San Francisco Botanical Garden

Because of schedules and timetables and prior commitments, I knew I would have one full day in San Francisco to spend on my own. So I got an early start. BART dropped me off at the 16th Street station shy of 8am, where I walked past businesses still sleeping behind graffitied metal shutters. I feasted on a soft red pepper quiche from Tartine and bagged up half of my morning bun before hopping on a MUNI heading west.

I’d read that the San Francisco Botanical Garden was free as long as you arrived before 9am, and that’s exactly what I did. I strolled across Lincoln Way, down the most beautiful Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive I’d ever been on, and walked right through the garden’s open gate.

There are a lot of benefits to getting to the botanical garden early.

Japanese anemones, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Aeoniums, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Before 9am, you’ll have the place to yourself. You can wander from corner to corner, circling around cloud forests and through redwood trails without hearing so much as another footstep. The only people I encountered were staff: quietly deadheading, pruning, hosing down. And where the staff couldn’t reach, the irrigation system compensated. Hundreds of automatically timed sprinklers shuddered from behind wide leaves and brilliant inflorescence. As I went through the garden, I ran to dodge the great arcs of water. I shielded my camera from the unchecked droplets and watched the sun glitter in the periodic downpour.

Wet agaves, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Morning desert plants, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Bright green succulents at the San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Rainbow in the sprinklers in the desert area of the San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Before 9am, you can wander the garden freely. Just up a short hill, beyond the sun-loving succulents, I found backstage. Plants-in-process. There were no elaborate planting schemes, or well-placed interpretive plaques. Back here, in the far corner of the garden, young plants sat tucked into their plastic trays, tagged with their scientific names, staked and tied in white plastic hoop houses. Under the shade of a row of giant eucalyptus trees and below the looming Sutro Tower, I imagined what it would be like to work in the gardens, to care for the greenery, to see the early morning sun touch their leaves every day.

Moss growing at the San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Nursery area at the San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Succulents in a hoop house, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Succulents in a hoop house, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Succulents in a hoop house, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

That light, that unique light, is perhaps the best benefit to getting to the garden before 9am. The early morning sun is sly and generous, its angled beams streaming and pooling on the edges of silhouetted fronds. Before the sun reaches its midday high point, shadows are long and deep, pushing the bright colors of the foliage into even starker contrast. There’s a haze in the air, most likely still settling dew, that catches the light and turns it a warming yellow green. That light, like the morning itself, is a quiet secret: curling your lips at the corners; begging to be told; pressing on your lungs until they swiftly inhale and when you open your mouth, the sound that’s released is peppered with birdsong.

Plants in dappled sunlight, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Bird's eye view of a plant at the San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Jerusalem sage, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

Wide view of the San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

View through the bamboo, San Francisco Botanical Garden / Darker than Green

San Francisco Botanical Garden is 55 acres of walkable garden paradise, located in Golden Gate Park. It’s easily accessible via public transportation, many MUNI buses drive right by. If you’re planning to get there early in the morning, bring a jacket with you. San Francisco is beautiful, but it can get pretty chilly.


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