By Mason Opp
Think about what you’ve eaten today. Now pick out the main plant-based ingredients. What do those plants look like? Wheat, corn, potato, rice, and soy: more than likely one of these crops will appear, and you probably know what those look like.
In the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens,a pomegranate
(Punica granatum) is growing in the temperate house! 
But we live in a globalized world, where the abundance of international shipping routes makes available goods which only decades ago would have been impossible to find on shelves. Let me ask you this; what does a peanut plant look like? Too easy? How about a cacao tree? Do you know how a pineapple grows, let alone how long it takes to grow one?

Two pineapple plants (Ananas comosus) bear fruit in the
tropical house. It can take up to two years for the plants to
fruit, and another 6 months for the fruit to mature!
One of the most amazing parts of being in the conservatory at Matthaei, an indoor, year-round space featuring many plants from regions totally different than ours, is seeing plants you otherwise might not have been able to identify, let alone know that they existed. The houses in the conservatory represent three different biomes (tropical, temperate, and desert) and host a diverse collection of plants from all over the world. Species from the Americas, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands all call Matthaei home. Additionally, the collection is made up of a variety of plants, from large and woody to small and herbaceous, and everything in between. With over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world, there are still plenty of fascinating foods to be added to the collection. Of the newest is the Jabuticaba Plinia cauliflora, which when fully grown could stand up to 45 feet tall and will be covered in fruit which resembles a cross between a grape and a cherry.
Two cashew apples dangle on the cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale).
They hold the nut which is encased in a protective layer. Fruit flies really
like them!
The plants in the conservatory are selected based on four criteria: that they are 1) notable types of vegetation in a biome; 2) a good representation of plant diversity and evolution at work; 3) at risk of extinction or found in a threatened habitat; 4) iconic plants or ones with medicinal properties. These four criteria ensure that there is always something unique to look at, and that the collection is a valuable tool when it comes to educating visitors about the world of plants. There are always opportunities to learn something new at the gardens and, for me, the best way to start learning in the conservatory is by looking for the plants you can connect to your own kitchen!
When I’m not exploring the conservatory, I work as a horticulture intern in the greenhouses, outdoor gardens, and natural areas at Matthaei-Nichols. Specifically, I care for the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden, another wonderful place to see some of the edible plants of the world!
Ginger (Zingiber officinale). It’s officinale awesome!

Mason Opp, from Pinckney, Michigan, is entering his senior year as a Program in the Environment student at the University of Michigan studying environmental policy and law with a minor in sustainability. Mason enjoys hiking, biking, and spending time on the lake. This summer he hopes to finally land that backflip on his wakeboard. Mason’s internship is made possible by the Matthaei-Nichols Membership fund and by the Norman Memorial Fund created by Steve and Ann Norman for the care, maintenance, and study of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens outdoor plant collection.