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Rooms That Grow: The Five Houses of Rawlings Conservatory

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An oasis year-round, the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens have stood on the western border of Druid Hill Park for most of the park’s history. The conservatory opened to the public in August 1888, twenty-eight years after the park was established.

To cater to the growing constituency of monied Baltimoreans who sought to build themselves a world-class city complete with all the modern amenities and attractions, the Baltimore City park commissioners tapped George A. Frederick, who also designed Baltimore’s City Hall and the Maryland Zoo’s Mansion House, among other notable local projects, to draw plans for a glass greenhouse based on the example of Kew Gardens in London.

 

Today, the Conservatory’s Palm House is the second-oldest glass greenhouse in the United States, beaten only by San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers. The three additional greenhouses on the back part of the property were added in the early 1900s, although their exact date of construction is unknown.

We don’t always think of conservatories and botanical gardens as collections but frankly, we should. Born out of the same colonizer notions as cabinets of curiosity (the predecessor to the museum model we know today), large scale plant collecting was an essential pillar of the Age of Discovery that lingered into the Victorian houseplant craze.

It seems people have always liked plants, wanted more of them, and hungered to find and take home whatever was new to them, regardless of the environmental ramifications. As a result, public conservatories cropped up all over the world as a place for people to enjoy plants they might not be quite up to caring for at home.

 

Comprised today of five houses, each themed for a global climate and maintained by a staff of five from Baltimore Parks and Recreation with the help of volunteers, the Rawlings Conservatory shares many of the same concerns and challenges as contemporary museums and zoos: protecting their multitudes as well as the histories they represent, educating the public, and in the particular case of zoos and plant conservatories, keeping their charges alive. Many visitors assume that at least some of the conservatory’s plants are original to the building, says Director Ann Green; they’re not, she explains simply, because “plants don’t live that long.”

In 2004, the city undertook a major renovation of the conservatory and replaced the majority with plants trucked up from Florida. This is a collection that, by its nature, will always be in flux with specimens dying, being donated, and, much less frequently, purchased.

On a bright, frigid February morning, I met Green for her tour of collection highlights. We began in the Palm House, where the most recent donation from 2020 was plant influencer Hilton Carter’s Fiddle Leaf Fig tree, which commingles in that house with the Foxtail palm, the Victorian cast iron plants, the Lady palms, and the Sago palm, among other specimens from the Southern hemisphere.

 

From there we moved to probably the most popular room of the conservatory, which is also its smallest and best smelling: the Orchid Room. This room was the other original plant house from the 1888 floor plan, although it wasn’t always exclusive to orchids, bromeliads, and epiphytes.

The collection, overseen by Orchid Curator Craig Sherman, comprises over a thousand specimens but the conservatory only displays about fifty or so plants at a time, according to the bloom schedule. Orchid aficionados geek out about the North American native Lady’s Slipper orchids, which are visually striking for their kangaroo-like pouch and red coloring.

Green’s favorite house is the Mediterranean Room, home to the conservatory’s impressive collection of citrus trees, many of which were donated by plant collectors Ingrid and Kurt Fritz in 2015. Thanks to the Fritzes, who grew the conservatory’s Ponderosa lemon, Persian lime, and Minneola tangelo, among others, Baltimoreans for years to come can bask in a winter sunbeam while inhaling the lemon-scented air of the Aegean Sea.

In the Tropical House with Green, I point to a Thai Constellation monstera, the variegated plant version of a Birkin bag, rooted to a wall high above our heads. “Is that…” I start to ask. “Yes,” she responds immediately. “Is it up…” and before I can formulate my full question, Green answers, “Yes”—it was donated by a patron and is located safely out of reach to protect it from too-eager visitors.

We end our tour in the Desert House where Greenhouse Supervisor Sandy Reagan tells me about her friends, the late cactus enthusiasts Rachel and Brant Simms, who donated the majority of the collection they had amassed over a lifetime of trips to Mexico and South America. Lately, though, the Conservatory has less room for large donations. “You don’t want it to get chaotic,” explains Reagan, who has worked at the conservatory for seventeen years. “There’s a rhythm to the garden. You wanna be able to look at it and your eye feels at ease.”

 

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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