By Andrew Beck
I stepped out of the car and immediately grabbed my umbrella, as the drizzling rain was just heavy enough to be an annoyance. We were situated in front of the conservatory at Manito Park, Spokane. My view was crowded with off-whites and greys since a weeks-old snow was in the process of melting off. The white sky drained the remaining color from the garden, leaving it an untrimmed, desperate space. Two long rows of evergreen hedges framed the muddy area, with a dried up fountain in the center. I attempted to hike to the fountain, but the main paths were deep and tried to suck the boots off my feet. Walking around the perimeter, I could see the crusty remnants of climbing ivies still stuck to the walls, brittle and brown. The snow became deeper with every step until I finally reached the fountain stairs. Two bronze swans decorated the top of the fountain, slick with freezing rain. I could imagine the beauty the place has during the summer. I turned and went back to the entrance of the greenhouse. As I grew closer, I could make out the condensation on the windows, making them look frosted. When we entered the conservatory, it was like putting on glasses for the first time. The exotic colors and shapes of the orchids, bushes, and palms was almost startling in their vibrance. During the harsh months of winter, the Gaiser Observatory remains sweet-smelling and lush while the rest of Manito Park awaits beneath the snow.
According to the SpokaneHistorical, the conservatory was originally built in 1912 on the corner of 18th and Grand in Spokane, WA, but has since been relocated to it’s current location. The address is 1702 S Grand Blvd., Spokane, WA. It was renovated in 1976 and reached its current state in 1988. There are two smaller greenhouses that “feed” the main three greenhouses. One wing of the building is filled with tropical plants, such as palms, vines, and begonias. The other wing of the conservatory holds desert plants, and even has a Christmas cactus that is said to be over 100 years old! The room is dry and filled with eye-catching grasses and succulents like Burro’s Tail. I spoke with Stephanie O’Byrne, one of the conservatory managers, who told me the conservatory is “like your own personal vacation! I like going into the tropical section and closing my eyes and pretending I’m on an island.” With hundreds of both tropical and desert plants throughout the two rooms, it really does feel like an island.
I wandered around the aisles, making sure to read the names of the most interesting plants. One of my favorites, the Varigated Shrimp Plant (Justicia brandegeana) has small shrimp-like flowers on it, hanging down like a leafy cocktail.
Another that caught by eye was the Burro’s Tail succulent (Sedum morganianum). This succulent has lots of bead-like “leaves” that grip a central vine, making a “tail.” Some, like this one, can get very long.
Stephanie also mentioned that the Manito Park conservatory gets new plants all the time, and the garden is never the same for more than a few weeks. This infograph shows the great diversity the conservatory has.
The majority of the conservatory’s inventory is comprised of small numbers of various species of plants. This means most of the inventory is unique, or kept in small numbers. Some species families are very prevalent at the conservatory, but are none the less exotic. The highest number of inter-family plants is the cactaceae family, these are cacti and cactus-like plants. Crassulaceae are similar, as they are succulents that behave similarly to cacti, but do not have thorns on them are typically a bit softer. The Araceae family are a unique type of flowering plant. They have a flower formation called a “spadix”, and are very diverse. The characteristics are most recognizable in the Peace lily (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum). The Begoniaceae, which are a varied species of flowers and plants, are commonly used a houseplants. They’re typically green and leafy, but have very beautiful variations.
Here is a small selection of plants I photographed while at the conservatory.