Oasis Under Glass
The greenhouse atop the David F. Putnam Science Center holds a wealth of botanical diversity.
Do you know that there's a banana tree growing on campus? And a fig tree, and a lemon tree? A chocolate tree? A cycad – a plant that's so ancient it was here when dinosaurs roamed the Earth? And a devil's tongue, which produces a beautiful flower that smells like rotting meat? And a bodhi tree, like the one Buddha sat under when he became enlightened? You wouldn't even suspect Keene State bears this incredible wealth of botanical diversity unless you've visited the greenhouse atop the David F. Putnam Science Center.
The preschoolers from the Child Development Center are regular visitors, too. "They start pumpkin plants in small cups and then bring them up here."This isn't just any old greenhouse, either. It's a Lord & Burnham structure, the "Cadillac of greenhouses," created by the legendary company (founded in 1849) whose fine conservatories were commissioned for Jay Gould's Lyndhurst, the Rockefeller estate, the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, and many others. The KSC greenhouse was built as part of the original Science Center in the '60s.
Our 40x20-foot greenhouse is under the expert care of Katie Featherston, senior lab technician for the Biology Department. Its aluminum-framed glass walls and single-peak roof sit atop a low brick wall. Inside are several substantial aluminum shelves and benches, perfect for holding potted plants. Many of the exotic plants came from Dartmouth and UConn, and through Featherston's membership in the Association of Educational and Research Greenhouse Curators. The association holds a conference each year, which includes a huge plant swap where participants are happy to see their excess inventory go to good and loving homes.
The greenhouse offers biology students and faculty an opportunity to study a variety of living plants, in different stages of development, from all around the world. It also creates avenues for research that would otherwise be difficult in the New Hampshire climate. It provides the perfect environment for Dr. Kristen Porter-Utley to grow passionflowers, including an extremely rare variety, for her research.
She also grows narcissus bulbs, because the bulb's root tip offers her plant-evolution students an excellent opportunity to observe cell division. Students who work on plant projects in the summer can bring their work into the greenhouse for the winter. Last fall, Dr. Karen Cangialosi kept tanks of frogs there for her animal behavior class. "This is a good spot for frogs," Featherston commented.
The preschoolers from the Child Development Center are regular visitors, too. "They start pumpkin plants in small cups and then bring them up here," explained Featherston. "The kids have a ball. They all have little watering cans and they water everything in sight."
Featherston also uses the greenhouse to grow plants for her spring plant sale. This year, she's growing tropical pines as houseplants, but she also raises some vegetable and garden plants. The money she makes from her sale goes back into the greenhouse.
During the 2004 Science Center renovation campaign, a generous gift from Jane and Bruce Keough allowed the College to build a hallway connecting the greenhouse to the rest of the building, so visitors no longer have to leave the building to enter the greenhouse.
An alumni grant paid for a Micro Grow climate control system to manage the temperature and humidity. The KSC grounds crew built a couple of watering timers, so life inside the greenhouse is good.
All is not perfect in paradise, however. The original, single-pane, untempered glass needs to be replaced and reglazed. "Because the glass is untempered," said Featherston, "it's dangerous. It cracks and slips. Often when I come in on winter mornings, snow will be coming in through a crack where the glass has slipped."
Those gaps really tax the heating system. The floor has developed some cracks, too, as has the mortar between the glass walls and the low brick wall that supports them. As a result, water sometimes leaks through into the rooms below.
A few years ago, Featherston asked a fellow member of the greenhouse curators association, someone who repairs Lord & Burnham structures, to offer his professional opinion. "He said if we took all the glass off, replaced it with tempered glass, and then recapped it (put new strips of aluminum on the outside), this place would glitter like a diamond. It would be solid."
Featherston sees great potential to expand the greenhouse's usefulness. She's hosting a tour for the Dublin Garden Club this spring. "I am happy to have visitors," she said. "They can contact me any time to arrange a visit. I also encourage students outside of biology to use the facility. Art students might use it for photography, film, or drawing and painting. Education students have set up projects that they hope to do in a classroom of their own someday, and student teachers have used it for current projects. A student who is starting a community garden on campus is hoping to start the plants in the greenhouse this spring."
Alumni and community members are also welcome to arrange a tour or special program. Or next winter, on a cold, dark day, ask Katie if you can visit her oasis and sit under the banana tree for a spell.