With more than 12,000 tulip, hyacinth, daffodil, crocus, and muscari bulbs grown especially for the Sunken Garden, The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Spring Flower Show opening next week is always one of the Twin Cities’ most colorful rites of spring.

But this season, the  plant list in “Minnesota’s most beautiful room” is also taking its cues from Minnesota’s springtime color palette. “Our goal is to make it look a little bit more like a forest,” says Como’s horticultural curator Dr. Lisa Philander.

For the show, Philander and horticulturists Bo Akinkuotu and Katie Horvath are introducing plant material that reflects Minnesota’s boreal forests and prairies. Visitors will notice birch logs and larger trees, milkweed, catchflies and black-eyed Susans, black pansies, columbine, snap dragons and delphinium, and even mini bogs that mimic the look of Minnesota’s wetlands. The show will also feature skunk cabbage provided by the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, and the showy lady’s slipper orchid, a recent gift from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Thanks to your contributions to Como Friends, all of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s rotating flower shows are free to the public. The Spring Flower Show runs daily from March 22 to April 28. 

The St. Paul Winter Carnival Orchid Show is the cure for the mid-winter blahs

With more than 28,000 naturally occurring species, the Orchidaceae family is one of the largest and most diverse of the world’s flowering plants. On January 27 and 28, Marjorie McNeely Conservatory visitors will get a chance to see the cream of the crop at the St. Paul Winter Carnival Orchid Show, a Como tradition for nearly 50 years.

Curating and designing Como’s display this year is horticulturist Alejandro Balderas, who cares about orchids even in his off-hours. “Before I moved to Minnesota from California, I had about 70 plants and 30 cultivars of my own,” he says. While he’s trimmed his personal collection to a more manageable size, there’s a good chance it will grow again once he’s had a look at the newest species and varietals for purchase at the Orchid Show’s marketplace. “There are so  many shapes and sizes, and there’s always something new on the market,” he says. “It makes it hard to resist.” 

Like the tulip mania that hit Europe in the 1600s, orchids had a similar history in the 1800s, when so-called “orchidelirium” sent prices for rare tropical species soaring into the stratosphere. But now with so many hearty varieties widely available in garden shops and grocery stores, orchids are no longer quite as intimidating to curious home gardeners. 

“Orchid growing has become much more transparent because of the internet and with people having access to the literature online,” he says, from groups like the Orchid Society of Minnesota, a co-sponsor of the Winter Carnival Show. “They’re one of the few houseplants that actually flowers consistently,” he says, with colors made to attract pollinators and people stuck indoors during the winter. “Minnesotans seem to really love their orchids,” he says. 

For the show, Balderas and other horticulturists are planning to display more than two dozen of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s best species, drawn from a large working  collection predominantly featuring plants from Central and South America. Set in the Fern Room, the design will feature a sculpture dedicated to the Conservatory on its 50th anniversary in 1965.

Advanced admission reservations are required to attend the St. Paul Winter Carnival Orchid Show, and tickets are $5 for adults and $4 for Como Friends members, seniors, and children under the age of 12. Visit this link for more information. 

Your support for Como Friends helps to make the Conservation Champions program possible, supporting Como’s talented staff’s participation in conservation partnerships and in their continued professional development. Thank you!

Reusing, reducing and recycling is one of the secrets of Como’s Sunken Garden

Horticulturist Rylee Werden has fond memories of visiting Como with her mother and grandmother. “We always came to see the flowers together, so having the chance to design a flower show that connects with the Winter Carnival Orchid Show is really an honor.”

This season’s Winter Flower Show is a storybook example of an English-style cottage garden, with dense green foliage, deep pink and purple flowers, and a casually unkempt style—as if the garden is bursting out to fill its stone boundaries after years and years of growth.  

“I was really inspired by the plant loropetalum which has a really nice weeping tree form and pretty flowers that I thought would make the pond look sort of enchanted,” says horticulturist Rylee Werden, who designed the show, her first for the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. “From there I started building in more pinks and snowy whites and icy blues to play with the winter season. And the Winter Carnival Orchid Show coming later this month is what inspired me to use two of the flowers, a snapdragon called ‘Snappy Orchid Flame’, and a Viola called ‘Orchid Rose Beacon’”.

