Sometimes you just have to get away.
Early in the afternoon, I hopped in my car and went to the rainforest, desert and, um, a Lego land, which are all conveniently found at the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, AKA The Domes.
Driving from the city, the three seven-story glass Domes could be seen from miles away, and upon pulling into the driveway, they were an even more daunting yet impressive sight. Once inside, I was surprised to see the conservatory bustling with people. All of the older folks and families must have had the same idea.
I headed into the Tropical Dome first, which is always my favorite. As I entered from the chilly conservatory, I was hit with a burst of thick, humid air. It was weird to go from being cold to having beads of sweat accumulating on my brow. I took off my coat and mittens and marveled at the varieties of trees, plants and flowers, and strolled along the jungle-like trails. It definitely wasn’t hard to imagine that I was somewhere else besides Wisconsin.
According to the brochure, the tropical plants came from the rain forests of five continents, but oddly enough, I recognized many from homes and offices that incorporate them into their décor – plants such as orchids, ferns and hibiscus that make up this microcosm of rain forest and are included in the 1,200 some species grown there.
The Tropical Dome was a beautiful site of vibrant floras, lush green canopies and vines that scrambled up trees to get more light from the rays of sun shining through the huge glass panes above and around them.
There were cool zigzagging vines, a super tall thorny tree and another with roots that came down from the branches to make it look kind of like some sort of weird organic prison cell.
Hidden beneath the orchids and ferns were wooden benches where couples sat to enjoy the climate and to escape Milwaukee for a day. I chose to continue along the winding paths as birds chirped and flew overhead – there was so much to see!
I spotted bananas, star fruits, avocados, cocoa and vanilla plants, nuts from Macadamia and spices like cardamom, turmeric and black pepper. The multitude of showy flowers, fruits, nuts and spices made the vivacious exhibit feel like a trip to paradise, minus the sandy beaches.
Next, I headed to the Arid Dome. It was obviously dry, but unexpectedly cooler in comparison to the Tropical Dome. As I put my coat back on, I couldn’t help but think I was in a western film as there was an abundance of cacti and desert sand with a ton of fake cattle skulls and rocks scattered around to add to the desert scene.
The oasis of grasses, desert palms and cacti beckoned as paths led me past many plant oddities. As I walked along the trails, I kept reaching out to feel each plant because they were unlike anything I’d seen around here, and even though you’d think all desert plants were prickly, many actually bore stiff, leathery leaves or woolly hairs. At the same time, most of the bizarre plants here looked like some type of cacti, although I wouldn’t have know the difference had I not stopped to read some of their labels, which indicated the origin and type of plant.
The majority of the desert plants came from other collections or were grown at The Domes from a seed sent directly from places like South America, the brochure indicated. I tend to think of tropical rain forests when I think of South America rather than deserts, but many of its countries do, indeed, have extensive dry areas with the entire cactus family well represented. So, it was cool to see plants growing here like they would in Africa, Madagascar or other parts of North America.
The third Dome was the Floral Show Dome, which currently housed G-scale trains that travel through a land of Legos and amid a landscape of small and miniature plants. The Show Dome features five different floral displays each year with themes generally categorized as historical, cultural or fantasy. The “Lego Land – Model Railroad Show” runs until March 22, 2009 and will have train hobbyists on hand to answer questions.
The numerous wrought iron benches that lined the walkway offered the perfect seat to unwind and enjoy the colorful display. I claimed a bench next to some elderly folks who were watching kids dip their hands into the stream and chase one of the speedy trains around its track. I couldn’t stop taking in deeps breaths just to smell the fresh perfume of the seasonal flowers, and to feel the warm air in my nose and lungs.
As I sat, I recalled the days I used to help my mom in her garden and the years I worked in landscaping when I came home from college. Then, I imagined what my garden would look and smell like one day when I have my own house. This Dome was the perfect spot to get lost in a daydream.
Besides the three Domes, there was a gift shop that I quickly peeked into, as well as an educational center for local students or families who wanted to learn more about the Earth’s ecosystem, which, if you ask me, is actually pretty interesting.
I spent about an hour leisurely walking through the three Domes. Each Dome had a distinctive climate and exhibited plants in a naturalistic setting. They reminded me of how incredibly diverse our Earth is and how fortunate we are to have it showcased in such a unique way here in Milwaukee.
On my trip, I experienced a tropical jungle, a desert oasis and a special floral garden all in one short afternoon. It's nice to know that since The Domes are open 365 days per year, you can hop in your car and escape whenever you need to.
I'll be heading back on February 19 to experience Music Under Glass and to witness The Domes' new light show. But, don't wait for me. Go see it for yourself!
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory (The Domes)
524 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee
Hours: Daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
2007 Admission Rates:
Age 18 & up $5
Age 6–17 $3.50
Free to all Milwaukee County Residents with proof of residency
Monday 9 – 11:30 a.m. (Excluding major holidays)
(All prices and hours listed are subject to change)