Postcards from Pittsburgh No. 3: Phipps ConservatoryGARDENS & PARKS, PITTSBURGH, SERIES, STAFF — By Milli Thornton on April 17, 2012 at 01:50
Story by Milli Thornton. Photos Copyright © Milli Thornton.
Part of the mission of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is to “inspire and educate visitors with the beauty and importance of plants.” The building, with its glass peak and dome and sweeping staircases, is an inspiration in itself. The moment I saw it—from Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park—I wanted to go inside and explore.
Awaken your senses. Immerse yourself in 17 distinct botanical experiences. Encounter something of the secret life of plants. And glimpse one of the world’s greenest public gardens.
No doubt penned by a copywriter hired to add enticing text to the website but Phipps fully lives up to this exotic promise. At $12 per adult, the tickets were tremendous value.
On the way in I’d seen a big sandwich board sign that said “India Beckons: Tropical Forest India now at Phipps” and I could hardly wait to get to that part. But first we entered via Palm Court and this is the perfect place to begin. Instantly entranced by the color, beauty and prolific growth, the warm, moist air convinced me I was in the tropics.
Phipps has two levels. At the Plaza Level you have the shops and cafe. At the Conservatory Level the names are enough to evoke lavish mental pictures: Palm Court, Serpentine Room, Orchid Room, Fern Room, Stove Room, The Gallery, South Conservatory, Tropical Fruit & Spice Room, Sunken Garden, Desert Room, Broderie Room, Victoria Room, East Room, Botany Room and, new to Phipps, India Room.
Outdoors there’s the Japanese Courtyard Garden, Aquatic Garden, Children’s Discovery Garden, Medicinal Plant Garden, Herb Garden, Ferns and Dwarf Conifers.
We attempted nothing more than the rooms on the Conservatory Level and the Japanese Courtyard Garden. Phipps is a place you end up wanting to return to more than once. There’s simply too much to see in one visit.
In the Stove Room (probably called that because it’s as warm as the tropics), I was fascinated with several elegant strands running from the ground to the ceiling. These are called rain chains and they’re used in place of downspouts. They guide and break the fall of water until it can be absorbed by the earth. They’re usually made of heavy gauge copper or brass. The pretty ones in the Stove Room have upturned petal shapes that form a series of cups with open bottoms.
Being a lover of good chocolate, I was thrilled by the sight of a chocolate tree in the Fern Room (see above). Native to tropical countries close to the equator, the tree’s cacao fruit is used to make cocoa powder and chocolate. It takes seven to fourteen pods to make one pound of cocoa powder.
As if the overflowing baskets of orchids in Palm Court weren’t enough, the Frank Sarris Orchid Room (below) offers a stunning array of colors, shapes and species.
Just as with Phipps’ policy regarding cameras (photography and video for personal use is encouraged), nothing in the Orchid Room is off-limits. You can get up close and personal with miniature orchids—some of the rarest plants in the world—and children can walk the exhibit freely. Despite the delicacy of the flowers and the ever-flowing hordes of people passing through, everything looked undamaged and well cared for.
Having lived in the Southwest, Brian and I were in familiar territory in the Desert Room . . . though some of the more bizarre growths made us stop in our tracks. Especially this gigantic century plant, looking like it might belong in the conservatory of the Addams Family mansion.
You can start to feel like you’re in maze going from room to room. I think we were in, or somewhere near, the Sunken Garden when we encountered Fitwits™: “an easy-to-use tool for families, schools and community health services to teach children about food nutrition and health.”
Fitwits™ makes this fun for kids by providing a kid-sized market where you can grab a shopping cart and stock it with healthy (plastic) fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, dairy and bakery products. I would have liked to play a while myself but there was still too much to see.
At last we came to the India Room. As anticipated, this was full of treasures and a feast for the eye. The only disappointment was that the plant growth is sparser here—which is only to be expected from an area of the conservatory that hasn’t been established for long. (Phipps was built in 1893 and some of the tangled tree roots in other rooms look as if they could have been growing for that long.)
There were many colorful and educational displays in the India Room, including a replica of a bazaar (sari cloth, tea traders, spice market) and an Ayurvedic learning center, next to which grows a neem tree. Neem has many healing properties and is especially good for gum care. Traditionally, Indians would chew on twigs from the neem tree to cleanse the mouth and gums after a meal.
One of the displays offered dried beans of various shapes and colors that visitors could lay out on hand-drawn patterns to create their own Rangoli. Rangoli (above) is traditional folk art practiced by Indian women using colored flour, spices, grains, leaves or petals. The designs are intricate geometrical patterns used as symbols of welcome and good luck.
At the back of India Room we went outside and came up against a chain-link fence covered in signs proclaiming the coming of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes: “one of the world’s first living buildings.” This will include natural ventilation, solar panels, constructed wetlands and a lagoon system, rain gardens, geothermal wells, stormwater capture and vertical axis wind turbine.
I can’t wait to come back to Phipps when the new center is unveiled. I took it as a good omen that we saw a hawk hovering above the building: a wild creature in the middle of the city looking down at the future site of a friendlier human landscape.
By the time we got to the East Room, my senses were overloaded with the beauty of nature and the Indian culture. There was a bench in the East Room and we were glad to sit down for a few minutes and take in the Oriental vibes of serenity.
I’m positive Phipps must be one of the many reasons why Pittsburgh made it onto National Geographic Traveler’s top 20 places in the world to visit in 2012.
Milli Thornton (aka Milliver) is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She is owner of Unleash Your Writing! and the Fear of Writing Online Course, where her mission is to put the fun back into writing. Milli blogs at Screenwriting in the Boonies and the Fear of Writing Blog and coaches writers individually at Writer’s Muse.