All aboard. This trip offers some Zen and a little paradise, or two.
You don’t need a passport to get there. We’re talking St. Paul. Como Park, specifically the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Gardens and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. Zen and paradise — that’s what it’s like at Como Park during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Japanese Gardens are so Zen that you’ll crave a serene cup of jasmine tea. The conservatory will transport you to that tropical vacation you missed out on — and that sweet wedding ceremony that got postponed.
Going to these Como institutions during the pandemic is remarkably different from doing so in normal times: peaceful, uncrowded, unhurried, though not selfie-free.
New rules exist. Reservations are required. So are masks. The number of visitors is limited per half-hour. Everyone walks the paths in the same direction. Sure, you can step back to visit something you missed; no one is going to ticket you for going the wrong way on a one-way trail.
The order adds to the enjoyment. It is quiet enough to hear birds chirp and call. You have time to chat up the knowledgeable staffers. You could even stop and smell the roses, if there were some.
Forest of fronds
Everyone starts at the same place inside the glorious 105-year-old conservatory structure — the Fern Room. This might prompt some folks to flash back to the late ’70s and early ’80s when fern bars were the rage among the yuppie set. Como’s eternally verdant Fern Room overwhelms with its dense forest of fronds. At least there are no Tiffany lamps.
Next comes a quick trip to the succulent section of the Palm Dome. Check out the bromeliads — spiky pink, gorgeous blades of green with fuchsia trim, one that looks like scrambled eggs on a poinsettia doily (ask a botanist if you want the proper name of this flower).
Before you know it, you’ve entered the North Garden, aka the supply room. Plants that lead to food, pharmaceuticals, spices and products such as rope can be found here. As you stroll, labels alert you to the botanical sources of coffee beans, bananas, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, allspice, sugar cane, chocolate and hemp. Also hunt for flowers, including vivid orange birds of paradise.
The trail winds back to the Palm Dome’s exquisite Orchid House, where the species on display occasionally change. There are the familiar peace lilies and one flower that, upon close examination, looks like it has a space alien inside.
Some of the palm trees look equally exotic, though less creepy. Many could pass for organic mixed-media works of art — part fiber, part fabric and part steroidal pine cones, though there are certainly botanical terms for these plant parts. Be sure to gaze skyward to peruse these richly textured trees.
You return to Minnesota at the next stop, Como’s iconic Sunken Garden, the site of many a wedding and popular flower shows. Each year, this garden presents five separate seasonal exhibits (“holiday” is a season, doncha know, for a multicolored poinsettia show). Flowers are frequently replaced so each show always looks fresh and fabulous.
No matter what the staffers plant, the colors are invariably vibrant and the panorama picturesque. Which is to say this is the big-time selfie spot.
Strike a pose. Perhaps you want the shot to include the sculpture in the water — she’s officially known as “Play Days.”
Kids will be transfixed by the koi — those ornamental carp that look like giant goldfish — swimming around Harriet Frishmuth’s 1925 bronze sculpture of a young woman.
During the pandemic, you will appreciate the relative peacefulness of the Sunken Garden. Yes, it’s relative. In pre-COVID times, this room was usually crawling with camera-toting visitors — or packed with relatives and friends for weddings.
Time to return briefly to the paradise that is the Palm Dome — remember to look skyward to appreciate the palms — before arriving at Ordway Gardens, aka the bonsai collection.
Whether you’re inside or outdoors, it’s easy to marvel up close at these decades-old miniature trees. Buddhist Pine. Royal Frost Birch. Weeping Fig. Bonsai is Japanese for “planted in a container” because the tree roots are pruned to stunt the growth, and the branches are constantly trimmed. Talk about a dedicated gardener.
Now that you’re outside, saunter over to the Japanese Gardens. Go somewhere you’ve never gone before. There’s a new, paved path that takes you behind the tea house. This route enables everyone to go in the same direction. Some paths are blocked off. But you still get to walk on water — well, across a stream on huge stones. Kids love doing this. So, too, adults.
If you’re tired at this point, plop down on a massive rock. Then peer out at the lush greenery, the soothing stream and mini-waterfall. When was the last time you felt so chill in the Twin Cities?
The last stop at the Como Conservatory is more of a free-for-all, with no required path or directional arrows to guide you. It’s the outdoor Lily Pond.
The large round leaves look like State Fair spin-a-paints done in burgundy and emerald. The lilies themselves look like explosions from a Crayola box. Rich rose, salmon pink, luscious lavender. There are even purple-and-gold lilies for Vikings fans, and maroon-and-gold-surrounded-by-white ones for Gophers aficionados accustomed to ever-changing uniforms.
The cost of this trip? It’s always free, though donations are welcomed. During the pandemic, the experience is priceless.