For the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s team of horticulturists, the Spring Flower Show is an act of love

Tulips have been gaining on roses as the favored flower of Valentine’s Day, a flower trend that Como horticulturist Bo Akinkuotu says is easy to understand. Not only are tulips said to signify true and perfect love, he says, “they also come in practically every color, and they give us all that first sign of spring that we all look forward to seeing.”

In keeping with decades of tradition, tulips will also be the star players in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Spring Flower Show, scheduled for March 25 through April 30. But getting nearly 10,000 bulbs to bloom on cue for the show’s four-week run requires a full year of tender loving care, especially from Akinkuotu, who is responsible for this year’s tulip crop. “This is my first time managing the tulips, so the pressure is really on,” he says. Here’s a look at how the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s horticultural staff makes it happen:

1). Planning for the Spring Flower Show happens nearly a year in advance, as the Conservatory staff take down the previous season’s show, study which plants performed best, and create a new design for the year ahead.  While many bulbs can be recycled and reused, funding from Como Friends helps to keep every flower show feeling fresh, providing for the new varietals and exotic bulbs that winter-weary Minnesotans long to see every spring. 

2). By fall, Como’s backstage growing space begins to fill with crates of spring bulbs, which are potted up in stages by Como’s horticultural staff and a team of community volunteers. The majority still come from the Netherlands, where more than 90 percent of the world’s tulips are farmed. 

3). Thanksgiving Day is the unofficial deadline for getting up to 10,000 tulips and supporting players like daffodils, hyacinth, and ranunculus into pots and ready for winter. With their roots just formed, the spring bulb crop moves into a backstage cooler for up to four months. The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s climate control system—recently updated thanks to contributions to Como Friends—is critical to the process, creating the cold conditions that spark the flower formation within each bulb. 

“Conserving resources is part of our mission at Como Friends, so we’re happy to support the beautiful flowers people will see this spring in the Sunken Garden, and to provide shoppers the opportunity to reuse the bulbs and make their gardens look great,” says Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends. 

4). The warm-up starts in early March, as horticulturists move each bulb back into the growing range, rising soil temperatures help the flowers to mature within the bulbs, with early flower stalks emerging in time for the show’s debut on March 25. “Getting the timing right here is critical,” says Akinkuotu, adding that with pricey plant material, “we want to get the biggest bang for our buck.” The chilly temps visitors may notice in the Sunken Garden help to keep the flowers at their peak for longer. 

5).  Each year, Como grows about three times as many tulips as will fill the Sunken Garden, so that as each bloom peaks and fades, horticulturists can swap in a fresh flower. Once they’ve made their debut in the Sunken Garden, hundreds of bulbs are then recycled and sold each year at Como Friends’ Garden Safari Gifts for replanting in garden beds and backyards all over the Twin Cities. “Conserving resources is part of our mission at Como Friends, so we’re happy to support the beautiful flowers people will see this spring in the Sunken Garden, and to provide shoppers the opportunity to reuse the bulbs and make their gardens look great,” says Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends. Be sure to follow Como Friends’ Facebook page for announcements about this frequent sell-out event.

Your support helps connect Como Zoo’s gorillas to their cousins in central Africa

When Como visitors see bachelor gorillas Virgil, Jabir and Samson napping the day away in their indoor habitat at Gorilla Forest, they sometimes ask primate keeper Michelle Hays if their wild cousins in central Africa would be doing the same thing.

“The answer is definitely yes,” says Hays, who served as a volunteer with the Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz, a grassroots gorilla preservation initiative in Gabon back in 2019. “One of the big take-aways of my time working with gorillas in their natural habitat is that they really do spend their days eating, resting and sleeping,” she says. “It was cool to see that our gorillas are doing just what these wild gorillas would be doing. It might look a little different here at Como Zoo than it does in central Africa, but they’re basically behaving in the same way.”

Enhancing Como Zoo keepers’ first-hand experience and personal insights about animal behavior was one of the goals of Conservation Champions, a program funded by donors to Como Friends that has helped send Como keepers, educators and horticulturalists to assist with real-life conservation efforts around the world since 2017. From tracking snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan, to rehabilitating injured and orphaned penguins in South Africa, to saving sloths in Costa Rica, the Conservation Champions Program has also helped Como staff to build a network of new professional connections within the world of wildlife conservation. 

