Monday, December 16, 2013

The University of Colorado Greenhouse: A Botanical Gem by Rebecca Anderson

The University of Colorado Greenhouse on East Campus
On the beautiful fall afternoon of November 14, I had the opportunity to tour the University of Colorado Greenhouse on East Campus with Director of Plant Science Facilities Tom Lemieux. The tour started with a brief discussion of bio security and tobacco mosaic virus. This virus can affect a broad range of plant species and is usually transmitted by humans. After precautionary hand washing, the doors opened and the tour group of 20 citizens were allowed to enter the amazing collection of plants from around the world.
A sample of the plants in the greenhouse. 
Every plant in the collection has a story, and Tom Lemieux knows them all. He has traveled the world collecting specimen to add to the greenhouse. The tour touched on some highlights because it would take days to meet all the individual plants. It felt like taking a world voyage or visiting a zoo, seeing plants from South America and Asia and every continent in between. Many plants from the collection have been donated to the Denver Botanic Gardens when they have outgrown the space at CU. The greenhouse itself even has a story, originally used in California then transported to Boulder and reconfigured for CU.

Blooms from two Aristolochia species.

The plants in the collection are not just for admiration.  They are working plants, being used for research and education. Tom Lemieux used the tour to educate the group by introducing the concept of convergent evolution. This is when unrelated organisms develop similar characteristics to cope with similar environmental challenges. Tom Lemieux presented a selection of succulents that all looked very similar and asked which were cacti. Of the group, only 2 were true cacti and the others were related to euphorbia and other species.  He also showed us plants that have developed mutualistic relationships with insects such as ants and flies.  We examined the specialized structures (and odors) these plants have to benefit and attract these insects. There were a couple of varieties of Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia sp.) in bloom that were gorgeous to see but not so nice to smell.
Plants demonstrating convergent evolution.  From left to right Euphorbia obesa, Pseudolithos migiurtinus, and Eriosyce curvispina.

I think I could go on this tour over and over again and learn something new every time.  I recommend it for anyone who loves to learn, enjoys plants, or both. The tour was organized in partnership with the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. It is offered in the fall and spring. The best way to find out about the tour is to join the museum's email list. The tour filled up quickly and had a long waiting list, so sign up early. It's well worth the short drive to Boulder. 

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