Entering the glass greenhouse attached to the ground floor of Rhoades Robinson Hall, called the solarium, is entering another, greener world. The broad leaves of tropical plants wave gently in the humid air, and delicate orchids climb a wooden lattice mounted to the wall. Giant, orange trumpet-shaped flowers hang from above, and vines reach across the glass ceiling, winding and twisting around plant hangers. Big-bellied pitcher plants wait with their wide mouths open, ready for the next little bug to slip into their carnivorous vessels that are, in fact, modified leaves.. Every table is filled with potted plants of every size, from thorny cacti to the “sensitive plant,” (Mimosa pudica) whose leaves shrink away from the slightest touch. Somewhere hiding inside are ladybugs and praying mantises, and two tiny tree frogs.
Taking care of it all is UNC Asheville biology student Collin Perry, with the help of volunteers, who can be found frequently among the foliage. Perry, as well as graduated students Andy Warren and Kiki Yetman are credited with bringing the space back to life.
“We were all already plant nerds, so I think we compulsively felt like we needed to get these plants into a better condition, and a lot of that was Collin,” Warren said. “I think a large part of it was that compulsive desire to tend to our plant friends, and it just felt like a space that was not being utilized as well as it could have been…. It’s part passion project for us. And secondarily we realized how much it could be used by the department more in the curriculum and the greater campus community.”
The solarium is now home to several endangered plant species such as Sarracenia jonesii, a rare pitcher plant native only to a few scattered mountain bog locations in the southern Appalachians, and Spiraea virginjana, a rare riparian shrub. Both are being used by various classes and in undergraduate research projects. The space has served as a resource for others on campus, as well.It was a stop on the Healthy Campus Initiative garden tour, where participants were able to pot their own office plants. Juan Sanchez Martinez’s Arts 310 class, “Indigenous Perspectives on the Sky,” visited the solarium in the fall 2018 to explore plants of cultural importance and discuss views of various cultures. Jane Anderson with the Admissions and Financial Aid Department created several beautiful planters for their lobby using an assortment of solarium plants. And the solarium was featured on a Suwanee Sustainability tour last semester.
“There’s research that shows looking at plants and having them in your environment is relaxing and provides all these mental health benefits. We just want to include the solarium as an option for people to have a natural community to interact with on campus,” Warren said.
Perry says he benefits from his work in the solarium, as well. “I think I get a significant amount of serotonin from interacting with the dirt, I think from gardening and from trees and plants,” he said. There is a genus of mycobacterium found in healthy soil that seems to stimulate serotonin production, which leads to feelings of relaxation and satisfaction, Perry said. “I’ve found a lot of joy in doing that, and I think just tending a living thing is nice and fun.”
It’s a feeling he hopes to share with others on campus. The solarium now offers regular open hours for visitors during the spring 2019 semester: Tuesdays from noon-1 p.m. and Thursdays from 1-2 p.m., and by appointment. And faculty and staff on campus over summer 2018 were invited into the solarium for special open house, which quickly filled the solarium with curious visitors.
“I think before when the shades were down and it looked all sketchy, it actually created more of a mystery,” Warren said. “We’ve had people get so excited just seeing it, and I think that’s really cool, just to give people a place to experience these things that you’re not going to have access to in most places.”
As for their own favorite solarium species, Warren and Perry have a hard time choosing.
“Right now, I’m really loving this aechema,” Warren said. “It’s a bromeliad, and it’s flowering, and it has this big, bright pink fluorescence coming out of the center with these little beautiful purple flowers.”
“I’ve always been a tree guy,” Perry said, “but I think whenever I’ve dropped an insect into one of the Venus flytraps and see it close rapidly, I can’t help but get excited by that. ”