I just spent two weeks in western Washington visiting my daughter and her family—two weeks of giggles, bedtime stories, and stomping in the puddles left by Seattle’s incessant rain. While my focus was on our granddaughters, I couldn’t help but feast my soul on all the green—in mid-winter! Broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons, still-verdant lawns, even the emerald moss on the roof were all a welcome respite from Colorado’s winter browns. The only problem was that I had to get wet to enjoy it all. That’s why we planned a visit to the Volunteer Park Conservatory, located on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
As conservatories go, this one is a bit on the smaller side, but it’s packed with plants and well worth a visit. There are several large rooms, each with a different theme. As we walked through the open doorway, my first impression was of entering a jungle. We were greeted by a huge philodendron, a banana plant, blooming Bird of Paradise, and other tropical plants such as ginger and anthuriums.
Saving this area for later, we decided to start with the cactus and succulent collection, found at the far end of the building. Seattle isn’t exactly hospitable to cactus and succulents, but here they are protected from freezing temperatures, and, much more importantly, too much water.
Similar species were grouped together, allowing detailed comparisons. Informative signs were spread throughout the display, answering questions such as why saguaros have pleats (so they can expand and contract as their water content varies), or what that “white stuff” on the top of some plants is (it’s natural, not bugs).
Along with the cactus, there were other succulents, such as large Agaves and an assortment of Euphorbia. I was particularly impressed by the size of some specimens, especially when I remembered how slowly most cactus grow. We learned that the Jade Tree was started from a rooted cutting in 1916; now at 102, it’s the oldest plant in the collection.
Succulents do well in the dry air I have at home, so I was disappointed that the little gift shop was closed (due to a lack of mid-week volunteers). I’m sure I could have carried one home on the plane!
The central area was full of gorgeous ferns. I couldn’t get enough of those delicate fronds; ferns do spectacularly well in the Pacific Northwest, not so much in Colorado. The greenery provided a lovely backdrop for blooming orchids and (in January) azaleas, and houseplants both familiar and new. Several were unfamiliar, but quite attractive, and I wondered—could I grow them at home?
Our three-year-old granddaughter was captivated by the small waterfall in the middle of the room. Surrounded by foliage, it reminded me of a miniature mountain cataract as it tumbled down some rocks and into a small pool.
While the ferns predominated, several large cycads added height to the display. We also noticed a number of carnivorous plants tucked into the foliage. I had fun amazing our granddaughter with the idea that some plants eat bugs!
The final room held an impressive collection of bromeliads. Again, these were grouped by type, with helpful labels identifying each species. Many were in bloom, and all looked rather exotic. I was particularly drawn to a huge display of Tillandsia, also known as air plants (second from left, below).
The conservatory would be easy to rush through, but it’s much better to linger. The more I looked, the more I saw. We spent over an hour wandering around and even so, I’m sure I missed some plants. The conservatory is the perfect destination for someone who enjoys plants and is looking for a respite from the Seattle drizzle.
Conservatory hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm, even on holidays. In addition, you can sign on to tours that focus on the various collections, history, and /or operation of the facility. Entry is $4 for adults, $2 for youth ages 13 through 18, and free for children 12 and under. In addition, admission is free on the first Thursday and Saturday of each month. Free parking is available right in front of the building, and bathrooms and a playground are nearby.
Photos, from top:
Entry to conservatory
Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia sp.), Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), ferns & Split Leaf Philodendron (Monstera deliciosa)
Cactus house, including Agave in foreground
Thelocactus rinconensis, Euphorbia suzannae
Unidentified cactus, Euphorbia kibwezensis, Twin-spined Cactus (Mammillaria geminispina)
(Clockwise): Begonias & maidenhair ferns, unidentified orchid, Ruellia macrantha, Croton (Codiaeum variegatum), Begonia, Azalea hyb.
Ferns with waterfall
Silver Vase Bromeliad (Aechmea fasciata), Tillandsia “tree”, unidentified bromeliad, Aechmea ‘Little Harv’