Welcome to the Jungle

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Courtesy of Jennifer Jopson

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Courtesy of Jennifer Jopson

During my first two years at UC Irvine, I would pass the UCI Greenhouse every day on my way to Chinese class in Humanities. Glancing at the neat rows of white greenhouses adjacent to the Qureshey Research Laboratory in Biological Sciences, I wondered what kinds of plants were kept there and who might maintain them. I never saw anyone enter or leave the facility, which only added to my curiosity. Last week, I was able to finally clear up the mystery behind it.

Weigang Yang, Greenhouse Manager, has worked at UCI for nearly 11 years. His duties include watering and pruning plants, pest control, transplanting and monitoring the temperatures of the greenhouses. The construction of the greenhouse took place shortly after the founding of UCI in 1965. Covering 9,000 square feet, there are 15 greenhouses used by faculty researchers and their students in the Schools of Social Ecology and Biological Sciences.

Born and raised in China, Yang earned his Bachelor’s in horticulture before moving to the U.S. in 1987. He obtained his Master’s in horticulture in 1990 and worked at the UC Kearney Agricultural Center in California’s Central Valley for three years. Before coming to UCI, Yang spent nine years as a Greenhouse Manager at UCLA.

Natural light penetrates the greenhouses, nourishing the plants. Two ivy plants sit side by side, leaves spilling out and drooping to the floor. Yang explains that professors use them for teaching, because they have a discoloration caused by a genetic enzyme. Professor Diane Campbell’s Phacelia cicularia and Phacelia parryi plants, native to California, have pale lavender and violet flowers. Other plants in the greenhouses include mustard, vegetable, milkweed, bean, tobacco and a collection of grasses.

One greenhouse contains plants in the Schiedea genus originating from Hawaii. Covering 1,000 square feet of greenhouse space, the grassy-looking plants stand over a foot tall. According to Yang, if one crosses the pollen-bearing plant with the female plant, the seeds will be good. Yang says that Drs. Steve Weller and Ann Sakai have researched them for many years, the adamantis commonly known as the Diamond Head Schiedea being nearly extinct.

Yang sends professors who would like to grow plants at the UCI Greenhouse to Steve Weller, Greenhouse Oversight Committee Chair of UCI. Once they get a permit, they can plant. Each professor is given space for their projects, paid for by the school. The professors buy soils and pots for their plants. Inside one of the greenhouses  is a small collection of rakes and shovels in the tool shed, along with stacks of pots and trays. Soil, peat moss, redwood chips and sand sit in bags on the floor. Yang mixes these materials together and places them inside the pots for planting.

The plants are watered every two to three days during the school year and every other day in the summer. Many of the greenhouses are toasty warm; the automatic temperature control cools above 75 degrees and heats below 65 degrees.

Yang says he works alone and while it gets a little lonely at times, he says it suits his quiet personality. If students have questions, he helps them out. Most of them have pest problems or ask about the growth situation of their particular plant. He doesn’t have to spend a lot of time caring for the plants because students and faculty work with them closely; he simply enjoys seeing the changes in them over time.

“Several students and I get along well and after they leave they come here to see me and give me hugs,” Yang said.

I marvel at the variety of plants in the greenhouse. It makes me realize that botany at UCI is alive and well and that there are many opportunities for students to do research there. The plants are not packed tightly together; each type of plant has its own compartmentalized space to grow freely. Perhaps it is true what people say, that being around plants elevates one’s mood. I certainly cheered up while inspecting the plants. I also find it interesting that the fate of hundreds of plants rests on Yang. If you ever get to visit the greenhouses on campus, make sure to say hello to Weigang Yang.