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A blog for visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Updated: 10 min 23 sec ago

Chrysanthemums

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 10:00am

You’re in a small suburban downtown in early autumn. The sun hangs low in the twilight sky. The crisp, cold air carries the rich perfume of straw, touched with pumpkin spice and apples.You pull your arms close to your body and cradle a warm drink between your hands. Polyester witches hover over pumpkin-laden lamp posts. Planters overflow with chrysanthemums in assorted colors of bronze, gold, white, and red. 

Chrysanthemums, also called “mums” or “chrysanths” have always felt to me like old American flowers. This was the kind of plant that grandmothers flocked to the nursery for, just before the leaves began to turn, as if there were some prehistoric trigger deep in the mind. As traditionally American as they may seem, the chrysanthemum is actually a Chinese immigrant.

 A mum cultivar.

Modern varieties of mums are much improved, but some of the original Chinese versions could have had flowers like these.

Cultivated as an herb in China for more than 3,500 years, the chrysanthemum represents nobility and is considered one of the four gentlemen: the pure and defiant recluse that represents fall. For a long time, the flowers were only permitted to be grown by nobility, later becoming the badge for the old Chinese army.

Chrysanthemum seeds passed through Korea and arrived in Japan sometime around the fourth century. In 910 C.E., Japan held its first Imperial Chrysanthemum Show and soon after, this became the national flower and the imperial seal of Japan, or “mon” of the imperial family. At the Festival of Happiness and Nihonmatsu Chrysanthemum Dolls Exhibition celebrations in Japan, plants are sculpted to cascade, form trees, and even form outfits for life-sized dolls.

 Life-size manikins dressing in traditional clothing made of chrysanthemums sit in temple.

The Nihonmatsu Chrysanthemum Dolls Exhibition is truly astonishing. By User:Harisenbon (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1688, chrysanthemums crept into Europe. The reception was not warm. It wasn’t until 1843 when Robert Fortune, funded by the Royal Horticultural Society, set out in search of hardy chrysanthemums from China. Within a few years, the plant experienced a popularity boom, especially in France. In contemporary Europe, countries such as France, Poland, and Spain regard certain types of chrysanthemum as a symbol of death and mourning. It is a cultural taboo in some of these areas to provide them as a gift.

Though chrysanthemums arrived in the United States more than 100 years after their arrival in Europe, their popularity exploded at about the same time. In 1900, the Chrysanthemum Society of America formed and the first exhibition appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago in November of 1902. It has since become a fall classic in America.

Classification and Breeding

The very first mums to be classified were yellow to gold in color (the name comes from the greek words “khrusos” for gold and “anthemon” for flower). Thirteen classes of chrysanthemum in nearly every color (except blue and black) make up the thousands of chrysanthemums that have been bred over the years. Chrysanthemums are classified as irregular incurve, reflex, regular incurve, decorative, intermediate incurve, pompon, single and semi-double, anemone, spoon, quill, spider, brush or thistle, and unclassified or exotic. For a full list with descriptions and pictures, visit www.mums.org/chrysanthemum-classes/.

 Chrysanthemum 'Wisp of Pink'.

Chrysanthemum ‘Wisp of Pink’ is a stunning brush mum. Photo by Tom Weaver.

Chrysanthemums at the Chicago Botanic Garden

As gardeners know, the emergence of flower buds is an exciting event. At the Garden, we drum up the same excitement by using dark cloth to omit light and simulate short day conditions, which triggers the flowering of chrysanthemums. If the summer is typical and you time it right, you will have flowers right when you want them. With an atypically cool summer this year, they received just the encouragement they needed to flower early. That means that if you’ve been to the Garden in the past few days you’ve likely seen the more than 1,600 mums that we planted in The Crescent and the cascading mums descending from the hayracks over the visitor center bridge!

This year, our wonderful production staff grew 50 cultivars of mums, starting in February, to produce more than 12,000 mums for fall displays! Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, oversees the growing, training, and care of the mums from February until they enter the gardens in September.

Did you ever wonder how we get our mums to look the way they do? Good watering practices, fertilizer, disease management, pinching and…nuts?

 Hex nuts dangle from wires fastened to mum branches.

Hex nuts hang off chrysanthemum branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

 Garden mums in bloom.

This year there are four different mums planted in The Crescent.

To train our cascading mums, we attach hex nuts that act as weights to hold down the stems as they grow and harden. This is done weekly by two staff members from February until late August, amounting to more than 400 person-hours from this activity alone! 

The mum ball containers you’ll find in The Crescent are the result of the four other techniques used to make our mums look good. Each container contains eighteen to sixty plants that are pinched twice a year to obtain those enormous colorful balls!

When you visit, make sure to visit the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden to see the cascading mums, a tradition that has endured for more than twenty-five years!

Also, keep an eye out for mums in the Circle, Sensory, and English Walled Gardens as well as a new fall feature in the Heritage Garden!

Grow your own

Fall planted mums rarely survive winter because their root systems aren’t well developed. Start with healthy, hardy mums in spring, after danger of frost has passed. Plant them somewhere that they’ll get at least three hours of sun. If you want bushier mums, pinch once in early June and later in mid-July. The later you pinch mums, the later they flower, so if you have a cool summer and want later mums, give an extra pinch in the beginning to middle of August. If you wish to fertilize, one to three times throughout the season will be enough for most mums. As for which mum to plant? Tim Pollak suggests the Igloo series.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Home on the Prairie

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 12:28pm

A delicate prairie bush clover extends its pink flowers toward the sun, like an early settler attempting to plant a flag on a piece of land to call home. Competition for space is intense where the native herb stands on one of the state’s last remaining prairie landscapes, Nachusa Grasslands, located in north-central Illinois.

The species’ juvenile plants must establish themselves rapidly to avoid being overtaken by dominant native grasses, such as little bluestem. Even if the wispy young herbs live to maturity, they may still struggle to survive the often deadly wake of litter the grass leaves behind.

 A view of Nachusa Grasslands taken from Dr. Vitt’s field site.

A view of Nachusa Grasslands taken from Dr. Vitt’s field site. Photo by Pati Vitt.

Chicago Botanic Garden conservation scientist Pati Vitt, Ph.D., has been studying the rivalry between the prairie bush clover and grass species at Nachusa over the past 14 years. Also the curator of the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank, she has seen the herb species’ population rise and fall.

