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A blog for visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Updated: 1 hour 22 min ago

Learning about Learning at the Garden

Wed, 09/10/2014 - 12:27pm

Meet Melyssa Guzman. She is one of 20 College First students who spent eight weeks learning about environmental science and doing a research project at the Chicago Botanic Garden. 

 College First student Mely G.

College First student Mely G. would like people to plant butterfly gardens in their yards.

Mely, as she likes to be called, is a junior in the Chicago Public Schools district. She’s kind of a “girlie” young woman who wears a lot of pink, and likes flowery, feminine things. Mely also loves science. Each student had a staff mentor; I was Mely’s. Her project was teaching the public about butterfly-attracting flowers.

Although drop-in programs and exhibitions may be considered more “education” than “science,” understanding how people learn is an area of social science research that can challenge a smart student like Mely. This summer, Mely learned that museums and public gardens often test exhibitions and learning activities, using methods similar to those practiced by conservation scientists, to see how visitors will respond.

Mely began by researching butterflies and the flowers they prefer. Then she decided to set up a display at the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, where she would teach visitors what flowers to grow in their yards to attract butterflies. The display would have different kinds of flowers—real flowers and pictures—and she would stand and talk with people who were interested.

 Mely G. taking notes.

After each group of visitors, Mely recorded notes about how long they stayed at her table, and how interested they seemed.

As kids today would say, her first try was an “epic fail.” Most visitors looked at her display with curiosity, but they seemed perplexed and did not stop to learn more. The display was lovely, with fresh flowers and pictures of native butterflies, but it lacked a clear focus. It needed something else to draw visitors in. The display board kept blowing over, which was another big problem.

 Mely G. prepares a display.

Back to the drawing board: Mely made a new display— one that would stand up better and entice visitors with a title that asks: “What Is a Butterfly Flower?”

Mely brought the exhibit inside and modified the whole thing. Instead of using a folding display board, she mounted a poster board on a cardboard box so it would be more stable when taped to the table. She added a title, “What Is a Butterfly Flower?” as well as some facts about butterfly flowers. Then she tested the display again. After each group of visitors, she recorded the time they spent at her table, and gave them a score of 1 to 4 to rate how interested they were, the kinds of questions they asked, and things they talked about while looking at the display.

Museum exhibit developers call this process “rapid prototyping.” Inexpensive mock-ups of exhibits are tested to ensure they work—that visitors enjoy them and get the intended messages—before the museum invests a lot of money on a permanent display.

 2014 College First student Mely G. gives a demonstration.

A mother and daughter listen as Mely explains what colors, scents, and shapes attract butterflies to a flower.

Mely made a few more minor changes to her display. Then she tested a hypothesis. She observed that adults with children seemed more distracted than those without children; that they did not seem to talk to her as much as the childless groups. She hypothesized that adults without children would spend more time, ask more questions, and talk more about butterflies than mixed-generation groups. She used the data she gathered during prototyping the display, analyzing who stopped by her table, how long they spent, and how engaged they were.

Surprisingly, she discovered that families with children actually spent a little more time on average than adults alone. She thought this may be true because adults who brought children to her display spent their time explaining things to them instead of talking to her. In other words, the adults were not distracted, but were directing attention on their children to help them also learn from the display.

Mely does not fully realize that she has stumbled upon a very significant principle of learning: that learning is social. Educational research has shown that interaction between family members has a positive influence on learning in museums and in other environments. I’m very proud of Melyssa’s accomplishment this summer, and I look forward to seeing her expand her research next summer—because we both learned something!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Praying Mantis “Children” in the Growing Garden

Wed, 07/02/2014 - 8:35am

One of our favorite insects at the Chicago Botanic Garden is the praying mantis. So we were very excited to obtain an egg case earlier this spring. We decided to keep it indoors so we could watch it hatch, and then release the newly hatched insects into the Garden.

 Preying mantid egg case on a twig.

About 100 praying mantises emerged from this ootheca and were released into the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden.

A praying mantis egg case is called an ootheca (pronouned oh-uh-THEE-kuh). The plural is oothecae (oh-uh-THEE-see). The ootheca was produced by a female praying mantis last fall. She laid her eggs in this foam of protein that hardened around a stick and protected the eggs through the winter. The eggs usually hatch in mid-June to early July. The half-inch-long immature praying mantis nymphs resemble the adult, but they do not have wings. 

 Hundreds of baby mantids pour out of an egg case.

Colorless praying mantis nymphs emerge from the ootheca all at one time. During their first hour, they darken in color to blend in with their surroundings.

After our praying mantises hatched inside an insect cage, I discovered that a bed of false sunflower plants (Heliopsis helianthoides) in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden was infested with red aphids. I released the praying mantises, and the hungry babies immediately began to feed.

 Mantis nymphs on the head of a Rudbeckia flower covered with aphids.

At first, the praying mantis babies seemed a little bewildered by their new surroundings, but they quickly acclimated.

 Mantis nymph on a flower stem eyes aphids—a tasty meal.

