Conservatory & Indoor Gardens

Our geodesic-domed conservatory has been an iconic destination since it first opened on a frigid day in December 1979. The conservatory stands 80 feet tall at its highest point and measures 150 feet wide. It is comprised of 665 molded Plexiglas® panels set within an anodized aluminum skeleton. It’s a destination for immersion and a one-of-a-kind way to move immediately from tundra-like winter weather to the balmy atmosphere of the tropics.

The collections grown in the conservatory, the Gardeners Show House and the production greenhouses represent the purest expression of the Botanical Garden’s mission of exploring, explaining and celebrating plant diversity through a reference collection of pantropical species. Historically, this collection consisted primarily of plants from the acanthus, agave, palm, cactus, banana and orchid families. Over time, it has evolved to balance ornamental exhibition with botanical education, representing notable specimens from those families of historic interest while creating seasonally dynamic displays that celebrate the art of horticulture and planting design.

It is likely that the early advocates for a public garden in Des Moines were introduced to geodesic domes by visiting the Climatron, built at Missouri Botanical Garden in 1960, the pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City and the American Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal, now known as the Montreal Biosphere. While the earliest known geodesic structure was built in Germany and opened to the public in 1926, the idea is most often associated with an American visionary, R. Buckminster Fuller. Visit our History page to learn more about how our Garden came to be.

Gardeners Show House Gallery

The Gardeners Show House began as a volunteer-led effort by the Polk County Master Gardeners to rejuvenate the former Botanical Center experience prior with ideas and inspiration that showed visitors how to garden more creatively. Today, with the support of a dedicated cohort of volunteers, the Botanical Garden team has curated a series of inspirational and ever-evolving displays that honor that original vision. The Show House also highlights collections of plants that can be grown in your own house or garden, including popular groups like orchids, bromeliads and coleus. The intimate and imaginative spaces within this repurposed greenhouse feature garden furnishings built by our horticulture team and a variety of containers ranging from antique ceramics to modern resin vessels. During the holidays, our annual garden railroad display runs throughout the Show House to the delight of children and families.

Conservatory

Most of the permanent plantings in the conservatory hail from the tropics, a band encircling the Earth north and south of the equator with mean temperatures above 64 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Some areas are constantly hot and wet, while others have a relatively short rainy season followed by protracted dry weather and, despite the constant heat, still others are classified simply as dry, arid or semi-arid like the Australian Outback and the Sahara Desert.

The conservatory features well over 1,000 taxa from these regions in horticulturally contrived schemes that explore themes of ethnobotany and ecology. Study these plant communities and you will find some surprising plant relationships amid the zesty, tropicalismo aesthetic.

Notable experiences in the conservatory include:

  • Louteridium donnell-smithii (no common name) is an unusual member of the acanthus family from southern Mexico and Central America. Its oversized, fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves form a texturally impressive canopy near the arbor and on the southern wall of the conservatory. This night-flowering shrub blooms in February and March featuring curious, flesh-toned and bucket-shaped flowers pollinated by bats in the wild.
  • Acalypha hispida (chenille plant), with its long fuzzy flowers belongs to the spurge family, the Euphorbiaceae, along with the Christmas poinsettia and the many different crotons whose leaves bring color to the conservatory all year.
  • The traveler’s palm is not a true palm but rather a member of the bird-of-paradise family named Ravenala madagascariensis. There are two theories about the common name–one is that rain collects in the leaf stalk sheaths and could quench the thirst of a weary traveler; the other, more likely theory is that the leaf fans orientate themselves east-west and could act as a compass.
  • A tumbling waterfall in the conservatory attracts visitors of all ages, along with the koi. The desert garden features the spiny, poky, and prickly leaves of cacti and other succulents, including familiar Agave (century plants), Euphorbia (crown of thorns), Crassula (jade plant) and a number of woody “lilies”–plants like Yucca, to name a few. Stewarded by a loyal troop of volunteers who genially call themselves “Desert Diggers,” the desert garden continues to flourish as an educational example of the many fascinating plants that populate arid spaces of the world.

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