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A Fascination With Flora

The CBS Conservatory’s new curator wants to share the sense of wonder she found when she discovered the University’s unique “living collection” of plants from around the world.
 

Lisa Aston Philander


“My favorite spot is the desert room. It can be the middle of winter, and I can be standing in a desert, surrounded by big, spiky-thorned plants. I can travel the world, right here.”

Here’s the great thing about plants: they don’t bleed. That’s not the only reason that Lisa Aston Philander, the new curator of the CBS Conservatory, describes herself as dedicated “plant nerd.” But it’s an important characteristic for the woman who, halfway through a pre-med major at the University of Vermont, suddenly found herself fainting at the sight of blood. “I passed out while observing procedures in the operating room four or five times in a row,” she says. “I suddenly developed a very strong vasovagal response to blood.”So she couldn’t be a doctor. Now what? Aston Philander headed home to Minnesota and enrolled at the University as an environmental horticulture major. “I was taking all kinds of classes, including philosophy, oceanography and art,” she says. “Then I took a study abroad trip to Costa Rica to study tropical biology and conservation ecology, and it changed my life forever.” Aston Philander describes a trip to a botanical garden where she encountered a Mimosa pudica (sensitive plant), whose leaves fold in when touched. “It was the beginning of my fascination with plants,” she says.

Finding a calling

On her return, she became a student worker at the CBS conservatory and soon fell in love with the space. “This place is magic,” she says. One of her favorite duties was leading tours for school field trips. “There would always be one or two kids in every group who would beg me for extra seeds and cuttings to take home,” she recalls. “That experience sparked my desire to become a botanical educator.” With her focus shifting from actual bleeding hearts to those of the Lamprocapnos spectabilis variety, she began to realize that this was not just a fascination, but a calling.

After graduating with a B.S. in environmental horticulture in 2000, Aston Philander earned two master’s degrees – one from California Polytechnic University and one from University of Kent, Canterbury & Kew Gardens. She received her Ph.D. in Arid Lands Resource Sciences from the University of Arizona.

Role of a curator

She describes her new duties as similar to those of a curator at an art museum, but says, “in our case, it’s a living collection.” She hopes to introduce students and faculty to the value, wonder, and importance of plants as a learning resource, and urges everyone to pay a visit to the space that fostered her own love of plants. “You can feel transported to another place when you’re seeing chocolate pods or hanging orchids,” she says. “My favorite spot is the desert room. It can be the middle of winter, and I can be standing in a desert, surrounded by big, spiky-thorned plants. I can travel the world, right here.”

— Julie Kendrick / August 2015

Photo: Josh Kohanek