 A tiny, spindly stalk of prairie bush clover in spring.

Prairie bush clover ( Lespedeza leptostachya) grows at Nachusa Grasslands.

In Illinois, Nachusa Grasslands is one of the few remaining places where prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) can still be found. The issues it faces there are not unusual to the species.

“It is a unique component of this very small subset of North American grasslands that exist nowhere else,” said Dr. Vitt. “Its presence is an indicator of high-quality, well-managed gravel hill prairie. It serves to increase the biodiversity of those types of habitats.”

After years of working to define the ideal environment for the prairie bush clover and getting to know its adversaries, she feels it is time to bring in the big guys.

Bison, 2,000-pound behemoths that are naturally adapted to Midwest weather and vegetation, will soon be arriving to help save the tiny plant. The rust-colored creatures, standing up to 6½ feet tall at the shoulder, are rather particular grazers, explained Vitt. Unlike cows, which graze broadly and without much discretion, bison selectively eat grass. That makes them the perfect friend of the prairie bush clover, which, Vitt has documented, needs a little more room to grow on the limited rocky portion of the 3,000-acre prairie it calls home.

Vitt spent much of her summer at Nachusa, a preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy in Illinois. She was hustling to document the status of prairie bush clover populations there before the arrival of a herd of bison in the fall of 2015.

 Little bluestem grass in seed.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a native grass.

Each morning of research she and her team, which included an REU intern, fellow Garden scientist Kay Havens, Ph.D., and additional technicians, were out in the field at daybreak. They worked in teams of two to count and identify all of the plants associated with Lespedeza leptostachya in six plots where it grows. They also took soil samples and did nutrient analysis to measure elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Lastly, they documented the slope of the land on which the prairie bush clover plants grew, and the aspect—the incline and direction at which they faced the sun. The team spent evenings at their temporary residence inspecting more challenging plants under a microscope to confirm the species identification. All of the data they gathered was recorded into GPS units and later downloaded into a database.

What did they find? Prairie bush clover performs best in soil that has 75 percent versus 82 to 89 percent sand, though all populations grow on soil with low organic matter. It suffers where levels of grass, and especially the litter the grass produces when it dies back each year, are high.

These findings support her research from previous years. Vitt studied the before-and-after status of the species during a one-year trial run with a cow as a grazer. She also investigated the impact of fire as a management tool.

“The more [grass] litter there is, the fewer seeds the [prairie bush clover] plants produce, which is both a function of size and probably nutrient status,” she explained. “Litter may not only serve to suppress the growth of the plant, but because it is carbon heavy it may actually decrease the available nitrogen in the soil.” One of the benefits of prairie bush clover, she theorizes, is that the healthy plants add nitrogen to the soil. That is an asset for surrounding plants.

A research plot where little bluestem is growing over smaller prairie bush clover plants. Photo by Pati Vitt.

A research plot where little bluestem is growing over smaller prairie bush clover plants. Photo by Pati Vitt.

When alternated with fire, grazing is a natural and effective management tool, noted Vitt. Fire, she explained, decreases the biomass of grass above soil, resulting in less grass litter. At the same time, it encourages new growth by stimulating meristems in the roots below the soil—areas where new cells are produced. After fire, said Vitt, clumps of grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) tend to be larger. However, when they are also grazed, those clumps are less dense, and therefore less discouraging to growth of the prairie bush clover.

Vitt has collected seeds on other prairies in the Midwest where bison have been present. “I’ve seen firsthand how bison graze, and I’ve seen the results of bison grazing versus cattle grazing,” she said. “When they [the Conservancy] decided that they were going to release the bison, for me that was very exciting. It’s kind of an affirmation of the work that I’ve done there, and that’s really great. I can see the benefits of the management and I have every reason to conclude that it’s going to increase the population viability of Lespedeza leptostachya.”

Bison will soon graze the vast prairie. Photo by Pati Vitt.

Bison will soon graze the vast prairie. Photo by Pati Vitt.

Vitt is back at the Garden now, sorting through the data she collected this summer and writing about her findings. These data are essential, she said, because she will be back to check on the prairie bush clover after the bison have settled in. She is also planning for future experiments, such as building habitat models for prairie bush clover using remote sensed data.

For a little plant that exists in only four states and is federally threatened, a hero can come in many forms.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

Traveling Down the Glacier

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 8:58am

There’s more to the new North Branch Trail addition than meets the eye.

It’s a great story to tell the kids or to share with a biking buddy as you try out the North Branch Trail addition. Join us for the grand opening: Saturday, September 13, starting at 2 p.m., with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 2:30 p.m. (Details here.)

 A view from the boardwalk east to Green Bay Road.

A view from the boardwalk east to Green Bay Road

On the surface (literally), it’s a lovely new bike/pedestrian trail that slopes down from Green Bay Road, skirting the north edge of Turnbull Woods and linking up to the outer road of the Chicago Botanic Garden. But dig a little deeper (literally and figuratively), and you’ll find the reason for that slope: the “hill” is actually the remnants of a glacier. Its proper name is the Highland Park Moraine. It’s one of a series of five, collectively called the Lake Border Moraine System, found on the inland border of Lake Michigan.

 The moraines of the region, including Highland Park Moraine.

A helpful map for visualizing the ups and downs of the moraines and the valleys in between. Source: Luman, Donald E., LiDAR Surface Topography of Lake County, Illinois. ©2013 University of Illinois Board of Trustees. All rights reserved. LiDAR map courtesy of the Illinois State Geological Survey.

Flashback to geology class: a moraine is a giant accumulation—a ridge—of clay/sand/gravel pushed forward by the leading edge of a glacier, then left behind as it shifts its motion and melts/recedes. Moraines vary in sizes and heights.

Glacial ice that once covered northern Illinois began to recede about 14,000 years ago, leaving the five moraines, like scallops in the landscape, with the oldest to the west, the youngest to the east.

Oldest and furthest west is the Park Ridge Moraine; to the east of it is the Deerfield Moraine. The lowland between them is the west fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. Third is the Blodgett Moraine; its creation dates back to 13,000-plus years ago. The valley between it and the Deerfield Moraine is the Middle Fork branch of the Des Plaines River. Next comes the Highland Park Moraine, formed about 13,000 years ago; Green Bay Road was built along its crest. The Chicago Botanic Garden lies in the Skokie River Valley between the Highland Park and the Blodgett Moraines. Finally, a bit north and east lies the Zion City Moraine, the youngest of the five.

