered at the Conservatory of Flowers, which come to life under a series of imaginative, as well as familiar themes and subjects. The special exhibit of summer 2008 was called “The Butterfly Zone,” showcasing a dazzling array of more than 25 species of colorful butterflies, as well as night safaris that let you search with flashlights for nocturnal moths. In May 2005, a corpse flower species, Amorphophallus titanum, bloomed, attracting more than 16,000 visitors.

Since re-opening in 2003, the Conservatory has garnered numerous local, state and national awards.The Conservatory holds talks by renowned authors, including Amy Stewart, author of Wicked Plants and From The Ground Up.

Like a scene emerging from a children’s fairy tale pop-up book, it is the colors, shapes, and presentation of the flowers that draw you closer to this awe-inspiring attraction. With the help of close to 2,000 plant species decorating the exhibits and displays, the Conservatory serves as a botanical beacon, calling attention to the dire need to conserve the very specimens showcased. As you explore the galleries, you will discover a settling spectacle that calms the nerves, invokes thought, and allows your senses to breathe. Visiting the Conservatory is like stepping into a living page of a National Geographic spread as you come across a vibrant mix of color, creativity, and science.


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