A Visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory

We had contractors working in the house last Saturday, and so Judy and I decided to have an outing to the Garfield Park Conservatory. We hadn’t visited since five years ago, which is a shame because this is one of Chicago’s great garden features.

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The wintery scene outside gave no hint of what could be found within. Garfield Park Conservatory was conceived of and designed by one of my heroes, Jens Jensen, who founded the prairie school of garden design. At 4.5 acres under glass, it is one of the largest conservatories in the United States. Plus, admission is free! (Donations gratefully accepted, though.)

The Palm House

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Upon entering, you have arrived at a different world – tropical, warm and humid. Which is really nice, except for the way my glasses fogged up, after enduring so much winter.

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This really doesn’t look like a color that occurs in nature, right?

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The first room you come to is the Palm House. There are all kinds of interesting understory plants.

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Plus some impressively tall Palms of various kinds. The ceiling is 65′ high, and yet some of the fronds are already brushing against the panes of laminated glass. Plans are being made to move the tallest specimen.

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These tropical blooms caught my eye.

The Show House

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From the Palm House we moved on to the Show House, where seasonal displays are presented. The spring flower display already had lots of gaudy Azaleas in bloom.

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There were also Mimosa Trees (Albizia julibrissin).

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And this Columnar Flowering Peach (Prunus persica).

Horticulture Hall

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We moved onto the Horticulture Hall, which is often rented out for events. I immediately noticed a flowering orange tree. I was surprised that the scent did not seem at all citrusy.

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In the adjoining Jensen Room there were a number of interesting historic photos, including this one of the conservatory staff from 1913. Apparently in those days they didn’t believe in smiling for photographs.

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This Islamic-style mosaic fountain is also in the Horticulture Hall. It’s a gift from Chicago’s sister city, Casablanca.


The Desert House

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The next exhibit brought us from humid to arid as we entered the Desert House. These little guys make me think of one-eyed minions.

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If I had a favorite cactus, I think it would be Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii).

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A look back at the Desert House before we take our leave.

The Aroid House

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The most notable feature at the Aroid House is the display of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly.

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Though the koi didn’t seem too excited. They never do, though, do they? This big yellow one is kind of unusual, don’t you think?

The Fern Room

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I have to say that the Fern Room is my favorite part of the Garfield Park Conservatory. Jensen conceived of it as a recreation of the Illinois landscape from the days of the dinosaurs.

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Fronds large and small unfurl among rich greenery.


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Ferns grow in abundance around an artificial lagoon with Cycads and other plants that enjoy similar conditions.

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This unusual plant is called a Birds Nest Fern (Asplinium australasicum).

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This Tree Fern has a definite prehistoric vibe.

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I love the way this waterfall surrounded by cascading ferns.

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After an hour or two in this place, winter weariness is forgotten. For Chicagoans unable to fly to a warm location, I don’t know of any better escape from winter than the Garfield Park Conservatory.

48 Comments on “A Visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory

  1. Ah! What a sweet respite from winter this visit must have been. I love the lush green of the fern room too. Your pictures are wonderfully evocative of the dinosaur age.

    • That’s what I thought! They should have had toy dinos scattered around the fern room – or maybe one of those big animatronic things coming up out of the lagoon.

  2. I have been to Chicago so many times-but never have visited the Garfield. I think I should make a point on my next trip.

  3. Mimosa, cacti and citrus inside? What planet is Chicago on? Cactus are difficult to grow inside.
    At the Conservatory of Flower in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, there is a Bismarkia palm that has been there for a while. It was planted before anyone knew that they grow outside here. It actually looks rather sad inside, with grungy gray color. It is just too humid and shaded.

    • I don’t know much about cacti, but I thought those at Garfield Park looked pretty good. Just shows what a first class operation it is!

  4. What a wonderful place to escape from the winter weather! Loved all the ferns, are you sure there wasn’t a dinosaur lurking there?

  5. I really need somewhere like this to escape to from the winter weather. I loved the fern-house too, I need to find some to grow in pots on the terrace in summer, there’s plenty of shade from the wisteria.

  6. Just as I was wondering if there was any Chihuly glass there you had a picture of it. I think that is a perfect place for some of it. The yellow glass looks just like that yellow koi. ?? I love the fern trees. I would like to have one. Of course it would out grow any place I could have it during winter in no time. Mimosa trees are becoming invasive here . I guess that is one of the results of global warming. I still love to see those fluffy pink blooms. My lemon tree is blooming again too. Thanks for taking us with you on this winter retreat.

  7. My oh my oh my! If I lived within driving distance, I’d be there lickity-split. Wonderful! And free admission.

  8. That warmth and all that green is certainly invigorating for the winter-tired gardener! I love the Mimosa flowers – beautiful. And the ferns too. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Wow – that is huge! I recently went to our local Royal Botanical Gardens greenhouse with my daughter – a lovely respite from the cold outside, but unfortunately, nowhere near as large as yours.

  10. It’s a nice way to appear in summer during winter season outside, Jason. Love these small cactus they look like fingers growing up. The fern house has the rich collection of these plants, I agree. The waterfall surrounded by different kinds of ferns is beautiful.

  11. Easily one of the most beautiful places you’ve shown on this blog! You’re very lucky to live so near such a place.
    I used to grow a bird’s nest fern as a house plant but it was nowhere near that size.

  12. What a lovely place to visit during your long winter. We are visiting New Zealand at the moment & the tree ferns growing wild everywhere are just amazing…they look just like some of your photos.

    • I was looking for a sign identifying that hot pink guy but couldn’t find one. Yes, a chair would be nice. Maybe they could rent it out by the hour!

  13. A pleasant afternoon’s escape from the snow. What a variety of climates and flora. Love the fern room.

  14. If the yellow koi has been there for a while, possibly it inspired the color of the Chihuly pieces? An alternative theory is that one of the koi took on the color to compete… ;>

  15. This is really a big-time, big-city conservatory. That impression is only deepened by the magnificent Moroccan tile fountain; wow. I hope Chicago’s reciprocal gift lived up to Casablanca’s; any idea what it was, and when?

  16. I have passed that building so many times on the green line and I always say that someday I will stop there. Well, someday I just might do it. But for now, thanks for sharing your photos.

  17. We’ve gone to GPC since the kids were small. Fern room was their favorite then and still is now. Also they have a very intriguing space out back in the summer – a greenspace designed to reflect the more industrial aspects in the neighborhood like the El train. And there is an alcove where they leave detritus from the conservatory – big stumps, huge palm fronds and other materials for kids to build and play with. And the bee hives. And the meditation labyrinth…

  18. Wow, that place is like heaven! I love palmhouses, conservatories and hot houses and can spend hours in them at botanical gardens. The ferns look so lush, the palms look so tropical, it’s like paradise. Perhaps it’s also because of the particularly awful weather at this time, which sees the garden covered in snow and spring stopped in its tracks.

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