Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory goes quirky to attract visitors

EDMONTON – This isn’t your grandmother’s flower garden.

Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory, an architectural gem consisting of four giant, shimmering glass pyramids, is home to just over 800 species of plants from around the world.

Pink camellia and purple rhododendron, towering ginkgos and banana trees, even an endangered Wollemi pine, grow along narrow walking paths and wooden footbridges that cross ponds filled with fish and water lilies.

The Muttart may be a plant nerd’s paradise, but it’s also become a bit of a tourist hot spot.

Where else could you find people — young and old — lining up to see a single flower?

Staff horticulturist Gerard Amerongen recalls the record 8,800 visitors who showed up over just one week in April. The big draw: an Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as the corpse flower.

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The tropical plant, found in the wild in Sumatra, Indonesia, can take several years to bloom and, if it does, it’s both beautiful and nasty. Its large purple flower emits a putrid odour like rotting meat.

Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory goes quirky to attract visitors - image

The Muttart’s corpse flower was the first to bloom in Western Canada. So when word spread over social media that its flower was starting to open and would only last a few days, the hype and excitement that followed was the plant equivalent to the birth of a royal baby.

People were lined up across the parking lot and many had to be turned away, says Amerongen. “We have never, ever had these numbers through the doors.”

Last fall, another attraction — a 35-year-old Agave americana — sprouted a flower spike nine metres tall, nearly reaching the inside apex of one of the glass pyramids. Visitors had only a few months to see it. The desert plant blooms just once before it dies.

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Amerongen says the attention both plants received shows that people want the unusual and extraordinary.

That’s why the conservatory is now trying to acquire its new big thing: an amazon water lily, or Victoria amazonica. The plant’s leaf pad can grow up to three metres across and is strong enough to hold a small child.

It’s an amazing specimen, says Amerongen.

“This is the direction that we really need to go to get the public interested more in the place. Because it’s very clear — this is what the public wants to see.”

The Muttart has been an iconic landmark for Alberta’s capital city since it opened in 1976. Back then, the structure cost $2 million to build. Another $6 million went into renovating the facility in 2009.

Three of the pyramids contain plants from different zones around the world. There’s the jungle-like tropical section, a favourite hide-out when the thermometer dives outside during Prairie winters. Inside, it’s always a steady and muggy 20 C.

There’s also the dry, arid desert room, jokingly referred to by staff as “the house that bites back” because of its prickly cacti. Then there’s the temperate zone, which transports visitors to the sunny coast of British Columbia and the southern United States.

The fourth pyramid contains something new every month or two, based on a theme or changing season. The “Sword in the Stone” exhibit, evoking the fantasy land of King Arthur and Merlin the wizard, is running through Sept. 22 with bright-coloured New Guinea impatiens, celosia, dahlias and fuchsias. Hundreds of red and white poinsettias fill the space each December for Christmas.

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Besides sights and smells, the conservatory also offers a place where visitors can take their taste buds on tour.

One of the best restaurants in the city, Culina, opened a new location in the Muttart’s cafe space a few years ago. Open for weekday lunches, weekend brunches and three-course dinners every Thursday, the kitchen serves up mouth-watering dishes such as bulgogi-braised pulled pork with green onion cakes and perogies smothered with sweet pickled onions and dill sour cream.


If You Go…

The Muttart Conservatory is open every day and each Thursday night year-round — except Christmas Day.

Guided tours are available on weekends.

Admission is $12 for adults, $10.60 for seniors and youth and $6.50 for children two to 12.

The conservatory’s greenhouses also offer a public bedding plant sale each May.

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