By Megan Dooley
A stroll through Oak Park Conservatory smells a bit like walking through the kitchens of a fine restaurant. The scent of rosemary lingers from a row of herbs, carefully sectioned off and lined up along the floor of an outdoor walkway. In another room, leaves from the lemon verbena plant spring from their own planters, omitting an odor of freshly squeezed citrus fruit. In one corner, the purple flowers of the sweet pea plant beckon with a sweeter, softer scent.
Representing a combination of the conservatory's everyday collection, the plants are grown and stowed specially for the annual plant sale, which will be held this year on Friday, May 6, from 1 to 7 p.m. (members only) and Saturday, May 7, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"It's very popular," said Ellen Kuner, a volunteer and member of the Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory, the not-for profit group founded to promote the efforts of the conservatory. The Friends are responsible for holding the plant sale, now in its 22nd year.
Conservatory grower Theresa Kyriazes said most of the plants are grown in house, and the variety of varieties is sure to please any plant-lover. She estimated that 185 different plants will be available in the plant sale, and the conservatory has grown at least 50 plants of each variety. That includes herbs, flowering plants, green plants and more.
Even better is the new pricing system the Friends implemented last year. In previous years, it was so inconsistent that volunteers often struggled to recall the individual prices, which left customers frustrated. The new pricing system has only three price points; $4, $6, and $10. Each plant will be marked with a colored marker to indicate its cost.
"The way we used to price them was awful," Kuner said. This year, she's relieved to be using the newer, more efficient system for the second time around.
Kyriazes said that it's a busy time of year at the conservatory, where more than 65 volunteers dedicate their time to help prepare for the sale. But she said it's also her favorite time. "For me, it's a lot of fun, and I love interacting with the volunteers," she said, admitting that it gets a little lonely once the sale is over and the conservatory quiets down again.
The volunteers are a diverse group. Many have been around for quite some time, including Edith Kause, a veteran of more than 35 years. Then there are the Oak Park and River Forest High School students, a group of high-skill children with autism, who volunteer with a teacher as part of their work-study effort.
Kyriazes and Kuner agree that those who devote their time are interested in both the long- and short-term benefits of keeping the conservatory running smoothly. "It's about supporting the conservatory and the community," Kyriazes said. She also praised the board for their continued effort in keeping the conservatory vibrant. "They're our lifeblood," she said.
After the sale, all leftover plants will be donated to the community for use in parks and gardens. Meanwhile, the conservatory is closing in on completing its memorial garden, which hit a snag last year after an oil tank was discovered buried under the soil outside the building. It's slated to be finished by the end of May, though Oak Parkers will have to wait until next year to see the garden fully in bloom.
After that, summer programming begins, including some unique courses in beekeeping, chicken keeping (village rules allow residents to keep up to two chickens, if they please), and a course about bats (subtitle: The Flying Kind).
"I think our goal here is to educate the community on the natural resources we have," said Kyriazes.
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