The doors to a prized collection of plants are opening to Boulder — for just a few people and only briefly. On Nov. 8, the CU greenhouse on 30th Street will allow a few people in to tour the greenhouse and develop a better understanding of the work that happens at the greenhouse and the work plants do in our daily lives.
“We have a collection that’s many times better than Harvard’s. And I’m not just exaggerating. I’ve seen Harvard’s collection,” says Thomas Lemieux, director of plant science facilities and manager of CU's greenhouses. “We have a priceless collection of plants.”
The CU collection has also been called upon by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the Smithsonian Institution, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, UCLA, UC Berkley, the National Tropical Botanic Gardens.
“We have stuff that they want, that they don’t have,” Lemieux says. “That tells you how valuable our collection is.”
Four large primitive ferns he collected personally in New Caledonia when they were small enough to plant in pots the size of coffee mugs and have since grown eight-foot fronds too large for the greenhouse were recently sent to the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Montgomery Botanical Center in Miami.
“They’re much too valuable to throw away just because they got too big for you,” Lemieux says. “We have plants that are irreplaceable. … We have a lot of really valuable stuff like that, but it’s only valuable to people who know its value.”
People pass by the greenhouses and occasionally stop by to ask about what they do — and if there’s anything for sale, which there isn’t, Lemieux says. To let them in on the mysteries in the glass box, twice each semester, the greenhouse coordinates with the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History to offer free tours. This fall’s tours were, according to Andrea Kaufman Robbins, the museum’s public programs specialist, full “instantly.”
“People certainly clamber to get on these tours,” Robbins says. They’re free, she says, because “the university, the museum, [the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department] wants to share their knowledge with the community.”
The lucky few — 40 in total — who tour the greenhouses will see carnivorous plants, flowering medicinal plants, cacti, succulents and orchids, and get to stick their noses into fly-pollinated plants which emit odors only a fly could love.
Lemieux says he guides visitors through the greenhouse based on the questions they ask. If someone wants to know about coffee, he shows them the coffee seedlings, which sprout on top of the soil, and talks about caffeine as a defense mechanism for plants. Someone doubts the variable uses of plants, and he stops at an avocado tree to describe the how it’s used to make not guacamole but drums in Venezuela.
“There’s no end to the ways that plants are used,” he says. “People often don’t realize that the plants we normally use as a food or fiber source have other uses we’re not aware of.”
Plants go into flavorings, pharmaceuticals, equipment, and instruments.
Politics and history get tangled up in plants, too, he says.
“Every plant in here has a little story about it,” Lemieux says. “You’re walking among all these famous people.”
The building itself is also worth more than a casual glance. Once the property of Chevron Corporation in California, the greenhouse was dismantled and trucked to Colorado in three semi trailers where architect Peter Heinz redesigned the modular structure.
“Greenhouses are a special kind of building that a lot of people don’t really have an appreciation for,” Lemieux says. “It’s not just another building. It’s a building that has specific kinds of needs that have to be met in certain kinds of ways.”
The greenhouses survive on a slim budget. After staff salaries, $15,000 covers the rest of expenses for three facilities, including work-study employees, supplies, repairs and equipment. It has to cover staff to hand water the plant collection 365 days a year. That hasn’t left enough funding to purchase new shades for the greenhouses, nor has it, in 20 years, provided for a backup generator to protect the plants in the event of an electrical outage. They could cook in a couple of hours in the summer heat, Lemieux says.