This mantis held very still as it eyed its prey.

 A row of mantis nymphs on a leaf face a stem covered with red aphids.

These four little mantises lined up and stared at the aphids that would certainly become lunch soon.

It wasn’t exactly aphid carnage—much to the disappointment of our eighth grade Camp CBG helper, Joshua, who assisted me with the release—but the young predators did appear to enjoy their first meal.  

 Preying mantis on liatris bloom in August.

By the end of August, some of our little friends will be as big as this praying mantis (and just as hungry)!

It may surprise you to know that although it looked like a bad infestation, aphids are not really a big problem for the plants. When they are very abundant, it does not take long for natural predators like praying mantises and ladybugs to find them and move in for a feast. Predatory insects will take care of the problem if you are patient and let nature take its course. If aphids show up in your garden and they bother you, we recommend hosing them off with water rather than using an insecticide, because chances are pretty good that there are beneficial insects on your plants, too. Hosing with a strong jet of water will knock off all the bugs and kill most of the aphids, but it won’t be as devastating to the mantises or other beneficial insects as poison.

We have placed praying mantis oothecae in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden and Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden, as well as in the Children’s Growing Garden, to ensure that there will be a population of our favorite insect for you to find. Many of them will survive on aphids and other insects they capture and devour on our flowers, and they will grow up over the summer. The next time you visit, stop by and see if you can find them helping our plants remain healthy and less bothered by pests.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Ultimate Play Date: Kids + Nature

Mon, 06/23/2014 - 1:37pm

School’s out. The first official day of summer has come and gone. Time for life to move outdoors.

For some kids (OK, some caregivers, too), heading out to the backyard, the beach, the parks, and the forest preserves can feel daunting—what do you DO once you’re out there?

“Hands in earth, sand, mud: building, digging, sewing, baking—these are what humans DO.”

 A strip of astroturf is covered with an excercise course for ants made from twigs, stones, and other natural objects.

Build an ant playground out of sticks! Sue Dombro of the Forest Preserves of Cook County gave us tips for building one, adding this telling comment: “My daughter used to do this all the time, and now she’s a wildlife biologist.”

For fun, interesting, and education-based answers, we turned to a fun, interesting, and education-based crowd: the 190 teachers, home educators, day care providers, park district staff, museum employees, librarians, and just-plain-curious caregivers who came together at the Garden recently for our first Nature Play conference in May (sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Wilderness, and the Alliance for Early Childhood).

That morning, opening remarks were short, but sweet. A few thought-provoking highlights are quoted here. Then we did what any group of early childhood-oriented people would do: We all went outside to play.

At our outdoor “playground,” 19 organizations shared their fun, interesting, and education-based ideas for playing outside. You may recognize many from your own childhood.

1. Pick Up a Stick

How cool is this? In 2008, the stick was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame! It’s in great company: the jump rope, dominoes, the Frisbee, Tinkertoys and, yes, the Easy-Bake Oven are co-recipients of the honor. The possibilities of the stick are endless—it’s a musical instrument, a light saber, a wand, a fishing pole, a giant pencil for drawing in the dirt, a conductor’s baton, the first leg of a tepee, and anything else a child says it is.

2. Learn to Lash

If one stick is interesting, a pile of sticks has real 3-D potential. The art of lashing teaches kids to turn something small—two twigs lashed together—into something big: a ladder, a lean-to, a stool, a swing.

3. Find the Art in Nature

Twigs + stones + leaves + “tree cookies” + seeds = a nature “painting,” a sculpture, an imaginary animal, backyard trail markers, or utterly simple, charming drawings like the happy face made out of seeds shown with our headline.

“For children, the most powerful form of learning is with their hands.”

 A squirrel made from tree cookies, pine cones, acorns.

Imagination can run wild when kids are outside.

4. Nature as Paintbrush

Sure, you can use a standard brush to paint with, but feathers, pine needles, and arborvitae segments not only expand the creative possibilities but also feel wonderfully different in the hand.

5. Kid-Made Kites

Send the imagination soaring with a simple paper bag and a couple of kitchen skewers—in moments, it’s a kite! And then there’s the process of decorating it with ribbons and streamers…

6. Cricket Bug Box

Catch a cricket (or buy a dozen for $1 at the pet shop). Friendly and chirpy, crickets are many kids’ first experience with the insect world. Even little kids can collect the foliage, food scraps, and water-soaked cotton balls to accessorize a temporary shoe-box habitat.

“Nature is children’s real home.”

 A log and magnifying glass.

What’s under that log? Life.

7. Lift a Log

One of the simplest of all outdoor projects: lift up a log that’s been sitting on the ground and be amazed by the tiny wildlife that lives­ underneath it! Don’t forget to bring your magnifying glass.

8. Make a Magic Circle

Tuck a few wooden embroidery rings into a backpack. Placed on the ground in the woods, or the garden, or the sand, they become magical circles for kids to explore. What’s in yours?