As if all that isn’t cool enough, the Highland Park Moraine is also a mini-section of the Eastern Subcontinental Divide: water from the Highland Park Moraine drains toward Lake Michigan (Great Lakes watershed) on the east side, and into the Skokie River Valley (Mississippi River watershed) on the west side.

 A chart showing the geological specifications of the Highland Park Moraine.

Most people are familiar with the Continental Divide near the middle of the country; a secondary divide travels along our edge of Lake Michigan.

Planning & Planting

 Lake sedge (Carex lacustris).

Sedges do well in spring rain/flood conditions, helping dissipate water through respiration.

Planning for the new bike/pedestrian path included much deliberation about the plants that were already growing at the site.

As construction neared, ecologist Jim Steffen reached out to Glencoe Friends of the Greenbay Trail and Betsy Leibson, who heads up the all-volunteer group, which is dedicated to restoring the sections of the Green Bay Trail bike path that run through their town (and ours).

Steffen offered to donate hundreds of sedges (Carex pensylvanica and Carex hirtifolia) that were in the path of construction—and then helped Leibson and volunteers dig them up for transplanting along their trail. The sedges are reportedly thriving. GFGT showed their appreciation in such an appropriate way: see their July 14 post about it here.

 

 Bike.5 Reasons to Love the North Branch Trail Extension

  1. It’s safe (for all the bike riders who’ve wobbled in a vehicle’s wake on busy Lake Cook Road!).
  2. It’s ADA-accessible: 10 feet wide, smoothly paved, and appropriately inclined.
  3. It’s convenient for pedestrians heading to and from the Braeside Metra train station.
  4. It’s family-friendly for strollers and toddlers, and shepherding groups of kids toward the Garden.
  5. It’s the long dreamed-of and anticipated mile-long missing link between Cook County’s North Branch Trail and Lake County’s Green Bay Trail.

Become a Bicycling Member!

How smart is this? A special membership for those who ride their bikes to the Garden instead of driving. With plenty of perks included (discounts, member magazine, tax deductibility), but sans parking privileges, it’s a sensible and cost-efficient (just $50 annually) way to show your support for the Garden.

 Happy bikers.

Become a bike member of the Garden!

A bike membership makes a great gift for the bikers in your life, too.

Check it out here!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Damselflies 101

Sat, 09/06/2014 - 9:30am

The Chicago Botanic Garden is a great place to find damselflies. You can find them in every location here, and different locations will often yield different species.

 Rare form of male Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the rare form of the male eastern forktail damselfly. You can see what looks like an exclamation point on its back, similar to the fragile forktail damselfly. ©Carol Freeman

For example, you might find stream bluets along the river and orange bluets hanging out on the lily pads. Most species measure about an inch in length and can be easily overlooked, but when you take time to slow down and search for these tiny gems, you will be rewarded with finding some of nature’s most beautiful hunters. Indeed, these tiny insects are fierce hunters—but don’t worry, as they neither bite nor sting humans. Their preferred food choice is other, smaller insects (including mosquitoes).

The main differences between dragonflies and damselflies are their size and wing positions. Damselflies, in general, are smaller, and hold their wings over their abdomens. Dragonflies tend to be larger, with a heavier body, and hold their wings out to the side.

The most common species around here is the eastern forktail damselfly. Identifying them can be tricky, as they come in several different varieties! The males and females look very different from each other, and the females change color as they age.

 Male Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the most common coloring for the adult male eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). Note the blue on the end of the abdomen. ©Carol Freeman

 Immature female Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is a young female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). She will turn a light, powdery blue as she ages. ©Carol Freeman

 Female Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the most common coloring of the adult female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). ©Carol Freeman

 

 Male Fragile Forktail damselfly.

This is an adult male fragile forktail (Ischnura posita) — similar to the rare form of the eastern forktail. Keep your eyes open for this one, as they often fly near the eastern forktails. ©Carol Freeman

I like to get out early in the morning. The light is low, there is often dew, and the insects move a bit more slowly until they warm up. One of my favorite places in the Garden to photograph damselflies is in the Dixon Prairie. They like to hang out on the grasses there. Walking slowly on the path next to the plants, you will see what look like tiny flying sticks. Damselflies will often congregate in one area and, if disturbed, sometimes land just a short distance away. I like to use my 105mm or 200mm macro lenses to photograph these beauties. They will fly until the first really hard frost. There are dozens of species native to this area—all of them beautiful and fierce hunters. 

 An adult female Eastern Forktail damselfly eating another insect.

Here is an adult female eastern forktail damselfly with her catch of the day. ©Carol Freeman

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A French landscape architect in Chicago

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 10:12am

I am a July 2014 graduate of the National School of Landscape Architecture of Versailles in France, where I studied landscape architecture for seven years. I like this field because each project is different, and we can work on different kinds of spaces and scales; park and garden projects, or public space (square, street, district) studies for cities or larger territories. For my diploma, I worked on a landscape project for salt marshes in a huge area in the south of France.

 Maxime Soens with the Fruit & Vegetable Garden terraces.

Standing on the bridge to the Fruit & Vegetable Garden; terraces and apple trees as a backdrop

I chose to do an internship here in the United States to learn more about plants and the American garden culture. This internship was initiated by the French Heritage Society, which has organized student exchanges between France and the United States for the past 30 years. I am here through a partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Ragdale Foundation, an artists’ community in Lake Forest.

I spent four weeks at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden working under that garden’s horticulturist, Lisa Hilgenberg. The team was great, and it was a really interesting experience to discover new vegetable species or new ways of maintenance. I have done similar internships before, like in the kitchen garden of the King in Versailles, or at Potager du Roi, but those were not educational vegetable gardens like the one here in Glencoe. The Chicago Botanic Garden is wonderful, and I appreciate particularly the quality and variety of its vegetal compositions. Generally, I’m very impressed by the work of American gardeners and landscape architects. They are perfectionists. 

 The Grand Square of Potager du Roi.

