SUBROSA
Number 43   July - August 2005
                 

LIFE INSIDE THE HUNTINGTON CONSERVATORY

By Kitty Connolly


The Huntington’s Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory, opening October 7, 2005 is an innovative new science center with living collections organized into habitat galleries and a Plant Lab. There’s been a lot of discussion of the more than fifty science exhibits going inside, but when I talk to people one question keeps coming up, “What will it feel like?”

Hot and humid! That’s what people were saying in June when we hadn’t even cranked up the humidity. When you are trying to simulate tropical environments, you are going to create some pretty muggy spaces.

A little uncomfortable to us, maybe, but heaven for the plants. The Conservatory will allow us to expand our collections to include plants that are too tender to grow outside even in our mild climate. The central rotunda will hold plants from the tropical rain forests around the world, including the giant water lily from Brazil, sealing wax palm from Southeast Asia, and traveler’s palm from Madagascar. The room will have a relative humidly of around 85% and daytime high temperature around 85º F. Mist nozzles in the rotunda dome will spray the room with purified water to keep it damp. It will feel like a rain forest all right.

In the west wing, the Cloud Forest Gallery will be cooler, but very misty. Ceiling misters will be supplemented by ground fog. A low, dense forest draped in mosses, bromeliads, orchids, ferns, and tropical pitcher plants will create the feeling of being high on a tropical mountain slope, up where the clouds run right into you. With daytime highs around 70º F, this room will be so damp that we aren’t even planning on putting any benches in it: it’ll be too wet to sit down.

At the far end of the west wing, the Bog Gallery will be much more like our ambient temperatures. The plants in this room are from bogs in the Southeast U.S.; think coastal Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Carnivorous plants are the stars here: Venus’ flytraps, American pitchers plants, sundews, and butterworts. We will try to keep the maximum temperature around 80º F, but the humidity will be around 85% again. It will be a bit steamy in there in the summertime.

The east wing holds the Plant Lab, the room with the most exhibits. This lab will be the most moderate in temperature and humidity. Since we cool the building with misters, though, it will be more humid than the outdoors, at least during most of the year. We are aiming for 50% relative humidity and highs of 80º F. We are planning to add shade cloth to this wing to help moderate the temperatures. The focus here is on the parts of a plant, so plants from all different climates will be growing in the Plant Lab. A fern wall and hanging vines will be one highlight, as will the beautiful algae on display under microscopes. (Wait ‘til you see them, they’re gorgeous!)

The Conservatory’s indoor climate poses challenges beyond keeping cool: creating science exhibits that can handle rain, heat, and sun. The design team, Director Jim Folsom, Exhibit Developer Karina White, Exhibition Assistant (and illustrator) Katura Reynolds, and I have thought carefully about what equipment we can use under these conditions. We’ve been able to shop around and find some cool stuff, including marine-grade video monitors that can handle bright lights and 100% relative humidity, an underwater camera, and a nutrient meter that can be submerged in water.

Life inside the Conservatory will be a journey of discovery for visitors, volunteers, and staff alike. As we make our way through a misty trail of exhibits, we will also discover first-hand what it feels like to be in the tropics.

Kitty Connolly, Conservatory Project Manager/Botanical Education Specialist

 

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