Secret garden provides escape from bitter cold

Ed Thomson

Ed Thomson

By Emily Parrino

The balmy scene inside the University of Illinois Plant Biology Conservatory contrasted sharply with the frigid, windswept environment on the other side of the glass the week before last semester’s finals. From the ceiling, a machine whirred and a spray of fine mist filled the air, giving the tropical foliage greenery a dewy sheen. Water dripped from banana leaves and palm fronds. Plump, colorful goldfish swam lazily in the gurgling lily pond.

Though open to the public from 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. every weekday, this greenhouse, 1201 S. Dorner Dr., is like a secret garden – the hidden green gem of the University of Illinois.

Conservatory Curator Debbie Black said only a half dozen visitors sign the conservatory guest book each week and even less during finals and winter break.

John Cheeseman, a University plant biology professor and frequent visitor of the conservatory, said the conservatory should not be a secret, because it is not really hidden. Many students pass by the sprawling greenhouse complex next to the ACES Library on the south side of campus on their way to McKinley Health Center, Pennsylvania Residence Hall or IMPE, he said.

“It’s not an intentional secret. You can’t put up a three-story glass building and expect nobody to notice it,” Cheeseman said.

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The real secret, he explained, is that not many people know that they are welcome to come walk through.

Cheeseman and Black both said they wish more people would take advantage of the conservatory.

“I would love the public to get more involved with this place,” said Black, who has tried to generate public interest on a shoestring budget through weekend programs. Future events include the Himalayan Blue Poppy Show and the Mom’s Day Weekend open house.

The primary function of the conservatory and adjacent plant collection rooms is education. Black said most visitors come with their classes and rarely by themselves.

Those who do take the time to step inside the conservatory receive an exotic introduction to rainforest botany. Black said the conservatory has an impressive collection of more than 175 species of trees, shrubs and aquatic plants from all over the globe.

Cheeseman said many of these species were collected over the years by biology professors and graduate students on field trips and that some of the plants may be several decades old. The conservatory also obtains plants by swapping with other greenhouses across the country through the Association of Education and Research Greenhouse Curators.

“Honestly, you’d have to go to Chicago or St. Louis to find anything comparable,” Black said.

Black is also proud of the conservatory’s edible section, which includes sugarcane, banana and orange trees, and at one time included chocolate trees.

In addition to finding trees with fruit, Cheeseman recommended that first-time visitors observe some of the strange-looking plants and the odd things they do.

“The things to look for are things that are colorful, things that have weird-shaped flowers or are just simply weird,” he said. “You might notice that (a) flower seems to be growing out of the middle of a leaf, or that (a) particular plant has orange thorns … or that one plant is just about to bloom.”

The Amazon lily, an ivory-colored flower in the northeast corner of the conservatory, was in bloom during Cheeseman’s most recent visit.

“It’s just gorgeous. Go now,” he said.

Black observed that many students who get a taste of the rainforest are eager to return.

“I had one guy tell me he wanted to bring his date here,” Black said with a smile. “And we’ve had a wedding here too.”

Beyond special events, the conservatory makes a pleasant spot to picnic or study. Priscilla Levon, freshman in LAS, said she enjoyed studying in the conservatory during finals week.

“It’s kind of a nice atmosphere for studying. There’s a lot of white noise with the fans and the mist, and it’s pretty warm and humid,” said Levon, who first visited the conservatory with her horticulture class.

Cheeseman said the conservatory is the perfect place for students with the winter blues and encouraged students to visit there for lunch or a study break.

“The first thing to do is just go in and sit someplace quiet and get warm, enjoy just being near green. Then look at textures, look at colors, look at the different reflections off leaves,” Cheeseman said. “You can’t lie on the ground on the Quad right now, so you might as well stretch out on the bench and look around.”