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Otago on Location- Botany Department Glasshouses 

Monday, 28 August 2017 4:41pm

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Hidden in a gated area beside the School of Physical Education and shaded by the Otago Museum, the Department of Botany’s two teaching and research glasshouses can’t be seen from the street, but they're a big part of the Botany department's 90 year history.

Scenes of the University of Otago’s many historic buildings, and their modern counterparts, situated along the banks of the Leith are familiar to most New Zealanders.

But what lies within the collection of buildings that make up the University’s main campus in Dunedin? What does the inside of the Clocktower look like? Have you ever seen the University’s flume in action or ventured behind the curtains at Marama Hall? What about the depths of the Hocken archives or the collections of the Anatomy Museum?

These facilities all have a part to play in delivering high-quality learning opportunities for our students, but for many who haven’t had the opportunity to study at Otago, their inner workings are a mystery.

In Otago On Location, a regular feature in Otago Connection, we bring readers behind the scenes of some of the University’s most stunning, unique, historic and amazing spaces. In this instalment, beautifully shot by photographer Emma Allen, we show off the hidden gem of the Botany glasshouses.

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Although botany was taught at the University of Otago from 1919, with first lecturer Mary Winifred Betts teaching botany for first year students intending medical, dental and home science degrees, it wasn’t until 1924 that the department and the degree programme was formally established. It is now New Zealand’s last remaining stand-alone botany department. This picture, supplied by the Botany department, shows one of the original 1973 glasshouses. The building behind it now houses the Otago Museum, and a barn has been built to the right of the picture.

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This smaller glasshouse, built as a replica to the photo above, is surrounded by garden and features heat lamps and automated sun shades for providing artificial environments for plant growth and research.

Three asbestos-ridden glasshouses were demolished in 1973, this photo shows one of them. Two were built in their places, by Christchurch company Exal Industries, in 1997 and 2000, respectively.

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The main glasshouse, 20 years old this year, is utilised by 160 first year students each semester from the Biology 123 ecology paper, which teaches the science of botany and how plants will respond to future environmental change.

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Students learn to manipulate plant bio-diversity by planting up to 10 species of plants in the same containers, and analysing the growth rate depending on the number of species growing together. The paper started as a project by the Head of Department to provide hands-on teaching and scientific experiments.

Laboratory technician Rebecca Macdonald says “students really enjoy planting seeds and getting the most out of the learning experiments” and that the Biology 123 paper is "the best lab I've ever done."

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The Botany department encourages students to compost their organic waste material, and Rebecca says they use seaweed to enrich the compost.

Lab tech Rebecca graduated with a science diploma from Otago Polytechnic, spent 3 years working in a water testing facility in Dunedin, then came to Otago University as a laboratory technician. She's now been here for 8 years, and says she loves working behind the scenes helping students.

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The second glasshouse currently has a UV light experiment being undertaken with the growth rate of begonias and ferns, and there is also an ongoing research project looking at bug attraction for different plant species.

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Lab tech Rebecca explained that rainwater is gathered in this tank for the plants, however some plants prefer chlorinated water. Plants are watered every second day in the winter, and usually every day in the summer. 

The Botany department celebrated their 90th anniversary in September 2014, holding a one-day symposium and a series of public events.
At the 2014 symposium, then-Head of Department Professor Kath Dickenson said she was proud of how well the University had supported the Botany department throughout the years.
“It is not random that we are the last remaining botany department in the country. We have an enormous heritage. Today we stand on the shoulders of others.”
The Botany department has continued to flourish since 2014, holding regular seminars featuring PhD candidates and Otago and visiting professors. There are 26 current Botany Phd students.

Enjoy some more pictures from our tour of the Botany glasshouses below.

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