Behind The Scenes At The San Francisco Conservatory Of Flowers

The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, built in 1879 and modeled after the Palm House in London's Kew Gardens, is one of the most instantly recognizable buildings in the city. It stands at 250 feet long, 60 feet tall, and encompasses 12,000 square feet.

This is a grainy old photo of the conservatory circa 1887, after a freak snowfall:

And this is what it looked like a few years later, in 1904 (Images via SFPL photo archive):

The conservatory is home to an impressive dahlia garden (the dahlia is the official flower of San Francisco, so named in the 1950s), and is now the oldest wood-and-glass-only greenhouses of its size in the country.

It's weathered some storms: a fire in 1883, the 1906 earthquake, the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, even a storm in 1995 that ripped through the city with 100 mph winds and broke an estimated 40 percent of the building's glass.

This is what the upper dome looks like inside, today:

What you might not have known about the conservatory is that it includes, in addition to its 12,000 square feet of public showrooms, an extraordinary four auxiliary greenhouses and a lath house (an open-air structure with an open shade roof.)

Intrigued by the sight of these other greenhouses lurking out back, we got in touch with one of the conservatory's three full-time horticulturists, Mario Vega, for a tour.

Vega has been working at the conservatory for six years. His official domain at the conservatory is the aquatics garden and the orchids, and on a sunny afternoon last month, he kindly agreed to lead us through the sweaty, sprawling backyard of the conservatory, where all the work happens.

Hidden but crucial, the back greenhouses are unfussily, quietly astonishing.

The first stop was the orchid house (above, right) which lies at the far back (north) side of the conservatory's plot. It is also, said Vega, the building on the property with the most original construction: most of the glass is close to original, and very little of the woodwork and trim has been replaced over the years. 

The orchid house rests at a balmy 80 degrees or so; like the other greenhouses behind the conservatory, temperature and humidity are regulated by a combination of manual roofline vents, side vents for circulation, piped steam heat, and misters or hoses.

The orchid house, like the other back greenhouses, is where plants from the main conservatory come to rest between blooms. Below, a stack of orchids in bloom await their turn in the public conservatory:

The orchid greenhouse is impressive, with hundreds upon hundreds of potted and hanging orchids filling the room. Vega said there were more varieties of orchids in the conservatory's collection than he had even counted.

Many were wall-mounted on the greenhouse's back wall:

Many of the back greenhouses are a little worn around the edges. But, we think, that's part of its charm. Amazingly, the back greenhouses have the much of the same period detailing as the front greenhouse. The orchid house was built in the late 19th century, and two of the other three were installed, Vega thought, some time in the 1950s.

The other houses are set to different temperature and humidity ranges, and supply plants for the aquatics exhibit, the lowland tropics, and the highland tropics, which is the coolest greenhouse on site.

Below, some bromeliads hang out on a wall:

Some of the more remarkable plants in the collection are a highland papaya, a cacao tree with heavy, orange pods, a fruiting coffee tree (the fruit is herbal, and vaguely sweet) and several dormant varieties of Amorphophallis, a tropical flower that produces inflorescence that smells like rotting flesh. (The name, said Vega, is Latin for "shapeless penis.")

Some of the greenhouses are, although very well cared-for, distinctly jungle-like.

After half an hour wandering through the greenhouses, we were a little lightheaded. The array of flora lurking in the quiet back corners of the conservatory is dizzying, especially at the center of an urban setting like San Francisco.

Want to get closer to the plants? Vega said the conservatory accepts volunteers all the time for help in the greenhouses. If you're interested, you can stop by the conservatory for a volunteer application. And, of course, you can always visit the publicly accessible areas of the conservatory for a look at the front end of the botanical operation.  

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Behind the scenes san francisco conservatory of flowers