Local Tropical Getaway

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Recently, on a cold, single-digit day I paid a visit to the University of Illinois Plant Biology Greenhouses.  Since it was quite sunny and warm under the glass greenhouse roof, my mind drifted far from the snow and ice that was entrenched outside.  Nothing can beat the tropical ecosystem created in the Conservatory.  It was like a vacation to the tropics right here in Urbana, IL!  And to top it all off this facility is free and open to the public on weekdays.

The U of I Plant Biology Greenhouses were built in 1988 to provide research and teaching opportunities.  In 1991, the 2,000 square foot tropical landscape in the Conservatory was completed, which is open to the public.  There eight smaller display rooms (also open to the public) comprising an additional 1,600 square feet of space and containing various themed plant collections such as the Jurassic Plants Collection, featuring ancient plants from the Jurassic Period.  Another favorite is the “Wicked Plants” room, containing various plants with alarming characteristics such as carnivorous plants that catch and consume insects.

This fascinating, local collection of plants contains specimens from around the globe.  There are over 150 different plant families represented and over 1,000 plant species to be viewed, most of which are clearly labeled.  I could spend hours within these collections learning about new and different plants of various forms such as vines, trees, and shrubs representing a diversity of ecosystems. 

The centerpiece of this collection is certainly the Conservatory.  This 37 foot tall greenhouse space contains a great variety of tropical plants, from large banana trees to tiny epiphytic plants that use intricate spaces on tree bark to grow and flower. 

Epiphytes have always fascinated me.  These plant species grow in the tree canopy of rainforests, both temperate and tropical, around the globe.  Unlike parasites, such as mistletoe, they do not actually attach via tissue to the larger plant they call home, but rather find pockets or small fissures in bark to grow a specialized root system which absorbs the amply available rainfall.  Since rainforests are incredibly competitive ecosystems, these plants evolved to gain a competitive advantage for light and water by subsisting in the tree canopy, high above the dense, extremely competitive understory.  Some common epiphytic plants you may have encountered are orchids, philodendrons, Spanish moss, or cacti like the Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus.

Within the conservatory, there are seven different species of cycads, which is an ancient group of plants that predates the dinosaurs.  “Cycads are one of the most ancient plants we have in our collections,” says Debbie Black, Greenhouse Manager for the Plant Biology Greenhouses. 

Fossils of these plants can be found around globe as they were the dominant plant species during the Mesozoic Era or “Age of the Reptiles”, around 150 million years ago.  “Nobody thinks of dinosaurs when they think of plants, but there are living plants today that existed with the dinosaurs,” said Black.  Today, these plants are not common, but do still exist in very similar form to how the dinosaurs would have experienced them. In that way, they are a captivating window into the prehistoric world on this planet.

This winter, consider a visit to the U of I Plant Biology Greenhouses to alleviate some of the winter blues and view some rare and interesting plants in a unique indoor environment.  The entire plant collection is open to the public for viewing Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm.  Debbie Black and her staff offer educational tours for all ages that may be scheduled in advance of your visit.  In addition, the Plant Biology Greenhouses offer events and plant sales throughout the year.  For additional information and scheduling, visit their website at http://www.life.illinois.edu/plantbio/greenhouse.

Ryan Pankau is Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties.