Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Escape to the Exotic Conservatory

With Seattle's unpredictable weather, it's always good to have a back-up plan for your fun-in-the-sun plans.

Try Seattle's treasured "outside" venue under cover, the Conservatory at Volunteer Park. The metal and glass Victorian greenhouse, built in 1912, is modeled after the Crystal Palace in London.

For Eve Block, almost 2, her sister Sarah, 3 and their friend Forrest Scearce, 4, the biggest attraction was splashing their arms in the pool in the Fern House. They held their faces close to a silver gazing ball to see their reflections, and Sarah danced to the tinkling chimes of a vibrating overhead sculpture entitled "Over Lyre."

For children a little older, the plants themselves are the main draw. The "weirdest" plants are in the Cactus House where giant saguaros reach for the glass-domed roof and prostrate tubular cacti squiggle across the rocky ground like prickly worms. See puffy, elongated, branched and bizarre shapes. From a child's level, an arrangement of huge, round cacti look like creatures or pods from outer space. Some of the dullest-looking cacti bloom with bright, luscious blossoms. Notice a huge jade tree started from a cutting in 1916.

The five interlocking "houses," linked by paths, also feature palms, bromeliads and seasonal flowers – this month fuchsias, hydrangeas and some begonias. Fantastical arching orchids, fronted by bright airy wire ferns, attract attention near the entrance, and exotic tropical plants are scattered throughout.

In the Palm House, look up to see a windmill palm with huge fans of leaves, grown from a seedling donated to the Conservatory in 1953. A Giant Bird of Paradise plant grazes the ceiling and has individual leaves as tall as a 7-year-old (no blooms on it yet). The staghorn fern looks like a giant rack of antlers hanging from the rafters. Look for long, fuzzy strings of pink "blossoms" hanging from the appropriately named Chenille Plant.

The Conservatory is a magical place in any weather, but if we get any more wintery days, the 65 to 80 degree temperatures in the different plant rooms are a welcome respite from wind and drizzle.

Also in the park: giant, low-branching "monkey trees" to climb on between the Conservatory and the reflecting pool; Seattle Asian Art Museum (free for children 12 and under; free for all first Thursday of the month); extensive playground; water tower with 106 steps to the observation deck (open to public, no cost).


If You Go

Where: Conservatory at Volunteer Park, 1400 E. Galer St., north Capitol Hill, Seattle.

When: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Monday.

Cost: Free; donations suggested.

Contact: 206-684-4743; or

Wenda Reed is a Seattle-area freelance writer and plant enthusiast.