Phipps Conservatory opens exhibit featuring the Congo
If you’re searching for a warm, exotic haven from Pittsburgh winter, look no further: This past weekend, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens said goodbye to its exhibit featuring Indian flora, and welcomed in its place the tropical forests of the Congo. Though the plants were truly phenomenal, they are not the number one highlight. The true star of the show is really the ingenious display of humans’ interactions with nature in the Congo. The signs explaining the surroundings that line the pathways through the exhibit highlight all the ways that the plants of the Congo are necessary for the survival of the indigenous people. They emphasize that to these tribes; trees, bushes, and flowers are not just decoration; they are food, shelter, medicine, and tools. Educational stations along the way offer hands-on demonstrations showing how useful these plants can be. A market full of coffee, peanuts, plums, and other goods explains how their diets are almost entirely dependent on what grows around them. Further down the path, visitors find an interactive exhibit showcasing two examples of typical shelters built from plants by the indigenous people. There, a volunteer points to a vine looped around the plant canopy. She explains that the people of the Baka tribe crush up the vine so that when they dip it in the water, it releases a chemical then prevents fish from absorbing any oxygen. They float to the top and dinner is served.
The volunteer also explained that the entire exhibit — the product of years of research — came together in just a week. This room in Phipps Conservatory rotates exhibits only once every four years so that the rest of the time can be spent preparing for the next one. Years of studying both people and plants led up to a trip to Cameroon where Curator of Horticulture Ben Dunigan and Exhibit Coordinator Jordyn Melino spent time learning about the area. It was important for the accuracy of the exhibit that both Dunigan and Melino developed an intimate understanding of the region’s plant life and people. They then amassed seeds and plants from nurseries all over the country, and even some from Nigeria, to complete the collection of plants to display. Finally, teams spent the past week bringing it all together.
Phipps celebrated the opening with an array of activities and shows that accommodated visitors of all ages and interests. There were children in strollers, older people using walkers, and every age group in between. Every hour brought new fun including a drum show, a discussion on herbal medicine, and dance performances. Some attractions were available all throughout the day. There were masks to decorate, plants to pot, and food to sample, including some citrus water, coffee, bites of pineapple, and — the star — an authentic African Jambalaya. But you don’t need all the activities to appreciate the beauty of the exhibit. The next time you’re desperate to escape the tundra that is Pittsburgh in the winter, take a trip to Phipps — admission is free for Carnegie Mellon students — and treat yourself to an afternoon in the Congo.