Golden Gate Escape: Conservatory of Flowers

School of Medicine

The Conservatory of Flowers, located in Golden Gate Park, is the oldest public glass and wood greenhouse in the United States. It also won “Best First Date” recognition from SF Weekly. This unlikely juxtaposition of superlatives led me to check the place out one weekday afternoon.

To a cheapskate student like myself, the price of admission is certainly appealing — tickets for students who live in San Francisco are a measly $3 each. That’s a pretty good deal, considering that the place underwent a $25 million restoration in 1999.

The Conservatory is a giant greenhouse divided into five areas with different themes. The opening atrium, themed “Lowland Tropics,” is a humid collection of plants that are native to the lowland tropical forests of countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia.

There’s a small circular path that takes you through a small jungle of plants, including banana, cinnamon, cacao and coffee. Everything is meticulously labeled, and for some species, there is even a special phone number posted you can dial in order to learn more.

For those who have perpetually cold hands (or dates), the Aquatic Plants exhibit is a steamy paradise. The room features a raised indoor pond complete with enormous eight-foot lily pads and floating lotus. I had to leave this room after about five minutes because I was getting overheated and my camera was steaming over, but I definitely could have spent more time examining the side of the room devoted to carnivorous plants — fingers beware!

My run-away favorite was the Potted Plants room. It sounds horrifically boring (potted plants? come on!), but there were dozens of unusually colored and shaped plants crammed into every corner and wrapped around a beautiful wooden arbor.

Apparently, well-to-do people in the 19th century used to compete with each other to see who could hold the most elaborate garden party with the strangest and most exotic plants. (Personally, I can think of much more entertaining extracurricular activities, but to each his own.) A stand-out was the Bleeding Heart Vine, which is true to its name and displays bright pink heart-shaped blossoms drooping from arching stems.

There’s also a Special Exhibits section. On Friday, November 16, the exhibit “Boomtown!” will feature the colorful (plant) history of San Francisco after the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. In May 2013, the popular “Butterfly Zone” exhibit will return, which features the opportunity to walk around with hundreds of butterflies from 25 different species flitting by. (The wealth of cheesy pick-up lines in this scenario is staggering — example: “You literally give me butterflies.”)

Overall, the Conservatory of Flowers is a great, cheap place to while away an hour in Golden Gate Park. It’s also a wedding destination, historical monument and a 15-minute walk from the UCSF Parnassus campus. What better place to start a budding romance than this steamy greenhouse?

Conservatory of Flowers

100 John F. Kennedy Drive

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco CA 94118

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Admission: Adults $7, students $5 (with ID). Additional $2 discount with proof of San Francisco residency. Free first Tuesday of every month.