New England's largest indoor public display garden has opened in a historic park, and officials expect it to become a regional center for learning about plants as well as a top attraction for visitors.
The glass-walled Roger Williams Park Botanical Center, which opened March 2, offers a tropical garden, an orchid garden, and a Mediterranean room with a collection of citrus trees. Fountains and ponds dot the landscape.
But its real draw on a day when cold rain was flooding the streets of Providence was the lush green and warm interior, filled with fragrant and unusual plants.
"It's plush. It's beautiful," said Susan Ainsworth of South Kingstown, a retired school teacher. "It's lovely to be in here on this otherwise dreary day."
Her friend, Karen Asher, the president of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, described herself as "plant-obsessed."
"It's fun to see all these tropical plants," Asher said. "It's like this little fantasy land in here. You could pretend you're in Hawaii."
The center has 12,000 square feet of space and rotating horticultural displays. The plants are in two glass structures connected by an enclosed hallway. The collection includes 40-year-old cacti, a fragrant jasmine plant and a bog that contains carnivorous plants, such as pitcher plants, some with 6-inch long "pitchers" to trap prey.
"There is one so big that it can trap and consume a rat," said Jo-Ann Bouley, educational program manager at the center.
Roger Williams Park, named for the city's 17th-century founder, also has a zoo and a carousel on its 430 acres. The landscaped Victorian-era park already attracts more than 2 million visitors a year, and Providence Mayor David Cicilline said in a statement that he expects the new botanical center will become a destination on its own and "attract visitors to Providence from throughout the Northeast."
The botanical center also has two classrooms and will offer gardening and composting classes provided by the University of Rhode Island.
The project cost $7.7 million to build, and was funded by state, federal and city government, as well as a $1 million grant from the Champlin Foundations. Keith Lang, executive director of the independent foundation, said it adds to the green space at the park and bolsters its educational offerings.
"I think the thing that really attracted us was the educational component," he said. "This was an aesthetically pleasant place to be. But at the same time, it was going to involve a lot of people in getting to know the environment."
Allison Barrett, a science teacher at the Lincoln School in Providence, came with her 5-year-old grandson Wilson Jensen. "I was thinking next fall, I'd bring my students," she said.
An educator and artist, Raffini (who goes by just one name), said she also planned to bring her students here as they learn about plants and launch a project to plant a garden they can use to grow their own food. But she said she also wants to come on her own.
"I'm loving it. I'm loving all the tropical plants," she said. "We can come here and chill out."