While most of the flowers you’ll see in this season’s show were grown from seed or plugs back in September, many supporting players in the Sunken Garden’s canopy were drafted from the Conservatory’s expansive greenhouse, design choices that are helping to make Como’s five seasonal flower shows more sustainable. For instance, the small birch trees featured in the Winter Flower Show were recently culled from the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden. 

“Visitors seem to really love how they look, and we’re always excited to find a new use for what we already have,” says Werden. In fact, when the winter show is complete, the cuttings will be converted into birch poles for use in next year’s holiday plantings. 

“As often as we can, we also try to give the plants and trees we use in the Sunken Garden a second life somewhere on campus, or in the community,” says Como’s horticultural curator, Dr. Lisa Philander. For years, spring bulbs pulled from the Sunken Garden have been recycled and resold through Como Friends’ Garden Safari Gifts, with proceeds that help pay for the next year’s bulb show. Your contributions to Como Friends are also helping the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory start a new on-site compost system with the capacity to turn tons of spent plant material into rich compost for future flower shows and gardens. 

Making smart use of resources—from existing plant collections and from contributions from people like you—has helped Como Park Zoo & Conservatory keep its tradition of  five rotating flower shows going for nearly 99 years. Thank you!

To sponsor the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Sunken Garden visit: 

The diverse color possibilities of Poinsettias are now on display at the Holiday Flower Show, featuring  ‘Ferrara’ red, variegated ‘Tapestry’ plants with yellow & green leaves, and yellow ‘Golden Glo’ Poinsettias. Yellow flowering kalanchoe, hibiscus, and lemon cyprus add tropical accents to one of the most visited flower shows of the year. 

Known as the flor de nochebuena—or Christmas Eve Flower—in their native Mexico, it’s no wonder Poinsettias have become the quintessential plant of the season. Available in  endless shades of reds, pinks, creams, and greens, Poinsettias are among the most economically valuable plants in the world, with nearly 70 million sold each holiday season in the United States alone. 

Marjorie McNeely Conservatory horticulturist Bo Akinkuotu knows just what it takes to make these delicate tropical plants come to life. Back in June, he planted more than 1,000 Poinsettias to ensure they’d be at their peak just in time for the Holiday Flower Show now on display in the Sunken Garden through January 7.

“It’s a tricky thing, because Poinsettias are a touchy, finicky plant, especially for growing at home,” Akinkuotu says. Though they’re deeply associated with the winter holidays, “They’re a tropical, heat-loving plant, and they don’t like to get too wet, or they’ll rot, and they don’t like to get too dry, or they’ll wilt. You have to find that sweet spot between the two.” 

A member of the Euphorbia family, Poinsettias can only come to life during the darkest days of the year. “The interesting thing about them is that they really need these shorter days to start showing and changing their colors through the bracts, which are the showy part of the plant,” he says. Climate control is another key ingredient to keeping these plants at their best. “They’re unhappy in chilly weather, but if you can keep the temperature in the low to mid 70s, they’ll usually last until the end of the holiday season.”

Thanks to your contributions to Como Friends, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Holiday Flower Show is always free, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day of the week, including Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The dazzling colors of Día de los Muertos are the inspiration for the second half of the Sunken Garden’s fall flower show now on display.

“As gardeners, we’re always interested in trying new things in traditional spaces,” says Lisa Philander, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s horticulture curator. “The goal was to create a feeling of undulating waves of color, rather than making each side of the room a mirror of the other.”

The dazzling colors of Día de los Muertos are the inspiration for the second half of the Sunken Garden’s fall flower show now on display. With orange and yellow mums, accented by bright magenta celosia, this season’s flower show is a fiesta for the senses.

