Gusties can, Gusties will restore our greenhouse: Gustavus greenhouse starts to rebuild in New Noble

With the renovations on the Nobel Hall of Science soon coming to a close, the greenhouse at Gustavus is settling into its new space and beginning to rebuild.
“The main mission of the greenhouse is to bring inspiration and foster education in the community on the cultivation of rare and endangered flora. Our overall goal is to be able to grow the Gustavus conservatory to a nationally recognized facility known for its efforts in cultivation, conservation, and education,” Junior Collin Carlson said.
Most of the plant variety within the greenhouse is due to the work of Brian O’Brien. In 1993, he obtained ten corpse flower seeds from a shipment of 200 from Sumatra headed to colleges and universities across the U.S. One of those seeds grew to become Perry the corpse flower, named after the Greek Titan Hyperion, for which the greenhouse is best known. Perry is now 27 years old.
While some corpse flower seeds did not survive the 1998 tornado, two additional corpse flowers from the 1993 seed batch are currently growing in the greenhouse. One, which has split into two plants, is known as “The Twins”, and the other is called Perrita. The greenhouse also contains several orchid species, including rare slipper orchid species from India, Burma and Southeastern Asia, which O’Brien cultivated and donated to Gustavus. O’Brien has also donated plants like Darwin’s Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale), the African Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) and the Madagascar Octopus Tree (Alluaudia procera), to name a few.
“The Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) is one other plant that I donated to the collection. It is a “living fossil” that was discovered in a remote forest in southeastern Australia in 1994. It has been propagated as a conservation measure, and Gustavus now has one of those propagated plants,” O’Brien said.
Some species housed in the greenhouse are virtually extinct in the wild, making their propagation and conservation of particular interest and importance.
Carlson first became involved with the greenhouse as a student worker through his interest in botany and plant ecology. He is currently working on a project to give each plant species in the greenhouse a unique QR code which will link to a website with more specific information on the species.
“In my opinion, the greenhouse has been a separate entity that everyone has felt a little distant towards. I felt like part of that had to do with the type of glass we had in old North Nobel…. We had this kind of frosted glass that you couldn’t actually see through. Now that’s no longer the case… We hope that, along with the big marketing push we’re trying to do through various signage and hopefully the re-creation of the Botany Club, will help to build that community again and use it as an educational tool that goes beyond just a few labs that use [the greenhouse] in the biology department,” Carlson said.
Carlson is also working on establishing self-guided tours through the greenhouse. Students will be able to walk through the greenhouse, observe the many plant species and ask questions.
“I know there’s a lot of people on campus who are very much interested in plants, or botany or just the greenhouse as a whole, and… in the past we didn’t have the time or resources to properly allow people to come in and share that information,” Carlson said.
The move from North Nobel to the new Nobel building meant all the plants had to find temporary new homes until construction on the new greenhouse was complete. Some plants were sold, and many were moved to St. Olaf College, St. Peter High School, and Henderson Country School.
During this transition, a bug infestation killed off about seventy percent of the plants, taking the overall inventory from over 600-700 to around just 100.
“I expected plants to die and get sick, that’s inevitable. I didn’t expect it to happen at the rate it actually happened, but we live and learn. Right now, I’m trying to rebuild the inventory. Using budgets, I’ve been able to secure several purchases of new plants. I was able to source and locate several new rare species, some of which we’ve never had before,” Alumni Ryan Sklar said.
Sklar first became involved with the Greenhouse as a student worker while at Gustavus.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, I was just so fascinated with the corpse flower. It was my dream to go to Gustavus so I could study it and learn from its cultivation… Once I was a student, through [O’Brien] and several other biology faculty, I was able to become a student worker and from there, my passion just grew,” Sklar said.
Sklar is currently working on a contract basis as the general manager of the Greenhouse. As manager, Sklar is overseeing its current development and rebuilding efforts. His focus remains on how to make the greenhouse more engaging for students and the community, as well as increasing plant inventory.
Once construction on new Nobel was over, the remaining plants were transported back to campus. When COVID-19 hit, Technical Coordinator in Biology and Laboratory and Animal Care Coordinator in Psychological Science Maureen Carlson remained behind to care for the plants.
“I took care of things when COVID-19 hit last spring, because… I still had to come to campus to take care of animals, so I said I would take care of the plants as well to reduce the number of people on campus,” Carlson said.
Carlson and a few other staff members were also key to moving Perry back to campus, as the plant’s weight of over 250 pounds and leaf size of over 15 feet tall made it difficult to transport. Perry and the other corpse flowers were moved from St. Olaf back to Gustavus in a large truck in late August.
“We’re very thankful for the new space… there used to be growth chambers that took up one of the bays in the Greenhouse, and those have been moved into a different room… we lost our loft, which is good because now we have more square footage to work with,” Carlson said.
Additionally, the new greenhouse has climate-controlled rooms that mimic the natural habitats of plants, and an epiphyte wall, which displays plants that naturally grow on bark or in the air, as well as a large moss terrarium, which will showcase the greenhouse’s growing moss inventory.
“It would be great to see an array of plants acquired that represent biological diversity across all groups of plants, especially with regard to evolutionary adaptations,” O’Brien said.
A new automated irrigation system has been installed, which will increase watering efficiency and reduce the amount of hand-watering students have had to do in the past. New automated humidifier and dehumidifier systems, as well as a controlled light exposure system have been installed.
All of these systems were previously manual or non-existent before the renovation. The new space is also more energy efficient with better insulation as it uses polycarbonate plastics instead of glass panes.
“I’m looking forward to seeing more student engagement and a future for the conservation of rare species at the greenhouse. I think [it is] too critical to fail, in that we have such an opportunity for species conservation, conservation education, and cultivation education as well,” Sklar said.
Despite the number of rare and endangered species the greenhouse holds, it is often overlooked as a key feature at Gustavus.
“Not every institution has a greenhouse, or the ability to share that information with other people, so I think we, and the Biology department as a whole, should emphasize that point… we have more chances and opportunities to have those connections,” Carlson said.
Students who are interested in taking a tour of the greenhouse can reach out to Collin Carlson or to Ryan Sklar with any questions about specific plant culture.

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