Thursday, May 20, 2010

When It Rains, Visit a Rainforest

This morning I was acutely aware of the increasingly dense overcast that was forming on the western horizon, quickly threatening to bring validation to the day's weather forecast of steady afternoon rain. I was eager to get outside to find some botanical inspiration before the rain arrived, but the second I stepped out for my lunch hour, camera in hand, I saw the wet street and light, but steady, rain falling. Turning around, I switch my direction to grab some food in a nearby cafe.

Within 15-20 minutes, the rain lightened but was still too heavy for outdoor photography, so I quickly walked between campus buildings to the Plant Biology Greenhouses to see if the conservatory had any new photos subjects to offer. I've often visited the conservatory, but today I picked up the brochure describing the facility and learned that it was built in 1988, and opened in September 1991. The conservatory itself is a climate-controlled microcosm of a rain forest, featuring several cycad specimens, including one that is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old.

As is often the case, the foliage of the plants was covered in water droplets from the regular mist that is sprayed to keep moisture levels up inside the conservatory. What made today unique was the rain outside, which rose to a deafening deluge the moment I opened the door to the conservatory. I've never been in a real rainforest, much less a rainforest during a rainstorm, but the driving raindrops on the conservatory's glass roof and the water rushing off its sides created such a concert that I could almost imagine I was transported to the real thing.

Several plants held the water droplets beautifully on their foliage.

Cordyline terminalis 'Baby Doll' (Ti Plant)

Microsorium diversifolium (Kangaroo Fern)

Caladium sp.

The heavy rain continued as I finished my photos, and I had forgotten an umbrella, so I decided to explore the individual plant collection rooms adjacent to the greenhouse to wait out the storm. Each of these small rooms houses a different type of plant environment, including woodland, rainforest, subtropical and desert. As I made my way into each of these rooms, I was amazed at the diversity of adaptation in the plants. 

In the epiphyte ("air plant") room, a number of different orchids were blooming, displaying a wide diversity of flower anatomy, all within one family.

Phalaenopsis 'Wedding Promenade'
Orchid (species unknown)
Epidendrum stamfordianum
In the other rooms, several plants featured the use of thorns as a protective device, each in a unique combination or form.

 Solanum pyracantha

 Euphorbia milii (Crown-of-Thorns)

Agave sp.

Alluaudia ascendens

And, of course, there was no dearth of bold, beautiful flowers among the tropical and succulent plants in the collections.

Acalypha sp.

Hibiscus 'Mandarin Wind'

Gardenia augusta

On a day where a cold, spring rain might have otherwise prevented me from satisfying my daily botanical fix, the Plant Biology Conservatory and Plant Collection rooms at the University of Illinois provided the perfect venue for inspiration. I'll be certain to remember that when it rains, you might as well visit a rainforest.

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