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Special Issue: Fall Gardens | ON THE RADAR

A Lush lab for learning

October 06, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

ON the face of it, the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science is merely spectacular, one of perhaps 100 vaulting glasshouses open to the public across the country. But step inside after it opens Friday at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and the munchkin-level potting sinks signal what makes it unique.

This 16,000-square-foot conservatory is, as far as its founders know and as far as the director of the American Assn. of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta knows, the only one in the country dedicated to teaching botany to children.

Ever since their construction became popular in the early 19th century, conservatories have been grown-up places. There were plenty of compelling reasons, not least the shimmering fragility of all that glass. Yet even as glass got tougher, conservatories remained temples to adult interests -- places where the English could attempt to grow bananas, the Dutch lettuce, the Hungarians lemons. Cold climate dwellers the world over, if only for an hour, could stroll among palms, whisper among the orchids.

It took James Folsom, director of the Huntington's botanical gardens, to conceive of a conservatory as welcoming to children as adults. Since 1995, when the Huntington began a $50-million fundraising drive for the gardens, his emphasis has been on education. Last year, as part of what the garden calls its "botanical initiative," Folsom opened the children's garden exploring the themes of water, earth, wind and fire. This year he and project manager Kitty Connolly followed with this $6-million glasshouse. Whereas in Europe and back East, conservatories are designed largely to contain warmth, in arid Southern California their purpose is to capture humidity.

This new conservatory will need plenty of mist. There are eight entrances, including some flowing right in from the children's garden. Kids can come and go as they please, entering through the bog, exiting through the cloud forest, entering through the plant lab, exiting through the rain forest.

As they go they will pass more than 1,000 orchids, fly traps, tupelo trees, oaks, Spanish moss. The cloud forest has, guesses Connolly, 300 bromeliads, "maybe more." In the rotunda, there are palms, ginger and the trees that made the spice trade: cacao, vanilla, cinnamon.

To help understand these plants, and to ensure that Connolly and Folsom packed the lab with stuff that might reasonably be expected to interest a kid, they went to schools and talked plants. "What we learned is that children want to do adult science," says Connolly.

So kids who visit the conservatory won't just read a sign about a pitcher plant, they will be able to test the acidity of the digestive juice that could dissolve a fly. They won't simply be told that bees are drawn to plants for nectar, but will be offered refractometers to measure the sweetness of the sugar.

The exhibits are made possible with a $1.75-million grant from the National Science Foundation. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the way that it is being spent is Folsom's and Connolly's willingness to learn from the children what works and what doesn't.

For the next year, as parents bring kids and use the space as they like, Folsom and Connolly will be watching. Only once they have observed what piques interest and what prompts wide yawns will they be encouraging school groups to visit and introducing more formal teaching programs.

So, kids, if you want to find out what makes a stinky plant stink, now's your chance to get it on the curriculum.

The Huntington is open noon to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission to the conservatory is included in general admission, which is $6 to $15. Children younger than 5 are free. The address is 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Information: (626) 405-2100.

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