Monday, November 30, 2009

The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory

Posted by Kirk

Last weekend I took a trip to the McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul. I can walk there from my house in nice weather and this place is truly one of the gems of Minnesota. The conservatory underwent a major renovation lately and the building complex now includes the visitor center, gift shop, restaurant and Tropical Encounters portion of the Como Zoo. It becomes a little muddy as to where the conservatory ends and the zoo begins. It is all part of Como Park and it is all enjoyable. The photo at the top of the post is the original conservatory building. Below is the new addition.

The new building is a completely different style though the portion to the left is sort of a more modern conservatory. This is the tropical encounters area. Whereas the old conservatory is more like a formal garden indoors, the new Tropical Encounters is more of a re-created landscape. It is a wonderful retreat on cold winter days. The humidity is near 100% and it is wonderfully warm. Here's a wide shot of how the two buildings blend together. I'll save description of Tropical Encounters and the Zoo for another post.

The area that connects the two sections houses the seasonal bonsai display area, orchid greenhouse and the new fern room. Let's start there.
I wish I had taken more photos in the fern room. One of my favorite rooms in the old conservatory before they remodeled was the fern room and this new fern rooms is nice as well. It doesn't seem as dank which I'm sure is a welcome relief to some but I kind of like the old dank room. The fern room contains what you would normally think of when you think ferns but equisetum and epiphytes as well. There is a nice reflective water feature (not pictured) and nice signage. All of the signs about plants in the conservatory are on this nice slate material.

One really cool feature of the fern room is often over looked, or rather perhaps underlooked. People are so busy looking at the plants they don't look up.

The glass ceiling of the fern room has built in solar cells. Ferns are understory plants that don't like full sun so why not block some with solar cells and make a little electricity? It is cool to see these kinds of innovations.

Coming into the old section of the Conservatory we can see the building was built between 1914 and 1915. World War I had just began in Europe with the US entering the battle in 1918. It is interesting to surmise whether or not the conservatory would have been built had the plans been delayed by just a few years. This plaque is located in the Palm Dome at the center of the conservatory.

The dome contains many species of palms as well as a circular path and a central fountain. The old main entrance to the Palm Dome is still open for visitors who don't want to enter though the visitor's center and fern room.

An interpreter was on hand explaining the many uses of coconuts while we were there. The Fern Dome is also where a lot of the orchids grown in the Orchid House end up. Here's a few beauties that were on display the day we were there.

I would have written down the scientific names of these beauties but I barely had time to take the photos as my toddler son was leading the way.

There are two gardens off of the Palm Dome. The garden to the south is the beautiful sunken garden. It is pretty routine to see people walking around the Conservatory wearing tuxedos on any given weekend. It isn't because we St. Paul residents have impecable taste (which is true) but rather because this is a popular site to have wedding photos taken. My wife and I had ours taken here years ago when we got married down at Lake Como. That's a younger me with a pony tail hanging out in at the doors to the sunken garden while I enjoy the view.

The plants in the garden change seasonally and are always beautiful. The pond has a beautiful bronze sculpture and lots of koi. While the color in the photos are mostly geraniums there were fun surprises as well such as this colorful Swiss Chard.

The sunken garden is a rare colorful retreat in the middle of the winter when the whole world seems white. The other garden off the Palm Dome is the aptly (though not very creatively) named North Garden. The North Garden contains tropical plants and focuses on plants we tend to use such as fruits and cocoa.

This garden also contains a large koi pond with some really beautiful fish.

One plant that caught my eye was this silver dollar maiden hair fern from South America. Most people probably never give it much attention but I was blown away by the size of the leaves. We have maidenhair ferns in Minnesota but the leaves are smaller than a dime.

There's more to see at the Conservatory, especially in the summer when the outdoor gardens are at their full splendor. The Japanese Garden is especially wonderful. The last photo is a glimpse into the kids room at the conservatory and the real reason we came. It is a great place to hang out with your kid on a cold day.



Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

I haven't been there in a couple of years. It feels like it's time to return.

The old fern room was my favorite.