Cultivating an Interest: A Look at UConn’s greenhouses

A cactus plant in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Biodiversity Education & Research Greenhouses on the UConn campus in Storrs, Connecticut. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Cacao trees, vanilla flowers, giant cacti and carnivorous plants aren’t generally something you’d expect to find in the middle of Storrs, Connecticut. However, thanks to the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Biodiversity Education & Research Greenhouses located next to the Biology/Physics building, it’s easy to experience the African Tropics, American Southwest desert and even Antarctic tundra all in one afternoon.

“There’s tremendous diversity in here,” said Matthew Opel, a greenhouse horticulturalist and grower that has been working with the EEB plants since 1996.

A long time plant enthusiast, Opel waters, feeds, prunes and maintains over 5,000 plants in the collection. There’s even a specimen named after him – the dwarf geophyte Tylecodon opelii.

“I discovered it in the year 2000 as a grad student, when I went to South Africa,” said Opel. “It was named after me by a South African Botanist a couple of years ago.”

Discoveries aside, Opel appreciates the variety of plants present in the greenhouses and for plant life in general. 

“Plants are the basis of the food chain. All life on earth depends on plants. The things studied at UConn – invasives, biodiversity – it’s going to be important to the future of everybody.”

“We have plants from all over the world,” Opel added. “[Both] tropical and seasonal.” 

The greenhouses play an important role in research, preservation and other research institutions will borrow from UConn’s collection.

“We have plants that are extinct or endangered in the wild,” Opel said. “Like, the Franklinia, from the southeast US. It’s related to tea and hasn’t been seen in the wild since the 1700s.” 

“Researchers bring back plants from their travels, [though] the bulk of them we trade with other universities and botanical gardens. We’re always having people come from Harvard or Yale.”

Researchers aren’t the only visitors to the greenhouses, as several UConn classes study the specimens as part of their curriculum.

“We have photography classes, painting and drawing classes come in,” Opel said. “Classes in archeology, too, since plants plants are important to the archeological record. Couples come in, we have benches and chairs around for people who study here.”

Several of the plants in the greenhouses have unique properties they adapted in order to better suit their environment. The Venus Fly Trap, for example, which uses nectar and red coloring to attract insects onto its moveable leaf and then closes it around the unfortunate bug, is a part of the greenhouse’s carnivorous plant collection.

“They rapidly expand the cells on side of the leaf, which causes it to close and open,” Opel said. “They eat yellow jackets in the summer.”

(Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Other plants attract flies as well, but for a different reason. The Corpse Flower, for example, which blooms every three to four years and has a very distinct odor when in bloom, in order to attract carrion insects that pollinate the plant.

“It’s a funny smell,” Opel said. “Sort of a rotten cabbage-y smell. You can smell it all the way in the bio building.”

Clinton Morse, Plant Growth Facilities Manager and 23-year-long greenhouse worker, recalls when the flower first bloomed.

“We had about 20,000 people come through the greenhouse,” said Morse. “A lot of school groups come back year after year.”

The greenhouses play a large role in educating the public about conservation and biodiversity.

“To see people get excited about science – hopefully, they’ll be concerned and enlightened enough to act,” Morse said. “Biodiversity requires protection.”

Maintaining a greenhouse, especially one this extensive, isn’t always easy.

“There’s always new challenges with a collection this diverse,” Morse said. “We have a small staff of three and a volunteer group. There’s a constant lengthy list of things that need to be done.”

The fact that the building is on the older side doesn’t help, either. Built in the 1960s, the greenhouses are starting to look a little worse for wear after years of use.

Nevertheless, Morse remains optimistic about future expansion.

“We’re in the designing stage for a new building, so hopefully in a couple of years we’ll have something,” he said.

Overall, the greenhouses are not only a valuable resource for researchers, but for students and the public as well.

“To actually be able to see these plants from the rainforest, instead of just in a book,” Morse said. “It opens up people’s eyes to the plant kingdom.” 

The EEB greenhouses are open to the public from 8 a.m. through 4 p.m. during the week and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Torrey Life Sciences Building.


Marlese Lessing is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu.