San Francisco Botanic Garden

My first time exploring the city of San Francisco was a few years ago with a bunch of architecture librarians, and now this time I had my eye on San Francisco Botanic Garden. Lucky for me it was a sunny and cool spring morning that day, creating perfect conditions for observing how the garden is enjoyed and used by the city and its inhabitants. The garden touts itself as a living museum within Golden Gate Park, displaying over 8,000 different kinds of plants from around the world on over 55 acres. Golden Gate Park is similar to the rectangle shape of New York’s Central Park, for which it is often compared, except its about 20% larger. However, it falls just behind Central Park in annual visitors with 13 million each year. Initially surveyed, laid out, and landscaped in the 1870s by William Hammond Hall and his assistant, landscape architect/gardener John McLaren, the entire park has over the past century to be an integral cultural hub for the city. This includes the De Young Museum, Academy of Sciences, Japanese Tea Garden [the oldest Japanese Garden in the US], countless statues and memorials, and recreational fields. Its truly an impressive feat of long range city planning and civic engagement, and carries the capacity to be anyone’s playground regardless of age, race, sex, creed, or physical ability. Yes, San Francisco has one of the highest costs of living in the country, but on the other hand the quality of life among residents is truly evident. All of the cultural attractions in the park are either always free for residents, or have many free calendar days. There’s not too many cities in the east coast that can match that progressive stance.

Now, for the garden. Here are my most memorable thoughts and observations of my visit.

  1. Unique climate allows you to grow essentially anything! The Bay Area’s cycle of mild temperatures, wet winters, dry summers, and coastal fog allows for a large range of climatic conditions that few other botanical gardens can mirror. The garden leverages these conditions to grow and conserve plants from all over the world. It even collects plants that are no longer found in their native habitats.
  2. Brugmansia. Back in Philadelphia we grow this awesome tropical looking, flowering woody tree as a tender plant that is not cold tolerant. Our cold winters prevent it from growing like they do out in this botanic garden, and boy were they huge as seen in my photos.
  3. Excellent magnolia collection! The Magnolia collection is very extensive, with many species flowering heavily in the winter months. In conservation circles, it is the most important magnolia collection outside of China, and is recognized as the world’s fourth most significant collection of Magnolia for conservation purposes. As an east coaster, it was a true pleasure to see so many varieties that just cannot grow in the mid-atlantic.
  4. Don’t forget to visit the library! The Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture began in 1972 to eventually become the most comprehensive horticultural library in northern California. The collection is made up of approximately 27,000 volumes and 350 plant and garden periodicals. Core subjects include gardening, garden design, botanical art, ethnobotany and pest management, with an emphasis on plants grown in Mediterranean and other mild temperate climates. Youth can even enjoy the 2,000-volume children’s botanical library.
  5. Very important high elevation palm collection.  The unique climate at SFBG allows for high altitude South American genera such as Ceroxylon and Parajubaea and Southeast Asian Trachycarpus to thrive like no other institution in North America.Examples include Ceroxylon quindiuense, the tallest of all palms, and growing near 200 feet in height; and Parajubaea torallyi var. torallyi, one of the highest altitude palms in the world at 11,500 feet above sea level. These species can be found in the Andean Cloud Forest alongside 1983 C. quindiuense plantings that are over 70 feet tall. In total, the collection is close to introducing 30 new individual palms representing 14 species. It was amazing to see!

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