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Repotting Season for the Bonsai Collection

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 10:12am

For many bonsai tree species, early spring is the best time for repotting.

As the days get longer and the temperatures slowly increase, the roots of a bonsai gradually become active. During this time, the energy of the tree that was stored in the roots over the winter begins to move back up into the tree branches. As this happens, the dormant buds begin to swell. This swelling is the first sign that the tree is beginning to break dormancy. Over the next few weeks, the amount of energy from the roots to the branches increases, and the buds go through a transformation from dormant nub to a fully-opened leaf.

 Dormant bud on bonsai.

Dormant bud

 Swelling bud on bonsai.

Swelling bud

 Extending bud on bonsai.

Extending bud

 Opening bud on bonsai.

Opening bud

The best time to repot is generally in the middle of this process, when the roots are active, and the buds are in the swelling and extending stage. All repotting should be done by the time the trees are in the opening stage.

The tree set to be repotted today is this wonderful crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). The first step is removing the tree from the pot.

 Bonsai ready to be repotted.

Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

Using the root hook and saw, we slowly and carefully create a gap between the root ball and the sides of the pot. Creating this space will allow us to safely remove the tree from the pot.

 Loosening a bonsai from its pot with a root hook before repotting.

Use the root hook to carefully loosen the plant from the pot.

 Use a root saw to carefully remove the bonsai from its pot.

Once a furrow has been created with the root hook, use the saw to free the bonsai from the pot.

This tree was certainly in need of being repotted! You can see the abundance of roots on the sides and the bottom of the root ball (below). You can even see where the roots started to grow down through the drainage holes in the pot. These “root plugs” prevent proper drainage, which is very important for tree health.

 Root plugs—where the roots started to grow down through the drainage holes in the pot—prevent proper drainage.

Root plugs—where the roots started to grow down through the drainage holes in the pot—prevent proper drainage.

 Bonsai drainage screen covered by root mat.

Drainage screen covered by root mat

The frequency of repotting is determined by a number of factors, including species, stage of development, and pot size. Vigorous root growers like maples need to be repotted and root pruned more frequently than pine trees of the same developmental stage (which grow roots more slowly). Though root pruning is important to bonsai health, it can be stressful to a tree if the roots are disturbed too frequently. Knowing the tree species you have and how it grows is important in making the decision of when to repot and root prune. 

 Bonsai volunteer Ester Bannier assists in root trimming.

Volunteer Ester Bannier assists in root trimming.

 Root hook working bonsai roots free.

Use a root hook to work roots free.

Using root hooks, scissors, and chopsticks, the roots are teased out and pruned as needed. Cutting the roots back removes large woody roots, allowing more space for fine feeder roots to grow. The woody roots act only as transporters of energy. Woody roots do not absorb water, food, or oxygen; only the fine feeder roots do that. Having primarily fine feeder roots in our pots is what allows us to keep bonsai in such shallow containers. If the woody roots take up too much space, then the tree cannot absorb enough water, food, and oxygen to support the large amounts of foliage they have, and the trees’ health will suffer.

 The bonsai, carefully removed from its pot.

The bonsai, pre-trimming

 The bonsai rootball after pruning.

The bonsai root ball after pruning

While the tree work is going on, the soil and pot are being prepared for its return.

Bonsai soil is one of the most important aspects of growing bonsai trees. There are many different soil mixes and combinations that can be used based upon your tree species, the region in which you live, the amount of time you have to water, and many other factors. No matter what mix you choose, a good bonsai soil should support vigorous root growth, a healthy microbe balance, and have good drainage. Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we use a variety of mixes based on tree species and stage of development. For this tree, we will be using our base mix of akadama (a clay-like material mined in Japan), pumice, and lava rock. Our soil mix is sifted to remove any small particles and dust that could clog up the drainage holes, decreasing drainage.

 Soil mix of akadama, pumice and lava rock is used on this tree.

A soil mix of akadama, pumice, and lava rock is used on this tree.

 Volunteer Dick Anderson sifts soil for repotting the bonsai collection.

Volunteer Dick Anderson sifts soil for repotting the bonsai collection.

Once the pot has been cleaned, screens have been secured over drainage holes, and tie-down wires have been added, a layer of lava rock is placed to aid with drainage. After the drainage layer is placed, a small amount of soil is added to bring the tree up to grade and help position it in place.

 Bonsai pot prepped and ready for drainage.

Fresh mesh and tie-downs have been placed over drainage holes in the pot.

 Bonsai pot with drainage layer.

Drainage has been added in a single layer.

 Once the tree is in place and secured, soil is added and chopsticks are used to push the soil into all the open spaces in and around the root system. Any open gaps left in the pot will result in dead space where roots will not grow. The soil should be firmly in place but not packed too tightly; otherwise, the drainage will be affected, and it will be difficult for roots to grow.

 Adding soil to repotted bonsai.

Adding soil to repotted bonsai

 Chopsticks are used to push soil into open spaces around roots.

Chopsticks are used to push soil into open spaces around roots.

When the soil is set, the tree is soaked in a tub of water and a liquid product called K-L-N, which promotes root growth and reduces stress from the repotting process.

After a good soaking, the tree is removed and allowed to drain, then returned to its bench in the greenhouse. It will remain there until it is warm enough to go outside on the benches. Not all trees are moved to the greenhouse after repotting; most will return to the over-wintering storage. However, this tree was stressed at the end of the growing season, and I wanted to give it a jump-start on the year and give it more time to recover and gain back some of its vigor.

 Soaking the repotted bonsai in water and K-L-N.

Soaking the repotted bonsai in water and K-L-N

 Bonsai "benched" in the greenhouse until spring.

Bonsai “benched” in the greenhouse until spring

In just a couple of weeks, the tree is fully leafed out, and has had a slight pruning to help balance the new growth throughout all the branches.

This tree is just the beginning of a busy repotting season here at the Bonsai Collection. We will most likely be repotting nearly 100 trees this year—nearly half the collection! Thanks for reading, and be sure to look out for more bonsai blogs to come in the months ahead.

 A leafed-out bonsai, ready to display for the season.

A leafed-out bonsai, ready to display for the season

Upcoming bonsai events:

Tropical bonsai are installed in the Subtropical Greenhouse: Tuesday, March 31.

Trees return to the Regenstein Center’s two courtyards for the season: Tuesday, April 22.

Join us May 9 for World Bonsai Day demonstrations, and a tour of the courtyards.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Unfolding the Mysteries of the Ravines

Sun, 03/29/2015 - 9:10am

Standing guard along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the ravines are a naturally engineered filtration system from land to water.

Curving up from the flat lands of Illinois and arching alongside the coast into Wisconsin, their hills and valleys are filled with an abundance of foliage, plants, and animal life unlike any other ecosystem in the Chicago Wilderness region. Among other benefits, they help to filter rainwater. Rare plants, migratory birds, remnant woodlands, and fish are a part of this shadowed world that has long been entrenched in mystery for local residents and scientists alike.

As urbanization, erosion, increasingly intense weather events, and invasive plants begin to peel away at the perimeter of the ravines, it has become increasingly urgent for us to unwrap those mysteries and help protect the system that has long protected us.

New volunteers are welcome to dig in this spring and summer. Register to begin by attending a new volunteer workshop.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

“The ravines are one of Illinois’s last natural drainage systems to the lake,” said Rachel Goad, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. “They are delicate landscapes. It can be challenging to get in to them. It can be challenging to move around on the steep slopes.” Those challenges have not deterred Goad and a team of citizen scientists from digging in to look for solutions.

For 15 years, the many contributors to Plants of Concern have been collecting data in the ravines, with a particular focus on the rare plant species that can be found there. The data, now quite valuable due to its longevity, is a treasure chest for land managers and others who are trying to better understand the system and how to save it.

Goad and her team are now in the final stages of testing a vegetation assessment connected to a virtual field guide for the ravines. She hopes it will be completed by the end of this year. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for ravine restoration and management long term. The plant-focused sampling method, called a rapid assessment, is the third piece of a larger ravine-management toolkit that includes a way to evaluate erosion and stream invertebrates considered to be indicator species. The toolkit has been assembled by Plants of Concern and partner organizations in recent years.

