A Plant-astic Plan

August 24, 2015
A new CBS Conservatory would expand access to a unique collection of rare and endangered plants to more researchers, students and the public. 
Barringtonia racemosa

A new conservatory building would ensure optimal conditions for rare and unusual plants such as the Barringtonia racemosa (pictured).

“We’ve done all that’s possible to repair the building, but it’s time for us to have a new structure.”

There’s one place on campus where it’s possible to travel the world right in a single building, surrounded by exotic greenery from some of the most beautiful places on earth. That place is the CBS Conservatory, which recently announced the appointment of Lisa Aston Philander as its new curator. After working at the conservatory as an undergraduate, Aston Philander has returned to one of the places that nurtured her early love of plants. “This place is magic,” she says.

The conservatory’s collection, one of the most diverse in the region, contains more than 1,200 species of plants, including rare, endangered and invasive species. There are plants with developing economic potential and clones of original genome sequenced accessions. “Some of these plants will blow your mind,” says Plant Biology department head Gary Muehlbauer.

New building needed

But that impressive collection is housed in a building that has fallen into severe disrepair, with structural problems and a crumbling foundation. It may be a greenhouse, but the existing CBS Conservatory building is anything but green. “The building is one of the biggest energy drains on campus,” Muehlbauer says. “Inefficient systems make it difficult to keep some of the rooms at the temperature they require, especially during the coldest months. It’s falling apart.”  

“We’ve done all that’s possible to repair the building, but it’s time for us to have a new structure,” says Muehlbauer. He’s hoping that a solution will arrive from the Minnesota legislature, with the inclusion of funding for a new plant collections building in the bonding bill under consideration for the upcoming legislative session.

A new building to serve science

The proposed structure would include 6,700 square feet of glass space for growing plants and 2,100 square feet of supporting space for small labs, potting and offices. Plans call for a four-biome structure that includes dedicated growing space for students to grow plants during experiments. “We’re very cramped now, and students don’t have the space they need,” Muehlbauer says.

One of the best things about the new conservatory is its proposed location, which will bridge departments and disciplines. Instead of an isolated building, the new structure will be integrated with existing facilities for teaching and research,” says George Weiblen, a professor with a joint appointment in the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences. “It will demonstrate, with living examples, how fundamental discoveries are translated into economic and environmental solutions for Minnesota. When we build this new conservatory, we’ll be able to breathe new life into our diverse encyclopedia of rare and spectacular plants.”

Global collection, local impact

If a new building is approved for funding, Muehlbauer hopes to be able to spread the word that this incredible resource is open to the public. “We conduct tours, and hold periodic open houses, which are very popular,” he says. “It’s important for everyone, not just students and teachers, to have the opportunity to experience the diversity of plants from all over the world.”

For now, Muehlbauer must still contend with patching and repairing the current structure. “And in the meantime, all our cooled or heated air is escaping,” he says. He urges anyone who supports the project to contact their legislator about the importance of a new conservatory as a resource for the University and the state.

— Julie Kendrick / August 2015