Burst pipes leave dead plants and destruction at Michigan State University’s Butterfly House
EAST LANSING — Dan Polkowski walked Wednesday through Michigan State University’s greenhouses, showing what was left of the January cold snap and winter storm after burst pipes wreaked havoc on the university’s horticultural facilities: a nearly empty room with a few sad plants, many… Some of them were built more than normal and hung for life.
The plants referred to by the greenhouse manager at Michigan State University survived — barely — after being frozen for up to 10 days. They were luckier than many others, which was a loss.
Less than 12% of the plants in two of Michigan State University’s 14 greenhouses survived the cold snap and the lack of warm air circulating in the greenhouses. All 14 greenhouses had damage to the water pipes that help heat the facilities, and there was damage to plants throughout.
An aftershock could mean not enough food for the caterpillars in the Butterfly House, no ficus trees for weddings and other on-campus events, and less green space on a campus known for its agriculture and plant life.
The extent of the damage is still being assessed, but studies for students in various majors and annual plant sales will continue, Polkowski said. Event backdrops in greenhouses—which often use ficus trees or other larger plants—may remain lean for years as new donations or cuttings grow. Most of the plants in the Butterfly House, a popular destination for campus visitors, may need to be replaced, he said.
“Hundreds of students come to the greenhouses every week, and now they do,” Polkowski said. “The last weekend in February, there was a Greater Lansing Orchid Society show here and we will be able to do that.”
Some of the lost plants and trees will take years to replace.
“A violin sheet? Maybe a toast,” Polkowski said. “I was probably 20 or 25 years old.”
Much of the damage can be recovered fairly quickly. While there are some long-lived plants like ficus, many plants are grown as annuals and can be replaced. But many old and well-established plants have disappeared.
It may be possible to propagate it fairly easily, but it could take a decade or more to get mature Ficus plants the size of those that likely died, Polkowski said.
The two full greenhouses contain houseplants, tropical plants and succulents, Polkowski said. Because of the broken pipes, the flow of hot water that normally radiates warm air around greenhouses stopped, and temperatures dropped.
The third butterfly greenhouse, which attracted more than 13,000 schoolchildren a year before the coronavirus hit, has many large plants that are dead or potentially dead, and will need some work to be able to support caterpillars again, Polkowski said.
He said none of the missing plants were “crown jewels” but that some had been growing at MSU for decades.
The MSU Conservatory, filled with tall ficus plants and luscious green ferns and hosting more than 50 events including weddings each year, is currently a temporary graveyard for some of the university’s tallest and oldest greenhouse plants.
How do plants freeze?
Early in the cold snap, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Polkowski received a phone call from a student working in the greenhouse.
It had been cold the day before, which initially brought down to subzero temperatures outside the glass-walled greenhouses.
But it soon became clear that there were burst pipes and that the hot water heating the greenhouses was not heating anything.
Many of the killed plants were not sold at the annual fall plant auction, which focuses on houseplants and succulents. The spring plant sales on April 13 and 14 focus more on vegetables and outdoor gardens since that’s when early vegetables begin to be planted.
Polkowski said the incident could have been worse if it had happened a few weeks later, rather than in early January.
“If it had been now, or March 1, it would have been really bad,” Polkowski said.
Greenhouses weren’t the only facilities on campus damaged during the cold weather. Also in mid-January, a malfunction in the fire suppression system at the hockey offices at Munn Ice Arena spread water widely, including office spaces, the shooting practice area and the team lounge.
He said the gardens may need support from the public in the near future – through donations of cuttings or plants to replenish their stock – but it is too early to make a request for help.
“Watch our Facebook page, and we will let you know,” he said.