CEDAR RAPIDS — A fuchsia bougainvillea blooms near banana trees ripe with fruit, while the fragrant scent of gardenias perfume the air.
The tropical ambience isn’t set in the south, but inside the Noelridge Greenhouse, which Sunday celebrates 40 years of providing a colorful, warm respite in northeast Cedar Rapids.
“The building as you see it was here 40 years ago and it’s still here now,” says Kristie Benzine, 47, who started full-time at the greenhouse in 1984 and is one of two staff members, with horticulture specialist Lori Farmer.
The 15,000-square-foot greenhouse — three production houses along with two sections used as the plant conservatory — opened May 13, 1972, with a Mother’s Day open house.
As it has for the last four decades, an open house is scheduled for Mother’s Day – May 13, 2012 – from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Benzine says up to 2,600 people attend the annual Mother’s Day event, with nearly 3,000 at the annual Easter Showcase, a two-day open house.
Noelridge Greenhouse was built in 1970 to 1971, replacing three smaller ones at Bever Park in southeast Cedar Rapids.
Had plans come to fruition, the site would have sported a large exhibition dome, Benzine says, showing architectural designs from 1969.
“So technically, (the building) was never finished,” she says, citing insufficient funding as the likely cause.
Glass in the greenhouse is replaced periodically, a victim of vandalism, hail and heavy snow, but the aluminum structure is the same.
Spectators during early years of the open houses remember Caesar, the macaw who lived at the greenhouse office and was brought into the conservatory for the events.
The blue and gold macaw, donated by a Cedar Rapids doctor, was at the greenhouse almost since its inception, but died in 2004 of natural causes during a routine visit to the veterinarian.
Caesar has been outlived by some of the plants at Noelridge that were moved from the Bever Park greenhouse, including the bougainvillea, a flowering tropical plant that is aggressively trimmed to avoid spreading wildly, and a large jade plant.
Benzine says some of the cacti also are among the oldest plants in the conservatory. Many plants were donated by Cedar Rapids residents and others are purchased to add to the collection.
A new “spaghetti” system allows individual geraniums and cannas to be watered, but otherwise, volunteers water plants by hand.
The volunteers, known as Friends of Noelridge Greenhouses and Gardens, started after the city reorganization in 2007 eliminated many manger positions, including city horticulturist Dale Huddleson, who had worked at the greenhouse since its inception. Full-time staff was cut from three to two, while other duties were added, such as greenhouse classes.
Nearly 40 volunteers now help with the 60,000 or so seedlings and cuttings for the city’s gardens, transplanting and tending the plants at the greenhouse until they go into parks, downtown and outside city buildings.
Volunteer coordinators Bill and Jean Snyder of Cedar Rapids are well-acquainted with the greenhouse.
“We’ve been coming to visit since it opened,” says Bill Snyder, 78, recalling visits to early Mother’s Day open houses with their children and his mother. “In the wintertime it’s nice to be in here when there’s a foot of snow outside.”
The Mother’s Day Showcase at Noelridge Greenhouse celebrates its 40th anniversary from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 13, at the greenhouse, 4900 Council St. NE. Admission is free.
Photos, bed designs, greenhouse plans and other memorabilia will be on display. Visitors can see hundreds of blooming plants, educational exhibits and live butterflies by ButterFliz of Iowa.
Hanging baskets, books about nature and gardening, honey, greeting cards and handcrafted jewelry will be available for sale.
Call the Noelridge Greenhouse, 286-5762, for more information.
For more photos, see: www.TheGazette.com/Life