One wall of Tucker Greenhouse backs up against the walls of the biology labs on the University of Missouri’s campus, and it is covered in graffiti.
“Always do your best,” the graffiti reads. “What you plant now, you will harvest later.”
The graffiti is made of moss — not paint — and the plant grows against the wall like it would on a tree or rock in the woods.
Barbara Sonderman and her botany students found a way to “paint” moss on the walls of the greenhouse. They mix the greenery with a few ingredients — yogurt, moss, sugar and water — and apply the mixture with a paintbrush. Sonderman tends to the resulting graffiti every day to keep it growing.
Tucker Greenhouse is not just a greenhouse but home to hundreds of plants. Sonderman has been the keeper for five years.
Botanist David Dunn filled Tucker Greenhouse with countless species of plants from all over South and Central America. Forty years and two botanists later, many of these plants continue to grow in the floor, from the ceilings, and off other plants.
Sonderman waters 500 to 800 species of plants and hand pollinates most of them daily. She touches each plant as she walks through the rooms of the greenhouse — succulent, fern, moss — and recites the scientific name, common name, an interesting story or fact and the biological processes, all with the sound of wonderment in her voice. Her knowledge and love of each plant is motherly; she speaks about them is as if they have minds of their own.
Sonderman said her favorite plants are tropical plants.
“Tropical plants are just so beautiful,” she said. “I love that they love humid, hot air. Their flowers and fruits are just so beautiful. Like the chocolate tree I have growing here, or the vanilla orchid, or the papaya.” Some of these plants Barbara planted after traveling to Central America. One is a red flowering tree plant called The Pride of Barbados, a tree Barbara saw while visiting Central America. She returned to Columbia, looked it up, and had it shipped to Missouri so it could grow in the greenhouse.
Her partner, Martha Pickens said, “Barb is tuned into the natural world in ways that most of us are not.” Pickens met Sonderman 20 years ago, and they’ve lived in a specially designed eco-friendly home together since 2001. For instance, the windows face east and west to increase heat from the sun and reduce the need to heat the home in the winter.
“I am content to think a particular flower is pretty, and to observe unusual markings on the flower; Barb goes way beyond that,” Pickens said. “She’ll have a hunch about” which “family the flower belongs to, she’ll look it up and read all about it. Barb is always looking at the natural world and seeing subtle changes or noticing relationships between plants and their environment.”
Sonderman has a love for all things flora but like any scientist, she does have favorite biological processes.
“And my favorite thing to teach about botany and plants in general is how a certain plant forms its fruit, how certain plants that are medicinal are probably also somewhat toxic,” Sonderman said.
She lists a few plants in the adjacent room that have toxic and medicinal qualities, as well as histories. For example, Araceae Colocasia Esculenta is known as taro, or the elephant ear plant. The taro is a root vegetable plant from Southeast Asia that is eaten the same way potatoes are eaten in the U.S. Barbara launched into a story about a previous student from Southeast Asia, and explained how her family cooked and ate it. A similar origin story accompanies every plant in every room. Her breadth of knowledge is surprisingly self-cultivated, for the most part.
Sonderman grew up in a St. Louis home surrounded by plants. She noted that her grandfather and his vegetable garden influenced her love of plants as a child. Originally, she studied anthropology at MU. During her studies, she became interested in how different cultures use plants, so she decided to study plant science and ethnobiology. After college she owned a landscaping business, worked in a florist’s shop and tended to plants for hospitality businesses for a few decades. Five years ago, Sonderman was offered the job of Tucker Greenhouse’s keeper. She began to teach students from all over Columbia — even some from surrounding towns — and use the greenhouse as a tool. Sonderman found that she loves to teach and share her passion with others, especially when students have little plant exposure.
“Last year, I had been growing some green beans in a pot, and they had bloomed,” Sonderman said. “This student looks at me and said, ‘What are those green things hanging on there?’ So I said, ‘Okay, do you like green beans?’ … and I took one off and bit it and he goes ‘Oh! That’s what that thing is?’ ”
She laughed softly. Her laughter is the same gentle tone of her words — ethereal and light, reminiscent of the plants she works with in the greenhouse.
“Barb is a gentle soul; she is also very inquisitive about the things that interest her,” Pickens said. “I think that her love of plants is an outward expression of that gentle soul.”