Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, CA

What a pot holds. . ..

In my garden there is a large plastic yellow flower pot which I purchased decades ago at the FW Woolworth store.  Its survived several moves from house to new house and years of intense heat.  Throughout the years its been blown over, pushed around and sometimes ignored. I am amazed it is still intact. (“Benjamin, just one word: plastics.” The Graduate) Even as my garden style evolved a yellow pot w/ a scalloped  edge was easily worked into an  arrangement of other container plantings.  Today it holds a group of succulents and it holds a part of my story.

Wandering through gardens you see pots, urns, containers, vessels all carefully positioned to create a point of interest or highlight a significant plant specimen to garden visitors.  Classic terra cotta clay, brightly colored glazes, stone, and metal pots all are quickly put to use in holding plants.  Yet plants can live in all kinds of containers and sometimes the container itself holds the more intriguing story.

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers inGolden Gate Park there is a Potted Plants Gallery featuring a unique collection of pots from around the world. This victorian style Conservatory of Flowers opened in 1879.  Originally a wood & glass greenhouse kit designed to imitate the Kew Conservatory or Crystal Palace in London, England it was ordered by wealthy business man James Lick.  As with a lot of us who buy kits Mr. Lick never assembled it and after his death it was eventually constructed in Golden Gate Park.  Loved and visited for over 100 years the conservatory was closed for renovation in 1998 after an intense windstorm did structural damage.  During its refurbishment old items in storage were sorted through and a special item from 1915 was found. An ornate travertine plaster urn, measuring over 3’ high and nearly 4’ wide, created for the Panama Pacific International Exposition was recovered. Forgotten in storage the urn was cleaned, restored and positioned in the conservatory for its reopening in 2005.  The Beaux Arts (grand and opulent) urn now anchors the gallery of potted plants. Urns of all types, some decorative others repurposed from very humble origins, add great interest to the west wing of the conservatory.

The travertine urn from 1915 now filled with colorful flowers draws your attention immediately.  Centered to allow you to walk all around admiring its cherubs, scrolls and patterned trims it  is a container of great luxury worthy of its crowning position in the conservatory.

In contrast to this ornate design there is an ancient Chinese hand carved  granite vessel originally used by farmers for feeding livestock.  Rough, heavy and textured by crude carving tools and years of use it is over 3’ in diameter.  It now holds a stand of bamboo.

Other containers once used to hold life’s essentials of food, milk, oil and grain now hold plants along with their history.  From Africa there are ceramic food jars made by the Mossi Babo tribe,  and from India brass vessels originally used to carry holy water from the Ganges River to the temples.  A Brazilian carved stone vessel originally used to carry drinking water (think how heavy that would have been!) now holds plants in the gallery.

A black coconut palm log from Java Indonesia, hollowed out  and polished to a splendid  shine, once a plant and now holds plants.

Hand made pots with raised patterns and scalloped edges come from Guatemala.  Still others are from  Bolivia, Viet Nam, Thailand and Cambodia.  San Francisco such an international city offers both residents and visitors a chance to see and touch these diverse and beautiful containers.

These pots touched by hands of many generations for the purpose of living day to day now stand nobly holding plants and offering their stories.  Pots go beyond pretty in our gardens.  They add texture, colors and interesting shape among the shades of green. They can remind  us of our own history and how long all of us have needed such vessels to carry on the work of living.

Maybe as the weather is cooling down we can all go digging  through our storage items and find a pot, urn or such with some of our own history that can be used to hold a plant in our garden and remind us of a story.  As for my yellow plastic pot from the FW Woolworth, the handsome young manager there helped me with my shopping and after all these years he is still moving my flower pots.

originally published in Roots & Shoots


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