Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Strolling through most any part of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is apt to inspire thoughts of finally planting those bulbs, but it's the Fruit and Spice Room in the South Conservatory that's likeliest to make you hungry.

The small room is crammed with delicious things you'd want to eat and smell -- you'll find growing avocados, cinnamon, sugar cane, macadamia nuts, papaya, mangoes and, if you're lucky, indoor display foreman Curt Pesanka to explain why the bananas are the most interesting plants in the room.

In a word: parthenogenetics.

The huge herbs -- bananas don't grow on trees -- can fertilize themselves without the aid of a male flower. At the moment, the dwarf Jamaica Red plant is in blossom, with a giant brownish cone hanging down from the midst of what will eventually ripen into orange-fleshed bananas.

The plants came from a garden where Pesanka worked previously in Florida. Like the hosta plants long shared among neighbors, banana rhizomes can be divided and will grow back -- in this case, from a foot-high piece into their current 15-foot grandeur, and in only about 8 months.

Not all the other tropical plants in the room will bloom and fruit, though, because true tropicals get a minimum of 12 hours of sunlight each day and are never exposed to temperatures below 60 degrees -- conditions that could be replicated, but aren't at Phipps because it would be unnatural.

Some do fine, though. There are kumquats ripening, and a huge, thick-rinded pomelo hangs heavy from its tree. There are also giant lemons -- citrus ponderosa -- on a tree hiding behind the others. The huge lemons aren't seen commercially much, because the smaller and more prolific Meyer lemon dominates the market.

"We've made lemonade in-house," Pesanka says. "You couldn't taste the difference."

Tasting, of course, is strongly discouraged among visitors. It's easy to see how a person might be tempted, for example, by the ripe starfruit hanging tantalizingly near the center of the room. On Tropical Sundays, when the conservatory has tastings of fruit from around the world, sometimes the Fruit and Spice Room will contribute a few pieces.

Whether you like orchids or daisies, bonsai or cacti, it's a pretty safe bet you enjoy eating -- so check out the Fruit and Spice Room.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden, One Schenley Park, Oakland. $9 ($8 students/seniors; $6 for ages 2-18). 412-622-6914 or

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