9. D.I.Y. Dyeing

Rainy days need projects, too. Natural dyes made from vegetables (beets, onions), fruits (grape juice), or spices (turmeric, chili powder) transform undyed yarn or fabric into a personal style experience.

10. Paint Chip Color Hunt

One quick visit to the paint store can send kids off to hunt for hours, as they try to match nature’s colors to the humble paint chip card. (Handy to keep in the car for unexpected delays, too).

 A variety of paint chip cards with flowers that match the colors on the chips.

Simple but engrossing: match the colors in nature to the colors on a paint card.

Looking for fun things to do with the kids this summer? June is Leave No Child Inside month, so Chicago Wilderness/Leave No Child Inside has organized all sorts of ideas for you on Pinterest!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bottle Cap Bouquets

Sun, 05/04/2014 - 8:50am

Miniature flower arrangements offer a charming and whimsical gift for mom, grandma, or anyone special. A nice feature of these tiny bouquets is that you can show off the beauty of small flowers that always sing backup to showier blossoms in large arrangements. Also, you can use aromatic herbs with small leaves as filler greens to add a pleasant scent.

 The supplies for creating bottlecap bouquets.

The supplies for creating bottle cap bouquets.

 a tiny bouquet of mini carnation, baby's breath, and a sprig of sage.

This little arrangement of mini-carnations, baby’s breath, and a sprig of sage has pink burlap ribbon wrapped around the bottle cap to mimic a fancy basket of flowers.

What you need:

  • A cap from a plastic bottle, such as a milk container or soda bottle
  • Floral foam (the wet kind)
  • A bunch of small flowers—I used mini-carnations, waxflowers (Chamelaucium uncinatum), and baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, and lavender work well because they have stiff stems)
  • Optional: ribbon for added decoration

The directions are pretty simple.

Cut the floral foam to fit the inside of the bottle cap. Start a little larger than you need, and then trim it to fit. Push it into the cap. If your cap is narrow, like a milk bottle cap, you may want the foam to be above the level of the cap so there is enough room to hold the flowers. Otherwise, trim the top so the foam does not stick up. Add water to soak the foam.

 hands tracing around a bottlecap and block of foam with a pencil.

Trace the cap on a piece of foam and then carve the foam with a butter knife to fit inside the cap.

 hands poking flowers into floral foam.

Begin sticking the flowers into the foam. Here, we started with a waxflower in the center and added smaller flowers and herbs around it.

Cut the flower and herb stems about 3 inches. You can trim them shorter depending on the desired height in the arrangement. Stick them into the foam. You might want to start with one of your larger flowers in the center and then add smaller flowers and herbs around it.

 a tiny bouquet of waxflower, baby's breath, and rosemary.

Waxflower, baby’s breath, and rosemary complete this delicate arrangement.

 a tiny bouquet of baby's breath and thyme.

Not into pink? This yellow cap with baby’s breath and thyme is fragrant and cheerful.

When you are satisfied with your floral creation, you can either leave it as is—especially if the color of the bottle cap looks nice with the flowers—or you can tie a ribbon around the bottle cap. The best way to keep it in place is by using a few drops from a hot-glue gun. 

 a tiny garden created in an old contact lens case.

Surprise! An old contact lens case becomes a miniature garden of waxflower and thyme that smells as amazing as it looks.

Tips

When using a shallow bottle cap, limit the number of larger flowers like mini-carnations or mini-daisies to three or fewer. Floral foam has limits. Adding too many flowers will cause the foam to fall apart and the flowers to flop over. If the first attempt suffers from floppy flowers, start over with a new piece of foam and add fewer flowers. 

If you really want more than three large flowers, use a taller cup, such as a medicine cup from a bottle of cough syrup, as the vase. Even then, take care not to overload the foam. This is a small bouquet, after all!

 the final bottlcap bouquet arrangements in a group.

Precious and colorful, these-mini bouquets will stay fresh and bring cheer for a few days.

Floral foam is irresistible. Your kids, even teenagers, will want to play with it. Parcel it out in small pieces so they don’t play around with the whole block before you can use it. 

You can use the same procedure to make a mini-dried flower arrangement; just don’t wet the foam. Any way you make them, these little bouquets are sure to bring big smiles from someone you love. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Enriching the Lives of Future Plant Scientists

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 1:07pm

On any given day, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s science laboratories are bustling with activity. Some of the researchers are extracting DNA from leaves, analyzing soil samples, discussing how to restore degraded dunes—and talking about where they’re going to college. The young researchers are interns in the Garden’s College First program, studying field ecology and conservation science, and working side by side with scientists, horticulturists, and educators.

 Orange-shirted middle schoolers examine palm trees and take data in the greenhouse.

Science First participants gather data in the Greenhouse.

 Two high school girls wearing blue "College First" tshirts and latex gloves examine samples in the lab.

Two College First participants work on analyzing samples in the Garden’s plant science labs.

