History of Greenhouse and Conservatory | Plant Biology | SIU

Southern Illinois University



College of Agriculture, Life and Physical Sciences

History of Greenhouse and Conservatory

The current Plant Biology Greenhouse and Conservatory facility includes four inter-connected houses that allow the culture and propagation of a diverse collection of plants. These plants are essential elements in the research and teaching missions of the Department and are utilized in one way or another by essentially all professors, graduate students and undergraduates. But the services provided by these facilities and staff go beyond the Department in that people both on and off campus benefit from the collection. For example, students from other programs ranging from Plant, Soil & General Agriculture, Geology and Art & Design utilize the collection in diverse ways. Important University events such as graduation are enriched by foliage plant set-ups grown in this facility and artfully arranged by the Plant Biology Greenhouse staff. These staff members also provide community outreach in the form of primary and secondary school tours, help with junior college class projects, and by freely giving advice on plant culture to anyone who asks. For these reasons, this facility is an integral component of our Department, University and community.

The current physical arrangement of houses and the collections they contain represent the culmination of a gradual process that occurred over the past 60 years. Originally, three glass houses (the ones oriented east to west) were constructed in the late 1940s. These houses were used mainly by the University Grounds department to produce bedding plants for outdoor gardens around campus. Prior to 1946, the Botany Department (as it was then called) had only four or five faculty members (History of the Department). At that time, the mission of the Department was mainly towards teaching. In 1946 William Bailey retired and was succeeded as chair by Walter B. Welch. It was during his tenure as chair that the Department transitioned from a teachers college to a more research-oriented department offering graduate degrees (the first given in 1948). At this time the Department apparently shared space in the three greenhouses with the Grounds Department. But it soon became clear that those facilities were insufficient for the needs of both groups, for in 1950 another house was built (oriented north to south) that connected the existing three. At that time the faculty greenhouse Director was Assistant professor William M. Marberry. The greenhouse was under the jurisdiction of the Physical Plant and control was not turned over to the Botany Department until 1972. In terms of the day-to-day operations of the facility, staff such as Robert James was employed as Chief Gardener. Being that he was also a Reverend in the Shilo Missionary Baptist Church in Murphysboro, Mr. James saw connections between the natural and spiritual worlds. Mr. James, quoted in the July 24, 1975 Daily Egyptian newspaper article, said “There are certain requirements in both fields. In the spiritual field, you have to give people something tangible to hold fast to. With plants you have to supply fertilizer, water and air.”

Mr. James remained with the Botany greenhouse for 27 years. Upon his retirement in 1977 his position was filled by Eugene (Geno) S. Gillooly. In the mid 1970s the greenhouse had grown significantly with respect to the plant collection. In the August 2 1985 SIU Courier article, Geno recalls that in past years, 32 students worked in the greenhouse. Much of this activity and interest can be attributed to Robert H. Mohlenbrock who is best known for his work documenting the flora of Illinois. He and his students had a profound interest in what is today called “biodiversity” (at that time, taxonomy and systematics). In fact, Botany 308 “Taxonomy of Cultivated Plants” extensively utilized the vast greenhouse collection, estimated to be 1200 species at that time and as many as 2000 by 1985. In 1982 there existed outside the greenhouse 18 “mini-gardens”, including an African savanna, a Japanese garden (constructed by Robert Mohlenbrock’s son Mark), a prairie and an Alpine garden. Unfortunately, after 1985 changes in faculty composition and interest translated into budgetary cuts to the greenhouse. With fewer staff, many of these specialty gardens could not be maintained and were eventually neglected. In 1990 the prairie still existed to the west of the greenhouse. But the need to burn the prairie to maintain its species composition (remove invasives and woody species) conflicted with campus safety policies and it was eventually converted to a lawn.

The Plant Biology Greenhouse received a “shot in the arm” with the hire of Richard Cole in November 1993. Rich was hired because of his experience in commercial and wholesale greenhouse production as well as his degree in horticulture (1989, Murray State Univ.). As described in the June 23, 1994 Daily Egyptian article entitled “Greenhouse thrives on research, interest”, this facility provided critical space for research projects by Plant Biology faculty. At that time the Department also hoped to expand the outside flower gardens and increase the diversity of the collection. Indeed, this is exactly what happened over the following years. Rich Cole’s dedication to the facility, plus his enthusiasm for obtaining and maintaining unusual plants, has resulted in the collection growing again in size and diversity.