It’s a breezy February day, but when Ingrid Jordon-Thaden walks into the Botany Greenhouse the temp is balmy enough for her to break a sweat. The room is set at 75% humidity, and while that’s pretty warm for winter, it’s nothing compared to the baking summertime heat.

“We get up to 110 degrees in here,” says Jordon-Thaden, director of the Botany Garden and Greenhouse. “The building is quite old. One hundred years ago, they probably didn’t have to worry about it being so hot all summer.”

That’s right, this spectacular 8,000-square-foot greenhouse has been standing for more than a century. The greenhouse is nestled up to Birge Hall, a plant-filled building that sits atop the south side of Bascom Hill and is home to the Department of Botany. Like Birge, the greenhouse was built in 1912, making it 112 years old. As you walk around the eight-room greenhouse, you can still see some of the original walls and flooring.

You’ll also see — no surprise here — a lot of plants. So many plants, in fact, that it takes nearly five hours a day to water all of them.

“Every single plant in here is used somehow, whether it’s in a class or just for a tour,” Jordon-Thaden says.

Across the semesters, greenhouse plants travel to teaching rooms so students can have hands-on learning experiences. Birge Hall was designed to teach botany with special lab rooms angled for the best southern light exposure for microscope studies of plants.

The greenhouse is also instrumental for research. One house was redesigned in the early 2000s to accommodate experiments that need more advanced climate controls. It’s there where Professor of Botany Simon Gilroy and his lab team grew the tomato seeds that were launched into space earlier this year — their sixth experiment with NASA and the International Space Station.

And that’s just the plants in the greenhouse. The Department of Botany has also managed the Botany Garden since the ’80s, when the botany department realized they had quite a few plants they wanted to grow outdoors for teaching.

man walking inside of a greenhouse
The Botany Greenhouse Photo: Althea Dotzour
lush outdoor gardens in front of a building
The Botany Garden Photo: Jeff Miller

“The garden is a little oasis in the middle of our urban campus,” says Cara Streekstra (BS ’99, MS ’21), the living collections manager for the Botany Garden and Greenhouse. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s there, but we have about an acre and a half. One of the cool things about it is that it was one of the first gardens that was organized by molecular taxonomy.”

With blooming flowers and a tranquil koi pond, there’s no denying that this is a gorgeous garden — but beauty is not why it was designed. Both the garden and greenhouse were built with teaching and research at the forefront. That’s why the plants are organized by taxonomy.

And the collection is rare for a lot of reasons beyond its organizational layout. There are fewer and fewer botany departments around the country, and even fewer put up resources to support a collection of this magnitude. Many of the universities that had gardens or greenhouses like this have shifted their plant focus away from botany and toward agriculture, meaning the focus shifts to crop improvement instead of plant biodiversity education.

“We have a collection that is kind of rare because it was built over the past 100 years, and it has been used continuously ever since for the reason it was built, which was to study botany,” Jordon-Thaden says. “The College of Letters & Science has committed to keeping us strong, and that’s super different [compared to other universities].”

Patricia Chan (x’25) knows firsthand just how essential the garden and greenhouse are for teaching classes. She’s a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate and a teaching assistant in the Department of Botany who’s known for her intricate botanical chalkboard art. She uses live plants regularly in her classes.

chalkboard art of various flowers
Patricia Chan's chalkboard art Photo: Patricia Chan

“It would be difficult to teach our taxonomy and plant ID classes if we didn’t have these live resources,” Chan says. “Our students’ eyes light up when they walk into the teaching lab and see that in this cold Wisconsin winter, their classroom has been transformed into a little green forest.”

It’s not just botany students who benefit from the resource. Devin Guthrie (x’26), a sophomore majoring in environmental sciences, volunteers in the gardens, helping with maintenance and upkeep — and also growing plants.

He actually learned about the garden and greenhouse in a general biology class. He had no idea that either plant space existed, but after his first visits, he was enamored with the work being done there.

“You go in there, and it’s a completely different environment,” Guthrie says. “It’s really nice to be surrounded by a lot of plants. A lot of them are exotic, and some of them are endangered. There’s so much there within a single step that might be from the other side of the world.”

It’s students like Guthrie that remind Jordon-Thaden why the living collection is so vital. It’s an opportunity for the UW community to see some of the world’s rarest biodiversity up close.

“One of the largest global threats to earth is habitat loss, invasive species, global warming and expansion of humans into rare areas,” Jordon-Thaden says. “It’s important that students know the biodiversity that exists. We try to give them examples of what it looks like in a rainforest or a desert, because they may never see it.”

Plant Food

closeup of venus flytrap

The Botany Garden and Greenhouse are home to more than 40 different species of carnivorous plants. The animal-eating plants are fan favorites of students and visitors. They are also of particular interest to Tom Givnish, the Henry Allan Gleason Professor of Botany and Environmental Studies, who co-authored a textbook on carnivorous plants.

What are the distinctive qualities of a carnivorous plant?

Until the ’80s, no one really had defined what they are. To me, it seemed clear that all carnivorous plants are marked by two traits. First, they have to be able to absorb mineral nutrients from dead animals next to their surfaces and thereby obtain some benefit in growth or survival or reproduction. Second, they have some kind of specialized adaptation that’s clearly devoted to prey attraction, capture or digestion. At least one of these things must be present.

Why are people so fascinated by this plant species?

So many people, including myself, became very excited when as kids they got to see carnivorous plants, and see how Venus flytraps snap their leaves to trap insects, how sundews entrap and digest prey with sticky tentacles on their leaves, or how pitcher plants lure animals to the brink of the abyss. I think that made us think about plants having some agency — about their being able to behave and do something.

Why does the greenhouse grow these plants?

First, to inspire students and the public. Second, to provide materials for courses and for research. And third, to provide material for observations and experiments. My lab is eager to set up a large experiment in the greenhouse to test models for the evolution of carnivorous plants by growing them and non-carnivores in a series of different environments to see which will win in competition.


Both the greenhouse and the garden are open to the public. The Botany Garden (1090 University Ave.) is open from sunrise to sundown. The Botany Greenhouse (430 Lincoln Dr.) is open on weekdays, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. More info:

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