We’re having a mild winter in the upper Midwest, or so they say. But it’s still cold enough to trap us indoors day after cold, dreary gray day.
Those lucky enough to have a home “conservatory” or greenhouse (and a heater) still have a place to putter. The rest of us try to keep busy nursing light-starved houseplants and setting up our seed-starting lights. But at a certain point, we cry: “Enough! Let me out! I need some green!”
Fortunately, the Midwest abounds with warm, lush public conservatories to visit for a respite from winter, and I can’t think of anything more worth a road trip.
I’m lucky enough, though, to live just minutes from one of the greatest: the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, nearly 3 acres under glass designed in 1908 by pioneering landscape architect Jens Jenson.
The conservatory suffered a tragedy last summer when a brief but harsh hailstorm shattered glass in several of its historic display houses and ten propagation houses. But as of late January, all the public areas had reopened, albeit with temporary roofs. The conservatory is raising money for repairs and replanting, but it’s still a fabulous place to visit, with majestic palms, elegant orchids, spectacular cycads, lush aroids, wild and wacky cacti and the magical mystery of the Fern Room.
Chicago also has a smaller but elegant conservatory in lakefront Lincoln Park with a lovely orchid collection. I’m in awe of the skill brought to growing under glass.
In Milwaukee, it’s a ’60s trip to the Mitchell Park Conservatory, commonly called the Domes. Three geodesic domes hold a floral collection, a desert collection and a tropical jungle.
Oklahoma City’s Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory is right downtown. In Indianapolis, the famed zoo includes White River Gardens’ Hilbert Conservatory, a lush little tropical oasis. The Como Park Zoo in Minneapolis has a more substantial conservatory. And near downtown, across the street from the sculpture garden of the Walker Art Museum, is the Cowles Conservatory.
My favorite sculpture garden, the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich., also has a large contemporary conservatory. Choose a snowy day for that trip and wear your winter parka and good waterproof boots, because the huge modern sculptures are spectacular in a winter landscape. Then head inside the conservatory to warm up among the cacti and tropicals.
Cities and towns all across the country have lovely glasshouses that will soothe a winter starved gardener’s soul. About 90 minutes northwest of Chicago, the middling city of Rockford has the sparkling Nichols Conservatory. In Davenport, Iowa, the Vander Veer Park Conservatory has had a lush floral show each winter for 100 years. Even my suburban village of Oak Park has a small but charming conservatory of its own.
So check around your vicinity. And remember that many public conservatories depend on volunteers for maintenance and education, so if you have no conservatory of your own, you may find a way to spend cold winter days indoors among green and happy plants.