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Winter Blooms and Greenery Chicago Region Conservatories Connect Humans with World’s Plants

Feb 27, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
greenhouse with blooming flowers

Photo credit Chicago Park District

As winter lingers, those that long for the dry heat of the desert, the humid warmth of a tropical rainforest or summer’s colorful blooms can visit the Garfield Conservatory of Chicago. This and other local conservatories feature greenhouses that are teeming year-round with blooming orchids, hibiscus and cacti; tall, swaying palm trees; and banana and coffee tree plants.

The Garfield Conservatory’s purpose is “to offer a place and space for urban dwellers to connect with nature and learn about how plants are critical to all life on Earth,” says Mary Eysenbach, Chicago Park District director of conservatories. “Through plants, the Conservatory connects visitors to places in the world they may have never seen or places in the world with which they have a history,” she notes.

Fern Room (Garfield Park Conservatory). Photo credit Chicago Park District.

Visitors can even travel to another time in the Conservatory’s historic Fern Room. “It has lush ferns, rocky outcroppings and an indoor lagoon that evoke the swampy landscape of prehistoric Chicago,” Eysenbach says. “It’s also home to the palm-like cycad, one of the oldest species of plants on Earth.”

Considered revolutionary when it opened in 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory is described as a work of “landscape art under glass.” The structure replaced three small Victorian glass houses that were built in Chicago in the 1890s. Renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the new conservatory, working with an engineering company that specialized in greenhouses.

“The structure, one of the largest conservatories in the world, was quite unlike its 19th-century predecessors,” Eysenbach says. “Jensen wanted the exterior to emulate the simple form of a Midwestern haystack. Inside, he displayed plants in the ground as opposed to potted containers. Jensen also hid pipes and other mechanical systems behind beautiful walls of stratified stonework.”

Visitors can see Jensen’s stone and water elements in the Fern Room. Eysenbach says Jensen had the builders listen to Mendelssohn’s Spring Song, and that inspired them to build the kind of waterfall there he wanted, with water tinkling “gently… as it should in a prairie country.”

The Conservatory celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008 by opening a new greenhouse exhibit, Sugar from the Sun. “It teaches visitors how plants capture sunlight and use it to change small parts of air and water into sugar—the energy that sustains life on Earth and a crucial element in fighting climate change,” Eysenbach says.

Fern Room Desert House (Garfield Park Conservatory). Photo credit Chicago Park District

Other greenhouses to visit at the Conservatory include the Palm House, which includes graceful palms interspersed with tropical plants reaching to the ceiling, and the Desert House, home to hundreds of cacti and other succulents. The Aroid House features giant houseplants, including philodendrons, a pond and a sculpture. The Show House displays two seasonal floral exhibits.

“Traveling through the Conservatory allows visitors to experience lush flora and tropical temperatures away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago,” Eysenbach notes. “The public that visits the Conservatory is just amazed at the collection and to learn that such an extraordinary inventory of plants and flowers originating from all corners of the world are alive and thriving in their own backyard.”

Eysenbach also manages another, smaller park district conservancy in Lincoln Park. There, visitors can explore a Victorian-era glass house built circa 1890. Palms, ferns, orchids and showy plants can be viewed in four display greenhouses. While admission is free to both conservatories, advance reservations are required to enter.


Orchid Show (Chicago Botanic Garden). Photo credit Chicago Botanic Garden.

Chicago Botanic Garden Greenhouses

Farther north, the public can visit three greenhouses at the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Glencoe. Designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, they opened in 1978. There is an entrance and parking fee to the Garden. “The original purpose of the greenhouses was to display plants from three different biomes (tropical, semitropical and arid), emphasizing beauty and primarily winter flowers,” says Fred Spicer, executive vice president and director of the Garden.

“The public greenhouses provide visitors a place to view and interact with plants year-round.  For us in a cold climate, visitors need and want things that are lush, green and flowering in the winter,” Spicer explains. “Species and cultivars in different plant families burst into bloom in winter, making it a major event in the greenhouses. It’s also a place where people from other parts of the world can see plants they may already know and love.”

Visitors can explore the Arid Greenhouse, with succulents, cacti, trees and shrubs from arid, desert or dryland climates. The Semitropical Greenhouse holds plants from around the world that can inspire visitors looking for new species to grow indoors. The Tropical Greenhouse is the most diverse of the three, housing nearly 300 species of orchids.

Jodi Zombolo, associate vice president of visitor events and programs, says of particular interest in winter is the annual orchid show, which is housed in two of the greenhouses. It runs through March 26. “What better way to beat the cold and dreary days of winter than to step into the stunning displays of orchids and the warmth of the greenhouses?” Zombolo says. “At the show, people can see more than 10,000 orchid blooms, as well as experience the unexpected as they step into an oversized bloom and wander through huge hanging columns of color.”

The year-round greenhouses will close in late April for remodeling and reopen in late September. “Fortunately, visitors will have all the outdoors gardens to explore in their splendor during that time, and the greenhouses will be ready for visitors when cooler weather returns in the fall,” Spicer says.

Spicer shares that horticulturists work to maintain the plants using an integrated management program involving biological control rather than spraying with chemicals. “We regularly release small wasps, beetles and nematodes to control our greenhouse pests,” he explains.


Bearded Dragon. Photo credit Mitchell Park Domes.

Milwaukee’s Mitchell PARK Domes

Farther north is the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, in Milwaukee, better known as Mitchell Park Domes. There is an entrance fee to enter the domes, which are closed on Tuesdays. The Desert Dome contains plants that grow in Africa, Madagascar, South America and North America, and include giant cacti, agave and a bearded dragon, a type of lizard that likes dry condition and lives in Australia. Deserts receive less than 10 inches of rain per year, and can be found on every continent. Staff keeps the Desert Dome at 50° F from October through March, and the plants are watered minimally.

Desert Dome. Photo credit Mitchell Park Domes.

The Tropical Dome features 1,200 plant species which are watered twice daily in a warm environment. Visitors learn about the four layers of a tropical rainforest inside this dome. The forest floor has little sunlight and few plants. The understory contains climbing ferns and coffee trees. The canopy teems with banana plants, orange trees, coconut palms, mahogany trees and ebony trees. At the top is the emergent layer, which reaches above the other plants in the forest and receives the most sunlight. Plants here include the canary date palm, the tallest tree in the Tropical Dome.

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at