Life in the greenhouse

Tacoma’s 105-year-old W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory might be tightening its budget but the beauty and rarity of its plants never changes

Staff writerFebruary 6, 2013 

The W.W. Seymour Conservatory is closed Mondays. But peek through those 105-year-old glass walls in the middle of Tacoma’s Wright Park and you’ll see plenty of activity amid the palms, orchids and succulents.

Monday’s the day when lead horticulturist Tyra Shenaurlt and her team get down to the job of everyday gardening — pruning, repotting, cleaning — as well as planning how to bring their lush beauties to another generation of Tacomans without breaking the bank.

“We’re trying to build more connections,” said Shenaurlt as she helped load in trays of just-opening tulips and primroses for the spring display next week. Highly floral with azalea standards bursting pink all over and rows of red cyclamen, the show’s called “Crave: An Early Glimpse of Spring,” and fills the historic conservatory with the floral eye-candy folks are dreaming of after a long winter.

But it also marks something quite new for the Seymour: an admission charge for floral events.

Built in 1908 with a gift from William W. Seymour, a banker and businessman who served as president of the Metropolitan Park Board, the conservatory is one of only three Victorian conservatories on the West Coast. It started off as a palm house – and the oldest plant still living there is a queen sago palm, standing directly under the canopied dome. It has added other tropicals in a warmer section, a succulent bed, orchids, and statues and a koi pond in the 1950s.

Every year another 10-15 plants are added. But the Victorian architecture hasn’t changed in more than 100 years — and that’s part of the problem Shenaurlt and her colleagues face as 21st-century conservators.

“Yes, the bills get high,” said manager Mary Anderson in a dry voice. “Up to $1,200 a month in winter. Single-pane glass doesn’t hold in the heat.”

Then there’s staff: Shenaurlt, plus a number of part-time workers. But the big budget item was the floral events.

Since the 1940s the Seymour has offered extravagant flower displays in its entryway, rotating them every month in the past few years. Propagated at Metro Parks’ Point Defiance greenhouse, the flowers were visually stunning — but expensive. And so this month the Seymour is moving to a new program of four six-week displays per year, and for the first time, charging admission for them. Admission outside of floral events will remain free, with a suggested $5 donation.

“It’s a test,” said Anderson, “to offset the costs.”

There still is going to be a lot of free stuff at the conservatory. As well as caring for plants, Shenaurlt’s job is to find ways of enticing people in to see them, and she’s expanded the programming beyond the monthly Sunday concerts and storytimes to bi-monthly meditations she leads herself, and education events that connect the community to the plants themselves, such as the April show “Tasty Tropicals,” featuring coffee, cocoa, pomegranate, cashew, fig, passion fruit and banana plants brought in specially, with tastings.

But the main attraction at the Seymour — the nuts and bolts of Shenaurlt’s job — is the permanent collection. From the tiny, veiny-leafed sensitive plant covering the floor to the vertical buttons of creeping fig, from the squat succulents to the towering allspice tree, the Seymour has a wealth of plant history that’s a gift for all Tacomans.

“It’s like a living museum,” Shenaurlt said, fingering a trailing orchid. She hasn’t counted them, but she estimates there are around 300 plants in the building.

And there are definite favorites, both for her and for visitors. One of them is the ice-cream bean tree or Inga edulis, planted as a head-high sapling in 2004 and which now requires Shenaurlt to climb a 12-foot ladder with a chain saw every few months for pruning so it doesn’t graze the glass canopy.

“It makes pods, which if you cut them open have a paste inside that’s supposed to taste like vanilla ice cream,” she said.

Another edible is the ponderosa lemon hybrid right by the front door. You can see instantly why it’s nicknamed ‘five-pound lemon’: The fruit sway heavily, as big as papayas. Occasionally the staff will split one open — “Some taste okay, some don’t,” grimaced Shenaurlt – and plant the seeds to sell as baby lemon trees in the gift shop.

Then there’s the Brazilian grape tree on the other side of the door — Myrciaria caulifloria — which grows its fruit clusters right off the branch, and the big-leafed amorphophallus, the infamous corpse-flower plant, donated four years ago. It flowers every seven years with a stunning, stinky blossom, and Shenaurlt is looking forward to it.

“We’ll make a big production, people will be lining up to smell it,” she said gleefully.

Other favorites include the rare Deppea splendens: a Mexican shrub with prickly, oval-shaped leaves and a dangling orange-and-pink bloom that’s extinct in the wild, and an enormous staghorn fern, 30 years old and as dramatic as a Chihuly chandelier. There’s a coffee plant, and the one visitors ask most about – Nepenthes ventricosa, the Seymour’s only carnivorous plant. Trailing around the back door it sprouts bulbous, pitcher-shaped growths that drown gullible insects. Shenaurlt would love to have others, like the Venus fly-trap, but keeping them safe from probing visitor fingers is difficult. And the Seymour’s 61- to 68-degree temperature isn’t quite hot enough for them.

Like any gardener, Shenaurlt’s always dealing with problems. One daily task is vacuuming up flying mealybugs, which love to suck on the queen sago and Deppea splendens. Occasionally they’ll get a fly problem, like the time a rat died and couldn’t be located. And the pitcher plant is curling its leaves, and possibly needs a repot.

She learns things, too: Today she watches as volunteer orchidist Dino Macioci repots an orchid so it hangs upside down.

“It was trying to grow that way. That’s how it’s supposed to,” he said.

Dealing with bugs and budget shortfalls is just part of how Shenaurlt and Anderson need to bring the conservatory into its next 100 years. They dream of expansion, of double-paned glass and on-site restrooms. Shenaurlt would love to complete and computerize the labeling system so that questions about plant species, age and provenance can be instantly answered.

But for now, offering a lush, exotic environment to Tacomans and visitors is what Shenaurlt loves most about working at the Seymour.

“The thing that makes me really happy is when people first walk in. They take a deep breath, they relax instantly, they take in the smells. I love watching that.”

If You Go

The W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory

Where: 316 S. G St., Tacoma.

When: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Admission: Free, there is a $5 suggested donation; Grand Floral Display entry is $3 and free for 12 and younger.

Also: Make the most of your visit by borrowing a guidebook from the gift shop.

Information: 253-591-5330, conservatory.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@

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