What’s thriving in the greenhouses at Matthaei Botanical Gardens
Megan Barnes, Horticulture Intern
|Some of the plants in the greenhouses at Matthaei Botanical Gardens|
There’s plenty to see in the conservatory, display gardens, and natural areas at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. But there’s also a lot of action behind the scenes to keep the gardens beautiful and valuable to the University of Michigan community, Matthaei-Nichols’ members, and to the public. Since it isn’t possible to display the Arb and Gardens’ entire collection all at once, five greenhouses at the botanical gardens are loaded with surprises.
Some plants are in training, so to speak, waiting for a coveted spot in the conservatory or the display gardens. While others—as part of the many interesting research projects conducted by U-M faculty and students that take place in the greenhouses—aren't meant for public display. Other plants might might not currently be giving their most beautiful display, or are newly acquired and still adjusting to life as Wolverines. Here’s a sneak peek and a spotlight on some extraordinary plants that are found behind the scenes in the greenhouses at Matthaei.
As a summer 2014 intern in the horticulture collections department, I had the opportunity to care for many plants not often seen in Michigan. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Guatemala, I was delighted to be reunited (where I least expected) with some of my tropical favorites. Within the tropical and semitropical collection, these special specimens from all over the world appeal to the senses and the sciences. Among them are
· Cananga odorata var. fruticosa (Dwarf Ylang-Ylang)—this fast growing tropical tree from the Philippines is famous for being an ingredient in Chanel No. 5 perfume.
|Cananga odorata var. fruticosa (Dwarf Ylang-Ylang)|
Phyla scaberrima (Aztec sweet herb)—this sweet-smelling leafy plant has been used in Mexico and Central America as a sweetener and as a medicine for respiratory illnesses.
· Carica papaya (papaya)—a source of delicious fruit and vitamin A, this tree from the tropics of the Americas is also used medicinally as a treatment for malaria, dengue, and digestive problems.
|Carica papaya (papaya)|
· Guaiacum sanctum (holywood)—this strong-timbered tree produces lovely blue flowers and is native to Florida, where it is classified as endangered thanks to overharvesting.
· Matelea cyclophylla—a Mexican native hard to find in cultivation, this flowering vine is lovely and unique; it is known for its corky caudex, or “fat” basal stem structure.
The greenhouses house several more-familiar plants, too. And they’re available to researchers for experiments on varied and fascinating topics. U-M faculty and students are studying a population of weedy morning glories to see how they may be developing resistance to herbicides.
A group of morning glory plants are
part of a U-M faculty research project.
Another fascinating class of specimens tucked away in the greenhouses is an impressive collection of ant plants (mostly Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum).
|Pictured, top to bottom: ant plants.|
These are tropical epiphytic plants boasting a swollen, hollowed-out caudex or stem that is useful in forming a symbiotic relationship with ants, who use the tunnels for housing, while providing protection and food (from their waste) to the plant. Perhaps you’ve spotted them in the conservatory, but there are hundreds more specimens behind the scenes at Matthaei. The collection also contains a Hydnophytum formicarium grown from seeds that are said to have fallen from a tree in Singapore’s famous Central Catchment Reserve. A lively discourse in ant plants, as well as a stream of trades and gifts of seeds, comes out of Matthaei’s greenhouses thanks to a donor of the plants and “ant plant guy” and Matthaei-Nichols’ volunteer Frank Omilian, who cares for the impressive ant plant collection. From keeping slugs away from his ant-friendly ferns (Lecanopteris) to the constant battle with hungry greenhouse-dwelling insects, raising these sometimes rare and not commonly cultivated plants is a challenge, but adds a unique character to Matthaei’s collections.
Within the humid and bright intensity of the greenhouses at Matthaei, one can discover wonders not typically on display. A spectacular collection of pitcher plants, native plant seedlings getting ready for life outdoors, a few redwood seedlings, even indoor cattails with a special watering system greet a visitor to the greenhouses. Yet another reason to visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens— when they’re ready, many of these fascinating plants will finally make their debut to an enthusiastic public.
Megan Barnes, from Harbor Springs, MI, is a second-year graduate student in the Landscape Architecture program at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.