Under the protection of a pavilion in the Chinese Garden in Louise McKinney Park, I shook the chill from my body and the tiny droplets of drizzle from my inadequate jacket. It was October in Edmonton, Alberta, and weather predictions had proven to be woefully inaccurate, nearly two dozen degrees colder than what I was prepared for.
As I began to mentally cancel outdoor plans for the day, I contemplated indoor alternatives. I found an answer staring directly at me. On the opposite bank of the North Saskatchewan River, a cluster of five glass pyramids of different sizes stood out among the surrounding greenery, even on this cold, sunless day. At night, these pyramids of Muttart Conservatory are illuminated, like five triangular beacons. During the day, they promise a warm interior for anyone visiting North America’s northernmost city with a population of more than one million. That was incentive enough.
The middle pyramid, the smallest of the group by far, serves as a skylight over the main lobby. From this central hub, you branch out to each of the four other pyramids via short, subtly lit corridors. Each one houses flora from a different biome, totaling more than 700 species in the entire collection.
I began to thaw out in the Temperate Pyramid — one of the two largest pyramids — where I strolled around plants native to Alberta, shrubs found in Australia, eucalyptus trees, a Chinese dawn redwood and a stream that feeds into a bog. The warm and humid air of the other large pyramid, the Tropical Pyramid, was a pleasure to my chilled skin. The center of the pyramid is dominated by a waterfall dropping into a pool inhabited by koi, goldfish, and water lilies. The path around it showcases everything from palm trees and banana plants to birds of paradise and white peace lilies.
The steaminess of the Tropical Pyramid is a direct contrast to the dry heat of the Arid Pyramid. Plants from five continents intermingle with clay pots and terra cotta vases, giving the exhibition a pronounced Southwestern flair. Cacti of all shapes and sizes — eye’s pin, prickly pear, columnar, and the deceptively fuzzy-looking golden barrel — stand beside moonstones, agave plants, and woolly roses.
The Feature Pyramid is the question mark of the group. Several times every year, the staff completely revamps the display, keeping Muttart fresh for repeat visitors. While I enjoyed the blazing colors of the autumnal heleniums and chrysanthemums, I was sure that the spring riot of tulips and the summer explosion of roses and begonias would be just as pleasant.
Muttart’s exhibit is fairly small — I had absorbed it all in about an hour. It’s also a popular place for weddings, and as groomsmen in tuxedos began to arrive for a couple’s pending nuptials, it was time for me to leave, but not before I stopped in the cafeteria for a quick lunch of hot soup and a sandwich with salads and herbs that were grown in Muttart’s greenhouses — probably the shortest farm-to-table route you’re ever likely to experience.