"Think about it. We're in Minnesota. It's snowing," Margaret Yeakel-Twum said the other day from the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, next to the Como Zoo in St. Paul. "And you walk in here and it's 75 degrees. It's green."
And it's right where the Austin, Texas, native wants to be, with precious little evidence that winter is ending on this first day of spring. She really appreciates this carefully tended, warm, humid substitute.
"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have this place to come to everyday," the avowedly non-winter person confesses. "I couldn't make it here."
Yeakel-Twum is one of the horticulturists at the collection of glass-enclosed buildings that make up the conservatory, where the "weather" is almost always tropical.
"There are plants in here that I've seen in Belize, plants in here that I've seen in West Africa," she says. "Anywhere that's near the Equator, that's the kind of conditions we want to have in here."
In the winter, there can be up to a 100-degree temperature difference between the inside and outside of the conservatory's glass domes. Water, not frozen, flows everywhere. Parched winter skin softens with the humidity. Eyeballs exhausted by expanses of white snow and dull winter wear are energized by blooming plants. Frozen noses are jump-started back to life.
"Look at the pinks and the purples and the oranges and the reds," Yeakel-Twum says, surveying the room. "It just makes you mile," she adds, pointing at allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg plants.
There are more than a dozen paid staff and more than 800 volunteers at the conservatory, which is part of the St. Paul city parks system and takes its name from a major benefactor. Yeakel-Twum oversees a collection of plants used for food or medicine. As part of that she began growing a cola tree after finding the seeds for sale in a Twin Cities specialty food store that caters to West African immigrants.
"There's a lot of caffeine in a cola nut, and this is what people unfortunately use when they don't have any food," she says. "They can eat it and they can keep doing. It's that caffeine buzz. This is the cola that is in Coca-Cola."
The story behind the nearby camphor tree shows the resilience of nature and the human spirit.The seeds came from Nagasaki, Japan, St. Paul's sister city, from trees that appeared dead after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city near the end of World War II.
"Those trees looked like charcoal. The next spring the trees sprung back to life," she says. Students gather the seeds and send them to people as a symbol of peace and friendship.
The cacao tree under her care posed a challenge. Yeakel-Twum says her ministrations didn't work: Production of the bean used to make chocolate was a perpetual disappointment. Then, following the advice from an entomologist, she suspended small bags of rotting banana peel as a host for fruit flies she hopes will pollinate the cacao tree.
Some plants pack a punch. A chemical in the curare plant can cause paralysis. The roots of the nearby kava shrub can be used to make a drink that proponents say relieves anxiety. And several of the plants including the ayahausca have attracted the interest of researchers including scientists at the University of Minnesota for their reputed cancer prevention powers.
After an early morning of watering, pruning and cleaning the staff retreats from public view and the main doors are unlocked for a winter-weary public. The Conservatory becomes a tropical retreat, a verdant island to escape, for awhile, the seasonal disappointments on the other side of the glass.
"You can come here for free," she says. "You can sit, and if you came in here during public hours you'd see people drawing and you see little kids just sitting here immersed in the space."
If you go: The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul is open every day of the year. The winter hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And the conservatory's spring flower show begins Saturday and runs through April 28.