As you venture into one of the first buildings situated in Golden Gate Park, you will encounter the oldest remaining municipal wooden conservatory in the United States. As the first public structures of its kind in the country, the Conservatory of Flowers serves as a safe haven for thought and imagination as visitors browse about some of the most exotic-looking blooms, sometimes presenting the beauty of colorful rarities. Highly praised in the world of history, architecture, engineering, and nature, the Conservatory of Flowers has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is considered an intensely valued landmark in San Francisco.

conservatory of flowers

Exploring the Conservatory of Flowers

Like a scene emerging from a children’s fairy tale pop-up book, it is the colors, shapes, and presentation of the flowers that draw you closer to this awe-inspiring attraction. With the help of close to 2,000 plant species decorating the exhibits and displays, the Conservatory serves as a botanical beacon, calling attention to the dire need to conserve the very specimens showcased. As you explore the five galleries filled with sights that challenge your mind, sensations, and sensibilities, you will discover a settling spectacle that calms the nerves, invokes thought, and allows your senses to breathe. If you are interested in what you may discover at the Conservatory, some of the main sights include:

a) Lowland Tropics: The luxuriant jungles of the Conservatory that makes up the lowland tropics present a low-key version of the sweltering paradise that promotes the growth of pineapple, starfruit, timber bamboo, horseradish trees, and strawberry guava. The enlightening scene exhibits the beauty of tropical rainforests scattered about South America, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Central America, Southeast Asia, and Central Africa.

Cascading water falls to greet the foliage surrounding the scene that includes the stump of an imposing kapok tree (native to Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America); multi-colored fruits; and tantalizing scents that tease the senses. A wide-range of economically utilized plants fills the space as well. Specimens of commonly eaten foods, such as coffee, vanilla, cashew nuts, and chocolate are presented in their natural habitat, as they wildly grow about the gallery. It is here that the oldest and most coveted plants in the collection are situated, including the 100-year old giant Imperial Philodendron, and a host of cycads (primitive gymnosperms), which thrived before T-Rex ever trampled the Earth’s soil.

b) Aquatic Plants: The sound of water in motion greets you as you enter the miraculous surroundings of a haven that expresses exquisite samples of plants hailing from the rivers, lakes and bogs of the lowland tropics. Destinations, such as Borneo, Brazil, and India are represented throughout the gallery.

Giant lilies and other flowers float to the surface of glistening pools of water, as inviting glass art and metal-made plant hangings decorate the space. Leaves congregate to form natural architectural presentations of green. Here, one of the largest water lilies in the world, the Victoria amazonica, is one of the primary sights to see in the Aquatic Plants gallery. With leaves outstretching at least six feet in diameter (when fully grown), they have been known to support the weight of a small child. The carnivorous plants in the gallery also bring flocks filled with curiosity.

fernc) Potted Plants: As the seasons change, so do the displays held at the Potted Plants gallery. Scattered colors decorate the scene, where an assortment of rare flowering plants are presented in an array of ornamental urns and pots that depict the culture and flair of international artistic expression. Some of the containers offering a breath of fresh air, as well as color, also hold history as you pass by the significant urn representing San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which took place in 1915. Additional features to take note of include intriguing copper containers from India, lofty palm pots from Java, the Golden Trumpet from Brazil, the Queen’s Wreath from Central America, and the Tortoise plant (also known as the Mexican wild yam).

d) Highland Tropics: Humidity and the blanket of warmth escape your grasp as you head into the Highland Tropics gallery, which greets you with a misty welcome. It is the forests and mountaintops of the world that serves as home to the impressive display of orchids, knotted trees, thick moss, and delicate ferns. The Conservatory of Flowers is proud to deliver one of only four attractions throughout the United States to feature a display regarding the highland tropics. The environment highlights the cloud forests found in Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Vietnam with many of the terrestrial plants originating from Southeast Asia and Chiapas, Mexico. Joining the remarkable orchid collection, you will discover epiphytes, bromeliads, Diviner’s Sage (from Oaxaca, Mexico), Poor man’s parasol (from Central America and Mexico); Hawaiian tree fern; and the Central African parrot plant.

e) Special Exhibits: Throughout the year, special exhibits are offered at the Conservatory of Flowers, which come to life under a series of imaginative, as well as familiar themes and subjects. Visiting the gallery is like stepping into a living page of a National Geographic spread as you come across a vibrant mix of color, creativity, and science.

Brief History of the Conservatory of Flowers

The history of the Conservatory of Flowers dates back to 1876, although the magnificent Victorian glass assemble wasn’t erected until 1879. After the richest man in California passed away in 1876, James Lick left behind the purchase of 12,000 square feet of a Victorian greenhouse fashioned from wood and glass. In 1877, a group of businessmen from San Francisco purchased the Conservatory and decided to donate it to the San Francisco Park Commission. Since this act, the following years brought a hoard of delightful exhibits that grew and grew, as the Conservatory continued to acquire additional floral gems to create a dazzling spread of color, fragrance, and a relaxing atmosphere.

For one painful moment in time, when a reckless storm threatened the allure of the Conservatory in 1995, followed by delayed renovations, this magical wonderland was closed for several years, leaving a deep hole in the hearts of the public. After a $25 million transformation, which allotted $4 million towards revamping existing exhibits, the Conservatory of Flowers was reopened in 2003 to flocks of visitors who had before only dreamed of rare tropical finds and breathtaking blossoms hailing from across the globe.

Contact Information

Location: The Conservatory of Flowers can be found on JFK Drive at the Golden Gate Park.

Phone Number: 415-831-2090

Hours: Tuesday thru Sunday (10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.) with the last ticket sold at 4:00 p.m. The Conservatory is closed on Mondays, with the exception of Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day.

Admission for General Public:

Adults: $9.00
Seniors 65 and over : $6.00
College Students w/ I.D. :$6.00
Youth 12-17: $6.00
Children 5-11: $3.00
(Children under 4 are free)

Admission for San Francisco Residents:

Adults: $6.00
Seniors 65 and over : $4.00
College Students w/ I.D. :$4.00
Youth 12-17: $4.00
Children 5-11: $2.00
(Children under 4 are free)

On the first Tuesday of every month, the Conservatory opens its doors for all at no charge.

Free Programs and Tours: San Francisco public and private schools may enjoy free educational programs from 10:00 am-11:15 am, which allows third and fourth grade classes to take pleasure in a guided tour called “Adaptation: Plant Survivors.” The tour is available on a space-available basis, where advanced reservations are a must. The Conservatory asks that at least one adult chaperone for every seven students are present to ensure the safety of students during the tour.