Staying steamy on a snowy day

Plant guy: Caring for the city's rare tropical plants means that one horticulturist becomes an essential employee like a firefighter.

January 26, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

With wind-driven snow slapping thousands of glass panes, Tim Almaguer braved yesterday's winter whipping in a tropical cocoon, like a sailor on an island in the eye of a hurricane.

The ecologist at The Baltimore Conservatory in Druid Hill Park was happily pruning, watering and tending to thousands of exotic and tropical plants such as cycad palm trees, euphorbia cacti and cattleya orchids.

"This is not a bad job to be inside a tropical environment on a snowy day," Almaguer said. "But it's a shock to the system to go from the arctic to the rain forest of Peru in three seconds."

Because of the weather, Almaguer was the only one yesterday removing the snow and tramping through the garden exhibits that feature plants as common as orange trees and basil or as rare as a 300-million-year-old, 20-foot tall palm tree that has been at the conservatory since it opened in the 1880s.

Non-essential city employees did not have to work yesterday, when more than a foot of snow blanketed the area. But Almaguer, along with firefighters, police officers and snow plow drivers, is an essential employee because he is in charge of helping the conservatory's prized plants hold up against the bitter chill outside, where temperatures dropped below freezing.

The conservatory complex, made up of a 120-year-old, 60-foot-tall Palm House and four greenhouses, must remain between 72 and 76 toasty degrees and at 70 percent humidity. So warm that sweat begins to drip from an warmly dressed reporter's forehead and the garter snakes slither in from the park to curl up on top of Dendrobium orchids.

But don't think Almaguer stands around and stokes a man-made fire. The conservatory is warmed through an aging, but highly effective oil-fueled heating system. In the greenhouse basement, two boilers, the size of a small trash compactor, heat thousands of gallons of water. The hot water then travels upthrough a series of 2-inch pipes that run from the rear of the 8,500 square-foot greenhouse to the front, where it travels into large coils positioned above the doors.

The coils collect the water, and two fans, similar to restaurant exhaust fans, send the air swirling over the coils, ushering heated air into plastic jet tubes. The jet tubes, which resemble a plastic slide tube in a kids' playground, then distribute the hot air over the length of the greenhouse.

"This is why you can have papaya fruit in Maryland at all and especially in the middle of a January snowstorm," Almaguer said.

Almaguer said the snow actually helps trap the heat, but it can be dangerous for the plants, as it was in the winter of 1978 when heavy snow shattered panes of greenhouse glass.

Controlling the temperature and humidity is more difficult during heat waves when the conservatory's six staff members must continually water the plants and shade greenhouse glass to repel sunlight, Almaguer said. "There is a reason they call it the greenhouse effect."

Almaguer, 33, a self-described animal and plant lover, started volunteering at the conservatory two years ago. The Linthicum native studied desert ecology at Arizona State University in Tempe. He also worked at the Museum of Natural History there.

After returning to Maryland, he visited the conservatory once and was impressed enough by it to volunteer. He eventually was hired.

In addition to his greenhouse duties, Almaguer also is responsible for caring for the city's community gardens, working on the urban farms program and supplying fresh flowers for the mayor's office and city functions.

He said he is excited about the $4.5 million conservatory renovation. Funded by city and state bonds, the renovations will include building two more pavilions that will house a snack shop and book store, the construction of a meeting facility, and an expansion of the exterior gardens and courtyards. The work should be completed by 2002.

"It's going to be a big botanical garden in the next five years," Almaguer said. "Kids in the city are used to brick and concrete, and when they get here, they are wowed because they have no concept of [exotic] plants."

The conservatory is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and admission is free.

"If you are ever cooped up at home and wanted to remember what spring is like, this is a good place because it's always spring and summer," Almaguer said.

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