While pandemic precautions put a pause on international travel plans for the past two years, the Conservation Champions program has continued to provide support for conservation fieldwork, with a variety of small grants to support partners that Como staff have built connections with. One such grantee is Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz, which recently received a $2,000 grant from Como Friends for help with the construction of an enclosure that will allow two orphaned female gorillas rescued from poachers in October 2020 to be integrated with the 9 gorillas already living on Rehabilitation Island. The organization has been posting frequent progress reports about the effort on their Facebook page this winter. Their goal is to introduce the pair—Niout and Maya—to a stable group of nine gorillas that now live at Projet Gorille Fernan-Vaz’s Rehabilitation Island. 

“I love being able to talk about my time on the ground in Africa working with such a dedicated team of gorilla supporters, and connecting it full circle back to the conservation messages we give to visitors here at Como,” says Hays. “I’m proud to say we’re supporting such an incredible project, and hopefully helping them achieve their ultimate goal of possibly releasing this group of soon-to-be eleven gorillas back into their wild habitat.”

It’s cold outside, but at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, winter is in full bloom. From the Winter Carnival Orchid Show coming January 28 and 29, to the colorful Winter Flower Show running through March 19, Como is here to provide a colorful counterpunch to the mid-winter blahs. 

Pink and purple are now the palette for this season’s Sunken Garden flower show. With cyclamen, azaleas, camellias, veltheimia, cineraria and foxgloves, Como’s Winter Flower Show is the beautiful backdrop for a workday diversion, a fun family outing, or a romantic Valentine’s date. 

All of the interior gardens of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory will also be aglow on February 23 for the Como Friends fundraiser, Bouquets. This intimate evening event features elegant wine, food and beer stations arrayed throughout Como’s Visitor Center and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, giving Como Friends supporters a rare after-hours glimpse of tropical greenery, soaring palms, and the Sunken Garden.

“It is our first visit here, and it is an amazing opportunity. We asked how much it was and they said it’s free. And I said, ‘Are you sure?” –Lionnel Djon, Thunder Bay, Ontario


Admission is free. Parking is free. Children are free. Adults are free. Como Zoo is free. The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is free. At Como, free means free.

Como was founded by visionaries and volunteers who foresaw the need for creating a public green space at the heart center of the Twin Cities. More than a century later, that vision has made Como Park Zoo & Conservatory the most visited cultural destination in the state of Minnesota, often welcoming nearly two million children and adults each year. With its historic architecture, significant horticultural collections and state-of-the-art habitats, visiting Como has been a shared memory for more than five generations of Minnesotans.

 But what’s truly unique when compared to other zoos and botanical gardens across the country is Como’s open door policy–free admission that’s made possible, in part, by your contributions to Como Friends. “Over the past 20 years, our successful public/private partnership has helped  protect the free admission this community cares about, and to introduce a whole new generation to the wonders of nature without any barriers to access,” says Jackie Sticha, President of Como Friends, the nonprofit fundraising partner of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory.  

We recently asked a few of Como’s two million annual visitors to talk about why kids need time in nature and what free admission means to them.

“My family and grandkids had the opportunity to spend the day at Como Park Zoo & Conservatory. It was the best day ever!

How wonderful that we could see and do so many things for FREE! We did make a donation. It made me realize how many wouldn’t be there if there was a big entrance and parking fee like so many other places. Everyone has a chance to go. That is so great!!

Thank you so much for giving families this memorable experience.” Como Visitor

– Dell Brisson, Cottage Grove

“Introducing kids to nature broadens their world and lets them know it is bigger than they are.”

– Dell Brisson, Cottage Grove
– Gina Thrap, St Paul

“We come to Como probably six times a year. The Sunken Garden is a must—when I was in college I would come and study in the Conservatory because it was nice and warm and relaxing. We obviously like the giraffes, but it’s important to introduce kids to nature so they can see the big picture, the circle of life, and see how we are all connected and we have to take care of our animals, and they take care of us.”

– Gina Thrap, St Paul
– Denise Glasrud, Stillwater

“Como’s free admission allows everyone to come and it doesn’t exclude anyone. And I hope it stays that way. It’s easy to visit for a whole day or just a couple hours. It is such a world of electronics that I think that bringing kids back to nature is a good thing.”

– Denise Glasrud, Stillwater
– Guy and Mae Aho, Shoreview

“With a free zoo, you get more public awareness. We are all involved together in saving the wild species all over the world and the people who are connected to the animals. Helping one is helping all of us.

We come every day—you never know who you’re going to meet. We meet people from all over the world here. We talk to parents with little kids each day, we meet grandparents whose grandparents took them here. Como is one thing that they can share with kids and grandkids for decades.”

– Guy and Mae Aho, Shoreview

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