I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never been to a conservatory in my life before last Sunday.
See, I was the kid in grade school (not to mention preschool, middle school, high school and college) who snored through the dull and dragging tours about the historical significance of cotton gins, cattle prods, telegraphs and butterfly havens. I love butterflies as much as the next guy, but unless they're deadly poisonous or big enough for me to ride on, they're not all that interesting to me.
Thus, you can plainly see why I might have an aversion to a place known as a "conservatory." After all, plants don't move (most of them, anyway). They don't growl or mate or wear capes and climb buildings. But my environmentally inclined girlfriend desperately wanted to go, and I, unfortunately, have a soft spot for my girlfriend's unbridled desperation, so off we went to Garfield Park Conservatory.
The first thing you should know about the conservatory is that it's free, which is very cool because I'm poor. I find that the more gratis activities I take part in, the more money I have at the end of the week to purchase breadcrumbs and sausage logs (my favorite meal ever). The next thing you should know is that the Garfield Park Conservatory, despite my almost insurmountable skepticism, is also cool. The oversize greenhouse has numerous rooms, all of which are separated by appropriately labeled doors. Case in point:
The Palm House: The first room you'll come across, it—according to the sign up front—resembles a rainforest as much as anything in the middle of the third largest U.S. city can. Based on my vast knowledge of the "Indiana Jones" series and the first "Predator" movie, I concur wholeheartedly. Enormous, exotic palm trees (decked out with sometimes human-sized palms) cover and conceal almost every inch of the large space. Just like a rainforest, this room is hot, hot, hot—not to mention more moist than a moist towelette. Can you feel the love tonight? Yes, we can, Elton John. Yes, we can.
The Sweet House: Sweet House isn't just a name. Here you'll find all the plants that make eating fun, like sugar, chocolate, cinnamon, bubble gum (?!), orange, pineapple, mango, vanilla and banana plants. Honestly, it was all I could do to stop myself from reaching out and grabbing all the conservatory contraband I could fit inside my pockets. But somehow I managed to restrain myself, and now, in addition to being fruitless, I'm covered in bites from all the really annoying gnats flying around the room. I can't blame them, though. They probably smelled my awesome cologne.
The Desert House: Walking into the Desert House is like walking from night into day. Where once everything was green and wet, so colorful your eyes could barely stand to look, in the Desert House everything is yellow and dry, and colors are muted, faded and worn. That doesn't make it any less cool to look at, though. I've never been to a desert, so this was a great substitute. As you might expect, the plant life here is made up mostly of cacti, those prickly bastards that are sort of green and covered in painful-to-the-touch, mini-daggers of thorn. Ouch, says the guy who couldn't help but touch one, A.K.A. yours truly.
The Show House: It's easy to figure out how the Show House received its moniker: It's covered in some of the most beautiful flowers you'll ever see in your life. It looks like someone's really impressive garden, with stone pathways and mini, man-made ponds on either side. It's beautiful and something worth "showing," but in the end, it's just a garden.
The Fern House: The Fern House is cool because apparently it shows you what Chicago would have looked like millions of years ago, before all the skyscrapers and Mayor Daleys and Apple stores. The ferns, lush trappings amid swamp-like overgrowth, encircle you as if to devour you whole.
The Children's Garden: This is where all the children go to learn more about what it is they're looking at. It's also where all the children (among whom I count myself) go to slide down the twisty slide.
Guidebook rating: Try as I might not to have fun, I have to admit, I really enjoyed myself. The Garfield Park Conservatory is at once beautiful, fascinating and educational; I know that sounds crazy, but it's true! It's like Mario World without the power-ups or Where the Wild Things Are without the monsters. Only it's real. You can touch it. You can experience everything—the gorgeous flowers, the towering plants, the smells, the textures, the gnat bites. It's like a dream come true—the dream of going somewhere exotic and new, abnormal and interesting—and it's only nine miles from my apartment. Whoopdee-freaking-doo, I hear you say? Yes, I say in return, except less sarcastically, and more like Sean Connery in the rainforest-set "Medicine Man" movie. Go and see for yourself. You might be surprised at what you find.
I know I was.
Stats: Garfield Park Conservatory is open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. Admission and parking are free. It's located directly across from the Green Line Conservatory L stop.