In temperate areas, the growing season is only so long, and the plants that can be grown are limited by their hardiness in local soils and climates. Enter the greenhouse: using temperature and humidity controls, we can grow nearly any type of plant year-round within glass walls! Greenhouses have been essential in increasing food production as well as in maintaining collections of rare plants from around the world. In the cold of winter, it’s amazing to think that plants that naturally grow only in the most arid deserts can be found in glass houses just down the road. When I visit botanic gardens, I always make a point to spend significant time in the greenhouses, and I never miss a trip to a local conservatory. Feeling the warm air, seeing the unique plants, it is an experience that can be special and can connect you to far-away places. Greenhouses provide an opportunity to connect with the earth you might not expect.

Greenhouses at botanical gardens, like the Bolz Conservatory at the Olbrich Gardens, often house plants from faraway locales, creating little tropical or desert paradises to showcase unique and rare plants from ecosystems very different from the local climate, an opportunity for us to see how the world looks and survives in places totally different than our own. These greenhouses, both public and the private growing facilities, allow us to grow and maintain collections of rare plants, so that scientists can study them around the world and to help preserve rare species from extinction. When I worked at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, I had the opportunity to visit the non-display growing facilities and see some of the rare plants, including ones with very unique growing conditions that required lots of upkeep and many years to mature (like the Corpse Flower, check out this link from the US Botanic Garden to see more about the unique nature of this long-lived plant!). Greenhouses showcase the diversity and endless possibility of life on earth and how organizations dedicated to botany are helping to preserve wildlife. Plus, Olbrich Gardens offers virtual “Garden to Glass” tours of their conservatory, so you can explore and learn more about the tropical plants from home too!

Here’s one they did on gingerbread:

Greenhouses are not only for exotic plants – they also give us the ability to grow food year round, a tremendously valuable thing. Organizations like Rooted in the Madison area use their greenhouses (and farms) to provide food to the local community (over 15,000lbs this year!), and lots of other organizations across the US and the world do similar work, including the Farm on Ogden in Chicago. They not only provide access to fresh food but also provide community support in healthy eating and nutrition. This is exactly the way that greenhouses allow us to connect with the earth and each other in ways that really make a difference.

Appreciate the power of plants next time you have the chance. Maybe you’d even like to make your own little greenhouse, perhaps to have your own fresh tomatoes and lettuce, or even start a collection of tropical plants, like a former boss of mine who hoped to one day get enough coffee beans from his coffee plant to brew a cup!

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Lia Tziortzis has been Nature Net’s intern since August 2020.
She is dedicated to promoting environmental education for all.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog
is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.