The Most Happy Houseplants

It’s spring! Time to evaluate, improve – or possibly discard – your current collection of houseplants. But it can be hard to see old friends clearly; loyalty gets in the way. The fix? A field trip to the nearest public conservatory. Botanic gardens, universities and colleges all over the country have greenhouses full of wonderful plants and these include (more often than not) humongous, obscenely healthy versions of those meek green units in the living room.
Your fiddleleaf fig could be 13 feet tall too, although you might be just as glad it’s not.

Tropical orchids, ferns on steroids, fragrant blossoms dripping from vines and trees – even the smallest of these places puts spring flower shows to shame. And small can be especially beautiful. Displays will be far less polished but publicity is nonexistent, which means they’re seldom crowded. Call ahead to find out the slow times and you might be the only visitor.

What a deal, especially in raw, cold March. What’s not to like about peaceful warm rooms filled with tropical beauties that somebody else has been taking good care of for years and years and years?

This staghorn fern, more than 6 feet across, was not built in a day.

It also takes more than a moment to grow a good sized flock of birds of paradise.

Oddly enough, seeing one’s familiar home companions in this new light is more energizing than depressing and there is almost always something to learn: When a fiddleleaf gets old, the bark gets gorgeous; dormant orchids don’t look any better when there are 60 pots of them; pruning matters as much indoors as it does in the yard; and whether camellias are worth the hassle may be a function of heritage. Could be you have to be southern.



Oh right, I forgot to mention fruit. In addition to proving dwarf citrus trees CAN produce something that looks like a crop (those are ponderosa lemons, not grapefruit), these places harbor edibles most of us can’t see without buying a plane ticket.

Papaya tree at @ 16 feet ( those dark footballs are the papayas)

The base of the tree is fat, gray and gnarly; the roots go right through the gravel floor, deep into the deeply alien Hudson Vally soil.

But not for much longer, and thus we come to the carpe diem part. These pictures were taken at the greenhouse that belongs to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in Millbrook New York. It will be closed before the end of March, its collection dispersed, the building dismantled. Gone forever after more than 30 years.

And it’s not likely to be alone. Glasshouses cost a lot to heat; older models cost really a lot to heat. As the price of oil sails ever upward while funding for public institutions shrinks and those institutions start thinking about greenness in a different way …

A bit of creative googling is likely to turn up at least one that’s close to you, but you might as well start with the advanced garden search at the American Public Gardens Association and the international list at

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1 Comment »

  • Lynne Bragonier Said,

    This is a fantastic site. How sad to read about the Carey Institute and all those that will follow the same path.

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