“The idea is that a land manager or landowner could pull these tools off of the Internet—there would be data sheets and an explanation for how to use them, and these resources would provide a practical, tangible way for people to better understand the ravines,” explained Goad. She and her volunteers will test the protocol this summer, as they meander through the ravines with their notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment in hand. What they learn could benefit managers trying to determine whether to focus on vegetation management or restoring the stability of a ravine, for example. The toolkit, according to Goad, “is complementary to restoration and understanding these plant communities.”

The data, however, is only one piece of the solution. Goad believes the connections people make when monitoring the ravines are what will impress upon them the significance and urgency of the issue. Her goals are to create connections between people and their local natural communities, and to engage a more diverse representation of volunteers in the program.

“What Plants of Concern is doing is engaging local citizens, introducing them to ravines, and getting them interested in what’s happening in these mysterious V-shaped valleys around them,” said Goad.

In all, Plants of Concern monitors 288 species across 1170 populations in 15 counties, covering 13 habitat types.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Goad hopes that by growing connections between these ravines and those who live nearby, she can increase the chances that this system will continue to protect rare plant species and one of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. As a recent recipient of a Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship, administered by Audubon, Goad is intent on better understanding how to build such connections.

“We are working to make connections between monitoring and stewardship,” she said. “Monitoring can be a transformative experience.” Once a volunteer is in the field, navigating the terrain and gaining familiarity, they learn to see existing threats, such as encroachment by invasive species. Documenting these threats is important, but can feel disempowering if they’re not being addressed. Goad wants to show volunteers that there is something that can be done about the problems they encounter, and build a proactive understanding of conservation. “I believe in citizen science, which is the idea that anybody can do science and get involved in research,” she said.

Goad stepped in as manager of Plants of Concern just last year, after earning her master’s degree. It was like returning home in some ways, as she had previously helped to manage natural areas at the Garden.

In part because of that initial experience, “I knew I wanted to work in plant conservation,” she said. “It felt pretty perfect to get to come back and work with Plants of Concern. It’s an amazing experience to live in Chicago and to be able to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas in the region.”

Early spring ephemerals in bloom on a ravine bluff.

Early spring ephemerals bloom on a ravine bluff.

Plants of Concern has been a mainstay at the Garden for 15 years, dispatching committed volunteers to the ravines and other key locations across the Chicago Wilderness region to monitor and collect data on endangered, threatened, and rare species. The mounting data collected by the program is often used as baseline information for shifting or struggling species, and is shared with land managers. Through special projects, such as with one of the Garden’s recent REU interns, they have also contributed to habitat suitability modeling for rare species.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Shop-portunities Await at the Antiques, Garden & Design Show

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 9:15am

Craig Bergmann is the creative force behind the horticultural displays at this year’s Antiques, Garden & Design Show. He’s also one of the Show’s biggest shoppers.

“There’s something about the adventure of coming to the show,” said the Lake Forest landscape architect. “You don’t know what you’ll find, but you’ll find something.”

 Committee member Donna LaPietra and Craig Bergmann at last year’s show.

Committee member Donna LaPietra and Craig Bergmann at last year’s show. Photo ©Cheri Eisenberg

Bergmann has practiced “the art of fine gardening” for decades as head of Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, Inc. This spring he will infuse the Show with his trademark style—an interplay of the classic and contemporary. Bergmann has devised a fresh, updated look—a series of indoor gardens that put a twist on traditional diamond motifs, and use a streamlined color palette of green, chartreuse, white and black. As an exhibitor in the Rose Garden Tent, his company will sell garden-related objects, containers and plants—and he will also carve out some time to peruse the antiques and collectables.

The pieces presented at the Antiques, Garden & Design Show have passed through an extreme quality sieve wielded by trusted dealers with a distinct skill set, according to Bergmann.

To give you a better feeling for what you’re likely to see at the Show, we’ve put together a gallery of some of Bergmann’s favorite finds from previous years, as well as antiquities he’s installed in clients’ gardens. Past performance can be a predictor of future success when it comes to the Garden’s annual event. “Dealers save objects for the show,” he said. “They bring in the best. It makes you feel really special that you’re able to shop there.”

 Four seasons statues at the Bergmann residence garden.

Bergmann couldn’t resist these muse statues, representations of the four seasons. The pieces are from France and date to 1917, the same age as his home. They now serve as the centerpiece of Bergmann’s main garden. Photo ©Linda Oyama Bryan

 Vintage patio set.

This vintage patio set, another one of Bergmann’s purchases, helps blend the garden with the interior of the home. “It’s much more the norm today to be inside and outside,” Bergmann said. Photo ©Linda Oyama Bryan

 A collection of stone troughs comprise a patio container garden.

“Stone troughs were used to feed and water livestock, Bergmann said, “now they’re on some of the finest patios in Chicago.” Vintage planters and accessories add interest and sophistication to Bergmann’s container garden design pictured above. Bergmann sees a trend toward using hardier plants in container gardens. Consider using an ornamental shrub—think a blue flowering hydrangea or boxwood—or some perennials. They can be heeled into the soil for easy in-ground storage over the winter. Photo ©Linda Oyama Bryan

 Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, Maki Residence, Buchanan Michigan.

Travel and the Internet provide clients access to a growing “gene pool” of design images, says Bergmann. Clients may be inspired by something they see on Pinterest or become fascinated by a roof top garden they visited in LA or the innovative High Line park in New York City. Growing sophistication gives clients the confidence to create interest by juxtaposing the ornate with the modern. The contemporary Michigan farm garden designed by Bergmann, above, uses an antique roof finial from France to guide the eye toward the horizon. Photo ©Linda Oyama Bryan

 Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, Linville Residence, Lake Forest.

A rusted armillary provides a focal point for Bergmann’s intimate garden design, a classic boxwood topiary bordered by roses and perennials. Intrigued? You’re likely to find similar armillary spheres at this year’s show or fall in love with your own one-of-a-kind object. Photo ©Linda Oyama Bryan

 Asian garden bench.

“Because our culture is so world savvy in relationship to style, people want to express that in their home,” Bergmann said. “Think of a traditional rose bouquet with baby’s breath and leather leaf ferns. Today this could be 2” high and 6” round and stuck into a 200-year-old Chinese mortar.” Vendors such as The Golden Triangle bring ancient objects new life by contrasting their uses. Bergmann uses tropical foliage, above, to compliment this venerable bench in his “Asian antiquities” garden design. Photo ©Linda Oyama Bryan

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Ready, Set, Spring!

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 10:41am

Sure, it snowed just three days into spring—it’s Chicago! This week we’re set to hit the magic temperature, 45 degrees, and here’s what it will trigger in your garden.

 How trees set buds in spring.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Hail to the Queen of Flowers

Mon, 03/23/2015 - 11:10am

As the first day of summer approaches, the Krasberg Rose Garden begins a show of flowers like none other.

More than 5,000 roses begin to unfurl countless buds in myriad colors that gradually fill the air with delicate, sweet scents. Dedicated in 1985, the Rose Garden is home to 200 varieties of roses that include old garden roses (also called antique or heirloom roses), hybrid tea roses, floribundas, miniatures, grandifloras, climbers, shrubs, and several other types.

 Singin' in the Rain floribunda rose (Rosa 'MACivy')

Singin’ in the Rain™ floribunda rose (Rosa ‘MACivy’)

A focal point among the roses is an impressive fountain designed in the shape of a Tudor rose (see lore, below). Amble along the curving path through the three-acre garden and you’ll discover some of the more than 34,000 other plants—trees, shrubs, and perennials—that enhance the Rose Garden’s overall design. Nearby (technically outside the parameters of the Rose Garden) is the History of Roses Bed, boasting a rose collection that spans antique varieties, from the earliest wild rose to modern hybrids. Newer All-America Rose Selections winners are also on display.

“I hope visitors view the garden for the aesthetic experience it is—the way it looks and smells,” said Tom Soulsby, the senior horticulturist who oversees the Rose Garden. “There’s probably a rose for everybody and every place.”

 Walking on Sunshine floribunda rose (Rosa 'JACmcady')

Walking on Sunshine™ floribunda rose (Rosa ‘JACmcady’)

Besides their incredible beauty and an abundance of blossoms, many of the roses on display were chosen for their hardiness, disease and insect resistance, long period of bloom, and low maintenance requirements. “There’s not a lot to fear when it comes to growing roses,” said Soulsby. He aims to educate gardeners and demystify rose care.