The Science Career Continuum consists of five programs:

  • Science First, a four-week enrichment program for students in grades 8 through 10.
  • College First, an eight-week summer internship for high school juniors and seniors with monthly meetings during the school year.
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a ten-week summer research-based science internship supervised by a Garden scientist and funded through a National Science Foundation grant. In 2014, three College First graduates will participate.
  • Conservation and Land Management (CLM) internship, offered through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and held in 13 western states.
  • Graduate programs in plant biology and conservation, offered jointly with Northwestern University for master’s degree and doctoral students.

The program is part of the Science Career Continuum, which is aimed at training the next generation of dedicated land stewards and conservation scientists. The Continuum engages Chicago Public Schools students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful scientific research and mentoring programs from middle school through college and beyond. “Each level of the Continuum challenges students to improve their science skills, building on what was learned at the previous level and preparing them for the next,” said Kathy Johnson, director of teacher and student programs.

College First is a paid eight-week summer internship for up to 20 qualified students. Isobel Araujo, a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, attended the College First program in 2011 and 2012. As part of the program, she did research on orchids and learned how to estimate budgets to fix hypothetical ecological problems. “It was definitely challenging, but it was awesome,” said Araujo, who plans to major in environmental studies.

During the school year, College First students also attend monthly meetings that help them select colleges, complete applications, and find financial aid to continue their education. More than 94 percent of College First graduates attend two- or four-year colleges, and many are the first in their family to attend college. Three students, including Robert Harris III, received full scholarships to universities beginning in fall 2013.

Harris is a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As a junior and senior at Lane Tech High School in Chicago, he made a three-hour daily round-trip commute to the Garden for the College First program. During his internship, he learned to extract plant DNA and study genetic markers in the Artocarpus genus, which includes breadfruit and jackfruit. Harris said the program was a great experience. “You get out of the city and experience nature close up,” he said. “The Garden itself is one big laboratory, and it was a lot more hands-on than in high school.”

 An intern carries a quiver full of marking flags, and takes notes on her clipboard.

Science First and College First programs lead into other graduate and postgraduate programs. Visit chicagobotanic.org/research/training to find information on these programs.

 A group of about 50 people pose at the end of the Serpentine Bridge.

Conservation and Land Management (CLM) postgraduate interns for 2013 pose for a group photo at the Garden. Visit clminternship.org to find out more about this program.

Because of funding restrictions, enrollment for the Continuum programs are limited to students from Chicago Public Schools. For more information, visit chicagobotanic.org/ctl/teacher_students or call (847) 835-6871.

This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Make Mushroom Spore Prints

Mon, 02/24/2014 - 9:23am

Mushrooms reproduce by making billions of spores that spread and grow into new organisms. You can take advantage of this phenomenon to make a beautiful print on paper.  

How to Make Spore Prints

All you need are some fresh, open mushrooms, paper, and a bowl. You can use mushrooms found growing outside or buy them from the market. When selecting mushrooms for spore prints, look for these things:

  • The cap should be fully open with the gills exposed
  • The gills should look good, not wet and mushy
  • The mushroom should feel slightly moist but not wet; dry mushrooms will not work
  • There shoud not be mold spots on the mushroom
  • They should look like mushrooms you want to eat
 Underside of a portabella mushroom.

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

 Shiitake mushroom.

This shiitake mushroom may be a little old—notice the brown spots on the cap’s edges—but should work.

First, you should remove the stems. I use scissors so I don’t pull up or damage any of the gills.

Place the mushrooms with the gill side down on a piece of paper. Mushrooms with dark gills, like portabellos, have dark spores that show up well on white paper. Shiitake mushrooms have white gills and spores that will show up better on black paper. Some mushrooms make both dark and light spore prints.

 Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

These four shiitake mushrooms were placed on black paper. They will be covered with a bowl and then left overnight.

Place the paper on a tray or other surface that can handle something wet sitting on it because moisture from the mushrooms will soak into the paper and anything underneath it. Cover the mushrooms with a bowl to prevent them from drying out. Really ripe mushrooms will make a print in an hour, but I suggest that you leave them overnight to be sure you get results.

In the morning, carefully lift your bowl and the individual mushrooms and see what you get. If the paper absorbed a lot of moisture from the mushrooms, it may need to dry before you see the print very well—especially prints made on black paper. Portabello prints often show well-defined gills. Shiitake gills are not as straight and rigid as portabello gills, so you’ll get less gill definition in the print and a more wavy, swirling print. If your mushrooms are too wet, or are starting to rot, you’ll get more of a watercolor effect instead of a sharp print.

 Mushroom spore print.

If all goes well, billions of spores will fall from the mushroom and produce a pattern that resembles the gills on the underside of the cap, like this portabello mushroom print.

 Mushroom spore print.

Four shiitake mushrooms leave ghostly impressions on black paper. The swirled edges were made by the uneven surfaces of the mushroom caps.

 Mushroom spore print.

The fine lines on this print look like they might have been drawn by an extremely sharp pencil, but the spores that compose the image are much smaller than the tip of a pencil.

