Conservatory Of Flowers – San Francisco's Permanent Flower Show

The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco, a masterpiece of Victorian architecture, is the oldest glass and wood conservatory in the USA and the oldest building within Golden Gate Park. Its history stretches back to the 1870s when an eccentric San Francisco millionaire (the city was brimming with them at the time) had the notion of recreating a bit of jolly old England by building a replica of the conservatory in London's Kew Garden.

He died before it was finished, but luckily the Conservatory of Flowers is a monumental home to thousands of flowers, including 10,000 specimens of rare and endangered species. Today, the Conservatory is a place where horticultural societies, botany students, and young plant enthusiasts gather to study and to ensure the longevity of living museums and conservatories.

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Conservatory of Flowers – a San Francisco History

Conservatory of Flowers

During the 19th century, conservatories were common among wealthy North American aristocrats. Rich Americans built greenhouses and glass rooms on their estates as a status symbol. Tropical plants were shipped at great expense from around the world by explorers and botanists.

In around 1875 eccentric millionaire James Lick (at that time the wealthiest man in California) had the glass and wood structure of the Conservatory of Flowers shipped from Ireland around Cape Horn. He was planning to build as his own private estate. Unfortunately, Lick died before it was completed, and the building remained in crates and was forgotten about.

In 1877, Lick's trustees put the conservatory building up for sale. It was purchased by a group of prominent San Franciscans who donated it to the city. The donors included Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, and Charles Crocker, a railroad magnate. The Conservatory opened to the public in 1879; it was an instant hit and became the most visited location in the Golden Gate Park.

The 5 Galleries in the Conservatory of Flowers

1. Aquatic Plants Gallery

Aquatic Plants Gallery

The pools in the Aquatic Plants Gallery recreate the flow of a river winding through the tropics with carnivorous pitcher plants, orchids, and bright heliconia (false bird-of-paradise) and large, colorful hibiscus.

See giant taro leaves and the hundreds of flowering bromeliads line the pond. Look up to see a sculpture of a Victoria amazonica water lily suspended in mid-air. These tropical plants, including the lotus plants, and water lilies grow in ponds during the summer months when the warm, water conditions are perfect.

2. Highland Tropics

San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers is one of only four gardens in the USA to feature a Highland Tropics display. The display mimics the tropical mountaintop's climate with misty forests of tropical moss, colorful impatiens, and African violets.

Like a tropical rainforest, majestic Rhododendrons and ferns emerge from the forest floor. Also featured in the collection are delicate high-altitude orchids and epiphytes; plants that grow on other plants, like the Dracula orchids.

3. Lowland Tropics

Lowland Tropics

A light rain falls on the canopy of majestic palms in the lush jungles of the Lowland Tropics Gallery. An enormous kapok tree, (they can grow to 230 feet) fills the forest floor. Orchids and water cascade around the tropical kapok tree; often grown for it's fiber that is spun into a water-resilient fabric.

The fragrance of sweet jasmine fills the air and tropical fruits hang heavy from the branches. The tropical garden is a paradise and is home to several centenarians; the towering Imperial Philodendron, a pygmy date palm tree is from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, and 100-year old cycads (palms); a primitive gymnosperm pre-dates even the dinosaurs. The oldest cycad fossils are 245 million years old!

4. Potted Plants

This gallery pays homage to the Conservatory's Victorian roots when plant collectors stored their tropical treasures in glass greenhouses to protect them from cold climates. See rare flowering plants in an assortment of decorative urns and planters from around the globe; copper containers from India, palm pots from Java, ceramic pots from Burkina Faso and a century-old urn from San Francisco's 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

5. Special Exhibits Gallery

The Special Exhibit Gallery features changing displays like prehistoric landscapes, carnivorous plants, and gardening trends. This is where local gardeners can learn about current horticultural trends like aquascaping, living walls, or how to build a terrariums with recycled materials.

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Disasters & Reconstruction

1906 earthquake camping at the park

The Conservatory has seen its share of accidents and natural disasters. In 1883 a boiler explosion damaged the dome. Millionaire Charles Crocker came to the rescue: he spent $10,000 on its restoration; the dome was raised six feet and the eagle on top was replaced with Saturn, the ancient Roman god of agriculture.

Much to everyone's surprise, the 1906 earthquake and fire did not damage the building. However, the area leading up to the Conservatory, known as Conservatory Valley, became a temporary tent city, housing refugees who escaped the devastation. (Photo above.)

In 1918 the dome and one of the rooms of the conservatory burned. In 1933 structural problems caused a thirteen-year closure. But the most devastating damage was done by a wind storm in 1995. Winds up to 100 mph shattered over 3,000 panes of glass and destroyed thousands of plants. Forty percent of the glass smashed, a portion of the rare plants were lost, and the building had to be closed.

In 1998, the World Monuments Fund placed the Conservatory on the 100 Most Endangered World Monuments list. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was launched and the publicity led to a fundraising campaign that raised $25 million dollars for its rehabilitation. The Conservatory reopened in 2003.

Since reopening in 2003, over two million visitors have visited the Conservatory, including thousands of school children on free educational tours. Hundreds of couples annually get married here — one of the most romantic spots in the city.

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