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All about the Drake Greenhouse

The Drake Greenhouse on the roof of the Science Connector Building hosts a variety of plants from succulents to a chocolate tree. Photo by Eve Loehrer | Student Senate Beat Writer

Spines, flowers, vines, fruits and even a cacao tree grow from a forest of pots right on Drake’s campus. Unknown to many students, the rooftop of Drake’s Science Connector Building is home to hundreds of plants from six different continents. 

The Drake greenhouse is managed by Assistant Professor of Biology Nanci Ross. When Ross was hired at Drake in 2010 to teach botany, the old greenhouse, located where the SCB stands today, had much fewer plants.

“We have a lot of things in here that represent different plant families and [give] lots of glimpses into the diversity of the plant world,” Ross said. “That is something that, for me, is really important for people to get to experience.”

Through her time at Drake, Ross has transformed the greenhouse. The greenhouse has experienced several setbacks, but the collection currently includes almost 250 species.

While Ross was out of town in January, the greenhouse experienced a power outage that harmed many of the plants, especially the plants in the tropical room that require more humidity. The greenhouse only lost a few species in total, but many were severely damaged. 

“The vanilla orchid that we had, which had been about 12 feet long, it’s about three inches long now,” Ross said. “We did manage to save three inches of it, so that was something I was pretty surprised about because for a long time it looked like it wasn’t going to make it.”

Alex McGinnis, a senior studying environmental science, biology and painting, has worked at the greenhouse for three years. McGinnis said the damaged plants are already improving but predicts the greenhouse won’t see a full recovery for around three years.

“It’s tough, but I am seeing recovery and we even got some new plants in there,” McGinnis said. “It will be [a] slow process, and I will never be able to see the greenhouse how it was because I’m graduating.”

The greenhouse has three rooms with distinct climates suitable for different plants. The tropical room provides a humid environment for leafy, water-loving plants. The floor is covered in a thin layer of water, providing the necessary humidity for every plant to flourish, from tall trees to sprouts. 

The cacti and succulents room is more arid, the ideal environment for the wide array of these colorful, resilient plants the room holds. 

The third room is home to aquatic and carnivorous plants but also features dedicated space for student projects. 

Ross is continually adding to the greenhouse’s collection and has found new additions in unexpected places, including an endangered palm at Home Depot and coffee seedlings at the grocery store. 

“There was this tiny little pot that was maybe two inches and it had five plants in it. I looked at them, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, those are coffee,’” Ross said. “I brought them back and three of them survived, so I’ve got three little baby coffee trees.”

The sensory experience of the greenhouse is important to Ross. She encourages students to smell, taste and touch the plants as much as they can. Urban life does not allow for much interaction with plants, so Ross is dedicated to creating this experience right on Drake’s campus.

“I’m trying to give people a look at plants that they’ve heard of or they’ve eaten but they have never actually seen the plant itself,” Ross said. “Chocolate is a great example. When I take people in here, they have no idea what a chocolate tree looks like.”

The food-bearing plants in the greenhouse don’t tend to produce much, but Ross shares what grows with her student workers. The greenhouse employs seven students every semester and four students over winter and summer breaks to take care of the plants. Most of the workers are life science majors, but Ross says students studying other subjects also benefit greatly from working in the greenhouse. Ross named a journalism major obsessed with primarily tropical house plants as an example. 

“She really is learning a lot about her plants. She’s learning a little bit more about the biology of the system, and it’s just a great way to expand biology past just that small window of our majors,” Ross said. 

Junior biology major Vaughn Clissold has worked in the greenhouse since fall of 2022. 

“It really has bolstered my appreciation for botany,” Clissold said. “I am primarily an animal sciences person, but I do think it’s really helped me gain an appreciation for plant life as well.”

Junior biology major Rachel Horrmann primarily takes care of the cacti and succulents. Although Horrmann does not plan to go into the botany field, she said her experience in the greenhouse has helped her develop responsibility and work independently. Her favorite part of working in the greenhouse for the past two years has been caring for the plants as individuals. 

“[I’m] learning how to take care of the plants — each individual plant’s own personality, what they want, what their needs are and like figuring out how to make them happy,” Horrmann said. “I’ve had a couple plants bloom for the first time, like the entire time that I’ve been here, this semester. That’s been really rewarding for me.”

Each fall, the greenhouse holds a plant sale to find new homes for surpluses of certain species and raise money to invest back into the greenhouse. The greenhouse is currently saving up to buy a freezer, which would allow them to house seeds that require cold stratification to germinate. 

“[This] would allow us to have more plant diversity and even help with prairie conservation efforts,” McGinnis said over email.

Greenhouse workers said that the fall plant sale helps the greenhouse with visibility, as Ross and the student workers believe most students on campus do not know about the greenhouse.

“Whenever I say I work there, people either have the reaction of being surprised or not even knowing what I’m talking about,” Clissold said.

Ross believes the greenhouse is a great way to connect with other aspects on campus. She welcomes staff groups, Drake classes, local schools and anyone who reaches out to her into the greenhouse.

“I love giving a tour of the greenhouse,” Ross said. “These are my kids. I spend enormous amounts of time trying to make sure that they’re healthy and safe and growing well, so I think it’s an amazing opportunity for a lot of people to see things they would never see otherwise.”


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