S.F. Conservatory of Flowers, Aquascapes, and Pitcher Plant Bonanza

This past weekend my husband, Tom, and I spent an afternoon wandering through the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, enjoying the rare chance to sneak away and visit a different world for awhile.

I have a confession – while I’ve been there at least a half dozen times in my life and, yes, it’s truly a jaw-dropping historic building (the oldest public glass & wood greenhouse in North America, built in 1877), I’ve never really been a huge fan of tropical and exotic plants.

But maybe it’s the fact that my world has been turned upside down the past few months (thanks to my cancer diagnosis) or that I seem to spend the majority of my time feeling pretty crummy.  But whatever the reason, it’s as if I’ve seen this place for the first time.  It was stunning, breathtaking and filled my soul to the brim.  Exactly what the both of us needed.

And, as luck would have it, a new special exhibit called Aquascapes had just opened a few days before which helped to further transport my mindset and imagination.   I’ll first show you my favorites from the special exhibit, followed by a few particularly beautiful plants that are in their glory right now.


Aquascapes: The Art of Underwater Gardening



While the concept of aquascaping is new to me, the Dutch have been practicing this form of art since the 1930’s.  While the Dutch focused on the watery landscape, often overfilling the tank with plants that left little room for fish, in the 1990’s Takashi Amano took this art to a whole new level.

Using Zen-like principles of thoughtful placement of stone, wood and only a few species of plants and fish he took the traditionally overcrowded tank and created minimal, yet stunning, works of art.  Not surprisingly, thanks to Amano’s work there are now several world-wide competitions that are based not only on the aesthetics but the viability of the aquascape.


Here are a few of my favorite Amano-inspired aquascapes created by Ocean Treasures and Aqua Forest Aquarium.

North America


North America Region

Are they fish or birds flying over  giant mountains made of Seriyu stone?

Each aquascape is contained within a stone wall, like the one pictured here, which helps frame the art and focus the eye.



Asia Region

The Moss Balls (which are actually algae) are naturally occurring and quite rare.  Found in freshwater lakes in Japan, Scotland, Iceland and Australia, the rolling motion of the waves gives the balls their unique shape and velvety texture.Africa

Africa Region

In this creation, manzanita and Seriyu stone is used.  Manzanita is often used in aquascapes to represent tree roots, overhanging branches or fallen trees.  The dead wood is slow to decay, lasting for years and years, as well as chemically neutral so as not to harm the fish and plants.South America

South America Region

In this tank, the manzanita looks exactly like a giant fallen tree.Amazon

Amazon Region

Using Malaysian driftwood, manzanita and a combination of all the stones listed above to create a dense Amazonian landscape.

If you’re interested in learning more about the exhibit’s plant, the conservatory has an excellent site here.

The Conservatory Highlights


Wandering through the rest of the conservatory was a feast for the senses: the warm and steamy atmosphere a lovely contradiction to the chilly temperatures outside, plants with preposterous proportions, the craziest color combinations you could ever imagine on a single leaf, and the flowers.

Oh, the flowers!

Dutchman’s Pipe flowers were everywhere, each one different and more fascinating than the next.  Clearly, I couldn’t get enough of them!


This is the Fanged Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes bicalcatarata).  While botanists aren’t entirely sure of the fang’s purpose (the toothy protrusions running along the side of the plant), some think they’re strategically placed to lure insects to the top of the lip where they’ll certainly fall to their watery death.DSC_0118

In some areas of the arboretum the plants were so giant that the effect was similar to walking under an overflowing arbor of pitcher plants!


One of my favorites is this Nepenthes lowii that has cleverly adapted to its native home in Borneo. Only a small population of insects live in this region, but this pitcher plant doesn’t seem to mind.

This plant has developed the ability to create its own white protein-rich substance on the side petal to attract birds and shrews to sit and perhaps take a bite.  As the birds land to feast, they poop right into the plant, providing much-needed nutrients.

It wasn’t just the pitcher plants that stole the show – here are a few more of my favorites:


Just look how the roots of these ferns have wrapped themselves around the container forming their own secure support system.DSC_0083

I don’t know what this plant is, but the backlit variegation makes my heart beat just a little bit faster.DSC_0097

A relative of the ordinary African violet, the quilted, shiny leaves of this rock-dwelling petrocosmea begonifolia are truly other-worldly.  And that little nodding white flower?  So. Darn. Sweet.DSC_0076

And one last flower.

