GARFIELD PARK — There’s plenty of flowers to see at the new holiday exhibit at the Garfield Park Conservatory. But the stars of this show are all the things that cannot be seen yet still wield influence over the plants living together under the glass dome.

The Invisible Forces show features the quintessential flowers and trees associated with Christmastime. And while visitors will undoubtedly be captivated by the brilliant red, green and white flowers and foliage, the exhibit also encourages visitors to think about what lies unseen beneath the colorful display — the wind, the sounds, the light, the vibrations and the smells that guide plants as they grow and that frame humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

“There’s a lot of things that plants do and trees do that go unnoticed that people just take for granted,” said Matt Barrett, Deputy Director of Conservatories and curator for the show.

Poinsettias at the Conservatory. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

By shifting focus away from just the visual appeal of the flowers, the showroom becomes an immersive experience for the observer to appreciate with their full range of senses.

Along the middle of the showroom stands a selection of pristine balsam fir trees adorned with warm twinkling lights strung through their branches. The trees fill the room with a powerful smell of pine needles, cedar and Christmas morning, visitors said.

But the intoxicating smell is not meant for human appreciation, it is an invisible force in the lifecycle of the tree.

The show explores how light, sound, wind, vibrations and other invisible forces influence plants. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

“Every time you see a beautiful plant or smell something really good, as nice as it is, it’s not for you,” Barrett said, but rather for bees and other pollinators. “It’s for nature and interacting and procreating.”

Some plants even respond to the vibrations they sense when honeybees are buzzing nearby by producing more sweet nectar to draw them in, Barrett said.

As a tribute to the tremendous impact of wind, sound and vibration on the growth of plants, the atmosphere of the exhibit is embellished by two metal wind chimes dangling from the corners of the room. The chimes create breezy notes that bounce off the glass panes of the Conservatory’s dome and echo into deeper ambient tones.

Wind chimes at the exhibit direct attention to the effects of wind and sound on the growth of plants. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

According to Barrett, wind plays a big role in how and where plants grow in natural and human environments. In open, rural areas and gusty corridors homeowners plant trees to protect their houses from the force of the wind. Plants themselves adapt to wind in nature by growing stronger, more fibrous and more resilient.

“Without wind, plants wouldn’t really be that strong,” Barrett said, adding that the plants grown inside the Conservatory wouldn’t have the same fortitude as a plant exposed to the forces of nature.

“Even from a very young age, as the wind starts to blow, the plant is getting moved back and forth. And so it’s building stronger cells… whereas a plant that’s indoor doesn’t go under any of that stress,” he said.

Invisible Forces opens Friday and runs through Jan. 5, but the showroom has been open for visitors as the exhibit was set up.

One visitor, Anne, was seeing the Conservatory for the first time ever with a group from a senior center in the northwest suburbs. Anne watched as the floriculturists worked on planting the flowers and set up for the show.

“For Christmas, it’s just beautiful. …It’s lovely. And I’m glad we came here,” she said.


Deputy Director of Conservatories Matt Barrett discusses the work behind the scenes to build Invisible Forces.

Video produced by Maia McDonald and Carolyn Chen / The Real Chi

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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