The Weekend Tourist // Heat, humidity, and mist: the Como Conservatory

Brrrrr. … Even though we haven’t had piles of snow like last year, this time of year even diehard Minnesotans need relief. My friends and co-workers have fled to San Diego, Sanibel Island, and vast stretches of sandy beach in Mexico. I’m here to stay; I installed a new full-spectrum light bulb and plan on making the best of it.

So this weekend, the best of it included a visit to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul’s Como Park. Like many of us who grew up in the Twin Cities I went there for the first time in about fourth grade. On that field trip I remember being enthralled with the millions of panes of glass overhead and a bright green, spindly papyrus plant growing in a shallow pool. The papyrus is gone, but the conservatory is still a magical place for people of all ages.

The first thing you notice walking in is the humidity. As much as we complain about it in the summer, it’s welcome now. Its arms wrap around and embrace you with moist warmth. Take off your coat and stay a while — and be sure to leave the long underwear at home for this adventure. The second thing you notice is that old familiar smell of plants and dirt. Remember that?

The Como Conservatory is a 60,000-square-foot paradise. Three main rooms feature groundcover, ferns, spice trees and towering palms. Everything’s green. This place is not about flowers, but trees and plants. The densely packed foliage is broken only by an occasional interpretive sign. Did you know that palm trees provide food, oils, timber, rope, medicine and wax?

The conservatory was designed by Frederick Nussbaumer who was born in Germany and raised in London. He worked throughout Europe as a landscape architect and florist, then moved to St. Paul and was the city’s superintendent of parks for 30 years. Nussbaumer modeled Como’s Conservatory on the all-glass Palm House in England’s famous Kew Gardens. That building is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Como’s conservatory was built in 1915. It’s one of the last remaining Victorian-style glass greenhouses in the United States and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Other things to see inside the building include the sunken garden, the 64-foot-high dome, a pond with coy fish, special art exhibits, bonsai plants, a great gift shop and the extra-extra-humid rainforest room.

Open daily. Winter hours: 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Donation suggested.

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There’s a small cafe in the conservatory but head over to Black Bear Crossings located in the Como Pavilion. Not only is this lakeside view terrific even in winter, but the restaurant serves homemade baked goods and showcases Native American crafts.