Noe Valley Voice July-August 2004

Family Adventures Close to Home:
An Afternoon Idyll at the Conservatory of Flowers

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

"What are you, nuts?" my husband asks when he learns that I'm taking our son, Miles, 8, and his buddy Sam, 7, to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. He warns me about overturned plants, broken glass, bored boys, and maybe worse.

"They'll love it," I reply. I conjure up an image of Victorian peacefulness; an afternoon spent calmly appreciating the wonders of nature.

On this weekday afternoon, parking is easy to find near the tennis courts across JFK Drive from the Conservatory, which glows in the sunshine, elegant and white on the slope above the elaborately planted flower beds. Originally erected in Golden Gate Park in 1878, the ornate Victorian greenhouse was so damaged by a 1995 windstorm that it was closed for what turned out to be eight years. After a painstaking renovation, it was reopened to the public in September 2003.

The boys tear across the lawn, drawn toward the garden's sprinklers as if the spitting water were a magnet.

"Don't get wet," I call as the boys dance through the spray.

"We're just misty," Miles calls back.

"Mist is good for plants," Sam adds.

We step into the warm entryway of the museum and study the ecological timeline on display there for about a half a second before the boys zip through the swinging doors and head straight to the Aquatic Plants room, where Sam, who has visited the Conservatory before, promises that we'll see a lily pad strong enough to hold a full-grown human. Not wanting to leave such a temptation to chance, I scurry after the boys at a decidedly un-Victorian pace.

The room is warm and humid, like the tropics. We squeeze past a gaggle of tourists and crouch at the clear wall of the shallow pool so we can examine the strong underside of the Victoria amazonica, or giant water lily, whose veins are indeed thick enough to support its six-foot diameter, but I'm not so sure about a full- or even half-grown human. I notice that Miles is inching toward the edge of the pool, eager to test the lily pad's strength.

"Don't even think about it," I warn.

"I wasn't," he says.

I draw the boys' attention to a beetle, trapped in the pink sac of a carnivorous Nepenthe plant, where it will be dissolved by the plant's digestive juices.

"It's like our Venus flytrap at school," Sam says.

"But better," Miles says. "Look at the size of the bug it eats."

Ann Ziolkowski, the operations manager, explains that the beetles make their own way into the Conservatory, where they meet their gruesome fate. "It wasn't planned that way," she says. "It was just good luck." Unless you're a beetle.

In the Highlands Tropics room, we stop to look at the Dracula plant, so named because of its ghoulish appearance when viewed from certain angles.

"I can't see it," Miles complains, sticking his face inches from the plant. "I still can't see it. I still can't...yikes!"

He recoils as a bloodthirsty visage reveals itself to him. He's in such a hurry to get away that he misses the room's mist shower, which feels like a high-end spa treatment. I turn my face toward the nozzles and picture my pores smooth, the crow's feet around my eyes undetectable.

In the main reception room, the boys examine the display case of botanists' instruments. The tools from the mid-19th century, which was the golden age of botanical exploration, include a hand-tooled brass compass, elegant blown-glass jars housing fragile specimens, dazzlingly colorful pinned butterflies, and pages of elegantly scripted notes and letters. Juxtaposed next to the laptop, satellite phone, Federal Express box, and Palm Pilot that represent today's scientific must-haves, the antiques recall the days of magnifying glasses, veiled pith helmets, and the global sensation that the discovery of new plant species created.

"That laptop is the only valuable thing in this whole place," Sam says, puncturing my Victorian fantasy world.

"What about the plants?" I ask him.

"Maybe if there were plant crooks," Sam says. "But what are you going to do with a plant after you steal it?"

The boys flop onto a flat rock and contemplate the towering, century-old Philodendron speciosum that winds through the display of "economic plants" that produce cinnamon, pineapple, and vanilla. Colorful squares of light from stained-glass panels play across the boys' arms and faces as they point their fingers in the air, attempting to trace the tangled path of the philodendron's vines as they rise up to the domed ceiling.

We make our way to the Potted Plants room, where the boys sit, whispering and giggling, on a green marble bench set inside a pergola that's hung with orchids. I wander the room, examining the seemingly limitless permutations of orchids on display. Some are so garishly colored that they look plastic. Others are sublime and nearly translucent. Except for the occasional giggling from the pergola, the half-dozen or so visitors in the room are hushed, amazed by the variety that a single species can display.

"They're like people," an older woman whispers to her companion. "Always surprising, sometimes ugly."

I notice the boys creeping on hands and knees across the slate floor of the room. Their destination appears to be an oversize urn planted with a lush display of ferns and orchids. I read in my guidebook that the urn is from San Francisco's 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. But it's not history luring the boys--it's the frieze of naked cherubs dancing along the planter's border.

Miles extends a finger, attempting to flick away the fig leaf that is the lone nod to modesty on the figure. Sam's hand is clamped over his mouth, but it doesn't help. Even though the fig leaf remains firmly in place, both boys dissolve into fits of laughter.

I decide to take a Victorian approach to preventing the boys from touching the urn again.

"You know about the legend of the urn, don't you?" I ask them, lowering my voice to a whisper for effect. "Those little boys were alive once, but this greenhouse is under an evil spell. After they touched the enchanted plant, they were frozen in time and transported to the urn."

They boys' eyes grow wide as they inch away from the cherubs.

"They can only escape when the moon is full," I continue, pleased with my dark tale. "Then they dance among the orchids until one of them inevitably touches a plant and they're trapped again."

"Mooommm," Miles says. "That's not true."

"It could be," I say.

Sam, who apparently is training to be a detective when he grows up, says, "But they're all exactly alike. Were they, like, double triplets or something?"

"Maybe that's part of the spell," I say.

"She's making it up," Miles whispers to Sam. "She's always doing stuff like that."

Nevertheless, my story spooks them sufficiently that we're soon outside in the cool afternoon sunshine, where the boys roll around on the lawn in front of the Conservatory.

"You know what else is really great about the Conservatory of Flowers?" Sam says. "It's close to the playground with the giant purple climbing structure."

With that, we leave Victoriana behind for a few hours of 21st-century fun in the park's Children's Playground.


The newly restored Conservatory of Flowers, located on the eastern end of Golden Gate Park, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for seniors, students, and youths 12 to 17; $1.50 for kids 5 to 11; and free for children under 5. On the first Tuesday of the month, it's free for everybody.

Weekdays are the best time to visit with kids, so you have lots of room to move around. (My friend Cindy took her two boys to the Conservatory on a crowded weekend day, and her experience was more gothic horror than Victorian fantasy.) Another mom advises that younger kids may have more fun playing around outside than keeping their hands to themselves inside the museum--an impossible task for the under-5 set.

The Conservatory offers docent-led tours and cool group activities such as scavenger hunts geared toward youth groups. Check the web site for details and reservations: Or call 415-666-7001.

If you're riding Muni from Noe Valley, take the 24-Divisadero bus to the 5-Fulton, which stops at the Arguello Gate, just behind the Conservatory of Flowers.