Stay Dry, See Tropical Plants

wwseymourconservatory-tacoma-wa_lah_0512I love to visit Washington. The state is a gardener’s paradise.  All those dreary days translate into brilliant azaleas and rhododendrons, ferny grottoes, and towering evergreens. The trick is enjoying those gorgeous gardens when it’s raining—and it rains a lot. Sure, you can visit in the summer, when days are sunny and the sky is a sapphire blue. But what about right now?

One way to get out of the February cold and wet is to visit a conservatory. (This applies to cold and snowy Colorado, as well.) And one of my favorites is the W. W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory, located in the 27-acre Wright Park Arboretum, Tacoma. This glassed enclosure houses over 250 species of tropical and semi-tropical plant, including 200 different orchids—just the antidote for a gloomy winter day.

The conservatory opened in 1908 through a gift from William W. Seymour, and is now listed on the City of Tacoma, Washington State and National historic registers.

The conservatory has everything a color-starved gardener could want—huge blooming orchids, vermilion Clivia miniata, brilliantly hued foliage in shades of scarlet and canary yellow. True, these aren’t typical plants of the Pacific Northwest, but by this time of year I’m starved for anything in bloom. Seymour never disappoints.

There is a small fee to get inside, and then you are surrounded by lush growth. I swear that the building is larger than it appears from the outside—I could get lost in there! It’s hard to know where to look first. Should you take in the blooming begonias or those with silver and maroon leaves? The huge cattleyas or the exotic Masdevallias (below, center)?

wwseymourconservatory-tacoma-wa_lah_0511The path is edged with pots of seasonal color—pink and white azaleas when I was there. As you venture farther inside, you are surrounded by tall palms, ornamental figs, and tree ferns. Flowering vines and wispy epiphytic bromeliads hang suspended from overhead branches. Closer to the ground are blooming birds of paradise, terrestrial bromeliads, fruit trees and bananas. I was particularly interested in the allspice tree, native to Central America and the West Indies. Wherever you look, you see blooming orchids. There’s even a pond filled with koi, radiant in their metallic scales.

If all this leaves you a bit overwhelmed, sign up for a tour of the orchids, or perhaps the carnivorous plants.

wwseymourconservatory-tacoma-wa_lah_0520If I have one complaint, it’s that many of the unfamiliar plants were not identified. I realize it’s hard to keep up with labels when the collection is constantly changing, but I am left with too many photos of mystery plants, some of which I’d love to try as houseplants back home.

While I wasn’t able to kidnap the orchids or begonias, there are plenty of plants you can purchase. Azaleas, season-appropriate seedlings, and a few assorted shrubs all tempt the avid gardener. It’s all for a good cause—proceeds support the conservatory.

Weather permitting, allow some time to admire the surrounding Arboretum, planted with over 600 trees, both native species and those imported from all over the world. Don’t miss the flower beds surrounding the building. When we visited in early spring, they were full of hellebores, daffodils, and euphorbias—quintessential Washington blooms.

The exhibits change with the seasons, providing an excellent reason to come back another time. I can hardly wait.



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