Katie Sadler leads a botanical tour of the world inside the UW Biology Greenhouse

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As she leads a tour of the diverse vegetation proliferating inside the UW Biology Greenhouse, Katie Sadler compulsively collects dead leaves, desiccated flowers and spent branches, almost without noticing, the way a mother casually fusses with her child’s hair or straightens his collar.

“I wish I had my pruning shears,” she says, with a knowing smile.

Since joining the UW in 2021 to manage operations of the sprawling greenhouse, Sadler is called to be both botanical mom and maestro, caring deeply for every frond and flower of the 4,500 plants on display while also orchestrating the complex ecosystem that keeps them all thriving—and serves a legion of stakeholders who study and enjoy them. She manages the facility and its small staff, oversees plant propagation and growth, curates teaching collections and supports research projects.

Apart from the feeling that “it sometimes takes two of me,” Sadler presents as an ardent advocate and generous educator of the plant world, offering an encyclopedia knowledge and a natural enthusiasm that suggests she is in precisely the right place at the right time.

“The University of Washington is a wonderful institution with a long, storied history and a large, beautiful plant collection,” she says. “It’s a pleasure to come in every day and see what’s blooming and growing. And it’s so satisfying to connect people with plants, sharing our collections with students and the public. It’s a fantastic job.”

Cultivating a green career

Sadler was born to do it.

Growing up in Texas and Kansas, she counts time tending the backyard garden with her mother among her earliest and dearest memories. Her horticultural passion was cultivated alongside the plants they grew to give as presents and the vibrant terrariums they created.


This affinity for a bit of dirt under her nails led Sadler to earn dual bachelor’s degrees in greenhouse management and community horticulture at Kansas State University.

After working her way through college as a plant care technician, she landed a job across the state managing the greenhouse facilities at the University of Kansas. Serving in this role for nearly three decades, she became an institution…

Until another human institution—and a kindred spirit—stepped down at the University of Washington.

Leading a new era

The original UW Botany Greenhouse was built in 1949. Though it was much beloved, the decades took a toll. After 65 years, it was deemed outdated and dilapidated. And in 2016 it was demolished, its plant collections exiled to temporary quarters far from the Seattle campus.

When the old greenhouse was retired, longtime manager Doug Ewing, a passionate and knowledgeable steward of UW’s botanical collections for 32 years, decided to follow suit.

The Covid-19 pandemic and construction issues delayed the opening of the new greenhouse—attached to the new Life Sciences Building—for five long years.

When it was finally time to start a new era, after a prolonged dormancy, Sadler got an offer she couldn’t refuse.

She arrived in mid-July of 2021 and hit the ground running. “On my first day, they let me know that the move-back-to-campus timeline was moved up six months,” she says. “So, we started orchestrating it immediately. Six weeks later, we moved 19 trucks full of plants and hard goods into our new facility here on campus. And we’ve been buzzing with people, plants and interest ever since.”

State of the art facility

Sadler says the new UW Greenhouse has a Dutch compound design. Its roomy 20,000 square feet of space provides ample habitat for more than 3,000 different species of plants organized in nine bays—five devoted to research and teaching and four to public outreach—that open to a central corridor that stretches the length of a football field.

The greenhouse is LEED-certified and operates as sustainably as possible for what is, essentially, a very long glass house comprising several different artificial environments—none of them remotely resembling the cool gray of the Pacific Northwest.

The environments are maintained by an ingenious system of automated and sensor-driven vents and screens and shades and curtains and foggers and exhaust fans that keep each bay in its Goldilocks zone (assuming this Goldilocks likes it hot).

“It’s state of the art,” Sadler says. “The controls are all integrated to maintain the optimal environmental conditions of temperature, humidity and light. And there’s plenty of collaborative space for researchers to work and students to learn.”

And not only biology and botany students. The greenhouse also provides a living classroom for art, architecture and even astronomy students, who recently came to observe instances of the natural spiral patterns expressing the recurring Fibonacci sequence.

Sadler’s team of three full-time equivalent positions and assorted students, plus a small platoon of volunteers and docents, help tend to the plants, coordinate academic and research projects and manage the ever-growing throng of visitors. Last year, the Greenhouse drew 10,000—including 7,000 browsers seeking “plant therapy” on free public opening days and another 3,000 garden clubs, citizen botanists and student field trips on pre-arranged tours.

