A Gardener’s Look at the California Academy of Sciences

Seedlings of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) rooting in the Mangrove Exhibit.

I was in San Francisco last week and spent a day in Golden Gate Park. The weather was perfect, cool in the morning, warm in the afternoon and sunny all the time. And what great gardens! Let’s start with the California Academy of Sciences.

Of course, this institution is not a garden per se: it’s a science museum. And quite expensive: $29.95 per adult… but worth every penny. I might have passed it up, except I heard the magic words: Rainforest Exhibit! A walk-in indoor jungle will get my attention every time.

Of course, there is much more than just a rainforest in this interactive natural sciences museum (my definition). There is a planetarium (which I didn’t see: astronomy is not my thing), displays of evolution, explanations of how plants and animals island-hop (having been to the Galapagos, which are featured, I found that exhibit very interesting) and a really earth-shaking (literally) earthquake exhibit. I especially liked the aquarium: I’m a sucker for colorful fish and walk-through aquariums. I don’t need the dancing dolphin shows. I’d give it 5 stars.

The giant dome of the Rainforest exhibit.

Of course, my main objective in visiting the Academy was to visit the Rainforest of the Word Exhibit. And it was spectacular! Under a 4-storey giant dome, tall trees reach up for the sky (I recognized Pachira aquatica, in full bloom by the way). Ferns, aroids and gesneriads wander along the ground and over fallen trunks while bromeliads and orchids festoon the branches. A spiraling walkway works its way upward around the exhibit with displays of animals (mostly colorful frogs and lizards) from different rainforest biomes around the world. Butterflies flitter among the plants and there are some rarely great green walls of epiphytic plants. Really quite remarkable. On the downside, the animals were labeled, but not the plants.

Other horticultural highlights? There was a truly wonderful green wall in the Piazza, although I think it may have been temporary. And of course, this platinum-rated building has an astounding green with window-spotted domes raising above a flat plane of natives plants. Not much colour there in January, but it was easy to see who interesting it would be in warmer months. As I visited, I spotted, but failed to photograph, a hummingbird (maybe an Anna’s), obviously a regular visitor to the roof.

A great visit! Don’t miss if you ever get to San Francisco. It took me 2 hours to take in just part of the museum, so I’d suggest allowing at least 3 hours for the visit, maybe more. There is a cafeteria if you’re there at meal time.

More on other San Francisco gardens coming up. And here are a few more photos.


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