Leaves & lamps

Greenhouse atop BioSci houses over 150 plants

Kingston Police gives high-powered light bulbs confiscated in grow-operation busts to the greenhouse.
Kingston Police gives high-powered light bulbs confiscated in grow-operation busts to the greenhouse.
Photo: 
The Tropical Pitcher Plant uses a cup-shaped flower to hold liquid and drown prey.
The Tropical Pitcher Plant uses a cup-shaped flower to hold liquid and drown prey.
Photo: 

In 14 years, Dale Kristensen has never had to buy a light bulb to heat the greenhouse facilities at the Biosciences Complex.

Local law enforcement agencies give the bulbs to Kristensen following raids on area grow-ups.

The 1,000 watt bulbs, capable of growing hydroponic marijuana, can also be used to control temperature for tropical plants in the greenhouse atop BioSci.

“After the court cases are over, they have to get rid of those things somehow,” Kristensen said. “I have a storehouse of lights that they gave me.”

Multiple chambers make up BioSci’s roof-top research facility, collectively known as the phytotron.

There were four break-ins at the phytotron when it first opened in 1997.

“They stole elements related to grow-operations,” he said. “Expensive stuff like lights and timers.”

After a security update in 2000 which included reinforced doors and windows, there were no more thefts.

The greenhouse’s security measures are more focused on monitoring situations inside the facility.

Sensors monitor the greenhouse’s temperature, daylight, light-intensity, humidity and carbon dioxide. Kristensen said that a change in any of these factors could cripple or destroy the living research subjects.

“If you’re in the hallway [of BioSci] and there’s a problem, you’ll hear loud beeping and see flashing lights,” he said. “If the breach isn’t acted upon in a certain time frame, the computers will phone out to the Emergency Response Centre and they will contact me at home.”

Kristensen’s phone rings when there is a marked drop in temperature or humidity or if a bulb goes out in the greenhouse.

A change in these variables would have considerable effects on plants in the environmental growth chambers, also known as mini-greenhouses.

The 26 chambers house plant life with specific environmental needs. The isolated temperatures of these spaces can range from -15 C to over 50 C.

In the past, monarch butterflies and tilapia fish have also been monitored in the growth chambers.

“We can duplicate any environment in any part of the world,” Kristensen said.

Winter, when plunging temperatures can interrupt the steam-heating in BioSci, is the most common time for an environmental breach in the facilities.

“One of the reasons they built [the phytotron] in the first place was to have a controlled environment,” he said. “The old greenhouses would get brutal hot in the summer and very cold in the winter and destroy research initiatives because you never knew why your plants were displaying a particular stress.”

For a researcher at Queen’s, renting the facilities in the phytotron ranges from $8 to $70 per week. External researchers can expect to spend between $15 and $150 weekly based on chamber size and type. It’s not enough to cover running costs of the phytotron.

“We are subsidized heavily by the University,” Kristensen said. “The amount of energy and heating costs that go into maintaining that facility would be beyond any individual or even group of researchers.

“If we rolled those costs into a user-fee system it would probably turn away everybody.”

Kristensen said the phytotron and its emergency diesel generator are a major consumer of electricity at the University.

“Each light bulb is essentially what a typical household consumes energy-wise,” he said. “If you turn every bulb in the greenhouse on, you’d be looking at 64,000 watts in light alone.”

In the winter, light bulbs run for 16 hours a day.

Along with the 26 isolated chambers, the phytotron hosts six larger zones for plant life which requires less-precise monitoring.

The first and largest zone, the conservatory, houses up to 150 plant species at a given time.

Kristensen has collected some of the conservatory plants on his visits to tropical climates, while others were donated or carried over from the old greenhouse in BioSci’s Earl Hall.

The room is kept at around 35 C to play good host to its tropical tenants, such as the Jatropha Curcas plant species, which thrives on high heat and humidity.

The Jatropha Curcas produces a nut, known as the physic or oil nut, which is being investigated for its use as an alternative fuel.

“If you squeeze oil out of the fruit, it can go right into a diesel car’s engine without any processing,” Kristensen said. “The future for that plant species is bright.”

The conservatory also houses a number of edible plants like banana, fig and mango trees as well as vanilla orchids, passionflowers and guava plants.

“We have a coffee tree in there that produces about a pound of coffee a year,” he said. “One of the graduate students who worked there made coffee-flavoured beer out it.

“Not something I’d drink twice.”

The greenhouses use natural pest control wherever possible, Kristensen said.

“When I took over, we switched as much as possible away from pesticide use to bio-controls,” he said. “We will use spiders, mites, predatory wasps and bacteria to control pest outbreaks.”

Kristensen said that there are biocontrol companies who sell the critters specifically for use in greenhouses.

Some plants still require chemical sprays to keep pests away.

Kristensen is a licensed pesticide applicator, giving him access to over 40 publicly-banned pesticides which he cycles through.

“We only apply them to the plants themselves,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s not leeching out into the drains and lake.”

A graduate course offered in bioremediation, or natural pollutant control, and a third-year undergraduate course in plant physiology both rely on the greenhouse.

The plant physiology course has students experiment with long-term plant growth and environmental adaptation.

“Some students test out their ideas at an undergraduate level and go on to graduate work in the same vein,” he said.

“It’s a crucial component in effective plant research for the department of biology.”

The phytotron is always open to Queen’s students outside of the science department and available to the public by appointment.

However, those who are drawn to the greenhouse by on-campus folklore may be disappointed, Kristensen said.

“There is no man-eating plant up there,” he said. “I think that was made up by Queen’s TV a few years back.”

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