A Walk in the Park: Garfield Park Conservatory

So far my pursuit of spring has taken me from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. and on wards to Chicago where I visited Garfield Park Conservatory. One of the things I’ve discovered about going above the Mason Dixon is that spring comes much later in states north of Georgia. Chicago wasn’t frigid nor was the windy city particularly windy, but the weather was cool and clear. The daffodils hadn’t quite budded and the trees were still bare and the only place to see much green was in the glass houses of Garfield Park.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is 4.5 acres both inside and outside of the conservatory. It was built in 1907 as part of the consolidation of the three West Side Parks, which included IMG_3984Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas parks. The conservatory was designed to hold different landscapes from across the U.S. and includes 8 display houses and 5 outdoor gardens. While we were visiting, the conservatory was displaying flowers from their spring show in the Show House. The room was brimming with pinks, blues, and purples of hydrangeas, azaleas, and ranunculus. The Show House is the nexus of the other glass houses around it. Of the “landscapes” I saw, my favorites were the Desert House, the Aroid House, and the Fern Room.

The Desert House was not always for cacti and succulents. According to the Garfield Park website, the Desert House was mostly used to house IMG_4012overflow of plants in the summer and sensitive plants during the winter until 1928 when it became the succulent house. It wasn’t until 1940 that the Desert House was made popular with the public. The conservatory offered midnight viewings so people could watch nocturnal cactus flowers bloom.Unfortunately, the conservatory is only open until 5 pm (8 pm on Wednesdays), so there was no midnight cactus flower viewing. However, there were some spectacular and weird plants in their collection that were worth seeing.

Along the outer edges of the glass house were raised beds where they kept smalIMG_4027ler cacti and succulents that were organized by regions of the world. One of the weirder plants was “Fred” the cactus. Fred cacti are “mutant” cultivars comprised of mutated cells of a Mammillaria bocosana. These mutations come in many different colors and monstrous, spineless shapes. These cacti are classified as Mammillaria bocosana cv Fred. The Fred on display was lumpy, red, and kind of hairy. There were scars on Fred from where people has touched it, which I suppose is what prompted Fred to “write” the “Do not touch” sign. What I thought was particularly strange was that Fred has one cactus that had budded from the original that reverted to its spiney, uniformly round Mammillaria bocosana state.

In the center of the room were larger, older plants native to Africa and the Americas. There were the “standard” fare of bunny eared cacti as well as golden barrel cacti, IMG_4019but there were also more rare cacti such as saguaros and large succulents like the “Century Plant.” The saguaro cactus in the conservatory is anywhere between 15 and 20 years old, but won’t develop its characteristic arms for another 30 years. The conservatory also has a 100 year old saguaro skeleton, which demonstrates the saguaro’s powerful, sponge-like  framework. According to the Desert Museum, the wood that comes from the saguaro after it dies is often used to build fences, roofs, and furniture. The Century Plant is an Agave americana in the family of Amaryllidaceae. These plants are said to bloom once a century, but according to the University of ArizonaAgave americana only lives to be about 30 years old and dies after it blooms.IMG_3993

The Aroid House is connected to the Desert House, and is where the conservatory features aroids in a natural, tropical setting. An aroid is a plant that is part of the Araceae family and is classified by the conical shape of its flowers and its often broad and variegated foliage. Even with a weird name like “aroid” most of us have come into contact with one, such as Monstera deliciosa (the Swiss cheese plant), Philodendron rugosum (Pig Skin Philodendrom), and Arum italicum (Arum lilies) because they are all house and office plants that originate in low light, tropical environments. Aside from being able to see house plants in “the wild,” the most notable feature of the Aroid House is the “Persian Pool” which features yellow Chihuly lily pads and brightly colored koi fish. Sitting in this glass house was wonderfully soothing, but very IMG_4052humid and warm.

In the center of the conservatory is the Fern Room. This room was part of the conservatory’s renovation in 1906 when the designer Jens Jensen wanted to create a space to show the public what Illinois looked like millions of years ago. According to the Garfield Park Conservatory’s website, this room is still the original work of its original designer. Stepping into the fern room truly felt like going back in time and being in an ancient forest. With its man-made lake, waterfalls, and streams it was truly an outdoor experience within the confines of a glass house. It was like being in a life size terrarium.

Do you have questions about my visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory? Are you looking to plan a trip? Or do you simply have questions about your indoor and outdoor plant babies?  You can check out a map of the conservatory here as well as find their hours and other visitor information here. If you’d like to know more about my trip or about your plant babies, leave a comment below or feel free to contact The Garden Generalist. I would love to hear from you!

Can’t get enough of The Garden Generalist? Visit next week to read more about my pursuit to follow spring across the country. I’ll be featuring the Cheekwood Botanic Garden in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ll be paying special attention to their landscaping as well as their famous sculpture garden.

Keep a watch on The Garden Generalist  instagram for sneak peeks of my garden visits including the Desert Botanic Garden, Saguaro National Park, and  Holland, Michigan’s “Tulip Time” Festival!


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