Warm Up A Cold Winter Day at the Lyman Plant House & Conservatory (MA)

Article by Contributor Bernadette Dostaler

The outside temperature was 22 degrees on a January day in Northampton, Massachusetts but inside the Lyman Plant House and Conservatory on the grounds of Smith College it was a balmy 80 degrees. As we entered the Palm House Conservatory we happily hung our coats, hats, gloves and scarves in the reception area after a pleasant conversation with the receptionist who gave us a quick overview of the facility.  With audio wands in hand we started our Plant House tour. 

Lyman Plant House and Conservatory located on the Smith College campus

First, a thumbnail sketch of the Lyman Conservatory.  It is one of the few functioning 19th century conservatories in the U.S. The main greenhouses were built around 1895 with the conservatory bringing in plants from around the world to New England while sending New England plants out to the world. The Plant House contains over 3,000 species of plants from many families and habitats including tropical, subtropical and desert plants with an emphasis on orchids.


We started our tour in the Succulent House. One side of the house displays succulents from Europe, Asia and Africa with the other side containing plants from North, Central and South America. Take time to find out about the Ponytail Palm, native to the deserts of southern Mexico.

Our next stop was the Show House that displays scented plants. Visitors are free to explore the lovely scent of exotic plants like patchouli, vetiver and olives, as well as citrus fruits and lavender.

The Fern House displays some of the oldest species of plants on earth.  Various ferns from those that form trunks, others that grow on vines fill the room. A Wardian case, an early form of terrarium, is tucked between the ferns.

One of the highlights of the conservatory is the Palm House. Paths disappear into the lush tropical greenery. Look for the cacao (chocolate plant) and the banana tree among others.

Tea Plant found in the Cool Temperature House

The Cool Temperate House contains subtropical plants. The room is divided into 4 regions: Asia, Latin America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  Mixed among the tea, coffee and fig plants is a waterfall with a Buddha statue and benches makes this a calm and peaceful area.

The Stove House (originally heated by a wood stove) houses colorful orchids, bromeliads and epiphytes. A central water tank contains rice and papyrus plants and decorative water features.

Stove House

Stop in the Warm Temperate House to view the bright begonias and citruses before heading down the lovely Camellia Corridor. January and February are peak time to visit this area to view the beautiful Camellia Japonica in bloom in all its lovely shades of pink and red.

Outside the conservatory, the Smith College campus is in essence a garden and arboretum. The Frederick Law Olmsted firm was hired to design the botanic garden and arboretum. Smith College grounds also include a pond with a walking path and a Japanese Garden with views of Mount Tom in Holyoke off in the distance.

Smith College is in the center of the western Massachusetts city of Northampton, which has many shops and restaurants along Main Street.  Our lunch choice was Local Burger a casual, family run place that serves flame grilled hamburgers, french fries, milkshakes and other sides from locally sourced ingredients.

Lyman Plant House Hours: Daily 8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.  Closed Thanksgiving Day and Winter Break: Christmas thru New Year’s. Please note the Lyman Plant House is a beautifully maintained conservatory.  All plants are labeled and obviously great care is taken. Kudos to the staff and volunteers.

In addition to Camellias in Bloom, the Lyman Plant House has a spring Bulb Show in March and a fall Chrysanthemum Show in November.

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