Located in San Francisco, California, the Conservatory of Flowers is a botanical garden and greenhouse housed inside the oldest building in Golden Gate Park. As the park’s most-visited attraction, the Conservatory strives to connect people and plants, highlighting the foliage of a variety of world ecosystems.
The burgeoning urbanization of the Industrial Revolution brought a need for natural open spaces within cities, and with it, an increased public interest in the study of plant sciences. As a result, the popularity of the greenhouse or conservatory as a fixture in urban parks and on private estates skyrocketed in the late 19th century. Wealthy North American aristocrats frequently purchased greenhouse kits and erected them on their estates, filling them with rare and exotic plants gathered from around the world.
During the mid-19th century, James Lick, a wealthy American businessman, ordered parts for a greenhouse to be built on his Santa Clara estate, but passed away before its construction, and as such, the parts remained unassembled. In 1877, the kit was purchased from Lick’s estate and presented to the city of San Francisco for use as a fixture in Golden Gate Park. The city’s Parks Commission hired Lord and Burnham, a New York City greenhouse manufacturer, to oversee the construction of the facility, which opened to the public in 1879.
The Victorian structure’s unique wood construction has made it highly susceptible to damage by accidents and natural disasters, including several major fires and a 1933 structural failure that resulted in a 13-year closure of the facility. Ironically enough, it has survived most of San Francisco’s major earthquakes intact, including the city’s historic 1906 quake, during which the Conservatory’s grounds served a sanctuary for displaced residents. After 1995 windstorms destroyed much of the building’s glass structure and plant life, the World Monuments Fund placed the Conservatory on its endangered monuments watch list. $25 million was raised for repairs in conjunction with the Save America’s Treasures program, part of Hillary Clinton’s Millennium Council initiative, leading up to the 2003 reopening of the facility. Much of the structure’s original wood architecture was replaced as part of the renovations, as an effort to safeguard the building from future damage.
The Conservatory is divided into four main galleries, showcasing more than 1,700 plant species from a variety of world regions.
The Highland Tropics Gallery is one of only four of its kind in the United States, mimicking the clouded forests of Central and South American highland mountaintops. Mosses and tree ferns line the recreated forest’s floor, while impatiens and rhododendrons grow over rocks. An impressive collection of high-altitude orchid species is also highlighted, including many epiphytic variants like the Dracula orchid. In the Lowland Tropics Gallery, light rain is created to invoke the atmosphere of a lush jungle, with cacao pods, coffee berries, and tropical fruits growing from tree branches. The gallery is home to the Conservatory’s oldest plants, including its century-old Cycads, primitive gymnosperms dating back to the prehistoric era.
The Aquatic Plants Gallery features large pools simulating the flow of tropical rivers, with an ornate Victoria amazonica water lily sculpture hanging above. Colorful water lilies and lotus plants adorn the ponds during the summers, along with bromeliads, hibiscus, orchids, and pitcher plants. A Potted Plants Gallery honors the Conservatory’s Victorian roots, following the style of early European plant collectors’ greenhouses. A variety of rare flowering plants are displayed throughout the garden in unique decorative urns and pots from around the world, including Javanese palm pots, Indian copper pots, and an historic urn preserved from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. A special exhibit gallery also hosts biannual rotating displays.
Ongoing Programs and Events
Docent-led educational tours are available for students in grades 3-5, introducing participants to the Conservatory’s plant collections and their adaptation and survival strategies. Educational materials for self-guided tours for groups of all ages are also available.
The popular Botanicals and Brews Beer Garden series brings San Francisco’s top craft brewers to the Conservatory every third Friday for a social evening of food, fun, and flowers. After dark, the building becomes a canvas for Photosynthesis, an electric light collaboration with the Obscura Digital design studio and Illuminate, the nonprofit arts group behind the city’s famed Bay Lights. Also held monthly is the Murder at the Conservatory series, inviting guests to solve a self-guided historical mystery hidden among the gardens. Periodic Conservatory Curiosities are held on the Palm Terrace, showcasing demonstrations and conversations about natural ecosystems and the uses of plants in everyday life. An annual Gala Under Glass Ball serves as a benefit evening, with themes playing on flowers in the collections.
100 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, Phone: 415-831-2090
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