Paradise Found: A Closer Look at the Vanderbilt Greenhouses

It’s hard to miss the current urbanization taking place in Nashville. Music City is currently listed as  the 7th fastest growing city in the nation according to Forbes (1). However, Nashville’s development isn’t the only thing growing this year. The Vanderbilt Greenhouses, located at Stevenson 2715, feature 7 greenhouse rooms containing both sub-tropical and tropical plants, over 1000 species, 6 undescribed taxa, and one knowledgeable greenhouse manager. If you’re looking for a haven among the hustle look no further. The VU Greenhouses are Nashville’s best kept secret.

I interviewed Greenhouse Manager, Jonathan Ertelt, on his favorite aspects of working in paradise.

How long have you been working as the Greenhouse Manager?

 Calder-esque Tillandsia mobile in Rm.2726, Cacti & Succulents (Tillandsia is a genus in the bromeliad, or pineapple family)

I started working in the greenhouses as a work study student while pursuing my Masters in Education at Peabody, back in 1995. After 7 months I suggested to the faculty that were using the greenhouse at the time that they should look into creating the position of greenhouse manager, just a part time position, and hopefully then hire me into it. This was done. After I received my Masters, the position was upgraded to full time, and I’ve been here ever since. So, I started back in ’95, but the “position” of greenhouse manager wasn’t created until ‘96.

How do you choose which plants to put in the greenhouses?

 Sinningia species in Rm 2720 (Sinningia is a genus in the gesneriad, or African violet family)

In all seriousness, part of that simply involves what’s offered to me. Having been in this line of work for over 40 years now, I’ve established a great network of friends, fellow growers, researchers, collectors, etc. and exchanging plants and plant material is pretty common. There are some specific plants that I would still like to acquire for the collection, and I keep my eyes and ears open for them. But in general, plants that will help broaden visitors’ understandings of or about the plant kingdom are great. Also, plants that illustrate one or more morphological features or adaptations that might be asked of me from a faculty member are always good. Finally, plants that are regular bloomers are always good — especially if they incorporate one of the other criteria mentioned — because blooming plants typically get more attention from visitors.

What has been the most difficult part of managing the greenhouses, the most rewarding?

 Kohleria amabilis in Rm.2716 (This species is also in the gesneriad family)

The answer to both (most difficult/most rewarding) would be the people who I deal with, and then the plants. It sometimes takes folks a while to get used to me, and I would say that sometimes it has taken me a while to get used to certain individuals. That can be pretty challenging, difficult even, upon occasion. I think that this might not be the sort of answer that you were thinking of, but there it is. And this challenging or difficult aspect has lessened with my time here. Other challenges involve decisions that were part of the greenhouse construction process more than anything else, and these get worked out as best they can as they come up.

On the opposite side of the coin, the most rewarding aspect increasingly is working with and sharing information with students. Certainly there are some research aspects that have come up, and they have been very rewarding in their timeframe, but the ongoing most rewarding aspect is working and sharing with the students, especially though by no means exclusively with my volunteers. They continue to be a very special bunch.

What has been the most incredible thing you’ve seen in your years working as a guardian of the greenhouse?

 Water sitting like quicksilver/mercury on a leaf of Xanthosoma sagittifolium ‘Robusta’ in Rm.2716 (This plant is a member in the aroid family)

This question reminds me of another question that I am frequently asked — “Which is your favorite plant?” Right now I’m sharing with all who will be coming in to see it one of the most unique and different flowers that I have ever seen (Aristolochia ridicula), and it certainly ranks up there, at least for the present time, as one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. The challenge for me is that the question is so huge that it almost lacks meaning (meaning no offense, of course). How about the most incredible thing that I’ve seen students do while working with plants? How about the most incredible orchid, or the most incredible gesneriad — even those two might be two general. Part of it has to do with me and the way I look at things, the value of being appreciative, the value of celebrating (which is different from an excuse to party) — living a life in gratitude and appreciation (and sometimes that becomes more of a challenge, don’t get me started into nonsense politics for example). But “the most incredible thing I’ve seen” — right now, one answer would have to be realizing that last month over 100 people came through the greenhouses, whereas 10 years ago a dozen or so over the course of the semester would have been average. Now that’s incredible! 🙂

(I like the “years working as a guardian of the greenhouse” phrasing though, I must admit.)

The Vanderbilt Greenhouses are open to the public Monday- Friday 9am-5pm on the 7th floor of Stevenson Building 2. Stop by anytime or email for more info!

For more beautiful photos check out the VU Greenhouses on instagram. @vugreenhouses



Photos by Tori Phillips

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