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Winter Escape: The Warm World of the BBG’s Conservatories

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Winter Escape: The Warm World of the BBG’s Conservatories

March 6, 2023

In the cold months we crave a holiday. Just a break. A different view. New smells. Exotic plants. An atmosphere that draws the chill from our bones. And we can’t always travel. But—at least for those of us who live in big cities—there is often a botanical compromise: a local green house, or conservatory, a place where plants are kept under glass in conditions that defy the weather outside and mimic, instead, the climates where their progenitors were born. In Brooklyn, on the east side of Prospect Park, the conservatories of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden offer respite from the cold—and a therapeutic immersion in fragrant steam.

Come for a stroll through a handful of climates worlds away from winter.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: A dramatic example of effective climate control.

Puffer jackets can be unzipped, woollen hats removed, gloves peeled off.

Above: A Camellia sasanqua in January.

Within the massive, clear panes of the conservatories’ great glass houses, the transition from outdoor cold to moist heat is instantaneous. To acclimate, I head for the Bonsai Museum, the most moderate and airy room, where a rotating bonsai collection invites quiet admiration.

Above: The tiny trees growing in shallow trays are seasons in miniature.
Above: The Warm Temperate Pavilion at the BBG.

And then I go home. Not across the park, to where I live, but to my homeland, South Africa: Downstairs.

Above: South African Lachenalias smell delicious.

In this familiar climate (not too warm, not too cool), it is spring.

Above: The many species of Lachenalia are known commonly as Cape hyacinths.

Lachenalias in bloom give a visitor a tiny taste of the spectacular spring effusion that envelopes South Africa’s West Coast and Northern Cape, in the Southern Hemisphere’s spring.

Above: Mediterranean Capparis spinosa var. inermis— caper bush—in bloom. The unopened buds and fruit capsules are pickled.

The Warm Temperate Pavilion’s climate, characterized by cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers (often better-known as a Mediterranean climate), is shared by other, diverse geographic regions, including southern and southwestern Australia, westernmost Asia, central Chile, coastal California, and the Mediterranean Basin. Here, they are under one domed roof. And it’s a riot for the senses. Citron may be fruiting, and always, there is an intense scent.

Above: The tiny blooms of Osmanthus fragrans earn their species name.

The perfume that greets you immediately in the Warm Temperate Pavilion is shed by a shrub whose flowers invite the dismissive qualifier “non-descript”—until you push your nose into them. Osmanthus fragrans, known commonly as fragrant olive, sweet olive, and fragrant tea olive, is native to the temperate Himalayas, China, and Japan. (It is also sold as a houseplant, and is worth cultivating for those demure, powerful flowers.)

Above: Pure white blooms of a spiky Acanthus.

In the clammy, sauna-hot Tropical Pavilion, a downsized international tropical forest features plants from the African rainforests, the Amazon basin and tropical East and Southeast Asia. The humid space teems with lush and often very familiar life: Star fruit, sweetsop, guava, banana, and papaya trees, vines famous as food (pepper and vanilla, an orchid), miracle fruit, Australian finger lime, and more “houseplants” than you can shake a snowy umbrella at.

Above: Clerodendrum quadriloculare—starburst, in the Tropical Pavilion.
Above: A mini mangrove.

The Aquatic House and Orchid Collection is an otherworldly dip into intriguing waters. It is easy to forget the gray and brown winter landscape on the other side of the glass as you walk past trailing aerial roots absorbing the moisture in the air, beneath vivid petals, and beside the ramparts of mangrove roots.

Above: A semi-submerged aroid.

From the Andes to Southeast Asia, Africa and Florida, tropical and subtropical aquatic and wet-environment plants—terrestrial mosses, orchids, and trees; water-dwelling waterlilies, pitcher plants, and aroids—are collected in this relatively small space whose ambition is to highlight the world of plants adapted to these conditions.

Above: A roof of roots.
Above: Vanda Pachara Delight is a hybrid orchid that is part of the permanent collection—if the humidity is high enough, Vanda orchids can be grown bare-root.
Above: Ansellia africana—a yellow form of the often leopard-spotted orchid from West Africa.
Above: African waterlilies bloom in a raised, self-contained habitat.
Above: Trichoglottis rosea var. breviracema is fragrant orchid native to the Phillippines.
Above: Phaius tankervilleae—nun orchid.

And then it’s time to leave. All the lenses—camera, phone, eye glasses—are fogged up. Under our sweaters we are beginning to itch with heat. We are ready for the cool world outside, where pussy willows are in bud and witch hazels have been in bloom for a couple of weeks. The real green of tender spring leaves is still weeks away. We pull on our gloves and our breath plumes in the outdoor air.

When we need it again, we will be back. Perhaps to the Desert Pavilion, which we skipped. Always keep something in reserve.

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