Standing in the greenhouse at the Marsh Botanical Gardens one day in November, surrounded by sundews, cacti, and ponytail palms, Wade H. Elmer turned his attention to a vegetable: asparagus, his topic for the evening.
As the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Center’s chief scientist lectured on the vegetable’s historical notoriety as an aphrodisiac and preference for salty soil, about 40 attendees snacked on pickled asparagus and one person reminisced aloud about the days when she rode her bike along the highway, picking asparagus for her family’s dinner. In her lap was a handout from Elmer containing plant memes and asparagus comics. Students scribbled notes, and a few snapped photos of the greenhouse plants. A table at the front held asparagus art and figurines, posters, and memorabilia.
It was a typical scene at the Green Café, the name of a Yale gathering at the gardens held monthly during the academic year that focuses on the plant life around us.
Joshua Gendron, associate professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale, founded the cafe in 2014 to create a public forum where curiosity about plants could flourish and where “plant scientists can transmit the value of plant research,” he said. It features a rotating cast of speakers, such as Elmer, who cover a range of subjects. In addition to asparagus, topics have included the science and practice of ancient Chinese herbal medicine, organic farming, and coffee’s journey from the farm to the filter. Admission to the café is free.
In addition to attracting plant enthusiasts of all ages from the general public, the café has welcomed students from New Haven public schools, Southern Connecticut State University, and Gendron’s courses at Yale.
“The Green Café fills a couple of different niches,” said Gendron, who studies how plants respond to environmental cues, “it builds community and presents folks with several opportunities for a ‘wow’ moment where they learn something surprising about plants. There is a gap between plants studied in the lab on slides and plants in the environment. You can wear them, taste them, touch them, and — even still — people don’t really understand the basics about the organisms they consume and pass on their way to work and school.”
The cafe partners with Yale Pathways to Science, a program that aims to inspire curiosity about technology, engineering, and math among New Haven’s middle and high school students. Pathways currently serves more than 1,600 local public school students per year who can take part in the program’s over 130 special events. In addition to the Green Café, these include academic lectures, demonstrations, summer programs, and research opportunities.
In recent years the café has further expanded its work. It now develops classroom lessons about plant biology for New Haven schools, such as Celentano Biotech Health and Medical Magnet and Cedarhurst. Topics have included a breakdown of the plants used in karate, such as those found in the Karategi, a uniform worn during practice, or those found in the wooden boards practitioners break.