Pleasant under glass | Botanical gardens offer respite from the winter

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Exotic insects chirrup and buzz as they flit among the palms, ferns, figs and tropical flowers. They patrol the jungle for other pests, provide food for the various species of birds breeding in the canopy and occasionally land in the hungry clutches of pitcher plants, Venus flytraps and other floral carnivores.

Meanwhile, just beyond the thermal glass that encloses the jungle, snow swirls across the icy Wisconsin landscape.

Bolz Conservatory, a part of Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is known locally as the “glass pyramid.” It’s one of a number of area conservatories offering plant and animal life from around the world. As temperatures drop and snow blankets the landscape, you can still experience the tropics, arid desert landscapes or spring gardens without purchasing a plane ticket.

What better way to shake the snow from your soul?

Inside the Glass Pyramid

Olbrich’s Bolz Conservatory offers 10,000 square feet of mixed tropical flora and fauna. The pyramid rises 50 feet at the center — high enough to house its 20-foot waterfall and the towering royal palms that take center stage among 650 plants, which include about 80 plant families and more than 475 species and cultivars from a variety of equatorial zones.

Operated jointly by the City of Madison Parks Division and the Olbrich Botanical Society, the conservatory’s environment is controlled by an external weather station that measures the impact of the sunlight and temperatures outdoors to create an indoor environment suitable for its tropical inhabitants. Exterior shades and misting nozzles help maintain an indoor humidity level of 60 percent and temperatures that range between 65 and 80 degrees year- round.

The conservatory, which opened in November 1991, anchors Olbrich Gardens’ 16 acres. The gardens begin to stir in early March, when outdoor beds devoted to roses, dahlias, perennials, annuals and irises begin showing signs of life. 

At the park’s far reaches, shimmering golden in the sun, stands the Thai Pavilion & Garden. The pavilion was a gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Thai government and the Thai chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. UW-Madison has one of the largest Thai student populations of any U.S. college or university.

Under the Domes

Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory invites visitors into three landmark, LED-illuminated domes, each housing a distinct environment.

The tropical dome houses jungle flora from five continents. On any given day, as many as 50 different species might be blooming there. A rushing waterfall, tropical birds and 500 varieties of orchids add to the ambience.

The arid dome is home to one of the Midwest’s finest collections of cacti and succulents, as well as an oasis of pampas grass and desert palms. Visitors can stroll through environments replicating arid regions of Africa, South America and North America.

The third environment, nicknamed the “show dome,” offers five seasonal displays annually. From poinsettias and holiday lights at Christmas to hundreds of lilies at Easter, the displays offer brilliant colors and fragrant aromas to help combat the winter blues.

The domes were built over a period of eight years, from 1959 to 1967, based on a design submitted by local architect Donald Grieb. Each dome offers 1 acre under glass and 750,000 cubic feet of space, rising 85 feet — that’s seven stories — from the lobby level. A team of four full-time horticulturalists tend the plants daily.

In addition to being located in Milwaukee’s first permanently named city park, the domes are the world’s only conoidal (beehive-shaped, as opposed to geodesic) glass houses, according to park officials. Grieb’s unique design offers a superior angle for solar heating and more interior height for tree growth.

More visibly, they also provide a glittering addition to the Milwaukee skyline. Each dome was outfitted with LED lights in the late ‘00s, bringing the Domes into the 21st century and re-attracting visitors to the Milwaukee landmark.

This time of year, the Mitchell Park Domes and Olbrich Botanical Gardens give visitors the opportunities to shake off the winter doldrums with a dose of tropical air, desert foliage and enough plant life to know that spring is just around the corner. 

At the very least, the weather is much more pleasant under glass, and the verdant growth offers a tangible tonic for the frostbitten heart.

In bloom

Olbrich Botanical Gardens are located at 3330 Atwood Ave. on Madison’s East Side. For hours and other information, call 608-246-4550 or go to

Mitchell Park Conservatory (The Domes) is located at 524 S. Layton Blvd. on Milwaukee’s South Side. Phone 414-257-5611 or visit