The Grand Square of Potager du Roi. This three-hectare garden is composed of 16 squares bordered by espalier pear trees that are grown upon support frameworks. The majority of the garden’s vegetable plants is located within this area. « Potager du Roi » par Paris HistoireTravail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was not at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I worked at the Ragdale House to help with the volunteer gardeners. It’s a historic garden designed by the famous architect Howard Van Doren Shaw at the end of the nineteenth century. Uses of the garden have changed since then, and there are different kinds of challenges for the maintenance today. I was asked to design a project for the garden as part of my internship. During this process, the prairie was a source of inspiration for me, as it is a typical landscape of Illinois. My main goal was to find a new link between the house, the garden, and the prairie, and I chose prairie native plants for a lower maintenance in the flower beds.

 Maxine's presentation for Ragdale.

The finished project/proposal for Ragdale is displayed at its Benefactors’ Garden Party. Low-maintenance native plants create a link between the house, the garden, and the prairie.

My stay at Lake Forest and Glencoe was an enriching exchange with the gardeners and the artists, and I hope that it will be the beginning of a new relationship in the coming years.

Maxime Soens
Paysagiste DPLG

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Late summer comes to the Bulb Garden

Sun, 08/31/2014 - 8:30am

One should never assume that this late in the season we are done with blooming bulbs—that simply isn’t the case. There are still plenty of bulbs blooming their hearts out! Summer annual bulbs like dahlias, cannas, and begonias are still blooming like crazy, and several unusual perennial bulbs are just starting their show.

 Bulb Garden path.

Annual bulbs such as Dahlia help carry the Graham Bulb Garden through the summer.

Lycoris have many common names—surprise lily, magic lily, naked ladies, and several more—which allude to the fact that these flowers spring forth from bare ground with no leaves in sight. (They leaf out in spring without blooming and then go dormant; blooms appear in fall as a single stalk appears from the bare ground where the bulb resides.) There are currently two species blooming in the Graham Bulb Garden. Lycoris chinensis has beautiful golden-yellow flowers, and Lycoris incarnata has pale pink flowers striped with magenta, giving it the common name of peppermint surprise lily. 

 Magic Lily (Lycoris chinensis)

Magic lily (Lycoris chinensis)

 Peppermint surprise lily (Lycoris incarnata)

Peppermint surprise lily (Lycoris incarnata)

Autumn squill (Scilla numidica) is a rarely-seen relative of the spring blooming Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). It features soft pink wands of flowers that will gently reseed to form a colony.

 Autumn squill (Scilla numidica).

Autumn squill (Scilla numidica)

Alstroemeria ‘Sweet Laura’ is a hardy relative of the ever-popular florist alstroemeria. The yellow-and-orange blooms begin in July and persist for weeks. Just like their cultivated relatives, these make excellent cut flowers.

 Alstroemeria 'Sweet Laura'.

Alstroemeria ‘Sweet Laura’

The shadier parts of the Bulb Garden aren’t being left out this late in the season, either. Annual bulbs such as Begonia ‘Million Kisses Honeymoon’ and Caladium ‘Raspberry Moon’ help light up a dark area under the crabapples (Malus ‘Selkirk’). And containers spill over with a cascade of blooming bulb varieties.

 Bulb Garden path.

Begonia ‘Million Kisses Honeymoon’ and Caladium ‘Raspberry Moon’ light up the right side of the path, while wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) helps hide the bare stems of the lilies on the left side.

 

 Container garden featuring a mix of bulbs.

Bulbs even work in containers! This container in the Bulb Garden features a mix of annuals: Scaevola aemula ‘New Wonder’, Lantana ‘Little Lucky Red’ and Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’ with a pair of smaller-scale bulbs, Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’ and Oxalis adenophylla.

There is still a lot going on in the Bulb Garden, and there is still more to come!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Interns Harvest More Than Veggies

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 8:30am

A summer spent at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden is full of little joys and big surprises.

Interning at Windy City Harvest, we (Lesley and Rachel) started our time with grand plans to become farmers, urban agriculture pioneers, business owners, and horticulturists. We thought a summer at the parent organization—the Chicago Botanic Garden—learning about a vast collection of fruit and vegetable plant varieties would be a good way to jump-start our careers in the field.

But the weather and the Garden had a much different education for us in mind.

 Fruit and Veg interns Leslie and Rachel

Fruit & Vegetable interns Leslie and Rachel weeding the beds

The summer’s weather has been very cool and wet: this is not ideal for some of the fruiting crops that most people prize. Cucumbers and squash are everywhere and right on schedule, but the bright red, heavy tomatoes we love to harvest this time of year are taking a bit longer to ripen in the cooler weather. And yet, the cooler weather has brought visitors to the Garden in friendly droves. These visitors (avid gardeners, young children, families, and globetrotters) have encouraged us to keep the garden in good shape throughout the season, and shared their own sense of wonder about fruits and vegetables.

Although the Chicago Botanic Garden has a separate garden—the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden—dedicated to working with children, many families bring their children to visit the Fruit & Vegetable Garden while they are here because of the broad range of fruit and vegetables we have on display. They can also learn about bees or growing watermelons. They may even spot toads here and there, if they have a quick eye.

 Potato flower (Solanum tuberosum 'Kennebec')

Can you identify this gorgeous bloom? Its tubers are a staple food crop.

Both of us have enjoyed showing children how carrots and potatoes grow, since those plants, specifically, look very different when they are growing than when they are on a plate. Getting the chance to talk to children about food and farming has affirmed our commitment to the work that lies ahead. Sharing our knowledge about growing healthy, sustainable food is one of the most important skills that we can develop as future farmers.

One warm July day, a group of 7- and 8-year-olds walked into the garden, where we happened to be cultivating “the three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash). They stopped in their tracks, entranced by the long ears of corn. “Do you know where popcorn comes from?” Rachel asked. The curious kids looked at one another, shrugged, and all eyes turned to the apprentice farmer. She asked the children to look around and spot the plant that might be responsible for the delicious snack. Suddenly, it dawned on a few of them, and they jumped and pointed, “It’s the corn! It’s the corn!” The corn plants took on a new significance when we were able to put them into context.

 Popcorn cob

The discovery of how favorite foods grow brings delight in the garden.

The diversity of plant life in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden attracts some of the most inquisitive, passionate, and skilled gardeners from around the globe. Patrons are constantly asking us questions about plant varieties, weather patterns, soil amendments, and why our eggplants don’t look like their eggplants. They want to know what cardoons taste like, or where we sell the gigantic Zephyr squash.

 Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

A highlight of the vast collection displayed at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, the cardoon. Is it a thistle or an artichoke? A little bit of both—and edible!

