top of page

Signs of spring in FSU’s rooftop greenhouse

Plants in front of a glass window.
Courtesy of Henry Dickie

By Andrea O’Brien

Staff Writer

While many plants on campus are brittle and dead after the cold winter months, on the top floor of Hemenway Annex, over 30 species of plants are sprouting and growing in FSU’s rooftop greenhouses.

There are two separate greenhouses located in Hemenway Annex 634. The first room on the right is being used by research scientist and visiting lecturer Jessamine Finch, according to Cheng-Chiang Wu, assistant professor of biology and botany.

“Dr. Finch has been using that greenhouse for some studies, either for her own or for her mentor students to study germination of native plants,” said Wu.

Students also participated in a campus sustainability program mentored by Biology Professor Aviva Liebert, for which they cultivated plants in the greenhouse for the pollinators’ garden in the back of O’Connor Hall, he said.

Wu said he appreciates the generous support he has received from the Biology Department so he could purchase plants for the teaching lab.

As a graduate of Harvard University, where he got a Ph.D. in organic and evolutionary biology in 2018, Wu was able to bring some plants from Harvard as gifts for the collection in the greenhouse.

The second greenhouse contains a variety of plant species, including succulents, cacti, roses, lily pads, aloe vera plants, and prickly pear cactus fruits.  

This greenhouse is kept as warm as possible as it is meant to be a “semi-tropical” greenhouse, according to Henry Dickie, a junior biology major and student greenhouse worker.

To regulate the temperature, the thermostat is connected to a vent system inside the greenhouse so a temperature range can be set by opening or closing the vents based on the temperature it needs to be at for the plants, said Dickie.

The staff keeps this greenhouse at 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

Rachel Sharon, a senior biology major with a concentration in wildlife and environmental biology, is also a student greenhouse worker. She said she comes to the greenhouse about twice a week to check on the plants and water them.

“That is also in combination with Henry and Dr. Finch. I would say the plants probably get checked on at least every other day,” said Sharon.

She explained the number of times a plant gets watered depends on the plant.

Some of the plants need a lot of water so they are checked and watered at least every other day, while others, such as the aloe and cactus plants, are really “drought tolerant” so they are watered “maybe once a week, sometimes not even because they just don’t need it,” she said.

“Everything else is in between. I just look at them and assess them based on how their leaves look and their general vibe,” she said.

Sharon transferred to FSU from Mount Wachusett Community College where she took classes in horticulture and greenhouse management. She also worked for the Stearns Farm in Framingham.

“Because I have that experience with plants, I can tell how they are doing,” said Sharon.

Among the plants currently in the greenhouse, Sharon said her favorite one is the “sundew” plant, which is carnivorous, native, and found mainly in bogs.

Another plant Sharon pointed out is the “bird of paradise” flower.

“Its flowers are kind of sad looking right now, but the fresh bird of paradise flowers looks like a bird that is called the ‘birds of paradise,’” said Sharon.

“It’s a South American plant. I feel like whenever somebody gets a tropical bouquet, this type of flower is in it,” she said.

The greenhouse also contains a jimsonweed that is a “very dangerous plant,” according to Dickie.

A red flower.
Courtesy of Henry Dickie

“If given a big enough space, this plant will grow to be multiple feet in diameter and height. I will say, there was a toxin on every inch of this plant, and just 10 of the seeds from it are enough to kill someone,” he said.

“This is a very dangerous plant. That is why we no longer have dozens of them,” he continued.

One of the larger plants in the greenhouse didn’t have a tag on it, so no one knew exactly what species it was. However, a student from South America who came into the greenhouse recognized the plant as a “scarlet eggplant,” said Dickie.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s not related to an eggplant, but when it roots, which it doesn’t have the conditions to do here, it is a fruit that looks like an eggplant,” he said.

While there are currently over 30 species of plants in the greenhouse, the space was at its peak around 2014-2015, said Dickie.

He said when they built the lab building, they had set up an automatic watering system since no one could be in there, and it failed without anyone realizing.

“It pretty much went from a filled-to-the-brim, tropical greenhouse with countless invaluable plants, including some that were highly endangered, to almost nothing except for the cactuses, so that was unfortunate,” he said.

Sharon said she wishes more people on campus knew about the greenhouse.

Junior Eílish Heffernan said, “I had no idea there was a greenhouse on campus, and I’m in Hemenway every day. But I think it’s an awesome initiative and I’d like to hear more about it in the future.”

Senior Morgan Reen said, “I never knew there was a greenhouse on campus, but I’d be curious to check it out and see what’s in there. I definitely think it’s a cool idea.”

Sophomore Anita Loughlin said, “I have heard of the greenhouse, but I’ve never actually seen it. I’d be interested in seeing it and I think it should be more known across campus. I feel like it would be a breath of fresh air to get to see all of the plants growing in there.”

Sharon said, “I think it’s a really undervalued resource for the Biology Department and the University as a whole because it’s really great and it’s nice to be in here, especially in the winter when it’s so cold.”

She said she hopes the University will be able to improve the greenhouse even more in the coming years.

Wu said although the greenhouse needs a long-awaited renovation to make it more sustainable, economical, and useful for the learning and research needs of students, “not many higher-education institutions have greenhouses on campus nowadays, so we are fortunate to have one here.”


  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
bottom of page