Stepping inside the Tropical Dome at the Mitchell Park Domes feels a lot like stepping into another world. In an instant, you leave the Midwest behind and venture into a tropical jungle, filled with rich fragrances, humid air, the sounds of a waterfall and tropical birds. This oasis hits temperatures in the 90s during the summer and stays a balmy 70-80 degrees all winter long. Though this jungle may seem like a magical place untouched by human interference, there’s actually a lot of tender loving care needed to keep the tropical dome lush and vibrant. And much of that care comes from the “queen of the tropical dome,” Mary Braunreiter.
How does one become a horticulturist at the Domes? Mary studied landscape horticulture at MATC, then started work at a nursery. From there, she spent 14 years at Boerner Botanical Gardens before coming to the Domes, where she’s worked for 8 years.
Not many Midwestern horticulturists have a background in tropical plants, so Mary does a lot of her own research when it comes to taking care of all her leafy charges. The Tropical Dome mimics a tropical environment as best as it can, but the dome includes plants from all around the world. Tropical Africa is not the same as tropical South America, so experimentation and individual care are crucial to make sure this diverse assortment of plants can thrive in the same ecosystem. Every plant has its own requirements for sun, soil type, fertilization, irrigation, and more. All of the plants in the Tropical Dome are watered by hand every other day – a process that takes around 6 hours.
As a horticulturist at the Domes, Mary’s main day-to-day duties are watering and pruning the plants, planting new plants, cleaning up fallen leaves, and doing research. There’s always something new to learn – it wasn’t until putting fruit at the base of the cacao tree for a dart frog who had decided to take up residency there that Mary discovered the fruit flies helped to pollinate the tree, leading to more pods.
Maintaining the Tropical Dome includes a lot of hands-on work. Though some of the plants (like the cacao) manage on their own, Mary hand-pollinates several of the Dome’s residents, including the starfruit and vanilla. The kigelia, fondly known as the “sausage tree” because of its long, sausage-shaped fruit, has to be cross-pollinated with a different tree. When the kigelia is in bloom, the Domes trades blossoms with Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago so we can all enjoy the sausage tree – now that’s interstate teamwork! Most of the new tropical plants that come to the Domes are mail-ordered, so they need to be raised in the greenhouse until they’re big enough to be transferred to the Tropical Dome. Because the dome is 85 feet tall at its peak, it can accommodate larger plants than many other conservatories.
While all the plants require individual care, the orchids might be the trickiest. None of the orchids you see in the Tropical Dome are permanent residents – orchids need moving air to avoid fungal infection, and the air in the dome is too still for them. Instead, orchids are tended to in a dedicated room with fans and misters, and brought into the dome when they’re in bloom so visitors can admire them.
Caring for the plants and creatures of the Tropical Dome is a labor of love. “I have the best job in the city,” Mary says. “I drive to Hawaii every morning.” Surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of a tropical paradise just outside downtown Milwaukee, it’s hard to disagree.