Again, I’m not sure what this is but I love how it looks just like underwater coral.

The artwork and meticulous details throughout the Conservatory also help to make this such a special experience.


Some art is in your face, like this giant overhead water lily or over-sized sculpture of a Dracula orchid.DSC_0156DSC_0142

But most art is discreetly placed here and there, to be discovered at your own pace.DSC_0151DSC_0141

In the center of the floor is some of the most beautiful metal artwork helping to lead you from one wing to the next.DSC_0144

I just love the homey-touch created by the placement of two bookcases that display delicate orchid arrangements. DSC_0137

The end wing of the Conservatory houses the aquatic plants.

The pond’s structure is surrounded by contemporary glass walls with stacked stone columns, which add a beautiful contradiction of styles with the building’s century-old glass panes throughout.

Petrocosmea begonifoliaTo say the Conservatory is beautiful is an understatement.  Artwork is sprinkled throughout the wings – sometimes discreet, sometimes frighteningly in your face.  All of it is lovely and adds to the magical atmosphere.


Sumbawa Teak BenchOkay, and now for a giveaway – and just in time for the holidays, too! (so sorry but this giveaway is now over!)

I’m thrilled to offer you the chance to win this beautiful 48″ teak bench, compliments of the kind folks at Teak Closeouts.  Just leave a comment below and using a random number generator, I’ll pick a random winner by midnight, November 26th.  It’s that simple!

Oh, and please remember that I won’t be able to respond to your comments as it’ll skew the system I use to pick the number (but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading what you all write, because I do!)

UPDATE: Congrautlations to Anita Franzi – you won the teak bench!  I’ve sent you an email, but just in case you didn’t receive it send me your mailing address and we’ll get this beautiful bench to you asap!  Happy Thanksgiving!  🙂

A few more details:  The winner will be randomly chosen by midnight, November 26thand contacted within 24 hours. If the proposed winner forfeits or does not claim the prize by December 1, the prize will be re-awarded based on the sponsor’s sole discretion. Please provide your name and email to enter this contest, so I can immediately contact you if you win. The winner agrees to allow his/her first name to be mentioned in conjunction with this giveaway.

This giveaway is limited to the contiguous 48 states in the U.S. residents only to those who are over the age of 18 years old. No purchase necessary to win. This sweepstake is void where prohibited by law (not exactly sure where this might be, but I’d sure hate to live there).  By entering this giveaway, you agree to these conditions.

 Best of luck everyone!

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  • Thanks so much for this beautiful article Rebecca! It is such an honor to work in this historic treasure and wander through the tropics every day. I really appreciate that you noted a number of contemporary design elements that were added during the renovation in 1999 – 2003. The metal floor work and the glass Amazonica were both added during this process. So glad you had an opportunity to visit – hope you’ll be back this way soon!
    Jane Scurich
    Director of Development and Administration
    Conservatory of Flowers

    • I’m honored that you enjoyed my article, Jane. Thanks for stopping by and keep up the fantastic work. You have an amazing job and it’s nice to know you appreciate it! 🙂

  • Lush….. I know how you feel as I´ve been tooling around the Peruvian tropics (at 8,000 feet) and the offering of natural flora is overwhellming….

  • Thank you for all the time & effort you took to bring us this beauty. I am praying for you and hoping you can find peace and hope in the midst of your journey. I was with my brother through chemotherapy–it stinks.
    Keep hoping.

  • The conservancy if one of my favorite places to visit. I remember the first time I saw it, back in 1990, it took my breath away.

    Thank you for all the wonderful pictures, they make me want to visit it once again.

    I don’t comment much, but you are in my thought Rebecca, may Thanksgiving be a peaceful day for you and your family, and that despite your diagnosis and treatment, you will feel the love and support from all of us.

  • So beautiful… I must go since I am only a few hours away!

  • Added on my extensive Gardens-to-visit Bucket List after looking at your pictures. Is the long Green and White leaf some form of Ginger?

  • If I ever get down to the Bay Area again, I’ll have to visit the San Francisco Conservatory – it looks absolutely intriguing! Thank you for the opportunity to win the bench Rebecca!

  • what a wonderful place to take you away from your health issues. Nature is such a great rejuvenator. And thanks for the chance to win that lovely bench.

  • Rebecca, I just crossed paths, yesterday, with the head of the sustainable garden program at Ally’s school. He mentioned they are going to create an aquascape in 2015. I had no idea what he was talking about and then today is see your blog! Maybe you can join me one day at the garden at Priory. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! xx!

  • I am salivating. What a grand place. Enjoyed your blog. Signing up for your newsletter.

  • I’m so glad that I have had the opportunity to visit the conservatory; it is indeed a beautiful and inspiring place! I loved seeing your photos and those aquascapes are pretty cool. I wonder how difficult they are to keep clean over time? I love the moss balls the best. Thanks for this opportunity to win a teak bench!

  • Rebecca, what fabulous photos! I needed some lovely garden views right now–everything is rather bleak in our garden. Thinking of you often and hoping you have a lovely holiday! XOXO!

  • Thank you Rebecca, for sharing your trip to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers…after seeing your pictures, I have added it to my bucket list of places I want to visit. As a breast cancer survivor myself, I can definitely relate to how things that didn’t necessarily interest you before, are now seen through different eyes. I guess we can consider that a gift of this journey.

  • Beautiful. Enjoy your blog. Am sure your passion for gardening is a comfort in your health struggles. Stay strong.

  • What a beautiful place. Thank you so much for showing us. Pitcher plants have always been interesting to me. And now you show me one that likes bird poop. I was laughing out loud. How cool!

  • The conservatory is beautiful! I wish it was local to us because my daughter would absolutely love it.

  • So pretty! It is cold and snowy here, but these pictures got me excited for spring planting. 🙂

  • Love the pitcher plants and the aquascapes – fascinating!

  • I have a pinterest board on aquascapes and was excited to see your preview of the show at the Conservatory. I’ll be checking it out soon.

  • Rebecca, I so enjoyed seeing the conservatory through your eyes this morning. A few months ago I bought your book, Refresh Your Garden Design With Color, Texture and Form. I’ve been slowly adding new elements here and there throughout my gardens and I’m loving the transformation.
    I wish you a speedy recovery.

  • Love those aquarium landscapes! I wonder how much maintenance it takes to keep it looking like that?

  • Thank you for sharing. What a beautiful way to spend a day! Thank you for the beautiful pictures and words.

  • Thanks you for sharing your happy inspiring experience at The Conservatory and may you have
    many more uplifting days like this to get you through your fight with cancer. Gardens are saviors of the spirit!

  • I’m already planning the next special trip to the city! How enchanting!

  • I feel as if I were there. Thanks so much for sharing such a lovely

  • I really injoy your article ,please sign me for contest

  • I love the use of manzanita in the aquascapes! Beautiful photos Rebecca!

  • I definitely must visit the conservatory next time I’m in San Fran.ii love that city! Nothing can lift spirits better than a day among the flowers. Thanks for your wonderful blog Rebecca. I always enjoy and learn from it.

  • I am always looking to share my passion for plants with the grandchildren. This is the perfect exhibit to take them to. Thanks and glad to hear you spirit got a boost.

  • The Conservatory is truly a magical place. Glad it was a sweet respite from the cancer therapy! Plants heal and give joy to many of us, it’s a good thing!

  • The aquascapes are just stunning! Something I’ve wanted to do years ago when I was into aquariums, but never did. Maybe this is the inspiration I needed! I loved touring the SFC when we were there for the fling summer before last. I remember looking up at the plants growing to the ceiling and like you, just in awe of the plants. It is so wonderful everytime we can expand our horizons and look at any part of life with new lenses, our world is so much better!

  • Hi Rebecca. One of my favorite enhancements in a garden is a bench, or two, or three. Whether in use or just luring you to have a sit, they make a garden inviting and friendly! Nice of the people at Teak Closeouts to offer such a generous prize!
    Hope you’re having more and more better days … Jeannie

  • Thanks Rebecca, the conservatory is beautiful. Keep finding ways to lift your soul, and you will make it through this difficult year.

  • Aquascapes–who knew? I love the Conservatory and this is a good excuse to visit it next week when I take my hubby to his surprise birthday present outing–a day at the California Academy of Sciences. What a lovely way for you to spend a day–glad you felt up to it.

