The greenhouse effect
Rooftop nurseries give researchers room to grow

In a spot usually reserved for air conditioning equipment and pigeons, two greenhouses sit atop the Life Sciences Building, tucked away from passers-by six stories below.

Biology Professor John Bacon examines a fern in one of the greenhouses atop the Life Sciences Building.
They’ve been there for decades, which is news to most people. Each is closer to the size of a living room than to a commercial warehouse, but they’re large enough to accommodate researchers’ needs.

Cacti, bromeliads and poinsettias share space with other varieties that fill the rows. Odd plants with exotic blooms reside among the everyday plants found in many households. Some plants are large and overflow onto the walkways. Others cluster in small pots on wooden tables, much like those in a nursery.

The most unusual, says biology Professor John Bacon, who manages the greenhouses, are the cycads, plants with a compound leaf that looks like a fern and grows to more than 3 feet. “The plant also produces a strobilus, which resembles a cone,” Dr. Bacon explained. “The seeds, which are toxic in some varieties, are inside the strobilus.”

One of the greenhouses, the “wet” one, contains plants that need frequent watering. The “dry” greenhouse is home to other plants that require little water. In both structures, the amount of daylight can be regulated to provide proper growing conditions for both long-day and short-day plants.

Each greenhouse has an adjoining potting room, a spacious area with shelves and large countertops. Bags of soil and stacked pots are on hand for planting endeavors, many of which involve master’s degree work.

One researcher studies how and why plants store calcium oxalate, a crystalline salt. Another keeps up with a specific variety to determine chromosome numbers.

Bacon, the overseer, is part of the botany world from top to bottom. Although he’s involved with the greenhouses at the highest part of the building, he offices in an isolated, near-silent portion of the basement.

Anyone entering the greenhouses will experience the warm, humid atmosphere associated with a healthy growing environment on a summer’s day, but don’t expect a bird’s-eye view of the campus from the roof. The entrance to the high-rise gardens is through locked doors attached to the top floor of the building.

“It’s really a nice facility,” said Bacon, who noted that the areas were renovated in the late 1970s. “Not all places have greenhouses. It’s a functional greenhouse, and I’m really proud to have it.”



— Laura Hanna


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