Rose maintenance—pruning, removing spent blooms, mulching, and monitoring for disease and insects—is a collaboration among Soulsby, other garden staff, and volunteers. “We take the most environmentally friendly means of dealing with insects and disease, and sometimes that means doing nothing,” Soulsby said. “One of our objectives is to minimize the use of chemicals. The volunteers are trained to look for things that might need to be addressed. Sometimes it involves handpicking Japanese beetles to get rid of them or handpicking leaves with black spot if the problem is small. If fungus is prevalent, we’re careful about sanitizing our tools with disinfectants so it doesn’t spread from one plant to another.”

The roses receive a water-soluble fertilizer in summer, which is important because each plant spends a lot of energy creating blooms. Deadheading—removing the spent flowers—is also done during summer. “That encourages roses to repeat bloom. If you don’t deadhead them, they form hips,” Soulsby said. Hips are the rose fruits that contain seeds and they may be shades of red, orange, purple, or black. The colorful hips provide winter interest and are often enjoyed by wildlife.

Most of the roses are pruned after Thanksgiving, and the crowns of the plants are covered with 2 to 3 feet of composted horse manure (preferred over Styrofoam rose cones) for winter protection. The compost is removed in spring and used as mulch. “It’s a great soil amendment and we spread as much as we can,” Soulsby said.

 Black Baccara hybrid tea (Rosa 'MEIdebenne')

Black Baccara hybrid tea (Rosa ‘MEIdebenne’)

Rose Scents
Although their fragrance is sometimes indescribable, many roses, especially old garden varieties grown before 1867, fill the air on warm summer mornings with a variety of scents.

Pop your nose into a rose blossom and you may discover a hint of cloves, anise, citrus, honey, or pears. Or, perhaps one flower reminds you of apricots, while another exudes a trace of lemon. When the tea roses are blooming, you might detect a trace of sweet orange pekoe tea in the air. Like fine wines, roses often feature a fascinating, complex collection of sweet smells.

Rose breeder William Radler is a consulting rosarian for the Krasberg Rose Garden. He developed the wildly popular KnockOut® series of shrub roses, which are also on display. “Will has been breeding roses for our area, along with other breeders, for a long time,” said Soulsby. The rosarian meets annually with Soulsby and other Garden staff to review the rose collection. This year, Radler will receive the 2015 Hutchinson Medal, which recognizes “outstanding leadership or professional accomplishment that has been significant in furthering horticulture, plant science, or conservation.”

Some of the roses have celebrated a 30-year reign since the Rose Garden opened, but others have been replaced over the years. “We constantly evaluate the rose garden; a plant may not perform to its full potential here. However, the need to change out roses is pretty minimal overall,” Soulsby said. 

Although it’s difficult for him to name favorites, the Mr. Lincoln rose (Rosa ‘Mr. Lincoln’) tops Soulsby’s list. “I tend to favor hybrid tea roses,” he admitted. “There’s also ‘Olympiad’ and ‘Peace’ [see lore, below], but my favorites? It depends on the day.”

Soulsby calls June and September the “rock star” months for the Krasberg Rose Garden. “The best viewing time is around Father’s Day for the first flush of major blooms, and then again in mid-September through early October.” But there’s almost always something interesting to see. Flowering can begin as early as April, and there are even a few blooms in November. Come winter, according to Soulsby, there’s a lot of structural interest with the conifers and shrub roses silhouetted against—or accented with—fallen snow.

Long may the queen of flowers reign!

 The Krasberg Rose Garden in summer.

The Krasberg Rose Garden in summer

The Lore of the Roses

In ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Chloris (Roman counterpart: Flora) came upon the body of a lovely wood nymph one day, and asked other gods to help her change it into a flower. Aphrodite donated some of her beauty; the Three Graces bestowed qualities of brilliance, joy, and allure; and Dionysus provided fragrant nectar. When the nymph’s transformation into a flower was complete, Chloris proclaimed it the rose, queen of all flowers.

The rose was said to have bloomed without thorns in the Garden of Eden, but grew them after Adam and Eve were driven out of paradise as a reminder to man of his sinful nature. Inside and outside a religious sphere, roses have represented virginity and purity (white) and passion and martyrdom (red).

During the Middle Ages, the color of roses stood for different heraldic houses, such as the House of Lancaster (red) and the house of York (white), who fought in the War of the Roses (1455–85). At war’s end, after the houses were blended in marriage, a red-and-white striped Tudor rose became the national symbol of England and, eventually, its national flower.

The rose has long featured in literature, from Dante’s Inferno to the sonnets and plays of William Shakespeare, from William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily to Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, and many more.

Empress Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon, in the late eighteenth century sponsored the development of rose breeding at her gardens outside of Paris, where she reigned over more than 250 types of roses.

In World War II, while Americans grew victory gardens, the Peace rose (Rosa ‘Madame A. Meilland’) almost became a casualty when Nazis invaded the Lyon, France, home of breeder Francis Meilland. He smuggled the ivory-yellow hybrid tea rose out of Europe in 1940 to the protection of his business partner, Robert Pyle, of West Grove, Pennsylvania. Pyle continued its propagation, introducing the rose to the public at war’s end. The enduringly popular Peace rose is arguably the most popular in the world today.

This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the spring 2015 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A House is Like a Garden

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 10:15am

Mario Buatta is known as “The Prince of Chintz,” but a minute on the phone with the legendary interior designer tells you an off-the-wall sense of humor is also part of his trademark: “Decorating is only decorating. It’s not brain surgery.”

The 80-year-old can afford to be self-deprecating. One of his latest projects—transforming the rooms of an 1850 South Carolina mansion for New York socialite Patricia Altschul—was featured in the October 2014 Architectural Digest. In 2013, he published his first book, Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration.

 Mario Buatta

Mario Buatta

We’re honored to have Mr. Buatta as keynote speaker for our spring kickoff, the Antiques, Garden & Design Show, taking place April 17–19, 2015. Buatta’s appearance at the Garden is more fitting than you might realize. The storied New Yorker, whose client list includes Barbara Walters and Mariah Carey, has a great affinity for gardens. His trademark chintzes are bursting with flowers, and he weaves nature into the narrative of his work. He says, “No house is ever complete. It grows with you—just like a garden.”

Buatta may love a nosegay, particularly one printed on cotton and finished with glaze, but he is definitely no shrinking violet. Ask his take on current decorating trends and you’ll hear: “I see a lot of bad trends. Younger people want everything done overnight. Instant gratification. Everything simple, easy to take care of. No silver. No brown wood. No antiques. No old pieces.”

The result is a cold, unwelcoming home, in Buatta’s opinion. He says, “The things that make a house a home are the things with a family connection.” He’s been drawn to antiques since childhood, purchasing his first piece at age 11—an eighteenth-century lap desk acquired with $12 in saved allowance. “Antiques spoke to me, because they reminded me of the old days that don’t exist any more.”

A home needs connection to family and the past, but it also needs color. No white walls, or chrome, steel, and glass desert for Buatta: “I couldn’t live in a house without lots of color. Color is a like a garden. It brings a house to life.”

Hours in museums as a youth, looking at the works of Matisse, Bonnard, and other impressionists, taught Buatta a great deal. A professor at his alma mater, Parsons The New School for Design, put it this way, “If you don’t understand the colors these artists use on their canvases you will never be a good decorator.”

 Fifty Years of American Interior Design

A book signing will follow Mario Buatta’s lecture on April 17.

Some of Buatta’s favorites include apricot, chartreuse, blood red, and nature’s colors, such as sky blue and green. He’s also crazy for blue and white with yellow. His own living room is three shades of pistachio green, and his bedroom is eggplant. “You should always have a touch of red in a room. It gives it life. A touch of black pulls in all colors. It says quality. It’s very important not to repeat colors in two rooms so your house is a palette. You really want to set the mood for the time of day you use the room.”

In our brief conversation, snatched between urgent phone calls, Buatta displayed mastery, humility, showmanship, and outrageous humor. He quips, “I’ve been a celebrity since I was born.” His upcoming lecture, “If You Can’t Hide It, Decorate It,” promises to be anything but dull.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Our Scientist Takes on Thomas Jefferson

Fri, 03/13/2015 - 9:29am

Hear “vanilla” and what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Ice cream, right?

 Plain vanilla ice cream cone.While we were researching vanilla for this year’s Orchid Show (now in its final weekend), we kept discovering new scoops on vanilla ice cream.

First we learned that 1/3 of all the ice cream that Americans eat is vanilla.

