The scene was a picturesque kind of eerie. I stood in front of Marsh Hall, a misleading name for the shabby cottage that stood out amongst the towering neighboring buildings on Science Hill. The dried fall leaves crunched and flew past me as I tried to navigate my way down the slope to find what I was looking for. I walked down a set of stairs towards a group of greenhouses I saw in the distance.
The scene became creepier. Brown, dying leaves were smattered across the green hill on which I stood. To the left, a solitary wooden swing swayed in the wind, hanging from a thick branch of a tree whose leaves had already fallen. The greenhouses were not directly below me. I had found where I was going — now it was a question of actually wanting to reach it. A shiver ran down my spine, both from the brisk wind and my ever-increasing awareness that I seemed to be walking straight into a scene from a bad horror movie. I quickened my pace as I walked down the hill.
I reached the second greenhouse, our agreed meeting spot. I had finally arrived at my destination: the Marsh Botanic Gardens located on Mansfield Street, a little walk past Science Hill. I had come for a “tour with tea” — a guided tour of the gardens that also included tea and pastries. Eric Larson, manager of the Gardens, came outside to greet me. He was an aging man with an complex demeanor, someone who was difficult to figure out in just one sitting. I walked past rows and rows of recently potted plants until I eventually arrived in the room where Larson gave his introductory talk about the history of the gardens. I sat down with my hibiscus blueberry tea sweetened with honey from the Garden’s own beehive and listened to Larson’s extensive knowledge of the property’s history.
“Many people don’t know about us, which is a shame. It’s so amazing here, isn’t it?” he asked with a spark of passion.
I thought back to the average-looking plants I saw when walking in, the everyday simplicity that the Gardens seemed to have at first glance. Not yet convinced of the Garden’s value, I gave a half-nod and avoided the question by taking another sip of my delicious tea.
The first greenhouse we visited featured rows and rows of potted corn, all which were growing at medium-sized height. Larson explained that the workers grow the corn up to a certain pre-determined height and then deliver them to researchers who use the corn in their experiments. The Garden’s purpose is to provide plant specimens for both research and instruction. He spoke of each plant with heightened interest. Bemused, I wondered how it was that someone could be so enamored by something that was so seemingly mundane.
What came next made me immediately regret any past thoughts that I had about the boring nature of the Gardens. Larson led me to the desert section of the greenhouse. I prepared myself for another shtick about the supposedly fascinating plants in the room. He began telling me about the way that the room was divided, between the “Old World” of Africa and the “New World” of the Americas. I looked at the plants from the Old World and was immediately confused. The “plants” looked like pebbles to me. Larson explained that the plants I was puzzled by originated in Namibia and South Africa. Because of harsh climate, the plants had evolved to become what are known as “window-pane” plants. These types of plants have an almost-transparent surface — hence the name “window-pane” — and feature spiraled chlorophylls that maximize the amount of sunlight the plant takes in. Their strange, stony appearance protects themselves from predation. The nerd in me kicked in and I was blown away. I stood there for a good five minutes gawking while saying things like, “No way! But it straight up looks like a pebble!”
Going through the different greenhouses, I was exposed more and more to a fascinating world I previously knew absolutely nothing about. My favorite plant was one that was traditionally used by Native Americans who ate the seeds for their psychotropic effects during religious rituals. The visions that occured when the seed was consumed aided the Native Americans during their meditations. Smirking, I asked Larson if anyone at the Gardens ever took advantage of the psychedelic plants. Chuckling, he told me he had dabbled a bit back in his younger days but not anymore.
“And I don’t recommend it,” he hastily added. (Of course.)
Larson also showed me one of the flowers that provides the darker note in the Chanel No. 5 perfume. When I asked what that meant, he went on a spiel about how the different scents used to make a perfume can be compared to a musical chord. The more musky scents would be the “darker notes” of the chord and the more fruity scents would be the “lighter notes.” He picked a flower for me, which I periodically sniffed for the remainder of the tour.
He showed me a flower named “the passion flower,” after the Passion of Christ. It has three sepals, which represent the Trinity, and twelve petals, which represent the twelve Apostles of the Christian Church. I also got to see the “whitesloanea crassa” plant, which is among the five rarest plants in the world. As if I couldn’t be any more impressed, he then showed me the plant whose agave nectar is used to ferment tequila. (All we need are the psychedelic plants and we’ll have ourselves a party.)
“Here at the Gardens, we try to have as much of a cosmopolitan mix as we can,” Larson said.
And indeed they do. The Marsh Botanic Gardens is a hidden gem amongst the cold and dreary buildings of Science Hill. During my trip there, I learned a lot of fascinating facts none of which will ever be of any practical use. I did, however, get to escape from the center of campus for an hour to learn about psychedelics and tequila. Time well spent? I think so.