WASHINGTON, D.C. — Behind metal and glass, the biodiversity of America is growing to new heights.
In a corner of the nation’s capital, tucked away from the tourist attractions, sits the massive production facility for the U.S. Botanic Garden: 85,000 square feet of greenhouses, which are growing 20,000 plants — no matter what the weather is like outside.
Executive Director Saharah Moon Chapotin gave a behind-the-scenes look at what happens there.
“We have a lot of succulents, we have medicinal plants. We're basically a living plant museum,” she said. “This is where we're able to maintain those priceless plants in their optimal environment.”
Within the walls of the facility, there are 17 different computer-controlled climate zones.
“I think anyone coming through here could find a plant that resonates either with the state that they're from or somewhere they've traveled,” Chapotin said.
The areas inside range from the leafy tropics to the desert Southwest.
“We're in the desert house,” Chapotin said during a recent tour, “and this is a house that we keep really dry.”
However, some plants need the opposite — more moisture — like the smelly blooms related to the corpse flower.
“It's pretty gross, isn't it?” Chapotin said. “It's that really sulfur, kind of stinky, smell.”
Other plants, though, smell and look lovely, like their massive collection of orchids.
“They're striking,” said the U.S. Botanic Garden’s Devin Dotson. “People are really drawn to them.”
They are also threatened by them, as Dotson explained.
“Part of the problem is when there's just a few of them left in the wild and people will pull them out for private collections or such, there's not enough left to reproduce and so you deal with a community collapse,” Dotson said. “But this is happening in the United States as well. We've got over 200 orchids that are native here to the United States and North America.”
That is why conservation work is at the heart of what happens at the garden’s production facility.
“We also have plants that are rare, endangered,” Chapotin said.
It’s an effort they share with botanic gardens all across the country by helping them grow and populate flowers, plants and trees that could otherwise disappear.
Yet, at just shy of 30 years old, the taxpayer-funded plant production facility is aging. With an eye to the future, officials would like to improve it and, eventually, open it up to the public more.
“We'd like to make it a very sustainable facility,” Chapotin said. “And we'd love to really find a way to bring more of the public in here and have this be more of an educational center.”
They hope that would be a way of helping spread the word of appreciating and protecting what grows around us.