What they experienced is a condensed journey around the natural world.

Special collections

The wonders never cease. The desert collection, feeling bright and balmy on a gloomy February day, is verdant with cacti and succulents. Giant aloes from South Africa and Yuccas and Euphorbias from Mexico. A sprawling uncarina, of Madagascar, explodes with a constellation of yellow flowers that look as delicate as crepe paper.

“We have a bit of everything,” Sadler says. “But there is one in particular I’d like to show you.”

That would be the welwitschia, a sprawling tangle of ribbony leaves that can live up to 3,000 years by extracting the cold nighttime fog that rolls into the Namibian desert. “This plant can get huge, forming an oasis habitat for shade-seeking animals and birds under its leaves,” she explains. “I once saw a photo of one with a VW Beetle parked under it, which looked tiny.”

The muggier tropical rooms are a riot of color—floral begonias, striped peperomias, sprawling mangroves and glossy anthuriums. Among the many orchids is the grammatophyllum, native to Malaysia, the largest of the species. Spagnum rolls out a living carpet of moss. Aquatic species of hyacinth, salvania and azolla, from Tasmania, float atop of pool of water. While azolla is the smallest fern in the world, across the collection is the towering tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, ever reaching toward the ceiling light.

A clutch of popular plants includes the infamous amorphophallus, native to Indonesia, better known as the “corpse flower” for the stench it emits during its rare inflorescence—or flowering—that is often likened to rotting flesh. Sadler describes it kindlier as “sewage and stinky socks.”

Among several species of tropical pitcher plants is the intriguing nepenthes, known by kids as the “shrew loo” for its scent that woos shrews to poo inside its pitcher-shaped flower after licking a substance on its lip. Sadler is most impressed by the plant’s miraculous ability to cleanly digest insects or anything else that falls into its flower. “We sometimes feed the nepenthese plants tobacco horn worms, which are very green,” she says. “One day, one of them dumped over. What fell out of the flower looked like it had been bleached Clorox white. And it had no smell at all! I was amazed.”

Trees of life

Even the greenhouse hallway carries curiosities. Floating like jellyfish in specimen jars on a display table are the ethereal blossoms of night-flowering orchids that are preserved in a 30% ethanol cocktail (“We’re experimenting how best to preserve them,” Sadler says).

Seeds are the stars of another hallway exhibit that lays out the range of seed types, from nearly microscopic to the voluptuous nut of the Lodoicea (aka “Coco de mer”) found in the Seychelles, the largest seed on earth.

The “Tree of Life” room, a final stop on the tour, traces the evolution of plants from Chara algae and primitive mosses to highly evolved angiosperms, fruit-producing flowering plants.

It includes a forest of ferns, magnolias, laurels, cycads like the Japanese sago palm and an Australian wollemia pine. Among the most evolved angiosperms on display are plants of economic import, including avocado, black pepper, various citrus, mango, breadfruit, bananas (both ubiquitous yellow cavendish and adorable pink velutina), coffee (robusta and arabica) and chocolate (Theobroma cacao).

Ever curious, Sadler muses on the evolution—or the lack thereof—of the plant world. “Recent research of the Antarctic permafrost has determined that many of these plants were on earth during the Cretaceous and Carboniferous periods,” she marvels, “with similar genetics to species we see today!”

At the close of our quick stroll across history and around the world, Sadler apologizes for the brevity. “You can hear a lot more history and interesting ecological concept detail on a docent-led tour,” she says. “You could spend hours in each room, appreciating the diversity and beauty of our collections.”

Disseminating plant passion

In fact, she hopes you will.

But whether you are deep into horticulture, a casual gardener or just looking for a bright break on a gloomy day, Sadler invites you to spend some time in the greenhouse. “It’s an artificial environment,” she says, “but the plants are real. It is bright and warm, so it’s a great way to chase away the blues and come in out of the rain. The offers the greater people-plant connection, which is good for you—mentally and spiritually!”

The UW Biology Greenhouse is located on the lower level (Burke Gilman side) of the Life Science Building, 3747 W. Stevens Way NE.

Public collections are open for free browsing every Thursday (except Thanksgiving) from noon to 4 p.m. and the second and fourth Saturday of each month (except Husky home football game days) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Group tours for 8+ offered by pre-arrangement. The Greenhouse team is currently booking tours into early summer.

Photography and videography by Sebastian Ky.