Gardens in the Park

What’s three miles long, half a mile wide, and packed with things to see and do? It’s Golden Gate Park, of course. At more than twice the size of Disneyland, it’s a sightseeing and recreational bonanza. It’s home to both the de Young museum and the California Academy of Sciences, and its recreational opportunities include archery, biking, boating, fly casting, hiking, horseback riding, and fields and courts for several types of ball games. Seriously, the park has everything from baseball to golf to tennis to péntanque. But that’s not all; the park also has several gardens, and, for the flower lovers among us, it’s one more reason to spend time in this beautiful park.

The Conservatory of Flowers and Japanese Tea Garden have entrance fees and, unless you are a San Francisco resident, the Botanical Garden does too. The rest of the gardens are free.

01) C of F (Jul 08-172)01) C of F (Nov 03-0827)


Conservatory of Flowers

This stunning Victorian glass and wooden greenhouse overlooks a lawn and garden with meticulously arranged flowerbeds. Inside the conservatory, there are three permanent galleries featuring rare and beautiful plants from three tropical regions: lowland tropics, highland tropics, and aquatic plants. The star of the lowland tropics is a 100-year-old giant Imperial Philodendron named Phill. The highland tropics include hundreds of delicate orchids and lush ferns. The aquatic plants gallery has bromeliads, carnivorous plants, and the ever-amazing giant Amazon lily pads.

The west wing of the conservatory houses special exhibits. During the holidays, in recent years, it’s been transformed into the Golden Gate Express with G-gauge model trains running through a landscape of dwarf plants arranged around model replicas of San Francisco landmarks.

The Conservatory of Flowers opened in 1879; it’s modeled after the conservatory at Kew Gardens in London. Remarkably, this glass and wooden structure suffered little damage in the 1906 earthquake and fire, but thousands of its glass panes were blown out in a severe windstorm in 1995; it was completely rebuilt and reopened in 2003.


04) Tea Garden (Jun 11-218)04) Tea Garden (Jun 11-210)

Japanese Tea Garden

The beautiful and tranquil tea garden was originally built as the Japanese Village for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition (World’s Fair). The five-acre garden has several paths that wander around or through Koi ponds, a pagoda and gate, a Zen garden, large sculptures (including a bronze Buddha and 9000-pound Peace Lantern), and the photo-perfect moon bridge. There’s even a teahouse where you can have tea and cookies while looking out over the garden.

Creating the Japanese Tea Garden was largely the work of Makoto Hagiwara. He was a successful landscape designer and gardener who, with help, designed and built the garden, lobbied to make it a permanent fixture in Golden Gate Park, and served as the garden’s caretaker from 1894 until his death in 1925. After his death, his family continued to live in and maintain the garden until 1942. That’s when Japanese citizens were stripped of their possessions and shipped off to concentration camps in the desert. It was not America’s finest hour.


02) Botanical (Feb 08-449)

Botanical Garden

This 55-acre botanical garden is actually a collection of 21 gardens representing different climates or species or geographic areas from around the world. Among those representing different climates are the century-old Redwood Grove and the Succulent Garden. Some specializing in specific species are the Camilla and Rhododendron Gardens, and some representing the flora from different parts of the world are the Andean Cloud Forest, Australia, and South Africa. There are several trails that wind and weave around through the regions of the garden. It’s easy to get lost, so a map helps; you can download one here.


03) Rose Garden (Jul 08-189)

Rose Garden

If you love roses, don’t miss this garden; the colors, sizes, and fragrances are amazing. There are 60 rose beds in this garden, and they are filled with dozens of varieties of award-winning roses. You can find blooms here year around, but they are most spectacular in the summer months.


05) Shakespeare Garden (Jun 11-263)

Shakespeare Garden

This small garden is not exactly a secret, but it’s pretty well hidden from view. Created in 1928, it’s a tribute to William Shakespeare whose plays are rife with references to plants and flowers. All of the trees, shrubs, and flowers planted here were selected because they are mentioned in his works.

Enter the garden through its wrought iron gate and walk to the far end where a brick wall holds a bronze sculpture of Shakespeare and bronze plaques display dozens of lines from his writings. These are the lines in his works that refer to plants and flowers. Sadly, the sculpture has to be locked behind iron doors to keep it safe; thieves have already taken two of the six bronze plaques.

This is a quiet, peaceful place to simply sit or wander around, and it’s a popular venue for weddings.

06) Tree Fern Dell  (Jun 11-698)


Tree Fern Dell

Remember the scene in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, where Spock’s coffin lands on the Genesis Planet and he’s resurrected as the planet is transformed into a lush, primordial paradise? That scene was shot in this tree fern dell.

This smallish triangle garden, across JFK Drive from the conservatory, is filled with giant gunnera plants and really tall, really old tree ferns — some dating back to 1898.


Seasonal Gardens

There are also smaller, seasonal gardens, like these, scattered around the park:


     - The Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden blooms mid-March to mid-April; it’s next to the Dutch Windmill

     - The Rhododendron Dell has 850 hybrid varieties; April is the best month to catch them in bloom

     - There are also lots of camellias and magnolias in bloom in the early spring in the east end of the park


     - The Fuchsia Garden has many varieties and colors of fuchsias that are at their best in the summer months 


     - The Dahlia Dell next to the Conservatory of Flowers has over a 1,000 plants; it’s at its best in September

The Golden Gate Park in Bloom website provides a list, by month, of the best blooms in the park

Golden Gate Park is a treasure that any city in the world would welcome in their midst, and no one is more responsible for creating it than John McLaren. McLaren took over as park superintendent in 1887 and remained in the job for 53 years. He used his considerable political skill and horticultural training to create the park we enjoy today. Like his good friend and fellow Scotsman, John Muir, McLaren wanted places of natural beauty for people to recreate and repair. Before accepting the superintendent job he stipulated, "There will be no 'Keep off the Grass’ signs."

I doubt any urban area could build an inner-city park like this today, but in the 1870s, the sand dunes west of the city were undeveloped and undesirable; in those days, they were called the outlands. The only objection at the time to dedicating this 1017-acre plot of land for use as a park was that it was so remote. The city’s wealth was a big factor too; San Francisco was awash in money from the railroads and the Sierra gold and silver mines. This is America’s largest city park, and it was made possible because land and money were available and dedicated people like John McLaren and Makoto Hagiwara made it their life’s work.


Giving credit where credit is due:

A lot of the information in this blog is from the official Map & Guide to Golden Gate Park (16th Edition)

Website: Golden Gate Park in Bloom

Website: Golden Gate Park Gardens


© Virginia E. Vail 2012