A group of Brenau University students and staff have plant growing down to a science — literally.
Their success is due in part to their new outdoor lab, the Bilyeu Bio-Science Greenhouse.
"We really had a big need for this," said Jessi Shrout, Brenau biology professor and director of the university’s endangered plant program.
"We were kind of at a standstill with the program.
"We couldn’t move forward until we had a greenhouse."
The greenhouse was made possible by donations from Gainesville residents Don and Lori McEachin and Arthur and Pamela Bilyeu, who wanted to honor the memory of loved ones who shared a passion for gardening.
"Prior to this donation, we were carving out space in labs and doing whatever we could to have space for our plants," Shrout said.
"This is going to allow us to have an intermediate stage before we can put the plants back in their native environments.
"We’re dealing with endangered plants, so we have to be very careful. We’re growing them in a very sterile way in the lab. Now with the greenhouse, they have a very clean space where they can grow accustomed to their native environment."
The endangered plant program began in the summer of 2010, Shrout says.
"We work with a number of organizations around the state through our umbrella organization, the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance," Shrout said.
"They notify us of plants that are in need of extra help because they’re not growing well in their native environments. We collect (samples) from the native sites, multiply them in our lab, then we take them back to their native sites to be replanted."
Some of the groups the student researchers have worked with include the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, the Nature Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources.
Jordan Bryant Wallace and other Brenau students have been working diligently for the last couple of years to help revive endangered plant species. Their latest project is the Asplenium heteroresiliens, or black-stem spleenwort fern.
"You have to be careful because they are endangered and there are only so many available," said Wallace, a student researcher with the endangered plant program.
"We do a lot of work with test species to try and figure out our technique to make sure we’re doing things right before we work on our endangered species," Shrout said.
"In the lab, we took the ferns and propagated them three different ways," Wallace said.
"Our goal is to mass propagate them so we can get them back into the wild."
Before being transplanted to their native habitat, the ferns will be "hardened off," or allowed to become acclimated to a more natural setting, in the greenhouse. That intermediate step helps to boost the lab-grown plants’ survival rate in the wild.
Wallace, a junior biology major from Cumming, recently represented Brenau at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference July at Western Carolina University. She was awarded a $500 scholarship for the conference and her work with the ferns.
According to Gale Starich, dean of the Brenau University College of Health and Sciences, the greenhouse is the first step in creating a bio-science learning center on the university’s campus.
Ultimately, the center will include the greenhouse, a small amphitheater, the 100-year-old reclaimed bamboo forest and other learning tools.
Starich also hopes the establishment of a culture of research and curiosity at the undergraduate level could lead students down many paths, including projects focused on human sciences as well as botanical endeavors.
As for Wallace, she’s just glad to have a place for her ferns.
"We can’t wait to hold classes here and get some of our baby ferns back into the wild."