100-year-old Plant thrives at Conservatory of Flowers
photo: Philip Liborio Gangi
The 100-year-old philodendron is a popular attraction at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
By Ryder W. Miller
Displaying the plants of the tropical rainforest and the oldest vine on display in the City, the recently restored Conservatory of Flowers will be celebrating its 125th Anniversary this April.
On display are some plants which existed in the time of the dinosaurs, as well as what is probably the largest vine in the City - an Imperial Philodendron that has been growing at the Conservatory for more than 100 years.
The philodendron required construction workers to build around it when the conservatory was restored. The plant, located in the central room of the Conservatory, demanded special care and engenders special attention. While it was housed in a temporary home, the temperature was monitored constantly to assure its survival.
The vine is a Liana, or more specifically, a Philodendron Speciosum. Originally from southern Brazil, it has become as tall as a tree in its old age. The Liana wraps itself around trees and support structures, growing towards the light. The Liana grew so big that renovators at the Conservatory of Flowers had to build around it and some of its roots needed to be removed in order to renovate the central room. It is presently 30 to 35 feet long and supported by aerial roots.
"It would have been a tremendous expense to remove," said Jim Henrich, curator at the Conservatory. "There was no way to move it through the doorway, like other plants."
Henrich said the Liana is big enough to pull down multiple trees.
"The bulk of the vine is in the canopy. They are not usually this big."
The name philodendron comes from the Greek word philodendros, meaning "fond of trees." A cutting of the rare plant went to a botanical garden in Miami.
The Imperial Philodendron at the Conservatory is currently flowering.
"Typically they substantially flower from mid-winter to mid-summer," Henrich said.
Dr. Thomas B. Croat, P.A. Schulze Curator of Botany at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, who recently wrote a scientific paper on philodendrons, has never heard of the Imperial Philodendron. He said there are perhaps 800 species in the genus philodendron, which can be found from Mexico to Argentina. Central America has about 96 species, the bulk of which are in South America. Croat also said some of the tough and resistant philodenrons are popular houseplants.
Other noteworthy attractions at the Conservatory include the Pygmy Date Palm, which is also about 100 years old.
There are also two Cycads, primitive cone bearing plants that are ancestors of spruce and cypress. The Cycads have also been at the Conservatory for more than 100 years.
"They were around at the time of the dinosaurs," said Henrich.
Also on display are a number of plants commonly used as food sources, including chocolate, coffee, vanilla, coconut, cinnamon, cashew and nut plants.
The Conservatory’s exhibit also reminds visitors of the consequences of over-population, the result of which is often the extinction of rare plants. Between the year 1850 and 2000 the Earth’s human population grew from 1.1 billion to 6.2 billion people. The vast majority of the plants at the Conservatory are from the endangered lowland and highland tropical forests.
"They are distinctive from what you would see outside," Henrich said. "It's like stepping into a tropical forest."
The Conservatory currently has an empty room, which will be used to display fish in its aquatic gallery. The Conservatory's fish went on loan to the Steinhart Aquarium after the Conservatory was closed in 1995 due to windstorm damage.
The Conservatory of Flowers is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Plans for the 125th anniversary can be found on the conservatory's website at www.conservatoryofflowers.org. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of the month. For members of the public interested in donating time or money, call Michele Canning at 750-5226.