Guide To The Beautiful Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh's Botanical Garden Jewel
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
the "crystal palace" that is Phipps Conservatory
Set in beautiful Schenley Park in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood, Phipps Conservatory is a beautiful and tranquil botanical garden. It's definitely one of Pittsburgh's most beautiful and must see sites, with staggeringly lush floral collections, glass art, and themed exhibits.
Opened in 1893, Phipps Conservatory was created by philanthropist and Carnegie Steel co-founder Henry W. Phipps. He sought to create a source of learning and enjoyment for the citizens of Pittsburgh. Phipps was a botany enthusiastic who gifted his creation to the city.
Phipps Conservatory is one of the few remaining public gardens that still produces full scale season flower shows year round. The glass, stone, and steel building is dubbed the "crystal palace." Glass panes cover nearly 100% of the facade.
the whimsical water fountain in the Phipps' Victoria Room
the Japanese Courtyard
the Aquatic Garden at Phipps
Things To Know Before Visiting Phipps Conservatory
If you're on a budget, the outdoor gardens are completely free. On one side (toward the University of Pittsburgh campus), you'll find an enchanted garden with all manner of perennials, trees, ferns, and a pond. On the other side, opposite the main entrance, you'll find the aquatic garden, filled with water lilies and guarded by a Neptune statue.
Inside, the Victorian greenhouse has a wide ranging collection of 14 indoor gardens. The well manicured exhibits range from miniature orchids to massive palm trees, with astonishing attention to detail in each room.
In addition to the permanent displays, Phipps has temporary exhibits celebrating each season. This makes Phipps a great place for repeat visits.
I recently visited for Fall Flower Show, which was titled The Poetry of Nature. It featured an extravagant showing of mums (13 types), asters, coleus, hydrangea, willows, and other glowing plants. Having been dazzled by that, I will definitely return for the Winter Flower Show at Christmas.
the Chihuly glass chandelier in the lobby of Phipps -- Goldenrod, Teal and Citron Chandelier
Tour and Highlights of Phipps Conservatory
You enter the crystal palace and are greeted by a gorgeous pendant glass chandelier, Goldenrod, Teal and Citron, in the lobby. It was crafted by renowned Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly.
In fact, there quite a few of his pieces in the museum, beautifully tucked among the plants. They almost seem alive with their sinuous lines. The forms and colors of the glass imitate, and blissfully coexist, with the plant growth.
When you enter the building, there's a map showing all the main rooms. There's also signage in each room explaining what's there. You can follow the designated path throughout the exhibit rooms, constantly moving to the right, or do your own thing.
the Palm Court
Each room has a theme dedicated to a region or specific type of plant. All the rooms are incredible, but these were my favorites.
You start your visit in the famed Palm Court, which serves as the grand entrance to the rest of the indoor displays. This historic glass house features many different species of palm trees, with the sun casting a beautiful light on the plants. It also boasts two beautiful Chihuly sculptures, Paintbrushes and Maccia Bowls.
One of my favorite rooms was the Frank Sarris Orchid Room, containing a magnificent array of beautiful orchids in different shades. You'll also find the renowned Barbara Tisherman Slipper Orchid Collection. The rare lady slipper orchid is known for its unique bottom petal that resembles miniature footwear.
Chihuly's Macchia Bowls in the Palm Court
Lady Slipper orchid
The Sunken Garden Room is truly peaceful. You almost wish you could sit down and read a book there. For the Fall Flower Show, there were velvety purple Mexican sage bushes everywhere.
In the Serpentine Room, you'll find a delightful collection of bonsai plants, some 40-60 years old. Bonsai means "tray planting" in Japanese. I especially liked the slanted bonsai that resembled wind swept trees. You'll also find silverberries, weeping figs, natal plums, and chinese elm.
In the Desert Room, the collection focuses on hot desert plants of the world. If you go gaga for agave or are a sucker for succulents, this room's for you.
There's a beautiful Joshua Tree native to the Mojave Desert, saguaros, palo verde, fire barrels, aloe, and agave. The largest was an absolutely massive century plant. The room is crowned with a spectacular yellow Chihuly chandelier, called Desert Gold Star.
slanting Bonsai plant in the Serpentine Room
fire barrel cactus in the Desert Room
Century plant in the Desert Room
Chihuly chandelier called Desert Gold Star in the Desert Room
The Native Plants Room had scorchingly beautiful purple asters on display. I also saw purple hyssop, purple skullcaps, bearberry, and bayberry.
The Broderie Room is also quite beautiful as well, featuring formal French Louis XIV style gardens. It's known as the Parterre de Broderie, which translates to "embroidery of the earth." This romantic room is a popular setting for weddings in Pittsburgh.
This year, the room was filled with gorgeous shades of pink and purple mums and asters. At the back of the Broderie Room are four bronze statues, created by Edmond Amateis and gifted to Phipps by the Mellon Estate.
asters and mums in the Broderie Room
bronze sculptures in the Broderie Room, created by Edmond Amateis
a blue heron made of plant materials in the East Room
One of the most stunning gardens is the Tropical Forest Conservatory. It's quite grand (60 feet tall), topped with a crystal dome and set out in winding pathways. There are also hanging lights, waterfalls, a treehouse, a gazebo, and a fish pond.
This room features a different region of the world every three years. On this visit, the focus was on Cuba. Cuba's ecosystems are thriving right now, likely from a lack of tourism. Many scientists want to do research in Cuba because of its biodiversity and unspoiled wild places.
The Fruits and Spices Room showcases exotic varieties. Among other things, you'll find bright red miracle fruit, prickly lychees, prickly apple, and dragon fruit. This room also has a lovely Chihuly piece called Celadon and Gilded Royal Purple Fiori.
The Outdoor and Discovery Gardens are a peaceful haven. There are towering English oaks and beech trees. The borders were lined with huge hydrangeas. Bush clover nestled in the rocks. And tall willows wafted in the breeze.
butterfly sculpture in the Outdoor Gardens
The Phipps campus also houses some of the most energy efficient environments in the world. Its Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) is the first and only building to achieve four of the highest green building certifications.
Phipps’ newest addition, the green Exhibit Staging Center (ESC), generates its own energy. It repurposes a former public works facility to be net-positive energy and net-zero water. This is where Phipps creates its props and staging displays. You can see future flower shows in the making.
Phipps also has a lovely gift shop with books, plant related items, home decor pieces, and a children's section. The Phipps Cafe is touted as one of the best museum cafes in the United States, serving up local organic foods. And, indeed, I had a delicious mediterranean chicken wrap to conclude my visit.
Dale Chihuly, Celadon and Gilded Royal Purple Fiori, 2007 -- in the Tropical Fruit and Spice Room
Dale Chihuly, Cattails, 2007 -- at the entrance to the Serpentine Room
Dale Chihuly, Paintbrushes, 2007 -- in the Palm Court
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Phipps Conservatory