On a particularly lovely early morning, a couple from England pulled us aside and shared what they’ve been growing in their allotment garden across the pond. They were inspired by the fruits and vegetables they saw in the garden and wanted to share and compare notes about their own bounty at home.

“Have you ever made beetroot chutney?” they inquired. We looked at each other and shook our heads, but we wanted to know more. We had never heard of the recipe but were certainly intrigued by the sound of it. The couple explained that it was a savory dish consisting of sautéed beets, onions, herbs, and vinegar—lovely as a condiment or side dish. We were both inspired to call beets “beetroot” and make beetroot chutney after that conversation.

Herein lies one of the greatest gifts of our internship: we have been able to learn from experts, share knowledge with visitors, and get a lot of hands-on experience. We thought we might have a difficult time adjusting to the early morning hours and manual labor, but the joy we have experienced has definitely made it worthwhile. Our paths have crossed with so many interesting and amazing people—all in the name of fruits and vegetables.

Both of us are former educators who value the gifts of teaching and learning. Our previous classrooms had four walls that bound us to a specific space. We continue to teach and to learn. But our classroom looks a little different—no walls, open space, tons of possibilities—the Garden.

 Girls gather in the vegetables on a field trip to Fruit & Veg.

There is much knowledge to share about growing fruits and vegetables—for experienced pros and newcomers alike.

These experiences are not only for Windy City Harvest interns. Hop on your bike, take a walk, and plan a visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden or your local farm and talk to your gardener!

 

Lesley Grill
Rachel Schipull

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Today’s Harvest: Tomatoes

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 10:28am

Tomato-licious!

See what we’re harvesting just in time for Heirloom Tomato Weekend, Saturday & Sunday, 11a.m. to 4 p.m.

 An infographic on tomatoes.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Team Behind the GardenGuide App

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 8:37am

The secret is out; visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden have unprecedented access to plant information, guides, and tours through a groundbreaking smartphone app, called GardenGuide, launched last year. Garden staff and volunteers used their skills and savvy to squeeze interactive maps, audio guides, points of interest, and botanic details on more than 10,000 plants into an application that sits in the palm of your hand. How did they do it, and what keeps the wheels turning?

Dorothy Peck, volunteer team leader at work.

Dorothy Peck, volunteer and team leader, at work

The ability to access this information in real time during a Garden visit is what makes the app so special, according to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation. He said that people “look down at the app, they see what they need to see, and then they are back to experiencing the Garden, just as we had hoped.” In addition, photos and plant information are frequently being added, so there is always something new to discover.  

Before new data and photos were added to the plant collections database, Tankersley and his team upgraded their long-time plant collection’s database to include 37 new information fields that would work well with the app, from soil type to bloom time to sun requirements. Many of the fields were added as check boxes, to make them easier to sort through with the app. It was then that he recruited another 80 volunteers to help gather and enter all of that new information.

As the project progressed, a new team of highly specialized volunteers came together to help build the data that is shared via the app. A group of 20 volunteer photographers captured digital images to accompany each species listed, under the direction of their team leader, Dorothy Peck. A group of 12 volunteers, led by team leader Glenn Kohlmeyer, scanned plant information slides researched by Richard Hawke, the Garden’s plant evaluation manager. Under Tankerley’s watchful eye, another 20 volunteers researched and input key facts about the plants. Perhaps furthest under the radar, was the smallest group of volunteers who handled the intricacies of GIS mapping with guidance from Veronica Harry-Jackson, a Garden GIS specialist. “We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated staff and volunteers,” said Tankersley.

“It was a Garden-wide project which was fantastic,”
said Van Deraa

The process to create the app began more than two years ago, when project manager Cheri Van Deraa, the Garden’s director of online marketing, assembled a team including representatives from different areas within the Garden. She led the initial step of researching similar products on the market and incorporating possible features. The list began with the Garden’s plant collections, and grew from there. The planning team considered a growing list of needs that visitors have when they come to the Garden, and included functions to address them. “The visitor needs we documented over time are now being met in this app,” said Tankersley.

John Moore

John Moore, volunteer photographer

Veronica Harry Jackson

Veronica Harry-Jackson with GIS equipment

“We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated volunteers.”

“The basis of the app was the plant collections database, but we realized that people like to find other things at the Garden, so we created a new second database for the app. It has points of interest at the Garden, like water fountains, classrooms, sculpture, the location of the Japanese Garden, and more,” said Van Deraa. Once the two databases were polished, they were worked into the architecture and mapping system for the app software.

The GIS, or interactive mapping function, was also a critical component. Both Tankersley and Van Deraa saw tremendous value in offering the ability for a user to go from their Garden location to their desired destination. “We have a large campus and much to see,” said Van Deraa, who uses the app herself. “I just get a thrill every time I want to find a plant,” she said. “There was an iris I wanted to see in the spring, I dialed it in, and I could just walk right up to it. That was so cool.”

Crested iris on the GardenGuide

For those who are not sure what to look for, there is a feature called What’s in Bloom Highlights. The feature highlights plants in bloom twice each week, with a map that shows the visitor how to walk to them.

Additional functions that were built in include audio tours, walking tours, and Van Deraa’s, favorite—maps leading to ‘secret spots’ such as the quiet bench atop the Waterfall Garden where birds visit early in the morning. “The GardenGuide app was designed to deepen the visitor experience with the Garden,” said Van Deraa. 

Gabriela Rocha and Sil Argentin

Gabriela Rocha and volunteer Sil Argentin

GardenGuide has been in use for nearly a year now, and updates are ongoing. In 2014, the app was awarded a Gold Trumpet by the Publicity Club of Chicago for distinguished achievement. Not resting on her laurels, though, Van Deraa has been focused on updating the software necessary to work with a new Android operating system, KitKat, which is now complete. The next version of the GardenGuide 2.0 is in the works.

Volunteers continue to take and add new photos, and research and input new pieces of information. “Because the Garden is constantly adding new plants to the collection, we are always adding new plants to the app,” said Tankersley. “In the long term, in effect this becomes a digital encyclopedia of plants.” Tankersley hopes to eventually add data on another 46,000 plants that have previously lived at the Garden and may one day return.

Users of the GardenGuide app can be assured that the information in the app has been updated with care by a remarkable team of volunteers and professionals working together.

It’s all there, in the palm of your hand, just waiting to be tapped.

