By George McConnell
In the works since 1995, with detailed planning beginning about four years ago, Golden Gate Park’s Strybing Arboretum will soon boast a new $13.1 million hothouse and nursery complex.
In an era of budgetary restrictions, that might seem like an extravagance. In this case, however, patrons of the popular 70-year-old arboretum are the beneficiaries of generous gifts as private donations will fund the entire project, according to Michael McKechnie, executive director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, an organization which raises funds to support the garden.
The nursery it replaces dates back 45 years. The new nursery is large, totaling 9,860 square feet, and will provide ample room for expansion. The typical six-room Victorian flat in San Francisco is about 1,500 square feet, so that gives you an idea of its size, McKechnie said.
Currently planned for the southwest corner of the arboretum, near the Children’s Garden located between 14th and 15th avenues, the new nursery will not be visible from the entrance of the arboretum. But for those who work there, its addition and operations will be deeply felt. The arboretum cultivates more than 7,500 plant species from around the planet, each with individual growing requirements, such as soil, water and climate, that must be taken into consideration.
There will be three components to the nursery, according to McKechnie: a hothouse for initial cultivation, a shadehouse where plants are transferred after successfully taking root and await transplantation, and a headquarter house.
Temperatures inside the nursery will vary, with heated tables holding the seedlings of a wide variety of plants, from rhododendrons, ferns, horsetails, heathers, aloes, wild ginger and California poppies, to the more exotic, such as Japanese anemone, Mexican sage brush, Chinese paperbush, blue bamboo, Chilean bellflower and Darwin barberry, a plant originally collected by Charles Darwin in 1835.
Although it is a working facility and will be closed to the public, people can get an in-depth look at some of the work that goes on behind the scenes at public observation sections in the nursery, McKechnie said.
The idea for an arboretum began in 1926 with a large donation from a wealthy San Francisco benefactor, Helene Strybing, for the creation of a botanical garden. Planning and work began in the 1930s as funds gradually became available. It officially opened in 1940.
Because summer days typically remain under 80 degrees and only a few winter nights are colder than 40 degrees in San Francisco, the arboretum’s collection features trees and shrubs that few botanical gardens can grow outdoors, according to McKechnie.
The 55-acre arboretum is a work in progress, said McKechnie, who has been the executive director for nearly 10 years. Today, he believes it is on the cusp of a Renaissance.
Strybing is one of a handful of public gardens worldwide to have a significant collection of Southern Hemisphere plants with its Chilean, New Zealand, Australian and South Africa gardens, which were all part of the original Gondwana Continent.
Currently, the arboretum is finishing the design for its Southeast Asian Cloud Forest Garden, which will incorporate 19th century Thai artifacts from the Doris Duke Foundation and a collection of plants collected in the highlands of Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and mainland Southeast Asia.
About 1.5 million visitors pass through the arboretum’s gates each year. In addition, more than 10,000 San Francisco public school students visit each year and more than 2,500 attend classes. Admission is free.