Tropical Time: The Garfield Park Conservatory brings rainforest to Indiana

Light filtered through the towering palm trees, banana trees, and other plants that formed a canopy over the cobbled path.

Orchids of all shapes, colors and varieties flowered closer to the ground. The sweet scent of flowers wafted on an artificial breeze. The sound of a soothing waterfall echoed through the room while koi fish lazily splashed on the surface.

Standing in the warmth of the Garfield Park Conservatory, it was easy to forget the thunderstorm swirling just outside the walls.

The Garfield Park Conservatory brings a touch of the tropics to Hoosiers year-round, with more than 100 plant species from Southeast Asia, Africa, Central and South America growing in a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse.

The south side conservatory has been in operation since 1954 with rainforest plants having grown over the past 25 years. But even with its location in Indianapolis’ oldest public park, it remains a hidden gem.

“The Conservatory has something for everyone. Some people find it a meditative and relaxing space. They come for the classical music, the cascading waterfall or the scent of tropical flowers. Others come to read their books or work remotely for a few hours,” said Jessica Helmbold, the conservatory’s naturalist and education coordinator. “Many come to escape the Indiana winter and return to summer for a while.”

Garfield Park was founded in 1873, originally with the design of a harness racing track. When the venture failed, Indianapolis bought the land and opened the city’s first public park.

A Victorian-style conservatory was built in 1914 by famed architect George Kessler, who combined the building with a formal sunken garden. The design envisaged a palm house, two model houses and a plant house.

From 1919 to 1990, the conservatory focused primarily on unique plant displays, Helmbold said.

“Fall could bring a display of mums, winter stars, spring tulips and lilies,” she said.

The first building was demolished in the 1950s and replaced by the existing glass and aluminum art deco structure. At the time, it was the country’s first all-aluminum, all-welded greenhouse.

In 1997 the entire park was renovated. The project included the introduction of a permanent rainforest theme in the conservatory. The conservatory is now home to a variety of plant species including palms, orchids, ferns, cacao, vanilla, bananas and coffee.

“The idea for the Tropics Collection was to provide people in the city of Indianapolis with a tropical getaway and a place to learn more about the rainforest without boarding a plane and flying thousands of miles,” said Helmbold.

Conservatory visitors enter a smaller pavilion atrium before entering the tropical main room. You can follow a loop trail in either direction where you will encounter rainforest plants from all over the world.

People can see pods growing on a cacao tree, the seeds of which are used to make chocolate. Bizarre-looking plants, such as the massively leafed elephant ear tree or the evil bismark palm, can be viewed up close as you pass by.

You can see unusual blooms, from the puffy blossoms of the powder puff tree to the delicate paper flower.

The conservatory’s staff of four, along with a team of 12 volunteers, water, control pests, and prune the various plants throughout the space.

“Our rainforest trees could be much taller than they are in the actual rainforest. However, since we are working with limited space, we have to adapt them to the space,” said Helmbold. “I like to think of it as ‘bonsai for the conservatory.'”

Displays placed along the trail provide information about the rainforest, e.g. B. how plants adapt to a competitive environment or how the forests are divided into layers – emerging, canopy, undergrowth and forest floor.

A poster describes the danger of deforestation in the rainforest and how Indiana people can support the forests.

“I love that we can teach school kids here in Indy about the rainforest, a place they may or may not ever travel to,” said Helmbold. “And while we’re not our native habitat, we interact with the rainforest in some way every day, so it’s important for children to know how their choices affect it.”