Lunchtime? How about a pickled pepper sandwich?

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 9:30am

Out at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, there’s a whole group of volunteers with really interesting career histories and double-digit years of volunteer service. Larry Aronson is one of them.

You’re likely to find Larry on Thursdays at his favorite volunteer station: the Pepper Discovery Cart. There, he presides over 120 different pepper samples and flavorings. “When I started volunteering 11 years ago, there were four pepper samples and a book on the cart,” Larry says.

 Pepper spices from the Pepper Cart.

Think there’s only one kind of paprika? Think again.

So he made it his mission to add to the cart. Dried peppers, ground peppers, pepper flakes and pepper sauces. Peppers from Brazil and Peru, France and Spain, China and Japan, Africa and South America. Well-known peppers like paprika (the seasoning made from dried and ground pimento peppers) and obscure peppers like Capsicum chacoense (an ancient species).

Ask Larry a question about peppers and he’ll not only have the answer, but he’ll also add a conversation-starting fact or story to go with it. What’s his favorite pepper to eat? It changes over time. The Brazilian malagueta pepper is a current favorite that is “better than Tabasco,” Larry says.

What’s the hottest pepper he’s got? Used to be “Ghost” (Buht jolokia), until he got a sample of Trinidad moruga “Scorpion.” Its heat level is said to be the same as pepper spray—essentially, inedible.

Which peppers does he use in recipes? Cayennes. Jalapeños. Habañeros. Why? “Because they have the most universal and interesting flavors,” Larry says. He should know—he eats peppers every single day.

Speaking of recipes, Larry recommends a favorite resource: Chile Pepper magazine. He owns every issue, and says it has the best recipes in the world.

 Volunteer Larry Aronson at the Pepper Discovery Cart.

Volunteer Larry Aronson at the Pepper Discovery Cart—come and chat with him on Thursdays!

A professional chef and baker on his non-volunteer days (he’s owned 27 restaurants in his six-plus decades of cooking, including Chicago’s My π Pizza), Larry likes to re-create recipes for great food that is new to him. (He’s in the process of writing a cookbook now.)

While talking recipes, Larry mentioned that he had a new favorite sandwich, using his favorite recipe for pickled red peppers. Naturally, we asked if he’d share.

Larry Aronson’s Pickled Red Peppers

  • 1 ounce sugar
  • 1 ounce salt
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spice, tied in cheesecloth
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled, cut into ½-inch slices
  • 1 medium onion, peeled, cut into ½-inch slices
  • Fresh red pimento peppers, cut into ½-inch slices (amount will depend on pepper and jar size; may substitute other sweet red peppers, such as red bells)
  • Fresh red jalapeño peppers, cut into ½-inch slices (amount will depend on pepper and jar size; may substitute serranos)

In a saucepan, bring the first six ingredients above to a boil. Add the carrots to the boiling liquid. When carrots start to soften (test with a fork), remove from boiling liquid.

 Pickled red pepper and turkey sandwich.

Larry’s favorite sandwich: turkey/mayo/pickled red peppers on homemade white bread

Pack carrots, chopped onions, and a mix of 50/50 chopped sweet and hot peppers into sterilized jars. (Follow manufacturer’s instructions for sterilizing jars and lids.) Pour hot pickling liquid over vegetables, filling to ¼-inch from the top of the jar. Seal with sterilized lid and screw top. Let sealed jars cool.

Larry stores his pickled peppers in the refrigerator for several months.

To make a great sandwich: On homemade white bread, spread mayo, then layer with sliced turkey and pickled red peppers.

Alternate serving: Cube fresh turkey and combine with mayo and pickled red peppers as turkey salad. Delicious served with chicken, too!

Our volunteers are awesome.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Underutilized Native Shrubs

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 9:12am

Sometime around midsummer, we all look at our yards, filled in and blooming, and think about designing something new, dividing plants, or perhaps creating a new hedge. 

Attractive native shrubs are often overlooked—and occasionally hard to come by in local nurseries and garden centers—but they are well worth the effort to find. Already adapted to our particular climate and ecosystems, natives simply do well here—and look spectacular. 

Here are five options to consider.

Chokeberry (Aronia sp.)

With a name like chokeberry, people aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to plant this native shrub. It’s unfortunate, because the chokeberry is one of the best shrubs you can grow in Illinois.

 Closeup of chokeberry fruit ripening.

Iroquois Beauty™ chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Morton’) is starting to ripen. The beautiful black fruit stays on the plant longer than some other varieties.

Not to be confused with the chokecherry tree (Prunus virginiana), chokeberry (Aronia sp.) is a fruiting shrub that ranges from 3 to 10 feet tall with red, purple, or black fruit. The name chokeberry comes from the astringency or dryness of the fruit, which may be the result of antioxidants.

There are three main species: Aronia arbutifolia (red chokeberry), Aronia × prunifolia (purple chokeberry), and the most common, Aronia melanocarpa (black chokeberry).

Aronia is an all-season plant. In spring to early summer, the plants become covered in white, apple blossom-like flowers for several days to weeks. The glossy green foliage holds up against extreme heat and drought, and in fall, these great landscape shrubs produce red, purple, or black fruit in combination with orange to red-scarlet fall color.

The fruit attracts birds, though this may often be as late as February depending on Aronia species, food availability, and the density of your bird population. The fruit is also eaten by humans and is popular in Europe. Containing more antioxidants than blueberries and easier to grow, it’s a health food that you should definitely consider adding to your diet! Sweeten the fruit with honey or sugar to make a jam or syrup. I recommend ‘Viking’ for less astringent fruit that is good for harvesting. If fruit doesn’t interest you, consider ‘Professor Ed’ or the Chicagoland Grows variety ‘Morton’, both of which have ornamental fruit, stay somewhat small, and have excellent fall color. Aronia also takes well to renewal pruning if you wish to keep a larger variety at a smaller height.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

 Closeup of buttonbush in bloom.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) flowers are attractive, unique, and somewhat unworldly. These are growing by the water in the Lavin Evaluation Garden.

Wouldn’t you want something called buttonbush in your yard? The white, butterfly-attracting flowers are arranged in little celestial spheres that are 1 to 2 inches in diameter, emerging between late May and late July (depending on the region). After the flowers have finished blooming, spherical seedheads remain on the plant, providing winter interest. Buttonbush tolerates well-drained soil well, but loves it wet—making this an excellent choice for a rain garden plant!

