San Francisco Botanical Garden About San Francisco Botanical Garden


In the 1860's, San Francisco was a booming city fueled by the Gold Rush and the first transcontinental railroad. Civic leaders envisioned a large park and arboretum similar to those in European cities and the eastern United States. Skeptics argued that the proposed location in the western part of the city consisted mainly of windswept, shifting sand dunes and was therefore an unwise choice.

Planning Golden Gate Park

But from 1870 to 1876, Army-trained engineer William Hammond Hall made a strong beginning, creating a detailed site survey and a preliminary design for the Park. Appointed Engineer of the Park, over the next five years, he leveled and stabilized the sand dunes and established a nursery to supply the first 60,000 trees. Curved roads and tree plantings were designed to temper the ocean winds and provide a natural, rustic, and informal appearance. Golden Gate Park rapidly became a great success with the public.

Ploughing the dunes to create Golden Gate Park.

The development of Golden Gate Park into one of the world's great parks is due largely to the vision, skill, and long life span of John McLaren, who served as the park's superintendent from 1887 to 1943. Trained as a landscape gardener in Scotland, he built up a worldwide network for acquiring promising plants for trial and created the many informal landscapes for which the Park is known to this day.


Planting San Francisco Botanical Garden

John McLaren, Golden Gate Park Superintendent, 1887-1943.

John McLaren, Golden Gate Park Superintendent, 1887-1943.

In 1890, McLaren selected the present location for a future botanical garden, based on the presence of "a variety of soil and exposure, sloping, dry and sunny hillsides, sheltered spots and rich, low or marshy land." The Garden finally became a reality in 1926 when Helene Strybing, the prosperous widow of a San Francisco merchant, provided the necessary funds in her bequest to the city to establish an arboretum and botanical garden in Golden Gate Park. The funds gradually became available in the 1930s to break ground.

Helene Strybing, 1845-1926.

Helene Strybing, 1845-1926.

In 1937, Eric Walther, the Garden's first director, was appointed by McClaren and remained in the position for 20 productive years until his retirement. Walther experimented with a variety of plants from many parts of the world. Construction and planting were carried out with the help of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program designed to provide jobs for unemployed workers during the Great Depression.


The Garden Opens and Grows

In 1940, the Garden opened officially as an arboretum and botanical garden, designed around a central axis that still exists between the central fountain and the Zellerbach Garden of Perennials. Paths radiating from the central axis lead to collections of plants from around the world.

In 1955, the friends and associates of Arboretum director Eric Walther helped to establish the Strybing Arboretum Society to support the continued development of the Botanical Garden and to provide educational programs.

Robert Tetlow and perspective drawing for the Great Meadow

Robert Tetlow and perspective drawing for the "Great Meadow".

In 1959, landscape architect Robert Tetlow prepared a master plan, including features such as the great meadow, the fountain, and the basic layout of the present gardens. Later, in 1986, he designed the Friend Gate at the northern entrance to the Garden, named in honor of Eugene L. Friend, emeritus president of the Recreation and Park Commission and a longtime supporter of the Botanical Garden.

During the 1970s, the Moon-Viewing Garden was designed, and the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture opened, becoming Northern California's largest horticultural library. We invite you to use this excellent facility to learn more about the history and plants of the Botanical Garden and of Golden Gate Park.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Director Walden Valen revised the plant collections plan to take better advantage of the mild coastal climate, expanding the collections from Mediterranean and other mild temperate climate regions.

In the early 2000's, director Scot Medbury led the renovation of seven gardens, including the Ancient Plant, Rhododendron, and Chilean Gardens, and began planting the Southeast Asian Cloud Forest, the first of its kind anywhere.

In 2004, Strybing Arboretum changed its name to San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, and the Arboretum Society followed suit, becoming San Francisco Botanical Garden Society at Strybing Arboretum.



Golden Gate Park has seen great changes since its origins in the 1870s. Similarly, San Francisco Botanical Garden has undergone steady development since its opening in 1940. Both Park and Garden have historically been and will continue to be works in progress. Each few years bring newly designed gardens and an ever-changing collection of plants to the Garden. Every season ushers in new sights and experiences.

Manzanita in the California Native Garden. Photo by Saxon Holt.

Manzanita in the California Native Garden. Photo by Saxon Holt.

As botanical gardens are about connecting people to plants, today San Francisco Botanical Garden Society supports a thriving youth education program, serving 10,000 school children annually, offers free, daily docent-led tours to visitors of all ages, sponsors community events and outreach, and maintains the most comprehensive horticultural library in northern California. The Society also funds and supervises Garden improvements, provides curatorial and plant collections management services, and propagates plants for the Garden and for sale to the public.


Then & Now

Then and Now exhibit

Adventure through the Garden's history in a special 75th Anniversary online photo exhibit juxtaposing more than 75 classic and modern photos.

