I never really stop thinking about gardens and plants. I constantly annoy my wife by distracting her from the plot of whatever show or movie we might be watching to make her pay attention to the houseplant in the background of the protagonist’s kitchen. Then I pause everything to look up the grow zone of the location to see if I could grow this or that on screen in my garden.

The only exception to this happens around the holidays. I love Christmastime as much as I love endlessly looking at seed catalogues. I get obsessed with figuring out where I will fit in all those new flowers that I grow too many of on account of buying too many seeds and feeling the need to germinate them all. I love Christmas that much, but the holidays are over, and my thoughts are now firmly planted back in horticultural interests. 

The six weeks between New Years and when I start my first seeds inside (Begonias need three months from germination before they are ready to go out) are usually satiated by British gardening shows and books on the subject that I peruse to feel like I know what I’m doing. Although, the latter usually makes me feel like there is a world of things that I have no idea about; probably because there is. These distractions, however, can’t recreate the actual feeling of being amongst large amounts of greenery and the serenity that it brings to walk around a garden. That is where conservatories shine.

“What is a Conservatory?” you might ask.

Well, surprise! It completely depends on where you are looking for that information. The internet strikes again! According to the Oxford dictionary, the North American definition is “a college for the study of classical music or other arts”, which it is; sometimes. Their second definition further confuses things by giving the British meaning of “a room with a glass roof and walls, attached to a house at one side and used as a greenhouse or a sun parlor.” Silly people; they mean a sunroom. Our good old American Websters also agrees on the music school bit but differs in the other definition by stating that it is “a greenhouse for growing or displaying plants.”

That is definitely more like it but I would go a step further and call botanical conservatories, “Plant Museums.” If any dictionary people find themselves reading this, please take note, and of course, give me credit.

Here is where we come to a good news, bad news situation. The good news is that there is an amazing botanical garden right here in Detroit, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle. The bad news is that it is getting renovated until May of 2024. That’s two whole winters without getting to take in the beautiful surroundings that are offered by this amazing destination. Luckily, if you are up for a short drive out to Ann Arbor, there is the equally amazing Matthaei Botanical Gardens Conservatory.

Other than paying a small parking fee, entrance to the conservatory, surrounding gardens, and trails is free. Although they do accept donations, which would be very nice of you. There are also several tiers of membership that offer free parking and other fun perks. Probably worth looking into if you think you are going to visit more than a couple of times in a year. Or, if you just like being a member of things. I do.

My wife and I have already visited twice this last month. The first day was very cold and the second was super mild. The weather didn’t affect our enjoyment of the conservatory but did alter our exploration of the grounds around it.

On our cold visit, we decided to be tough and hit the wooded trails that surround the gardens. We lasted about five minutes before we made a b-line indoors. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not tough when it comes to frigid temperatures. We were at Target the other day and there was a man there wearing Bermuda shorts and a hoodie. In January. I am not that person. The second trip was a foggy day in the low forties and was very comfortable to explore.

We decided to start that visit with a nice long walk outside. The trails are nice but to be honest there are trails all over Michigan. It’s not why I go to gardens. I visit gardens for the gardens. Call me old-fashioned. 

Our walk around the gardens was wonderful. There is something about a garden in winter. You really get to see the bones of it. The hardscaping and evergreen shrubs really shine against the greyness. You would think that it would be a depressing sight, but to the contrary, the empty beds offer a promise of what’s to come. A day doesn’t go by in the winter that I don’t walk around my own garden, dreaming of the spring that is only around the corner. 

When we had our fill of the grounds we headed inside. We entered through the lobby/front desk/gift shop area. There is even a convenient coatroom to drop off your winter gear. You won’t need it inside. Directly behind the front desk are the doors that will transport you to a completely different climate. Well, three different climates to be exact.

The first of three “biomes” that Matthaei offers is the tropical climate zone. This is arguably my favorite, at least at this time of year. The exquisitely humid air immediately makes you realize how absolutely dry your skin has gotten over the last couple of months. It gave me the sentimental feeling of visiting Disney World for the first time as a child, escaping the Michigan winter for the comforting Orlando environment. I have been to more exotic tropical locales in my life, but only one had Mickey.

One of the nicest things about the conservatory is that there are stairs that allow you to walk along the canopy of the trees. This not only offers an elevated vantage point to the plants below but also allows for further examination of the trees gorgeous leaves. Spotted around are informative placards and title cards, so you know at what you are marveling. 

Through another doorway you enter the temperate zone. As you enter, one of the first things you will notice is their flower kaleidoscope. It’s worth taking a quick video through this ingenious contraption. A couple of must see displays in the temperate house are the bonsais and the carnivorous bog plants. In addition to all the flora and fauna, this area has some impressively large koi fish and a wonderful little pond where you can sit and immerse yourself in the serene atmosphere. In fact, there are many opportunities throughout the entire conservatory to relax and pass the time. They even offer folding chairs to set up just about anywhere you would like. The temperate zone is definitely a prime location for a good read.

The final area you enter is the arid house. Walking around this part of the conservatory took me back to when I lived in Arizona. Memories of my life there in the nineties flooded my senses. Minus the heavy drinking and other questionable behavior of that time. The folks at Matthaei have really managed to cram the entire Southwest vibe into the smallest of the three houses.  The cacti and various other dessert plants are quite impressive. This is definitely the spot for all you succulent lovers. 

So, if you find yourself getting seasonally depressed and in need of some good garden therapy, I highly recommend getting out to this thoroughly wonderful conservatory. You will thank yourself for making the trek, and before you know it Belle Isle’s big glass plant museum will be back in business.

I’m sure it will be better than ever.


(photos | Jamie Dado)



Jamiel Dado is passionate about plants and wants to spread his love of gardening to anyone who will listen.