It was a cold day for a trek through the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, but we headed out bundled in scarves and mittens to learn more about the vast green-space in Golden Gate Park.


Our guide was Joe Barbaccia, a park docent for fifteen years. Under his enthusiastic guidance we entered the gardens to learn more about the history and significance of its plantings.

Tree planting in Golden Gate Park began in the 1880s in the panhandle under the guidance of park superintendent John McLaren, beginning the slow transformation of over 1,000 acres of shifting sand dunes into the park we know today. The area in the Botanical Garden now known as the Great Lawn was once used as a carriage turn around, indicating the end of the visitable city for people living in the fashionable bay front districts.

Today the Botanical Gardens cover fifty-five acres of land in Golden Gate Park, including native species, amazing redwoods, and specimens from from all of the Mediterranean climates in the world.


The Garden of Fragrance is one of our favorite areas, dedicated to plants that stimulate the olfactory senses. The garden was built in 1965 specifically to offer those with limited or no sight a welcoming experience, accompanied by a terrific audio tour available online. Signs welcome visitors to touch and smell the plants from lemon verbena and rosemary to the yerba buena mint for which our city was originally named. We were particularly intrigued by Escallonia myrtoidia, an unassuming looking leafy shrub plant native to Chile whose leaves smell of maple syrup.


Scattered throughout the gardens (as well as elsewhere in Golden Gate Park) are stones from a 12th century Spanish monastery, brought to San Francisco by William Randolph Hearst in 1930 with the intention of building another elaborate and eclectic mansion in Northern California. The Great Depression got in the way of his grand plans, however, and the stone never left San Francisco. After many years of laying in a piles behind the Japanese Tea Gardens, they were eventually scavenged by gardeners and park workers and transformed into walls and decorative pieces. A portion of the stones did find their way back into building form, reconstructed by the original religious order from whom they had been taken, in Vina, California. Once you learn to spot them in the Botanical Garden, they are everywhere.



We were lucky enough to catch the very end of the blooming cycle of the Passiflora parritae, a beautiful and huge orange colored blossom that hangs from the vine like Japanese lanterns. Once open, they fall to the ground. Described as the “holy grail of passionflowers”, there are only three known cultivated examples of this particular plant in botanical gardens, and it it thought to be extinct in the wild. This was one of the last blooms of the season.


Several examples of poisonous plants reside in the gardens. This beautiful purple Iochroma hybrid is a relative of the Brugmansia, the “Angel’s Trumpets” popular in San Francisco. All parts of the Brugmansia are toxic, acting as potent hallucinogen, not to be trifled with. Part of the deadly nightshade family, South American native cultures use the plant to treat an assortment of ailments, but is also is darkly rumored to have been used to drug unfortunate minions before being buried alive with their masters.

Other lovely examples of Brugmansia are located throughout the gardens.

Carol Laughlin, Director of Community Engagement at the gardens is helping us assemble a line up of unusual insider opportunities to explore the garden, from looks for poisonous plants, to after dark explorations and volunteer days to get our hands dirty and help the gardens grow. We are looking forward to getting to see the seasons unfold in the coming year.

After our exploration of the outside lands, we headed inside to the Helen Crocker Russell Horticultural Library, a hidden gem at the front of the gardens. Inside we were greeted by Head Librarian Brandy Kuhl, who had laid out a selection of books and treasures from the library’s collections, including rare botanical works, vintage plant catalogs and books on all manner of plants.


Built in 1979 as a private/public partnership, the library is a treasure trove of books on local plant cultivation, intended to be a local resource not only for botanists and specialists, but also for backyard gardeners and locals interested in identifying a plant found on local wanders or wanting to know if a particular tree or shrub will thrive in the city’s micro-climates.

After an introduction to the resources available, she showed us a few of the special treasures of the collection.


The library holds a small collection of rare books, usually off limits and only available to researchers. This rare edition of John Gerard’s Herball dates to 1636, and is the first volume of its kind to have been widely published in English. It is richly illustrated with gorgeous engravings like these two.

The oldest volume in the collection is a German botanical, illustrated with woodcuts from 1502. These and other books from the rare books collection are available to view upon special request, with gloves. 


Tucked away at the back of the library we had the opportunity to peek at this amazing collection of historic slides showing early images of the Golden Gate Park and San Francisco in general. Many of the places shown in these images (like the rustic bride in the top center slide) no longer exist, so this is an extraordinary opportunity to get a peek at the lost city.

We left with heads full of planty facts and enthusiastic plans for the future. We are looking forward to getting our hands dirty and seeing what the gardens look like in the spring.


GARDEN OF FRAGRANCE, San Francisco, California
SPANISH MONASTERY STONES, San Francisco, California

The San Francisco Botanical Gardens are open every day starting at 9am, rain or shine. Entry is free to all San Francisco residents with ID, a nominal fee of $2-$7 dollars applies for everyone else. Docent tours are available daily at 1:30pm. Take a sneak peek of the Gardens of Fragrance with the virtual tour and downloadable walking tour

The Helen Crocker Russell Library is open Wed-Mon 10am-4pm. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Special collections are available to researchers upon request. Children’s storytime is held at 11:00am on the first and third Sunday every month.


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