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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

More than Orchids Blossom under ODU Greenhouse Guru’s Touch

The seed was planted following Marcus Jones' freshman year of college. Laid up after knee surgery, Jones was instructed by his mother to care for a bevy of house plants to help occupy his down time.

It wasn't long, however, before the plants became more than busy work for Jones, who at the time was a computer science major at Virginia Tech.

They became his life's work.

"I went back to school and transferred to horticulture," said Jones, the greenhouse conservator of Old Dominion's Arthur and Phyllis Kaplan Orchid Conservatory. "It made my dad cry. He thought he'd have to take care of me the rest of his life."

Jones' father, Kenny, was a biology undergrad who switched gears and earned master's and doctorate degrees in computer science from ODU.

After charting the reverse course, Marcus Jones dug in dirt at jobs throughout the Commonwealth until he, too, landed at Old Dominion three years ago.

Jones, 37, had been a curator at the Norfolk Botanical Garden for eight years before ODU handed him a task much as his mother did: maintain the Kaplan Conservatory, but also expand the building's profile and influence.

"If they were looking to grow the best hybrid orchids in the world, they hired the wrong person," Jones said. "I'm one of the worst gardeners in the world. But I've had a lot of great experiences, and I am pretty good at getting people involved in and focusing on projects. That's where I've been successful."

That talent is exactly what convinced Karen Eck, assistant vice president for research, to hand the keys to the 3,600 square-foot Conservatory to Jones.

"Marcus has such energy and enthusiasm and he wants to share it," Eck said. "He has a personality that really engages people. And then they get excited about plants and the environment, too."

The Conservatory has remained a premiere orchid showcase under Jones' leadership while also stretching to involve University students in numerous research and service projects.

Jones' volunteers work with Norfolk Botanical Gardens, the Elizabeth River Project, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the city of Norfolk.

They also comprise an active student chapter of the Botany Society of America and spearhead educational projects at two Virginia Beach public schools.

Additionally, they lead "Monarchs for Monarchs," ODU's contribution to a national initiative to replenish milkweed habitats, the only food for the dwindling Monarch butterfly population.

"I want to get as many things going here as possible so I have something to market to donors," said Jones, named the College of Sciences staff member of the year in 2014.

The work that gets the excitable Jones most worked up, however, is the effort to regenerate Calopogon pallidus in the Conservatory lab. That's the native Virginia orchid known to grow on public land only in a preserve owned by the University in Zuni, Va.

The process involves extracting a microscopic fungus from orchids in that small Zuni stand and germinating new orchids to be added there later.

It is an initiative that could establish ODU as a regional hub for orchid research and conservation, said Jones, who has partnered with the Smithsonian's Environmental Research Center and the Norfolk Botanical Garden to bolster that effort.

"Almost everything that goes on here is student driven," said Jones, who has about a dozen regular volunteers. He also offers two paid summer internships created at the request of University President John R. Broderick and funded by the Office of Research.

"They're way smarter than me," Jones continued. "They're smart and they do things. Mainly, I just help focus and guide them through."

Senior biology major Annie Sabo, one of Jones' interns, said he deflects too much credit for making the Conservatory a hive of activity.

"He's a very humble but confident guy," Sabo said. "Working with Marcus is fun. Every day we do different things. And he knows a lot of people, so we get a lot of good connections.

"He loves learning, too, so it's half and half; he wants us to learn while he's learning at the same time," she continued.

Jones also is known for engaging every visitor to the Conservatory with an easy, welcoming air, whether they are students, faculty and staff or community members.

Jones eagerly conducts a few greenhouse tours a month for orchid clubs and other civic groups that generally morph into wide-ranging discussions.

"I'm a talker," Jones said. "I tell stories, go off on tangents. Half of my tour's not on orchids, it's whatever people want to know."

Virginia Beach resident Pat Crane, who toured recently with a small church group, was desperate to learn one thing from Jones: How she can stop killing her orchids?

She and Jones exchanged phone numbers, and Crane left with Jones' promise that if she returned with her plant and a pot, Jones would take it from there.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Crane said, with a hearty laugh. "Marcus is going to help me. He's wonderful."

Jones, a father of three who is pursuing a master's in public administration at the University, said it's all in a day's work - and the only way he wants to spend his days.

"This," Jones said, as he monitored students digging in a flower bed outside the Conservatory, "is an awesome job."

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