Rare and diverse plants open doors to learning

A wild garden display surrounding a Japanese torii gate greets visitors to the mysterious glass house set back from 30th Street across from Scott Carpenter Park. Inside, the rooms are filled with a diverse array of plants, from orchids and cacti to medicinals and succulents. Some plants sport fanciful names like ‘Big Yellow Moon,’ ‘Little Warty’ and Dracula bella.

Some plants are showy, like the vanilla orchid laden with 50 pale blooms or the large rhododendron bedecked in flamboyant orange flowers. Some are rare like the Helminthostachys fern collected in Malaysia. There’s even a large collection of medicinal plants, including valerian, gingko, turmeric and the cinchona shrub, from which quinine is derived.

“It’s so much more informative and relevant when a student can see and handle a live plant as opposed to only looking at pictures in a book,” said Tom Lemieux, whose career as a horticulturist spans four decades. 

As director of plant science facilities, Lemieux manages the three greenhouses maintained by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and, along with Assistant Greenhouse Manager Janice Harvey, is responsible for the health and well being of more than 6,000 plants of 1,000 different species.

Alisa Nguyen, a senior majoring in sociology, has been a work-study student at the greenhouse since her sophomore year.

“When I saw all the plants, I knew I wanted to work here,” she said. “It’s surprising how different each plant is. I assumed all plants needed water at the same time, but I’ve learned how careful you have to be to not over water. I’m not usually a morning person, but I look forward to coming here.”

There are two horticultural facilities on the main campus that belong to the department—near Macky Auditorium and on the rooftop of Ramaley Hall. But the largest and most conspicuous greenhouse is on east campus.  The prized plant collection is used for research, teaching undergraduates and graduate classes, and engaging the community.

Lemieux realizes that for today’s young people a familial and cultural lineage to gardening and to horticulture is disappearing. One counter to the lack of nature in children’s lives is the tours he gives to elementary and high school students who are old enough to appreciate it.

“Kids have no idea where their food comes from,” he said. “I told one college student to grab a bunch of leaves from our raised bed outside and pull. She couldn’t believe that she pulled up a carrot. It’s sad how divorced people are from their food supply and from the many plants that play important roles in their lives, from coffee, alcohol and fabrics to cosmetics, perfumes, drugs, spices, paper and lumber. Too many people take plants for granted.”

A few plants are particular favorites of visiting youngsters, such as the insect-eating Venus Fly Trap and the Sensitive Plant whose leaves droop when touched.

When the banana plant produced fruit, greenhouse staff and volunteers made banana splits, although Lemieux doubted they would try to make chocolate from the cacao plant.

Plants have been used in a variety of projects by CU-Boulder researchers and graduate students, such as investigating chemical communication between plants, biological control of knapweed and nitrogen deposition as a response to global warming.

Lemieux has shared plants with researchers across the country—the Smithsonian Institute, UCLA, Harvard, New York Botanic Gardens and UC Berkeley.

“We have rare and valuable plants they want,” he said. “Our facilities are better than some universities that have full-fledged botany departments.”