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The Secret Life of the Mitchell Park Domes

An insider's view of the $3.2 million plant collection

Jan. 24, 2017
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Paula Zamiatowski, Amy Thurner, Sandy Folaron

You’ve passed the Domes countless times on the freeway and have pointed them out as landmarks on the horizon. You’ve probably visited them on a field trip as a kid, then returned on your own as an adult.

But how closely have you looked at the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory’s $3.2 million plant collection, or wondered how its small staff keeps the conservatory ready to welcome visitors every day of the year?

A Sense of Pride

Although the public conversation about the Domes’ future is mostly focused on preserving or reimagining the one-of-a-kind structure itself, for the Domes’ staff, it’s all about the plants.

“I have never seen such a dedicated, passionate group,” said Domes Director Sandy Folaron. “Passion for the facility, passion for the legacy here, the passion for the plants and the love of people coming in. There’s nothing better than hearing ‘I love the Domes.’ There’s such a sense of pride that we are able to provide this experience to people.”

Some plants are older than the 50-year-old facility, while others—especially the annuals showcased in the Show Dome—live brief but stunning lives. Many were grown from seeds within the conservatory’s greenhouses, while some were obtained through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) program, which seeks to protect plants and animals from illegal trade and other threats to their survival.

The current plant collection is valued at $3.2 million, although the most-prized plants are located in the Desert Dome, especially the collection from Madagascar, according to Folaron.

“Those plants you’re looking at, some of them are 40 years old,” Folaron said. “You don’t find too many plants in a natural setting that last that long because of weather elements or animals or mankind.”

That the plants within the Domes are thriving—show-stoppers, even—is more remarkable when you realize how difficult it is to maintain them with a small staff. The Domes employs just seven horticulturalists and six part-time seasonal employees to take care of them, from planting seeds to crafting jaw-dropping displays to meticulously maintaining them on a daily basis. For example, each morning a horticulturalist waters by hand with a hose each plant in the Tropical Dome, a task that takes between three and four hours. An automated mister keeps that Dome humid.

The number of horticulturalists has plummeted from a few dozen, Folaron said. The Domes also relies on just a handful of additional employees who keep the facility running, craft artwork and displays, and greet and educate the public.

“We are in love with this collection,” said Paula Zamiatowski, who as the Domes’ educator leads guided tours to almost 8,000 visitors a year, from local K-12 students to Future Farmers of America from neighboring states to college students and horticultural clubs.

Meet the Horticulturalist

The lead horticulturalist is Amy Thurner, a 20-year Parks Department veteran who’d previously worked at the greenhouses on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa, which were demolished as part of the Zoo Interchange reconstruction project. As part of the project, the state Department of Transportation provided $14 million to build six new greenhouses adjacent to the Domes, which grow plants for the facility and Boerner Botanical Garden in Whitnall Park.

Thurner describes her job as like being a chef in a restaurant kitchen who maintains a watchful and critical eye on the plants in her care.

Thurner clearly loves her work and can identify each plant in the conservatory (her favorite is the dragon blood tree in the Desert Dome, native to the Canary Islands, which oozes a blood-red sap and can live more than 1,000 years). But she said these days, thanks to the many ongoing repairs, she’s more likely to be dealing with work orders to maintain the facility than cultivating plants.

“Every day it’s like, how many hurdles can you leap?” she said.

What frustrates Thurner are the Domes themselves. Although the unique beehive-shaped design was revolutionary 50 years ago, the structure itself poses challenges for the plant collection.

“For us, it’s about the plants,” Thurner said. “We realize that the facility is important. But it’s almost like the facility itself is damaging the plants so much that we want a better facility to grow the plants in. It’s a very challenging part of our job.”

The walkways throughout the three Domes are tangled, winding and steep in some places, making it difficult to bring in heavy equipment so workers can reach the plants and the upper reaches of the facility. Visitors in wheelchairs or strollers are challenged to navigate the pathways as well. The root systems of some of the larger plants have broken through the walkways, at points, requiring patching. Leaks plague the facility. Adequate sunlight is always a concern.

In addition, Thurner said, the current heating and cooling system wasn’t specifically tailored for a horticultural conservatory, which means the temperature can fluctuate about 10 degrees.

“It’s not made for growing plants and it’s not conducive to what we are doing here,” Thurner said. “It really affects the plants in a negative way. A lot of times, especially in the Show Dome, trying to preserve that flower, even two degrees matters.

In contrast, the new greenhouses have a state-of-the art system.

“That’s made for a greenhouse environment,” Thurner said. “It controls the heat and the irrigation and the shade cloth and the lighting and everything. One system, for growing plants. Boom.”

Another complication is the facility’s consumption of natural resources—ironic, when you realize that the Domes’ mission is to conserve plant life and educate visitors about the environment. The Domes use City of Milwaukee tap water to water their plants every day. In contrast, the new greenhouses capture and save snow and rainwater, which they use nine months of the year.

“That’s what we should have in the conservatory,” Folaron said. “That facility [the greenhouses] is sustainable, energy efficient and pays for itself.”

The Future

Folaron, Thurner and Zamiatowski have thought long and hard about the future of the Domes. As reported in the Shepherd’s Jan. 12 issue, Folaron would like Milwaukeeans to be open minded about creating a 21st-century conservatory that may not include all three of the beloved but aging Domes. More specifically, she’d like to add a kitchen for special events and revitalize the outdoor gardens to make the conservatory a year-round, interactive destination.

Thurner and Zamiatowski are also open to new ideas, as long as the plants can survive. But all of the options present their own challenges.

“These plants are tough and they can withstand any kind of environment—snow, freezing temperatures—in this [Desert] Dome,” Zamiatowski said. “But what they don’t like is being moved. Some of their roots are so fragile and so sensitive. Moving would be very, very…”

“This Dome would be very scary, very challenging, very irreplaceable,” Thurner said, finishing her colleague’s thought. “Very touch and go. Very hard to do.”

So what happens if they have to move the plants to repair the current Domes or make way for a new facility?

“We’ll do what we can,” Thurner said. “And the rest can’t go. The new Desert Dome would not be of this magnitude. We’d have to start over. And that’s something not everyone is talking about right now.”

In an ideal world, Thurner would love to expand the collection but, overall, she’d like to make the conservatory easy to maintain.

“How can the horticulturalists maintain plants better?” Thurner asked. “Let’s think about that and do that much, much better so that everything is so much healthier.”

Zamiatowski said the Education Center needs a total re-think. The current center only holds about 40, if individuals sit on the floor, and has no windows or access to the outdoors. She sometimes has to hold classes for larger groups in the lobby or split up groups and repeat her tours.

“I want to give anyone who walks through the door the most optimal experience,” Zamiatowski said.

Although staffers are consumed by the Domes’ challenges, the public is still in love with the iconic place. On a recent wintry morning when it was balmy inside the Domes, Thurner stopped to ask a dad and his young daughter, snug in her stroller, about what they like best about their visit.

The little girl’s enthusiastic response: “Everything!”



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