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Plants May Never Look the Same Again

Patterns exist throughout nature, in the shapes of snowflakes, the symmetry of rock crystals and butterflies, and the formations of clouds.

As well, in plants, a consistent pattern—the spiral—exists across numerous species. In sunflowers and pinecones, on pineapples and hundreds of other plants, spirals of leaves, petals and other botanical growths twist around the center, weaving through the plant in strikingly ordered sequences.

As explained in Plant Spirals: Beauty You Can Count On, the inaugural exhibition in the Church Gallery in the newly renovated Lyman Conservatory, these spirals are not random. Their mathematical sequence corresponds to that of the Fibonacci numbers, a group of digits in which each successive number equals the sum of its two predecessors in the order (i.e. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...).

The Botanic Garden, of which the Lyman Conservatory is a part, collaborated with the Department of Mathematics for the gallery’s first exhibition.

“We’re really looking to make connections with other departments on campus,” says Madelaine Zadik, the manager of education and outreach at the Botanic Garden, who oversees the gallery. “And most of the exhibitions here will lean in a scientific direction.”

In coordinating Plant Spirals, Zadik and Michael Marcotrigiano, director of the Botanic Garden, teamed with Pau Atela and Chris Golé, both associate professors of math, who applied their ongoing research on phyllotaxis—the study of leaf arrangements in plants, such as the Fibonacci spirals—to the exhibition.

The resulting cross-disciplinary display, which incorporates science, math, botany, and natural art, is in a gallery space that once was the Botanic Garden’s offices and potting area. Plant Spirals will run through March 2003.

Zadik plans to continue the cross-disciplinary trend in future Church Gallery exhibitions, she says. Next in line is an exhibit of Virginia Woolf and Gardens, to correspond with the upcoming conference on Woolf in the spring.

In conjunction with the garden’s fall Chrysanthemum Show, Zadik will make use of the exhibition space by displaying different varieties of mums with framed pictures of the students who created them.

The Church Gallery is part of the Lyman Conservatory’s two-year, $5 million renovation and expansion, which is also restoring the facility’s greenhouses and adding a new classroom, office and lab space, storage space, restrooms and enclosed corridors. The glasshouse renovation is expected to be completed in spring 2003 and the Botanic Garden hopes to hold its popular Spring Bulb Show after skipping a year during construction, Zadik says.

Meanwhile, Plant Spirals provides a sampling of what the new and improved Lyman Conservatory will have to offer. After visiting the exhibition, you may never look at a plant the same way again.

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