Next, we learned about vanilla beans’ different flavors—at a tour of the Nielsen-Massey Vanillas facility in nearby Waukegan. (Who knew that vanilla extract was produced right here in Chicago?)

And then we came across Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream at the Library of Congress—such a beautiful document that we included a copy of it in the Orchid Show. (The knowledgeable staff at the Library of Congress pointed out that there’s a second recipe on the back of Thomas Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream notes—for the Savoy cookies to accompany it.)

All those moments dovetailed nicely when our own orchid expert, Dr. Pati Vitt, got inspired to make her own homemade vanilla ice cream. Naturally, as a scientist, she set herself a bigger challenge: to tackle Jefferson’s thorough (albeit old-fashioned) recipe, using three different types of vanilla beans kindly provided by Nielsen-Massey.

We had to document Pati’s ice cream-making adventure: see how she interpreted Jefferson’s recipe—and what three guest chefs/tasters had to say about the flavor—in our video (view on YouTube).

 Holograph, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Holograph recipe, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Bookmark this item

Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream

(Jefferson’s lovely script can be hard to decipher, so here’s the recipe’s text in full.)

2 bottles of good cream
6 yolks of eggs
1/2 pound sugar

  • mix the yolks & sugar
  • put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of vanilla.
  • when near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar.
  • stir it well.
  • put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s [sic] sticking to the casserole.
  • when near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel.
  • put it in the sabottiere*
  • then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt.
  • put salt on the coverlid of the Sabottiere & cover the whole with ice.
  • leave it still half a quarter of an hour.
  • then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes
  • open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabottiere.
  • shut it & replace it in the ice
  • open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides
  • when well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.
  • put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee.
  • then put the mould into the same bucket of ice.
  • leave it there to the moment of serving it.
  • to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.

*Footnote from the Library of Congress: A “sabottiere” is an ice cream mold (“sorbetière” in modern French).

Dr. Vitt’s notes:

  • You can use the recipe without modification, just cooling the mixture in an ice bath and then in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
  • One tablespoon of vanilla extract may substitute for the vanilla bean.
  • The recipe makes about 4 pints (2 quarts, or one 1/2 gallon).

BONUS RECIPE!

Ice cream wasn’t the only vanilla treat on Dr. Vitt’s mind: she also canned a batch of vanilla spice apple butter (we shared it in a meeting—delicious!) and made her own vanilla sugar. Pati agreed to share her recipe—and presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags, that we had to include a photo, too. 

Vanilla Spice Apple Butter

 Pati Vitt's vanilla apple butter.

Pati not only agreed to share her recipe for vanilla apple butter with us—but presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags.

Wash, core, and slice 8 to 12 apples (Granny Smiths, or a mix of varieties) to fill a 6-quart crockpot to about 1 1/2 inches from the top; add 1/2 cup of apple cider. Cook until completely soft—about the consistency of apple sauce.

Using a food processor, sieve, or Foley mill, puree the sauce. Put the mixture back into the crockpot, along with half of a fresh vanilla bean. Cook several hours on the “low” setting of your crockpot until the extra liquid cooks off and the mixture begins to thicken. (Place the lid of your crock pot slightly off kilter to allow steam to escape. This will speed up the evaporation and thickening of the mixture.)

After the apple butter begins to thicken, add 1/2 cup sugar and the juice of one lemon. Cook an additional 30 minutes. Stir in cinnamon to taste, plus a pinch each of ground cardamom and cloves. 

Pour into hot, sterilized jars and place in a canning bath according to your canner’s recommendations for applesauce—usually about 10 minutes.

For more ideas—sweet and savory—for cooking with vanilla, check out our February issue of The Smart Gardener.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

New Year, New Pests

Wed, 03/11/2015 - 10:10am

At the start of every growing season, I get the same question: what are your thoughts as far as garden pests are concerned? Here are my predictions:

First, plants may show signs of cumulative stress from the inconsistent and extreme weather patterns of the past few years: the 2012 drought, followed by the cold winter of 2013-14, and greatly fluctuating seasonal temperatures. These stress factor have an accumulative negative effect on plant health. When plants are under stress, their defense mechanisms are down, and they are much more prone to disease and insect attack, just as people who don’t eat properly and don’t get enough sleep are much more prone to illness. So what can we do? Primarily, just a bit more TLC in the way of cultural care: watering, mulching, pruning, fertilizing, monitoring and managing pests, protecting, and focusing on the more delicate plants in your landscape.  

Second, new high-consequence invasive pests will become of concern. We now live with Japanese beetles, which are here to stay; we have experienced the Asian longhorned beetle (which was supposedly eradicated in our area, but I doubt that’s the case); and we are right in the middle of managing the emerald ash borer crisis. So what’s next? Sad to say, there are many other invasive pests to be on the watch for. Two that are literally knocking at our door now are the brown marmorated stink bug (primarily an agricultural concern) and the viburnum leaf beetle (primarily an ornamental landscape concern).

Find more information on identifying and dealing with emerald ash borer on our website, and in our previous posts on EAB.

In ornamental horticulture (your home landscape plants), I feel the viburnum leaf beetle is on the verge of having a great impact in our area, as nearly everyone’s home landscape has viburnum; I’d like to take a moment to review this new critter.

Viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni)

The viburnum leaf beetle (VLB) is native to Europe and was first found in the United States in 1994 in Maine. In 2009, it was first found in Illinois (Cook County). In 2012 and 2013, the number of reports increased from Cook County and also from a new county, DuPage, as well. In late summer 2014, there were numerous reports from Cook County and some specifically from our neighbor Winnetka, where complete defoliation was reported—only five miles from the Garden!

 Viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni)

Viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni) by Siga (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The VLB larva and adult both feed on foliage and can cause defoliation, and several years of defoliation can kill a viburnum. We have not yet found VLB at the Garden but have been monitoring our viburnums closely. If you live in the area, I strongly suggest you begin monitoring your viburnums for this critter. There are many great university-created fact sheets for VLB that can be found online, or contact the Garden’s Plant Information Service for additional information. Please report new finds to the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois Department of Agriculture, or University of Illinois Extension Service.   

 Plugged cavities on a viburnum twig containing egg masses of the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni).

Plugged cavities on a viburnum twig containing egg masses of the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). Photograph by Paul Weston, Cornell University, Bugwood.org

The Garden is a member of the Sentinel Plant Network, a group that unites botanic gardens in monitoring and providing education on exotic plant pests and pathogens, and works in partnership with the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN).

If you are a plant and bug person like me, please consider becoming a NPDN First Detector and help be on the lookout for these exotic invasive plant pests and pathogens. The NPDN offers an online training course to become a First Detector at firstdetector.org. It’s free, and upon completion, you even get a printable certificate!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mapping the Future of the Wild West

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 11:29am

Silvery-green sagebrush cascades over the canyons of the Great Plains and Great Basin in numbers that would strike envy into the hearts of most rare and endangered plants. The abundant species keeps the wheels turning in a system where struggling plant and animal species rely on it for life-sustaining benefits.

As the climate changes and brings new rainfall levels and other environmental conditions, will this important species transition to new locations? What are the potential consequences for its current neighbors? These questions concern Shannon Still, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 Dr. Shannon Still looks over the area of his research.

Dr. Still looks over the area of his research.

“Sagebrush is a very big part of the ecosystem in the West, and we need to see what is going to happen,” said Dr. Still. “It’s a workhorse species that is important for pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and mice that live around it, and it helps to stabilize soils.”

Still made several trips into states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada in 2014 to investigate the likelihood of such a transformation and to help prepare land managers for the potential results. “When a climate changes, species often shift their location within it,” he explained. When that species has already become an integral part in the lives of its neighbors, it can mean a ripple of changes across the entire system.

It’s All About That Brush

 Wyoming big sagebrush, the focus of the study.

Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus of the study

Standing in a thicket of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus species of his study, Still reaches into a 3-foot tall plant with his Felco 8 pruners to take a sample. (He’ll later send this sample to his collaborator in a Utah Forest Preserve Service field office who will confirm the subspecies identification through a genetic test.)

Still plots the location of the plant with his GPS unit, which he also uses to track his route through the dusty wilderness in the Garden research vehicle. He snaps a few photos for visual reference and makes notes in his computer tablet before moving on to the next site.

There are millions of plants out there now, Still estimates. So, he strategically collects information from 150 key locations during multiple visits. He then returns to the Garden to add the new information to his database, which also holds data from herbaria records he collected earlier.

