When Cheryl LeBlanc was 9 years old, she came across a Lady Slipper orchid in her backyard. Right before her eyes, this orchid sparked a life-long passion for nature she would later incorporate in both her personal and work life.
As a child, LeBlanc would often climb trees, play in creeks and discover creatures under logs and rocks. For as long as she can remember, she said, nature has played a significant role in her life.
“My family modeled and encouraged this passion with growing our own food and spending time outdoors,” LeBlanc said. “We had many houseplants too. I met my first native orchid when I was 9 years old in my backyard and have continued to find them and other native plants on all of my backpacking forays.”
For 28 years, LeBlanc has worked as curator at the Dr. Joe & Alice Rinard Orchid Greenhouse, where she waters thousands of plant species, feeds frogs and goldfish, re-pots plants and collects data to maintain the appropriate growing conditions of each plant.
Because the greenhouse also serves as a museum, LeBlanc maintains the facility for the public by interacting with visitors, teaching docents and volunteers, giving guided tours and fundraising. LeBlanc said her favorite part of her job is educating and sharing the collection with visitors and students.
Before working at Ball State, LeBlanc attended SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. While she was in college, LeBlanc said, she worked as a student assistant in greenhouses. From 1987-91, LeBlanc worked for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Nature Preserves. She also received her master’s degree in plant ecology in 1988.
LeBlanc was hired as a part-time curator for the Rinard Orchid Greenhouse in 1993. When the greenhouse opened for the public to visit in 2014, LeBlanc began working there full time. Although most of the students who stop by the greenhouse already have an interest in nature, LeBlanc said, she believes she has helped some students foster and further their love for plants.
“I have a number of former student employees who have gone on to have a career in nature-based jobs, and I maintain communication with many of them,” LeBlanc said. “Many of the student visitors who show an excitement about nature and plants will return to the greenhouse repeatedly, and we always share stories about our love of plants and nature.”
Senior advertising major Kaylan Simpson was a student assistant and social media intern for the greenhouse during summer 2020. Simpson said one of her favorite memories with LeBlanc was when she helped LeBlanc find Tess, a turtle who went missing for two weeks.
“Cheryl told me she tore apart the greenhouse looking for her but still couldn't find her anywhere,” Simpson said. “I went to the goldfish pond to feed the other turtle, Michelangelo. As soon as I put food into the water, Tess stuck her head out from under the bridge as if she hadn't been missing for two weeks. I scooped her up like a hamburger and took her straight to Cheryl, who was so relieved.”
Since August 2020, sophomore stage management major Hannah Coffman has worked as a greenhouse assistant. She said she likes working in the greenhouse because she knows what the day will bring. Until she graduates in 2023, Coffman said, she looks forward to continuing to work alongside LeBlanc and experience how hardworking she is.
“One day, I came in, and Cheryl told me to get the net to catch the bananas,” Coffman said. “Cheryl climbs up on the ladder, but it is too far back and needs to be moved forward. Instead of climbing down the ladder and moving it like a normal person, Cheryl looks at me and tells me to move the ladder forward while she holds herself up. Cheryl grabs a hold of the support bars [on the ceiling] and pulls herself into a pullup while I move the ladder forward. She then started chopping down the fresh bananas with a machete while I caught them with a net. This was just one example of how hardworking and badass Cheryl is.”
Coffman said she is grateful to work alongside someone close to her family, as LeBlanc and her husband, Dave, knew her father.
“Cheryl is one of the best people that I know, and she has clever humor and a big heart,” Coffman said. “It’s cool that Cheryl can mentor me in the way that Dave did for my dad.”
Outside of work, LeBlanc’s love for plants continues at her home, where she has a small vegetable garden for her own “farm-to-table lifestyle.” LeBlanc’s outdoor perennial garden includes orchids and other plant species that encourage wildlife, birds and pollinators to visit.
“As a plant ecologist, nature education and plant ecology is my passion,” LeBlanc said. “I am fortunate to be able to have a way to share that love through the most interesting group of plants — the tropical orchids.”