Plant Paradise: campus greenhouse serves as refuge for research, relaxation

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Tucked away on the third floor of the Integrated Science Center is a little slice of heaven. For just over two years, the College of William and Mary’s new greenhouse has offered research opportunities, paid and volunteer jobs for students and a spot for visitors to relax in the company of plants.

“I love plants and I love to see them grow,” biology Greenhouse Manager Patty White-Jackson said. “I also love the students here at William and Mary. One of my favorite aspects of working here is teaching them how to work with plants.”

For White-Jackson, working with the plants means that each day is different. Her responsibilities range from watering the plants to training students and biology department researchers. She is also responsible for giving tours to groups like garden clubs, school children, local scout troops and students from the College.

There are also scheduled open house tours, where the greenhouse opens its doors to all members of the College community. During the spring 2018 open house, musicians from the Appalachian Music Ensemble and other student groups performed, and student volunteers brought food and refreshments for those curious about just what was up on the top floor of the ISC.

For those curious students, there’s always a lot to find. Some of the plants feature googly-eyed faces and others are responsive to human touch. One of White-Jackson’s favorites has a particularly unpleasant smell when its flowers bloom throughout the year.

“Another [of my favorite plant type] is the tropical pitcher plant,” White-Jackson said. “This is a carnivorous plant; insects are attracted by a scent. So, they are attracted by a scent and then they slide into its pitcher. It is very slippery. It secretes enzymes, kind of like acetic acid, that digests the insects.”

Part of White-Jackson’s job is also training both student volunteers and paid student waterers. White-Jackson said that students can always contact her if they are interested in working or volunteering for the ISC Greenhouse.

“We have probably about 8 to 10 volunteers at any time and in any one week we have about five to six students come in and volunteer,” White-Jackson said. “Some have been with me since their freshman year and there are always some freshmen here volunteering. They do a lot of sweeping, cleaning, removing dead flowers and leaves, and they come in and do a lot of plant dividing and starting the cuttings.”

The plants are not new to the ISC either. Prior to their new, slightly more tech-savvy home, the flora and fauna of the greenhouse were located on the roof of Millington Hall. Before the demolition, some plants were given away to students and Williamsburg community members. Others made the move to the ISC.

Kristie Turkal ’18 spent her senior year volunteering after the Millington Hall plant giveaway inspired her to spend more time around plants.

“[During] my junior year, there was a plant giveaway at the Millington Greenhouse when they were closing it,” Turkal said. “I was carrying home like four huge plants and I realized that I would love to be around plants more and that it would make my day better to be around plants.”

For Meg Tynan ’18, the inspiration to volunteer at the greenhouse came from her earlier involvement with Botany Club. During her senior year, Tynan was responsible for checking up on plants, following the watering schedule and sweeping the floors to keep the greenhouse looking clean.

“I was part of the Botany Club for a little while, and then I realized I wanted to be more involved,” Tynan said. “I [got] to come in every day, it’s kind of relaxation while learning.”

The ISC location also brought new technology to the regular care and maintenance of the plants. There are dedicated research bays for students and professors to separate and grow new plants and perform individual research projects. White-Jackson also said that new technologies include climate controls for humidity, temperature and night and day settings. There are also new circulation fans and vents that can be opened and controlled manually.

“One of the projects [from] the Millington Greenhouse, was that we had a lot of plants hanging to see how they grow,” White-Jackson said. “This new greenhouse didn’t give us places to hang plants.”

White-Jackson said adding hanging space to the new greenhouse was a project worked on over summer 2018, so that plants like the greenhouse’s succulent collection could be hung. When the succulents bloom, their flowers will be at nose-level.

“It’s definitely a community benefit [having this greenhouse on campus,]” White-Jackson said. “The plants are just relaxing to be around.”