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Fruits of this labor: lemons to admire

By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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BOYLSTON — We wouldn’t know it from most grocery bins, but lemons come in many forms and colors. Some look like sunny-skinned goose eggs with tapered ends. Others could pass for grapefruits: greenish softballs with dense, lumpy skin. Still others resemble pale, elongated oranges. For those of us who haven’t visited the estate gardens of Europe or the citrus farms in California and Florida, seeing the variety of fruit dangling from the potted trees in the new Limonaia at Tower Hill Botanic Garden is comparable to a child discovering that dogs come in all shapes and sizes. The world gets a little more interesting.

The Limonaia — Italian for “Lemon House’’ — is a 3,500-square-foot structure sheltering the botanic garden’s collection of lemon and camellia trees during the cold months. It opened in November, completing a complex of three adjoining buildings and a courtyard that transports a slice of ancient Mediterranean culture to this windy hilltop north of Worcester.

The Limonaia forms an ell off the visitors center and faces the Orangerie, an existing ell that houses a collection of orange trees and other subtropical plants. The two citrus shelters face each other across a new brick and flagstone courtyard with a Roman-style pool (it’s even named for the emperor Domitian), in which two bronze turtles spout thin streams of water. This feat, achieved by slightly heating the wa ter, seems like a marvel to visitors after they have crunched their way along the frozen path to the center.

Surrounding Domitian’s Pool is the Winter Garden, another new seasonal attraction that shows off hardier plants. Unlike the brilliant fruits and flowers visible through the glass-walled ells on either side, the trees and shrubs of the Winter Garden were chosen for their ability to thrive in lemon-killing weather, and also for features — intriguing bark, colorful stems, festive seed heads, bright berries, snow-catching foliage — that look especially attractive in the winter. The enclosure formed by the ells and the visitors center shields the space from the most blistering winds.

The plants, which went into the ground in the fall, are overwhelmed by the flat expanse of the pool and the courtyard. A few seasons’ growth will bring them into scale. As spring approaches, however, 7,000 flower bulbs planted underneath will create bursts of bloom, and in summer the gardeners will bring out the potted plantings on the other side of the glass.

Meanwhile, indoors is where the action is. A festival of plant life from just about everywhere but here creates the feeling of landing in a distant country where the motto is “Don’t worry, be happy.’’ Humid air wafts through the wide-open door of the Limonaia, carrying the earthy smell of growing things. Just inside the door, an imposing arrangement features a Meyer lemon tree rising above a classical figure. At the tree’s base grow plants with reddish-brown foliage, deep-pink flowers, and a spray of narrow leaves spilling toward the floor like a waterfall. The colors spark a vivid contrast with the schoolbus-yellow Meyer lemons.

Visitors familiar with the Orangerie will notice that the Limonaia is more sparsely populated with plants than its companion building. “This is intentional,’’ says Michael Arnum, Tower Hill’s marketing and public relations director. “It is a multifunction space. In fact, we had musical entertainment in there for the ‘Holly Days’ events. But we also didn’t want to pack the plants in too much. This gives people room to move about, and the plants room to grow.’’ At various times, he adds, the Limonaia will host temporary plant displays.

The spaciousness around plants — all are in movable tubs — also allows the leggier lemon trees to show off their sculptural form. Handsome wood cathedral arches lend intimacy and warmth to the space, which is flooded with light streaming through large glass panes in the peaked roof. Medium-green conifers with lacy needles line the long wall facing the courtyard, and the opposite wall is decked out with compact fan palms, forming a corridor of contrasting texture. Other arrangements mingle ferns, bougainvillea, camellias, and various kinds of lemon trees. About midway down the room, a feathery acacia tree reaches for the overarching beams. Near the back wall, a tall Ponderosa lemon tree sports softball-sized fruit, which droops from stout branches resembling gnarled fingers. Fragrance wafts from pots of paperwhite narcissus, which are sprinkled abundantly throughout the space.

Tucked throughout this indoor garden is Tower Hill’s collection of camellias, their glossy, deep-green leaves clustered around fat buds. Camellias (here, mostly Camellia japonica), members of the tea family — compatible, of course, with lemons — are too tender to endure northern winters outdoors, but they are the stars of many Southern gardens. In mid-January, the specimens in the Limonaia had already begun to throw out tantalizing blossoms, giving a preview of the profusion to come. Some of these spreading shrubs are thigh-high, others taller, and their flowers already reveal a stunning variety of forms and colors. Most of this show will unfold in February — and after that, it will almost be spring.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at www.regan-brown.com.

If You Go

Tower Hill Botanic Garden
11 French Drive, Boylston
508-869-6111
www.towerhillbg.org
Year-round, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tue-Sun and holiday Mondays. Adults $10, seniors $7, youth ages 6-18 $5, members and children under 6 free.