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Huntington Highlight: The Secret Life of Plants

The Huntington's award-winning Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science encourages ongoing education about plants and the way they interact with the world.

If you and your kids are having a hard time getting into back-to-school mode after the summer break, get everyone together for a visit to The Huntington's Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory, located next to the Children's Garden. The interactive exhibits, a hands-on Plant Lab and the incredibly wide range of flora are sure to inspire wonder and curiosity—and what better way to spark the spirit of learning?

The Conservatory’s exhibits and displays are designed to reflect the theme, “Plants Are Up to Something.” Rachel Vourlas, Botanical Programs Supervisor, explained, "Plants are not just passive backdrops for other things to happen…they are active living things that are responding constantly to their environment. So educationally we're trying to engage people's scientific skills…to understand all the unique and amazing things that plants are doing."

"I've been working here three years and I'm always noticing something new," said Gregg Hunt, Conservatory Technician. Hunt works with some of the nearly 30 high school Conservatory volunteers (a number that increases every year) to keep things running smoothly, from maintaining exhibits to presenting demonstrations. He gave me a tour through the facility last Saturday and it was hard not to catch his enthusiasm for all the opportunities for learning that the Conservatory affords.

Within the 16,000-square-foot greenhouse are four galleries. One of these is the popular Plant Lab, where budding botanists of all ages can learn about roots, stems, flowers, leaves and spores through a wide range of compelling exhibits. The other three galleries are dedicated to different habitats—rain forest, cloud forest and a carnivorous bog. 

One of the most famous plants in the Conservatory is the unusual Amorphophallus titanum, which visitors can find in the rain forest. This plant only blooms on rare occasions, and for a very short time. When it does, let’s just say it earns its more colorful appellations of “corpse flower” or “stinky plant.”

Five specimens of Amorphophallus titanum have been planted in the Conservatory, two of which bloomed within the last two years. Other rare or intriguing plants on display include pitcher plants, bromeliads, Venus fly traps and American sundews.

At the information desk on Saturday, I noticed some plants in a pot labeled, “Sensitive Plant.” The sign said to touch gently, so, curious, I ran my fingers over the delicate leaves—and jerked away, startled, when the leaves closed up. This was my introduction to Mimosa pudica, also known as touch-me-not.

It’s precisely this invitation to get hands-on with so many of the plants in the Conservatory that makes it a great place to enjoy the process of education—and no doubt one of the many reasons it won the grand prize in 2007 for the American Association of Museums: the Excellence in Exhibitions Award. 

“The ideal visitor, to me, is someone who comes in with questions and curiosity,” said Hunt. He also expressed his hope that when Conservatory visitors leave, "they've learned something and that fosters further learning." 

As I said—not a bad way to jumpstart the school year. Feel free to take a virtual tour of the Conservatory here, but don’t let that be a substitute for the real thing!

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