Plants on a Hot Green Roof

18 11 2011

Rows of native plants at the Thimann Lab greenhouse, grown for coastal prairie restoration (photo: E. Loury)

by Erin Loury

There’s a room at UC Santa Cruz filled with chocolate and vanilla, cinnamon and green tea, bananas and pineapple.  But far from ready-to-eat desserts, all are leafy and green, basking in the humid light of one of the three UCSC campus greenhouses.

A certain former UCSC student and plant aficionado in my life recently told me about the greenhouse on the roof of the Thimann Lab building.  Anyone can pop up to this greenhouse on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I came across some students studying at tables on the plant-covered patio.   The oldest of the campus greenhouses, it’s primarily used for instruction.

Workspace in the Thimann Lab greenhouse (photo: E. Loury)

Plant lab sections can visit a room full of carnivorous plants (I should have asked if they have this one with peculiar diet preferences), and also a tropical plant collection, which boasts the disproportionate number of tasties I mentioned earlier. There’s even an outdoor classroom up here, complete with speakers and a whiteboard.  If only all students were so lucky!

Jim Velzy, UCSC greenhouse director, points out two different species of plants in a hybridization experiment - brought back memories of Punnett squares! (photo: E. Loury)

Jim Velzy, the greenhouses director, was kind enough to give me a tour of all three greenhouses, including the ones used for research atop the Sinsheimer Labs and the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, which are not open to the public.  All the greenhouses are located within a stone’s throw of each other, which is probably a good thing since it’s just Jim, the greenhouse operation’s manager Denise Polk, and four student employees that care for all the plants.

Some of the plants grown on the Thimann lab building, Jim told me, are for a coastal prairie restoration project near the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at the campus’s Long Marine Lab.  Seeds collected from native plants sprout in dozens of plastic tubes, awaiting transportation to the field.

Two campus divisions, Physical & Biological Sciences and Social Sciences, share the funding of the greenhouses, and researchers have free access to pots, soil and space. They can reserve a greenhouse and tailor it to their specific needs, like one that is currently sealed up and pumped with elevated levels of carbon dioxide.  Jim estimates that about 25 different projects occupy his 10 growth chambers, 10 incubators and 15 greenhouses at any given time.

“This facility is unique in that the instructional facility and the research facility are the same unit,” Jim said. “That’s not the case almost anywhere you go.”

Undergraduate students benefit from access to the state-of-the-art greenhouses, and a direct connection to ongoing research.  Students can work with the greenhouses for a senior thesis or volunteer with research projects.  Researchers benefit from the extra labor counting seeds or planting plants, and the connection to the instructional greenhouse gives them some overflow space for their experiments.

“Our biology faculty generally look at populations, distribution of species, speciation,” Jim said. “Those are all our claims to fame.”

On our tour, he showed me several experiments involving the hybridization of two closely related species.  A student in Dr. Kathleen Kay’s lab is studying how two species of goldfields that are nearly identical, and often grow next each other, maintain their distinct identities.

He also showed me endangered California wallflowers native to sand hills grown by Dr. Ingrid Parker’s Lab, and an experiment investigating how invasive Scotch broom suppresses the growth of Douglas fir seedlings.

A growth chamber maintains constant conditions for a flat of woodland stars. (photo: E. Loury)

We poked our heads inside growth chambers used by Dr. John Thompson’s lab.  Jim called Thompson a “father of coevolution,” the study of how closely connected species, like plants and pollinators, change together over time.  Jim showed me Lithophragma, or woodland stars, that have coevolved with a species of moth that lays its eggs inside the flower, and also pollinates the flower.

Another greenhouse overflowed with spiral ginger plants from Costa Rica, which have coevolved with hummingbirds, as seen in their flowers with a distinctly hummingbird-tailored, sippy-cup-like extension.

Sprial ginger flowers have evolved a perfect fit for their hummingbird pollinators (phto: E. Loury)

Achieving constant, reliable conditions in incubators (which are used to germinate plants), and growth chambers (which maintain constant light and humidity) are key to producing publishable results, Jim said.

“When you publish a paper in Science, Nature, Plant Physiology, whatever you want to publish in, the better publications are going to require that you have your plants under set conditions,” Jim said. “You eliminate all variables except for one.”

He also revealed a surprising similarity between plant science and high fashion – a little brand name recognition goes a long way.  Thus, the pricey Conviron E15 growth chambers (which cost about $30,000) or Percival incubators are worth every dollar if they help a researcher establish credibility with a publication.

I felt very fortunate to get a behind-the-scenes look into the blooming world of plant science on my own campus, and felt nostalgia for my undergraduate days in an introductory biology plant class at UC Davis.  I remember a TA telling me that once you start learning plants, it gives you whole new way of looking at and appreciating your environment, even if it’s the landscaping around campus.  Now I can say I also have a whole new appreciation for the rooftops on Science Hill!

Thanks, Jim, for a great, informative tour!

Pitcher plants wait to catch a meal at the Thimann Lab greenhouse (photo: E. Loury)