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Hit the Road: Desert oasis in downtown Pittsburgh

We are surrounded by a rich desert landscape where chollas, ocotillos, agaves, barrels and beavertails compete for recognition from passing visitors.

Some of these cactuses and succulents display their spring finery of orange and yellow blooms, despite the fact that the usual time for flowering has pretty much passed.

This is not the only thing a bit out of sync.

These desert plants call downtown Pittsburgh home. They flourish in one of the splendid Victorian glass houses at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

These glass sculptures are among several permanent works of art by Dale Chihuly embedded throughout the 23 gardens at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. Photo by Jerry Ondash

In all, this treasured resource offers visitors 14 climate- and moisture-controlled greenhouses and 23 gardens on 15 acres. Each house is a self-contained botanical wonder of leafy mazes, artistic flowery swirls, textured mounds and well defined borders.

Its dazzling exhibit spaces are likely to conjure up intense feelings of jealousy in both top master gardeners and the rest of us. I count myself among the latter.

Fortunately, my husband, brother- and sister-law and I are lucky to be escorted about this botanical wonderland by Jenna Bodnar, communications manager at the conservatory.

She guides us through the various glass enclosures exhibiting plants, flowers, shrubs, trees, fish ponds and water falls. As a Southwesterner, I’m most awed by the rock-cliff waterfalls and proliferous orchids growing effortlessly in their warm, moist environment.

We also are fortunate enough to catch “Van Gogh in Bloom,” this summer’s unique exhibit in which horticulturists have interpreted well known Van Gogh paintings through flowers, plants, trees and fabrics.

The Butterfly Forest at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden is open from April to early September. Hundreds of butterflies swarm in the Stove Room, one of 14 Victorian glass structures on 15 acres. Photo by Jerry Ondash

We wander past bigger-than-life “Sunflowers,” “The Starry Night,” “Wheat Field with Cypresses,” the iconic “Self Portrait with Straw Hat” and more.  (Visit to see photos.)

This exhibit runs through Oct. 6, which means there is a lot of maintenance to be done during the summer and early autumn by the approximately 100 people who help care for the gardens.

Amazingly, repeat visitors will see new exhibits each season, even when the temperatures dip below zero, because most of the gardens are under glass.

Cultivated outdoor spaces include a fully developed Japanese garden (including decades-old bonsais) and the Discovery Garden and Nature Play Garden, designed for children.

Eventually Bodnar escorts us into the Butterfly Forest (annually from April through early September).

As we enter this sanctuary, butterflies of all sizes and colors dive-bomb both leafy plants, flowers and visitors. I try without success to get one to land on my arm, but the butterflies seem otherwise occupied.

Still, it’s a thrill to stand there and watch the swarms inhabiting every open space.

The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh provides several places throughout its lush grounds where kids can play and learn about growing things. Photo by Jerry Ondash

The conservatory, a gift to the city of Pittsburgh from philanthropist Henry W. Phipps, opened in late 1893. Its buildings, grounds and plant collections have changed and grown through the years, and today, perhaps the most important parts of its mission and operations are less visible than its grand gardens.

Ongoing education and community outreach programs offer classes in sustainable living, gardening and cooking, producing green power and climate change for all ages and businesses.

The Phipps practices what it preaches, too.

Its Production Greenhouse, where it propagates the flora for the exhibits, is the first and only greenhouse in the world to achieve Platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The newer glass houses on the property, including the futuristic administration and maintenance buildings, have been designed with the health of employees as a paramount concern.

Solar energy, passive heating and cooling, water recycling and conservation, and buildings free of toxins are commonplace here, and PhD students from local universities and abroad conduct research in sustainability.

Café Phipps serves no junk food or water in plastic bottles, but does serve food grown locally, organically and from the on-site gardens. The café composts about a half-million pounds per year of pre- and post-consumer waste.

Perhaps most notable to a Southern Californian is the conservatory’s use of “waste heat” to melt snow on pathways — something I’ll have to experience on a future winter visit.

Visit or call (412) 622-6914.

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