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  March 11, 2002

Biology Greenhouse Home to Rare Treasures
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

Mango, papaya, pomegranate; cinnamon, sugar, and cocoa; capsicum, jalapeno, and olives: they sound like ingredients assembled by a venturesome chef. But the plants from which these ingredients are derived all grow in a different kind of "lab" nestled at the heart of the Storrs campus.

The ecology and evolutionary biology greenhouse, adjacent to the Torrey Life Sciences Building, is home to one of the most diverse plant collections in the northeastern United States. Coming from as far afield as China and Chile, Australia and the Alps, Madagascar and the Mediterranean, the more than 4,000 accessions in the collections represent every continent except Antarctica, supporting the teaching, research and outreach activities of the department.

"We are teaching people about plants and doing basic research into why plants demonstrate particular behaviors," says greenhouse manager Clinton Morse.

Organized tours are offered each spring by the State Museum of Natural History, but the public is welcome at any time to come and browse, says Morse. Each plant is clearly labeled and staff and students are at hand to answer questions.

Each of the 10 rooms in the three greenhouse buildings is characterized by particular groups of plant species that flourish in a similar environment. Stepping inside on a dreary winter day transports the visitor to the lush rain forest, the arid desert, and the high Alpine regions.

The exuberant green vegetation of the tropical house, for example, is crowded, dense. Some of the plants are familiar as household foliage plants, but look closer and you'll find some unaccustomed treasures. One morning in late February, a vanilla orchid is in bloom. The waxy yellow flower, if pollinated, becomes the pod or "bean" from which the vanilla used in cooking is extracted. A few steps further on is a dramatic Heliconia, with spiky red and yellow bracts, the perfect shape for its pollinator, the hummingbird, to perch on.

Ecological Adaptation
Each species has its own tale of adaptation for survival in a particular ecological niche. The gnarly, tuberous-stemmed ant plant from southeast Asia has hollow chambers in its base that provide a habitat for ants. The ants, in turn, protect the plant from other insects, and their fecal debris supplies the plant with fertilizer.

A South African specimen, Lithops salicola, is well camouflaged for its habitat in arid areas. Dubbed "living stones," its leaves mimic round pebbles.

Then there are the dangling clumps of silver-gray Spanish Moss, an oddity because it is not a true moss but - despite its appearance - part of the pineapple family. One specimen originated in Louisiana, where it grows without roots on trees, soaking up fog and rain. Another, coarser variety, came from Peru, and a finer form is native to the Dominican Republic. "These show that one species can look different, depending on where it grows," says Morse.

With so many species to choose from, does Morse have a favorite? His selection: Amorphophallus titanum, a plant he has nurtured from seed since 1994. Now at the stage when it is expected to flower, if one of Morse's seven specimens does come into bloom, it will join a total of just 14 U.S. specimens known to have flowered in the past century. The plant, a native of Sumatra, is pollinated by flies and carrion beetles and has a pungent smell that is repulsive to humans, a characteristic that may explain the name of one of Morse's specimens: "Stinky Pete."

The greenhouse is staffed by Morse, one full-time horticulturalist, and students. Maintaining favorable growing conditions for the thousands of occupants, especially with outdated 1960s technology, is a challenge. In addition to appropriate temperature and humidity, plants need light. And there are new competitors: as the new biology/physics building and other UConn 2000 structures have grown up around the greenhouse, some of the plants no longer have sufficient light.

Morse and his colleagues are eagerly looking forward to the opening of a new greenhouse on the roof of the biology/physics building that is currently under construction. Although the new facility will have space only for faculty research specimens and not teaching collections, moving at least some of the plants will give much needed breathing space and additional light to the rest of the collection.

About 30 percent of the collection is used for research, 70 percent for teaching and outreach. About 800 plants from the collections are used for classes each year, in addition to beans, sunflowers, and corn that are grown en masse for students to dissect, as well as Coleus and Impatiens.

Figuring Out Evolution
In several of the rooms, research materials are arrayed on benches. A collection of Pelargonium from South Africa, a relative of the florists' geranium, supports the research of Cynthia Jones, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. A specialist in developmental morphology, Jones is comparing the growth habits of Pelargonium spinosum under four different water regimes.

She also uses material from the greenhouse to teach classes in introductory biology, plant anatomy, and developmental plant morphology. "The collection is one of the reasons I was attracted to this program," she says.

Jones, who has been studying Pelargonium spinosum for 10 years since she joined the University, grew her specimens from seed sent from South Africa. Because of import restrictions on living plants and soil, much of the overseas material in the greenhouse arrives in the form of seed. In January, even more stringent regulations were introduced.

There is a flourishing exchange among specialists, however. "The vast majority of new specimens come from other teaching contacts," says Morse. "We freely swap material. It helps us augment our collection and if I send material to friends, it's my insurance policy against any losses."

And for some of the specimens, such insurance is essential, as they can not be replaced. Take Dendroseris littoralis, for example, a tree that's a member of the lettuce family, which grows in the Juan Fernandez Islands. Its tally at one time sank as low as just eight known specimens in the world.

To help make the collection accessible, every plant is numbered and entered on the greenhouse website. The entire inventory went on-line in 1994, one of the first collections to do so, making it one of the first places researchers from elsewhere come to find material. Morse enters a plant's barcode into a hand-held palm scanner that transmits the information to a database, whenever material leaves the greenhouse.

The greenhouse also supports the research of graduate students. One room has row upon row of the unlikely greenhouse specimen, the stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. Unlike their more exotic neighbors, these plants were grown from seed found locally, in Merrow, by Ph.D. candidate Robynn Shannon, who is studying sex expression in flowers.

"The nettle has an interesting reproductive system," she says. Some plants have both male and female flowers, others have one or the other. In a closely related subspecies, she says, every plant only produces one or the other type of flower: "I am trying to figure out how evolution happened, in which direction. Did one form of reproductive system develop from the other?"

By simulating seasonal conditions in different rooms of the greenhouse, Shannon has shortened the growing cycle to speed up her study. "I could do my research in the field," she says, "but I don't have that many years to study."

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