My stop on the Conservatory World Tour: University of Illinois Plant Conservatory

There are a number of gardening-related blog posting events that have become traditions over the years. Carol Michel (@IndyGardener) of May Dreams Gardens started Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day back in 2007, an event where gardeners share what’s blooming in their gardens on the 15th of each month. There’s Wordless Wednesday, a meme whose origin is unknown to me, but where bloggers post photos each Wednesday without any explanation in text. I’ve enjoyed participating in these events, as it brings the blogging community — and perhaps more importantly, gardeners — together as a community to share. If there’s something that gardeners do more than grow, it has to be their capacity to share.

When Kylee Baumle (@OurLittleAcre) over at Our Little Acre came up with the idea to start a Conservatory World Tour this year (January 23-29), I thought it was a wonderful idea. What better way for gardeners to break out of their winter doldrums by visiting a nearby conservatory, surround themselves with the lushness of the plants, and get energized as we start the countdown to spring? At the same time, we can give these conservatories (many that are struggling financially) some exposure to those who have never visited.

Living near the University of Illinois, my local conservatory is the University of Illinois Plant Conservatory located in the Plant Biology Greenhouse complex on the Urbana-Champaign campus. Installed in 1991, the 2,300 square foot area is now home to more than 200 species from a diverse number of plant families. The conservatory is open to the public Monday-Friday, 8:30am-4:30pm and is also used as a teaching laboratory for biology, horticulture and other classes.

I will admit that I’m spoiled, because this beautiful conservatory is close to home whenever I’m in need of a good plant fix. During our Midwest winters, it serves as a much-appreciated blast of warmth and life. I normally focus on the plant details in the conservatory with my camera, but I widened my lens for this Conservatory World Tour post to give you a better feeling for the overall conservatory visit.

Upon entering the conservatory, my vision is never the first sense stimulated. The warm, moist air greets the face and the fresh smell of the plants fills the nose. This instantaneous stimulus can erase almost any negative feelings I might have carried into the conservatory. Once my eyes focus on the plants that welcome me, the variety of shapes and textures enhances the experience.

The conservatory path is a winding oval around the central island of plants. The northeast corner is one of my favorite areas. From the large-leaved Philodendron ‘Choco’ to the purple shamrocks of Oxalis, the plants create a private alcove. I’ve occasionally seen couples bring a sack lunch to enjoy this area together. The conservatory is known for its cycads, many of which came from the early 1900s collection of University of Chicago professor Charles Chamberlain. On the right side of the photo above, you can see the trunk of Dioon spinulosum, estimated to be more than 1,000 years old.

From the northeast alcove, I enjoy looking back along the path toward the front of the conservatory. It is one of the few vantage points where you can completely lose yourself and forget that you’re sitting in the middle of a university campus.

At the eastern apex of the path grows a collection of epiphytes. Epiphytes (or “air plants”) are plants that don’t grow in soil, but rather on other surfaces. They gather their nutrients from the air and water on these surfaces.

Orchids (such as this Epidendrum ‘Pretty Lady’) are among the more well-known epiphytes.

One of the more intriguing plants in the conservatory is this Amorphophallus titanium (Titan Arum) — also known as the corpse flower. The conservatory’s specimen is currently in its foliage stage, which can last anywhere from 7-10 years. At some point, the foliage will die back and the flower (spadex) will emerge. As you might guess from the name Corpse Flower, it doesn’t have the most pleasant scent. Personally, I can’t wait for the day when this one blooms.

One of my favorite aspects of the conservatory is the constant change that is witnessed day-to-day. Not only to the permanent plantings go in and out of bloom or leaf, but the conservatory staff will bring blooming potted plants in from the other greenhouses to add accents to the conservatory. During my visits this week, the Nun Orchids (Phaius tancarvilleae) have started to bloom. This is one example of a terrestrial orchid, although they are planted at the base of the epiphyte collection.

There are some plants in the conservatory that I never tire of visiting. One is this Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) that grows along the northern path. Its arching foliage always catches the light beautifully. One note of warning to visitors, however. Don’t turn around too quickly when near this plant. The tips of the foliage are extremely sharp.

Another personal favorite is the Davidsonia pruriens (Davidson’s Plum) that grows on the eastern side of the  central planting bed. Its leaves are the side of an elementary school child. In the photo above, you can see the leaf is made of several glossy leaflets. Each of these leaflets is longer than my forearm.

This Philodendron pertusum (Swiss Cheese Plant) is covered with water droplets from regular misting of the plants. If you ever visit the conservatory when the misters are doing their job, just wait a few minutes. They’ll finish and you’ll be treated to a true rain forest experience.

Of course, no visit to the conservatory would be complete without looking at the details. For a frequent visitor, this is where the changes in the conservatory are most evident. Just yesterday, I lifted up the foliage of this Chenille Plant (Acalypha hispida) to find its emerging flowers. In the near future, these long, fluffy flowers will extend into a beautiful show for conservatory visitors.

If you’re ever in the area, I encourage you to visit the U of I Plant Conservatory. Even in the middle of summer, its a refreshing change from the local climate. In the winter, though, it’s truly an oasis as we travel toward the coming spring.

Published by Christopher Tidrick

Be real. Love always. Share beauty. Lead well. Learn more.


  1. Wow, Chris! What really strikes me here is the health and vigor of everything! For things to grow so closely together this way and do so well speaks highly of the caretakers of this treasure. And you're SO fortunate that you can go there so easily!

    Thank you for participating in the tour! I might never get to this one in person, but thanks to you, I get to visit virtually!



  2. Awesome photos! Makes me ready for spring and summer…



  3. oh wow! aren't conservatories some of the best places on earth? especially in january. there is a “pet” Titan arum at unc-charlotte named bella. she bloomed last year to all sorts of fanfare. but peeee-ewww — smells exactly like something died! it's a beautiful plant, though. they were hoping for seed from bella, but i'm not sure they got any.



  4. What a beautiful place and how lucky you are to be so close! I just love the leaves on that Swiss Cheese Plant.



  5. Your collection just are bang on. Above all the plants add beauty in your house. I wish that I also make same conservatories for my house as soon as possible.



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