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

Garden scientist Louise Egerton-Warburton recently told me, “Plants are cool, but fungus rules.” As a mycologist, fungus is her passion. Now, we aren’t really interested in competition or ranking organisms by levels of interest or importance because every living thing needs the others to survive. But the fact remains that we tend to forget about smaller things, especially those that tend to be hidden from view, so let’s take some time to meditate on mushrooms.

 Stinkhorn fungus.

This stinkhorn fungus, Mutinus elegans, is growing out of the ground, but that is where its resemblance to green plants ends. It’s named for its obnoxious odor, which attracts flies that help distribute its spores.

Scientists used to think of mushrooms and other fungi as special kinds of plants. The problem is that, unlike plants, fungi do not get energy from photosynthesis. They are composed of different kinds of cells, they complete a different life cycle, and let’s face it: they don’t really even look like plants. So fungi are now grouped in their own kingdom of organisms, and nobody expects them to be anything like plants.

There are many different kinds of fungus, so for simplicity, let’s just think about the familiar mushroom with its stem and cap. This structure is actually the reproductive part of the organism, in the same way fruit is a reproductive structure in plants. (But we are not comparing plants and fungus!) Beneath the soil where you find mushrooms growing, there is a network of branching thread-like structures, called “hyphae,” which grow through the dead plant and animal matter in the soil and absorb nutrients. This is the main “body” of the fungus. As the fungus digests organic matter, it decomposes, making it useful for plants.

 Laetiporus sulphureus fungus, or "Chicken of the Woods".

This “chicken of the woods” fungus, Laetiporus sulphureus, doesn’t look like a mushroom, but it also produces spores.

 Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

The fungus that produces these mushrooms is decomposing leaves and sticks that have fallen to the forest floor.

Back above ground, when conditions are favorable, a mushroom grows up from the hyphae. It matures and releases spores, which are like seeds. (It’s really hard to get away from comparing fungus with plants!) Spores are structurally different from seeds, even though they function to spread the organism in a similar way. Spores are microscopic and are so small that mycologists measure them in microns. A micron is one millionth of a meter.

 A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

How many spores could fit on the tip of a sharp pencil? A lot! No wonder the spore print is so fine and delicate!

Look at a metric ruler. See the smallest lines that mark millimeters? Imagine dividing a millimeter into one thousand equal parts. Fungus spores measure 3 to 12 microns. It hurts my eyes trying to imagine a spore sitting on my ruler. We can only see them when there is a mass of them on a spore print. Mycologists use a micron ruler built into their microscopes to measure the individual spores.

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photosynthesis Made my Rock Candy

Fri, 02/07/2014 - 8:30am

While you are inside wondering if winter will bring another chilling polar vortex, or six feet of snow, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit and rain, join me in contemplating the sweetness of plants.

 Burgundy leaves of the Bull's Blood sugar beet.

The common sugar beet, Beta vulgaris (this one is cultivar ‘Bull’s Blood’), is the source of our refined white sugar—not sugar cane!

All sugar comes from plants. All of it. Plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar, and plants are made of sugars. Even plant cell walls are composed of a substance called cellulose, which is a compound sugar. Sugars from plants are the basis of our food chain.

Our favorite dietary sugar, sucrose, comes from the juices of sugar cane or sugar beets, which are boiled until the water evaporates, leaving the sugar crystals we all know and love as table sugar. Now that you know where your candy comes from, let’s use some sucrose to make a treat.

How to Make Rock (Sugar) Candy

Rock candy is pure, crystallized sucrose, and you can make it at home. This will take one to two weeks, so get started now if you want to give it to someone special for Valentine’s Day.

You will need

  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups sugar, plus about a spoonful extra to coat the skewers
  • Food coloring (optional)
  • Flavoring (optional)
  • Bamboo skewers
  • Very clean, heat-resistant drinking glasses or glass jars (like Ball or Mason jars)
  • 2 clothespins
 Tools and ingredients for making rock sugar candy laid out on the kitchen counter.

All the ingredients for the solution are assembled and ready to go. Note: the flavoring pictured here is not the best to use, because it contains alcohol. Use an essential oil for better results.

Directions

First, assemble the hardware. Cut the bamboo skewer to 6–8 inches, depending how long you want it. Attach two clothespins to one end. They will rest on the edges of your glass, suspending the skewer straight down in the glass without allowing it to touch the sides.

Cut a piece of paper towel with a hole in the center. This will go over the top of your glass to prevent dust from settling on the surface of the solution. Remove the paper towel and skewers; you’ll reassemble this after you’ve poured the solution in the glasses.

 Glasses and skewers set up for making rock sugar candy.

Suspend the skewers using one or two clothespins as pictured here, and be ready to cover loosely with a piece of paper towel like the glass shown in the middle.

Important tip: The directions I followed (from a reputable source) instructed me to moisten the end of the skewer with water and roll it in some sugar to “seed” the formation of new crystals. When I tried this, the sugar crystals all fell off the skewer the minute I put them into the solution. Crystals will not grow on a bare skewer. What did work was dipping the skewer into the sugar solution (which you are about to make) and then rolling it in sugar. This kept the tiny sugar crystals stuck on the skewer and allowed larger crystals to grow.

