even in the depths of an Indiana winter, a rain forest is thriving in central Indiana.
Green bananas grow in bunches at eye level. Giant elephant ears blot out the light streaming into the greenhouse panels.
Chocolate, ice cream bean and cinnamon trees stretch toward the sun, even when it’s at its January weakest.
The Garfield Park Conservatory brings a touch of the tropics to Hoosiers year-round, with more than 100 species of plants from Southeast Asia, Africa, Central and South America growing in a 10,000-square-feet greenhouse.
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The southside conservatory has been in operation since 1954, with the rain forest plants growing for nearly 20 years. But even with its location in Indianapolis’ oldest public park, it remains a bit of a hidden gem.
“It’s the same reason people would go to the zoo — it gives them a chance to see plants they might not otherwise see if they can’t travel abroad,” said Jessica Helmbold, naturalist and education coordinator for the conservatory.
Every morning, the Garfield Park staff walk through the conservatory prepared to help contain a tropical forest indoors.
With hundreds of types of plants to care for, some which can grow to 70 feet, horticulturist Susan Micks, gardener Kaitlyn Haehnle and other naturalists need a carefully designed plan to keep the teeming growth in check.
Targeted pruning keeps plants from overwhelming the space, without injuring or weakening the trees and shrubs themselves, Helmbold said.
“We have to keep everything in check to fit under a glass roof,” she said. “You’ll see trees that don’t quite look like what they would in the wild. I like to say they do bonsai to our trees, on a larger scale. We’re trying to keep them the right size to fit in the conservatory.”
Garfield Park was established in 1873, initially with designs to be a harness-racing track. When the venture failed, Indianapolis purchased the land and opened the city’s first public park.
A Victorian-style conservatory was built in 1914 by famed architect George Kessler, pairing the building with a formal sunken garden. The design called for a palm house, two show houses and a plant house.
The first building was torn down in the 1950s, replaced by the glass and aluminum Art Deco structure that exists today. At the time, it was the first all-aluminum, all-welded greenhouse in the country.
The design was truly the perfect venue for the dramatic horticultural conservatory that Garfield Park officials wanted to create, said Mark Bowell, a board member of the Friends of Garfield Park.
“Garfield Park is unlike any other park in the city or the state for that matter,” he said. “The conservatory is unique in its construction and compliments the Sunken Gardens and fountains perfectly. It is a very unique gem right in our backyard.”
The Friends of Garfield Park were formed in 1998 to preserve and carry on the park’s mission.
This past year, the group helped complete a historic trail on the park’s grounds, continued supporting maintenance of the fountains in the sunken gardens and hosted more than 10,000 people in the park for a concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Bowell said.
But the conservatory remains one of the most effective tools attract people to the area, since there’s nothing like it elsewhere in the city, Bowell said.
The rain forest collection was added in 1997 as a repository for plants unknown in the Midwest.
Walking from the snow and cold outside through the conservatory doors is truly like going into an alien world, Helmbold said.
The wicked-looking choco palm, spikes circles its trunk and lining the stems of its leaves, grows next to gentle jungle geraniums. The bloodleaf plant features colorful pink and purple leaves.
When in bloom, the shaving brush tree offers colorful flowers splayed out like its namesake tool.
The plants have all come from tropical growers, having either been shipped in or selected by the conservatory staff during trips to Florida, Helmbold said.
In a contained environment, the staff can constantly protect the plants against pests and disease. Plants in the understory — the layer closest to the ground in a tropical forest — are changed regularly.
In some cases, the trees can live for decades, Helmbold said.
“Some of our larger plants are 50 or 60 years old,” she said.
Other features in the conservatory add to the tropical atmosphere. Water lilies and green algae grow in small ponds set among the trees and flowers. At the center of the space, a 15-feet-high waterfall cascades into a pool teeming with koi.
Despite the conservatory’s long history on the southside, staff members still find that surprisingly few know what’s growing there, Helmbold said.
“It still takes work to get the word out,” she said. “Throughout the year, I feel like we hear from a lot of people who have lived here for a long time and never knew they were here.”
Special programs, such as the preschool-focused Jungle Tales story time and Hatha yoga in the balmy conditions have helped reach people who otherwise might not notice the conservatory.
The romantic Valentine’s Day-themed Sweets for Your Sweetie invites people in to spend a candlelit evening of chocolate and coffee among the tropical plants.
“We are a city park, and most people don’t realize there’s a conservatory inside a city park,” Helmbold said. “When people think of a city park, they think of pools or recreation centers. You don’t think of something like this.”
Garfield Park Conservatory
Where: 2505 Conservatory Drive, Indianapolis
What: 10,000 square feet of tropical trees, flowers and other plants, along with a 15-feet-high waterfall, ponds, fish and tropical birds.
Plants: More than 100 species growing in the conservatory, including palms, orchids, ferns, cacao, vanilla, bananas and coffee.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $2 per person, children 2 and under free.
- Tuesday and Feb. 9: Jungle Tales, 10 to 11 a.m.; a nature related story, activity and craft in the conservatory; for ages 2 to 5; cost $5, preregistration required.
- Jan. 16 and Feb. 13: Hatha Yoga, 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., meditative morning yoga practice; for adults; cost $10.
- Feb. 14: Sweets for Your Sweetie, first session 6:30 to 8 p.m., second session 8 to 9:30 p.m.; a romantic event including treats from the tropics; $10.
Scientific name: Calathea loeseneri
Where to find it: Brazil
Unique features: Wide green leaves and delicate pink-and-white flowers growing on tall stems.
Scientific name: Musa spp.
Where to find it: Southeast Asia
Unique features: Unusual reddish-purple flowers are followed by clusters of upwardly pointing green fruit, eventually developing into the well-known yellow color.
Split leaf philodendron
Scientific name: Philodendron selloum
Where to find it: South America
Unique features: The deeply lobed leaves are visually stunning but can be poisonous to animals and small children.
Powder Puff Tree
Scientific name: Calliandra haematocephala
Where to find it: Bolivia
Unique features: This large, multiple-trunked evergreen shrub has fragrant blooms that look like big puffs, 2 to 3 inches across, the color of watermelon.
Scientific name: Cochliostema odoratissimum
Where to find it: Costa Rica
Unique features: Its deep violet-blue flowers, which are very fragrant, develop in stalked clusters that do not extend beyond the plant’s leaves.
Scientific name: Bismarckia nobilis
Where to find it: Madagascar
Unique features: This palm variety can grow to be 60 feet tall, with leaves that are nearly rounded and can grow to be 4 feet wide.
Scientific name: Astrocaryum mexicanum
Where to find it: Central America
Unique features: The stems, fruit, and leaves of this small, solitary palm are armed with sharp black, flattened spines to ward off pests.