At his desk in the Garden, he inputs new data. He then uses a software workflow he built himself to compare a map of the plants with a map of how the climate will look in those locations in future years. He runs models that overlay one map on top of the other to see where climate shifts will occur in the current species range. This allows him to predict where Wyoming big sagebrush will continue to prosper, and where it may disappear due to a lack of rain, too much rain, or temperature shifts, for example.

Staking a Claim

Still is excited about the ability of the software to provide climate-related analysis on sagebrush and other species. In fact, it’s the second study he has run with the program in the last two years since it was developed, using specialized algorithms for each.

 Chicago Botanic Garden research vehicle parked in the field.

Colorado Rockies in the background; research subjects all around

First, he developed the software workflow to better understand how more than 500 rare species in the same western region might fare in the future if their environmental conditions change as predicted, and to which changes they are most vulnerable. The study results are like a crystal ball for land managers, identifying which species are most urgently in need of their care. The three-year investigation will come to a close in late 2015.

Already, both studies have received attention, with publications in the January issue of Nature Areas Journal authored by Still and his collaborators.

Still’s initial findings reveal that the Wyoming big sagebrush species already appears to be shifting. An anticipated increase in precipitation in the Great Plains and a drier climate in the Great Basin may lead to a contraction of the species into a smaller range, he explained. “By 2050, models show that 39 percent of the current climate for Wyoming big sagebrush will be lost.”

Still hopes that by identifying locations where sagebrush may fail to thrive, land managers can immediately focus on restoring areas that will continue to be suitable for the species long term.

 Sagebrush in the canyon.

Sagebrush population in the canyon

“We don’t expect sagebrush to go extinct,” said Still. “But we may lose plants in areas where we don’t want to lose them, or more rapidly than we hoped. That could lead to more erosion or the loss of suitable habitat.”

Always moving forward, Still is continuing to work with the data, now adding details about plant locations such as the slope of the land and the direction they face. With those details, he will run new models in the future.

The wild West once again finds itself at the forefront of exploration and change. If Still has any say in the matter, its mysteries and historic charm will endure.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Sip of Salep

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 9:10am

We gathered around a table at the Garden View Café the other day to taste something that only one of us had ever tasted before: powdered orchid roots.

A traditional winter drink in the cafés and restaurants of Turkey, salep is made from the tuberous roots of orchids—specifically, terrestrial orchids in the genus Orchis. Dried and powdered, the resulting flour is combined in a drink mix with other ingredients, much as hot chocolate or chai spices would be: sugar, cornstarch, powdered milk, cinnamon, and vanillin (the main flavor component in vanilla) are added.

 Salep and dendrobium orchids.

A warm cup of salep is perfect on a wintry day.

The instructions are hot-chocolate simple, too: mix 1½ tablespoons of powdered salep into 6 ounces of steamed or boiling milk. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Serve in small cups.

Our lesson in salep came from the one person who had not only tasted salep before but had grown up drinking it—horticulturist Ayse Pogue, who hails from Istanbul.

 Horticulturist Ayse Pogue

Horticulturist Ayse Pogue

Salep is not readily available in America; it arrived here courtesy of Ayse’s mother, Figen Ormancioglu, who kindly brought it with her on a recent visit. (The family surname translates as “son of the forester”—Ayse’s love of botany is in her blood.)

What does salep taste like? “Chai,” “junipers,” and “I’ll have another glass,” were three answers; the flavor is hard for American taste buds to define. Sweet and savory and spicy all at once, there’s a note of bark or tree in it—Ayse explains that gum arabic, made from the sap of the acacia tree, is also an ingredient, one more familiar to eastern palates than western.

And what is served with salep? “Good conversation,” Ayse says, as is true of all café drink orders. Heading to Istanbul? You’ll spend $4 to $5 on a cup of salep in a city café.

Edible Orchids

We’ve been talking a lot about edible orchids recently, especially with vanilla as a prominent part of this year’s Orchid Show. While vanilla is, by far, the most well-known food produced from orchids (it’s the bean-like fruit of the vining orchid Vanilla planifolia), other orchids are eaten in different ways around the world.

  • Chikanda is a Zambian food made from pounded orchid tubers and thickened to the consistency of jelly, then served in slices.
  • Olatshe is a daily dish in Bhutan, where Cymbidium orchids are cooked with spices and cheese.
  • Some Dendrobium flowers are edible, and the bamboo-like canes are ingredients in Asian stir-fries and sauces.
  • Turkish ice cream, or dondurma, is also made from salep; some dondurma is so chewy and elastic that it can be sliced and eaten with a knife and fork.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Conifers to Light Up the Winter Garden

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 9:15am

It may be 5 degrees Fahrenheit outside right now, but that’s not stopping the Dwarf Conifer Garden from shining.

In fact, many of the conifers are at their peak during the coldest weather.  While other plants have gone dormant for the winter, various conifers are lighting up the landscape in shades of blue, yellow, bronze, plum, and more.

 Platycladus orientalis 'Elegantisima' and Thuja occidentalis 'Golden Globe' provide a burst of color with Picea pungens 'Montgomery' and other evergreens providing a calming backdrop.

Platycladus orientalis ‘Elegantisima’ and Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’ provide a burst of color with Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’ and other evergreens providing a calming backdrop.

Arborvitae (Thuja sp.) are among the best evergreens for bright winter color. Cultivars such as Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’ provide a burst of gold while other varieties turn shades of bronze or deep green.

Pines (Pinus sp.) also provide a winter show with species such as Pinus sosnowskyi and Pinus sylvestris showcasing powder blue needles and beautiful brown bark. Others, such as Pinus virginiana ‘Wate’s Golden’ turn to a soft yellow hue that lights up the garden.

 The yellow foliage of this Thuja occidentalis 'Yellow Ribbons' brightens up dreary winter days.

The yellow foliage of this Thuja occidentalis ‘Yellow Ribbons’ brightens up dreary winter days.

 Pinus sosnowskyi.

Pinus sosnowskyi

Among my favorite evergreens for winter interest are the firs (Abies sp.). Korean fir (Abies koreana) has needles that curl upward tightly, showing off silvery undersides and giving the plant a clean, tidy appearance. They also grow into a classic pyramid shape with little to no pruning, making them great for low-maintenance settings. Other firs have long, upturned needles that catch large amounts of snow. Some are the most clean, bright, silvery blue, and others have beautifully deep green foliage all winter long. 

 The soft blue of this Picea glauca 'Pendula' brings out the glowing yellow tones of Thuja occidentalis 'Yellow Ribbons'.

The soft blue of this Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ brings out the glowing yellow tones of Thuja occidentalis ‘Yellow Ribbons’.

 Douglas Fir have cones with interesting wings at the tip of each scale, such as those seen on this dwarf selection, Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Fletcheri'.

Douglas fir have cones with interesting wings at the tip of each scale, such as those seen on this dwarf selection, Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Fletcheri’.

Other groups of conifers such as larch (Larix sp.), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga sp.), yews (Taxus sp.), and more each have their own unique growth habits that provide valuable winter texture and create strong focal points. Some of them (such as larch), lose their needles for the winter, leaving you with skeletons of copper-colored branches, while others (such as Douglas fir), are laden with unique cones. Still others (such as yews), that spent all summer providing a nice green backdrop are suddenly a sturdy focal point where your eyes can rest as you view the landscape.

 Contrasting textures and shapes keep the garden interesting even when snow is minimal.

Contrasting textures and shapes keep the garden interesting even when snow is minimal.

 Fresh snow highlights the different textures found throughout the Garden.

Fresh snow highlights the different textures found throughout the garden.

The Dwarf Conifer Garden is full of dozens of varieties and species of conifers in all shapes and sizes. While the rest of the Chicago Botanic Garden slumbers under a thick layer of snow, this one is at its peak, waiting to show off shapes and colors that almost don’t seem real.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Students Learn that Science Can Be Beautiful

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 9:10am

The Garden has a bright and cheery answer for overcoming classroom winter doldrums: take a field trip to see the Orchid Show! 

 Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment -- they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment—they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

At a time when schools are tightening budgets and limiting field trips, you might think that an Outrageous Orchids experience is a frivolous excursion—but, in fact, this is a luxurious way to learn life science principles. Our programs are grounded in fundamental science concepts outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards. From Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, students get meaningful science lessons as they enjoy the sensational display of colors and aromas in our Greenhouses. 

