Plan­tosaurus: The Con­ser­va­tory of Flow­ers in Golden Gate Park spot­lights an­cient plants along with some extinct fauna, left.

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Joe Ea­ton and Ron Sul­li­van

Yes, that’s a Tyran­nosaurus rex head pok­ing out of the Con­ser­va­tory of Flow­ers roof. No, there aren’t hal­lu­cino­gens in the Golden Gate Park fog. The beast is part of “Plan­tosaurus Rex,” a new exhibition of an­cient plants that runs through Oct. 21.

“I was a huge di­nosaur nerd as a kid,” ad­mit­ted Direc­tor of Op­er­a­tions and Ex­hi­bi­tions Lau Hodges, who put the dis­play together and

wrote its ex­plana­tory book­let. “It was a dream come true, a chance to show a lot of plants we don’t of­ten dis­play.”

She wanted to tell a story of adap­ta­tion, how plants re­sponded to the planet’s chang­ing ge­og­ra­phy and cli­mate and how they co-evolved with an­i­mals.

She wanted to en­gage young vis­i­tors, com­bin­ing life­like (and some­times life-size) di­nosaur sculp­tures by Sonoma County artist Brid­get Keimel with mod­ern rel­a­tives of an­cient plants. The show is tied together by Saxon Holt’s gor­geous, evoca­tive pho­to­mu­rals.

“Lau told me she wanted a T. rex bust­ing through the roof,” Keimel said. “It’s pretty much a com­pos­ite. I found a plas­tic model at a toy store that had the right po­si­tion and used it as my ba­sis, throw­ing in ideas from other artists’ work.”

Although some pa­le­on­tol­o­gists be­lieve tyran­nosaurs may have had feathers, Keimel’s has the tra­di­tional scaly hide: “We wanted a tex­ture that would hold up to the hu­mid­ity, and it would be a lot more time-con­sum­ing to have feathers.”

A long, long time ago

The con­ser­va­tory’s time trip be­gins 250 mil­lion years ago in the Tri­as­sic Pe­riod of the Me­so­zoic Era, when life on Earth was re­cov­er­ing from the mother of all mass ex­tinc­tions at the end of the Per­mian.

Op­por­tunis­tic plants like ferns and horse­tails — still the first to come back af­ter vol­canic erup­tions and other up­heavals — re­col­o­nized the bar­ren su­per­con­ti­nent of Pan­gaea. The di­nosaurs were just get­ting started, vy­ing for supremacy with older rep­tile lin­eages.

Then comes the Juras­sic, the Me­so­zoic pe­riod with the most name recog­ni­tion (although most of the di­nosaurs in the “Juras­sic Park” movies were in fact Cre­ta­ceous species).

As tec­tonic forces tore Pan­gaea apart, trees spread over the land­scape: conifers, gink­goes, the an­cient palm­like cy­cads. They fed the gi­ant sauropods, the largest land an­i­mals that ever lived, whose flat­u­lence (not re­pro­duced in the exhibition) may have in­cluded enough meth­ane to in­flu­ence the cli­mate.

While there was no room in the con­ser­va­tory for a su­per­saurus or ul­tra­saurus, Keimel cre­ated a 7-foot-long baby stegosaurus and a men­ac­ing adult al­losaurus for this part of the exhibition. The rep­tiles that con­quered the air are rep­re­sented by a bat-like pterosaur the size of an ea­gle.

Hodges said she rounded up 30 cy­cad species from the con­ser­va­tory’s col­lec­tion for the Juras­sic. The conifers were harder: “They’re not some­thing a trop­i­cal green­house has.” Some came from the Golden Gate Park nurs­ery, and Sun­born Nurs­ery found an im­pres­sive mon­key puz­zle tree.

A preda­tory pe­riod

T. rex and its preda­tory kin dom­i­nated the fi­nal pe­riod of the Me­so­zoic, the Cre­ta­ceous, along with new dy­nas­ties of horned and duck­billed di­nosaurs and an ar­ray of feath­ered “di­no­birds.”

The plantscape changed too: flow­er­ing plants, whose ori­gin was “an abom­inable mys­tery” to Charles Dar­win, ap­peared. The exhibition in­cludes basal forms like mag­no­lias and wa­ter lilies along­side later ar­rivals such as grasses and or­chids.

This is when the part­ner­ship be­tween plants and their in­sect pol­li­na­tors be­gan. The co-ex­is­tence of or­chids and di­nosaurs was re­cently es­tab­lished by the dis­cov­ery of or­chid pollen on the back of a bee en­tombed in 80 mil­lion-year-old Do­mini­can am­ber.

Two live red-eared slider tur­tles, whose kind saw the di­nosaurs rise and fall, pre­side over the Cre­ta­ceous gar­den. Hodges told us they were moved from the con­ser­va­tory’s aquatic room, where they had been snack­ing on Ama­zon wa­ter lilies. Now they have wa­ter hy­acinths to snack on: “They’re op­por­tu­ni­vores,” Hodges ex­plained.

Go back in time

Sound artist An­drew Roth, a long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor with the con­ser­va­tory, gave voices to the di­nosaurs. “It was too hard to build a time ma­chine in time for the ex­hibit,” he told us.

“The am­bi­ent sound­scapes are things I recorded in Bali, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Ja­pan. It was in­ter­est­ing smoosh­ing them together into one room. T. rex com­bines lion, tiger, wal­rus and slowed-down badger, with a sub­woofer to help him sound mean.” Roth used lizard and snake sounds for the al­losaurus, and ea­gle and vul­ture calls for the pterosaur.

Vis­i­tors can push but­tons to hear the di­nosaurs or ac­ti­vate a minia­ture vol­cano’s quak­ing rum­ble via the “But­tKicker 2,” in­vented for scary park rides.

“We wanted plants that vis­it­ing kids can have a re­la­tion­ship with,” Hodges said. “They can look at a gingko and say, ‘The tree in front of my house is di­nosaur food.’ ”

They might also think of their small furry noc­tur­nal an­ces­tors, cow­er­ing in the gingko while T. rex crashed through the Me­so­zoic for­est.

Rus­sell Yip / The Chron­i­cle

Rus­sell Yip / The Chron­i­cle

Sonoma County artist Brid­get Keimel’s com­pos­ite T. rex tempts folks into the Con­ser­va­tory of Flow­ers’ lat­est exhibition.

Pho­tos by Rus­sell Yip / The Chron­i­cle

Stella Fowler runs in a part of “Plan­tosaurus Rex,” de­signed to use veg­e­ta­tion so that chil­dren form a re­la­tion­ship with plant life.

The Con­ser­va­tory of Flow­ers exhibition starts off in the Tri­as­sic Pe­riod, when life on Earth was re­cov­er­ing from the mother of all mass ex­tinc­tions.

Ferns are op­por­tunis­tic plants, among the first to re­vive af­ter vol­canic erup­tions and other crises.

As­ple­nium nidus, com­monly known as the bird’s-nest fern, is part of “Plan­tosaurus Rex.”

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