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Growing Shade

Scientists Create Umbrellas the Natural Way­­­­—With Plants

By Charlie Wright


Edwin Remsberg

Edwin Remsberg

The next boom in blooms may not be at ground level, but overhead.

Associate Professor David Tilley and Research Associate Jose-Luis Izursa M.S. ’01, Ph.D. ’08 in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology have developed the Living Umbrella to replace the drab canvas of typical awnings with colorful flowers and vines. 

Tilley came up with the concept while on a sunny pool deck in Las Vegas. The area lacked umbrellas or any other shield from the sun, so everyone swarmed around one little tree. And he saw an opportunity to combine vegetation with umbrellas to enhance the shade experience. 

“What we’re really about in the lab is trying to connect people with nature,” says Tilley. “We want to take real problems and solve them using natural systems.”

With the help of graduate student Nicholas Cloyd ’13 and Research Associate Tim Williamson M.A. ’14, the team jury-rigged a prototype from scrap metal and a cooking wok. The most recent iteration features a 130-pound steel structure with four soil pots, a solar charger for the irrigation system and giant red mandevilla flowering vines. 

The team has already erected 10 canopies across campus; the patent is pending. This summer, the group will have umbrellas at restaurants in Baltimore, Frederick and Ocean City to test commercial interest. 

“What it does is it draws people’s attention,” says Williamson. “It’s like a place people want to hang out.”

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