Field trips are tailored to suit different grade levels. Younger students study the variety of color and shapes found in the exhibition to identify patterns. Early elementary level students examine the structures of orchids to understand their functions. Upper elementary students recognize how tropical orchids have adaptations for survival in a rainforest. These core ideas about orchids apply to all plants and are essential for understanding ecosystems. There isn’t a more beautiful way to study plant science anywhere else in the Chicago region.

 It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

As if being surrounded by gorgeous flowers in the dead of winter weren’t enough to engage a person’s brain, each student also gets to transplant and take a tropical plant to continue the learning after the visit. 

The Baggie Terrarium is a mini-ecosystem that reminds students of the water cycle and enables them to observe plant growth. 

Make a Baggie Terrarium

 Baggie terrarium.

We call this a “baggie terrarium.”

Supplies:

  • 1 zip-top bag (quart-size or larger)
  • Potting soil, moistened
  • A small plant or plant cutting (during Outrageous Orchids classes, we let students take a spider plant “pup” from a very large spider plant)
  1. Pour soil into the bag to fill about 2-3 inches deep. Use a finger to create a hole in the soil for the plant.
  2. Bury the roots of the plant in the hole and gently tap the soil around the base of the plant. If you are planting a stem cutting, place the stem in the soil and tamp around the base. If you have a larger bag, you can add more than one plant. Three different plants in a gallon size bag can make an attractive terrarium.
  3. Seal the bag, leaving about a 1-inch opening. Blow into the bag to inflate it and quickly seal the last inch tight so the air doesn’t all escape. The carbon dioxide in your breath is good for the plant, and will give the bag enough substance to stand up.
  4. Place the terrarium in a bright location, but not in direct sunlight. Remember that most tropical plants grow under the canopy of taller trees and do not need full sun. In fact, too much direct sun makes their leaves fade!
  5. Watch for tiny water droplets forming on the sides of the bag. These will gradually roll down the sides of the bag and re-water the soil. As long as the bag is completely sealed, it will stay moist and you will never have to open the bag or add more water. But if it dries out, you will need to water the plants.

You can leave your terrarium alone for a long time and not do anything but watch the plants grow. Eventually, they will outgrow the bag. Then you can transplant them to a pot if you like, or take cuttings and start another baggie terrarium.

Like all of our programs, Orchid Show field trips inspire young people to learn more about plants! Visit our website at chicagobotanic.org/fieldtrips for more information about these programs. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Helping the “Blind” to See

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 9:00am
Guest blogger and Bucknell University professor Chris Martine, Ph.D., talks about guiding students away from their electronic devices and into the plant world.

 

It is a pretty spring day. The sun shines through my office window, illuminating the old and worn photo on my desk. With the image is a handwritten note: “1912 photo of Bucknell botany class field trip.” Twenty-nine formally dressed students are shown sitting near a river, a specimen and an open floristic manual in each of their laps.

Inspired, I stand up to look out my window at the plants in bloom in my campus view. I wonder if the present-day students walking past have seen them, too, and are just as impressed as I am by the chromatic exhibition.

But then I notice something: nearly every one of them—instead of looking up—is looking down. Their attention is on the smartphones in their hands; they appear to be unaware that there is anything around them at all. This reminds me, once again, of the mission I have defined for myself as a professor of botany:

In order to help them understand and appreciate the nature of life on Earth, today’s students must first be taught how to see.

 Dr. Martine's class poses for a group shot on a hike.

Chris Martine, Ph.D., brings his college students into the forest to learn to identify plants. They are learning to see plants a new way, through methods Martine encourages everyone to adapt: putting down electronic devices and experiencing nature firsthand.

“Plant blindness” (an incapacity for many people to recognize the green world around them) has been bemoaned by modern botanists for some time. The students beyond my windowpane, however, are suffering from an ailment of a different nature, something I have begun to refer to as the “Mantid Syndrome.” 

The Mantid Syndrome describes the positioning of one’s hands and forelimbs when staring at and thumb-typing on a smartphone: hands in front of face, elbows bent in a posture not unlike a praying mantid as it prowls along a stem.

Unlike the mantid, students exhibiting this syndrome are not scanning the world around them. Rather, they see nothing beyond the reach of the bouncing thumbs and swiping forefingers working their small glass touchscreens. The issue is not an unwillingness to discern the details of the nature in their world—it’s a fundamental inability to tear their eyes from their screens long enough to know that nature is even there.

 Chris Martine, Ph.D.

Guest blogger Chris Martine, Ph.D., brings botany to his students’ screens, but prefers bringing students to botany.

This is dangerous, of course, and not just because “smartphone mantids” often walk in front of cars or into stationary objects. These tech portals may take a user almost anywhere and show them almost anything. Yet, at the same time, one also becomes all the more disconnected from a real experience in this world—especially an experience that includes a sense of connection to nature itself.

Thankfully, there are potential treatments. One is to develop electronic education and outreach tools that meet people where they are—in virtual spaces. I have personally taken the plunge and joined this effort in a number of ways, including developing and hosting the YouTube series “Plants are Cool, Too!”, blogging for the Huffington Post, and peppering social media outlets with posts/shares/tweets about plants and biodiversity.

Efforts like these can engender greater awareness, I think, but they are not enough. Unsurprisingly, the best way to connect people with the real world is still to get them outside, unplugged and in position to see real things in real places—just like my predecessor had done with his botany class a century before me. Plants, with their ubiquity, stationary habits, and approachable demeanors, are ideal subjects for teaching students to see. Experience has shown me that if you can see the plants in your world, all the rest starts to come unblurred.

On a recent morning with my field botany class, I asked the students to look around the forest we were standing in. Six weeks into the course, I knew they would have a hard time finding a species in this spot that they couldn’t recognize and assign a name to. A short time ago this was not the case for any of them—and yet here they were, having learned to see in a new way, feeling perhaps more at home in a forest than they had in their entire lives.

 Martine's field botany class on a research trip in the woods.

Not a “mantid” in the group—Martine’s field botany class gets a feel for the forest around them.

These students are lucky to have access to that forest—and lots of other wild places in our region—where they can develop and realize their new vision. But many young people are not as fortunate. For the more than 50 percent of the global human population in cities, finding places to become acquainted with plant diversity might be perceived as a challenge.

Luckily for all of us, there are institutions like the Chicago Botanic Garden in cities around the world where people can visit, learn about, and come to love real plants. Botanic gardens are thus critical players in helping so many more of us learn to see. Even one special encounter with a plant can be enough to open a person’s eyes for good.

With that last point in mind, I turn away from my office window and walk out of my building. In a moment I recognize a student coming my way, her face buried in her phone. I decide to intervene, and I keep it simple.

“Hey, come have a look at these plants over here.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Orchid mania. Orchid fever. Orchidelirium!

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 3:08pm

The Victorians had it, and so do we, right here at the Lenhardt Library! Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae, the latest rare book library exhibition, has just opened as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 2015 Orchid Show.

 Oncidium papilio

Oncidium papilio from A Century of Orchidaceous Plants Selected from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Consisting of a Hundred of the Most Worthy of Cultivations by William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865). London: Reeve and Benthem, 1851

No matter what you call it, the Victorians were mad for the sensational new plants arriving in England from every exotic location on Earth. The race was on, as botanical explorations took orchid collectors from one end of the globe to another in search of the most beautiful, rare, vibrantly colored, sensuously shaped orchids to be found. Orchid fever flared again and again, from the first time the Victorians saw a Cattleya labiata from South America (it bloomed after arriving as packing material in 1818), to the orchid display of the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, designed by gardener, architect, and member of Parliament Sir Joseph Paxton (1803–65).

And if that wasn’t enough, books, articles, and botanical journals were also devoted to the orchid.

No photography? No Internet? No matter! Botanical illustrators captured orchids in all their thought-provoking beauty, one engraving and lithograph at a time. These trained illustrators caught the clinical and technical aspects of the plants with sheer precision. After Cattleya labiata, the next Victorian orchid-on-demand was Oncidium papilio, the butterfly orchid, which is one of the most dazzling illustrations in Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae.

 Vanilla planifolia.

Vanilla planifolia from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Comprising the Plants of the Royal Gardens of Kew by Joseph Dalton Hooker (1785–1865). London: L. Reeve & Co., 1891

This year we celebrate Vanilla planifolia, an edible orchid that produces the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron. An entire case is devoted to the vanilla orchid—look for Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker’s Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Comprising the Plants of the Royal Gardens of Kew, London: L. Reeve & Co., 1891.

