A Midwinter Garden Fix

by Holly Boettcher

It’s January, and I’m already counting the months before I can start planting and tending to my vegetables and flowers again. It feels like there’s a long winter ahead, but wait! There is a way to get a midwinter fix.

Mitchell Park Horticulture Conservatory 

Just a short drive from the Fox Cities, there’s a living museum filled with plants. It’s located on 61 acres just west of downtown Milwaukee. There are three domes, which feature a tropical, a desert, and a “show” theme. 

The Mitchell Park Domes are the oldest park in the Milwaukee Park System and have become a world-class horticulture conservatory. They get their name from Alexander Mitchell, who moved from Scotland to Milwaukee in 1839. He built the first conservatory and greenhouse, which was attached to his home, in the late 1860s. 

I recently visited this beautiful oasis with my daughter. My endorphins began a happy dance as we walked past a display of orchids near the gift shop. Next, we entered the “show” dome, which is transformed five times each year with a specific theme. They are categorized as historical, cultural, or fantasy and the themes are chosen up to a year in advance. Keep in mind that the “show dome” is closed for about two weeks between shows to allow time for the transition to a new theme. Since our visit was in December, the theme was Christmas. The dome featured a magical display with thousands of colorful poinsettias, amaryllis, and numerous other potted plants along with the trees, shrubs, and perennials that live there year-round. 

Then we strolled into the desert dome displaying plants from Africa, the American Southwest, Madagascar, South America, and Mexico which are presented in a natural desert setting. There is a pool surrounded by cacti and succulents in full bloom. This collection brings together Old World and New World habitats and will leave you in awe!

As we meandered through the earthy aroma of the tropical dome, the only thing that seemed to be missing was the song of tropical birds. No sooner had those thoughts slipped through my mind did we begin to hear a serenade from a small flock of tropical finches. There were palm trees that reached the top of the domes and fruit trees such as star fruit and Meyer lemon. There were plants that produce chocolate and cocoa. We learned that an estimated 50% of all plant and animal species live in the tropical forests, which covers only about 7% of Earth’s land surface. This microcosm of rainforest in the tropical dome displays orchids, lush foliage, and an impressive waterfall.

On our way out, one of the orchids that caught my eye as we entered hopped into my arms. I had to buy it, and now have a reminder of this special day. The next time you need a midwinter garden fix, grab your car keys and head south for the day!