From Plant Press, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 2017.
By W. John Kress
Research Greenhouse Manager, Mike Bordelon, retired in October 2016 after 22 years of service in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Bordelon, a University of Maryland graduate (B.S. in Botany), was the greenhouse production manager for 15 years at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville, Maryland, before I was able to lure him away to manage the brand new Botany Research Greenhouses in 1994. Bordelon had come highly recommended by the staff at the United States Botanic Garden.
The Botany Research Greenhouses, located in Suitland, Maryland, at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center (MSC), play a significant and supportive role for the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Botany and the U.S. National Herbarium. While the internationally well-known herbarium has a collection of over 5 million dried, pressed, and preserved plant specimens, the greenhouses maintain an impressive collection of nearly 6,000 living plants. These specimens are used by curators to resolve complex taxonomic problems, to describe new species, and to understand the life histories of plants that are difficult to study in their native habitats. They also serve as an important reservoir for genome-quality tissue and to conserve rare and threatened species.
Bordelon came to the Smithsonian with a strong background in greenhouse maintenance and plant care, which was just what was needed for the new 7,000 square foot growing facility that had just opened on the MSC campus. Previously, the Department of Botany had maintained a very small greenhouse on the roof of the Museum! This facility only received direct sunlight for a few hours a day and was hardly adequate for growing the specimens needed for scientific study.
Although he had extensive training in growing horticulturally important plants, Bordelon knew that he needed more experience growing and propagating diverse research species. I recognized that a good greenhouse manager needed to see how species grow in their native environments so I invited Bordelon along on an expedition to Myanmar in 1998 to help me collect wild gingers, bananas, and prayer plants in the order Zingiberales. Over the next six years together we explored many of the unknown regions of that country, as well a neighboring Thailand and southern China, discovering and collecting many new species of plants. I ended up naming one after Bordelon: Hedychium bordelonianum, an epiphytic ginger with bright red flowers. This species is now in cultivation in the Botany Research Greenhouses.
Bordelon’s energy and innovations were critical in getting many curators in Botany to start bringing into the greenhouses research plants for cultivation and study. He expanded the growing area to include an outdoor shade house for warm-weather propagation and a small display garden around the entrance to the facility. He initiated a well-organized accession system for all the plant material to track their arrival, growth, use, and sometimes demise. He was also instrumental in systematically sampling tissue and making herbarium voucher specimens for the plants in cultivation. His desire to make the greenhouses an ecologically sustainable facility resulted in the implementation of a successful integrated pest management system to decrease pest infestation of the plants. His friendly relationship with the facilities staff at MSC insured that the physical aspects of the greenhouses were always in good shape. And his continued interactions with the staff at the United States Botanic Garden allowed many of the interesting plants in the Botany greenhouses to be displayed for the education of visitors to the Botanic Garden, including a gigantic Amorphophallus titanum.
Bordelon’s knowledge, talent, and enthusiasm for plants was a great asset to the Department of Botany, and fortunately he transferred those qualities to Leslie Brothers, Greenhouse Assistant who is temporarily in charge of the greenhouses while a search is made for the new Manager. We look forward to seeing Mike Bordelon in the Botany Research Greenhouses in the future as he visits the botanical disciples that he cared for over many years.