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On the origins and turbulent history of the Imperial Philodendron (Thaumatophyllum speciosum) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers
Last Edit: 2018/7/31
There are a few individual specimens of Thaumatophyllum that have become notable because of their history or cultural significance. The Thaumatophyllum speciosum or "Imperial Philodendron" that has made its home in the humid and warm confines of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers is perhaps one of the most famous. This institution is the oldest existing public conservatory in the western hemisphere, and the centerpiece of its collections is the magnificent 100 plus-year old aroid, which they have fondly named "Phil."
Phil's origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery, but its existence was first noted in conservatory inventories that accompanied the Park Commissioner's Report of 1902. In her article on the Imperial Philodendron, staff member Arielle Johnson notes that Phil may have originally been derived from specimens at the Schoenbrunn Palace Gardens in Austria. These gardens opened in 1779, and in 1820 received and cultivated Imperial Philodendrons collected by the Austrian botanist Heinrich Wilhelm Schott just outside Rio de Janero city in Brazil.
Notwithstanding its origins, in the decades that followed, Phil managed to survive a variety of challenges that would have perhaps defeated lesser aroids. These included the 1906 San Franciso earthquake, which killed more than a thousand people and laid waste to the city, as well as a Conservatory fire in 1918 and a 13-year closure beginning in 1933 due to structural problems in the building.
The major challenge to its long life however, occurred in December 1995, when a windstorm caused damage to the Conservatory’s structure and rare plants were lost. The damage was so extensive that in early 1998, the Conservatory was placed on the 100 most Endangered World Monuments list by the World Monuments Fund, and it was only because of then First Lady Hillary Clinton's Millennium Council projects that enough publicity was achieved to raise money for its restoration.
Reconstruction began in Spring 2000, and over the next 3 years the Conservatory was completely dismantled and then re-assembled. Almost all the plants located inside were dug up and relocated, with the exception of Phil, which had attached itself securely to the building using its long adventitious roots.
In order to protect Phil from the outside environment (the temperature dropped below freezing for several days during the disastrous windstorm), scaffolding was erected around the aroid, then two layers of plastic sheeting wrapped around to provide an enclosed space. Heat, light, ventilation, and mist were provided by an environmental control system that had been programmed to telephone staff if the temperature inside the enclosure dropped below 15°C. They could then use a back-up generator and auxiliary heaters to protect against freezing.
When the Conservatory of Flowers finally re-opened on September 20, 2003, Phil emerged after 8 years of absence even stronger than ever, its thick roots grasping new steel supports and its enormous leaves unfurling towards the waiting sun.