February 27, 2014

Phipps Conservatory: Where Botany Meets Art

In my last post, I mentioned how much I had enjoyed reading Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, which chronicles the life of a nineteenth century woman botanist, Alma Whittaker and especially tied in with the fact that that my mother too happens to be a botanist. While growing up in Oman, though, surrounded as I was by a lively garden and well, botanical talk, I wasn't particularly an enthusiastic budding (pun unintended!) botanist. I loved collecting and identifying rocks and shells and even attempted bird-watching but - plants

However, I then began reading a column about desert plants of Arabia in a weekly Dubai magazine in which an enthusiastic amateur botanist would report details of her weekend expeditions into the desert, presenting her findings as notes from her diary - and having been an avid diarist since the age of eight, I too was compelled to unmask the desert of its seeming barrenness and document all that thrived within it. I even bought the book the columnist had written about desert plants, absorbing all that she had to say in great detail about the various plant species and when and where they happened to grow; later, whenever we would go out into the interior, I would diligently seek to locate and identify these plants and later on, jot down these findings, occasionally accompanied by sketches. Yet, say, unlike rocks, of which there were multiple varieties and Oman being one giant, fecund rock garden, we were in a desert, after all, and there were only so many plant species that my child-mind could find and examine. Needless to say, the plant mania wore off quickly.

Ever since then, I have always keenly observed the foliage surrounding me wherever I have happened to live but I have never been driven to identify the species; I am simply content with the diverse greenness encircling me rather than worrying about the specificity of the greenness! 

Nevertheless, the botanical genes endure and soon after arriving in Pittsburgh and spotting the shiny glass world of the Phipps Conservatory, I immediately wanted to pay a visit - but the opportunity only came a few days ago.

I visited the Conservatory on a relatively warm, sunny day but I can easily imagine what an escape and respite it must be to enter this glass-enclosed world bursting with so much green and plenitude while the world outside is snow-blanketed, silent and seemingly dead. As we roamed from one room to another, it was indeed quite easy to forget the world outside and immerse ourselves in this parallel botanical universe. In this museum of plants, I could not help but marvel at both nature's artistry and diversity which was at display: numerous varieties of orchids, cocoa trees with their fat yellow pods, mosses (I paid attention, thanks to Alma's meticulous meditations upon on the subject!) dozens of cacti and faux flower succulents, and the bonsai trees, assiduously trained to micro perfection. In the beginning, I did dutifully study the names of the plant species and their stories - but after a while, I simply lost myself to the revitalising sight of all that green, a balm for the eyes after months of glimpsing the austere winter landscape.

Here are some photo notes...


In Full Bloom
Perhaps, thanks to the inner-desert girl in me, the Desert room happened to my favorite what with the desert landscape yielding a huge variety of cacti, some enormous while others almost akin to sculptural art. I particularly liked the faux flower succulents, such as the one above; I forgot to take a picture of it but there was a lovely melange of botany and art in the form of a Christmas-tree shaped piece composed entirely of a family of succulents.

When we entered the Bonsai room, we were greeted with a pan of tiny pebbles; we were then asked to grab a handful of pebbles and place them inside glass jars standing next to the various trees. The trees with the most pebbles would be deemed the favorites. I personally thought all of them were fascinating although I have ambivalent feelings about so severe and stylised a manner in which a tree's growth is restricted or in bonsai parlance, trained.

Glass Explorers: Longfellows, Hans Godo Frabel (2009)

Crystallised Sun: Desert Gold, Dale Chihuly (2007)
Throughout the Conservatory, I spotted numerous stunning glass sculptures and installations juxtaposed alongside the plants, such as these examples above in the Orchid and Desert Rooms respectively. I thought it was such an innovative approach to breathing new life and character into the glass works, uprooting them from the white cubes of a gallery or a museum's minimal environs and literally transplanting them into this garden. These works in turn transformed the conservatory to an even more magical and enchanted place, an unique and exciting example of a partnership between botany and art...

Have you visited a conservatory? What were your experiences like?


  1. SOAT has been on my must read list. :)
    I did visit the conservatory at Kew Gardens and when I did there were these stunning sculptures by Chihuly everywhere which created such a gorgeous partnership with the plants.

    1. Given that I have been waxing eloquent about SOAT for the last two posts, will eagerly look forward to hearing what you make of it once you do read it...and speaking of Kew, it plays an interesting role in the first part of the novel:)

      I have never been to Kew, unfortunately and woud love to - but how interesting to hear that Chihuly's works have been installed there. I googled him further and realised that he has exhibited at quite a few gardens! And definitely, his works do create a gorgeous partnership... Looks like he may just be the subject of a future post:)

  2. Very interesting. I like flowers but have never really been bothered with identification.

    I like the glass sculptures there.

    Kew is beautiful, although I haven't been for years. I love their maze.

    1. Hi Sue! I probably take a bit more effort to identify flowers (which I too like) but that's about it - would love to be more knowledgeable about my surroundings but it seems like an awful lot of work:)

      The glass sculptures are beautiful, especially the ones by Dale Chihuly, which I especially loved. Also, fun thing I learnt the other day - there are some gorgeous Dale Chihuly sculptures at The Atlantis. If you are ever there, do have a look!

      I have never been to Kew...one of the list of many things to see/visit in London and which I never got around to. The maze sounds intriguing!


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