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Inside the botany greenhouse

Angiopteris evecta, or the “giant fern,” is native to Australia. Professor Doug Ewing brought the plant to the greenhouse when it was a seedling about 26 years ago. Photo by Cassie Czarnetzke

The sign on the door reads “New Botany Greenhouse,” despite the fact that the building was first opened in 1949.

The “old” botany greenhouse, built outside Parrington Hall in 1915, was torn down in the mid-1980s. The building was falling apart, and the biology department had relocated to south campus. The “new” building was created to fit the growing needs of the biology department and houses obscurities, such as a seed the size of two footballs and a pretty orchid that smells like rotten meat.

The man with the green thumbs

The first greenhouse manager was James Nishitani, who worked there for 34 years. Doug Ewing is only the second person to hold the post since the new greenhouse opened.

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Ewing shows the size of the A. evecta when he brought it to the greenhouse. At the time it was no larger than a nickel.

The walls of Ewing’s office, in the back corner of the building’s center hallway, are lined with books on botany. Crayon drawings of him holding various plants are filed neatly in a drawer outside his door. The drawings, he says, are thank you cards from tours he has given to elementary classes over the 29 years he has held the position of greenhouse manager.

With a B.S. in ornamental horticulture from Oregon State University, it’s clear that Ewing is passionate about his profession. Pushing aside long fronds and leaves in the narrow rows of the rooms to find certain unusual plants to show off, he referred to the greenhouse as “botany in 3-D.”

Over the years, Ewing recalls seeing exciting research being performed, such as the genetics work done by Dr. Toby Bradshaw. While impressed by the large scale scientific breakthroughs in the greenhouse, Ewing said he cherishes most the smaller achievements he gets to observe.

“I guess more than, say, ‘This will generate a paper published in a primary journal,’ what really energizes me are these smaller ‘ahas’ that happen on a daily basis with students, with researchers,” Ewing said. “The wonderful thing about academia is that it is so unpredictable, you know. There are these surprises that can happen.”

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Amorphophallus titanum, or the “corpse flower,” produces one giant leaf after flowering, which can reach up to 20 feet tall.

A nurtured corpse

The “corpse flower,” or Amorphophallus titanum, is referred to by Ewing as the greenhouse’s niche. However, he discredits the myth that the flower only blooms once every 50 to 70 years.

Ewing says he’s had the plant flower twice within three years. He believes the rumor of rare blooming began in the 1920s, when someone would bring a tuber out of Sumatra, and it would flower once in a botanic garden. But no one was successful at keeping the plant alive, and it would never bloom or seed again in its lifespan.

The UW greenhouse received a seed for one of these odorous plants in the mid-1990s.

“I got some of the first seed that was available, and we were then able to claim the prize of being the first place for it to bloom west of the Mississippi,” Ewing said chuckling. “We beat Los Angeles by a week, and we were so pleased.”

Ewing believes the myth originated due to the large gap in flowering. Since it was known that the plant had flowered in Brooklyn at a botanic garden in 1927, and finally again in 1999, it was assumed that the potent plant only bloomed about every 70 years.

“It’s a great example of why teaching collections are important,” Ewing said. “Real plants to teach from.”

A seed of inspiration

Approximately half of the space in the greenhouse is devoted to research for projects such as those done by Bradshaw, the head of the biology department. The other half is “teaching collections,” which are used when student tours and field trips come through the greenhouse.

“Any student is welcome to come here and look at our teaching collections,” Ewing said. “People can walk in and feel free to even open the doors and go inside and look at the plants in our teaching collections.”

In addition to simply exploring the greenhouse, Ewing emphasized the opportunities for students to get involved.

“[The biology] department really encourages undergrads to connect with a researcher and participate in research with them,” he said. “All of the researchers using the greenhouse that I see have undergrads in their lab also participating in the research.”

Bradshaw agreed, saying that any hands-on experience is better than hearing or reading about it.

“If you hear about [research] in class or read about it in a paper, it looks like everything went without a hitch, but of course that’s not the reality,” he said.

Among the many benefits of studying plant genetics, as opposed to animal genetics, are that experiments on plants can be done in a lab or in nature. Plants remain in one location out in the wild, produce a lot of offspring, and are easy to care for in large numbers. According to Bradshaw, as many as 60,000 plants can be grown in the greenhouse for one experiment at a time.

“You really learn how science works, and, of course, how often it doesn’t work, too,” Bradshaw said. “You have to do a lot of troubleshooting and problem solving, and that’s what research is really about.”

Reach reporter Cassie Czarnetzke

at science@dailyuw.com.

Twitter: @cassieczar

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