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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
Plans for the future include building the Nursery: Center for Sustainable Gardening (targeted for LEED Platinum certification) that will enable both the Recreation and Park Department and Botanical Garden Society staff and volunteers to maintain and expand plant propagation and growing activities in a safe and improved work environment. The Center will contribute to the Garden's status as a truly great garden, cherished locally and respected globally, not only for its collections but also for its environmental leadership, sustainable propagation and conservation practices, and inspiring visitor experience.