Baltimore’s Rawlings Conservatory withstands the test of time


The Rawlings Conservatory features a variety of flowers, including orchids. (JED KIRSCHBAUM/BALTIMORE SUN)
July 11, 2013

“We had an earthquake a couple of years ago, and that was pretty scary,” said Kate Blom, supervisor of the Rawlings Conservatory in Baltimore. “You know, an earthquake and a glass house.”

I could only imagine the potential for devastation. But instead, a miracle happened. The earthquake toppled only a single tree, a 30-foot Chinese fan palm that fell along a walking path in the Palm House conservatory, leaving the glass walls unscathed and the other plants untouched.

I call it divine pruning. To Blom, it was a sign that angels are looking after the place.

If you go: Baltimore

Over the years, angels have protected the Rawlings Conservatory from its fair share of natural challenges: wind shears, hurricanes, Snowmageddon and earthquakes, all threatening the hundreds of glass panes in its several greenhouses.

The Rawlings Conservatory, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, sits in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, a 745-acre swath of rolling meadows, walking trails and old-growth forest that’s also home to the Maryland Zoo. Originally, the conservatory consisted of just the five-story Palm House — a Victorian iron, wood and glass masterpiece that looks like a gilded bird cage — and the adjacent Orchid Room. Three new greenhouses were added in 2004, featuring Mediterranean, tropical and desert environments.

Giant glass conservatories are a relic of the Victorian era. They became quite the fad after Queen Victoria opened the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Soon after, cities across the United States were building ornate conservatories and filling them with exotic plants from around the world. The Palm House, designed by architect George Frederick, was built in 1888, making it the second-oldest remaining public glass conservatory in the country, after the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which was built about 10 years earlier.

When I visited on a recent Sunday afternoon with my wife, Carol, a driving rain beat against the Palm House’s hundreds of glass panes. But I was too busy marveling at the variety of palms, some soaring to the glass ceiling, others sheltered beneath their tall neighbors, to be much bothered by the weather. Twin coconut palms, with their graceful curved trunks, contrasted with the bulging, shaggy trunks of Bismarck palms. Croton plants provided a red-tinged groundcover, and brilliant red torch ginger plants shot out on long, slender stalks.

In the Orchid Room, dozens of orchids cascaded from pots arranged on the walls, so that we were surrounded by wonderful hues of yellow, purple and red. The red and yellow flower of the Stanhopea orchid reminded me of snails tumbling over one another. Artists draw inspiration from this room. Paul Dougherty, a frequent visitor from the nearby Mount Vernon neighborhood, told me that his wife is a watercolorist who likes to come to the Orchid Room to paint.

From the Orchid Room, we entered the Mediterranean House, where we were greeted by the lemony aroma of freshly cut scented geraniums. Competing scents came from rosemary, oregano, bougainvillea and oleander. I was surprised to find a palm tree here. The Mediterranean fan palm is the only palm native to that region. Blom pointed out that this house provides a wonderful antidote to the winter blues: Most of its plants are February bloomers.

Details are important here. Carol noted that the small pool in the Mediterranean House is highlighted with blue tiles, reminding us of our travels in Greece and Italy.

One of the conservatory’s more bizarre plants can be found in the Desert House. The agave, or century plant, goes through an incredible growth spurt, sending off a shoot that can grow as much as a foot a day. Two agaves, a blue one and a variegated one, exhibited this growth starting in March and April and have grown about 25 to 30 feet. Glass panels have been taken off the roof of the greenhouse to accommodate this extreme growth. Blom said that when the blue agave blooms, it produces a pretty yellow flower; the variegated agave produces a cream-colored one. In the life cycle of an agave plant, it can take as long as a century for this flowering to occur — hence the name “century plant.”

The Desert House contains various cacti, several types of euphorbia and a Joshua tree. I was particularly impressed by the Madagascar palm, which isn’t a palm at all but a succulent that produces beautiful white blossoms, similar to plumeria and oleander.

My favorite greenhouse was the steamy Tropical House. Here we saw the incredible colors of tropical plants, such as delicate white jasmine blossoms, the scarlet flaming swords and the brilliant orange and blue bird of paradise. Pat Yevics, president of the Baltimore Conservatory Association, half-joked that you could live off the land in this greenhouse. Indeed, we saw papaya, bananas and even coffee growing here. Blom pointed out that this is an opportunity for visiting children to see that food really does grow on trees — and not in grocery stores.

When the rain let up, we spent some time outdoors in the formal Victorian garden, where hydrangeas, antique roses, coneflowers and day lilies were in glorious summer bloom.

The Rawlings Conservatory isn’t a large place. In fact, its smallness is one of its great attractions: You can linger here and observe interesting plants without worrying about rushing to the next greenhouse. Nevertheless, the conservatory nearly went under in the mid-1990s because of the expense of heating and maintaining glass houses. Fortunately, the city of Baltimore and the Baltimore Conservatory Association stepped in and committed to keeping the conservatory going. The Palm House was repaired and new greenhouses and pavilions were added. Today, a dedicated group of volunteers keeps the conservatory going.

Since our visit, the blue agave plant has produced a beautiful yellow blossom, and Blom told me that the variegated agave will “pop” soon. What better way to celebrate a 125th anniversary than with a 100-year bloom?

Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.

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