Celebrating Plants at the University of Colorado’s Greenhouses

“Every plant has a story.” —-Tom Lemieux

The University of Colorado operates a few greenhouses on a shoestring budget, categorizing them under the “shop” category, enough to earn them once a month cleanings, but even so, they contain an invaluable resource of genetic wisdom from the global plant world.

Run under the guidance of a man whose muse is plants, which is obvious from the first moment that you meet him, Tom Lemieux grew up in Maine and California, and studied horticulture at Berkely. Lemieux has traveled the world on plant expeditions and he believes in starting plants from seeds, which means that many of the exotic species in CU’s “Greenhouse Facilities and Collections” have been propogated by him and his staff from seeds. One plant they started from seed was a date palm, from a bag of dates purchased at Costco, for example.

Last month the greenhouses were open to a small number of community members for a tour and I jumped at the chance.

Lemieux began our introduction to plant appreciation by talking about “convergent evolution” in plants. He demonstrated the concept with a cart full of unique species from the plant world.
Convergent evolution is the term used to describe how very different plant species can evolve into very similar plants in an attempt to survive in similar conditions through adaptation. (See the photo at left to help understand the concept.) It is a fascinating subject that demonstrates to us the resilience of life itself.

In the study of plants we are able to see firsthand Nature’s wisdom, its creativity, its beauty, and even, its sense of humor. We marvel at Phi, the golden proportion found in the plant world. And, we realize that our very existence as homo sapiens requires plants to clothe us, to feed us, to medicate us (or alter our minds, if you will), to shade us, to shelter us, and to help us find solutions for engineering problems – through biomicry.

When Lemieux gives school children tours of the greenhouses, he challenges them to try to go two weeks without using plants, a challenge which makes them think about how much they rely upon the plant world for survival.

The photos below, which I took during the greenhouse tour, will show you some of the marvels that are housed in CU’s plant collections, and they are a sampling of the plants which have evolved and exist on our amazing blue marble.


Natural curls


Cactus with white fuzz and white flowers


Star shapes


An unusual plant with an unusual trunk


A ball shape


This is an example of an ant plant, which has large holes in its codex base.


This is a pair of Cuban Pako Palms, which are the same ages, and demonstrates how much better the plant thrives in the ground, versus a container.


A provocative smelling flower seeking to entice insects inside


Stripes


Exotic


A drama queen of color contrasts: green, pink, and purple!


Pieces of this plant, Lycopodium huperzin (from China), have been requested by a lab in another state for Alzheimer’s drug research, according to Lemieux.


Not only does this plant have fascinating spots and dots for adornment, it has red undersides to its leaves.


Interesting texture with bumps that look like reading braille – is this plant’s hallmark.


What kind of environment required this shape for survival? There are both leaf succulents, and stem succulents in the plant kingdom.


There were many plants with stickers in CU’s plant collection.

I took far more photos than this, and felt like a kid in a candy store while snapping one shot after another following the tour.

How noble is the plant kingdom!

A favorite Willa Cather quote of mine is, “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” What an enviable philosophy of life a plant has compared to we humans who are never satisfied with anything at all, always chasing after that which we think would make us happier or more comfortable instead of just blooming in place. Indeed, every plant has its story, but you are going to have to study it to learn what its story is, and even then, you’ll never know all of its secrets.