Dracula. Dinosaurs. Chocolate. Party Time.
One of those words is probably (read: definitely) enough for me to be interested in what you’re selling, never mind all of them together in one place. This magical place where dreams come true is none other than the Conservatory of Flowers. Didn’t see that one coming, eh?
But no, it’s true. Right there in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is the closest you’ll come to traveling back in time on your lunch hour. Seemingly stripped from the pages of a Wharton novel, the white washed Victorian style, glass paneled dome towers above gently sloping hills- expertly manicured and filled with perfect, color coordinated flowers. All you’re really missing is your top hat and cane.
There are a bunch of facts/honors I can throw at you about this little gem: it is the oldest structure in Golden Gate Park, the oldest wood and glass conservatory in North America, one of the largest conservatories in the United States, one of the only Victorian-era greenhouses in the U.S., it’s a city, state and national historic landmark, etc. But the very best of these is this: it was rated one of the top 5 best first date locations in San Francisco.
First dates are tricky so we can all but agree that the Conservatory has enough to see that awkward silences won’t be too awkward, enough going on that conversation topics won’t be lacking and enough beauty that romance isn’t out of the question. So, no matter who you’re traveling with, chances are you’ll have a good time.
But if that’s still not enough to convince you to visit, how about this:
They have Venus Fly Traps that eat meat.
I’ll just leave that there.
The Conservatory of Flowers is both botanical garden and greenhouse and home to roughly 1700 species including rare plants and tropical flowers. It’s had quite a tumultuous history, including but not limited to: a boiler explosion, a wind storm and a fire. Surprisingly, the devastating earthquake of 1906 wasn’t an issue (take that natural disaster plant killers!).
At a time when greenhouses and the importing of exotic plants was de rigeur, a wealthy gentleman named James Lick purchased a conservatory kit (if everything were that easy) for one of his estates near San Jose, but sadly passed before he saw his plans come to fruition. Instead, the pieces of the building, still in crates, were purchased years later by a group of (more) wealthy gentlemen and donated to the city of San Francisco. It opened in 1879.
Good times were had by all until the aforementioned fire in 1883 partially destroyed the building. Another fire in 1913 followed by more than a decade of closure in 1933 for structural restorations occurred over the years, but it was the Great Windstorm of 1995 that shattered nearly half of that gorgeous glass dome and landed the Conservatory on the World Monument Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Places, right alongside ancient Asian temples. Poor guys just can’t catch a break. Many rare plants perished and more were injured, forcing the Conservatory to close to the public until 2003, after a multi-million dollar restoration.
Fast forward to present day and the O.G. of Golden Gate Park is alive and well and gorgeous as ever. Step through the front door and into what appears to be a jungle, complete with heat and humidity. You’ve actually arrived at the Lowland Tropics room, one of four eco-systems represented at the Conservatory. Wasting absolutely no time, you’re greeted by a small, yet colorful plant called Alternanthera Ficoidea, or as they like to call it, Party Time.
I kid you not our dear one reader (hi Mom!), someone was really getting their money’s worth out of that botany degree when they named that one.
A palm tree from the Panama Pacific World Exposition of 1915 towers above, offering insanely pretty views of the almost 60 foot tall glass ceiling. This room is also home to chocolate, vanilla, coffee and let’s face it everyone’s favorite: allspice plants, which can only ever be a good thing. Fun fact: the panes are now washed white on the outside to protect the inhabitants below.
Move on down to the Highland Tropics room where the climate cools slightly to mimic everything from the tropical mountain tops of Peru to the forest floors of Southeast Asia. Also there’s an orchid named Dracula and ferns older than dinosaurs. I’ll let that marinate for a second. DINOSAURS!
Next up, the Aquatic Plants Gallery where water lillies and my all time favorite looking fruit, the pineapple, call home. Brightly colored hibiscus dot the landscape which, as this is an educational visit as well as an aesthetically pleasing one, I learned have many uses other than looking pretty to my eyes. Hibiscus can be used to flavor hot and cold tea, they are eaten as a delicacy in Mexico and perhaps most importantly, can be used to indicate whether a woman is eligible for marriage. Cue: The More You Know.
After Aquatic Plants, meander over to the Potted Plants Gallery, which houses the Bulbophyllum echinolabium, an orchid that both looks and smells like rotting meat. Some even go so far as to describe the scent as strong as a stink bomb (I’m really selling this room, right?). Not far is the Pachira aquatica, also known as the money tree (I wish) and some stunningly beautiful orchids.
Finally you’ve made it to the special exhibit, which rotates every so often. When I visited they had a delightful exhibit on tropical island survival. Learning things like where to find clean water in unexpected places (bamboo), procure a defense against hostile natives and the occasional large pineapple (obviously you will fashion a snare from a vine), how to climb a coconut tree (slowly) are things that had been on my to do list for some time now. I’ve seen enough Gilligan’s Island repeats to know that this is stuff you should just have in your knowledge arsenal, like picking a lock or hot wiring a car.
After your visit through the tropics, there’s still more to enjoy on the outside. The grounds are ripped right from a postcard, filled to the brim with picnickers, tiny dogs and tourists, making for some excellent people watching. I think the only thing missing is some type of flower themed bakery serving up delicious things with Conservatory friendly names like PALMier, Lily Pad Linzer Torte, Dracula’s Danish… I could go on all day, but those first three are on the house, COF.
But they do offer free admission for all on the first Tuesdays of the month.
The Conservatory of Flowers is located in the gorgeous Golden Gate Park, and is open Tuesday – Sunday. Free tours are given multiple times per day. There is free street parking near the entrance.
100 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco.