When the weather outside is frightful, you may be looking for someplace delightful. Head to an indoor botanical garden and you can pretend you are in the tropics without leaving the state.
Springfield, Chicago, Rock Island and just-across-the-border St. Louis all host warm and humid greenhouses as part of their botanical gardens. Once inside, you can forget the ice and snow and pretend you are basking in the Caribbean.
The Washington Park Botanical Garden in Springfield is a free oasis in the park, open noon to 4 Monday through Friday (except for state holidays) and an hour later on weekends. The garden’s 50-foot glass dome, built in 1972, holds more than 150 species.
Alexa Bryanpotts, interim general manager, says the garden showcases its tropical plants and rotates them in winter, when many regular park walkers stop in to warm up.
“It’s kind of nice when it is bone-chilling cold outside and it is 75-80 degrees in the dome,” she says. “Some people come on their lunch hours to read in the dome.” Finches and fish add to the relaxing atmosphere.
Orchids will fill the dome and lobby Feb. 9-10, when the Prairie State Orchid Society hosts its annual show and sale.
More than 10,000 orchids will be on display at “In the Tropics” at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe Feb. 9-March 24. The garden will attempt to capture the sights and smells of the South Pacific and the Amazon in this year’s show.
“We are educating people about the tropics,” media relations manager Julie McCaffrey says. “That is where you find the greatest diversity of orchid species so the show should have a good tropical vacation feel.”
Entrance to the garden is free (parking costs up to $25), but visitors will pay $8 to $12 for the orchid show. Musicians will play on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
If you can’t make it to the show, you still can enjoy a winter escape in the indoor greenhouses, open 10-5 every day. Gardenias, jasmine, cacao plants and orange, banana and palm trees fill the tropical houses while aloe plants grow in the arid desert house.
McCaffrey says the grounds are open every day from 8-5 should you want to enjoy the outdoors. The Japanese garden is a big attraction in the winter.
Another reason to head to Chicago is the Garfield Park Conservatory, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It features two acres under glass and 10 acres of outdoor gardens. It is open every day 9-5 (until 8 on Wednesdays) and is free although a donation is suggested.
The conservatory’s holiday flower show runs until Jan. 6 with a “Tickled Pink” theme of pink poinsettias and dark green trees.
Noted landscape architect Jens Jensen, designer of Lincoln Memorial Garden, designed the conservatory in 1906-07 as part of Garfield Park. He included the Palm Room, which at 65 feet high and 90 feet wide, is the largest greenhouse. More than 70 palms and other tropical plants live there.
The Desert House holds a large collection of cacti and succulents, and the Aroid House features a Persian pool with 16 Chihuly glass lily pads.
Downtown Rock Island hosts the much younger Quad City Botanical Garden with its Tropical Sun Garden, opened in 1998. The 6,444-square-foot room has a 14-foot waterfall, stream and pond. Tropical plants such as banana, vanilla, coconut, coffee and cacao abound, nurtured by sunlight from the 70-foot skylight.
The Tropical Sun Garden is open all year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hours are 10-5 Monday through Saturday and 1-5 Sunday. Admission ranges from $1 to $3.50. Children under 8 are free. If you hurry, you can catch the Winter Nights Winter Lights display at the garden Wednesday through Sunday until Jan. 6.
For a holiday light display a little closer to Springfield, head across the border to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. More than a million lights will sparkle through Jan. 1. The Garden Express Holiday Flower and Train Show end then also.
Even if you miss the holiday events, MOBOT has lots to offer in the winter, notably its geodesic dome, the half-acre Climatron. You can view more than 2,800 plants inside with the 85 percent humidity likely to frizz your hair a bit.
The adjoining Schoenberg Temperate House offers plants from the Mediterranean region. Also on the grounds is the 1882-era Linnean House, the oldest continuing display greenhouse in the United States.
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Mary Bohlen, a Springfield-based travel writer, has been exploring Illinois in honor of the state’s bicentennial year and writing about her finds monthly for IT.