  • I really enjoy your posts, learning new things, and being taken to special places I wouldn’t have access to and where I’ve never been. Your amazing photos bring places alive and inspire my curiosity to discover more. Thank you, best wishes for a lovely holiday season, many prayers are with you.

  • Wowza!! Love those aquascapes! It’s been a while since we’ve visited the conservatory. I think it’s time for a return visit. Thanks Rebecca!

  • I love the Conservatory, but thanks for reminding me about the aquascapes exhibit. I have to remember to get over there to see it!

  • I love the SF Conservatory, too! Especially in winter. The room with the pond is my favorite.

  • What a beautiful experience you had. I have visited few arboretums but the last one was Lewis Ginter in Richmond, VA. Their butterfly exhibit was so beautiful and I greatly enjoyed the interaction with the butterflies. Several landed on me because I was wearing a bright pink top.
    I hope you have many more beautiful experiences, today and always.

  • Thank you the wonderful photos. Going there is on my list of places to visit. I have a friend that has been eying pitcher plants for awhile. She manages to talk herself out of buying one each time we see one. Your post reminded me of that. I think I’ll get her one for Christmas. Best wishes and prayers to you.

  • Really enjoyed your photograph walk through the conservatory as it’s really cold out here in Missouri. Some really great ideas for aquariums.

  • Can’t wait to see the conservatory with my best Bud next month!

  • I always love going to visit any where that has beautiful flowers and plants. I truly like aquatics. I have a nice fish pond with some aquatic plants.

  • It’s a beautiful conservatory and I loved seeing it through your lens. Those display bookcases are such a fun idea in a large public building.

  • Love your photos, Rebecca – I wonder if there is a place like this near Philadelphia, PA?

  • Those aquascapes are amazing! And I’m intrigued by the fact that the designers have to create a biological balance between the species, as well as aesthetic balance of color, texture, and form.

  • What a beautiful post…your pictures are always so awesome!

  • I love to visit places like the conservancy in the winter. I miss the green in my garden already.

  • That metalwork pathway alone…gorgeous. I wonder if it doubles as a grate so that excess water is taken care of. I’m so glad you and Tom had a lovely getaway. You were surrounded by photogenic plants and creative aquascapes. Marvelous!

  • Rebecca,
    Glad that you were able to enjoy the conservatory with Tom. I alway find it to be a rejuvenating place.
    Absolutely enjoyed the pitcher plant photos as they reminded me of my trip to Borneo 2 years ago where we
    saw ooodles of these plants everywhere, hanging in the trees, laying on the rocky ground, scrambling thru the shrubbery
    in the low landlands, at the sea side and the mountain tops with bright orange orangatans swinging through the trees.
    Thanks for the images.

  • My favorite thing to do in the winter months is visit greenhouses and conservatories. What a treat for you to visit the San Francisco Conservatory. Sending you lots of healing prayers! Love and hugs, Debby West

  • As always, love, love your posts and photos. Hoping all the best for you.

  • Thank you for the tour!! Pitcher plants are so amusing!!
    The bench is lovely also.
    Best wishes for a gentle and speedy recover xoxo

  • Rebecca, I always enjoy your newsletters and this one was special because it brought back wonderful memories of my visit there with my grandchildren years ago. It stimulates all your senses! An added bonus was memories of growing a dutchman’s pipe and having it bloom. What a thrill watching that process. I wish you a speedy recovery. Alice

  • So glad that you’re feeling well enough to get out and enjoy some stunningly beautiful displays.

  • Rebecca, thank you so much for sharing….it has been too long since we visited this great Hall of Flowers ourselves. So glad the place lifted your spirits.

  • Lordy, I have always wanted a conservatory for my back yard. And a tractor. I’ve always wanted one of those, too. The two things are not related, except that I’ve always hankered for them.

  • My spirits are always refreshed when I visit this conservatory. It is particularly beautiful at night, a photographer’s delight.

  • I am so excited you are out and about enjoying life with everything you are managing. I have been looking at making a trip to see the pitcher plants. I think this might just be the weekend. Thanks for the motivation!!

  • I haven’t been back to the Conservatory since Fling, I need to make a trip there to see these aquascapes…they look so interesting!

