UVic Ideafest: Into the world of plants — some eat their prey

It’s not your granddad’s greenhouse but anyone interested in plants, how they grow, feed and defend themselves will thrill to a visit Thursday at the University of Victoria’s Glover Greenhouse.

“It’s very much a research greenhouse, so there are lots of active experiments,” said Peter Constabel, biology professor and director of the Centre for Forest Biology at the University of Victoria.

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A tour of Glover Greenhouse has been arranged as part of UVic’s Ideafest that runs to Saturday.

On display will be growth chambers where plants grow under environmental conditions with light and temperature carefully controlled and monitored.

“Plants are exquisitely sensitive to light and all the wave information within light, its colours and intensity,” said Constabel. “We can study all that within the growth chambers.”

There are also hydroponic experiments to research molecular activities in plants. And there is a station where plants are cloned and grown under sterile conditions.

For lovers of novelty plants, botanical researchers will show off UVic’s collection of ancient non-flowering gymnosperms and air plants that take in nutrition and moisture from the surrounding atmosphere.

There will also be carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants that trap, drown and digest insect prey. Researchers will have magnifying devices to let people examine tiny sundews which are carnivorous plants that trap tiny bugs using hairs tipped with a sticky substance.

“Sundews are pretty cool because they can actually sense an insect when it’s on them,” said Constabel. “They will slowly curl and envelop an insect.”

Constabe is proud of the botanical research work being pursued at UVic into plant biology that occurs below ground level. It’s the world of mycorrizal groupings, where species of fungus and roots of plants grow alongside each other with both secreting chemicals that seem to assist the other.

“We ignore all the below-ground biology because we can’t see it very easily,” he said. “But it’s one of the frontiers of plant biology.”

Another area of research that may yield direct application, even in the backyard garden, is an examination of chemicals produced by trees to deter insects that feed on them.

Constabel said UVic researchers have identified and purified one of those chemicals.

But instead of a forest, the chemical will be applied to leaves from cabbages specially grown in Glover Greenhouse. These leaves will be offered to cabbage-eating caterpillars which are easy to find, breed and keep. It’s not about forest trees or a pest threat such as tent caterpillars or the gypsy moth but it’s a start.

“It looks like a cabbage patch in there,” Constabel said. “It doesn’t look like a forest but it is being used to study things going on in a forest.”

“That’s how research works,” he said. “We have to find little tricks and tests and assays and experiments that can answer the questions we are asking.”

The tour is from noon to 1 p.m.; details at uvic.ca/ideafest.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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