One featured flower is the orange marigold, a Mexican native plant known by the Aztec name cempasúchil. A flower that’s strongly associated with the holiday, the color and fragrance of marigolds are said to show departed souls the path to their family homes. Gardening sources report that demand for marigolds has also risen considerably since the 2017 Disney Pixar film Coco, which introduced a worldwide audience to the customs of Día de los Muertos. 

Visitors to the Sunken Garden may also notice that the design of this season’s Fall Flower Show is asymmetrical, breaking up the bilateral design pattern that’s commonly been used in the room. “As gardeners, we’re always interested in trying new things in traditional spaces,” says Lisa Philander, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s horticulture curator. “The goal was to create a feeling of undulating waves of color, rather than making each side of the room a mirror of the other.” 

Always free to visitors thanks to your contributions to Como Friends, the Sunken Garden Fall Flower Show is now on display through November 26. 

Conservation at the Forefront, Free Admission for All

Como Park Zoo & Conservatory is a gateway to the wonders of the natural world, where free admission makes it possible to teach two million children and adults the values of conservation every year. From rare orchids to endangered orangutans, there’s a whole world of wild and precious plants and animals to discover at Como, with family-friendly conservation programs that inspire us to appreciate and protect the planet we love.

On Give to the Max Day, your generosity will help make even more possible at Minnesota’s most visited cultural destination. From providing best-practice care for the animals, to earth-friendly pest control to keep Como’s gardens looking gorgeous, to inclusive programs to train the next generation of keepers and gardeners, your support allows Como Park Zoo & Conservatory to stay true to its mission, teaching us all about the life-giving connections between animals, plants, and people.

And thanks to a matching gift from the Como Friends Board of Directors and generous longtime donors, your gift will be doubled, dollar for dollar, up to $40,000.

Como’s chrysanthemum show has been a tradition since 1915, but you’ve never seen a fall flower show quite like this one! With an “Under the Sea” theme, the display includes anemone mums, green stingray colcassia, spider mums, and succulents that combine to create a cool octopus’s garden vibe in Minnesota’s most beautiful room. Check out this photo preview, and make plans to see it before October 30, when the fall flower show’s second half transforms into a celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

Did you know that the succulents used in the Fall Flower Show are the very same succulents used in the Gates Ajar display this summer!

Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, the Fall Flower Show is always free to visitors, thanks to your contributions to Como Friends.

With chrysanthemums playing the starring role in this season’s Fall Flower Show, it’s a guarantee that thrips will also be part of the cast. 

Also known to gardeners as thysanoptera or thunderflies, these needle-thin sucking insects love to feed on mums, causing damage to plants, or worse, transmitting viruses from one plant to the next.

Fortunately, Como’s horticulturists have a tiny but mighty weapon to keep thrips from ruining the show. Known as the cucumeris mite, this half-millimeter predator insect has just been deployed throughout the mum crop destined for the second half of the Fall Flower Show. With an appearance like that of a transparent wood tick, and the ability to prey on thrips and survive on plant pollen, these super small super predators play an important role in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Integrated Pest Management plan. 

“People sometimes think that spraying pesticides is the only way to control pests, but integrated pest management is an approach that combines anything you might do to make a plant healthier, from the condition of the soil it’s growing in, to your nutritional program, to how you’re pruning the plant,” explains Como horticultural supervisor Bryn Fleming. While Como has been a low-pesticide growing facility for decades, Fleming says, “our reliance on beneficial insects has increased more recently,” as the gardening industry embraces more sustainable ways to manage greenhouses and gardens.

While beneficial bugs show great promise in cutting the use of pesticides, monitoring how well predator insects perform can be time consuming and complex. What’s the right dosage of beneficial insects for a particular plant or crop? How do shifts in such inputs as light, water or temperature affect the efficacy of beneficial bugs? Are some pest predators better than others?

To help answer those questions, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is now equipped with a new integrated pest management scouting system called IPM Scoutek. Made possible by your support for Como Friends, this new digital technology tracked on a tablet allows horticulturists to collect data from greenhouses and gardens to make even more informed decisions about how to care for crops and manage pests. 

