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Join us as we take an inside look at the Conservatory of Flowers, the temporarily closed historic greenhouse and botanical garden at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
The oldest public wood-and-glass conservatory in North America houses a collection of rare and exotic plants. Construction was completed on the facility — a city, state and national historic landmark — in 1879.
The iconic Victorian glass structure’s beginnings are somewhat shrouded in mystery. James Lick, a California pioneer who made his fortune in real estate, ordered two conservatories for his estate in Santa Clara in the 1870s. Lick died in 1876, before his plans for the conservatories were carried out.
After Lick’s death, his assets were divided between many charitable causes and the Academy of Sciences and the Society of California Pioneers.
The society received 33 tons of glass packed in crates for the unconstructed conservatories. The conservatories were then sold to 27 prominent San Franciscans and local philanthropists, who donated them to the city of San Francisco for public use in Golden Gate Park.
Lick originally purchased two conservatories: One was built in Golden Gate Park, but what happened to the second? Several theories have been floated, including that some smaller greenhouses may have been constructed in the park, but the true answer may never be known.
The conservatory houses five different galleries. Here is how the conservatory describes them:
The Lowland Tropics Gallery: “In the steamy, lush jungles of the Lowland Tropics Gallery, a light rain falls on the canopy of majestic palms. An enormous kapok tree lies on the forest floor while brightly colored orchids and falling water cascade around it. Coffee berries, cacao pods, and tropical fruits hang heavily from branches, and the sweet fragrance of jasmine and Stanhopea orchids mingle in the air. The gallery is also home to the Conservatory’s centenarians, including the towering Imperial Philodendron, a pygmy date palm from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, and 100-year old Cycads, which are primitive gymnosperms that pre-date the dinosaurs.”
The Highland Tropics Gallery: “The Conservatory of Flowers is one of only four institutions in the United States to feature a Highland Tropics display. The gallery mimics the misty cloud forests of tropical mountaintops. Dense mosses, Impatiens, and Gesneriads engulf rocks. Also featured is the renowned collection of delicate high-altitude orchids. Many of these orchids are epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants, including the infamous Dracula orchids that hang throughout.”
The Aquatic Plants Gallery: “The magical pools in the Aquatic Plants Gallery simulate the flow of a river winding through the tropics. The gallery features carnivorous pitcher plants, warm-growing orchids, and brightly painted Heliconia and Hibiscus. Giant taro leaves line the pond and the flowers of hundreds of bromeliads emerge from their water-filled buckets. A sculpture of a Giant Water Lily hangs suspended in the air. The Giant Water Lily, lotus plants, and colorful water lilies grow in the ponds.”
The Potted Plants Gallery: “The Potted Plants Gallery pays homage to the Conservatory’s late 1800s Victorian roots when plant collectors stored their exotic tropical treasures in opulent glass greenhouses to protect them from cold European climates. Rare flowering plants are potted in an incredible assortment of decorative urns and containers from all over the world including copper containers from India, Javanese palm pots, ceramic pots from Burkina Faso and a historic urn from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.”
The West Gallery: “A tranquil space to sit and reflect, featuring ferns from all over the tropical world. Ferns are a fitting focus collection for a Victorian style conservatory given the obsession of the Victorians with fern collection. This gallery features tree ferns, large ferns with trunks, an ancient group of plants that date back to the Jurassic period.”
Watch live: Tour the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park