  • Wow,you just gave me a great idea. I lost my dad 2 years ago and my mom recently downsized from a tremendous garden to a condo.What a treat it would be for her to accompany me to the conservatory. Thanks for the beautiful pics! -joni
    (P.S> keep fighting the good fight. We’re all rooting (hee-hee) for you!!

  • I’m happy to hear you are out exploring to lift your spirits…and a garden, inside or out is the best way to do it! I am 7 years on the other side of breast cancer and did the same thing…thanks for sharing…Donna

  • I knew that eventually you would come over to the ‘green’ side… the lush beauty of tropical’s and exotic’s. They definitely hold their own in the world of plants!
    I hope today is a good one for you…

  • Love pitcher plants, and thanks for this giveaway opportunity. If i’m randomly selected I’m sending it to my sister there in the SFO area 🙂 Love you, my friend xoxo

  • Thank you for transporting me to a place I have never been. You write so well, and your descriptions make me want to go there.

  • I was just in San Francisco for the first time this summer, and I spent 2 days in Golden Gate Park but couldn’t make it to the Conservatory. Your article sparks my impatience to get back there quickly!

  • Glad you’re finding gardens to explore to lift your spirits. How wonderful you have chosen to share them with us. I’m looking forward to learning more about “aquascapes”.

  • I remember how lovely the Conservatory was when we were there for the S.F. Fling. Thanks for sharing all your great photos of the pitcher plants, they fascinated me. I’m so glad your visit was inspiring. I’d love to win that bench, I have just the spot for it.

  • My new garden design has a perfect place for the teak bench. Thank you for the tour of the conservatory which is such a beautiful place in so many ways.

  • Now that freezing weather has arrived in the Northeast, it makes those Dutchman Pipes all the more fantastic. Wish I could grow them here. Here’s hoping I win!!!!!!

  • Thank you for sharing. I believe I need to take trip to the SF Conservatory very soon!

  • Thanks for posting, makes me want to go! Hope you are feeling better soon. Love it when I see a new post from you, thank you.

  • I visited the Conservatory shorty after it was remodeled and was blown away by the care and thought that went into restoring the building and the beautiful plant displays! At that time they had the most incredible begonias…Looks like I need to plan another visit to see those aquariums! Thanks for a great post!

  • I’ve noticed as I age I have a need for more green in my garden. I used to just focus on blooms & never appreciated foilage.

    I’d never heard of underwater Aquascapes! I’ll be checking this out – I’d love to see some in real life.

  • Perfect timing. Relatives are coming from the midwest for Thanksgiving and this will be where we take them. Haven’t been there for a long while myself; will sure to be a great way to entertain them.

  • I have never been to this conservatory. It is now on my list of places to visit in San Francisco. Have you been to the conservatory in Pittsburgh?

  • Living in New Orleans, I have to say tropicals are some of my favorite plants. I swooned the other day at a purple elephants ear.

  • I really enjoyed the post. Such a beautiful conservatory. The art and the underwater gardening displays are wonderful. There is not much chance of my getting to San Francisco, but I am about 90 minutes away from the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Your post has inspired me to visit their conservatory because it has been such a long time since I have been there.

  • I enjoyed the photos you took. As a newcomer to photography and a lover of plants, your article was very inspiring and as always educational…thanks!

  • That is an amazing place. One couldn’t help but feel somewhat better in all ways with a visit there. Thanks for sharing your photos. It would be a welcome relief to winter (as it’s now being called) in the Midwest.

  • I have always wanted to visit the SF Conservatory. Thank you for the tour. Wow! Amazing plants and art forms!

  • I love that you share the world with us. It allows me to see places and things that I would not. You have an amazing eye for seeing things.

  • Thanks for the vicarious visit to the Conservatory. I’d love to explore it for myself someday, but in the meantime, I appreciate seeing it through your eyes.

  • I’ve been to the Conservatory several times and it really is remarkable. The beauty and life force there is bound to affect anyone in a deep way.

    Those aquascapes are stunning – too bad I wasn’t in California now or I’d be heading over this afternoon to see them!

  • Your photos of the pitcher plants are wonderful!!! makes me want to grow/purchase some of my own.

  • The S.F. Conservatory of Flowers is beautiful! Thanks for the chance to win this awesome giveaway!

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