“This technology is used by large-scale growers who are producing bigger agricultural crops, but is also used for nursery or floriculture production.” says Horticulturist Jen Love, who recently shared news about Como’s software scouting system during an American Public Gardens Association symposium at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. “As far as we know, as a public garden the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is an early adopter trying this approach, and there’s a lot of interest from other institutions in seeing how this process works. If it’s successful, it’s a model we can share with other botanical gardens.”

As Como’s horticulturists discover what digital technology can do for pest management, Fleming says the Conservatory’s early adopters are already impressed by what they’ve seen. “I think this software is going to help us to keep track of things at a much closer level, so when problems come up we can respond to them even sooner,” she says. “To care for a living collection requires constant adaptation, and this technology will help us be a little more proactive than reactive.”

The biodiversity of Como’s rainforest habitat requires complex care  

“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” the famous naturalist John Muir once wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

The profound interdependence of plants, animals and people is one of the lessons Como Park Zoo & Conservatory strives to convey to more than a million visitors every year, and nowhere is that lesson more evident than in Tropical Encounters. Opened in 2006, the immersive rainforest habitat features an extensive array of tropical plants and trees, and an equally diverse range of animals, from high-flying tanagers, to a slithering anaconda, to Chloe, Como’s beloved free-ranging sloth.

With so many living things under one roof, Como Zoo keepers and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory horticulturists collaborate closely within Tropical Encounters to ensure that making a change in one corner of the habitat doesn’t have negative impacts for other residents of the rainforest. That’s why the Tropical Encounters team is taking its time on a major soil replacement project this season paid for by your contributions to Como Friends.

Visitors this summer may notice that horticulturists are taking a staged approach to the process, removing spent soil from one location at a time, to make sure that the root systems of rainforest trees and the animals that live in the vicinity are all thriving. The effort is a little bit like repotting a giant terrarium, says horticulturist Diane Rafats: “We do take special care in this habitat. Everything we do here can affect everything that lives here.”

Private support secured by Como Friends is critical to making behind-the-scenes improvements that keep every corner of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory healthy and thriving. This year, Como Friends’ funding will also support a new lighting system for the North Garden’s gorgeous collection of economic plants, a new sound system to improve the experience for visitors, and a new design plan to renovate and repair Como’s popular Victorian Water Garden pool. Thank you!

A horticultural tradition with roots that go back to 1894, Como’s beloved mosaiculture is back in season

Marjorie McNeely Conservatory assistant gardener Marie Day was wrapping up her work watering the Gates Ajar installation recently when a nearby pedestrian caught her eye to convey a message. 

“She didn’t speak English, but she pointed to Gates Ajar and she started clapping,” Day recalls. “She got the point across.”

Located just east of Lexington Parkway, Gates Ajar earns applause every year from visitors who appreciate the fresh new ways Como’s horticulturists have interpreted this historic horticultural attraction. Created back in 1894, when building topiary-like sculptures from plant material was the height of European flower fashion, Gates Ajar has been a fixture at Como for more than 100 years. With a name inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem “The Golden Legend,” Gates Ajar is essentially an elaborate upright flower bed that requires more than 100 gardener hours to bring into bloom. 

Day, who designed this year’s installation, says that work starts with bringing new soil into the structure, a “mudding” process similar to putting up drywall. Next, a team of four gardeners and five interns began planting this year’s sun and moon motif out of nearly 10,000 Conservatory-grown annual plants—a  mix of colorful alternanthera and echeveria, a fast-growing succulent. 

Once fully installed, Gates Ajar requires continued and painstaking care, from hand-pulling weeds and trimming overgrowth, to nearly 45 minutes of watering each day. The vertical structure can also be a challenge, says Day. “I’m not very tall, so I have to bring in a step ladder and try not to crush the plant material below me.”

Day says she took her inspiration this year from the more traditional floriculture of the 1940s and 50s, but if she gets a chance to design 2024’s installation, purple would be the dominant color. “Next year is the 40th anniversary of ‘Purple Rain,’” she says. “I’m pretty sure that would be a big crowd-pleaser.”

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