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Butterfly Exhibit at Golden Gate Park Landmark

Friday September 15, 2006

If one were to choose a building most likely to survive the ages in San Francisco—or any other place, for that matter—it would seem unlikely that a structure made primarily of glass and fragile wood could top the list. 

But there it is, in the green heart of Golden Gate Park—the Conservatory of Flowers, now some 127 years old and well prepared for the 21st century. 

This time of year seems an especially good time to visit. Not only is there a butterfly exhibit through Oct. 29, but the vicinity is sparkling with seasonal outdoor Victorian horticultural displays.  

Built in 1878-79 of materials purchased by civic-minded San Franciscans from the estate of James Lick, the conservatory has recovered from fires, a boiler explosion, earthquake, storms, and periodic closings. 

General deterioration and wind damage in 1995 forced closure for several years of multi-million dollar reconstruction. It reopened in 2003 with new features and plantings well integrated with the old. 

The Conservatory of Flowers—essentially a huge, ornate, public greenhouse—is a singular survivor of the dozens of similar structures that populated California’s public spaces and private estates in the 19th century. 

19th century conservatories housed rare botanical specimens, particularly tropical and subtropical plants “discovered” in and brought back from the increasingly explored and colonized Third World, as well as seasonal displays of tender plants.  

There were once local conservatories built to house orchid collections, ferns, begonias, palms, camellias, gardenias, and practically anything else living that might need to permanently or temporarily shelter under glass in the periodically chilly Bay Area. 

These were truly unusual and exotic places in an era before central heating allowed anyone with a sunny windowsill to successfully grow tender tropicals indoors. 

The Conservatory of Flowers is zoned into five sections, each with its own climate and character. 

Enter through the central, high-domed, Lowland Tropics exhibit, complete with palms and exuberant undergrowth, but also featuring an enormous philodendron, well over a century old, that twines its way nearly to the roof.  

The walls have small, bright, stained glass inserts that cast changing rainbows of color across the foliage. A small, rocky, waterfall chatters away. 

Turn right (east) and you’re in a cooler room with plants from the highland tropics.  

Two ornate wooden and wire cases contain a changing array of rare orchids in bloom. Look down into the central planter area for the red, pink, or orange blooms of vireyas, tropical rhododendrons. 

Beyond, in the aquatic plant room, two large pools form a figure-8, linked by a glass bridge across the narrow neck. The upper pool is slightly raised and has a curved glass side at child’s-eye level where one can see directly into the greenish underwater depths.  

Water cascades over a glass lip to the lower pool. Tropical water lilies with dazzling flowers share surface space with the enormous ribbed pads of the Giant Waterlily, Victoria amazonica, first displayed here in the 1880s. 

Around the pool perimeter are potted and hanging plants, including large carnivorous species. There’s a bench in one bright corner, often occupied by book-reading visitors. 

After soaking in the atmosphere, head back through the Palm House and west into a room decorated with a wooden Japanesque gazebo, beautiful planters, and perfect display specimens of tropical and semi-tropical plants in pots. 

Beyond is a room for changing exhibits. It currently features “The Butterfly Zone: Plants and Pollinators”, with butterflies in two stages of life. 

When we last visited, the species included black and white striped Zebra butterflies, fawn brown California Buckeyes, translucent White Peacocks, vibrant Orange Julias, and Queens.  

You’re asked not to touch the butterflies, but you can watch and photograph them up close, from inches away, as they flutter around you, nectar on flowers or bask on leaves or the conservatory glass. 

There’s a central display where the chrysalides of butterflies are hung in rows and you can observe the adults emerging from their hard cases and spreading their wings.  

Docents in the room answer questions and point out special features. 

This is a striking place to see butterflies, but I’m always a bit ambivalent about this particular approach.  

Since these species aren’t allowed to reproduce in the exhibit, there are no “host plants” for caterpillars. Thus, the egg-laden females in the exhibit seek in vain for a place to safely deposit the next generation. 

Also, while some of the species—particularly the tropicals—seem content to lazily flutter about the room, others just want to escape. The clear glass of the south facing emergency doors is patterned with butterflies trying to get into the open world beyond, and butterfly bodies litter the floor beside the doors. 

Throughout the conservatory, informational panels augment the botanical displays.  

You’ll also find some small exhibits on the history of the building and on the methods and motivations of 19th century botanical collecting that brought unusual treasures to places like the conservatory.  

Admission tickets and souvenirs are sold in two small, contextual, kiosks flanking the main entrance.  

Elaborate, patterned, displays of bedding plants—currently blue, orange, and red—look like gigantic carpets spread on the pristine lawns in front of the Conservatory.  

East of the conservatory and down a set of steps is a large, oval, dahlia garden maintained by volunteers, that can be a blaze of colorful, bowl-sized, blossoms.