Chocolate and vanilla lovers: don’t miss the rare plate from Zippel and Bollmann’s Ausländische Culturpflanzen in Bunten Wand-Tafeln  (Foreign Cultivated Plants in Colored Wall Panels with Explanatory Text) that was used as a tool for teaching plant anatomy. Like many of our rare orchid books and journals, this fragile plate was in much need of conservation. It was conserved through a grant by the National Endowment for Humanities; the digitized plate can be accessed online at the Illinois Digitized Archives.

 A match made in Heaven—vanilla and chocolate together!

A match made in Heaven! Vanilla and chocolate illustrated together in this plate from Ausländische Culturpflanzen in Bunten Wand-Tafeln by Hermann Zippel and Karl Bollmann. Braunschweig: Druck und Verlag von Fredrich und Sohn, 1880–81

Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae is open daily until April 19, 2015, with extended weekend hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) during The Orchid ShowJoin us for free library talks on Tuesday, February 24, or Sunday, March 1, at 2 p.m.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Legacy of Johnny Appleseed

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 11:35am
Guest blogger Dan Bussey is Orchard Manager at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm, where he maintains the nearly 900 different varieties of apple trees in their Historic Orchard.

 

John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed—the legendary character of somewhat skewed Disney lore—was a real figure whose story has captivated generations.

Learn more about apple varieties from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday at our Seed Swap lecture, “Forgotten Tastes: Our Apple Heritage.” The seed swap follows from 3 to 5 p.m.

 Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depict apple cultivars Baxter and Stark (1909).

Illustrations of apple cultivars. Photo by Alois Lunzer (Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalog 1909) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chapman was a complicated man who was driven to be at the edge of the frontier as settlers moved westward. His passion was a deep appreciation of nature, which prompted him to raise apple trees for settlers to buy in order to stake their homestead claims. He collected apple seeds from cider mills back east, then spread these seeds in nursery plots up and down the land along the Ohio River. Chapman was not concerned about what varieties these seedlings became, as they always had a use—whether for eating, cooking, or making hard cider if the apples  were unpalatable. But his methods of propagation were important for those who ended up with his trees. 

Grafting keeps apples true to the original plant.

While Chapman may not have been concerned with flavor, it is a concern for orchardists growing apples for public consumption. Seedling apples are the product of the hybridization of the parent tree and whatever apple variety pollinated it. The old adage “every apple plants an orchard” is quite true. Take the seeds of any apple you find today and plant them; when they grow and finally bear fruit, you will occasionally find apples similar to the apple you took seeds from, but more than likely, you’ll find very different fruit, with different colors, different flavors, and smaller or larger sizes. Most will be of poorer quality than the parent, but for the thousands of seedlings grown, every once in a while, a really special apple tree comes along. In order to keep this variety true and to produce more trees of it, the tree has to be vegatatively propagated—in other words, grafted.

 Apple tree trunk, showing long-healed graft of cultivar on to rootstock.

Alkemene apple tree grafted on to rootstock. Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Grafting has been known for centuries, and was a common skill for farmers and orchardists until modern times. Today, many fruit growers have never grafted a single tree and instead buy them from nurseries. However, grafting is making a comeback, and it is satisfying for home orchardists to know they have a choice of what fruit they can grow for their family using this traditional method of propagation.

Cider apples have a diverse heritage.

Cider (and what we’re talking about here is hard cider or cyder) has made an epic comeback in the past ten years in the beverage industry. Cideries (as opposed to breweries) are springing up in nearly every state and are all the rage. What has happened to bring this quaint, nearly forgotten beverage of colonial America to a point where conventions across the country celebrate the amazing diversity of cider styles? In truth, cider has never disappeared from our culture completely, and the rebirth of its popularity was long overdue.

In colonial America, the tradition of cidermaking arrived from Europe, as did the apple that could make cider. Cider was popular in early America as it could be made by almost anyone—it didn’t require lots of land to grow grain, as beer did. Find a tree to harvest apples from and you could make your own cider. Any apple variety would work—including those homesteaded, seedling-grown apples that weren’t good for eating. (Thank you, Johnny Appleseed!)

 An old-fashioned hammer mill chopped apples for cidermaking in home presses.

An old-fashioned hammer mill chopped apples for cidermaking in home presses. By Red58bill (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you need special apples to make hard cider? Yes and no. Traditional cider varieties from Europe are those that have good flavor, but more importantly, have tannins that give cider character and body when fermented. Tannins, part of the chemical group known as phenolics, are commonly found in red wines, and cause that feeling of dryness in the mouth, a pleasant sensation to many. Tannins can be added to the juice of fresh cider when fermented, and improve the flavor.

Cider styles vary greatly from sweet to dry and sparkling to still, and many now have added flavors such as oak, hops, maple sugar, fruit of all kinds, yeasts of all kinds, and a wide variety of fermentation styles—each distinctly different. Whatever your preference, true artisanal cider is a natural product made from only apple juice and natural or added yeast to ferment it. Mass-marketed cider is generally made from juice concentrates, added sweeteners, and forced carbonation (to make it sparkle). Both forms of cider have fewer carbohydrates (and calories) than beer and lower alcohol content than wine. Cider was a refreshing drink for colonial settlers and remains so for today’s connoisseurs.

Regardless of your preferred apple tastes, Johnny Appleseed’s 200-year-old legacy is alive and well, from Albemarle Pippin to Zill. You can even find some heritage varieties at Seed Savers Exchange.

Join us this Sunday for more on “Our Apple Heritage.” Want to learn more about grafting? Come back March 29 from 1 to 4 p.m. for the Midwest Fruit Explorers grafting workshop

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photographing Orchids

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 9:13am

Compared to photographing flowers outside, photographing in the Greenhouses will be much more challenging and darker than you think.

Photograph the Orchid Show through March 15.
 
Tripods and monopods are allowed in the Orchid Show on Wednesdays during public exhibition hours.

It may be bright outside, but the light in the greenhouses is being filtered through glass and other plant material; be aware that it will be even darker on overcast days. Most people will be hand-holding cameras, so getting shots that are sharp will take some adjustments. Here are a few things you can try:

Use a shorter lens.

This will be a bit of a compromise, as many of the orchids are up high or hard to reach. It would be nice to use a longer lens to get photographic access to more of the flowers in the Greenhouses. However, a shorter lens—100mm or less—is easier to hand-hold, and has a better chance of capturing sharp images at a slower shutter speed. (Typically, you want to have at least 1/400th of a second for a 400mm lens, or 1/100th of a second for a 100mm lens, etc., so the shorter lens will gain you two stops in this example—a significant benefit when taking hand-held shots.)

 Orchid.

With a limited depth of field, I chose to focus on the “face” I saw in this orchid. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Watch for what is in the background.

It is easy to be distracted by the beauty of the orchids and then get home and realize there are many unwanted elements in your photos. One easy option is to move in closer. When you get closer to the flower, you will get less background around the flower. Find flowers that are near the edge of an aisle—you will then be able to move your camera slightly up or down, or left to right, to get a pleasing background. Sometimes just an inch of movement can make all the difference.

 Orchid.

Note the distracting window in the background. Photo ©Carol Freeman

 Orchid.

By moving just a few inches to my left, I was able to get a more pleasing background for this orchid. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Increase your ISO.

Many of the newer cameras have improved sensors that let you increase the ISO and still get clean images with little noise. I like to do an ISO test before going out to shoot to see just how far I can push the ISO and still get images I find pleasing. It’s best to do this before you are on site so you will be able to review the images on a large screen and know what will be acceptable to you on the day of your visit. Every camera is different, and what may work for me may be too grainy for you. Most cameras will provide nice images in the 400 to 800 ISO range, and some can go much higher.

 Orchids.

I was able to get a nice shot of these orchids—in a dark area—by upping my ISO to 1000. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Use your flash.

I much prefer natural lighting, but in the Greenhouses on a cloudy day, there may be no other option for getting that shot of “the most beautiful orchid you have ever seen” that is hiding in the shadows.

 Orchids.

When using my flash, I can add some extra depth of field. Here I was able to get most of the flower sharp. Photo ©Carol Freeman

 Orchids.

Sometimes using a flash is the only way to get a shot. Here I found orchids that were away from other elements, limiting the distracting effects of the flash. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Increase your depth of field.

