Conservatory of Flowers
San Francisco, California
July 2008

This 12,000 square foot conservatory, in Golden Gate Park, first opened to the public in 1879. It’s the oldest public conservatory in the United States. It closed in 1995, underwent a major restoration, and reopened in 2003.

exterior view

The outside gardens and the exterior of the conservatory are beautiful. I really love the classic, old-European look of the building.

Inside, it is much smaller than I expected, but crammed with plants. When you walk in, the path goes left and right because this scene is about three feet from the entrance. You can clearly see the back wall only about twenty feet away, but the density of plants in between is amazing.

interior scene

The path circles this center planting. The planting bed along the outside wall is only about 2 feet wide but contains some interesting plants like this palm.

spiny palm

The pathway around this central room is beautiful and functional. I expected the metal to be slippery when wet but it didn't seem to be a problem.

greenhouse pathway

One wing contains a pergola and a collection of nicely grown by fairly ordinary tropical plants. The point of this wing wasn't really clear to me. There's an interpretive sign that talks about Victorian Pot Culture but I wasn't sure if this was meant to show potted plants common in the Victorian era or what. To be really interesting the room needs either more interpretation or a more interesting selection of plants.

pergola room

The other wing solves one of these problems. It has an incredible selection of plants. The Conservatory boasts having one of the country's largest collections of orchids from high elevation tropics and this is where they are displayed. The diversity of them is really something to see. When I think of orchids, it's hard not to think of corsages and other large, showy flowers. Here most of the flowers are small and intricate, with interesting groth forms and beautiful foliage. Not typical orchids at all.

orchid display

There is also a large collection of carnivorous plants, especially Nepenthes the high elevation Asian tropics. I was astounded at the diversity of color, size and form that the pitchers of these plants can take.

nepenthes pitchers

In the center of this wing is a small pool with an interesting array of aquatic plants.

aquatic display

The collection features nearly 2,000 species of plants from tropical forests around the world. Unfortunately there is not a single plant label to be found. I found this extremely disappointing. There are a few nice interpretive signs but overall the educational message was totally missing. Some people may enjoy walking through and just oohing and aahing over the beautiful and unusual plants but I was disappointed.

The other problem for me was the lack of security. I saw a woman picking orchid flowers like she was in her own garden, and a child breaking off Nepenthes pitchers to see what was inside. If public gardens are to be taken seriously as "living museums" they need to act as if their collections are valuable. If they are valuable, you must protect them and interpret them. I was very disappointed that the Conservatory did neither.

I expected to spend a couple of hours, but it only took us about 30 minutes to see all we wanted to see. The outside of the Conservatory is beautiful, and there is an amazing collection of plants inside, but I expected more.

To see more photos of the Conservatory, click
here to visit the website of the Conservatory of Flowers.

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