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A Breath of Fresh Air

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Adjacent to Interstate 295, in DC’s Anacostia neighborhood, hides a labyrinth of greenhouses that are home to some of the world’s most exotic and beautiful plants. The greenhouses form their own world with 17 unique environmental zones where the orchids radiate vibrant colors, the herbs emit a delicious aroma and the holiday spirit is alive year-round among the poinsettias.

At the U.S. Botanic Garden’s Production Facility, approximately 30,000 plants are either waiting their turn in the spotlight or retiring for rest and relaxation after their time on display at the Conservatory. Plants at the Production Facility are constantly under the watchful eyes of 25 U.S. Botanic Garden employees and 15 volunteers who work night and day to fulfill each species’ unique needs.

“Our gardeners bring a personal interest and passion for plants to their work,” said Bill McLaughlin, curator of plants. “They are personally invested in seeing the plants under their care thrive.”

Opened in 1994, the Production Facility is the largest greenhouse complex supporting a public garden in the United States. It houses 85,000 square feet under glass and is divided into 34 greenhouse bays. Each bay is adjusted to precise light, temperature and humidity settings to provide optimal conditions for its leafy residents.

“The Production Facility is the place to watch the entire plant life cycle, from seed or cuttings to specimen size,” said McLaughlin.

The staff and volunteers at the Facility are dedicated to ensuring the preservation of ecological treasures — those with historic value for the nation, and rare and endangered species from across the world. Still found at the Botanic Garden’s Conservatory and Production Facility are some of the original Wilkes plants, brought back in 1842 from the United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas (also known as the Wilkes Expedition) funded by Congress.

This expedition set sail on August 18, 1838, from Hampton Roads, Virginia, under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. During the expedition, more than 50,000 specimens of plants were pressed and 250 live plants were brought back. These living plants became the founding collection of the Botanic Garden in 1850. Four of these species are still under the care of the Botanic Garden: Angiopteris evecta (vessel fern), Cycas circinalis (sago palm), Encephalartos horridus (ferocious blue cycad), and Ziziphus jujube ‘Admiral Wilkes’ (jujube tree).

At the Production Facility, some of the world’s rarest plants are kept under safekeeping through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The CITES program, first established in 1963, aims to ensure that the international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Through this program, many rare or endangered orchids, cycads, cacti and carnivorous plants being transported illegally are seized at U.S. borders and given to the Botanic Garden for care in perpetuity.

“You never know what condition a CITES plant will be in when we receive it,” said McLaughlin. “They have often been mistreated after being smuggled across the border and then quarantined.”

Employees and volunteers nurture these plants, striving to bring them to a point where they are able to propagate and assist with the survival of the species.

With 28 years combined experience at the Botanic Garden, gardeners Clive Atyeo and Michael Spelta are most at home in the orchid house. Each day they work to identify incoming plants, water and feed the orchids, and help prepare them for the annual orchid exhibit. The exhibit is held from February through April and is cosponsored by the Botanic Garden and Smithsonian Institution.

“My mom bought me my first orchid when I was nine,” said Spelta, “and I became fascinated by this angelic plant, from the fragrance, to the shape, to the way they grow.”

The orchids they love haven’t always thrived here the way they do today. When the city tap water converted from chlorine to chloramine disinfection, orchid roots started burning at the tips, and the plants began declining.

The solution came from the installation of a new reverse osmosis water filtration system for the orchids in 2003, and expanded to the entire Facility in 2006. This innovative system clears out chloramine, bacteria and other minerals from the water and helps the Garden’s collection flourish. Since the introduction of this filtration system, the Botanic Garden added new species to the collection that could never survive before.

“The new filters also remove magnesium and calcium that binds to acidic soil, raising the pH and fueling microbes that then break it down too quickly,” said McLaughlin. “Plants that need very acidic soil, like the carnivorous plants, can literally rot when this goes on too long.”

“The water system has been a saving grace for the garden,” said McLaughlin. “It has improved the overall health of our plants and allows us to grow new plants like club mosses that were essential to making our primitive house work.”

Each March, the public is invited to visit the Botanic Garden’s Production Facility through an Open House event. During this event, visitors can meet the gardeners and see orchids, carnivorous plants, medicinal plants, and rare and endangered species not always on display at the Conservatory.

—Lori Westley
Foundations & Perspectives, Spring 2011 issue