At first glance, Barbra Sonderman might look like your average MU plant guru, but in reality she is so much more.
Sonderman is a spunky, outgoing and loving woman who has worked at the University of Missouri for the past 25 years in all divisions of biological sciences. Currently, she maintains the Tucker greenhouse and the Botany Greenhouse in Research Park.
She was born and raised in St. Louis and attended MU, where she graduated in the ’80s with two degrees. The first was in anthropology. She later came back to school and got a degree in horticulture.
Sonderman, carries her love of plants and nature from her job to her home, which is about 20 miles away from campus. She doesn’t mind her daily drive, knowing that when she arrives home, it is to a house surrounded by 40 acres of land filled with trees, animals and plants. She hired an architect to design her house and said it was well worth spending the money on the structure of the house because it is eco-friendly. Her goal was to create a home that leaves a small ecological footprint and is efficient during the winter.
Sonderman’s home is truly her sanctuary, and she takes much pleasure in looking out her beautiful windows and watching the birds, foxes and wild turkeys. She also loves to garden, draw, read … and watch St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball.
Gardening and plants were not always Sonderman’s favorite things. The person who influenced her love for plants was her mother who kept a lot of tropical plants and vines all around the house. She remembers seeing her mom bringing in new plants and caring for them. As a child, she never paid much attention to the plants, but as a teenager, Sonderman began buying her own small plants for her bedroom, and soon learned the pleasure that came from caring for them.
Her love for plants continued to flourish. In her work at the Tucker greenhouse and the Botany Greenhouse, Sonderman’s care extends beyond watering and fertilizing the plants. She also makes sure they are in the correct environment and spends a lot of time pruning, removing dead leaves, sometimes spraying insect pests with insecticidal soap. She makes sure to not use harsh chemicals because so many people are in and out of the greenhouse on a daily basis. Occasionally, Sonderman will even pollinate flowers.
“I love seeing plants be happy and healthy,” Sonderman said. “When people comment on how beautiful they are, it makes me feel good. There are not only plants living within the greenhouse; there are fish living in the tropical room pond, tree frogs living in some of the tall trees, and a toad I call ‘Wet Sprocket’.”
A pair of cardinal birds has built their nest in the greenhouse as well. Sonderman said the reason all these animals can live in the greenhouse is because of the insects they find.
Sonderman often has students working with her in the greenhouses. Lacey Hubbert is a fisheries and wildlife major from Charleston, Mo., and has taken Sonderman’s courses and helps out in the greenhouse.
“In the greenhouse, Barb reflects and radiates all the life that grows around her,” Hubbert said. “She’s always very happy, and it’s rare to see her without a smile on her face or without her optimistic attitude.”
Sonderman’s favorite plant is one in the Araceae family, known as the Amorphophallus titanium. She said the plant blooms rarely, but when it does, it has a spectacular inflorescence (a cluster of flowers on a stem), one of the largest in the world. She said the best part of the plant is that it smells like rotting meat or road kill, which attracts a certain kind of pollinator known as the carrion fly. The bug is fooled thinking that it’s rotting flesh, and actually ends up pollinating this flower. The plant even gives off heat.
She also teaches a plant systematics lab during the spring semesters. Some of the labs are held in the greenhouse. Students in this class learn to identify plants by studying the unique characteristics found within 50 plus plant families. Sonderman cares about her students’ education as well as their out-of-class success.
“Don’t take everything so seriously; students feel like they have to please their parents,” Sonderman said. “If you please yourself and study what you want, then you will enjoy school.”
Steven R. Heinrich, a research maintenance technician in the department of biological science, has enjoyed working with Sonderman since 2003.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how nice Barb was when I first met her and how accommodating she always is when dealing with issues,” Heinrich said.
Heinrich has worked with Sonderman on many projects relating to graduate students’ work and physical building issues for the Botany Greenhouse and more recently the Tucker Greenhouse. If Heinrich needs to know something about a plant, Sonderman instantly knows the scientific name for the species and then a list of characteristics and tips for the best growing environments.
Sonderman’s passion for her plants carries over into the rest of her life, and Heinrich said students in her classes are lucky to have someone so passionate about plants and so nice at the same time.