Exploring Chicagoland nature by foot, artfully & thoughtfully. Interested? Let's walk.
Step inside from the bustle of Lincoln Park into the tropical sanctuary of the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Its four display houses—the Palm House, Fern Room, Orchid House and Show House—were built between 1890 and 1895. These houses evoke bygone ages: not just the Victorian era when the greenhouses were constructed, but also earlier epochs of Earth’s history, since these greenhouses are home to some very ancient plant types. The conservatory also boasts some rare tropical species. Even experts, however, may pass over some of the conservatory’s unusual botanical treats. These treats include a diversity of unusual tree architectural forms and a collection of liverworts, those often overlooked relatives of mosses, which were perhaps the first terrestrial plants to evolve.
Step into the Palm House and notice that the space is filled with green in a way that contrasts with plants growing in the park outside. This is not merely because the conservatory is dense with plants, but also there is a greater diversity of tree architectural types. That trees are designed according to an architectural plan, that is, a generalized growth program that determines how their shapes develop, is not often appreciated. Look at the position of the flowers and the orientation of the branches. There is greater variation in how trees are put together in the tropics, and the conservatory is an excellent place to witness this.In all there are twenty-four theoretical tree architecture models. Only twenty-three have been seen in nature. You never know, the missing model may be found in the conservatory!
Liverworts are ancient plant forms that grow in warm and moist places. They are flat and branched, running along tree trunks or rocky surfaces like little branched tongues! There is growing evidence that these odd looking plants are among the earliest to have colonized the land. Though they are common in conservatories in Chicago—we have them in Lincoln Park Conservatory and Garfield Park Conservatory—we have rarely seen them elsewhere in Chicago. Notice the large collection of them in the Fern House. When you walk down from the Palm House, look at the rockeries to the side of the steps. Between delicate ferns there is a lovely carpeting of liverworts. Once you see them, you will notice them in other places!