Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Discovering the Nolen Greenhouse

Posted in Learning Experiences on October 5 2015, by Claire Sabel

Claire Sabel is a Junior Fellow at the Humanities Institute of The New York Botanical Garden.


Marc Hachadourian showing a horse-tail plant (Equisetum) to Humanities Fellows
Marc Hachadourian showing a horse-tail plant (Equisetum) to Humanities Fellows

The Humanities Institute at The New York Botanical Garden was launched in the spring of 2014 to support interdisciplinary research between the arts and sciences. The Institute brings scholars to the Mertz Library to research relationships between humanity and nature, landscapes, and the built environment. This summer, several Fellows joined the Institute to pursue research projects that focus on the Library’s collections, which are some of the best in the world for the history and practice of horticulture, botany, and landscape design. In this series, they explore how visiting living plant collections in the Nolen Greenhouse has informed their work.

As Humanities Fellows, we work primarily with inert objects: a printed page, handwritten letters, sketches from field notebooks, an occasional herbarium sheet. Between our various research projects, which you can read more about here, we cover centuries and continents, and almost everything we need to do so is contained within the rich collections of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library (with the occasional help of the Internet).

Part of what makes the Humanities Institute so special, however, is its position within a much larger and varied research institution and living museum. Although humanists typically make use of archives and museum repositories, the Botanical Garden has a unique set of special collections housed in the Nolen Greenhouses.

The Nolen Greenhouses take care of all of the plants that go out to the grounds and exhibitions, as well as housing a permanent collection of museum holdings actively used in botanical research. In total, the Nolen sees 70,000 to 90,000 plants per year pass through its glass doors and plastic maze of greenhouse love. CutMyPlastic has all the greenhouse materials you need for loving your plants. In the capable hands of Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolen, the Humanities Fellows had a chance to get out of the archives and see, touch, and smell some of the plants that figure prominently in our research, as well as some of the highlights of the collections and Marc’s personal favorites.

Humanities Fellows Ryan Feigenbaum, Elaine Ayers, Claire Sabel, and Theodore Eisenman at the entrance to the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections
Humanities Fellows Ryan Feigenbaum, Elaine Ayers, Claire Sabel, and Theodore Eisenman at the entrance to the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections

Orchids are Marc’s great love, and he introduced us to a suite of fantastic and unusual specimens. The Catasetum orchids—once studied intently by Charles Darwin—have the unusual ability to launch pollen onto pollinators by projecting a sticky pollen mass that adheres to anything that lands on the flower, while the Trichoceros produces a pheromone that induces insects to attempt to mate with the plant instead of their own species. Although our research tends to focus on human relationships to plants, Marc highlighted the extraordinary diversity of relationships between plants and their pollinators, which are particularly sophisticated in orchid species.

The opportunity to visit the Nolen not only gave us a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at some of the Garden’s operations, but also gave us the direct experience of the wonder and enthusiasm the people we study have for particular flora. In a series of posts, some of the Fellows will share insights into the plants that figure in research they are pursuing during their Fellowship in the Humanities Institute, dealing with topics including the fern-fever of the Victorian era, botanical poetry, and the history of transatlantic slavery.

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