The top “must see” destination of every visitor to Pittsburgh should be the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and planning for an entire day here would not be too much time to spend. This 125-year-old establishment is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I can’t begin to describe all of the delights my husband and I found here. The Phipps is one of the largest conservatory we’ve ever visited with 14 different rooms enclosed under glass featuring both permanent collections and changing exhibits. As spectacular as these displays were in August, I can only imagine how fabulous it must feel to walk in these wonderful environments on a dreary winter day.
There are wonderful things to see around every corner. A collection of orchids included some of the most unusual ones I’ve ever seen. Desert cacti grow next to the largest and most spectacular yucca plant with twisting blades that look so lifelike I almost expected them to reach out and grab me as I passed by. I couldn’t help but think of the man-eating plant in the theatrical production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Beautiful glass work included stunning blue green pitcher plants, giant orange orchids, and whimsical alien looking creatures with stretched extremities to name just a few. Marble, bronze and other sculptures are scattered throughout the rooms, none more delightful than the classic heads resting in a large pond and giving the impression of buddies swimming on a hot summer’s day as visitors look on, pressing buttons to make tones sound and fountains splash all around them – a part of this summer’s sound and motion show.
We ran into several friendly volunteers as we wandered from room to room. From them we learned that the Phipps is completely self-sustaining. It creates its own solar energy which runs fans, pumps, and lights. Rain water and snow melt is collected which provide all of the water needed to keep plants healthy, ponds filled, and waterfalls flowing. One friendly volunteer told us how temporary exhibits are designed and changed with plants that either must be grown on-site or purchased from outside sources which is sometimes cheaper as in the case of the 35,000 or so poinsettias they might buy for the Christmas display.
Halfway through our wandering we took a break for lunch. The Phipps has a marvelous café on its lower level near the front door and the gift shop. The café serves healthy farm to table meals from a changing menu. Not serving anything with too much added sugar or added sweeteners means that soda is not available. Beverages include only unsweetened iced teas, beer, wine, milk and a fruit juice infused water called a “Phipps Splash.” Everything we tried was fresh and delicious although I can see the menu being too exotic for a picky eater. They would likely need to ask for a simplified entree, order off the children’s menu, or bring their own brown bag lunch.
Our visit lasted 4 hours but could have stayed longer. We did not take the available tour and we unfortunately did not visit the outdoor gardens. Whether you are like me and you visit a botanical garden in each city you visit, or if you’ve never stepped inside one before, the Phipps is one that you really should not miss. Visit their website for all the information you need to plan a visit and to take an online tour.