Phipps Conservatory creates ‘arctic adventure’ for annual winter flower show and light garden


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Phipps Conservatory decorated for its Winter Flower Show and Light Garden.

By Maya Valletta, Staff Writer

Warm, humid air greets guests as Phipps Conservatory opens its doors for this year’s Winter Flower Show and Light Garden. Animal displays, 15 acres of lights and plants brighten up the dark, cold night. With this year’s arctic adventure theme, many rooms feature topiary winter animals which are made of natural materials like dry grasses and mosses. 

The attraction is open from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Nov. 18 through Jan. 8. Free for Pitt students with their student ID, the extensive displays of lights and flowers make for a fun holiday escape from finals. Non-students and non-Phipps members must purchase tickets on the Phipps website.

Joe Reed, senior director of communications at Phipps, highlighted the exotic plants and characters that make the visit an immersive and festive experience. 

“Our Palm Court has an amazing display of topiary reindeer which look as if they are meeting in a forest clearing,” Reed said. 

Laura Schoch, senior plant procurer and recording and design associate, said the conservatory’s Victoria room is one of this year’s highlights and a guest favorite. 

Phipps Conservatory decorated for its Winter Flower Show and Light Garden. (Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer)

“The Victoria pond features a bowhead whale that’s just phenomenal,” Schoch said. “It has glaciers and it’s illuminated at night, so it’s just spectacular at night. It’s like a whole different show than what it is during the day.” 

Another highlight of the show is the extravagant amaryllises, orchids and more than 1,600 poinsettias. The conservatory presents 19 varieties of poinsettias in classic and atypical colors. 

“We have a new one called green envy, and there’s an orange one called orange glow,” Schoch said. “Most people expect a red or a pink or a white. These are very unusual colors.”

The amaryllises are some of the show’s most extravagant flowers and come in red, white and pink. Reed said they are a popular holiday flower. 

“The amaryllis became popular to cultivate in the Victorian era, but has in the last 10 years or so become a popular holiday season flower, both for its color and the fact that it can thrive indoors,” Reed said. 

Schoch said guests have responded well to the plants. 

“They bring a tropical touch that is so nice to see in the winter,” Schoch said. 

The extravagant indoor and outdoor display takes an entire year or more of planning. Schoch said the winter show’s designer, Jordyn Melino, wanted to create a theme that is whimsical and family friendly. “Arctic adventure” captures the playful vision through winter animals and thousands of striking plants. 

Phipps Conservatory decorated for its Winter Flower Show and Light Garden. (Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer)

“Jordyn would go back and start on the drawings and figure out how many plants she needs to make this design come to fruition,” Schoch said. 

Reed said Melino refined the designs over months in coordination with the growing of plants and the creation and manufacture of props. 

The Phipps staff constructs props in the summer and the installation process occurs over a three-week period in November, according to Reed.

“The process culminates in an intensive three-week install in which the entire conservatory shifts from its Fall Flower Show displays to Winter Flower Show displays and the elaborate Winter Light Garden is constructed outdoors,” Reed said. 

The winter light displays continue into Phipps’ outdoor gardens. Schoch said the lights transform the garden at night and create an immersive holiday experience. 

“It’s unique and there’s a lot of lights in a short area,” Schoch said. “It takes our outdoor gardens and transforms them into something that is whimsical and light filled.”

Mother-daughter duo Gina and Meadow, who asked not to include their last names, traveled from Virginia to visit Phipps for the first time and see the holiday displays. Meadow attends West Virginia University and said she found the event on Google. One of their favorite aspects of the conservatory was the snowflake lights hanging in different rooms. 

“There are snowflakes we’ve been looking for in all the rooms. We’re trying to see who can spot the most snowflakes,” Meadow said. “So far we’re tied.” 

They also appreciated the poinsettias and said they have learned a lot from the display plaques that coincide with the plants. Gina said she found the vast amount of plants and displays very impressive.

Phipps Conservatory decorated for its Winter Flower Show and Light Garden. (Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer)

“My first impression was, ‘Oh, wow,’” Gina said. “There’s lots to look at and as soon as I walked in, I found it very soothing.” 

With all the use of lights, Phipps tries to remain environmentally conscious by using all energy-efficient LED lights in its displays, according to Schoch. All electricity is renewable and some is even produced on site according to their website

“At the end of the show, everything will be composted into compost for the next thing we use,” Schoch said. 

Phipps Conservatory decorated for its Winter Flower Show and Light Garden. (Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer)

The winter flower show is Phipps’ biggest display during the year and Pittsburgh’s only winter display conservatory, according to Schoch. A visit to Phipps is a common Pittsburgh holiday tradition for families, and Reed said he enjoys bringing holiday cheer through the show.

“I hope that visitors enjoy rekindling holiday memories but also see some sights that they didn’t expect,” Reed said.