primordial tree fern dell in golden gate park

tree fern dell sketch

Tree Fern Dell in Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

The shady Tree Fern Dell in Golden Gate Park is so different in mood from the sunny, flower-filled Conservatory Valley on the other side of JFK Drive.  But this jungly dell well represents the flip side of the Victorian sensibility, a fascination with the exotic and the primordial, with far-flung adventure and voyages of exploration, places where evolution took a different course.

The historic origins of this collection are somewhat murky;  it seems likely that it grew over time, under the direction of John McLaren, perhaps enhanced by planting from the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 and further amended in 1939 in when the Conservatory Valley was redesigned.

Most of the trees in this grove are Tasmanian tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica),  native to Tasmania as well as Eastern Australia (from Queensland south to Victoria).  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:  “Tree ferns have a lengthy fossil record stretching back to the Triassic Period (251 to 199.6 million years ago). Members of  .  .  .  Dicksoniaceae appear to have been diverse and relatively common during the succeeding Jurassic Period (199.6 to 145.5 million years ago) and Cretaceous Period(145.5 to 65.5 million years ago). However, the modern genera only become evident during the early Cenozoic (65.5 to 2.6 million years ago). Thus, the tree ferns apparently were affected by the mass extinction event recorded across nearly all groups of organisms at the close of the Cretaceous Period.”  In other words, many of them went the way of the dinosaurs.  But unlike the dinosaurs, they made a comeback, exploiting new ecological niches in subsequent eras.

Adding to the other-worldly imagery in this corner of the park is the out-sized Chilean rhubarb (Gunnera tictoria), which forms a dark green, impenetrable thicket around the base of the tree ferns.  No doubt the mix of continents enhances the outlandish effect, as the huge Gunnera leaves play off the shaggy, mottled trunks sprouting enormous fern fronds out the top.  This weird forest plays havoc with a conventional sense of scale as well as time.

Small wonder that the final scene of Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Kahn was apparently shot here;  the scene in which Spock’s casket ends up on the Genesis planet.  What more fitting setting for that scene than this primeval forest, smoke wafting from unseen smoke machines as Nimoy’s monologue suggests that Spock may live again.


About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in arts, gardens, plants, trees/urban forest and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to primordial tree fern dell in golden gate park

  1. I love the painting!

  2. Thank You for this post!

  3. Thanks for posting this. Tree ferns are magnificent – for their own beauty and for the fact that they existed along with the dinosaurs. (Not *these* tree ferns, of course, but tree-ferns.)

  4. sparrow says:

    Ha, love the detail about Star Wars–and the sketch! 🙂

  5. Thanks for this comment. I’ve amended the post to include something about the prehistoric record on these plants.

  6. Stephen Kane says:

    Love the entry and the sketch! It’s a great area, even if the nearby pond is now fenced off for extensive clean-up. As for Star Trek, who needs smoke when you have fog?

  7. Stephen Kane says:

    Reblogged this on Seen and commented:
    Here’s a great blog entry from landscape historian Heath Massey. It appeared May 27 in her blog “Views from the Thicket.”

  8. Thanks for posting that information about the prehistoric record… but dinosaurs did make a come-back, too, of sorts. As birds.

  9. Wow! Birds descended from dinosaurs?! Thanks for posting that link. Fascinating!

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