A Living Cathedral: New Global Flora Collection Celebrates Plant Diversity

The botanic gardens director works with students in global flora. They are holding notebooks.
Photo provided by Webb Chappell
November 21, 2019

This is an excerpt from an article by Catherine O’Neill Grace that appears in the fall 2019 issue of Wellesley magazine.

In summer and early fall, the translucent walls of the Global Flora Conservatory at the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses are obscured by trees, so a casual stroller on campus might miss the new structure entirely. But it’s well worth a detour up Science Hill. Up close, the steel frame clad in high-tech plastic is breathtaking, riding the curve of the ridge outside the Science Center and soaring to 40 feet at its southwest end. For visitors accustomed to the Victorian-style glasshouses that had held Wellesley’s botanical specimen plants for so many decades, the new space is nothing less than mind-boggling.

This fall, a short punch list of items—including installation of a mural by Associate Professor of Art David Teng Olsen and students in his Digital Imaging class in the curved hallway, known as “the link,” through which visitors will enter—remained to be completed. But plants were settling into their beds and putting out new growth, the iconic Durant camellia, estimated to be 150 years old, was thriving in its new circular pavilion, and staff members and students were tucking a few more plants into beds.

“The whole idea is celebrating diversity in plant form,” says Kristina Niovi Jones, director of the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens, who has shepherded the Global Flora project for more than a decade. Plants wear their history in their form—both the evolutionary record of the species and the growth history of the individual in its particular environment—she explains.

A Place to Grow

Entering Global Flora from the link is akin to stepping into a desert environment. The dry biome section of the structure is arid and warm; cacti in an array of shapes and sizes line beds set off by ledges of stone. A variety of epiphytes and ferns suspended on a wall dangle their graceful tendrils. Slatted benches set into the low stone walls around the beds invite visitors to sit—and also serve a practical purpose, as their seats can be lifted for access to water and hoses in one section and connections for the sophisticated electronics monitoring the air and soil in the other. High overhead, fans whir and sensors that monitor temperature and humidity hang from the ceiling.

A few steps bring a visitor into the wet biome, where a recently installed towering tree fern has already sent new growth—enormous, curving fiddleheads—reaching toward the ceiling. “That one came from UConn, and it actually had been hitting the roof of their greenhouse,” says Jones. “Now it’s as if it’s saying, ‘Oh, headspace!’”

Referring to plants as sentient beings is habitual with Global Flora staff members, who keep a close eye on every living thing in the collection, from Aloinopsis malherbei (giant jewel plant) to Xerosicyos danguyi (silver dollar plant).

Read the full story on the Wellesley magazine website.

Photo: Kristina Niovi Jones, director of the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens, works with students.