The post-dawn mists have not yet lifted in the park, and joggers and early morning bicyclists cruise by as I set off across the grass, dodging sprinklers. A group of women doing Tai Chi by the Conservatory steps smiles and nods, not pausing their slow motion routine as I ascend.
I have had a long, one sided love affair with the Conservatory of Flowers. I first fell in love with its dilapidated elegance and musty, thick air as a kid, and have kept up regular visitations over the years. But this will be my first peek behind the scenes. I’m here to meet Eric Imperiale, one of four nursery specialists responsible for the plants in the collection.
Eric finds me wandering past the wrong gates, and guides me into the back rooms. A homey kitchen area with green bead-board walls forms the center hub of several support buildings. Through the door is the domed central gallery of the Conservatory, not open to the public for another hour, empty and quiet except for the sounds of running water and dripping leaves.
The first order of business is watering - a lot of watering. Eric has already been at it for an hour when I join him. Protected by rubber aprons, we unspool giant hoses and wet down the floors and splash the giant leaves in the Special Exhibits gallery, which is hosting an exhibition of exotic food and spice plants. He points out chocolate, vanilla, and coffee plants. Despite having been recently in the tropics, I am only able to identify the banana. My morning caffeine has not quite kicked in, and I am terrified of getting water on the exhibit of botanical illustrations.
Morning watering complete, we move on to the Highland Tropics gallery where Eric’s orchids live. Slipping past the fence, we climb down a step ladder into the central pit to pick up dead leaves and micro-manage the exhibit. Designed to replicate a rainforest canopy, the room is cooler than many of the others which are maintained at tropical temperatures. Artistically placed tree trunks, rocks, and facsimiles thereof support thousands of smaller plants, which Eric carefully inspects and rotates though the display from his stock of back-up plants in the support greenhouses. Today Eric has me swap out a lackluster specimen for a freshly flowering orchid mounted on a chunk of wood and moss. Elsewhere, similar arrangements have been cleverly disguised with hanging moss to look as though they grow from the tree. Mine looks like a disheveled interloper with suspiciously hard edges, but Eric is politely encouraging.
A rush of hot moist air hits us as we move into the Aquatic Plants gallery, my childhood favorite, home to giant water lilies and carnivorous pitcher plants. Victorian photographs of Amazonian lilies show them supporting the weight of children and ladies in enormous hats. I have always not-so-secretly wanted my own. Nursery specialist Mario Vega is tending to the plants, and I am told that sometimes the pond requires a more intensive pool-boy style cleaning, involving either hip waders or swim trunks, and I am sad to hear that it is not required today.
Tea break. What is it about gardeners and tea? There must be some kind of genetic predisposition. I opt for coffee.
Five greenhouses and an outdoor cool weather shed support the Conservatory, holding plants that rotate into the displays, as well as auxiliary plants left over from past exhibits, or donations from other exotic plant facilities waiting for their moment in the sun. There are far more plants in the back greenhouses than in the main Conservatory, sitting in pots on expanded metal topped work tables, hanging from racks and the ceiling, and covering the walls. I heard, but did not see, the cat that likes to hang out in one of the greenhouse’s shade awnings.
It came as something of a surprise to see that the support greenhouses and outbuildings were not restored. One support greenhouse on the back lot collapsed a few year ago. Luckily no one was hurt, but it illustrates the need to preserve these buildings as well.
Eric’s greenhouse is an orchid-lover’s dream. Most are epiphytes, naturally growing off of other trees and plants, so tiny bursts of greenery cling to scraps of wood and moss on all the walls, many plants no bigger than a fist, flowers smaller than a dime. My favorite is a Porroglossum, with tiny translucent milk-glass flowers, which, when touched gently with the tip of a pencil, curl closed like a venus-flytrap. The most well known orchid in his collection is the Dracula orchid, currently in the back room not looking its best, but still an impressive black-russet bloom with a velvety napped texture and long, dramatically gothic tendrils. We do some more watering.
After lunch, we return to Eric’s greenhouse for some afternoon re-potting. This is a surprisingly laborious and detailed process, which illuminates both the skill and attention to detail that his job requires, and perhaps the reasons why my houseplants rarely survive the season.
First, a clean work surface is set up: a stack of newspaper, sharp scissors, sterile gloves, and a canister of propane are placed on the old wooden work bench. Gloves on and plant selected, the process begins by flame-sterilizing the shears. The plant is inspected for spots, dead leaves, discolored tips or other signs of funk, and is trimmed accordingly. Next, the plant is gently removed from its pot, and held in the hand while moss is gently pulled away from the delicate root system, which is then also inspected for signs of trouble. Finally, the roots are carefully swaddled in fresh moss, and the plant is placed snugly in a new pot. In two hours, we re-pot only 5 tiny plants.
This is one of many moments in the day where I am struck by a sensation of timelessness, of being a part of a process that has remained essentially the same for all the hundred-plus years this building has stood in the park.
Despite the well-publicized multi-million dollar restoration ending in 2003 that saved the building (it had been added, somewhat embarrassingly, the the UNESCO World Heritage “100 Most Endangered Places” list - San Francisco’s Victorian gem keeping company with remote temples in Southeast Asia, and crumbling monuments in third world countries), it seems that little has fundamentally changed about the building or the jobs of those who work in it since it opened in 1879. A high-tech computerized system controls the inside temperature and humidity levels, and the systems in place in the boiler room and technical outbuildings full of pipes and pumps are hardly Victorian, but the essence of the place most certainly is. I had been afraid that the restoration might have destroyed the soul of the building with shiny new parts, but I don’t think that’s the case. Eric’s day-to-day work at the conservatory is essentially the same as all those nursery specialists who came before him, part of a continuum with each person who nurtured and re-potted, trimmed leaves, and watered floors in the early morning hours of our city’s nascent days. It is an extraordinary feeling of time travel, humbling and thrilling at the same time.
I emerge into the sunny afternoon. Couples lounge on the lawn while hippie kids play bongos and small children shriek and cavort on the stairs, tourists milling around the front of the building snapping pictures. I take my place among them, taking the same photograph I have taken a dozen times before, maybe just a little bit more in love than before.