While most people don’t think of Pittsburgh as a garden destination, those who do visit discover there are no more steel mills in the city limits but there are over 12,000 acres of parks, green spaces, and gardens. The crown jewel of the city, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in the Schenley Park area of the city, is nestled between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Built in 1893 as a gift from Henry Phipps Jr. to the City of Pittsburgh, the Phipps Conservatory features a Lord and Burnham glasshouse.
Phipps is now on the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation list, the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and the City of Pittsburgh Historic Places. Besides all those accolades, it has several Platinum and Silver LEED Certified areas in the complex, including the Center for Sustainable Landscapes which provides all of its own energy as well as innovative plant design. It recently won the Gold Award, Urban Design and Architecture Awards for a redesign of the maintenance building. But there is a long list of other awards for its focus on green energy, recycling, and reuse of old buildings.
Touring Phipps Conservatory
Greeting you in the Welcome Center is a large piece of Chihuly glass that is visible from the road, part of an exhibit there several years ago. There are also several more Chihuly pieces scattered throughout other indoor garden rooms in Phipps.
There are a total of 13 “rooms” in the conservatory, each with a different theme and purpose. These include the Palm Court that features large palms from around the world, the Serpentine room where rotating displays and events occur, and the Tropical Fruit and Spice room that has a wide variety of tropical and sub-tropical fruits growing in it such as allspice and coffee.
Other rooms include the Broderie room, the Fern room, the Stove room, and the Victoria and Sunken Garden Room.
While this is a place for plants, Henry Phipps also donated a number of art pieces to the conservatory. Statues and plaques are found throughout, including a full size Venus and a carved marble urn of children playing just outside the Broderie room that says “Rejoice children, love life.”
Phipps Special Exhibits and Events
The conservatory hosts several shows every year. A recent fall flower show theme was The Big Top, complete with circus themed displays of fierce lions and bears as well as cute flowered ladybugs, wacky mirrors, strong man hammers, and more. Phipps also has the longest running chrysanthemum show in the United States, held in the fall.
There is a garden railroad inside that is always a hit with little kids as well as the adult kids. This year the theme was the National Parks, from Acadia National Park to Yellowstone with a miniature working replica of Old Faithful. The children could press a button and it would erupt. Most of the displays for children in Phipps are interactive to encourage them to visit the garden and become active in the outdoors. For the winter show, there is the Holiday Magic, a magical indoor and outdoor light display, followed by the Orchid and Tropical Bonsai show filled with color, shapes, and scent. The lady slipper orchid collection is accredited by the Plant Collection Network.
Besides the different shows there are other outstanding things to do and see at Phipps. The Tropical Forest has a rotating display every three years and currently features Tropical Hawaii “Aloha ‘Aina”. The conservatory sent a team to research plants on the islands and created an immersive experience of the wide diversity of native varieties, including rare plants, plants that are used for food, as well as plants that have been used for items such as surfboards, canoes, cooking tools, and more.
Explore the Outdoors
While it is wonderful to peruse the indoor gardens, there are the Outdoor and Discovery gardens that feature wonderful specimens of trees such as the Japanese Stewartia, an exquisitely sculpted Japanese maple, an enormous fern leaf beech with its “elephant’s foot” trunk, and so many more trees, shrubs, and perennials.
There are also more “rooms’ outdoors including a rooftop edible garden, the Children’s Discovery Garden, the Japanese Courtyard Garden, and the Aquatic Garden.
When You Go:
There is always something to see and do for the entire family when you visit the Phipps Conservatory. There are many tours available, including a self-guided tour (free) and a group tour of the conservatory (a small fee applies). The Café Phipps was recognized as one of the best museum restaurants by Food & Wine magazine. The Shop at Phipps in the Welcome Center has gifts inspired by the beauty of Phipps. Unique glass flowers, home décor, eco-friendly toys, interactive games, custom jewelry, and signature collections from local artists and designers are just a few of the distinctive gifts that can be found here.
Featured image – Phipps Conservatory Welcome Center / Phil Johnson II-Phipps Conservatory
Denise Schreiber is a writer and gardener in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.