The Garden in World Context

Golden Gate Park 1879 – Golden Gate Park is planted with Monterey cypress, Monterey pine, and blue gum eucalyptus.

1890 – A site is designated for an eventual arboretum and botanical garden; a bond issue to establish it fails. The site is preserved and planted with trees, including the mature and massive trees that presently grow in the Redwood Grove.

1926 – Helene Strybing makes a bequest to establish an arboretum; the money is gradually made available for use in the 1930s and 1940s.

1939 – Works Progress Administration (WPA) plans for the Garden, under the direction of Eric Walther, include a geographic plant display theme, selected so plants can be grouped according to water requirements.

San Francisco Botanical Garden sign 1940 – San Francisco Botanical Garden opens as Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. First cup and saucer magnolia to bloom in the U.S. is at the Garden. Today, the Garden is recognized by the leading international botanical conservation organization as having the most significant Magnolia collection for conservation purposes outside China.

1948 – The establishment of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls for "the planet's resources to be used in a wise and equitable manner."

1949 – A more detailed plan designed by Prentiss French relocates the arboretum headquarters to 9th Avenue and Lincoln Way and creates "the long lawn." Sites for South American, Eastern Australian, and New Zealand Gardens are determined.

1955 – The nonprofit Strybing Arboretum Society is established to support the continued development of the Botanical Garden and to provide educational programs.

1958 – The first endangered species list is published.

1959 – A new master plan designed by Robert Tetlow gives the Garden its current modernist character; a central elliptical open space with a simple fountain is the central way-finding element.

Elizabeth McClintock 1960 – Botanist Elizabeth McClintock helps halt plans to construct a freeway through the Botanical Garden. The Hall of Flowers is built and dedicated. Flower shows for the next 35 years bring visits from Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Rosalyn Carter, Emperor Hirohito, and Princess Margaret, among others. The building's name is officially changed to the San Francisco County Fair Building in 1986.

1962 – In Silent Spring Rachel Carson warns about DDT; it is the birth of the modern environmental era.

1968 – Raymond Dasmann coins the term "biological diversity," which becomes "biodiversity" by the mid-1980s. A children's garden is planted.

1970 – The Environmental Protection Act is enacted. World population: 4.45 billion.

Books in the  Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture 1972 – The Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture opens and develops Northern California's most comprehensive collection of horticultural materials.

1980 – Andean wax palm, the tallest palm in the world, planted in what would become the Andean Cloud Forest collection. The Garden now has one of the most comprehensive collections of high-elevation palm species known in any botanical garden in the world.

Deppea splendens 1984 – Mesoamerican Cloud Forest planting begins. Over three decades this collection has matured to represent a typical cloud forest plant community and includes many rare and endangered plants.

1985 – A hole in the ozone layer is detected.

1995 – A new Master Plan for the Garden is created and incorporated into the Master Plan for Golden Gate Park, adopted in 1998. With help from private donors and public funds, there have been a number of Garden renovations and improvements in furtherance of the Master Plan, which continues to guide planning today.

1996 – City and county ordinances mandate a drastic reduction in the use of pesticides at city-owned facilities; SFBG becomes a main laboratory, sharing "integrated pest management" practices developed here.

1997 – The Kyoto Protocol is established to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Southeast Asian Cloud Forest planting begins. This garden, along with the Andean Cloud Forest and Mesoamerican Cloud Forest, makes SFBG the only garden in the world to host three cloud forest collections outside their native habitats.

2000 – World population: 6 billion.

2001 – The International Panel on Climate Change reports global warming due to human activities.

2004 – Strybing Arboretum changed its name to San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, and the Strybing Arboretum Society follows suit becoming San Francisco Botanical Garden Society at Strybing Arboretum.

Franciscan manzanita by Stan Shebs 2010 – The International Union for the Conservation of Nature finds that one-fifth of the world's 380,000 known plant species are in danger of extinction. A supremely rare manzanita is found in the Presidio; cuttings are preserved at San Francisco Botanical Garden.

2012 – Scientists warn we are undergoing a "sixth mass extinction" event. World population: 7 billion.

2013 – Building permit granted for the Nursery: Center for Sustainable Gardening. The Center will contribute to the Garden's status as a truly great garden, not only for its collections but also for its environmental leadership, sustainable propagation and conservation practices, and inspiring visitor experience.

2015 – The Garden celebrates its 75th Anniversary.

SFBGS and San Francisco Recreation and Park Department San Francisco Botanical Garden's beauty and value as a major cultural resource are the result of a successful public/private partnership between San Francisco Botanical Garden Society and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

ADMISSION  FREE for Members, SF Residents (with proof of residency) & School Groups | $9 Non-residents | Discounts for Seniors, Families & Children

LOCATED In Golden Gate Park, with entrances at the corner of Ninth Ave. at Lincoln Way (Main Gate) & at MLK Jr. Drive off the Music Concourse (Friend/North Gate) | Phone: (415) 661-1316 | Mail: 1199 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122-2370

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