Home » In PlaceSpring 2012

In Place with Jonathan Ertelt, MEd’99.

by Mitch Roberson One Comment

A green world perches on the top floor of MRB III, where the College of Arts and Science’s greenhouses are nurtured by greenhouse manager Jonathan Ertelt, MEd’99.

The greenhouses span seven rooms and are home to upwards of a thousand plant species—several of which are so recently discovered that they don’t yet have scientific names. Ertelt has collected, acquired, cultivated and maintained these plants and their environment for 17 years, sharing plant knowledge with students, faculty and researchers in a sort of living lab and library.

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This dried vine hanging from the ceiling is of the large genus Aristolochia, a genus with plants predominately from Central and South America. Now decorated with butterflies and feathers collected on Ertelt’s travels, the vine with a cork-like bark serves as a starting point for students’ questions as well as a sort of hanging sculpture.
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The baseball cap behind Ertelt’s desk is from Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ertelt’s son, Sam, a promising 14-year-old pitcher, played in the 2011 Cooperstown Dreams Park National Invitational Tournament, and his team was inducted into its American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame. Ertelt proudly wears the Hall of Fame ring he received as one of the coaches (or he did until the plating started to wear off).
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The plants in this terrarium are so sensitive that they would start to wilt within 10 minutes if the top was removed. The species, including a Gasteranthus villosus (the genus name translates as “belly flower”), are mostly gesneriads. Their natural environment is near streams in rainforest areas of high humidity. Ertelt describes them as being hard to find and hard to keep.
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Ertelt, who earned a master’s in education from Peabody, wears a T-shirt from the Gesneriad Society. The gesneriad plant family is one of his favorites because of the vast variety it encompasses, from African violets to lipstick plants and from thimble-sized to tree-sized specimens. It includes many common houseplants along with esoteric, rare species.
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Botanical paintings on the walls were done by Ertelt’s wife, Bonnie Arant Ertelt, BS’81, editor of Peabody Reflector. This work depicts Anthurium pseudospectabile, found in the Panamanian rainforest. The first one Ertelt ever saw was clinging to a tree too high for him to reach even holding a machete and standing on tiptoes, yet its 9-foot-long leaves draped the forest floor.
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The terrarium holds blue frogs that seem to be straight out of the movie Avatar. From Suriname, the frogs are Dendrobates tinctorius, commonly known as dart frogs because the toxin on their skin is used to make poison darts. Aside from their colors, the frogs are unique because—unlike tree frogs—they are active during daytime, which means they can sometimes be heard singing.
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Microscopes are used to identify plant pests, look for plant health problems and examine cellular structure. Ertelt prepares slides that show cytoplasmic streaming in the cells of plants for botany students, greenhouse volunteers and anyone else who is interested.
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Ertelt lives within biking range of campus and takes advantage of this most days of the year. Living close also makes it easier for Ertelt to come in on weekends and holidays to care for tender plants.

photo credit: John Russell

One Comment »

  • Carol Ponder said:

    What a wonderful picture and great captions – Jonathan and his work are so valuable to students and faculty at Vanderbilt. Well done!!!