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Travel the planet at Volunteer Park Conservatory

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Seattle's Volunteer Park Conservatory allows you to travel to exotic lands without leaving home. Plants from all over the world are grouped in five sections or "houses." And something is always blooming.

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You enter through the Palm House, famous for its extensive and impressive orchid collection which began with a donation of orchids from Anna Clise in 1922. The current collection is rotated so that only orchids in bloom are on display. This house also showcases anthuriums from Hawaii and Costa Rica, along with banana and ginger plants from Asia, and several species of palms. There's also a giant bird of paradise flower from South Africa. In the wild, birds perch on the lowest part of the large blossom to feed from the nectar.

Most of the plants are part of a permanent display, but in the Seasonal Display House, exhibits change with the seasons. In winter, you'll find azaleas and cineraria. In spring, lilies and cyclamen. Summer brings fuchsias and campanulas, while fall features chrysanthemums and coleus. Christmas fills the place with poinsettias.

At the far right end of the conservatory lies the Cactus House, all spiky and succulent. In spring, those spiny plants put forth delicate blooms. This house also holds a large jade tree started from a small cutting in 1916. If you're a devotee of cacti, check out the Cascade Cactus and Succulent Society at http://cascadecss.org/

The left wing of the conservatory begins with the Fern House which has a wide variety of tropical plants in addition to its ferns. There's a pool flanked by Mexican breadfruit and some carnivorous species such as the pitcher plant.

Last is the Bromeliad House, a species to which the pineapple belongs. These can be unassuming until they bloom, producing wildly colorful displays that last for weeks. Here, you'll also find a pleasing audio sculpture, Over 'Lyre, by Dan Senn from Oregon. A series of pine dowels and metal disks strung on piano wire operate on sub-audio pulses recorded on CDs to play ethereal strains of music.

Designed in the style of Victorian conservatories in Europe, the Volunteer Park Conservatory was built in 1912. It was manufactured in New York and shipped here for assembly. It operates under the direction of the Seattle Parks Department though there is also a Friends of the Conservatory nonprofit organization to support it. For hours and driving directions, check http://www.seattle.gov/parks/parkspaces/volunteerpark/conservatory.htm

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