Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Department ofBotany

The Greenhouse, itself

Facilities and Collections

The Department of Botany Research Greenhouses consist of five separate houses totaling 7,000 sq ft under glass, and another approximately 4,000 sq ft of outdoor, above ground growing space. Four greenhouses peak at 15 feet, the fifth and tallest peaks at 28, allowing us to grow fairly large specimens.

a student (left) and Researcher Bob Faden (right) working in the greenhouseThe collections are primarily tropical in nature, representing research interests of curators in the Department of Botany. Speciens come from both wild and cultivated sources such as botanic gardens and nurseries. We have material sourced from six continents, the largest collection of Zingiberales and Commelinaceae species in the world under glass, a growing collection of Euphorbiaceae, and representatives from many other families. Images of these different groups can be seen in the Previous Highlights.


Purpose of a Living Collection

The Greenhouses provide support to Department of Botany researchers - in essence we are a living collection which complements the preserved collection of the US National Herbarium. While dried (herbarium) specimens show plants at an instant in time, living materials provide opportunities to collect more information. In addition, some characters can be destroyed, degraded or difficult to see in an herbarium specimen.

In the greenhouse, living materials are used for:

  • Identification.  Precise identification in the field may be impossible for a plant not in flower. Material can be grown until it flowers in the greenhouse.
  • Preserved Specimens (vouchers).  Herbarium and other material, such as seeds, DNA, or other preparations for anatomy may be missed in the field, but we can collect them here for future reference.John Boggan pressing plants in the Greenhouse
  • Chemical Analysis.  Fresh material provides a source for chemical analysis. Proteins, which may be used in population studies (i.e. isozymes), are easier to extract from living material and are not degraded compared to preserved material.
  • Documentation of Processes.  Different life stages can be documented, such as seedlings, or especially the flowering process. The type of flowers a plant produces may change over the course of a day or over the course of a flowering season.
  • Illustration.  Illustration is sometimes easier and more complete from the living specimen.(Botanical illustrations)
  • Photography.  Many species have not been properly documented in flower, and here we have more chances to photograph plants under controlled circumstances. Photography can catch the shape and color of a plant lost in a herbarium specimen (Current Greenhouse Highlight).

Greenhouse History

The original greenhouse was built in 1977 in the east courtyard of the Natural History Museum. When the museum realized it needed the courtyard for more office and collection space, the Department was offered a new, larger, more modern facility at the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland. This facility was completed in the spring of 1994.


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