Science Building Greenhouse one of UMass Boston’s “Hidden Jewels”
November 15, 2011
It is a brisk 45 degrees outside, but in a little oasis atop the UMass Boston campus, the temperature hovers at 73 and the air is fragrant. Students sprawl out with drawing pads, sketching tropical pitcher plants and orchids. Colorful fish swim in large tanks as birds chirp away in their cages.
The Biology Department's greenhouse, located on the fourth floor of the Science Building, has been referred to as UMass Boston’s “hidden jewel,” says greenhouse manager Jim Allen.
Home to thousands of plants, the greenhouse consists of three rooms and a teaching space. The tropical room is designed for visitors to stroll through and feel as if they are in a jungle, while a temperate room houses plants more common to New England and a third arid room features dry desert plants.
Every year, nearly 1,000 students come through the greenhouse, according to Allen. Freshman Biology classes visit the greenhouse to learn about plant diversity, and every semester Professor of Art Wilfredo Chiesa brings his drawing classes to the greenhouse.
The greenhouse provides a great opportunity for students to get out of the classroom and have a hands-on experience, says Allen.
“It’s one of the most hands-on experiences that a student can have at the university,” he says. “There is always something going on here.”
There are rows of plants that students started in their classrooms, brought to the greenhouse for further study. Some plants are used for research, such as the Asiatic pennywort plants that freshman researchers are growing to determine if they produce an enzyme used in cooking. Succulents and cacti are used to teach plant evolution, while Silene plants allow students to look at the genes that distinguish males from females in certain plants.
In addition to teaching and research, the greenhouse space is also used for relaxation.
"There is a certain sense of peacefulness here,” says Associate Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics William Hagar.
Departments will bring candidates for professor positions to the greenhouse when giving tours of the campus, and the greenhouse also supplies plants and flowers for campus events, such as the bright red pepper plants that were used to decorate tables during commencement.
Allen and his three work-study student employees often find that visitors have gardening questions, most frequently about plant watering. “Teaching people how to properly water their plants is a challenge,” he says with a laugh.
Allen, who has worked at the greenhouse since 1996, was called in to consult on the campus master plan around landscaping for the new campus. He also maintains an area of plants near the Clark Athletic Center stairs, where he has cultivated tropical plants that you wouldn’t usually see in this area and can’t typically find in local plant stores. “It’s my small contribution," Allen says.
Allen’s love of Boston and the University of Massachusetts system is clear. He attended high school in Boston and earned a BS in plant and soil science from UMass Amherst. He went on to work at the Waltham Field Station of the University of Massachusetts Extension Program, as well as at the National Fire Protection Association and the Arnold Arboretum.
Allen says he appreciates that working in the greenhouse provides him one of the few indoor horticulture careers. “It’s a pleasure to come to work every day,” he says.
More information is available at http://greenhouse.bio.umb.edu/. Or stop by the fourth floor of the Science Building and follow signs to the greenhouse.