Making the sugar solution. Pour 1 cup of water in a saucepan and heat to boiling. Then turn the heat to low. You do not want to boil the water after you have added sugar, or you will make a syrup that is stable and will not yield crystals. Add the 3 cups of sugar gradually, and stir to dissolve. Push down any crystals that form on the sides of the saucepan during heating to dissolve in the water. This takes some time! Your final solution should be clear—not cloudy at all—and you should not see any crystals.

 Green-dyed rock sugar candy solution in a Mason jar.

You can choose to pour the liquid into two small glasses or one larger jar.

If you want to color or flavor your candy, now is the time. Add 2 to 3 drops of food color and/or 1/2 tsp of food-grade essential oils (like peppermint), and stir in thoroughly. Avoid using alcohol-based extracts like the bottle you see pictured in the blog. I’m not sure if this caused a failure during one of my trials, but I can say with certainty that I had better results when I used a flavoring oil.

Dip the end of the skewer a few inches into the solution and remove. Let the excess sugar water drain into the pot, and then roll the sticky end in dry granulated sugar to coat evenly. Set aside.

Pour the warm solution into the glass container(s), and fill to the top. With this recipe, you will get about 3 and 1/2 cups of solution, which will fill one jar or two glasses. You can scale the recipe up if you want more.

 Rock sugar candy skewers.

After about eight days, you can see the cube-shaped sugar crystals on these skewers. The longer you leave them in the solution, the larger the crystals will grow.

Carefully lower the sugar-coated skewer into the solution, holding it in place with the clothespins. Cover lightly with the paper towel and place it in a safe location where nothing will bump it or land in it for at least one week—two weeks if you want larger crystals. Do not totally seal your glass or jar. The water needs to evaporate for the sugar to come out of solution and crystalize on the skewer. If all goes well, then over the next week you will see large crystals forming only on the skewer.

Got candy? Remove the skewer and drain the syrup. Eat immediately, or allow to dry, wrap in plastic, and save for later. Now that is what I call cultivating the power the plants!

One more thing: You can use string instead of a stick. Tie a small weight on the bottom and tie the top to the a pencil balanced on top of the glass so that the string hangs in the liquid.

 A weighted string coated in rock sugar crystals.

The string was weighted with a metal nut so it would sink into the solution.

While you are waiting for your sucrose to crystalize, let’s contemplate where it came from.

Sugar from Plants

You probably know that plants harness energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen in a process we call photosynthesis.

 diagram of a plant showing carbon dioxide and light energy entering the plant leaf andwater entering through the roots, while glucose is formed in the leaf and oxygen is released into the air.

This basic diagram shows photosynthesis in action.

The product of the reaction is a sugar called glucose, which is chemical energy that a plant can use to build plant cells and grow. The formula looks like this:

6CO2 + 6H2O (+ light energy) C6H12O6 + 6O2.

Translated, it means that inside plant cells, six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules combined with energy from the sun are converted into one sugar molecule and six oxygen molecules.

Glucose molecules are combined to form more complex sugars. Sucrose, or table sugar, has a molecular formula C12H22O11.  It looks like two glucose molecules stuck together, but missing one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms (or one water molecule).  

 Sucrose molecule.

This sucrose molecule looks good enough to eat!

 Sugar cubes.

Just kidding. It looks better in normal scale.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar. Through modern chemistry, food scientists have figured out how to extract and modify plant sugars more efficiently. They have also developed different kinds of sweeteners, because the food industry is always striving to develop less expensive ways to satisfy our craving for sweets, as well as supply alternative sweeteners for different dietary needs. Some sugars you may see on food labels include dextrose (which is another name for glucose), sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, and sucralose. All of these “natural” sweeteners were processed from plants, even though they do not exist without help from a laboratory.

Have you noticed that all of these sugars, including the sugars in plant cell wall structures, have names that end in “ose”? That is no accident. The suffix “ose” is the conventional way chemists identify a substance is a sugar. Go ahead, share that information at your next party as you consume goodies made from plant sugars. Having some chemistry facts at your sticky fingertips makes you sound smart while you’re nibbling on sweet treats.

 Fresh produce in a wicker basket.

Yum!

Please enjoy sucrose crystals responsibly, as part of a balanced diet that includes forms of sugars closer to their origins. (In other words, eat fruits and vegetables, too.) And remember to brush your teeth!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Grapefruit Bird Feeder

Tue, 01/07/2014 - 12:50pm

My daughters love fresh grapefruit, and winter is the season when this fruit is at its best. Instead of throwing away the rind, we decided to make a bird feeder. This is a great winter project for the family.

 The supplies needed for the project.

The grapefruit sections have been cut and eaten; the rind is ready to become our bird feeder.

To make a grapefruit bird feeder you will need:

  • Half a grapefruit rind (you can also use an orange)
  • Three pieces of yarn, each cut about 18 inches long
  • A knife, skewer, pointed scissors, or other sharp tool
  • Birdseed

First, eat the grapefruit and drain the remaining liquid. Then, use the skewer or knife to poke three holes in the grapefruit. They should be about half an inch from the top edge and spaced evenly around the circumference. (Some people do this with four strings, but I find that using three strings makes it easier to balance the fruit.)

Push a piece of yarn through each hole and tie it off.

 Skewering the grapefruit rind.

Hold the grapefruit firmly with one hand while you poke the skewer through the rind. Be careful not to poke your finger!

 Tying yarn to the grapefruit to hang it.

Pull 2-3 inches through the rind and tie the short end to the longer strand.

Hold the grapefruit up by all three strings and adjust the length of the strands so the fruit is not tipping. When it is balanced, knot the strings together about 4 or 5 inches from the top. (The ends will probably be uneven, and that is all right.) Make a loop knot with those top ends, so you will be able to hang it from a branch. 

 The final product.

Our grapefruit bird feeder is balanced, full of seed, and ready to hang outside.

Finally, fill the fruit with birdseed and hang it outside for your feathered friends to enjoy. If you like, you can add a little suet, but you may find it doesn’t stick well to the wet fruit. Here in the Chicago area, you’ll probably find that most of your winter guests are black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, common redpolls, and downy or hoary woodpeckers, who balance their primary diet of insects and grubs with bit of suet and sunflower seeds.

One more thing: Make sure it’s tied to the branch firmly so that your local (determined) squirrels — who will also find this bird feeder appealing — don’t knock it down.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any visitors the first few days after you’ve placed your feeder. It can take up to two weeks for birds to discover their new food source, but once they do, they tell all their friends in the neighborhood.

 Grapefruit birdfeeder hung from a snow-covered fir.

The final product is ready for visitors.

What is birdseed?

You probably know that if you plant birdseed, you won’t grow a bird. And there is no such thing as a birdseed plant. So what plants make birdseed? What we call “birdseed” most commonly comes from two sources: millet, which is a grass, and sunflower. Other seeds used to feed birds include thistle, safflower, cracked corn, and sorghum seed, which is also called milo. Some birds have a preference for certain kinds of seeds, so bird lovers stock their feeders with seeds to attract their favorite birds and keep them visiting the feeder.

After you hang your bird feeder, take some of the seed and plant it to see what grows. Maybe you can grow your own food for the birds this year!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Christmas Tree Taxonomy

Sat, 12/14/2013 - 8:15am
 A student in class is examining evergreen needles.

Quick quiz: is this boy holding a twig of conifer, evergreen, or both?

Every winter, as a public garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden turns its educational programming attention—as well as its decorations—to the only plants that stay green through the season: the evergreens. We teach class after class of school children how to identify different kinds of evergreens by their needles and cones.

It’s a lesson in sorting and classifying plants—in other words: taxonomy. 

Conifer vs. Evergreen

Every year we remind students of the meanings of the words “evergreen” and “conifer”—they are not the same thing!—and every year, someone is confused. I blame Christmas trees.

 Venn diagram showing a christmas tree in the intersection of the sets "evergreens" and "conifers."


The “Christmas Tree” intersects both of the sets “evergreens” and “conifers”—it’s both!

First, it’s important to understand that evergreens are any plants that remain green through the winter, like pine, spruce, fir, and Douglas fir. Conifers, on the other hand, are a classification of trees that produce seeds inside cones. These trees include pine, spruce, fir, and Douglas fir. Wait a minute…those are are the same trees!

You see, the problem is that our Christmas trees tend to be both evergreen and conifer, and as a result, many of us have forgotten the difference. To help us illustrate the definitions of the two terms, let’s look at some evergreens and conifers that do not fall into the intersection of those groups.

 Charlie Brown and Snoopy with a sad-looking, needle-free tree sporting a single ornament.

Charlie Brown’s tree might have been a bald cypress.

One conifer that loses its needles, and therefore is not an evergreen, is the bald cypress. These can be very attractive when covered in snow. (The bald cypress trees growing in the Heritage Garden have been pruned at the top and look like candelabras.) The needles on these trees change color in fall—the same way deciduous trees like maples and oaks do—and drop to the ground, making them look, well, bald.

Boxwoods and rhododendrons are woody plants that keep their green leaves all winter, but they do not produce cones. Boxwoods are occasionally used in wreaths and can be found in many places around the Garden.

 Closeup of a bald cypress branch in golden fall color.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is called “bald” for a reason—its needles change color and fall in autumn just like deciduous trees such as maples and oaks.

 Boxwood in the Japanese Garden.

Boxwood in winter in the Malott Japanese Garden: these true evergreens may yellow a bit with winter, but keep their foliage.

Now here is where things actually do get confusing. Female yews produce a bright red “berry” that might make you think they are just evergreens. Actually, when you take a close look at the hard core at the center of this berry, you would see small, closed scales like those on any other “pine” cone. Yep. Juniper “berries” are also modified cones. That means yew and juniper are both evergreen and conifer.

