Taking the Flora

Taking the Flora

Marsh Botanical Garden’s greenhouses are lush and warm as summer, home to many plants that wouldn’t stand a chance out in the elements. The garden is known for its carnivorous, tropical and desert collections as well as some historic outdoor landscaping and other plants used for Yale classes and research. On an ordinary day, undergraduates turn up for plant labs while a handful of gardeners work. But on the first Thursday of every month when school is in session, Greenhouse D becomes a lecture hall, and visitors join the crowd.

The occasion is Green Cafe, a public offering of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology meant to give everyone from Yale undergrads to local kids to retirees a chance to get up close and personal with plants. “I thought there was sort of a missing component to education on campus for plant biologists,” says assistant professor of biology Josh Gendron, who got Green Cafe started about five years ago along with the former manager of the garden, Eric Larson. Gendron is looking for scientific presentations that aren’t your run-of-the-mill Powerpoint lectures. “What we really needed was to talk about plants in an open forum where we get to experience the plants,” he says, “and the garden here is perfect for that.”

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The idea, Gendron says, is to listen, yes—but also to see, smell, touch and even taste plants and plant-related products. Green Cafe’s other aim, he says, is to bring in speakers not only from Yale but also from the community for an opportunity to share expertise.

In December, the topic was coffee. A potted coffee tree stood front and center, about eight feet tall with a slender trunk and ruffled (“undulate” in biology-speak), shiny green leaves. Coffee roasters Eric Ciolino and Christine Ucich had set up a poster for their talk, “Coffee: From Farm to Filter,” and two large coffee pots held what Ciolino called “two totally different” coffees for attendees to try: a Kenyan roast and a harvest spice—a Guatemalan coffee, roasted dark, with organic nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon. Ucich and Ciolino, who works as a master gardener at Yale, are the owners of One World Roasters in East Haven, a wholesale coffee business with a new cafe that opened in January.

In the course of their hourlong presentation, Ciolino and Ucich walked the audience through the coffee “journey”—planting, harvesting, processing, drying, milling, exporting, tasting, roasting, grinding and brewing—using good old-fashioned show and tell methods. While the audience sipped coffee from small paper cups, Ucich passed around a tray of green coffee beans—actually the seeds of the coffee plant’s cherries—and showed the audience a bowl of different roasted beans—light, medium, dark—that would be combined for a blend. The couple also shared photos from one of their trips to the coffee farm in the mountains of the Dominican Republic from which they source many of their beans.

Audience members asked plenty of questions along the way: Is growing coffee water-intensive? (Not once the plants are established, but processing the beans can be.) Is it possible to breed the plants to grow in a colder climate, such as Canada? (Not for now; it’s grown between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.) How long do the beans last? (Up to two years with the proper storage.) Is the flavor from the same farm consistent from year to year? (There are “lots of similar notes,” but “the intensity can fluctuate.”)

Ciolino also offered the basic coffee preparation tips everyone wanted to know: “If you stick to a local roaster, that’s 90 percent of the battle right there.” Grind as needed for freshness. Don’t use a blade grinder, which creates inconsistent grounds. And get the temperature of your water right: between 195 and 200 degrees. This may have been a plant presentation, but the coffee-loving biologists in attendance still learned a thing or two.

Green Cafe has now become part of the biology curriculum. For a graduate class in plant molecular biology, students Lauren Dickinson and Dan Tarte, along with their class, gave a presentation last year on chocolate. They fed the audience what Dickinson describes as “some gross things and some good chocolates.” The “gross” included an ancient Aztec drink made of chocolate and some chocolate substitutes. Now Dickinson and Tarte are helping Gendron line up future Green Cafe speakers. Tarte was especially eager to introduce Ciolino and Ucich because, coincidentally, he’s the grandson of coffee growers in Panama.

Tarte, who works in Gendron’s lab doing research on the circadian clocks of plants, says he enjoys Green Cafe because it allows him to step back from the minutiae of his lab experience and notice the big picture. It’s also helpful, Dickinson adds, to learn how to talk to both academic and lay audiences. “It’s really fun to engage with people who just have an interest in general,” she says. “Sometimes you are discussing with biologists, sometimes you’re talking with someone who just saw the talk and thought it would be interesting.” Her research work in the lab of Yannick Jacob is focused on a new technique for editing genes in plants.

The spring semester lineup for Green Cafe includes sessions on organic gardening this month, Chinese herbal medicine in March and woody plants for ornamental gardens in May, with another topic to be announced for April. Past Green Cafe talks have focused on planting for bees, plant grafting and tea, to name a few.

Whatever the topic, one thing is certain: There won’t be a Powerpoint.

Green Cafe
Marsh Botanical Garden – 265 Mansfield St, New Haven (map)
Next event: 2/7 at 4pm (Dr. Yonghao Li, “Organic Gardening”)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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