For many locals, the Oak Park Conservatory is one of the great jewels of Oak Park, a lush and exotic greenhouse sitting at the corner of East Avenue and Garfield Street, overlooking the expressway. Recently, I toured the conservatory with Patti Staley, the Director of Horticulture/Conservatory Operations. The greenhouse is divided into three into three rooms, each with a different climate: Mediterranean, tropical and desert.
The Mediterranean Room
This room features plants not just from the Mediterranean, but also similar climates such as you might find in California. Few if any of these plants could survive the harsh winters of Illinois.
Ponderosa Lemon Tree
According to Staley, this fragrant fruit tree, with its broad rounded leaves and graceful curving, twisting limbs has been in the conservatory for a very long time, and is a perennial favorite among visitors. Likely its popularity stems from its abundance of large, grapefruit sized lemons. Pithy and inedible these lemons stay on the tree, growing and ripening through the spring and summer.
Pride of Madeira
Commonly seen in California, the most famous feature of the Pride of Madeira are its tall spikes of purple flowers. A relatively new arrival at the conservatory, the plant quickly took hold, and as Staley relates, the staff eagerly anticipated its blooms. When no flowers appeared, they learned that the Pride of Madeira needed a prolonged period of moderate cold in order to bloom. Unfortunately, the Mediterranean room never gets below 55 degrees. Staley says that they are currently looking for ways to trick it into blooming. Stay tuned.
Given the limited space of the conservatory, it makes sense to install smaller plant varieties whenever possible, such as this dwarf pomegranate tree. In addition, as Staley points out, they try to get plants that people can relate to, such as herbs and fruit bearing trees.
Many common houseplants, as well as some foods staples, such as chocolate and bananas, come from the tropics. The conservatory’s tropical room offers a glimpse of what some of these decorative and edible plants look like in the wild.
Similar to the Ponderosa lemon tree, the Cacao, or chocolate tree, is a crowd favorite at the conservatory. Its fruit contains the seeds from which chocolate is made.
More commonly called a Swiss cheese plant—from the holes in its leave—Monstera is a thick vine that winds its way up the trunks of trees. In the photo you will see a tangle of “aerial” roots. In the rain forest, and in the conservatory’s tropical room, Monstera’s roots can absorb all the water they need from the air, without having to grow underground. Varieties of Monstera are also common houseplants.
Another popular houseplant, the Chenille produces long dangling flowers in both yellow and red varieties.
While there is a wide assortment of sights and smells at the conservatory, the most iconic sound of the place is the squawking of the parrots. Some of these birds, like Sarah (pictured), have lived in the conservatory for years, if not decades. Every morning, before the building opens, the parrots are let out of their cages and allowed to fly around the lobby.
The Desert Room
Unlike tropical plants that pull water out of the air, desert plants must hoard and protect their precious bit of moisture. That protection, as is evident in most of the plants in the desert room, often takes the form of sharp spines.
Madagascar palmsThis is not a tree that likes to be hugged! As Staley points out, a lot of little children come to conservatory. The Madagascar palms are indicative of why they tell those children not to run.
In Mexico, where the Prickly Pear grows in abundance, the common name for the tree’s fruit is tuna. In the wild, tunas are often harvested and made into syrups and jams.
This iconic looking cactus is a popular landscaping plant in the southwestern United States. People in Arizona might plant one of these in their yard the same way someone in Oak Park would plant a yew bush.