As the manager of Tucker Greenhouse, nestled in the center of the University of Missouri campus, Barbara Sonderman has cared for between 500 to 800 species of plants for about 30 years now.
“I have the best job on campus,” she says with sincerity.
Sonderman went to school at MU, originally studying anthropology; she realized pretty quickly that her passion actually was for plants, and acquired an additional degree in horticulture.
She teaches and assists with botany labs, and is constantly helping people at the university to identify and grow specific plants for research. Sonderman is currently in the process of identifying and labeling every plant in the greenhouse, which is no small task. The process requires that she wait for the plants to bloom, and then she may identify it. There have been times when she had to contact different botanical gardens to confirm plant identification.
“She’s just Barb,” says Bethany Stone, professor of biological science. “She adores the plants and brings an energy to the class and department that would be sorely missed. She is the heart behind our botany class.”
Tucker Greenhouse was started by David Dunn, Sonderman’s taxonomy professor in the late 70s. Recently, Dunn’s daughter visited the greenhouse and met Sonderman, they sparked up a friendship instantly.
The diverse ecosystems Sonderman has fostered are breathtaking. One room is dry enough to host an array of cactus and succulents, while the next room over is a rainforest equipped with a fish pond. Titan arum, commonly called the Corpse Flower, is one of Sonderman’s favorite plants in the greenhouse. She named it “Stinky” because it has flowers that can grow past 10 feet in height and smell like rotting flesh. It is due to bloom in the next year. Sonderman maintains three beautifully distinguished rooms at Tucker Greenhouse, as well as some research greenhouses.
Sonderman met her partner in 1994. She was on a softball team and Martha Pickens was a cheerleader. Together, they love to go to art galleries, or hike and kayak in various state parks. According to Pickens, teaching allowed Sonderman’s strengths to shine.
“That’s when she really blossomed,” said Pickens. “She’s so passionate that students get excited and interested. She’s also really patient and good at explaining things in terms that can be understood, so she’s a natural teacher.”
It is hard for Sonderman, as a naturalist, to experience the wedge humans have put between themselves and the natural world. She grew up in St. Louis, and spent a lot of her childhood with her grandfather, who grew corn and tomatoes. He taught Sonderman to garden and to appreciate nature; because of this, she recognizes the importance of instilling a love for the natural world at a young age. She believes people are becoming more radically disconnected from the natural world.
“We need to be taking children outdoors to experience beautiful, natural settings,” Sonderman said. “People need to learn to treat plants and animals with respect.”
Some of the most rewarding work she has taken on is at Tucker Prairie, where today she serves on the committee. Sonderman was an apprentice of Clair Kucera, a former Mizzou professor who convinced the University to buy acres of virgin prairie in 1957. Since then, Tucker Prairie has thrived with help from the Missouri Department of Conservation prairie restoration efforts. The MDC assists with controlled burns, in exchange, they can harvest all the native seed they like.
To Sonderman, things kind of come full-circle. She learned to love Earth from her grandfather, and today she mentors and teaches young people to appreciate nature. She recognizes she probably liked Professor Kucera so much because of the similarities he shared with her grandfather. Speaking at Clair Kucera’s funeral was one of her greatest honors. Today, Sonderman is at “the pinnacle of happiness.” She works all day with plants and people she loves. She’s ecstatic to be carrying on the work of her predecessor, even mentoring some students of her own.