The ornate glass structure of Rawlings Conservatory in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park is a breathtaking sight. Its striking Victorian architecture beckons the curious to come explore the treasures inside its transparent walls. In the early 1900s, these types of glass house structures filled with exotic flora were popular as public attractions. As they went out of fashion or were destroyed, Rawlings remains as one of the oldest in the country. Some of this antiquated charm remains preserved within the glass of the original 1888 structure and in the three newer additions that were seamlessly integrated in a later renovation. This is a special place and it is obvious that it is well cared for. Many people have championed its cause over the years to keep it open for the enjoyment and education of Baltimoreans.
Broken up into four main sections, the the Conservatory takes you from the Mediterranean, through the tropics, a detour in the desert and finishes off with the impressive Palm House. The Tropical House manages to trigger multiple senses all at once the moment you walk though its doors. Blasts of steamy mist rained down over the lush jungle setting, which was thick with glistening green leaves and punctuated by flaming torches of bromeliads and upright stalks of yellow Heliconia. This was the most immersive section of the greenhouse, with dense foliage hung over sections of the walkway and the mist was so thick I had to hide my camera under my shirt between pictures.
With its expressive arrangements of cactus and other succulents, the Desert House had the most personality and each unique plant along its winding stone path is deserving of attention. A tangled mass of light green stalks studded with threatening spikes jabbing out at all angles caught my attention right away, appropriately referred to as a crucifixion thorn plant. After spending a lot of time exploring California’s gardens I have a new appreciation for dessert-dwelling plants such as aloe and agave and loved seeing all of the different varieties on display here.
Its 175 windows and ornate rooftop give the exterior of the Palm House a commanding presence, but there are some impressive plants inside that will not be overshadowed by architecture. As I entered I was greeted with palm fronds in every size and shape coming at me from all directions. Vast trunks shoot up from the floor or languidly curve up and across the space leading the eye ever upward with them. I was quite taken by the Fiji Fan Palm in one corner displaying layer after layer of fanned-out fronds from its scraggly-looking trunk. Serving as the entry to the Palm House, the Orchid Room holds a modest collection of gorgeous flowers but they are almost overlooked by their awkward placement and distracting backdrop.
Final Rating: Located in the middle of a public park, Rawlings Conservatory remains true to the original purpose of these elaborate nineteenth-century glass houses, to exhibit exotic plants from all over the world in an engaging environment. From the countless volunteers that keep it running to all of the interaction with the community around it, this place feels like a well-kept and treasured part of the city rather than just another tourist attraction. All of my expectations were surpassed with this hidden gem of a garden well worth a day trip from DC and an enticing start to my explorations of Baltimore’s various botanical offerings. THREE BLOOM RATING