Writer | Julie Ford

Visit the Tropics in Michigan

After months of wintry weather, there’s a longing to ditch the coats and smell the warming earth. Flying south isn’t the only option. Around Michigan, there are conservatories, butterfly houses and an aviary that can transport visitors from gray days and slush to palm trees as quickly as walking across a parking lot. Plus, there are unique ways to get your hands in the dirt well before the calendar says it’s time.

Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory

Grand Rapids, meijergardens.org

Waterfalls, streams, and tropical plants from all over the world — more than 500 species, are on display at the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory. There’s a large section of jaw-dropping orchids, tropical birds freely milling about, several cacao trees that naturally grow within 10 degrees of the equator, and many other tropical trees and plants to delight all ages.  

Fred & Dorothy Fichter Butterflies Are Blooming

March 1 – April 30, meijergardens.org

The Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory displays the largest tropical butterfly exhibition in the U.S. each March through April. Flying freely throughout the conservatory, the Fred & Dorothy Fichter Butterflies Are Blooming event imports thousands of chrysalises from Africa, Asia and South and Central America. Walk among the brilliant flying colors of swallowtails  longwings, and brush-footed butterflies and watch butterflies emerge from their cocoons at the Observation Station. 

Hidden Lake Gardens Plant Conservatory

Tipton, canr.msu.edu

Just west of Tecumseh is the quaint town of Tipton, where Michigan State University’s Hidden Lake Gardens has 755 acres of arboretum, gardens, a visitor center and a conservatory. The conservatory is home to a wide variety of tropical and arid plants and flowering houseplants. The grounds are rich in history and include 12 miles of hiking trails.

Conservatory Greenhouse at Cranbrook

Bloomfield Hills, housegardens.cranbrook.edu

Originally attached to Cranbrook House was the first greenhouse at Cranbrook in 1908. Replaced in 1910 and destroyed by fire in 1920, it wasn’t until 1950 that the current Conservatory Greenhouse was rebuilt. Beautiful orchids, tropical succulents and interesting varieties of bromeliads and begonias plus a propagation room fill the structure.

Conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Ann Arbor, mbgna.umich.edu

Erected in 1964, the rare structure with no supporting columns contains three houses, each representing unique climate zones: tropical, arid and temperate. In the tropical house, the oldest plants are from 1910. Visitors can observe the sausage tree, tulip tree, cacao and banana trees, orchids, bromeliads and much more. The arid house is filled with strange and spiny, dry, hot weather plants. In late winter to early spring, many of the succulent plants are flowering. The temperate house includes date palm, fig, olive and papyrus. There is also a display of carnivorous plants in the bog planter. 

Fernwood Botanical Gardens

Niles, fernwoodbotanical.org

Within the Mary Plym Visitors Center of the Fernwood Botanical Gardens is a small but fanciful fern conservatory. Just 1,000 square feet of space houses a cascading waterfall and more than 100 species of temperate ferns and tropical plants. Children will especially delight in the trains that run both overhead and at ground level in the conservatory. 

Matilda R. Wilson Free-Flight Aviary, Detroit Zoo

Royal Oak, detroitzoo.org

Nearing 100 years, the Matilda R. Wilson Free-Flight Aviary at the Detroit Zoo invites visitors into its warm climate with lush tropical plants and more than 20 species of birds. No two visits to the aviary are the same as the birds may play hide-and-seek one day, and boldly walk down the center of the path the next. If you happen to visit when the keeper staff is enticing the more secretive birds with treats, feel free to ask questions — staff are dedicated to helping guests enjoy their aviary experience.

Butterfly Garden, Detroit Zoo

Royal Oak, detroitzoo.org

The year-round Butterfly Garden is located within the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery and houses approximately 25 species of free-flying butterflies. Hundreds of butterflies can be observed in the balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit indoor garden. Visitors can also reserve spots for Breakfast with the Butterflies and enjoy a continental breakfast during a 90-minute program to learn all about the fanciful flyers.

Dow Gardens Conservatory

Midland, dowgardens.org

A major renovation of Dow Gardens Conservatory was recently completed in 2022. In addition to hundreds of tropical plants, there is a new water feature that moves water throughout the  conservatory in nine different ways. Visitors can enjoy the warmth of the lush environment while observing water-living plants, vines, small trees and flowers. There is a new section dedicated to butterfly and chrysalis displays where the long-awaited return of Butterflies in Bloom is scheduled for March 3-April 16, 2023.

Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

Belle Isle Park, Detroit, belleisleconservancy.org

The most notable conservatory in Michigan is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, built between 1902 and 1904 and the oldest continually running conservatory in the U.S. Originally built of wood, the steel and glass structure is divided into five distinct areas: Palm House, Cactus House, Fernery, Tropical House and Show House. In order to keep the conservatory open for another century, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory will undergo a $10 million renovation and is now closed until May 2024. The outdoor gardens reopen in May 2023.

If you still need a “hands in the earth” fix before the garden thaws, contact your local gardening center where many around the state offer fun and interesting classes beginning as early as February. Ask for a tour if your favorite garden center is a producer of plants for the retail market. You just might have the opportunity to see and smell the earthiness of rows and rows of annuals well before they are available to the public. 

Conservatories with their warm, inviting climates are the perfect way to spend an afternoon in a verdant landscape. They are typically peaceful, meditative, colorful and interesting with areas specifically designed for sitting and observing. Over the next few months, when the desire for warm air, fragrant flowers, and maybe a butterfly landing on your shoulder comes to mind, head to a Michigan conservatory and bask for a few hours in the tropics.