A variety of plants inside of greenhouse
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Go behind the scenes at Pitt's teaching greenhouse, where it's never winter

  • Technology & Science
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

No matter how frigid and gray it is in Pittsburgh, there’s one room on campus where it’s easy to forget about the winter weather. In fact, peering through thick layers of foliage in the muggy rooftop greenhouse, it feels more like you’re on a tropical vacation.

“You can’t be upset in this room,” said Laurie Follweiler, the greenhouse manager in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s green, it’s lush, it’s the opposite of what’s going on outside right now.”

Follweiler has managed the Department of Biological Sciences’ greenhouses on the roof of Langley Hall for close to five years. In several of those spaces, faculty members and student researchers run experiments on rows of nearly identical-looking plants in carefully controlled climates.

The teaching greenhouse is just the opposite: Each way you look brings into view a riot of shapes and colors. You might glimpse the broad leaves of a bird of paradise plant and turn around to spot a bulbous lithops succulent, named for its rocklike appearance. There are cacti soaking up the sun, purple and white orchids adorning the walls and even a plant bearing “miracle berries” that when eaten warp sour foods into sweet-tasting ones.

The room hosts introductory biology labs and botany courses where students learn about the diversity of plants. Follweiler cares for the plants and fields requests from instructors for new ones that are useful for teaching botanical concepts.

In that, Follweiler and her two student assistants have their work cut out for them. Growing plants that are adapted for deserts, swamps and rainforests all in the same space could push the limit of even the greenest thumb. And then there’s the critters. “With the humidity and all of that fresh growth, it’s also the perfect environment for pest issues,” Follweiler said.

So keeping the greenhouses green takes lots of careful work, giving each plant the water, light and nutrients it needs while also fighting a never-ending battle against insects and plant infections.

Follweiler isn’t bothered by it, though. “I just work with what I have,” she said. “This room is my happy place.”


Patrick Monahan