words by Alissa Danckaert Skovira, photos by Tessa Skovira
Stepping into Stan Hywet’s Corbin Conservatory always makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland—I’m instantly mesmerized by the beautiful, the weird and the sinister.
Joe Mehalik, manager of the greenhouses, treated me to a private showing of the treasures within the conservatory one cold winter morning, even introducing me to Elvira.
“We call it that because she only seems to call at night,” Joe jokes of the computer system reigning over the complicated ecosystem under glass. Elvira’s alarms will sound if the temperature rises or falls beyond what’s good for the plants. The humidity level must be maintained as well. Most of the tropical plants in the conservatory are extremely picky regarding the conditions under which they choose to thrive.
But due to Joe’s (and Elvira’s) vigilance, thrive they do. Heavily perfumed by citrus blossoms, the sultry air satisfies all that I miss most during Ohio’s long winters.
“We have limes, lemons and orange trees all through here,” Joe says of a row of pots where small trees sport white flowers.
One of my favorites has always been citrus medica—the wonderfully bizarre Buddha’s hand lemon. The skin looks like a lemon, but the fruit is shaped like a hand with long fingers. It reminds me of a small squid in the form of a lemon. I look for one of the fruit, but it hasn’t set yet. The tree is still in bloom, not yet ready to reveal its anomaly.
Another strange and exotic plant is the giant bird of paradise in the central greenhouse. Even after they finish blooming as these have, the flowers dry into shapes that look like tropical birds poking their long necks up out of the foliage for a look around.
Near the birds of paradise is a prehistoric-looking agave plant, which, Joe says can “take up to 100 years to bloom.” Nicknamed the “century plant,” this agave will send up “a 30-foot bloom stalk” when it’s ready. It looks almost like a many-legged sea creature from another world with its thick, bluish green, spiny-edged leaves stretching out.
Also tucked inside the glass house is a chocolate tree.
“This is a real chocolate tree,” Joe tells me. “It’ll make a large pod. To get chocolate you’d roast the big beans in there. It looks like a swollen football shape. The beans are the bitter chocolate—that’s why you’d have to add sugar and butter and all that to make it edible.” Joe touches the leaves, adding, “There’s a white slime that goes around those seeds that’s actually really sweet and good to eat, but the slime can’t be preserved.”
White slime? I admit to Joe that I’d rather wait for the chocolate.
Joe laughs. “I know. When I was in Costa Rica, this guy was like—‘Here, try this.’ But it was like gooey boogers, and I didn’t know if I wanted to try it. But actually, it was very tasty.”
I decide to take his word for it.
Stan Hywet also has a baobab tree that, thanks to Disney, most of us recognize from the movie The Lion King.
“It’s called the upside-down tree because it looks like it’s been planted upside down,” Joe says. “It actually can grow really big. There’s a post office built into one in Africa.”
Many of the plants and trees are either beautiful, bizarre or both, but the Corbin Conservatory also houses some killers. A collection of cacti in the greenhouse intimidate with their long, deadly looking spikes, and when cut, the euphorbia plants drip a milky white substance that is irritating to the skin and eyes at best and poisonous at worst.
The carnivorous collection poses no threat to people, but insects are another story. Nepenthe distillatoria, the pitcher plant, features strange looking leaves that resemble small pitchers. Insects attracted to the nectar in the leaves drown in them and are devoured by the plant.
Even with the carnivorous plants on duty, pests can be a problem in any greenhouse. Joe prefers to add a systemic pest killer to the soil and spray only when absolutely necessary—and never when visitors are present.
Joe also manages the butterfly house, the play garden, the patio, the gate lodge garden, the pots in the courtyard and the culinary garden.
While Stan Hywet prides itself on its historical accuracy, and there are detailed plans of the house and grounds from when the Seiberlings maintained the house and grounds to help this mission, the Corbin Conservatory had few written records.
In many ways, that freed Joe and the staff to create beauty without too many restrictions.
The Conservatory was renovated a decade ago when the potted plants that had been there were swapped out for the current semi-permanent beds and lovely, soothing waterfall. Here I can instantly be transported to the tropics, enveloped by shocking pink camellias, creamy white and fragrant gardenias and scarlet bougainvillea. It’s a feast for the senses.
The estate, including the greenhouse, opens for the season on April 2. While my garden struggles to wake up, the greenhouse will be vibrant and alive. No matter the season, the Corbin Conservatory, with its exquisite, peculiar, and even deadly assortment of greenery, promises wonder. Step inside, and it just gets curiouser and curiouser.
Alissa Danckaert-Skovira teaches writing at Kent State University. She has a background in English and history, and she enjoys anything and everything to do with research and writing. Her interests include historic preservation, politics, gardening, and all things Akron.