By Emily Harrington
My son is interested in anything that goes in the ground. Fairy gardens, the preschool lima bean experiment or those hard, brown seed pods are all fascinating to him. He’s always bringing a bouquet of weeds home from the playground, or he is sneaking seeds in his pocket. It’s fun to pick those out of the dryer, by the way.
When the opportunity to visit an indoor garden arose, when the weather outside was less than ideal, we jumped on it.
The Plant Biology Greenhouse at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is worth fighting the parking and college kids. You can find the conservatory/greenhouses and at 1201 S. Dorner Dr. Visually, it’s by the tennis courts, and it’s by that that weird plot of land that looks like a park with no playground—off Lincoln Avenue. The facility supports the wide variety of teaching and research activities in the Department of Plant Biology, the School of Life Sciences and throughout the University of Illinois.
On the surrounding streets, we were easily able to find metered parking—in the middle of the day! Enter through the conservatory entrance. The conservatory (the tall, glass building) and the row of rooms after, the plant collections, are open to the public during the school week, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. However, scheduled class tours, special events and some work activities may limit access to the facility. When we originally wanted to go, there was an art class in the conservatory all morning, so we had to change our plans. CONTACT them ahead of time. The greenhouse manager was very helpful, and she was easy to get a hold of via email.
It was a cold, rainy day, so the conservatory was a welcome change of scenery. It was warm and humid. Perfect for housing the lush flora. There is no front desk or entry fee. You just walk in. There’s a guest book to sign, so they now how much traffic they are getting. A pergola sits above the entrance holding up the tallest, hardiest bougainvillea vine. It had beautiful pink petals that went all the way to the ceiling. As you walked in, petals were literally falling around you. A small bench also sits by the entrance. It provides seating over the water feature. Make sure to really look at the orchids while at the entrance. They are heavy with the most perfect blooms.
The entire room has a small stone path encircling it. An island of thick, mostly tropical, foliage sits in the middle. In the center of the island you’ll see a large, wood birdhouse. In fact, we saw at least one bird. Maybe two. I’m sure they were more hiding out, however. There was bird seed in the corner, so I think they are welcome guests. The room is small and dense. However, it is very tall (peaking at 37 feet). Some of the plants reach to the ceiling, too! Each plant is tagged for identification.
The two older boys explored the “jungle” curiously. My toddler, however, mostly swept up petals with a broom that was in the corner. He doesn’t have a green thumb quite yet. There was only one other visitor in the conservatory, a lone photography student, exploring when we arrived. Thank goodness, because we can be a noisy group. He didn’t stay long.
In terms of ages, I thought all the boys did well in the conservatory. If they are careful with the plants—you shouldn’t have any issue. There’s no reason they can’t smell, but you aren’t supposed to touch them. You are also supposed to keep your voices down, and you need to stay on the path. The volume thing we may have had an issue with. Other than that, I give them a solid B.
Outside of the conservatory, you’ll see a series of plant collection rooms. These are not “pretty” like the conservatory room, but they are interesting! These are “working” rooms. Students are cataloging and monitoring different variables. While we explored, we saw one student walking around taking notes. Each room had different smells and climates—like temperature and watering requirements. One room even smelled perfumey. It was fun to see the different groupings of plants, especially the ones the kids could identify, like lemon and orange trees. One of the rooms featured carnivorous plants. The door to the room had an article displayed. It was about how one variety had digested a mouse before! Of course, the boys thought that was amazing. For that matter, so did I! #gardengoals
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.