This is the season when cold-climate gardeners gaze upon the remains of their flower and vegetable beds, so splendid in July, and see only “strangled clutter in the chilly air,” as the poet Mary Clare Powell observes.
For most New Englanders, who live in a region where interior gardens and conservatories are scarce, autumn marks a descent into a long spell of floral deprivation, interrupted only by the desperately awaited thwack of the next garden catalog or magazine dropping through the mail slot.
Enter the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center, the largest garden conservatory in New England. Now midway through its second year, the center, located in the city’s Victorian-era Roger Williams Park, opened in March 2007.
The center houses collections of tropical and semitropical species, fountains, and pools in a 12,000-square-foot garden under glass. It’s operated by the city of Providence in partnership with several plant societies and the University of Rhode Island College of the Environment and Life Sciences Outreach Center, which runs the botanical center’s educational programs.
The climate-extending displays (outdoors, it’s USDA hardiness Zone 6) and sun-warmed spaces have already bedazzled thousands of local visitors and tourists, but news of the garden’s existence is still trickling to the outer reaches of the region.
As it turns out, now is a great time to visit. Spring and fall (September through November) are the two major bloom periods, says Jo-Ann Bouley, educational program manager for the university. From cacti to orchids to flowering trees such as the Brazilian purple glory tree (Tibouchina granulosa), plants from all over the world are putting on a show.
“Visitors will see flowers in purples, reds, pinks, magentas, lavenders, and whites, and fruits in orange and green,” Ms. Bouley says. “A few of the cacti are blooming right now, but the blooms generally last only one day.”
A host of orchids – Paphiopedilum, Phalaenopsis, Oncidium, and Dendrobium – send out cascades of blossoms in fall. “We also have Vanilla planifolia, the vanilla orchid, which is the source of commercially available vanilla extract and the only orchid that gives us a food crop,” Bouley says.
This delicious fragrance is one of many mingling in the warm air of the conservatory: peppermint- and lemon-scented geranium leaves; citrus emanating from the leaves of lemons, limes, and mandarin oranges; and the heavy sweetness of jasmine.
In counterpoint to the quiet beauty of cacti and orchids are heliconias, showing off vivid reds and oranges. The equally festive bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) struts its exotic purple and orange “plumage.”
One of Bouley’s favorite species to watch at this time of year is the ivory cane palm (Pinanaga kuhlii), which “looks like a pink octopus as the fruit ages,” she says, adding that banana trees are also producing fruit now, so kids can see their favorite snack food dangling from trees.
The display of carnivorous plants, with their space-creature forms that evolved to entice and trap insects as a source of nitrogen, is one of the botanical center’s most fascinating attractions, year-round.
Through November, several species (including tropical pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus’ flytraps) will be sending out striking flowers, some as otherworldly as the insect-trapping parts of the plant.
Outside the glass, the conservatory grounds will also present attractive new plants this fall and winter. Searle and Searle landscape architects and planners of Providence recently planted trees and shrubs with features that draw attention year-round.
They include dwarf conifers with unusual forms and textures, such as a Korean fir with whitish needles and purple cones; trees with interesting bark, including paper- and coral-bark maples; and fruiting shrubs such as winterberry, a holly that sheds its leaves but keeps its scarlet berries all winter, says Lalla Searle, co-owner of the firm.
The landscape architects also just finished a new rose maze behind the conservatory. Set within a circle about 100 feet in diameter and enclosed by arches for climbing roses, the maze features concentric rings of low-growing roses, which will outline a pattern. The young shrubs will take about three years to fill in, Ms. Searle says.
As the current profusion of flowers fades, and New England slips into December and January, the botanical center will continue to abound with exotic sights and sounds – and relief from the mid-winter blues.
“The palms, especially the 35-foot-tall fishtail palms, are always a focal point when entering the building, at any time of year,” Bouley notes. “During the holiday season, the staff will add poinsettias and other seasonal plants.”
Orchids will still be present, too, as well as plants selected for their brilliantly colored and multitextured foliage. Two low fountains, plus a third that feeds a 68-foot-long pool in a separate room, create a soothing burble. One pool is home to calico goldfish, which dart about in crystal-clear water beneath overhanging leaves. “Orchids and fish,” Bouley says, “are not things you’d expect to see anywhere around here in December and January.”
And in February, the subtropical spring arrives, and a new cycle of bloom begins again.