King of the Jungle: The Surprising Culprit

Tue., Jul. 6, 2021

By Dana Noel Lettl, Seasonal Intern at West Creek Conservancy

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be king of the jungle? Well not really king, and the jungle isn’t really a jungle, it’s the Costa Rica Glasshouse at Cleveland Botanical Gardens. Mark Bir, horticulturist and glasshouse manager, took my friends and me under his wing as he acts as King of the Jungle.

Guests of Holden Forests and Gardens rarely understand the patient labor and attention that goes into tending to the glasshouses. I was lucky enough to experience all the behind-the-scenes action on Monday morning alongside Mark Bir. Because the gardens are closed to the public on Mondays, it felt as if we had the world to ourselves. Our morning started in the Working Glasshouse, a room with a multitude of plants that are off-display. These plants are carefully cultivated off-display in hopes of one day being introduced to the active exhibits and enjoyed by the public. 

My favorite plant, the titan arum, is currently housed in the Working Glasshouse. Through tedious care, this beautiful flowering plant will eventually be introduced to the Costa Rica biome display.

Entering the Costa Rica Glasshouse, our next task was watering the display plants. The cloud forest of Costa Rica receives an average of 108 inches of rainfall per year, nearly 3 times the amount of rainfall of Cleveland. Because of this, the vegetation found in the Costa Rica Glasshouse needs to be watered frequently, for periods of about 45 minutes. These watering efforts are in place in order to mimic the natural conditions that these plants are found in.

While these plants aren’t visible to the public, they still serve a vital role in the gardens. Our first task of the day was to tend to the hundreds of plants in this room. The plants were watered and fertilized. Fertilization provides necessary nutrients to plants that are not otherwise provided through the soil. Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium allow these plants to grow bigger and faster. This process is completed on a weekly basis.

After watering the lower level, we ascended up to the canopy deck of the biome. The canopy deck mimics the natural emergent layer of a rainforest, which is typically 100 feet high. Walkways of the canopy are covered in deep green vines with heart-shaped leaves. These vines can grow up to a foot in just one week, so it is important that they are pruned, or trimmed, often. Without pruning, these vines can quickly cover large areas and take over trees in their vicinity. Pruning is completed on a weekly basis in order to keep up with their extreme growth rates. Trimming collected from pruning was bagged and placed in a freezer for 72 hours to kill any ants or butterfly larvae that may have been on the leaves. This is important because the butterfly and ant species within the Costa Rica biome are monitored by USDA, as they are nonnative to Ohio.

To wrap up our day, we revisited the Working Glassroom for a quick lesson in I.P.M. Integrated Pest Management or I.P.M. is a process used to control pests with minimal effects on the environment. A few plants off display in the Working Glassroom were found to have small bugs on the underside of the leaves. These plants were sprayed with a diluted soap solution in order to kill the pests without causing serious harm to the plants. This process will be completed 1-2 more times in two-week intervals in order to kill any surviving pests and eggs found on these plants. At the end of the day, I learned .more than I could have ever imagined from Mark Bir. His knowledge, attention to detail, and overall passion for these glasshouses truly make him King of the Jungle. Next time you take a trip to visit the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, be sure to be mindful of all the hard work that goes on behind closed doors to make your visit nothing but magical.

Dana Noel Lettl

Dana Noel Lettl

Seasonal Intern at West Creek Conservancy

I am currently a Seasonal Intern at West Creek Conservancy. I'm a rising senior at The University of Miami pursuing a degree in Ecosystem Science and Policy with minors in Climate Policy and International Relations. My interests include sustainability, climate justice, and ecosystem conservation. Nature has always been an influential aspect in my life, so I hope that throughout my future endeavors I can instill a similar passion within others.


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