 Closeup of yew berries showing seed/nut inside the berry.

Yew berries (Taxus baccata)
Photo by Frank Vincentz, via Wikimedia Commons

So call your Christmas tree an evergreen or a conifer—you will be correct either way. But it’s worth remembering what the two terms mean. Recognizing how things are alike and different is the driving force behind taxonomy and is also fundamental to understanding the natural world.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tree-O-Caching in Fall

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 10:02am
 Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden.

Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden

This is a treasure hunt to find trees.
Follow the clues to find them with ease.

Each clue has a hint to the tree’s location,
And a few facts for identification.

The numbers provided are GPS* clues,
Just in case our rhyming stumps you.

When you get to each tree you’re meant to find,
Read the message on the large brown sign.

*GPS coordinates give the general area and my not be exact. Use them to get in the vicinity, then look for a tree that fits the clues. (All trees can be found in adjacent gardens on the west side of the main island.) Don’t have a GPS device? You can use your iPhone or Android phone’s compass utility to follow the clues. Remember: leave any seeds you find for the critters that need food for winter!

 

 This shows the end of a branch with green pointed leaves and black berries.

Tree #1

1.

Enter a Garden of native flowers and grasses;
Walk ’round the fence and try not to pass this.

It’s tall and stately, and rough is its bark;
Look up to see woody, small berries, which are dark.

If you go past the fliers, frozen midflight,
“backtrack” your footsteps to the tree that is “right.”

GPS: N 42˚08.899′, W 087˚47.510′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’54″  W 87˚ 47’31″

CIMG1081

Tree #2

2.

If these trees were shorter, this clue’d be a hard one.
Follow the path through the Landscape Garden.

An evergreen trio are loaded with seeds;
They form narrow cones—look up high to see.

You may cross a stream discover these gems, 
Enjoying the moisture, to the water they bend.

GPS: N 42˚08.879′, W087˚47.499′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″  W 87˚ 47’31″

 close up of a yellow, star-shaped leaf

Tree #3

3.

For those who love fall color it’s plain to see,
Edna Kanaley Graham would have loved this next tree.

Come into the garden, where spring bulbs sleep.
Look right in the entrance and take a quick peep.

This tree’s fruits (now all fallen) are small prickly balls,
Star-shaped leaves are what’s left now—orange and yellow in fall.

GPS: N 42˚08.890′, W 087˚47.566′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″, W 087˚ 47’34″

 This is a pair of leaves with some type of nuts.

Tree #4

4.

Near the Circle Garden and the whistling of trains,
A group of large trees makes nuts from sun, air, and rain.

Squirrels and critters think that these nuts are great;
It’s also a favorite of Ohio State!

Can’t find our trees on your wander? Look down:
This time of year, fruit and husks litter the ground.

GPS: N 42˚ 08.849′, W 087˚47.465′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’50″, W 087˚47’34″

 Long seedpods hang between heart-shaped leaves

Tree #5

5.

From here, it’s off to the Enabling Garden you go;
Where a smattering of these trees you’ll find in a row.

This specimen grows very large heart-shaped leaves;
Long, narrow seed pods hang from its eaves.

Either side of the path they drip like fresh wax;
We hope from these clues you discover the facts.

GPS: N 42˚08.810′, W 087˚47.416′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’49″, W 087˚ 47’25″
 

Our ephemeral signs have now been removed from each site, but here are the answers:

  1. Hackberry (Celtis Occidentalis)
  2. Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’)
  3. Moraine sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moraine’)
  4. Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
  5. Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Cicadas by the Numbers

Mon, 09/23/2013 - 10:37am

Cicadas have been out and singing for a while now. If you live around trees, you may be enjoying their late summer serenade. You also may be finding them on the ground. After they emerge from underground burrows, they molt and enter their adult stage. Then they mate, lay eggs, and die. When you find one, you can examine it to learn more about these big bugs.

Did you know that cicadas have five eyes?

In school we learn that insects have compound eyes, and we use toy bug eye viewers to get a sense of what dragonflies and bees see. But the real picture is a little more complicated. In addition to the pair of compound eyes, many insects, including cicadas, have three simple eyes. They are easy to see on a cicada if you look carefully.

 Front "face" view of a cicada, showing 5 eyes.

This cicada’s three simple eyes show up as three spots reflecting the flash from the camera.

The simple eyes are called ocelli, and they are usually arranged in a triangle between the compound eyes, like those in picture of the cicada’s face. Grasshoppers, bees, and praying mantids also have them.

 Side view of a cicada.

The Latin name for this cicada is Tibicen canicularis. “Canus” is the Latin word for dog. Why do you think he’s called the Dogday cicada?)

Let’s do some cicada math!
If you find a cicada on a tree or the ground, see if you can count:

1  mouth part to drink sap from trees

2  antennae that grow under the eyes and look like whiskers

3  body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen

4  wings, arranged in two pairs

5  eyes, 3 simple + 2 compound

6  legs

Want more cicada by the numbers? Click here to download a Color-by-Number Cicada.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org