THE HISTORY

 

Walking through the sliding wood door of the nursery
is like entering into another world, somewhat prehistoric,
somewhat fantasy, and very peaceful.

Natural media art pieces (wood, stone, bamboo)
are strewn among the orchids,
bromeliads, and ancient-looking plants.

 
 THE EARLY YEARS
 

 

In 1949, Herb Hager (who previously worked as orchid manager at the Rod McLellan Orchid Nursery in South San Francisco) started a business of raising orchids on this site. Designed and constructed by Hager, the location was transformed from an artichoke field into state-of-the-art greenhouses of the era. Under the name Vallemar Orchids, the greenhouses withstood the test of time and weather. On a crest in Pacifica with a sweeping view of the Pacific coastline, the nursery remains essentially unchanged over 50 years later.

Subsequently, Hager relocated to Salinas, California, to continue his work. His expertise in orchid growing became world famous. His stock origins or "mother stock" are used for hybridizing new lines of orchids, even today and his work is prized throughout the orchid industry. Hager's legacy to the Pacifica orchid greenhouses continues today through plants with names such as: Phalaenopsis Fairway Park and Phalaenopsis Vallemar.

Other well-known orchids named for local area landmarks are 'Pedro Point,' 'Pacific Ocean,' and 'Pacifica.'

Herb Hager

 

In 1976, Nancy Davis, Michael Rothenberg and Bruce Rothenberg leased the property. It was renamed Shelldance Nursery because of the beautiful shells of the area, which were reminiscent of the exotic headpieces worn by Carmen Miranda when she danced. At the time, the revived nursery specialized in bromeliads.

Eventually, the trio was privileged to meet Herb Hager's widow, Gladys, and learned the history of the original nursery. They were also able to acquire some of Hager's orchid specimens. Charmed by orchids, they sold most of their bromeliad stock, about 20,000 plants, to the government of Singapore to be placed in their National Botanical Gardens. Davis and Rothenberg traveled with the plants to Singapore, helped identify and catalog them, and gave lessons in the care of bromeliads to local gardeners.

     

 

The next turn of events placed Caltrans in control of the property. Caltran's plan was to connect Highway 280 to Highway 1 with another highway leading directly through the nursery.

Thankfully, there was a public outcry from citizens of the surrounding communities. Senator Phil Burton, an advocate of the environment, also assisted in saving the area from becoming slabs of concrete. The deal allowed the land to be placed under the auspices of the GGNRA.

The historic Sweeney Ridge trailhead and and red-legged frog population were kept intact, along with the nursery.

 

From the beginning, Davis and the Rothenberg were keyed toward environmental issues and strived to educate the public in the beauty of their renewable, natural resource-plants. "Gaggles" of schoolchildren (as Davis calls them) visited the nursery to learn about this special genus of plants that exist by absorbing nutrients through
their leaves, rather than through soil. Traditional and moving meditations, yoga, weddings, nature photographers, and community group functions have also taken place here. Senior citizens, students of flora, hospice patients, and gardeners enjoy visits as well. Because of this community service and educational programs, they were able to continue in partnership with the National Park Service as stewards of the GGNRA
 

Locally, Rothenberg and Davis were also central figures in "Pacificans For Mori Point," a grassroots environmental activist group that successfully opposed a proposed conference center project atop Mori Point. Opponents fought for protection of the vacant coastal hill just across the highway from Shelldance, a natural habitat for the rare San Francisco Garter Snake and other endangered species.


 SHELLDANCE THINKS GLOBALLY

Sometimes called the Shelldance "jungle," Davis and Rothenberg refer to their creation simply as "the garden." Famous for a wide assortment of exotic bromeliads and orchids, Shelldance's newest venture reflects the political and social consciousness of its owners. One of the nursery's greenhouses has been transformed into a miniature replica of a tropical rain forest.

As Davis explains, the more people know and understand about the beauty and diversity of rain forests, the more likely they are to fight for their survival. The garden is a three-dimensional attempt to reach out to people. It is a carefully crafted collection of bromeliads, orchids, ferns, and flowers growing as they would, in the wilds of a tropical rain forest.

"People can see it and touch it. This reflects an environment where everything is evolving andgrowing;" says Rothenberg. A diversity of plants can be found growing on pieces of suspended wood, similar to the branches found in a real rain forest. As Rothenberg explains, in the wild, insects would be attracted to the water, and frogs to the insects which congregate with living flora.

"There's a whole chain going on. It's a complete life form."

As the richest and most productive land ecosystems on the planet, tropical rain forests cover less than 2 percent of the earth's surface, yet contain some 50 percent of all known animal and plant species.

Tropical rain forests are also home to 2,000 known indigenous tribes of humans. There are strong emotional and spiritual ties between these people and their land.

While rain forests are full of wonder and mystery, mankind's toll on them has been nothing short of devastating. To date, half of all tropical rain forests have been degraded, with many irrevocably destroyed.

"People are affected by what the United States does to other cultures. Jungle cultures go way back thousands of years. When jungles are demolished, all of that cultural beauty is lost," says Davis.

Some of Davis'and Rothenberg's inspiration comes from trekking through the cloud forests of Bolivia in South America, so named because they draw their moisture from the clouds rather than rainfall.

Since the birth of her son, Cosmos, Davis says she has felt an even stronger imperative to make a difference in the world, "Sharing the mysteries and wonder of rain forests with others is perhaps a step toward helping to save them."

SHELLDANCE TODAY, AN INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

In the past 25 years, Davis and Rothenberg have established Shelldance Nursery as one of the premiere collections of rare and exotic bromeliads.

One greenhouse is devoted to growing orchids, while another Davis calls the "Conservatory" is home to the couple's collection of rare and exotic bromeliads. Another greenhouse serves as a display for sale plants, which is available for browsing.


Whether hanging from the air or suspended on bits of wood, plants in Shelldance's rain forest jungle are alive and growing just as they would in the wilds of a tropical rain forest - a natural ecosystem of living bromeliads, orchids, cactus, ferns, African violets and succulents. Spanish moss fashioned into sea horses hang suspended in the air, while tiny baby tears grow in clusters on the garden floor.

Davis describes the nursery as a bit old-fashioned, but that is its charm. You will see things here you may never see elsewhere. There are heirloom orchids, including a cymbidium that has survived four human generations of one family. Or a rare and lovely plum-colored shamrock. Or a spectacular staghorn fern. You are welcome to simply wander and enjoy the sites or make a purchase.

 


Open to the public on weekends, Shelldance is how expanding its walk-in retail trade, in the Shelldance Gift Shop which includes sales of orchid supplies, incense, pottery, local art, garden enhancements and a custom line of homemade jams, jellies, fudges and salad dressings, created by Davis and her mother from old family recipes.

Davis works with each customer to find the right type of orchid for his or her environment and gives complete directions geared to re-blooming the plant. She has a customer wish list of rare plants and loves the excitement of the "hunt." She works with other nurseries to solve plant identification mysteries and acquire rare plants.


Davis and Rothenberg take their garden seriously. Through their experience of the "tropical" they are able to communicate more clearly the value of preserving the native habitats of the world. The most poignant habitat being that of the coastal areas preserved by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

"People tend to take their own worlds and lives for granted, they think of their native bird, plant and animal populations as common." Says Rothenberg.

So by beginning with the exotic, Rothenberg and Davis bring the visitor home and then begin the process of orienting the experience and education around the local. "Look at the beauty of the exotic," says Davis, "and you can't help but open your heart to the familiar."

"We have a gift in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in the rich diversity of coastal resources. By compare and contrast of the tropical with the Northern coastal ecology, we become inhabitants of a planet that is whole and magnificent."

Shelldance welcomes school groups, families and individuals interested in experiencing the rain forest jungle. Also in the works are a series of monthly events and activities planned to involve people of all ages in a variety of educational, hands-on projects emphasizing the environment.

"The kids really like it. This is where they get to be turned into trees and to experience what it's like in a rain forest," said Davis, who simulated the natural fine mist of a rain forest by turning on overhead greenhouse sprinklers.

Davis also shares stories about the Philippine rice God, one of the wooden carvings in the jungle garden; English "gazing balls", giant shiny ornaments that reflect light' and the natural biology of the plants.

"All of our experience in growing plants, learning about their habitat and horticulture, our studies in art, and our work in environmental causes is now being joined into a new focus," said Rothenberg. "We're presenting all that information and experience in a more integrated whole. Both art and nature are one environment."

Shelldance is a peaceful, ethereal place, a kind of Garden of Eden. An artistic arrangement of living plants paying tribute to one of the world's richest ecosystems-rain forests. Whether you come to spend the afternoon sitting quietly on a bench listening to the babble of a fountain, or to study the featured local artwork, Shelldance Gardens latest venture will leave you pondering.

 

SHELLDANCE TOURS

Tours for children, groups or individuals, can be arranged between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Everyone is we3lcome to come and learn more about rain forests and exotic plants. Shelldance Nursery is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is a public entrance point for the federally protected Sweeney Ridge, a vast open space with hiking trails and assorted flora and fauna. For directions, please go to our Contact Information page.