Hidden in plain sight

Everybody knows Yale has galleries and museums. But most students leave Yale without ever noticing it also has a botanical garden—or seeing the pitcher plants, living stones, and miracle fruits that grow there.

Down the hill from Prospect Street, tucked in the shadow of the former Winchester gun factory, is one of Yale's hidden jewels. True, it lacks curb appeal. But don't let the chain-link fence, rutted driveway, or humble signage fool you. Yale's Marsh Botanical Garden, a sylvan eight-acre parcel of greenhouses and pocket gardens, is a living museum of botanical curiosities and a lush retreat, even in winter.

Marsh's four-person staff grows plants for botanical research by Yale faculty and provides hands-on instructional opportunities for biology classes from Yale and area high schools. And though few people know it, the gardens and greenhouses are free and open to the public, and staff members regularly give group tours by request.

The tour I took on a chilly January day began with a greeting from the local Marsh fauna—Eli, a resident tabby the size of a young bear cub—and proceeded to the meditation garden. This quiet area, enclosed by greenhouses and protected from street noise and winter winds, is dotted with benches and ringed with flowering plants that will start blooming in the spring. Next up was the growing area, where the staff cultivates plants, among them corn, rice, tomatoes, and cotton, that are used for research, instruction, and display. A scientist once asked the staff to grow opium poppies, said manager Eric Larson, but the Drug Enforcement Administration said Marsh would have to install fences and alarms. "We couldn't do that, even for research," Larson said.

En route to the desert room, Larson pointed out the orchid collection, a Wollemi pine (the species was once thought to be extinct), a cinnamon tree, and a tabletop waterfall. At the carnivorous plant collection, he brushed past the familiar venus flytrap to show off the pitcher plant, which captures its victims by luring them into a goblet-shaped trap. Although technically the plant is insectivorous, said Larson, the skeletons of small rodents and reptiles have been found within the traps.

Another tour attraction is the miracle fruit shrub. Larson gave visitors a small piece of the red berry and asked us to chew the fleshy pulp until it coated our tongues. Then he served lemon wedges. We bit in, and—yes, it did seem miraculous—the lemons were sweet. The berry alters the chemistry of taste receptors, an effect that lasts about an hour.

When not cultivating research plants, or caring for the Marsh specimens, the greenhouse staff pursues other projects. Research coordinator Christopher Bolick focuses on biological pest controls, including parasitic insects, predators, and insect diseases to control pests. As a result of Bolick's work, the greenhouse has cut its reliance on conventional pesticides by 80 percent.

Tim Nelson, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology who has been Marsh's director for the last decade, calls the facility "a microcosm of everything a botanical garden can provide."

Not too long ago, that was probably the last thing someone would have said about the place. The gardens were established in 1900, when Yale took possession of the Prospect Street mansion and adjacent property bequeathed to the university by Othniel C. Marsh '60, paleontologist and natural history professor. Marsh's intent was to provide a home for the fledgling School of Forestry and to start a botanical garden. Until the early 1940s, the gardens flourished under the attentive eye of noted landscape artist Beatrix Farrand, who created a formal garden and a rock garden, the vestiges of which still stand. But when the nation entered World War II, the garden entered a period of neglect. Not until the late 1990s did the first stages of planting hillsides, labeling specimens, and general renovation begin.

Today, Marsh supporters have visions of a renaissance. About five years ago, a master plan was developed in consultation with Yale faculty, facilities staff, the Olin Partnership, and Centerbrook Architects and Planners. It calls for a dilapidated brick building near the front entrance to be renovated and transformed into a visitors' center. That building would connect with a new conservatory, to be built on the site of two aging greenhouses.

The crumbling caretaker's cottage on the edge of the property would be torn down and a new one put up near the entrance. Other improvements would include burying the power and telephone lines, adding new flower beds, renovating the rock garden, and improving signage.

The changes are a long way off, but Larson is hopeful about Marsh's future. "Not just Yale, but all of New Haven," he says, "needs a botanic garden." 


Greens for research


Three times a week, 52 weeks a year for the past six years, Marsh Garden has provided Antonia Monteiro with young popcorn plants, the leaves of which she feeds to the African Satyrid butterflies she studies.

"It's an excellent collaboration," says Monteiro, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In her previous position, at the University at Buffalo, she had to grow her own corn. But Yale's greenhouse staff "takes care of the whole operation," including delivering the leaves to her lab in Science Park.

This ground support has enabled Monteiro to continue the work she began on the butterflies 20 years ago, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Lisbon, in Portugal. Last year, Monteiro's work led her to the provocative conclusion that temperature affects the butterflies' mating patterns. She and physics professor Hui Cao found that in wet, warm conditions, male butterflies aggressively pursued the females, while in cold, dry conditions, females are the aggressors. Both genders actively courted the opposite sex by flashing the eyespots on their wings to reflect UV light.

Ultimately, Monteiro hopes her research on wing patterns will shed light on "the big unknown in evolutionary biology"—the evolution of complex traits and how they originated. The popcorn plants are helping. 



Building a better biofuel

You wouldn't know it from all the giddy enthusiasm on display—"I love this project!" "It's a fun environment!"—but Tarpley Hitt (left), a junior at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, is engaged in some demanding research.

Working at the Marsh greenhouse with Alessandra Hogan, another Cross junior, Hitt is exploring how different growth conditions affect the cultivation of plants used for biofuel. Using a mutant plant genetically similar to saw grass (which can be fermented to produce ethanol), they are testing the plant's responses to four different conditions: dry, wet, sandy, and normal soil.

"What happens with the model is directly relatable to what would happen with the biofuel plant," says the girls' mentor, Mary DeRome, a senior scientist at Artificial Cell Technologies, Inc. But unlike the saw grass, the mutant plant lends itself to testing because it is small and grows quickly.

The girls visit the greenhouse three times a week to measure and water the plants. When the eight-week experiment is done, they will report their findings to the BrachyBio! project, affiliated with Cornell University. If the BrachyBio! scientists find the results interesting, they may use DNA sequencing to identify the genes altered by the mutations.

The girls also plan to enter their project in the citywide and state science fairs. DeRome has mentored Hitt and Hogan on other science projects over the years. But she considers this one to be "quite advanced."



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