A blossoming attraction: ‘Plant of the Week’ installation educates on flora

Courtesy of Monika Sweeney ’24.

Whether you are cutting through the Bridge to get to Central Receiving, stopping there to grab a cup of coffee or planning to peer off the balcony and watch students do tricks on their skateboards, you should take some time to stop and smell the roses.

Since her arrival at Vassar as the plant biology laboratory technician and greenhouse and phytotron manager for the Biology Department, Taylor Conte has meticulously set up a Plant of the Week exhibition each week since her arrival at Vassar last fall. “I love that [the project] strips away the intrinsic appropriation that once was heavily associated with plant collecting,” said Conte. She continued, “It showcases how valuable each individual species is to the world around it.”

Students have begun to take notice. Allison Deutsch ’23 said, “It can be so hard to find little things to make us smile during this really stressful semester, but Plant of the Week is such a lovely way to remember the little and glorious things along the way.” Kyra Hoffman ’24 expressed a similar sentiment: “The Plant of the Week is such a great way to connect students with the environment in a fun way—I love learning something new every time I walk by!”

Conte’s inspiration for this project came from Field Station and Ecological Preserve Manager Keri VanCamp, who had been keeping this tradition alive prior to Conte’s arrival at Vassar.

The project was first started in the early 2000s by Cheryl Hearty, the Greenhouse Manager at the time. Before the Bridge was built, this exhibition took place in the Olmsted Lobby. VanCamp then continued this tradition on a semi-regular basis from 2006 to 2018. “I always felt it was a way to engage a broader audience in the amazing living teaching collection that lives in our greenhouse,” VanCamp commented. Upon hearing about the project, Conte fell in love with the idea and decided to start it up again. She is eager to continue working on Plant of the Week for the rest of her time at Vassar.

Displayed near the front entrance of the Bridge, the Plant of the Week’s current setup consists of the showcased plant on a pedestal with flyers nearby providing QR codes and a Plant of the Week write-up. The QR codes supply spectators with a Plant of the Week PDF containing in-depth info as well as some quick facts via Instagram. The write-up, which sits beneath the QR codes, delves into each plant’s rich background—covering the plant’s family, country of origin, growing conditions, physical description, taxonomy, ecology, range and research done with said vegetation. For example, last week’s plant, the Muehlenbeckia platyclada, resembles a mass of tapeworms and has been discovered to have anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive properties.

These showcased plant paradigms are selected each week from the Vassar Biology Greenhouse, namely from the living museum collection. Many museum collections have foundations built upon “exotic” species, as Conte explained. As a result, many of these species have been cultivated merely for their aesthetically pleasing appearance, which completely erases their rich histories. Displaying an individual plant each week while simultaneously educating the Vassar community about its function, biology and use in today’s world brings back some of these forgotten histories. Conte noted, “The Plant of the Week is a way of displaying the collection while aiding our community to learn more about the plants they perceive as beautiful. It provides reason to value the land each plant is endemic to.” Additionally, with this project, Conte aims to give students a chance to see the many opportunities within plant biology research that they could someday explore on their own.

When choosing which plant to display, Conte admits she is a bit biased toward flowering plants. “[These] can be extremely helpful for those wanting to learn proper identification,” said Conte. She also ensures that every plant she picks is able to survive outside the greenhouse’s rigidly regulated settings. So far, Conte has been the only person involved with this task, but she took care to note that she is open to any input from members of the Vassar community.

Despite not having a favorite plant, some of Conte’s most treasured greenery displayed this semester include Dracaena liberica; Ceropegia ampliata, known as the Bushman’s Pipe; Begonia “Tie Dye”; Anacampseros rufescens, whose flowers only open from the afternoon to early evening; Plumeria spp.; Muehlenbeckia platyclada; and Cereus repandus var. monstrosus, a mutant cactus. In terms of plants on display last year, some highlights were Ananas comosus var. microstachys, Cymbidium ensifolium x C. Enid Haupt, the tentacle-like Euphorbia esculenta, Huperzia phlegmaria, Lithops spp., Mammillaria plumosa, disk-shaped Pilea peperomioides and Pinguicula moranensis.

Conte hopes that the Plant of the Week Exhibition will inspire those in our community and beyond to think more about plant life and specifically reflect upon the harmful effects one’s plant collection or backyard garden can have on the local flora and fauna. “I hope it shows the value in ensuring all plants and the ecosystems they are a part of will be here for generations to come,” she shared. So next time you are in the Bridge, do not forget to take some time to stop and smell the roses—or if you were in there last week, the Muehlenbeckia platyclada.

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