As the students from the Star of the Sea elementary Catholic school divided up into groups of four and five, tour guide Sally Schroeden corralled her troop of third-graders through the main entrance of the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park, and began her tour dramatically, announcing, “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Schroeden is one of about a hundred volunteer docents at the Conservatory of Flowers, where Jungle Tours are given to third- and fourth-grade students every Tuesday through Friday from 10–11:30 a.m.
Schroeden – similar to many other volunteers at the conservatory – has been giving tours for about five years at Golden Gate Park. Once a year, the conservatory holds an eight-week training program, where 20–30 volunteers come to take a basic botany class in order to be a docent.
“I was working at the Botanical Gardens in Berkley, and wanted to do more with the conservatory,” said Schroeden. “I saw an ad that docents were needed at Golden Gate Park.”
The first stop on the Jungle Tour was the Lowland Tropics. Schroeden explained to her group of students that these greenhouses were originally built in the Victorian era, and still maintained the architecture of the time.
According to Schroeden, the greenhouses are all painted white, which acts as an air conditioner for its visitors, and keeps the plants from being burned during warmer seasons.
The principal lesson for the Star of the Sea students was to understand how plants were adapting to survive in their environments. As they approached a broad-leafed Philodendron, they pulled out their measuring tapes to record the length and width of the leaves, and took turns guessing why it was so advantageous to have large leaves.
Next, they saw the plants responsible for producing cinnamon, coffee, and – the highlight of their tour – chocolate!
The second stop on the tour was the Highland Tropics, where the students took turns watering different plants, such as orchids and Impatiens. At the Aquatic Plant exhibit, Schroeden told her students it was time to turn into mosquitoes, in order to demonstrate that pitcher plants, similar to many other plants, were carnivorous.
The last stop on the Jungle Tour was the Wicked Plants – a changing exhibit, with rotating themes twice yearly. The students stood back as they observed poison ivy, poison oak, cacti, and Nicotiana tabacum – the tobacco plant.
When asked about her favorite part of the Jungle Tour, Schroeden answered, “Any involvement with the kids. When they get to spray, measure, draw; anything that gets them engaged.”
“In San Francisco, these kids are so removed from nature,” said Director Lau Hodges, of Operations and Exhibits. “To come here and see things like the chocolate plant is so awesome.”
The Conservatory first opened its doors in 1879, and it is the oldest public wood and glass greenhouse in the United States today. It is rare to find a wood greenhouse, because cast iron became available to the U.S. in the 1800s, which is much more durable.
While the greenhouse has seen its share of setbacks, including boiler explosions, earthquakes, and windstorms, it has been open and consistently operating since 2003, with a staff of only 15 – including four horticulturalists, and members of the San Francisco Parks Trust. The conservatory is open to the public Tuesday–Sunday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, July 4th, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve.
There are three guided tours per day, excluding the Jungle Tour, at 11:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m., with admission varying from $7.00 to free admission – depending on age and residency. The conservatory is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m., although the day starts much earlier for the staff.
“No two days are the same,” explained Hodges. “Anything can happen. Boilers can go down, hoses burst. And every plant is out of its element. Around 7 a.m., staff comes in to water all of the plants. Around 9, the people working at guest services arrive. The ticket booth and the gift shop are set up. Then the tours start. There are people working from 7 a.m. till 7 p.m. on any given day.”
Hodges had also started at the conservatory as a Jungle Tour guide about five years ago. After giving tours for a year and a half, she began working in Guest Services, where she scheduled events such as anniversaries and weddings at the conservatory. Now, Hodges has found her niche – working as the director of Operations and Exhibits. She designs the layout of each exhibit, and is responsible for each changing exhibit.
As Wicked Plants ends its reign at the end of October, Hodges is busy preparing for the next exhibit: Playland at the Conservatory. It will be the conservatory’s 4th Annual Garden Railway, commemorating Playland at the Beach, an amusement park at San Francisco’s west end that opened in 1913. The miniature railway garden will be open November 18 through April 15 of next year, and is sure to be a highlight for any jungle tourist.
“It’s really cool being an advocate for education,” said Hodges. “You’re giving the kids something that they can take away from here.”
More information can be found about the jungle tours on the conservatory’s website at http://www.conservatoryofflowers.org/education/program