The Collegian
Friday, September 22, 2023

A look inside the Gottwald greenhouse's glass windows

The University of Richmond Greenhouse stands apart from the rest of campus – it is an oasis, a tender microcosm of foliage buried in the surrounding university. Yet it remains a mystery to most students on campus.

Although select students have entered its gates, the greenhouse is uncharted territory for the general student body. What exactly is hiding in the greenery behind those glass walls?

John Hayden, biology professor and greenhouse caretaker, has been fondly looking after UR’s plants for almost 40 years – long enough to know the name of every single plant growing in the greenhouse.

“There are succulents on the south end, cacti, euphorbia from Africa, orchids and ferns,” Hayden said. “There are medicinal plants, poisonous plants, even trees.”

Hayden is a plant enthusiast. He has studied botany in Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, worked for the Flora of North America Project — a taxonomic volume of all plants in North America — and has even discovered four new plant species.

“I just like plants,” he said. “They’re nifty.”

Hayden is not alone. Annie Hunter, a sophomore, has also found bliss in UR’s greenhouse.

“On a college campus, sometimes there’s not much life besides the mold in your room and your roommate,” Hunter said. “In the greenhouse, it’s all alive. It’s one of the most peaceful places on campus. There’s fresh air, and it’s cleaner, lighter there.”

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Although Hunter owns more than 70 plants and loves botany, she is not a Gottwald student. Still, she finds ways to incorporate her passion for botany into her Russian and communications classes.

“I’ve talked and written about botany in my Russian classes,” she said. “I can cross my knowledge, bring my interests together. I don’t think I’d be able to work at a greenhouse and study Russian at the same time somewhere else.”

Liz Narwold, freshman, is also passionate about botany and the greenhouse.

“It’s very calming to be in there,” Narwold said. “It’s isolated, and the greenhouse is overgrown enough that it feels like it’s just you in there with the plants.”

Narwold, who is particularly interested in medicinal plants, spent a year before college studying local plants in Bolivia. Eventually, she hopes to do botany research. In the meantime, she is content volunteering for UR’s greenhouse – although both Narwold and Hunter admit that the department and the greenhouse could use some help.

“The botany department is unknown and underfunded,” Hunter said. “Everybody drives past it but they don’t recognize that there are plants in there that need maintenance.

“It’s an amazing place – we have a 38-year-old plant, trees rooted into the concrete, Mesoamerican plants and a huge collection of other unique ones. Hayden is going to need a successor one day,” Hunter said. “We need people to love the greenhouse or it’ll be forgotten.”

Contrary to popular opinion, Hayden said he was happy to show people who love plants the greenhouse. And if you’re looking to volunteer or even work for the greenhouse, email Hayden with a request – he’s always looking for help caring for the beautiful plants.

“Plants support all human life,” Hayden said. “They are the base of the food chain. Without plants, the earth would look like the moon.”

Contact features contributor Nidhi Sharma at

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