Orchids are tricky to photograph, even in ideal conditions. Many of them are deep flowers and require a large depth of field to get a pleasing amount of the flower in focus. Increasing the depth of field, however, comes with a price, as the increased depth will often allow much of the background to be in focus as well. And in the Greenhouses, you may not want what is in the background to be in focus, especially windows, people, or other parts of the building. Hand-in-hand with depth of field is plane of focus. Many orchids have very interesting centers, almost like faces. Be sure to get those features in focus to make the whole photo look sharper.

 Orchids.

By moving closer, you can eliminate the distracting elements from your shot. Photo ©Carol Freeman

 Orchids.

Here I moved in even closer. I love capturing the intricate details of the orchids. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Have fun, experiment with different apertures, and get creative with composition! There is no right or wrong way to photograph these amazing flowers. They are here for your enjoyment and all that is needed is your appreciation.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Vanilla infographic

Fri, 02/13/2015 - 10:00am

One of the 110 species in the orchid genus Vanilla, Vanilla planifolia is famous in kitchens worldwide, and anything but bland!

 Vanilla infographic.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Behind the Scenes at the Orchid Show

Wed, 02/11/2015 - 11:31am

It’s a sneak peek behind the scenes of our second annual Orchid Show, which opens at the Chicago Botanic Garden this weekend! (Purchase tickets here.)

And the winner is?
Could be you!
 
Finally got that gorgeous shot? Enter it in our Digital Photography Contest! Send the best of what you’ve photographed at the Orchid Show. Click here for details.

All hands are on deck as the last orchid shipments have been delivered, the ladders are lowered, the final moss gets tucked in, the lights get positioned, and the delicate task of watering and caring for 10,000 orchids begins.

Behind the scenes, it’s been quite a production, and staff have been documenting it all. Their “befores” and “afters” give you an idea of the complex and wildly creative infrastructure that supports all those gorgeous orchids. 

Looking forward to seeing you there—and don’t forget your camera!

 Boxes of orchids lined up for unpacking.

Organized orchids: as boxes and boxes of orchids from warm-weather nurseries arrived, they were staged in Joutras Gallery…

 Unpacked orchids await final placement on rows of tables in Nichols Hall.

Unpacked orchids line tables as they await placement in the exhibition.

 Horticulturist Liz Rex unravels Vanda roots.

Patience and a horticulturist’s touch: root-bound Vanda orchids had to be teased out of not one, but two pots each, root by root.

 Vanda orchids in the greenhouse.

Each Vanda is then tucked into the displays in the Tropical Greenhouse.

 Horticulturist Heather Sherwood creating orchid chain.

Upcycling at its best: horticulturist Heather Sherwood trimmed ten years of wisteria vine growth from the English Walled Garden…

 Finished orchid chain.

…then hung it inside the skylight as a backdrop for these “waterfall” chains of mini Phalaenopses.

 Notched bamboo supports await orchid plantings.

What a difference a week makes! Last Friday, bamboo supports in the Bridge Gallery looked like this.

 Dendrobium orchids fill bamboo supports.

This week, Dendrobium orchids are being layered in, transforming the entrance to the Orchid Show.

 Staff plant up the bamboo trees and wire baskets to create orchid trees.

Building orchid nests: the size of a small tree, each orchid “nest” holds 175 to 200 brightly colored orchids.

 A blooming Phalaenopsis orchid tree in the exhibition.

Finished “trees” in both bud and bloom ensure peak blooms throughout the show.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Repot Your Orchid

Fri, 02/06/2015 - 9:36am

The most frequently asked question at our Orchid Show last year: “How do I repot my orchid?” The answer is with tender loving care, of course…and these easy-to-follow tips found on our website.

 Repotting an orchid.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Student…Teacher

Tue, 02/03/2015 - 1:00pm

Some orchid stories are epic—like the ancient Central American myth of a goddess who rooted herself into the Earth as a vanilla vine in order to be near the mortal man she loved.

Some orchid stories are swashbucklers—tales of the high seas and the plant explorers (and pirates) who braved them in search of orchids from exotic lands.

And some orchid stories are mysteries—like the early struggle to understand how orchids reproduce (scientists could not see the microscopic seeds).

While gathering orchid stories for this year’s Orchid Show (opening February 14, 2015), I came across a story that isn’t quite epic or swashbuckling, but is, in its lovely way, a bit mysterious.

Here at the Garden, graphic designer Nancy Snyder has contributed her graphic and artistic talents in one capacity or another for 30 years. Print, banners, signage, exhibition design (her latest project is the Orchid Show)—Nancy has done it all, including teaching classes in drawing and painting at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Nancy got her start at the University of Illinois, where she majored first in horticulture and later in medical illustration. The two subjects merged one day when she heard that one of her teachers, Dr. Michael Dirr, was working on an updated edition of his now-legendary Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.

 Manual of Woody Landscape Plants title page.

Our own Nancy Snyder’s illustrations grace Dr. Michael Dirr’s classic Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.

“I asked if he needed any illustrations,” Nancy recalls now, “and he handed me a star magnolia twig to draw. I took it home, worked all night, and slipped the finished drawings under his office door the next morning.

“The next day, in the middle of Dr. Dirr’s lecture, he looked my way and announced, ‘By the way, Nancy, I got your illustrations, and they’re good. You’re hired.'”

And a botanical illustrator was born.

Fast forward to 2007.

Artist Heeyoung Kim moved to the Chicago area after studying education/psychology and teaching English in her native Korea and, later, in Germany.

“I had always drawn, and painted in oils as well, but at age 43, I wanted to do something more serious with art. One day I lined up all my drawings and realized that they were all of flowers.” Shortly thereafter, the Chicago Botanic Garden magazine (now Keep Growing) arrived in her mailbox, and she went in search of the Garden.

The first class that she signed up for was Botanical Illustration with Derek Norman. Heeyoung’s natural drawing talent was quickly recognized: eventually, Derek introduced Heeyoung to the native plants of Illinois, a subject that has become a personal passion in her art.

 The hand of Nancy Snyder as she paints a leaf for a botanical watercolor illustration.

The technique of layering thin watercolor washes over and over again produces unexpectedly rich color “that still captures the transparent quality of living plant tissue,” says Nancy Snyder.

And then she signed up for her first watercolor painting class. Ever. The teacher: Nancy Snyder.

“I saw how Nancy layered the color washes over and over again,” Heeyoung says, “and after her demonstrations in class, I just sat down and started to paint.” Below is Heeyoung’s finished watercolor of a lady slipper orchid from the class.

“I’d use orchids as our models,” Nancy explains, “because they’re long-lasting. You can set up your little studio and paint for two weeks before the flowers change much—day after day it still looks the same. Speaking as a teacher,” Nancy adds, “some students come in with all the right raw ingredients, and just need guidance about materials or techniques or to see how it’s done. Then they take that information and synthesize it into their own style. That’s what happened with Heeyoung.”

 Lady's slipper orchid by Nancy Snyder.

A Phragmipedium orchid watercolor by artist/graphic designer/teacher Nancy Snyder.

 Phragmipedium 'Jason Fischer' watercolor on paper, by Heeyoung Kim, 2008.

Phragmipedium ‘Jason Fischer’, watercolor on paper, Heeyoung Kim, 2008

Works in Progress

“I’ve worked hard, and things are happening fast,” Heeyoung Kim says of two exciting upcoming events.

  • Heeyoung Kim has a solo show opening March 27, 2015, at Joel Oppenheimer Gallery in Chicago. She is the first living artist to be represented by that gallery.
  • Three of her drawings have been accepted for inclusion in the Transylvania Florilegium, presently being created under the aegis of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, founded by HRH The Prince of Wales.

Fast forward to 2015.

Last November I ran into Heeyoung Kim at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center and asked her what she’d been working on lately. “An orchid,” she replied, as she pulled out an extraordinary illustration of Cypripedium candidum, one of Illinois’s 45 native orchids. In classic botanical illustration style, each plant part is documented, so that the plant may be identified in every stage of growth.

Now, in a delicious twist of fate, Heeyoung’s intricate and delicate drawing is one of the illustrations that Nancy has chosen for the Orchid Show. And that bit of mystery I mentioned at the outset? Heeyoung started teaching classes at the Regenstein School in July 2012.

Student…teacher. It’s a good story. At the Orchid Show you’ll not only see 10,000 orchids, but also the talents of two students who became two Garden teachers.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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