For the Love of Plants

From a corpse-scented flower to an ant-loving carnivore, the Rollins greenhouse fosters an array of plants—and Greenhouse Manager Alan Chryst ’93 is making sure they thrive.

It takes about 30 seconds, from the moment you step into the greenhouse, for your shirt to become soaked in sweat. Outside, the air is hot, pushing 90 degrees on a July afternoon. But there’s a breeze blowing in off Lake Virginia that makes it tolerable. Inside the greenhouse, which is tucked into the back of Rollins’ campus, over near the boathouse, you’ve no such luck. The air is thick, muggy; it sticks to you.

Alan Chryst ’93 doesn’t seem to mind. This is, in a sense, his office, and he seems entirely at home. Dressed in an unbuttoned long-sleeve atop a maroon T-shirt and jean shorts, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, Chryst moves swiftly about the greenhouse, from the cacti to the orchids to the Venus fly traps and other carnivores, from the cocoa plants to the two Amorphophallus titanums, the crown jewels of the collection, where he stops for a minute, putting his hand on the plant’s smooth stalk, which is actually a big leaf, he says.

These two are special, he explains, because it takes them about 10 years to store up enough energy to flower—one giant flower, which can be six feet high or taller, and stinks of rotting flesh because it’s pollinated by flies, hence its nickname, “the corpse flower.” Every year it sprouts a surprisingly smooth, tall green leaf that stretches about eight feet in the air, with smaller green leaves trickling down from it like a tree (though it is most certainly not a tree, he says). But when that flower blooms, it is a special event: The flower lasts for only 36 hours.

The larger Amorphophallus titanum in this collection has yet to bloom, though it is 10 years old and due. “Next year it will either put out a bigger leaf or a flower, depending on how much food it has,” he says. The smaller has a few years yet to go. There’s no way to predict when the bloom will happen: “It’s Mother Nature,” Chryst shrugs.

Chryst graduated from Rollins in 1993 with a degree in environmental studies, then went to Valencia Community College and earned a degree in horticulture in 1997. His work today is an outgrowth of a passion he’s had, well, ever since he can remember. “I’ve always loved plants,” Chryst says. “I loved working with them. I love propagating them. I love collecting them. They’re exciting to me.”

After graduating from Rollins, he went to work for Orange County’s Department of Parks and Recreation for three years. A friend who was attending Rollins found out about the College’s opening in the greenhouse and thought Chryst would make a perfect fit. That was in 1998, some 15 years ago.

The greenhouse is primarily a research facility—Chryst doesn’t grow thousands of plants for the College to sell. “I help students and faculty facilitate their research projects,” he explains. “Another focus of the greenhouse is to supply all the biology labs with plant- related material whether that’s a live specimen, preserved specimen, fruits, flowers, seeds—I supply everything they need.”

At the beginning of each semester, he receives lab requirements from the biology department—which types of plants and associated materials the classes will need. Then when the time comes, he makes sure the labs are stocked, loading the plants on his cart and taking them over to the Bush Science Center. Because he has such diversity of plants in the greenhouse, he spends considerable time attending to each plant’s individual needs. He waters all of them by hand every day. For the tropical plants—the ones that would naturally do well in Florida’s climate—there’s an overhead sprinkler system that ensures they receive enough water. But the cacti collection, of course, doesn’t require as much, so no sprinklers for them. Every once in a while he has to store the carnivorous plants in a cooler.

“It’s good for the students to come down here,” he says. “First of all, they actually do some labs down here too. Once they come down here, they get exposed to all these plants, and then sometimes they’re actually fascinated by these plants. Many times, some of them linger, and they talk to me, and then who knows? It could open a door for them in their education. Who knows where it could lead to? The opportunities are endless.”