The first thing you'll notice when you walk into Edible Expeditions, the newest exhibit at the Conservatory of Flowers, is the incredible smell. A row of small citrus trees lines the path near the door, and the flowers' sweet honey scent hits you the way the humidity does in other parts of the Conservatory. As the path winds through plants from around the world, organized by continent, the buddha's hand citron and the kumquat fade into the curry tree and then the allspice. It's a tropical and sub-tropical collection, so you won't get any ideas for your garden here, but it's a chance to see some plants you eat, and a bunch you probably don't.
Mike Gonzalez, the exhibits manager at the Conservatory said he worked to find a balance in the show between plants that have economic importance, like pineapples and cacao, and plants with ethnobotanical interest (and incredible names) like the chestnut dioon and the variegated monster fruit, less well-known because they aren't commercially available.
It's not a flashy exhibit, and it doesn't have the macabre allure of 2007's carnivorous plants show (many of those carnivorous plants have joined the permanent collection in the aquatic plants room, so after visiting the edible plants, you can cross the building to visit the ones that eat). But there are surprises, familiar foods, growing out of places I didn't expect, join strange fruits I had never heard of. Pineapples squat in the middle of spiky ground-hugging bromeliads; vanilla beans hang from a viney, leggy orchid; an enormous jack fruit -- they can reach 80 pounds -- sits on the display table, next to a scaley, lime green cherimoya.
Not everything is in bloom though, and you can't see the edible parts of every plant in the room. Flowers don't automatically open when a new show does, so the exhibit will change through the year as different plants come in to season. I'll have to go back to see the ice cream bean tree, not yet in fruit when I visited (word is that the pulp tastes like cotton candy). And other plants, difficult to import either because of their rarity or because of California agricultural import restrictions, are just getting established from seed. A cinnamon tree, only a couple inches tall, isn't on display yet. But the exhibit is augmented by lovely botanical drawings, and the Conservatory is working with the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market to keep fresh exotic fruits around for visitors to touch and smell.
There's not a lot to taste, though, and all those enticing flavors pose a problem. Gonzalez says people keep picking the fruit off the trees for themselves. It's not totally surprising; he says he and his staff enjoyed eating their way through the research and assembly of the show. It sounds a bit like America's Test Kitchen: figuring out how to prepare and eat plants that are sharp, smelly, and sometimes poisonous. I'm glad to hear that our foraging instincts are still intact, but it's a risky business if you don't know what you're grabbing. So come smell the citrus trees, heft the jack fruit, and check out the dragon eye, but be advised that eating too much dioon may cause brain damage.
Edible Expeditions is at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park through November 1, 2009. Visit the Conservatory of Flowers website for more information.