With its historic Marjorie McNeely Conservatory --

Read about
Soni Forsman

Water Platters Make Triumphant Return
to Como Park
St. Paul, Minnesota USA

by Soni Forsman
Click images to enlarge

After an absence of 100 years, Victoria waterlilies returned to St. Paul, Minnesota's popular Como Park in 2005. New water gardens were included in an expansion of the park's 1915 Conservatory and the addition of a 65,000 square foot (6039 square meter) Visitor and Education Center. The glass house is the centerpiece of the 450 acre (182 hectare) city park.

That first summer, the display of seven Victoria 'Longwood Hybrids' and a dozen tropical waterlilies exposed a new generation to water platters, water gardening at the Conservatory, and teased visitors to watch for bigger and better aquatic plant displays in future summers. They have not been disappointed.

I was honored to consult with the Conservatory horticultural staff in 2005 to bring back the Victorias, from seed procurement to final placement in the heated pool. As we strolled amongst the Victorias and tropical waterlilies -- maintaining, pruning and grooming -- it was very rewarding to talk with visitors about the new water gardens. The most frequently asked question, "What is that (Victoria)?"

One of the large islands of marginal plants that add drama to the unheated pool
In 2008 the heated pool showcased Victoria amazonica, Victoria cruziana, Victoria 'Longwood Hybrid', the small (possible new species) Victoria and Euryale ferox. Day and night blooming tropical waterlilies grew among the Victorias. Huge "islands" of marginal plants were backdrops to an extensive display of tropical and hardy waterlilies and lotus in the massive unheated pool. The eight foot (2.4 meter) wide water gardens outline the new addition and Conservatory expansion and are always available for public viewing. 

The park's first lily pool was located southeast of the present-day conservatory and was called the Aquarium. Centerpiece in this pool was Victoria regia as V. amazonica was known during the Victorian era. They disappeared from the park in the early 1900s as the trees surrounding the Aquarium matured, shading the pool.

Postcard of the original lily pond in Como Park > 

The 9,000 square foot (836 square meter) expansion to the Conservatory includes a room under glass devoted entirely to ferns and fern allies. It replaced the 1915 fern room where only one species of fern lived due to the limestone construction. Now 150 species of fern and fern allies reside in the room of charcoal-gray lava rock. The expansion also includes a bonsai gallery, an orchid house, and a children's gallery for hands-on educational opportunities.

< Ferns and fern allies flourish in their own room under glass 


Three more garden rooms make up the Conservatory -- the palm dome, the sunken garden, and the north garden (a garden room devoted to beneficial plants). These rooms are original to the Conservatory and were restored in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most evident to the public was new glass that replaced the cloudy fiberglass panels on the walls and ceilings and all garden rooms are now handicapped accessible. 

Palm trees stretch up into the Victorian glass dome >

The palm dome houses towering palm trees that reach into the classic Victorian glass dome. The formal sunken garden has five flower shows a year -- winter, spring, summer, fall and holiday. It is the favorite locale for weddings and photo opportunities. A collection of food and spice trees and plants grow in the north garden.   

A walkway connects the Conservatory with the Visitor and Education Center. It is the primary entrance to the Conservatory and the only entrance to the adjoining Como Zoo, which began with unsolicited donations of animals in 1897. Approximately 1.9 million people walked through doors of the new addition in 2007.

Map from www.comozooconservatory.org
The Visitor and Education Center is contemporary in design so not to distract from the Victorian glass house. It has classrooms, an auditorium, a year-around cafeteria, and a gift shop. Taking center stage in the addition is the soaring Tropical Encounters Exhibit, a neo-tropical rainforest. It is a joint venture between the Conservatory and the Zoo to bring plants, animals and aquatic life indigenous to that region together in one exhibit.

The value of this historic Victorian landmark to the city, the state and horticulture was recognized in 1974 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Como Conservatory was renamed the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in late 2002 in recognition of a substantial donation from St. Paul's McNeely family. The endowment assures that the Conservatory will remain "green" into the future.

The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is open 365 days a year. Hours are 10 am - 4 pm October through March and 10 am - 6 pm April through September. Cost is a $2 voluntary donation for adults and $1 for children.

More images from Como Park Zoo & Conservatory >

Como Park Zoo & Conservatory Web Site

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