A One Hour Tropical Vacation

Update from 2018: I have visited the wonderful Marjorie McNeely Conservatory many times since I wrote the post below. (Apologies for the tiny photos from 2008.) You can check out my article about the conservatory’s 100th anniversary here.

I was in St. Paul on business today, and one of the events I had scheduled was canceled. So, I found myself not far from Como Park with an hour to spare. Impulsively, I set out for the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, the tropical garden in Como Park. It was just a few minutes after 10 a.m., the conservatory’s opening time, when I arrived and already the parking lot was nearly full. It makes sense. The weather lately has been cold and lousy. I’m not the only one who decided to take a one hour vacation to the tropics.

fogged up glasses
A little change in temperature…

When I got in, the first thing I had to do was wait for my glasses to defrost after the rapid change in temperature and humidity between outside and the conservatory. It turns out the conservatory was hosting its annual Winter Flower Show in the Sunken Garden Room. You couldn’t help but relax and slow down when surrounded by this much beauty, breathing that soft, humid air.

azaleas and lilies
Azaleas, cyclamen and lilies lined the sunken garden.

I was blown away by the azaleas that lined the room, mixed with Oriental lilies (pictured above right), cyclamen and amaryllis, among other flowers. The azalea flowers were enormous and each one seemed almost perfect. The top group of flowers in the photo at right actually comes from a tree that is in a pot about four feet below the floor of this display area. I talked with a very helpful volunteer named Maggie, who told me that the bushy azaleas in the main area also have thick trunks inside of them. The conservatory horticulturists keep them pruned tightly in order to encourage bloom for this annual show. I was feeling a bit sheepish about how wimpy my azaleas are in the spring, but Maggie told me not to make comparisons. The conservatory show features tropical azaleas, which are nothing like the Minnesota-hardy azaleas developed at the University of Minnesota.

In the main part of the conservatory, orchids are scattered among the palms and greenery. The conservatory keeps a large collection of orchids and sets them out when they are in bloom. I really liked the one at left. I was also fascinated by this Manila hemp plant. The scientific name is Musa textilis and it’s related to the banana family. The plant is known for its durable fibers, which are mainly used for making rope. That pink blossom that looks like its coming off of a cable is the plant’s flower.

pink flowerAm I crazy, or does the flower look like something electrical?

Como conservatory volunteerMy spare hour was soon up, so I bid Maggie and the tropics good-bye. If you are thinking of visiting the conservatory, it’s open 10 to 4 everyday in the winter. The conservatory is free, though a sign politely asks for a $2 donation per adult. (Definitely, a bargain.) You can also visit the Como Zoo while there, and even have a bite in the park’s dining areas. It’s not exactly Bermuda, but on a frigid February day, it’s a real respite.

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