Oak Park Conservatory: Visit the Mediterranean, Tropics, and Desert in a Matter of Minutes

BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND

A beautiful oasis overlooks Interstate 290—one of Chicagoland’s busiest, and most irritating-to-travel-on, highways. But unlike many urban oases, you won’t be able to get a greasy bag of fries or play that kids claw machine game, where you can never snatch the good prize before time expires. Instead you’ll encounter a destination filled with nature that offers beauty and opportunities for contemplation in an increasingly ugly and chaotic world. Oak Park Conservatory (615 Garfield Street, Oak Park, IL 60304) is a wonderful place in any season but especially in the winter when the snow piles up, the dibs-ing reaches insane proportions, and memories of summer are distant.

My wife, son, and I visited the conservatory a few weeks ago and felt our power packs immediately recharge because:

  • The temperature was 35 degrees warmer inside than outside
  • There were lush ecosystems that are currently just an outdoor dream in wintertime Chicagoland
  • Colorful parrots said hello and goodbye to us
  • There were beautiful ponds filled with fish
  • We had the places to ourselves during 90 percent of our visit   

There are three main conservatory showrooms:

The Mediterranean Room features plants from the coasts of California, the western cape of South Africa, central Chile, and areas in western and southern Australia.

In the Tropical Room, you’ll see banana and papaya trees, cycads (which predate the time of dinosaurs), large fig trees, giant anthurium, dracaenas, ferns, spider plants, peperomia, and many other beautiful plant species.

In the Desert Room, you’ll see common types of cacti such as cereus, optunia and pereskia; succulents such as crassula, haworthia, kalanchoe, and gasteria; century plants; and bug-eating plants such as venus fly traps, sun dews, and pitcher plants.

Outdoors, you’ll find the Elsie Jacobsen Discovery Garden & Rubinstein Garden, which I look forward to seeing during warmer weather on our next visit.

Before visiting the Oak Park Conservatory (OPC), we spent several hours at the Garfield Park Conservatory (GPC). My 11-year-old son’s energy was flagging after our visit to the steamy and sprawling GPC. But I convinced him to check out the OPC (yes, it took a little bribery, but I’m not above a bribe if it gets my son to experience more nature and fewer 1s and 0s on the computer). My son loved the Oak Park Conservatory—especially the parakeets, the koi, cacti, papayas and lemons hanging from trees, and the machine in the lobby that etched a memory of the day on a shiny penny that a kind OPC employee gave to him. The conservatory also sells a small selection of plants and gardening gear. My son picked out a beautiful cactus for $5, and I was able to find a gift for my mom for Valentine’s Day.  A visit to Oak Park Conservatory was not an epic 5-mile hike in the woods, but it was a wonderful adventure because:  

Fun was had.
Memories were made.
Plans were hatched to return to the conservatory.
Our home plant collection grew larger.
And I was able to spend time with my family on a wintry day in Chicagoland. 

Sometimes, life is most rewarding when is at its simplest.

Facts and Final Thoughts

Admission is free, but visitors are encouraged to make a donation to support the great work of the conservatory.

Click here for a facility map.

The conservatory—which is owned and operated by the Park District of Oak Park—is open Tuesday-Sunday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays

The conservatory is closed New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day (closes at 12 p.m. Christmas Eve).

Annual events at the conservatory include a Spring Plant Sale, Fall Fest, and KidsFest.

Hands-on workshops, lectures, children’s programs, and camps are available.

The facility is available for rent for birthday parties, weddings, and corporate events.

The Oak Park Conservatory is accessible via public transportation (buses and Blue Line). Click here for more information.

I recommend pairing a visit to Oak Park Conservatory with the much-larger Garfield Park Conservatory, which is about 5 miles east of the OPC.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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Looking for some great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. The book has 306 pages and 210+ photos and is only $18.99. Click here to purchase the book.

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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES

I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job OpeningsNontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDsThey Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titlesThey Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.

In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering CareersWhat Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).

My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.

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