woman in peplum dress standing by large banana tree, 1940s
The Global Flora Collection of the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses will rehouse and reimagine Wellesley’s permanent plant collections.

The mission of the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens, of which the greenhouses are a crucial part, is to increase participation in science by engaging people with a diverse array of outstanding botanical resources for teaching, research, and exploration; and to promote scientific and environmental literacy in the College and broader communities, using aesthetic appeal and innovative programming to stimulate interest in the natural world.

The Global Flora project enables the greenhouses to provide three exciting new opportunities (above and beyond replacing current failing infrastructure) to further that mission: a new focus for the “botany museum” function that is of interest for both science and art; a new node for interdisciplinary science research and teaching; and an innovative example of sustainable design that lends itself to study.

Museum Focus: The Stories of Form        

Plants wear their history in their form–both the evolutionary history of the species and the growth history of the individual in its particular environment. Plants have an amazing diversity of forms, with different lineages solving challenging environmental conditions in a variety of ways. In order for this diversity of plant form to be revealed, plants need the time and space to respond to their environmental conditions. For example, in the greenhouse there is a fiddle-leaf fig, Ficus lyrata, that has been growing in the ground there for decades, and now has noticeable buttress roots–a characteristic of tropical trees rarely observed outside of the tropics. The explicit focus on form provides a unifying theme for the collection, helps navigate the array of variation on display, and connects directly to the revolutionary thinking of Goethe on this subject.

The Global Flora collection will be a series of indoor landscapes, approximating the physical conditions to which focal plants are adapted so as to encourage the development of relevant adaptive features. The physical conditions will be relatively well understood, with known types and volumes of soils installed and then intensively monitored. Overlaying a diversity of organisms on a range of well-characterized physical habitats enables a wide range of studies, which can support the development of these “indoor ecosystems” over time as our understanding of them increases. Visitors will be immersed in the diversity of plants and in the investigations happening around them, affording new perspectives on plants and "nature brought indoors."

Interdisciplinary Science

Think of the built environment as an ecosystem–who else lives there besides humans?  What if we selectively brought more “nature” inside? Houseplants are known to improve indoor air quality; what additional “ecosystem services” might increased biodiversity provide indoors?

Reimagining indoor plants as members of ecosystems that include humans, rather than as individual specimens in pots, opens up many interesting lines of investigation. Assembling diverse global plant communities on a small scale in a greenhouse enables study of the interactions among organisms–not necessarily as they would occur in “nature,” but as they do occur indoors in New England year-round, with implications for pest and disease management in indoor environments. Associated diverse microbial communities–“microbiomes –may mitigate human pathogens and immune responses better than do attempts to sterilize indoor environments. Also, documented benefits of contact with nature for humans include reduced stress and improved ability to focus, but the mechanisms of these effects are not well understood. These are hot topics, very appealing to students, and well suited to interdisciplinary teaching and research, including at the introductory level. The Global Flora houses will include many places for people to sit, and gathering spaces for groups.

Sustainable Design

Relative to other institutional buildings, greenhouses are simple structures with outsized energy and water needs–excellent candidates for innovation in sustainable building. Minimizing ongoing dependence on fossil fuels and the campus water supply will be primary drivers of the overall greenhouse design (e.g., size, material and orientation of glazing should combine to maximize sunlight penetration while minimizing heat exchange, and rainwater and graywater capture should meet much of the irrigation demand). To reduce energy demands, we will not seek to achieve difficult climatic conditions such as in alpine zones or truly tropical rainforests, instead restricting the plant collection to those that can withstand substantial variation in temperature, humidity, and day length. We will think of energy and water as systems that interact with each other and with the organisms, and make these systems as accessible as possible for monitoring and study. The building and its systems will interest students of engineering and architecture as well as science.