Spectacular water fountains and rows of Azalea and Rhododendron bushes line the walkways. Just ahead is the glorious circa 1882 Linnean House, a glass, brick, and slate orangery used to overwinter citrus trees. Everything appears just as one would expect from the oldest and most prestigious botanical garden in the United States. However, science fiction movies cannot prepare first time visitors for what they are about to witness inside the gates of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Peaking through the conifers is an enormous dome-like structure that defies description. Have aliens landed here? Is this a prototype for a lunar space station? It’s the CLIMATRON - a seven story tall geodesic greenhouse that houses a lowland tropical rainforest. This architectural marvel opened in 1960 to much fanfare including a speech by the President of the National Academy of Science.
Inside the Climatron are 1400 species of plants – palms, ferns, cycads, pineapples, mangos, figs, avocados, bananas, and orchids – all within this half acre jungle. Insect control is naturally provided by Gecko lizards, Nepenthes pitcher plants, and tropical birds. The orchids that reside in this futuristic greenhouse are primarily the smaller, overlooked species that are typically found in rainforests: Ludisia discolor with its deep maroon velvety foliage, many types of Vanilla (not just the popular edible planifolia), diminutive Bulbophyllums whose blossoms are sometimes no larger than a dime, and Encyclia cochleata aka the Cockleshell orchid.
The showy orchid hybrids are reserved for the Education Building which has its own exhibit in the lobby. The vast majority of the collection is ‘timed’ for the annual orchid show which is held every February/March. Much of the garden’s 7000 plant orchid collection has been donated over many decades and is of great historic significance. Not long ago, the greenhouses and facilities were so impressive that the American Orchid Society was considering relocating their headquarters there.
Philanthropist Henry Shaw created the Missouri Botanical Garden in the mid-19th century. Shaw got the idea after visiting the grounds of Chatsworth, the formal estate of the Duke of Devonshire in England. For many years, Shaw lived on the property in a villa called Tower Grove House. Orchid hobbyists, today, are familiar with the Tower Grove variety name from many heirloom plants including the famous albescens form of Cattleya bowringiana ‘Tower Grove’.
The local orchid society in St Louis has a warm relationship with the garden which serves as a model for other horticultural institutions around the country. As overgrown orchid plants from the collection are periodically divided and re-potted, the extra pieces are given to the society members who ‘win’ them as raffle prizes. Not only are the members thrilled to be owning historic plants, but the garden is ensuring that these rarities live on for generations.
In 1960, the Climatron must have been quite a sensation. The garden was already over 100 years old and home to an impressive orchid collection. The new space-age structure was the perfect venue to experience the tropics. Another half century later, visitors are as awe-struck as ever.