Behind the scenes: Growing knowledge in the green house

Published: Sept. 9, 2013

For 22 years, Tom Lemieux has been nurturing both plants and students at CU-Boulder. As director of plant science facilities, Lemieux along with Assistant Greenhouse Manager Janice Harvey, manages the three greenhouses maintained by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

It may not seem that daunting of a task until you learn that Lemieux is responsible for the health and well being of more than 6,000 plants of 1,000 different species.

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.

“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 Lemieux, whose career as a horticulturist spans four decades.

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.

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.”

Passersby are understandably curious about the glass building. While not open to the public, Lemieux coordinates with CU-Boulder’s Museum of Natural History to offer free tours twice a year. Based on how fast the tours fill up, there is considerable interest in the greenhouse.

“We like to let people know what’s inside here,” he said.

Plenty of planning and nitty-gritty work goes on behind the scenes to maintain such a large and busy facility. Volunteers help weekly and university staff are at the greenhouse every day of the year watering and checking on plants. Volunteers also help with dividing plants, sowing seeds and doing light cleaning. In a cooperative agreement with the Boulder County Jail, inmates come once a month to do deeper cleanings, such as scrubbing algae off the floor and washing hundreds of flowerpots. In return, all the seedlings for the county jail’s large vegetable garden are started at the greenhouse.

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.”

Lemieux has a wish list of equipment and upgrades for the greenhouse. For years he’s wanted to add a lath house on the north side. And a much-needed backup generator in the greenhouse would protect plants in the event of a power failure in winter or summer.

“This is such a great place to work,” said Lemieux. “Monday is just as good as Friday and coming in on the weekend or when I’m sick is fine. How many people can say that about their jobs?”