Botanical gardens | Columns |

My main experience with botanical gardens is in visiting the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh several times over the years. It is truly a unique and inspiring experience.

Each room is like a fairyland. Flowers are everywhere, expertly arranged in a unique floral landscape to showcase a specific theme. There are even delicate little touches like fountains, stepping stones and a small footbridge over an indoor stream.

Every room has a theme and even the overall flower show itself has a theme.

I remember the first year I visited the theme was “Singing in the Rain” and they even had a large TV in the lobby continually playing the Gene Kelly classic song and dance scene.

Each room was like a wonder land or a travel machine that endeavored to transport you to another place in the world. Rooms showcase plants from the tropics, from primeval times, Hawaii, world deserts, the Mediterranean and more. It was a unique adventure when I visited as a child, and I am still in awe when I think of the botanical gardens today.

These are the kind of rooms children would love to explore as a place of adventure. What could be more exciting than exploring an indoor jungle with ponds, streams and waterfalls? Even adults could get lost among all the vegetation and winding paths.

It made me think of how nice it would be to have an indoor flower garden as a part of your own house. It is a very romantic idea to have the fresh, clean, perfumed smell of flowers always around you.

Wealthy businessman Henry Phipps gifted the conservatory to the City of Pittsburgh in 1893. These days it boasts of being one of the “greenest” greenhouses in the world and keeps its plants as “environmentally sustainable as possible.”

Before public botanical gardens ever existed, smaller glass structures were annexed to English, Victorian homes. Having a conservatory allowed the wealthy to express their love for gardening and also grow some foods for their table that were rare and exotic and could not survive in England’s climate.

Growing oranges was popular in the 16th century. Special buildings for growing orange trees began to pop up on the European continent. Over time, the variety of plants increased, and so did the need for space and buildings that let in lots of sun. And so, “glasshouses” continued to evolve and adapt to the needs of the plants housed within.

Italian, Luca Ghini started the first botanical garden for the University of Pisa in 1544. When these gardens started out, they were mainly for medicinal plants. Medicinal gardens were known as “physic gardens or “apothecaries gardens.”

The Medieval physic gardens tended by monks were closer to what we know as the botanical gardens of today. These gardens had several sections of various types of plants. For example, they might have a vegetable garden, a medicinal garden and an orchard.

Gardening was particularly popular with monasteries, because they often depended on plants for a livelihood. Monks had mainly a vegetarian diet.

Besides growing plants for food and medicinal purposes, there were economically valuable plants that produced things that could be sold like fruit and spices.

Scientists used botanical gardens to classify plants. To scientists, collecting plants from far away places was like big game hunting. They took delight in capturing wild plants and bringing them back home to Europe for public display.

Originally, gardens were considered to be for educational purposes and only later in the 19th century were the collections supposed to showcase a variety of plants and flowers as well as have them beautifully arranged and appreciated for their artistic beauty.

The idea for indoor gardens became popular in the 1800s as cities were growing and there was concrete everywhere. People began to have a growing desire to return to nature. City parks were built to accommodate the public need for green open spaces. “Landscape Architecture” became an in-demand profession.

The 20th century is when the public really started to enjoy visiting the botanic gardens. These gardens often offer various types of artistic entertainment that is open to the public.

Early conservatories were called “the glasshouse.” There were public and private conservatories that were affectionately dubbed “theaters of nature.” It was a way of bringing nature to the city.

Glass and iron became the dominant materials for constructing “glasshouses” because the warm and humid temperatures that were necessary to keep the plants thriving tended to rot out buildings made of wood.

The definition of a botanic garden is one that is dedicated to caring for a large variety of plants. The gardeners would be like plant parents making sure each one was cared for properly. But the plants are also a part of a family business — show business. On any given day, hundreds or even thousands of people tour the gardens and each plant and flower must look its best.

Public conservatories typically try to give tourists a chance to experience different types of flowers from various climates and places in the world.

The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco is the oldest remaining conservatory in America. It is also the oldest wooden public conservatory that survives on the North American continent. When it first opened, there were 9,000 different kinds of plants in the conservatory.

This particular conservatory includes a potted plant gallery that displays rare and tropical plants; a lowlands gallery that houses flowering plants from the South American tropics and fruit and spice plants as well; the Highlands Gallery contains plants from slightly cooler South American regions; and finally the Aquatics Gallery showcases two large ponds, and plants from the Amazon River, including the carnivorous ones.

The future looks bright for public gardens with a renewed focus on keeping the gardens environmentally sustainable.

From 16th century medicinal gardens, to home conservatories, to indoor botanical gardens open to the public showcasing plants from around the world, botanical gardens continue to grow in popularity. There are currently over 1,800 in the world and new ones continue to open.

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