Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Millington Greenhouse

Finally! I've lived within a mile of William & Mary's Millington greenhouse for about 14 years, but I've never gotten around to seeing it. On the advice of Beth Chambers, I called up the greenhouse manager and arranged a tour. Although winter is not the best time to visit if you're looking for blooms, it is a good time to get out of the cold and lift your spirits.

The greenhouse is barely visible on top of Millington Hall. The white zigzaggy structure is the roof of the greenhouse. It was started by biology professor Dr. Martin Mathes in 1969.
To me, the geometric design has a retro James Bond vibe and it's not hard to imagine Dr. No hatching a nefarious plot up there. What actually happens there is more benign.
Photo taken from W&M website

The greenhouse is used by faculty and students for research, and the botany club uses a corner of the greenhouse to try out plants. It's also now used to start plants for William & Mary's community garden, which provides a source of locally grown herbs and vegetables for the campus.

The 4,000 s.f. greenhouse houses a nice collection of pantropical plant families and maintains three specimens of each species, avoiding named cultivars and varieties. Cacti, agaves, bromeliads and succulents get the full force of the sun on the south side while ferns and their allies, shaded by filter fabric, line the back wall. In the middle is a atmospheric orchid room with a small papyrus-filled pond. Next to the sink in the work room you can find a nice queen sago (Cycas circinalis).
My sketches always tilt to the right

Unfortunately, the building is a little worn out; the automatic windows no longer operate and there are no air circulation fans. Heat comes from air blown over hot water pipes, but the heat no longer reaches the center of the greenhouse. As a result, it can get fairly cold in winter, as low as 47°. The good news is that a new greenhouse is scheduled for a future expansion of the ISC.

Here are some of the plants I came across when I visited in mid-December:
On the south side of the greenhouse was a propeller plant (Crassula falcata). It had just finished blooming, but the flower head still had an attractive cinnamon color.
Nearby, this cute little cactus (possibly Mammillaria angelensis) had festive berry-like fruits.
Another side of the greenhouse have many specimens of Sansevieria in bloom (snakeplants and mother-in-laws tounge),
and this coffee plant (Coffea arabica), which had produced many red drupes (unlike last year). I don't know if they've ever tried roasting them.
Next to that was a variegated hibiscus with a lovely red flower.
This cardboard palm (Zamia furfuracea) had large cones growing, though I'm not sure if it was a male or female plant. Anyone know?
Here's a remnant of a voodoo lily flower (Amorphophallus bulbifer). The greenhouse also has a specimen of A. titanum, although it was completely dormant when I was there. A. titanum is the kind you occasionally hear about on the news—they have the world's largest unbranched inforescence, and they're mighty stinky.
In the orchid room there was one pristine white orchid blooming.
It was watched over by a silent, unblinking owl draped in Spanish moss.
In the work room was an unusual plant, Butcher's Broom (Ruscus hypoglossum). It looked like it had flowers in the middle of it's leaves, but those aren't actually leaves, they're cladodes, which are type of flattened stem. The leaves are the tiny appendages right next to the spent flowers.
All of these plants are carefully watched over by part-time manager Patty White-Jackson, who's been working there a year and a half. She's a Virginia Tech grad, and also has her own business as an interior plantscaper. At the greenhouse she has to deal with many tricky issues like less than ideal temperatures and the typical pest problems of aphids, scale and white flies. To fight insects, Patty likes to use an organic approach with Neem Oil, but she'll use insecticides if necessary.
Patty gets help with watering from a W&M student, and a few recently graduated James City County students help out with cleaning and earn job-training credits.

If these pictures have piqued your interest, and you want to see the greenhouse yourself, give Patty a call at 757-221-1819 or email her at I'm sure she can help you out!

You can see more photos of the greenhouse on flickr.


Janet said...

what a fun visit. I went with the Master Gardeners a long time ago...going with a group of more than 5 is not good. Would love to go again as I have learned so much over the years. My snake plant has bloomed twice in the 10 years I have had it. Not sure what I did (or didn't do) to help it bloom.
You should have invited a friend or two to go with you ...I can think of at least one.... ;-)

Aerelonian said...

Looks like a really nice place. It's interesting to see a lot of the same plants that we have at UWO.

danger garden said...

Thank you for taking us along! Although I sense a bit of favoritism in the flicker photo links! Why no agave link!!! :) Are you not a friend of the agave? (kidding)...

Beth in VA said...

Great photos. Love the right-tilted sketch Phillip!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful winter trip. I often go visit the Cornell greenhouse at lunch (where I first met Ellis Hollow Craig in person), and you've inspired me to post about it. Hope they get some heat working again! p.s Open ID isn't showing my name correctly as Lynn

How It Grows said...

Lynn - thanks for stopping by! I'll keep an eye out for Cornell greenhouse story...

DG - I love agaves, I just forgot to get some pictures. I'm so ashamed.