Story and photo by Emily Hecker
Soft beams of sunlight stream through a plate-glass roof warming hundreds of leaves. Potted coleus, ferns, poinsettias and other plant species fill the space. A pergola of rough-hewn timbers extends across the center, supporting vines and hanging plants. The fragrance of orchids sweetens the air. Rusted vents rumble overhead as they circulate fresh air throughout the greenhouse.
Tucked away, beyond a cinder block hallway filled with photographs, is the Show House at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center. A pale green sign invites visitors to “Please come in — our house is your house.” The staff at the center takes this philosophy to heart and transforms a simple greenhouse into a Show House that fosters a sense of intimacy with plants.
“You get lost in this world that’s created at arm, hand and people level and isn’t so expansive as the greenhouse of the dome might be,” Kelly Norris, horticulture manager, said. “It’s a more intimate space to encounter finer scale things: plants in containers, plants with smaller flowers that might be lost in the sheer context of the conservatory.”
The Show House currently has a mystery theme. The first of eight whimsical display features a white sign telling the tale of poor Mr. Plant who met his untimely demise at the hands of Ms. Ima Green-Thumb. It is then up to the visitor to explore the floral display and deduce which common gardening tool was employed as a murder weapon. A sign next to each potential weapon educates visitors on its proper usage for gardening.
Each of the other seven displays in the Show House allows visitors to explore mysteries ranging from murder to nature.
“One exhibit has compost: the mystery of how plants turn from leaves to nice composted soil,” Josh Schultes, Show House team lead, said. “I like the idea that we can really showcase our horticultural skills and the educational aspect of it.”
The Show House also gives visitors a glimpse of the cultivation process plants go through before they make it into the full-scale conservatory. While a canopy of full-grown trees greets visitors in the conservatory, potted seedlings are in abundance in the Show House.
“It’s kind of like the green house behind the scenes,” Amanda Schutte, horticulturist, said. “You come into a conservatory and you see all the plants and it’s great, but there’s actually a lot more behind what goes on there than people think.”
Show House displays are the results of a collaborative effort between the staff at the botanical garden and the Polk County Master Gardeners. The botanical garden provides the space and plants for the displays, while the Master Gardeners create them. “This place wouldn’t run without volunteers and people like the Master Gardeners,” said Schutte.
It takes about two to three months of planning for the committee of Master Gardeners to decide on a theme and delegate tasks. Volunteers then spend a Saturday tearing down the previous exhibit. Over the course of the next eight days, they prep the Show House and install the new display. The Master Gardeners change out the Show House every six weeks.
Besides getting several new displays this year, the Show House will also have its entrance rebuilt. Since so many visitors tend to walk past it, the Show House is a bit of a well-kept secret for the botanical garden. The current path around the conservatory does not suggest that visitors should follow it back to the Show House.
“The (new) pathway to the Show House, which will be to your right as you walk in, will be a little more direct,” said Norris. “We’re looking forward to a whole new beginning.”
Botanical Center Hours:
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
909 Robert D. Ray Drive
Des Moines, IA 50316
Phone: (515) 323-6290