They can grow fast—a 6-inch shrub can easily grow to 5 feet within a few years, and can reach up to 15 feet when fully mature! These shrubs also take well to renewal pruning, if you’d like to keep them short. They typically have a good rounded habit, but if you would like more uniformity, prune them in late winter or early spring.

Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina)

 Sweetfern in the fall.

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) leaves turn russet in the fall. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Use this plant if you want a unique-looking shrub that can tolerate poor—even salty!—soils. Sweet fern has deeply notched, glossy, fern-like leaves that have a sweet fragrance when crushed. It grows to be around 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide with a nice upright rounded habit, but sweet fern can produce large colonies if left to grow wild.

The flowers and fruit won’t make a huge impact in the garden, but the catkins and fruit may be left as one of those subtle garden curiosities you need to go looking for. The leaves are edible, and are sometimes used for tea as well as insect repellant. These shrubs love part shade to full sun spots, and tolerate drought well.

If your soil is fairly alkaline you may wish to avoid sweetfern, though they will tolerate a degree of alkalinity.

My next pick is another “sweet” choice for the native home garden:

Sweet Gale (Myrica gale)

 Sweet gale catkins.

Sweet gale’s (Myrica gale) catkins are certainly attractive, if not particularly showy. You can find a hedge of them in the Native Plant Garden, near the patio.

If you’ve got a sunny to somewhat shady wet area, consider sweet gale for your garden. This native shrub prefers moist areas, but tolerates dryness and even some salt. It even fixes nitrogen in its roots, which can help improve the soil. The plants have an attractive mounded, candelabra-like habit, becoming 4 to 5 feet tall in the landscape. The leaves, which are a glossy dark green to gray-green, are fragrant when crushed. The branches, leaves and cones can be used like hops in brewing beer, and were used extensively before hops were widely available. Though sweetgale is native to North America, the species is also native to northern and western Europe, so it appears in European folklore and carries a history of use as a dye, insecticide, tea, and more!

The flowers appear in summer and are not very showy, but the fruit that comes afterward offers a food source for yellow-rumped warblers on their way south.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

 New Jersey tea plant on the green roof.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) thrives on the green roof of the Plant Conservation Science Center.

New Jersey tea is one native shrub that I hear recommended over and over again, but I can’t recall a time I’ve seen it in a landscape outside of public gardens.

New Jersey tea is a small deciduous shrub that grows to about 4 or 5 feet in height. This nitrogen-fixing member of the buckthorn family grows in open woods and produces leaves that can be dried and used for tea. In fact, its leaves were often used as a tea substitute during the revolutionary war—providing a similar flavor to imported teas, though lacking in caffeine.

New Jersey tea does well in moderately well-drained soils, but it develops a deep root system within a few years so it can withstand drought easily once established. It also provides nectar to butterflies and hummingbirds, acts as a butterfly host plant, and provides food for birds. The yellow twigs that remain in winter can be quite showy, and the white, fragrant flower clusters provide interest in summer.

If you want to make a short but attractive native hedge, start with small plants spaced two to three feet apart. You might also consider Ceanothus ovatus for a hedge that will grow to only 3 feet high.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Herbal Mixology

Sat, 08/09/2014 - 12:28pm

So many great ideas came out of our most recent Herb Garden Weekend (always the fourth weekend in July) in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden! Here are a few to get your taste buds going:

  • Add a bit of mint to a basil pesto (a Chef Series tip)
  • Grow thyme in unexpected flavors: orange, lime, lemon (all are growing in our kitchen herb garden)
  • Dry and mix your own herbes de Provence (check out our recipe here)
  • Infuse lavender blossoms in lemonade (delicious advice from local vendor Three Tarts)

Speaking of infusions, “herb mixologist” Kasey Bersett Eaves had enthusiastic crowds at the demo tent on Saturday and Sunday, as she opened our eyes to the world of herb-infused beverages.

From Garden to Glass

 A sprig of basil tops off a mason jar basil lemonade.

Muddled basil adds a refreshing twist to lemonade.

Just about any herb you’d grow in your yard can be used to flavor drinks. Herbs + fresh fruit = a yummy base for all sorts of hot and cold beverages. Grab what’s in season in the yard and experiment. A few fresh ideas: 

Basil + strawberry
Mint + raspberry
Sage + cherry
Rosemary + watermelon
Lemon verbena + honeydew melon
Thyme + cucumber
Lavender + berries
Dill + lime
Oregano + berries
Cilantro + watermelon
Tarragon + peach

Thirsty for more? Let’s move on to muddling.

Muddling 101

Infusion starts with muddling.

Here’s the first rule of muddling: Don’t overmuddle. Muddling is the process of gently—repeat, gently—bruising the leaves of herbs. As Kasey said, “If you hear the leaves tear, you’re overmuddling.” The goal is to release the fresh, green taste and aroma of the leaves, not to break or pulverize them (think Cary Grant, not Iron Man).

 The Fountainhead Chicago mixologist Kasey Bersett muddles basil leaves in a Mason jar.

Herb Garden Weekend presenter Kasey Bersett Eaves demonstrates proper muddling technique—check out the natural wood muddler.

Here’s the second rule of muddling: always hold your arm at a 90-degree angle, pressing straight down from the elbow through the wrist through the muddler. (What’s a muddler? Read on.) Press down once, release, and rotate the jar a quarter turn. Repeat five more times. Six presses are about right for a single drink—more if you’re making a pitcher’s worth.

Here’s the third rule of muddling: muddlers are very cool. Essentially a press that reaches to the bottom of a glass or pitcher, muddlers can be found at most kitchenware stores, both in hardwood (walnut, maple) and stainless steel versions. Yes, a wooden spoon works, too. Vintage aficionados: look for stainless steel bar sets from the ’50s and ’60s. That big bump at the end of the long swizzle stick is a muddler.

Infusions

Herbal infusions are a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea that’s easy, healthy, and really tasty (hot on the restaurant scene, too). Kasey shared her recipe:

 A mash of water, sugar, watermelon, tarragon, and basil steeps to create a flavored syrup.

A muddle of fruit and herbs, destined to become a tasty beverage.

