Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Places to Visit: The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle in Detroit

Thanks to my university's calendar reform, we now have a month-long winter break which I am spending at home in suburban Michigan. While I really should be using this time to catch up on all those things that do not get done during the semester - coming up with a brilliant topic idea for my senior thesis one of these days would be nice - I am also revisiting some of the horticultural treasures in this area. Thus today's post is dedicated to the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a beautiful historic greenhouse on Detroit's Belle Isle. Designed in 1881 by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed New York City's Central Park, Belle Isle is a large landscape park located on the eponymous island in the Detroit River. Much of the park is in dire need of restoration but the conservatory continues to be beautiful thanks to the dedicated volunteers of the Belle Isle Botanical Society (http://www.bibsociety.org/index.htm).

Built in 1904, the conservatory was designed by famous architect Albert Kahn. In the 1950s the originally wooden structure was renovated and the wood replaced with steel. At this time, Anna Scripps Whitcomb donated her 6oo-plant orchid collection to the conservatory and in 1955 the structure was renamed after her.
In front of the conservatory a large formal garden planted with annuals and perennials provides plenty of interest during the summer months and to the side of the building a small beautiful garden centered around a pond filled with water lilies (Nymphaea sp.) sits sandwiched between the western wing of the conservatory and what used to be the Belle Isle Aquarium. Inside the greenhouse, there are five distinct areas, beginning with the large central dome of the palm house which one enters after traversing the small lobby and signing the guest book at the front desk. The planting in the palm house centers around mature specimens of large tropical and subtropical plant species, such as two towering Canary date palms (Phoenix canariensis), a large cycad that appears to be a species of Dioon, and a large window leaf (Monstera deliciosa).

However, there are also plenty of bromeliads for color, as well as such tropical flowers as hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), flamingo flowers (Anthurium andreanum) and bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae). Overall, the effect is one of tranquil lushness and abundance. In the western wing of the conservatory one comes across the collection of plants from arid zones. This greenhouse is dominated by a large number of different aloes, cacti, and century plants (Agave sp.) as well as the gnarled trunks and branches of the Madagascar palm (Pachypodium geayi) and several old jade plants (Crassula ovata) which at the time of my last visit were flowering vigorously.

At the end of the arid house one arrives at the fernery, perhaps one of the most whimsical and old-fashioned features of this conservatory. In Victorian times entire greenhouses devoted solely to ferns were quite fashionable but today relatively few remain. Naturally the large tree ferns are the most impressive part of the planting scheme in this part of the conservatory but it is also worthwhile to look a little closer to see just how many different species of ferns are represented and how many different frond sizes, shapes, and patterns one can find.

Across the central dome from the fernery and the arid house lies the tropical wing of the conservatory which is filled with banana plants (Musa acuminata and Musa x paradisiaca), pineapple plants (Ananas comosus), various species of Citrus, a large Plumeria (Plumeria sp.), croton (Codiaeum variegatum), and many other tropical flowers and foliage plants. This part of the conservatory also houses much of the large orchid collection and a charming water feature which serves as backdrop for many of the exotic blossoms.

Finally, the last part of the conservatory can be found at the back of the central dome and consists of a display house planted with some subtropical shrubs and a large number of of flowers that change seasonally. At the time of my last visit mums (Chrysanthemum hybrids) dominated the flower beds, accompanied by New Guinea impatiens (Impatiens x hawkeri), maiden hair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) and ivy (Hedera helix). Large potted specimens of a pink fall-flowering camellia, presumably a variety of Camellia sasanqua, round out the picture. Finally, there are some very unusual orchid species kept in hanging baskets which I presume prefer the cooler conditions of this part of the conservatory.

On the whole, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is a beautiful spot to spend an hour or two on a dreary winter afternoon when one is in dire need of greenery and a shock of color. A reminder of Detroit's golden age, the conservatory is lush, old-fashioned, and an important part of local history.
Sources: http://www.bibsociety.org/ and The Garden Lover's Guide to the Midwest by Paul Bennet, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

1 comment:

  1. I too like to visit gardens and conservatories. Your post is very interesting and informative. Happy New Year! Auf wiedersehen!


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