Postcards from Pittsburgh No. 3: Phipps Conservatory

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.

Palm Court, Phipps Conservatory

Palm Court greets you as you enter

Basket of orchids, Phipps Conservatory

Basket of orchids in Palm Court

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.

Glass sculptures, Phipps Conservatory

Chihuly glass sculptures in Palm Court

Palm Court, Phipps Conservatory

An artist sketching orchids in Palm Court

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.

Phipps Conservatory

Left: Rain chain | Right: A chocolate tree

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.

Fern Room, Phipps Conservatory

Brushing the glass peak roof in the Fern Room

Giant staghorn

Left: Giant staghorn | Right: The scar on this tree where a
limb was removed looked like a snake

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.

The Frank Sarris Orchid Room

The Frank Sarris Orchid Room

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.

American century plant

American century plant (agave americana)

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.

Fitwits, Phipps Conservatory

Market stands in the Fitwits™ display

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.)

Elephant ears, India Room, Phipps Conservatory

Elephant ears next to a brook in the India Room

Classical dance, India Room, Phipps Conservatory

Classical Dance, my favorite educational sign in the India Room

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.

Spices and buddha, India Room, Phipps Conservatory

Spices and buddha leaf ornament in the India Room

Rangoli, India Room, Phipps Conservatory

Rangoli on the ceiling in the India Room

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.

Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Pittsburgh

Construction site for the Center for Sustainable Landscapes

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.

East Room, Phipps Conservatory

A dragon kite in the East Room

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.



Phipps Conservatory

Postcards from Pittsburgh No. 1: The Challenge

Postcards from Pittsburgh No. 2: Easy to Hook

Milli at Devi, Montreal

Milli at Devi, Montreal


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.

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  1. How awesome! I love that century plant, it does look like it’s ready to get up and walk doesn’t it! I could spend days in a place like this.

    Looks like you found a real treasure Milli 🙂

    • Thanks, Jo. Glad you enjoyed it.

      The century plant being so spooky-good inspired me to go read about the Addams Family. I found out it started as a cartoon strip by Charles Addams in The New Yorker back in the 1930s. Ya just never know where a little research will lead you!

  2. Wow – what a stunning place! I can see how the price of admission would be a bargain! Your pictures are terrific – I’d spend the entire day there taking photos! Thanks for sharing, Milli!

    • Well, Annie, my labor of love for this post was performed partly as an enticement to you and two other friends who might possibly come visit me if I move to Pittsburgh. Phipps would give you a perfect reason to come to the inner city. 😀

      And, yeppers, your camera would be in constant use here. (I had to really discipline myself to select only 16 photos for this story.)

  3. Heidi19 says:

    What a wonderful place Milli! how i wish i could visit Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens someday. I love the way you captured those photos. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  4. Hi Milli!
    Wow This place is amazing! I love the dragon kite! I would go there again and again if I lived close. Love the glass domes!
    Great pictures and article.

    • I loved the dragon kite too. My picture barely shows how awesome it is.

      Hopefully, after I move there, you’ll come visit me and your other Pgh friends and we can all go to Phipps together. 🙂

      • My friends don’t live there anymore, they live in Virginia now, but I’d love to come and visit you some time after you get settled, and it would be fun to tour phipps with you.

  5. Looks like such a beautiful place to visit. I especially liked the picture of the Century Plant because I see them all the time and although I know they’re a variety of agave, I didn’t know what it was called. They are impressive in person and look a little like octopi from space!

    I would love to see the rare orchids up close and personal. One of my friends owns an orchid nursery here in Encinitas, CA, and some of the plants are worthy of a day of marveling.

    Great piece! Makes me want to head back East — well, almost 🙂

  6. Judith Shaw says:

    Now I want to go to Pittsburgh. A good friend just sent her son to U of Pitt for his freshman year and couldn’t rave enough about the city. As a native New Yorker (yawn), I was underwhelmed, but after your description of the Phipps Conservatory, I’m not so sure.

    I lived in the tropics (Indonesia and Singapore) for 11 years, and the tropical garden rooms made me homesick. The botanical gardens, especially the orchid garden in Bogor was a wonder of the world. Did you know there are orchids that smelled like vanilla and cinnamon? It was news to me. In the Singapore Botanical garden I almost stepped on a king cobra. This sounds a lot safer.

    Anyway, thanks for the tour. I’ll have to put Pittsburgh on my list.

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