An Introduction to Botany at the Huntington’s Plant Lab

Anyone who has been to the Children’s Garden at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California knows that it is a magical place. Between the “misting volcano”, the underground rainbow tunnel, the interactive water fountains, the burbling water pots, and a tea house covered with vines, one family can occupy an entire afternoon there without any complaint of boredom. I had intended to visit the Children’s Garden with my 5-year-old son on my last trip to the Huntington, but we never made it through its bright blue Alice-in-Wonderland doorway. To my delight, we discovered another source of enchantment: the Plant Lab.

Although I’ve been a member of the Huntington for eight-plus years, the Plant Lab has somehow eluded my knowledge. This may be due to the fact that it is housed indoors and my Pacific Northwestern tendencies to remain outdoors on sunny days presides– or maybe because its science was too advanced for my son for so many years. None of this matters; our good fortune is that we found it, and if you are four or so and up, you should too.

The five-star rating my son would clearly give the Huntington Plant Lab is not surprising given the Huntington’s superb curation of the Beautiful Science exhibit, which opened as a permanent exhibit a few years ago. Both Beautiful Science and the Plant Lab tickle your eyes, excite your brain, and give your hands something to do. In fact, at the Plant Lab all the senses are utilized, including the nose for smelling the fragrance of flowers, and the rainforest-like climate inside, which adds another sensory experience.

The Plant Lab is located inside the Huntington’s Conservatory, housed next to the Children’s Garden. The 16,000 square foot complex is moist (50-95% humidity) and kept at a warm 65 to 90° F so that the flora from three high humidity habitats (a cloud forest, a carnivorous plant bog, and a lowland tropical forest) are happy. While there are interactive displays throughout all the areas, the Plant Lab is truly a laboratory for a science-based inquisition regarding all things botany. Despite the sweat dripping down my face from the heat inside, I could not convince my son to take a break in the relatively cooler environ outside. There was simply too much to discover.

Exhibit areas are organized into six groupings: Roots, Stems, Leaves, Flowers, Seeds, and Spores. Visitors enter the lab at Seeds, where the life of plants begin. A very touchable double coconut seed (the largest known seed in the world) greets guests, as well as low tables topped with a wide variety of seed life to handle and investigate. I marveled at the wildly different adaptations that have evolved, while my son dashed to the seed whirlers that illustrate how wind lifts seeds into the air. With strong fans connected to a large clear tube that he could turn on and off with a button or the turn of a wheel, the seed whirler contraptions kept him busy for a good twenty minutes.

The next interactive exhibit allowed us to test out three different nectars for sweetness using what’s called a refractometer. The findings allowed us to answer which creatures prefer which flowers. It wasn’t surprising to us that bees prefer the sweetest drink, compared to hummingbirds and butterflies. We moved on to the fragrance of flowers, where we sniffed our way through the scents of different blooms used to attract pollinators. Next up? The pollen itself. A microscope is set up on cut flowers in a vase that my son diligently brushed with a paint brush to gather pollen to view. We then tested for nutrients in the water flowing through the roots of two identical plants, and were introduced to the diverse color and texture of global hardwoods. We got a close up of furry radish roots, and viewed the amazing stomata structures (which control gas exchange) on the backs of leaves through a microscope hooked up to a big screen.

From station to station we wandered, and it was a wonderful, engaging time. Some of the sites of investigation were easy enough to for my son to figure out himself; others offered deeper lessons that needed a reader and a guide. We touched and poked and explored a variety of leafy creatures at the plant petting zoo, and stopped to view various strange and exciting plants growing throughout the Lab. One such African plant can live over 1,700 years, has just two continuously growing leaves, and gathers water from the moisture in the air. These were fascinating tidbits for an odd-looking plant that first grabbed our attention with its “No Water” sign.

I loved that each interactive exhibit felt like its own work space, where an important discovery could be made. The stations all had their own desk and chairs and all the tools needed to perform the task at hand. Unlike some museums, where exhibits are crammed right next to each other, the Plant Lab felt roomy and primed for pause with each desk placed in their own zone. I have no doubt that this helped to keep the attention of a very busy boy for so long. The sunlit conservatory hall diffuses the light in a beautiful way, leaving the open and airy space bright, inviting, and pleasant. The activities were intriguing and new, each with their own simple but impactful lesson. But the Plant Lab isn’t just for kids—I felt as if I had enrolled in a lively introduction of Botany 101.

I’m not sure how long we were in the Plant Lab, but we left feeling invigorated, inspired, and definitely sweaty from the humidity. My son, who likes to try his hand at my digital SLR, asked for the camera as we walked towards the parking lot. With his floral appreciation heightened after hours of plant discovery, he pointed the lens towards a flowering passion fruit vine climbing a fence and announced, “Look at this beautiful flower. The stamen is so symmetrical!” And with that, my budding botanist made my heart bloom.

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