Touring the Greenhouse Collections

environmental controls in the Desert Collection

The University of Toronto Growth Facilities are open to the public during the week. The four main collection areas: Tropical, Palm, Temperate, and Desert, are equipped with climate controls to approximate the conditions in nature. Here some highlights from a recent visit.

Tropical House

The collection includes carnivorous plants such as baby venus flytraps and pitcher plants. The pitcher plants, whose flowers can hold a lot of insect-trapping liquid, help manage pests in the greenhouse.

I also enjoyed the assortment of orchids which require little media. Some are planted in emptied coconuts and hanging baskets. The aerial roots gather moisture from the air.

Temperate House

bottle brush tree
bottle brush tree

In the midst of a winter snow storm, I enjoyed seeing wild and domestic strawberries in baskets and smelling the fresh basil.

This room houses bees leftover from a past research study. The bees were enjoying the rosemary too. Tom, the Horticulturalist, explained it helps keep them clean and healthy. The bees were also attracted to the bottle brush tree, which in the wild, is popular among hummingbirds due to the nectar droplets at the base of the brush-like flowers.

Palm House

Tom explained that some plants need both a male and female plant to reproduce. The drawback is that plants sometimes take many years to become established and depending on your luck, you may just end up with many plants of the same gender. Even if you do have plants of different genders, they may miss each other’s seasons. The two cocoa plants are never in sync for reproduction.

Anthurium and bougainvillia were in bloom. Like poinsettia, they have bracts or bright leaves around tiny flowers. It was also interesting to see interesting varieties of citrus including a lime and orange cross.

Tom pointed out the similarities between ginger and banana plants. I never realized before that it is uncommon for bananas to produce seeds. He also pointed out the palm tree roots which are adapted for loose soil and the palm branches which have evolved to avoid the damaging effects of high winds.

Desert House

While I am not generally a big fan of prickly things, I did enjoy the cacti collection including a donated barrel cactus estimated to be between 75-100 years old. I found the mother of the string of hearts that my daughters and I planted 20+ years ago. The desert collection includes many varieties of succulents and aloe.

Different species of plants can evolve in similar ways. Convergent evolution: plants evolve in such a way as to be beneficial to insects and the insects benefit the plants too.

Some plants from the sunflower family are actually cacti. They may start with leaves but eventually lose them to avoid losing too much moisture.

The Amazing Growth Leaders

In addition to his work with the plants, University Horticulturalist Thomas Gludovacz is the Teaching Collection and Growth Facilities multimedia person. You’ll find a lot of interesting photos of the collection on the site that he maintains as well as some good tips for dealing for pest management, details of current research and highlights of what is in bloom.

The horticulturalists are really good at maintaining life other than plant life too. In addition to the resident bees, 30 year old turtles occupy the premises. Although they have no specific purpose in relation to the plants, they were brought over when the collection was moved to the newest location 16 years ago.

Horticulturalists are still learning too! Work is ongoing to identify some of the plants in the collection of more than 450 varieties.

Thanks again to Tom and Chief Horticulturalist Bill Cole. They are happy to share their passion for growth with others, like me, who are enchanted by plants. It was a marvelous way to spend a winter morning.



    1. Yes, the bees seem pretty happy in there! The horticulturalists are also planning on planting a pollinator garden on a balcony this spring as there is an apiary close by.


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