On The Road at Barnard’s Hidden Upper West Side Greenhouse
It’s always weird coming back to your old college campus after graduation. Most faces are unfamiliar, many areas are inaccessible to a former student, and feelings of wistfulness (maybe collegiate homesickness?) set in within moments of stepping on the quad. You realize that you’re no longer a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pupil, but – gulp – an actual adult.
At the same time, college often offers us too many experiences to digest within four years, and when I returned last month to my alma mater, Barnard College (a small liberal arts college for women in New York City, historically affiliated with Columbia University,) I discovered something new.
The Arthur Ross Greenhouse is tucked away on the fifth floor of Milbank Hall on Barnard’s campus. You’d never guess that this semi-tropical paradise would exist atop an old, weathered building on the Upper West Side, but the greenhouse is an institution of invaluable utility that functions as an amazing student learning center and research lab that I somehow managed to avoid during my four years in collage. Thankfully, I finally got to visit on a rainy afternoon in spring.
To reach the greenhouse I had to climb a long staircase inside an academic building where, with each step, the smell of damp soil and exotic flowers began to intensify. By the time I reached the top, I realized the greenhouse was sort of like Eden: the warm, wet space houses plans of all varieties, but it’s not a garden per se: instead, it’s a horticultural repository designed as a place where students and professors can conduct biological research– and its also as beautiful as it is utilitarian. There’s a room full of cacti and succulents; there’s an conservatory that houses everything from venus fly traps to sensative plants (which curl up and shrink in response to human touch), and a “soil bar” storage room that the greenhouse team uses to re-pot the specimens under their care.
The Arthur Ross Greenhouse is the backdrop to an array of innovation and experimentation that’s been conducted there since its inception. It was here that Sinnot performed his pioneering studies on the developmental genetics of squash. In 1998, students and faculty welcomed the new, upgraded greenhouse – a spacious facility sporting a custom-designed aluminum and glass shell (to ensure a closed environment), as well as automated, computerized heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, and watering systems. Thanks to these technological perks, (along with the increase in square footage – 3400 square feet, over 2100 feet under glass) Barnard’s greenhouse has vastly expanded its collection. Today, the space includes a huge, humid, high-ceilinged conservatory outfitted with orchids, palms and other tropical plants, a dry “desert” (for the aforementioned cacti), and two rooms for growing litmus plants like V. Planifola (vanilla) and Nicotiana (the leaves of which are harvested for use in introductory biology lab experiments like the ones I did as a sophomore).
On my recent visit, Greenhouse manager Nicholas Gershberg led me through the various rooms, pointing out amazing plants left and right. He points to a nondescript-looking flowering plant labelled Mimosa pudica and asked me if I want to see something cool. “Touch it,” he instructed me, and I did. To my surprise, the leaves suddenly fold inward, away from my fingertips. “It’s called the sensitive plant,” Gershberg says with a chuckle, and I can see why. He showed me a tank filled with carnivorous plants – venus flytraps, pitcher plants – countless varieties of orchids and lilies, a banana plant (“It’ll bear fruit soon,” he tells me) and some lithop succulent plants that were dubbed “living stones” because of their strong resemblance to rocks. As a former English major, I felt a little envious of my scientifically-inclined peers; if I were a biology major, I’d have spent hours poking around and doing research here, leaving only when Gershberg had to kick me out.
The plants at the Arthur Ross Greenhouse aren’t just here to look cool (or to eat – sorry, banana lovers). Greenhouses like the Arthur Ross facility play a vital role in facilitating scientific discovery: not just regarding genetics and DNA recombination, but also climate change, agricultural methodology, chemistry, and more. It’s certainly possible to investigate these subjects by poring over studies, but getting hands-on with the plants is a great learning opportunity because everything necessary to manage their life cycles is done in-house. On a more basic level, interacting with the various plants in person is really, really fun. At the very least, it’s a vast improvement from poring over a textbook.