I had never visited the Garfield Park Conservatory so when my friend and fellow writer/plant lover Beth Botts offered a guided tour in the middle of February, my guy and I were Johnny-on-the-spot. A two-acre public greenhouse is good medicine for winter weary souls. Often referred to as “landscape art under glass,” the conservatory is part of the Chicago Park District and is located on the city’s West Side. It’s a horticultural phoenix, rising from the ashes of disrepair, public disinterest and a colossal hailstorm in 2011 that shattered half of the glass panes in the fern room. For months, workers armed with tweezers painstakingly removed shards of glass from priceless plants, some of which have been there since the conservatory’s opening in 1908.
The conservatory was designed by renowned Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen and was meant to portray a series of “natural” landscapes. What most struck me was the feeling of having been swept into another world upon entering the conservatory. The palm house felt like something right out of Jurassic Park. At 65 feet high and 90 feet wide, it is home to more than 70 palms and other humidity loving plants. (Just a side note for all you curly-haired gals, wear a baseball cap. Humidity is NOT your friend! I could feel my head circumference growing with each passing second.)
The palm house gives way to the fern room where giant staghorn fern hang like fingered orbs from the ceiling. Jensen designed the space to show visitors what prehistoric Illinois may have looked liked. It’s hard to believe that our zone 5b landscape once resembled the Amazon.
Fern and moss-covered outcroppings are reminiscent of Chicago’s swampy roots. Epiphytic plants, or plants that grow on other plants but are not parasitic, are everywhere. Plants with interesting leaf shapes and color patterns really struck a chord and, while I am unable to use many of these plants in my garden, it definitely reinforced the importance of foliage and texture to carry a garden through when flowers peter out.
Not a flower in site and the effect is eye-catching. Many of us grow Tradescantia pallida (aka Wandering Jew) as a houseplant, but here it’s used as a groundcover in combination with a red-veined plant. Forgive me, I’m horrible with tropical plant names. Many of them resembled common houseplants, the kind you find at big box stores. The conservatory has a way of turning what we consider diminutive houseplants into massive Little Shop of Horrors-esque showstoppers.
I love the pairing of something soft and mounding like the polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) punctuated by the tongue-like leaves of the bromeliad.
The flower on this bromeliad was incredible, almost neon. An entire area was in bloom with nothing but this plant and it’s impact was instantaneous. Mass plantings in small spaces with one species has a greater effect than a one here one there approach. It had a cohesiveness and provided continuity that I think sometimes my garden lacks.
Ever since a trip to California several years ago, I’ve been enamored with succulents. So the Desert House, with its incredible collection of prickly drought tolerant cacti and succulents, was a treat. There was a noticeable climate change as we moved from the humid temps of the palm and fern houses into the arid desert.
The Aroid House was home to plenty of recognizable houseplants like philodendron and peace lily. But my favorite plant appeared in the Show House where a bridal party was having their wedding pictures taken.
Powder Puff tree was as soft as its name implied. Almost makes me wish I lived in Bolivia where it’s native.
As we were wrapping up our conservatory tour, I overheard a little girl, who couldn’t have been more than five, tell her daddy, “This is a really good place for me.” I couldn’t agree more.
Do you have a favorite public garden or conservatory? I’d love to know.