By Published: May 14, 2018

Walk through the Japanese torii gate surrounded by a wildflower garden and step into an ethereal glass building filled with rare and unusual plants and flowers from all over the world. While not open to the public, the greenhouse on 30th Street across from Scott Carpenter Park opens twice a year for public tours.

CU Boulder’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology maintains the greenhouse and two smaller greenhouses on Main Campus: one near Macky Auditorium and the other on the rooftop of Ramaley Hall.

These state-of-the-art greenhouses are used for a variety of research and teaching activities for undergraduate and graduate students.

Rooms in the 30thStreet greenhouse are teeming with a diverse array of plants, from orchids, tropical plants and cacti to medicinal healing plants and succulents. Many of the plants are wild-collected and irreplaceable.

Tess Additon, greenhouse manager, oversees the health and wellbeing of more than 6,000 plants of 1,500 different species.

“We spend a good amount of time trying to enrich students’ understanding of how important plants are,” said Tom Lemieux, assistant manager. “To understand the importance of plants is a step towards understanding ecology, economics and agriculture.”

Some plants have curious names like Little Warty, Dracula Bella, Pink Frills, Happy Young Lady and Black Dragon. There’s a large collection of medicinal plants, including valerian, gingko, turmeric and the cinchona shrub from which quinine is derived, and large orchid and succulent collections.

A number of plants are show-stoppers, such as the vanilla orchid that produces 50 blossoms, a rhododendron bedecked with flamboyant orange flowers or the weird looking Welwitschia, whose leathery leaves lie on the ground. There are edible plants, such as cacao, pink pineapple and bananas that staff make into banana splits as a treat for the volunteers.

Particular favorites of visiting elementary students are the Sensitive Plant (Mimosa pudica) whose leaves rapidly curl and droop when touched, and the insect-eating Venus fly trap. Students get to take home Venus fly trap seedlings grown in the greenhouse. 

Daily attention to the plants’ health is a necessity, as well as ongoing maintenance of the busy facility. Community volunteers take care of a variety of tasks. In a cooperative agreement with the Boulder County Jail, inmates come once a month to do deep cleanings, such as scrubbing algae off the floor and washing hundreds of flower pots. In return, the greenhouse grows most of the seedlings that are transplanted in the county jail’s large vegetable garden.

Plants have been shared with researchers at prestigious institutions across the country, including the Smithsonian, UCLA, Harvard, New York Botanic Gardens and UC Berkley.

“We have rare and valuable plants they want,” Lemieux said. “Our facilities are better than those at some universities with large botany departments.”

The greenhouse tours are a coordinated effort with CU Boulder’s Museum of Natural History.