Plants. With purpose.

Inside the Talcott Greenhouse, part of the Mount Holyoke College Botanic Garden

By Sasha Nyary 

Teaching European history this fall, Carolin Roeder wanted to illustrate the Age of Discovery to her class. So Roeder, a visiting lecturer in history at Mount Holyoke College, turned to the College’s Botanic Garden. 

“I was looking for insights into the importance of plant exploration and its influence on science, global trade, and culture,” Roeder said. She approached the Botanic Garden’s new director, Tom Clark. 

The class visited the Talcott Greenhouse, where Clark gave the students an overview of world history by describing the quest for and discovery of plants. He used examples from campus, including a striped maple near the northeast corner of Mary Lyon Hall, and a plant called Darwin’s orchid that lives in the greenhouse. 

“Studying the morphology of the flower and the flower’s exceedingly long spur,” Clark told the students, “Darwin theorized that it was pollinated by a moth with an equally long proboscis. Years after Darwin’s death, a moth of his description was discovered and confirmed his notion.” 

The Mount Holyoke Botanic Garden, which includes the Talcott Greenhouse, the adjacent mixed tree and shrub plantings, and various gardens, serves to support academic programs, said Clark, who assumed his new position this fall. 

“A botanic garden does more than simply display pretty plants, in which case it would be a park,” he said. “A botanic garden justifies its existence by maintaining a curated, purposeful collection of plants that serve to educate, conserve, engage, inspire, and act as a resource for a broad audience.” 

Mount Holyoke is among only a handful of liberal arts colleges with botanic gardens. The 1878 founding of the College’s Botanic Garden and the construction of the greenhouse complex in 1899 were continued steps in the College’s founding commitment to the particularly radical notion of teaching the sciences to women. Today the plant inventory includes 2,000 species of plants, with significant collections of orchids and succulents; a respectable sampling of economic plants such as coffee, cacao, and cinnamon; and a diverse range of plants both inside and outside the greenhouse. 

Traditionally, the Botanic Garden staff has worked most closely with the biological sciences and environmental studies departments. But increasingly, other programs, classes, and professors are utilizing its resources, including history and art studio classes. 

Clark was hired after oversight of the Botanic Garden was moved from facilities to the academic division last summer, said Gary Gillis, associate dean of faculty. 

“The purpose of the move is to highlight and emphasize the roles in which students and faculty engage with our Botanic Garden as part of their curricular and scholarly experiences,” said Gillis, who is also director of the Science Center and a biology professor. “We wanted to make sure that the new director understood our commitment to maintaining and building new connections between the Botanic Garden and our curriculum.” 

The model for integrating this resource into the curriculum is the College’s Art Museum, which is visited by classes across the departments, said Amy Frary, chair of the biochemistry program and a professor of biological sciences. 

“The Botanic Garden is very analogous to an art museum or a library,” said Frary, who serves on the facility’s advisory committee. “Only its collection is a living collection, which has its own special challenges. You’ve got to keep these specimens alive.”

A plant scientist, Frary uses the Botanic Garden in nearly every class she teaches, she said.

“For example, in my introduction to biology class, we focus on the biology of plants,” Frary said.“One lab is an adaptations scavenger hunt in the greenhouse. Students are asked to find a plant that uses camouflage. Find a plant that grows as an epiphyte, or find a carnivorous plant. They’ve learned about all the different structures and adaptations to different ecosystems in class. And then we go down to the greenhouse to see them. My goal is for the students to get to know the plants and appreciate them for what they offer beyond beauty.”

The greenhouse also provides Frary’s developmental biology class with hundreds of pea and bean plants that the students use for an independent project on plant hormones. Several other classes also use the facility in similar ways. 

The recent changes in the Botanic Garden are important, Frary says. She hopes they will lead to more faculty input into what plants would be useful to include in the collection. 

“The Botanic Garden is an academic collection that seeks to represent the teaching and research interests of the faculty,” she said. “Anthropology, chemistry, biochemistry, and any history class would get a lot out of using the Botanic Garden. It’s starting to be used more, which is wonderful. It’s such an incredible resource.”

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