It’s a haven for over half the year in this climate, and a fascination any day: Dartmouth’s Life Sciences Greenhouses in their hidden—but not secret—location on the top of the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Building. The greenhouses may well be the most widely educational spot on campus: tour visitors range from pre-school groups—“They love the carnivorous plants,” says greenhouse manager Kim DeLong. Anyone can set up a tour for a group of six or more, though in the busy seasons you may have to wait to schedule a tour. The greenhouses serve Dartmouth classes in biology, but also studio art and photography, and creative writing. There are also research areas of the greenhouses that are off-limits to visitors.
Taking a tour isn’t a requirement. Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., individual visitors are welcome. Different rooms provide environments for plants from around the world. The tropical room includes many famous species: a spring visit revealed a small pineapple and some coffee beans, as well as sugar cane and banana. A cacao plant – chocolate’s source – was flourishing but not quite developing seedpods.
The Sub-Tropical Room houses many ferns that come from warm areas in California, Georgia, the Carolinas and around the world. “Right now they’re my favorite type of plant,” says DeLong, though the competition is fierce. A Key Lime plant and a Meyer Lemon, jasmines and gardenia are thriving in this room.
The Xeric Room—that’s the five-dollar word for “dry”—displays succulents and cacti. Old world deserts have no native cacti, explains DeLong, only succulents. The new world (the Americas) is home to a mix of the two. Some come from Chile/Argentina’s Atacama Desert, which has never received rain in recorded history. Signs on some of the plants provide intriguing factoids to encourage further thought. “I’m interested in ethnobotany (the study of the relationships that exist between peoples and plants),” says DeLong, “so I made labels explaining some of the plants’ uses.”
A prized feature of the greenhouses is the orchid collection donated by Alan Brout, Dartmouth Collect class of ’51. He gave over 1,000 plants and continues to add to the collection. While the plants are often rather ratty-looking, the flowers astound with their variety of form and color. DeLong explains that all orchids have some common features. They all have three sepals (the part of the plant that covers the blossom before it opens) and three petals. The sepals and petals are typically offset to appear like six petals, the sepals of orchids usually being colored like the petals. And one petal is usually of different—often quite different—shape, forming the toe of a lady-slipper for example.
The systems of the greenhouse are completely computer controlled. Occasionally you’ll hear the subtle hum of the system in action. Silvery curtains can be drawn to protect the plants from too much direct sun. To control the environment in the different plant rooms there are vertical windows between each and the hallways or vents in the roof open and close.
There’s also a multi-purpose room, which provides space to study, eat lunch or just enjoy the change from New England’s climate. For information on how to visit the greenhouses go to www.dartmouth.edu/~grnhouse/visitor.shtml.