Thursday, January 10, 2008


I wondered: just how many varieties of poinsettias are there? We arrived at the Mitchell Park Conservatory, aptly known as the Domes, on Saturday just as the sun was going down somewhere behind a compete gray blanket of clouds. Inside one of the three domes, I saw a sea of poinsettias, the star flowers of the Christmas floral show, which was to be over the next day.

Milwaukee County's web site tells us that in the 1950s, "a design competition, won by a local architect, produced the plans for the new conservatory. Donald Grieb's winning entry called for three beehive-shaped (not geodesic) glass domes, 140 feet in diameter at the base and 85 feet high, offering 15,000 square feet of growing space for plant display. Each dome would have a distinct climate and exhibit plants in a naturalistic setting. These are the Arid, Tropical, and Floral Show domes. Construction began in 1959 and proceded in stages."

The damp gray outside made the interior of the conservatory that much more vivid, but it would have been vivid any time in the floral dome, with its hundreds of poinsettias of various hues and still-decorated Christmas trees, or the tropical dome with its lush greenery, or even the arid dome, with all its dozens of weird cacti and such dry-world plants.

In the floral dome, a small sample of the flowers, doing no justice to the subtle color variety that I experienced:

In the tropical dome, some elephant ears. That's what I call them, anyway:

In the arid dome, some of Milwaukee's few palms, plus skyscraper cacti:

I've long liked conservatories, as far back as a visit to the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, over 25 years ago, which I happened upon without any plan to visit. Glass domes are pleasing to the eye practically by nature, and plant diversity never falls to amaze, though botany isn't my calling, since I can never remember the names of very many plants. My reaction is more basic than informed: "Wow, look at that strange one."

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