Icy beauty: Exploring Seattle’s gardens in winter

Winter freezes the pond in the Woodland Garden at the Washington Arboretum, Seattle.
Winter freezes the pond in the Woodland Garden at the Washington Arboretum, Seattle. rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we love our gardens. But what to do when it’s freezing outside and nothing’s in bloom? Head to Seattle, where Madison Valley and Capitol Hill are home to two outdoor gardens, an indoor conservatory and some plant-filled cafes that’ll give you a nature fix even in the dead of winter — and warm you up as well.

Winter Garden, Washington Arboretum

It’s called the winter garden for a reason. Just a short walk behind the visitor center in this vast Seattle park is a circular glade deliberately planted to look best in cold weather with vibrant berries, blossoms, bark or stems. Stands of lime-green willow shine against black mondo grass, while pink heather and orange “Midwinter Fire” dogwood frame an expanse of frost-tinged grass. Witch hazel blooms shyly from fuzzy buds, wintersweet bursts from lemony bolls, and barberries open into a shower of pink, all highlighted perfectly against dark, bare branches.

Winter’s the time to notice texture and pattern on tree trunks, like the wiggly green etchings on the Manchurian snakebark maple, or the red ruffles on a Japanese Stewartia. It lets you catch a sunrise without having to get up at 5 a.m. — find the grove of paperbark maples and Chinese red birch and watch the flaking bark turn orange-gold backlit by the sun.

If you’re lucky, it’ll freeze, and the tranquil pond in the nearby Woodland Garden will spread into a mosaic of ice, leaves and chilly water.

Where: Lake Washington Boulevard, Seattle, park at visitor center and walk west.

When: Dawn-dusk daily.

Cost: Free.

Tips: Grab a map at the visitor center or print one from the website. If you have a smartphone, the interactive plant map can identify every plant with a link to an image; find it at bit.ly/2knWEWr.

Information: bit.ly/2kJkOMg

Café Flora

After wandering the arboretum, you’ll want to warm up. Just along Madison Street from the entrance is Café Flora, possibly Seattle’s best vegetarian brunch spot and definitely the best café in the city for indoor plants. One room has a fountain and two trees underneath a skylight; the other has big windows lined with a veritable conservatory of exotic houseplants from leopard-leaf orchids to bizarre, accordion-like succulents. Tillandsia (airplants) in glass bowls decorate each table, and the drinks match, like blood orange and Douglas fir fizz, sweetly citrusy with a fir sprig on top.

The food isn’t just vegetarian — it’s inventive, fresh and delicious. Fluffy pancakes come with a subtle “milk-and-honey” crème fraiche and to-die-for grapefruit coulis. The huevos rancheros has enormous blue tortilla chips and an Indian vibe. The squash scramble mixes up tofu with a masala of earthy, spicy flavor.

Where: 2901 E. Madison St., Seattle.

When: Breakfast-brunch 9 a.m.-2 p.m., lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays only, dinner 5-9 p.m. (til 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays).

Cost: $$

Tips: Weekend brunch gets busy, and parties of fewer than six can’t book ahead. The rush gets better after 1 p.m. You can order drinks from the bar while you’re waiting, and there’s a toddler spot with books and toys.

Information: 206-325-9100, cafeflora.com.

City People’s Garden Store

Inspired yet? One block from Café Flora, you’ll find another urban Seattle gem: the City People’s Garden Store, recently saved from closing and full of gorgeous, affordable outdoor and indoor plants for city dwellers. This is a fine time to see what’s looking good now for your own winter garden and to get practical advice.

February workshops include growing houseplants, fruit trees, seed starts and jump-starting spring in your own garden.

Where: 2939 E. Madison St., Seattle.

When: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Information: 206-324-0737, citypeoples.com/gardenstore.

Volunteer Park Conservatory

After brunch, head up John Street through Capitol Hill straight to 15th Avenue East and turn right to reach Volunteer Park. The park gives fine views of Seattle (and this winter, a frozen-over reservoir) but the Victorian conservatory is a winter gem. Peaceful, heated and lush, it gives you five cozy rooms of plants to explore: the central Palm House with tall palms, tree ferns, frangipani and enormous monstera leaves; a fern and bromeliad room bursting with pink, red and white flowers; a cooler succulent room with an iron “tree” sprouting the biggest tillandsia you’ve ever seen; a seasonal display room and, at the east end, the cactus house. Barrel cactus, saguaro, frilled fan euphorbia looking like a squished caterpillar, bulb-bottomed miniature trees — it’s a tiny desert landscape with sun pouring through those glass panes to make you think you’re in Arizona.

You can pick up a small piece of this paradise in the gift shop, where they sell succulents, exotics and locally made ceramics to put them in, all to benefit the nonprofit conservatory.

Where: 1400 E. Galer St., Seattle.

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Cost: $4 adult,; $2 ages 13-17, free for 12 and younger.

Tips: Parking inside Volunteer Park is easier on weekdays.

Information: volunteerparkconservatory.org.

Streissguth Gardens

It’s like a fairy tale — a set of steps tucked away off 10th Avenue East that lead through a tunnel of greenery into a hillside garden. The Streissguth Gardens have been around for 20 years, the two-decade gift of a nature-loving Seattle couple who bought neighboring property on an über-developed slope and preserved it as a garden forever. Occupying one acre and 50 vertical feet, the garden created and donated to the city of Seattle by Dan and Ann Streissguth flows like a tranquil oasis off the 293-step Blaine Street stairs. It’s beautiful even in winter.

Tall brown yarrow stalks, twisty red madrona trunks and pink heather frame the steps, popular with joggers. Leaf-mulched paths meander around the hillside between tall maples and a trellis of bare vines. Red skimmia japonica berries and rosehips peep out between rhododendrons. Through the trees you can look up to Bishop’s House, looming imposingly like a castle on a hilltop.

Oh, and there’s a stunning view of Lake Union and the Olympics, kept public forever thanks to the Streissguths’ generosity.

Where: Enter from 10th Avenue East at East Blaine Street, Seattle.

When: Dawn-dusk daily.

Cost: Free.

Tips: Read the history and print out a map from the website. Keep walking down the Blaine Street steps to Colonnade Park under Interstate 5 on Lakeview Boulevard East, then back up the Howe Street steps (one block north) for a long workout walk.

Information: streissguthgardens.com.

Volunteer Park Café

Just two blocks east of Volunteer Park, and a 10-minute walk from the conservatory, is a tiny café hidden among the stately Capitol Hill homes. The Volunteer Park Café isn’t in the park, but brings a little outdoor nature inside with branch decorations hanging above the long central wooden table and a country vibe.

They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, with fresh, fluffy quiches, wholesome soups, crunchy salads and big cookies in jars. It fills quickly at lunch, even on weekdays.

Where: 1501 17th Ave., Seattle.

When: 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Cost: $

Information: 206-328-3155, alwaysfreshgoodness.com.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti