Nestled in the heart of Biltmore’s landscape is a secret garden. Well, maybe not “secret” since it’s contained in the Conservatory, which sparkles as the centerpiece of the Walled Garden.
But it can certainly be considered an “overlooked” garden, because so many guests walk or drive past it without ever opening its lovely arched doors.
When you do venture inside, you are transported to another world—a tropical jungle of ferns, palm trees, and exotic blooms that rivals any South Beach hotspot. No matter the weather, the climate indoors welcomes you with a heady perfume that combines fragrant flowers and damp earth to create a treat for your senses.
The transition is quite deliberate, and is based upon George Vanderbilt’s original vision for the Conservatory. In the late 1800s, vast glass structures like Biltmore’s Conservatory were the ultimate statement of luxurious living, exhibiting hundreds of blooming flowers, exotic plants, and delicate orchids in abundance.
At the turn of the 19th century, gardening was widely viewed as a healing pastime as well as an opportunity to showcase collections of rare and unique plants. A generation of wealthy collectors dotted the nation with lavish conservatories inspired by similar structures found on Europe estates, including Longwood Conservatory in Pennsylvania and Lyndhurst Conservatory in New York.
While serious gardeners were determined to provide optimal growing conditions for their plants, many owners chose to entertain friends and family amid giant palms and luscious orchids, A few commissioned plant hunters to travel the world’s most remote locations to seek out rare specimens.
Archival records indicate George Vanderbilt furnished his Conservatory in a more typical manner—by ordering plants from nurseries around the country. A report in the 1894 issue of American Gardening titled “George W. Vanderbilt’s Palms” mentions he fitted out his new conservatory with some of the largest palms under cultivation in the country. The collection included 15 tree ferns imported from Australia years earlier and described the “long dark green leaves of the finest specimens reach twenty feet into the air.” Additional plants included sago palms and several “immense Palmetto palms from South Carolina.”
Today, the Conservatory continues to bring a taste of the tropics to western North Carolina despite winter’s chill. To help Mother Nature, our gardeners have coaxed spring bulbs into early bloom. Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths brighten the central Palm House and the Cool House now, with Asiatic and oriental lilies adding their intoxicating scent in mid-April. The Cool House also hosts plants who call the subtropics home, including Australian tree ferns like the ones Vanderbilt obtained (although not the same plants), accompanied by banana trees and the evocatively-named Lollipop plants and Shrimp plants.
In the Hot House, you’ll find plants that originate in tropical climes and are familiar as houseplants, such as the philodendron and colocasia (or elephant ear)—but in larger sizes than you’d ever typically see. Among the canopy of foliage, be sure to look for the large Mexican breadfruit.
The orchids are mesmerizing this time of year, brightening even the dreariest of days with amazing colors and forms. The Orchid Room is filled with blooms both recognizable and unusual, from the corsage and lady slipper varieties to more rare examples.
“The lady slipper orchids have lips that look like shoes,” said Marc Burchette, who tends the collection. “We also have small yellow-flowered dancing lady orchids.”
Less common varieties include a large orchid species from Southeast Asia with clusters of red and yellow flowers on a long pendant, and a particularly fragrant orchid with crystalline green blooms from Papua New Guinea
Exotic blooms aside, you really can’t miss the most dramatic plants in the Conservatory, since they are right in front of you! As you enter the Palm House, where the glass roof rises 38 feet high, the towering specimens of Madagascar palm, Bottle palm, and Bismarck Fan palm create a tropical escape in the middle of winter.