Steamy, Opulent and Wonderful
Recently I went to visit the San Francisco Conservatory Of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
The 19th century conservatory is an impressive wood and glass building looking out over the park and all its new summer plantings. The first thing I noticed as we got closer was that the wide beds in front of the conservatory were filled with South African plants like agapanthus, cannas and dietes which immediately made me feel nostalgic. San Francisco and Cape Town have very similar climates so a lot of the plant life is familiar.
We followed other plant lovers out of the cool San Francisco weather into the first of three steamy big rooms, dripping with heat loving plants. Each room contains a pond and varies in heat and humidity depending on plant preferences. I was immediately struck by just how many plants the curators managed to fit into the available space. It was a real tropical jungle in there! Trees were growing and supporting vines, orchids, bromeliads, pineapple lilies and anything else that could fit into hanging baskets whilst ferns, lilies and crotons sprung up by our feet.
In the Lowland Tropics area there was a banana tree in full fruit, so delicious looking I wondered where the monkeys were lurking. We also saw a vanilla orchid vine growing happily in between a cocoa tree and cashew nut-tree. I just loved the carnivorous pitcher plants which obviously love the place and grow everywhere with marvelous abandon.
The Gold Dust Dracaena also caught my eye with its bright orange berries hiding behind its spotted foliage, as did the twisted crotons. I found a little tree there called a flaming bean with a huge, bright scarlet, double frilly flower hanging close to the trunk.
The hotter, steamier room, housing plants from the highland tropics had us wiping our brows in an instant as we ducked under orchids, hanging bromeliads and vines of all descriptions. Orchids were everywhere and I believe the conservatory is home to the largest public collection of orchids in the world. They were hanging from trees and baskets and sitting in pots against the walls and windows, showing off their marvelous shapes and colors.
The conservatory is home to lots of aquatic plants, including the giant Victoria Amazonica, but it wasn’t at full size yet, nor was it blooming when we were there unfortunately. I was very impressed at the number of plants growing over and around the ponds however, ginger lilies, pomegranates, cycads, pitcher plants, bromeliads, ferns and colocasias (elephant ears we like to call them) to name a few. It gave me lots of ideas on how to grow a lot more plants in a smaller space.
When we got to the end room there was an exhibition on how to survive if you’re shipwrecked on a tropical island, explaining which plants can be used for shelter, which you can eat and even which ones provide the best smoke signals for would be rescuers! A wooden octopus kept a few beady eyes on the proceedings and I found a lovely fern with bumpy leaves, aptly called a crocodillus.
My favorite sighting of the day, however, was definitely the imposing black Bat Flower which was in full bloom and which took my breath away. This tropical plant has luscious green leaves and pure black blooms vaguely shaped like flying bats. Its seed pods grow on top and it has long tendrils falling gracefully from the center of its flowers. I had to have one, even though I live in the cool North Bay, so I’ve bought a little seedling which will take a few years to bloom and which I’ll have to nurture far too much, but it will be worth it. To keep it company, I also bought its white brother so I’ll have an eye-catching display if I can coax them into flowering at all.
The steamy temperatures eventually drove us out into the cool gardens of the park but the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers should definitely be on anyone plant lover’s list of things to see in San Francisco, not just once but all through the year as the display changes with the seasons.