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Davis, California

Monday, October 18, 2021

Greenhouses sprout interest in plants

It was 60 percent humidity. Water dripped down the walls of the building with an abundance of plants from all around the world. A loud noise reverberated within the room, sounding like something that could easily pass for a velociraptor.

No, this wasn’t Jurassic Park. It was the third floor of the Sciences Laboratory building in UC Davis’ campus teaching greenhouse.

“That’s the passive cooling system,” said Doug Walker, the supervisor of greenhouse facilities at UC Davis, referencing the Jurassic sound.

“You step right out of the hallway into the greenhouse,” Walker said. “It’s like a whole different change in world.”

Walker supervises the three different greenhouse facilities on campus: the research greenhouses, the Botanical Conservatory and the Sciences Laboratory Building (SLB) Greenhouse.

The SLB Greenhouse opened in January of 2005 when the $52 million building was built.

“Its mission is teaching only; there’s no research done in this building,” Walker said. “They wanted a strong integration of the greenhouse, the plants and the labs.”

The Botanical Conservatory and the SLB facility are both teaching greenhouses, which grow plants for laboratories or provide activities for teaching.

Biological Sciences 2B and 2C are two of the main classes which use the SLB greenhouse, but Plant Biology 102, 105 and 108 also share the space. Over 1,200 students use the greenhouse facility per quarter.

Students get hands-on experience with biome dioramas to measure plant diversity. Other students experiment with plants and mutant plants to measure competition between plants.

Walker said that the greenhouse houses many different varieties, although all have the same basic structures.

“Plants are made up of roots, stems and leaves – that’s it,” Walker said. “But you look all around and there are all these very different kinds.”

Some of the more unique types of plants in the greenhouse are the carnivorous plants, he said.

“It’s an actively moving thing,” Walker said of the Venus flytrap. “It closes and traps the organism.”

He then pointed to a tube-like leaf, which acts like a fisherman. It had a sugar substance to reel in the insects like bait, a slippery inside, and hairs to trap the insect in like hooks.

The greenhouse also contains desert plants, succulents, parasites and plants with leaves taller than a person.

These leaves belong to the stinky flower, which when in bloom, is over four feet tall and smells like a rotting carcass. Walker said they are growing the plant in the SLB Greenhouse to maximize light exposure to mark any growth changes.

Another unique plant is a South African plant, which has had the same leaves since it was planted in 1993. The leaves touch the floor and look more like hair than leaves, Walker said.

“You can see it’s just like if you grew your hair long,” he said. “You would get split ends, too.”

The most remarkable thing about this greenhouse environment besides the variety of plants is that it is completely computer automated. From light to humidity to irrigation, a computer controls the entire greenhouse.

The computer has control over fog machines for humidity control, electrolyte conductivity meters for water salt control, and over 30,000 watts of high intensity lamps and a shade cloth for light control.

“We tell [the computer that] we want these things to happen and it takes care of the rest of it,” Walker said. “It’s really nice.”

Although completely automated, staff members still have manual power to override the system.

“The more you try to control the environment, the harder it is to maintain it,” Walker said.

Hoorin Sandhu, a staff research associate for Biological Sciences 2C, graduated from UC Davis last June with a degree in biological sciences with a plant biology emphasis.

She came into contact with the SLB Greenhouse as a student in Biological Sciences 1C and then became a student assistant for the greenhouse where she brought out plants for labs.

“That was the first time I had to know which plant was which,” Sandhu said. “It was pretty scary at first because I couldn’t tell what was what … it was all over my head.”

After working as a student assistant, she took a job with UC Davis as a staff research associate.

Sandhu helps plant 70 trays of plants and grows over 2,500 plants per quarter.

“I had this image of vegetables and fruits just appearing in the grocery stores and here you actually see the stuff while it’s growing,” Sandhu said.

Becky Fu, a sophomore genetics major, worked in the Botanical Conservatory for her Biological Sciences 2C class.

Fu remembers going to the conservatory and looking at coffee bean plants and cacti.

“It’s just filled with these weird flowers that are giant,” Fu said. “They’re just weird looking, like alien plants.”

For Fu, one of the best parts of Biological Sciences 2C was visiting the conservatory.

“It was only a day; I wish it was a little longer,” Fu said.

Walker encourages students and staff interested to come check out the greenhouse.

“We have a lot of interesting stuff to get people to come in and get interested and maybe start a career or major in plant biology,” Walker said.

KATIE DARFLER can be reached at features@theaggie.org. 

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