San Francisco’s magestic Conservatory of Flowers is the Victorian Crown Jewel of Golden Gate Park.
By day, the Conservatory is a light-filled plant wonderland bustling with tourists, schoolkids and busy staff. Most nights, it sits empty - but we arranged for a private, after dark small group visit with two very special guides.
Originally discovered in boxes amongst the possessions of the eccentric Gold-Rush era businessman James Lick, the wealthiest man in California at the time, the ornate glass house was a sort of DIY kit, and had never been assembled. Donated to the city after his death, it opened to the public in 1879.
The building was quiet and glowing softly in the evening chill as we arrived. We gathered in the Orchid Gallery for a glass of wine and an introduction to the evening’s topic: “Sex and Survival in the Tropics.”
Our guides for the evening, Thea and Connie, divided the subject matter between them, and gave us a quick introduction to the history of conservatories and glass houses and their role in preserving exotic and rare specimens brought home from far flung explorations.
Moving indoors into the dimly lit heat of the Aquatic Plants Gallery, we gathered by the Amazonian lilies and carnivous pitcher plants to learn about strangler figs and the difference between sex (the survival of the individual) and survival (the endurance of the species).
Exotic orchids and other epiphyes cling to the walls and trees in both the balmy heat of the Aquatics Gallery and the chill of the Highland Tropics Gallery, designed to emulate life high in the mountains. High-altitude orchids thrive here in what is one of only four such galleries in the US under the careful conservation of a diligent and mostly unseen crew.
In the Potted Plant Gallery, next to a historic urn dating to San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, we were handed red tulips so that we could get an up close and hands-on look at the floral naughty bits.
The gloom of the semi-darkened building made points of brightness like this orchid pop out from the greenery.
We ended our evening with a peek at the Conservatory’s new Playland at the Beach-inspired exhibit, with miniatures and model trains representing the city’s famous - and long gone - beach-side amusement park.
Photo Credits, top to bottom: Photos 1, 2, 4 and 6 by Neil Girling. All others by Atlas Obscura.
DO IT YOURSELF
The Conservatory of Flowers is open Tues-Sun, 10am - 4:30pm. Last entry is at 4pm. After hours and other educational tours can be arranged by special appointment. The Playland at the Beach exhibit runs through April 15, 2012.
WE’D LIKE TO THANK THE CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS AND OUR TWO WONDERFUL GUIDES FOR HELPING MAKE THIS EVENING HAPPEN, AS WELL AS EVERYONE WHO JOINED US!
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