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Conservatory's a tropical paradise in Chevy Chase

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 10:35 AM

Ruth Kassinger's citrus trees are groaning with fruit. The calamondins are brilliant orbs, and the Meyer lemons are perfect yellow spheres on trees adorned with the white blossoms that will spend 2011 swelling into new lemons.

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The prize for spookiest citrus goes to the Buddha's Hand, a pendent, handlike fruit with tightly clustered fingers. The award for yummiest goes to the kumquat, a thin-skinned orange relative about the size of kiwi fruit with a sweet rind and tangy flesh. Mind the seeds.

As we munch on the kumquats at Kassinger's sky blue wirework table, I notice the wind outside the conservatory whipping the snow sideways. It's like being in a spaceship and looking out to a cosmic storm, violent but silent.

Kassinger, 56, doesn't see her conservatory as a spaceship so much as a paradise, one full of stimulating paradoxes. In the five years since she added it to the back of her Chevy Chase home, it has become both the sanctuary she envisioned and a link to enchanting tales of tropical gardening in a northern clime.

A science writer and author, she has assembled her conservatory journey into a book, "Paradise Under Glass" (William Morrow, 2010). In it, she recounts her own experiences while peering into the fascinating and sometimes quirky worlds that converge in the artificial jungle. Some of her adventures have been far away, such as the visit to the butterfly farmer in Florida, or just far off in time, to the 19th-century European aristocrats who started the whole conservatory craze with their lavish crystal palaces.

And what is a conservatory, exactly? I think of a greenhouse as a structure where the needs of the plant come first, and a conservatory as one where those of the person prevail. This isn't to say that plants struggle in the conservatory. For all her fretting about insufficient natural light, Kassinger has succeeded in establishing a lush environment and the magical jungle she imagined. The gardener is cocooned in exotic flora: the bright-fruited citrus trees in large pots, a coffee tree beaded with red-brown fruit, banana plants, dracaenas and a beefy schefflera.

There is something deliciously satisfying, regal and slightly decadent in savoring a homegrown kumquat on a winter's day. Now, she thinks nothing of cutting the spiky crown off a store-bought pineapple and growing it in a pot. In time, it sends up a stalk bearing a brand-new pineapple, one ready to be harvested and eaten fresh, not shipped thousands of miles. "Pineapples are so easy," she says.

Tropical swimming hole

If you had told her a few years ago that she would be raising citrus and pineapples in her house, she might have offered a dismissive chuckle. Her husband, Ted, was the gardener, and he focused on the outdoors, the vegetable and ornamental gardens around their 1920s cedar shake house.

Although she wasn't a gardener, she sensed that plants work a magic on the psyche, especially as a jungle of one's own making and particularly in winter. Her epiphany?

A year after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and her sister Joanie had died of a brain tumor, Kassinger happened to enter the conservatory complex of the U.S. Botanic Garden near the U.S. Capitol. "Vapor languished in the air, and the mugginess after the biting cold outside made me feel almost drugged," she writes in her book. She kept returning, and the end of each visit stirred a recurring sentiment: "It was always hard to leave this place where I felt so thoroughly revived."

The solution seemed obvious. Her own conservatory "would be a perfect antidote to the losses and changes of middle age."

The result was a glazed addition to the house, nestled in the L of its northwest corner. Tall windows define the walls, and the sloping roof is dominated by a dozen skylights. The floor is a light limestone tile, and about a quarter of the space is devoted to a small resistance pool, where the swimmer is kept in place by a strong recirculating current. This might seem a bizarre element of a conservatory, but Kassinger says it indirectly benefits the plants, giving the space the high levels of humidity they need to flourish and ward off the spider mite. The nostrils are spared the chlorine: The pool uses fancy filters and requires minimal chlorine treatments.


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