Garden Adventures:

Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes

Mitchell Park Domes Garden Adventure!

I made a trip to The Mitchell Park Domes, otherwise known as the Milwaukee/Mitchell Conservatory Domes, one early spring day with my daughter, who was visiting from New York. We were two bored “nature junkies” needing a horticulture fix.

We were delighted at the diversity found among the three huge greenhouse structures that have been an important part of Milwaukee’s history for more than 50 years. The Mitchell Park Domes are truly a “living landmark” in the city. The three domes are lit at night with bright rings of colored light that serve as neon beacons, visible from many parts of the city. They added the neon as part of an update in 2008. Artsy!


 The Tropical Dome

We had our breath taken away when we walked into the Mitchell Park Domes’ Tropical Dome. Not only by the sheer size of it all but also by the sudden rise in humidity!

In this “depiction of the rain forest”, there are over 1,200 species of tropical plants as well as some tropical birds. Perhaps the most familiar plants of the rain forest are those we might have growing in our homes and offices. There are bromeliads, orchids, ferns, marantas, philodendrons, peperomias,  and calatheas. There are also amaryllis, blooming hibiscus, anthurium, calliandra, clerodendron, crinum and heliconia, all surrounding pools swimming with koi and a lovely waterfall. Growing in the trees, there were the epiphytics such as orchids, bromeliads and ferns. There are many vining plants that have grown up into the trees to gain more light like the  vanilla and rangoon creeper (Quisqualis). Also in this Dome, they even have an “emergent”, which is the tallest trees of the rain forest due to their canopies rising above all others –  the kapok (Ceiba pentandra), reaching 85′ tall!

We enjoyed a wonderful rain forest ecosystem vertically as well as horizontally as there is surprisingly a good amount of winding trails through the dome. It’s really something to see!

The Desert Dome

This stark contrast to the Tropical Dome is a greenhouse with displays of desert vegetation from Africa, Madagascar, South America and North America. This really is one of the best collections of cacti, succulent shrubs and arid-land bulbs grow that I’ve seen. Paths lead past many plant oddities with interesting geometric forms, subtle coloration and unique adaptations to hot, dry habitats.

The Desert Dome’s collections are grouped by geographic regions. Each area is characterized by unique plant species able to survive drought and intense sun. Although many of these plants look like cacti, cacti are native only to North, Central and South America. Just F.Y.I..

The Floral Show Dome

The Floral Show Dome has a rotating display of sorts that they change out with the seasons. Kept at almost the most pristine and wonderful temperatue, it is a wonderful area to park yourself on a bench and look out over the display with the back-drop of absolutely enormous elder Ficus benjamina trees.

Each show has a specific theme, when we were there, it was the Spring Show. There were lilies blooming (That smelled delightful!), with beds of hydrangea all around, snapdragon, hyacinth, daffodils, cyclamen, and many others. They were all laid out surrounding a pool with fountains that filled the dome with an ambient noise that made you just kind of sit and trip out to the grandeur of it all. The plants chosen for the floral exhibit are grown at the Mitchell Park Domes Horticulture Division’s Greenhouse Center, and once in place, a show generally will last from six to fourteen weeks. They change out potted flowers as needed and for a long-running Summer Show, there can be 3-4 complete changes of plantings. Imagine doing that for your job! Heavenly hard work!

A Brief History

The first Mitchell Park Dome was completed in 1964, succeeded by the other two in the following three years, but unfortunately there was a decline of the Milwaukee County Parks System defined as “a very subtle erosion beginning sometime in the 1970s and 1980s” resulting from a drop in investment in the parks. A terrible shame considering Wisconsin has the most parks and green spaces containing the most hiking trails of any state. The Milwaukee Domes teetered just recently on the brink of being closed indefinitely! Read about that ongoing problem here.

Nonetheless, the Mitchell Park Domes are a sight to see. We finished up our Garden Adventure with a strong appetite so we headed down the street to another Milwaukee Landmark. Leon’s Custard. Oh, yes.


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