Belle Isle Conservatory is a botanical treasure in Detroit

BelleIsleConsv Journal

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory at Belle Isle park was one of the first things Lisa Steinkopf’s husband took her to see when she moved to Detroit 30 years ago, and it has remained  a key destination for Steinkopf and her family.

The Belle Isle Conservatory, as it’s commonly known locally, is the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States.

Built in 1904, the conservatory is part of Belle Isle, a 985-acre island park situated on the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. Belle Isle also includes an aquarium, zoo, golf range, yacht club and more.

“It’s a beautiful place,” Steinkopf said. “And you can see Canada across the river.”

A horticultural gem

Spider Lily

Steinkopf is an avowed plant-lover. She has a thousand house plants in her Detroit home, and writes and speaks about her horticultural projects via her website,

The conservatory has fascinated her since the first time she saw it, and today she is an active volunteer there, leading school groups on tours that introduce them to exotic plants they’d never otherwise see in Michigan while also fitting into the curriculum for the state’s standardized tests. The field trips are made possible by a grant from the GM Foundation and the Detroit Grand Prix.

Steinkopf has been excited about recent new energy at Belle Isle, ever since the Michigan Department of Natural Resources took over management of the island and made it a state park in 2013.

The state has been investing lots of money into maintenance, cleaning and renovations to put a new shine on a park that has been a centerpiece of the Motor City since the nineteenth century. The park is managed in partnership with the nonprofit Belle Isle Conservancy.

Over a century of history

The city of Detroit purchased Belle Isle in 1879, and hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed American landscape architect known most prominently for New York City’s Central Park, to plan a public park there.

Many of the most popular elements of the park today—including the conservatory and the Belle Isle aquarium—were not part of Olmsted’s plan. The conservatory and aquarium were designed by Albert Kahn, often referred to as “the architect of Detroit.”

The conservatory has five sections: the Show House, Palm House, Tropical House, Cactus House and Fernery.

Steinkopf said it’s a favorite destination for her family. In the winter the warmth of a building full of tropical plants is a welcome escape from the region’s frigid weather.

Learning opportunities abound

Chocolate Tree

Chocolate tree seeds in fruit pod

The tropical plants the conservatory houses are vastly different from the area’s native flora.

A coffee tree and chocolate tree offer the chance to talk to schoolchildren and other groups about where some of the foods their families purchase in the supermarkets originate, and how they are made.

“We can talk about how many cocoa beans it takes to make a chocolate bar and how many trees there must be in the world to supply Americans with chocolate,” Steinkopf said.

The 85-foot-tall Palm House makes a stunning presentation. Palms must be removed from the conservatory when they reach its full height, as they can no longer be pruned. One palm has already been removed, according to the Belle Isle Conservancy.

Connecting with a new generation

As the state Department of Natural Resources and the Conservancy have worked together to make repairs and enhance the horticultural environment in the conservatory, volunteers have been working to label the plants with Plants Map’s interactive plant signs.

Steinkopf says she’s noticed that a younger contingent is starting to enjoy the facility, a hip crowd of 35-and-unders.

“They are so interested in plants, and they all have their smartphones with them,” she said.

Belle Isle PlantsSteinkopf had heard of Plants Map through the #gardenchat Twitter group, so when the conservatory’s management started looking for QR-code-enabled plant tags, she was ready with the suggestion.

She is particularly excited that the new tags will enable visitors to see a plant at different cycles of its life, like, for example, an iris, which right now just looks like a stand of grass.

“If you scan the tag with your phone, you are going to see that it has a gorgeous flower when it’s in bloom and hopefully that will make you want to come back,” she said. Because in a 112-year-old glass castle filled with plants, there is always something new to see.

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