Herbal Water Infusion

  • Fresh herbs (see list above)
  • Fresh fruit (any but bananas; see list)
  • 2-quart jar or pitcher
  • Muddler or wooden spoon
  • Water

Wash fruit and rinse herbs thoroughly. Place enough herbs inside the jar to cover the bottom. Add about a cup of fruit. (Amounts of both will vary according to taste—feel free to experiment!) Bruise fruit and herb leaves with muddler to release some of the juices and flavor. Do not pulverize! Fill jar with ice and water. Cover and refrigerate for two hours. Strain water into glasses. Refrigerated infusions will keep in the refrigerator up to five days.

Icy & Sweet: Herbal Tea

In summer, iced tea is the beverage du jour. Love sweet tea, but don’t like its sugar? Kasey’s tea recipe uses fresh stevia—an herb that’s 30 times sweeter than sugar—plus other herbs from your garden for a greener version of sweet. Just add ice and a tall glass.

 Mint infuses in a quart mason jar for 24 hours.

An infusion of mint and stevia makes a refreshing, instant herbal tea— just strain and serve over ice.

Backyard Herb and Stevia Iced Tea Concentrate

  • ¼ cup stevia leaves
  • 2 cups water
  • 1½ cups fresh herb leaves (mint or lemon verbena taste best, but feel free to experiment!)

For concentrate: Rinse and drain herbs. Add all ingredients above to a small, nonreactive pot and bring to a boil on the stove. Let boil for one minute; remove from heat. Allow mixture to steep and cool six hours or overnight. Strain cooled liquid into a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator up to one week, or freeze for later use.

To use: Mix 1 cup of concentrate to 3 cups water, or to taste. 

Simple Syrups Rock

“Simple syrups” are called that for a reason: they’re truly easy to concoct. Added in place of sugar to your favorite lemonade, soda, sweet tea, or cocktail recipe, simple syrup is the secret to a full-flavored summer drink.

 Tarragon simple syrup and fresh peaches enliven a sparkling wine cocktail.

A simple syrup drink made with tarragon + peaches + Prosecco = lovely.

Easy Herbal Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup herb of your choice (whole leaves or lightly chopped, packed into measuring cup)

Rinse and drain herbs. In a small, nonreactive pot, stir water and sugar together over heat until sugar dissolves, bringing the mixture just to a boil. Add herbs in, stir gently for 30 seconds, then remove from heat. Let the mixture cool (approximately 30 minutes). Strain.

Store the syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for use within a week to 10 days, or freeze in ice cube trays for convenient later use.

Simple syrups make memorable cocktails. Add a splash of herbal simple syrup to a champagne flute before topping off with Prosecco or dry white wine for a cheers-worthy toast. Or enjoy your herbs on ice—freeze the syrup in ice cube trays (top off each cube divider with a small herb leaf for garnish before freezing) and use as a sweetener for iced tea or cocktails. Imagine a glass of bourbon that slowly becomes a mint julep because you added minty simple syrup ice cubes! 

 An array of cocktail mixers and cocktail recipe books.

Stock the hippest minibar in town—yours—with your own herbal elixirs, concentrates, and simple syrups from the Garden Shop.

Interested in dabbling in the cocktail arts yourself? Kasey recommends The Home Distiller’s Handbook as a good starter guide. Find drink enhancers and more at the Garden Shop, including elderflower and rose elixirs, and the mysterious Owl’s Brew tea concentrate—best with bourbons and whiskeys. Cheers!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Roof to Table

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 3:05pm

In 2013, a partnership between SAVOR and Windy City Harvest replaced roof garden at McCormick Place with vegetables. Farm coordinator Darius Jones estimates the 2014 season will yield 18,000 pounds of produce. Read about this story and other successes in Roof to Table (PDF) from Landscape Architecture Magazine’s August issue .

 Ryerson University’s green roof transformation.

Ryerson University’s green roof transformation. Photo ©2014 Vincent Javet, Affiliate ASLA, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.

Click here to download a PDF of the full article.
Read the article online at Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Article by Lauren Mandel, Associate ASLA
Copyright © 2014 Landscape Architecture Magazine

Today’s Harvest: Berries

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 8:48am

 Blueberries.

New Link

Berries abound in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden!

What can bramble fruits do for you? Blackberries, raspberries, loganberries, lingonberries, boysenberries, and well, a decidedly non-brambley blueberry are the topic of our latest Today’s Harvest veggiegraphic.Infographic on berries

Exuberant Summer Evenings

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 9:08am

The long summer days of August are a treasure In the Chicago area.

For some parents of toddlers and young children, however, the late afternoon can seem to stretch on endlessly. What is a mom or dad to do after a long day of work, when it is not quite bedtime, and the kids seem to have enough energy to run around the block several more times?

 A smiling girl holds her completed Garden Bingo sheet and a fistful of candy.

An afternoon win of Garden Bingo is even sweeter with an evening picnic.

Come to Dancin’ Sprouts at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Every Wednesday in August, a different kid-friendly band strikes up the music on the Esplanade, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Children and their grown-up friends fill the grassy area with blankets, chairs, and high energy. Each group engages these young, enthusiastic audience members, and the children are dancing, singing, jumping, hopping, and smiling from ear to ear.

Against the backdrop of Smith Fountain and the Garden lakes, the sun sinks in the sky, and the children skip and dance until they’re just about ready for bed. The parents and caregivers can head home knowing they’ve spent a summer afternoon just as it should be spent!

There are still four weeks of concerts left this summer (here’s the schedule)! Grab a few friends and make it a Dancin’ Sprouts picnic party!

 A dad dances with his daughter, who is amazed by some bubbles in the air.

The dancing is great here—the bubbles are the icing on the cake.

While you’re planning your Garden visit, don’t miss the Summer Family Fun Pack, which includes parking as well as admission to Butterflies & Blooms and the Model Railroad Garden for up to five people!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Rescuing Local Ravines

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 11:00am

At first, the tree-shaded ravines near Lake Michigan look inviting, a place of filtered sunlight in the Chicago area’s North Shore. But the ravines—with homes built on the bluffs above them—are in trouble.

Overgrown with invasive plants that block the sun, the ravines are losing the native plants that help keep their soil from washing into Lake Michigan. Although some erosion is natural, the rate of erosion is accelerating, partly because of runoff from urban areas atop the ravines. The Chicago Botanic Garden and the Park District of Highland Park have stepped in to try to keep the ravines from crumbling any further.

“These are systems that have been beaten up for a long time,” said Rebecca Grill, natural areas manager for the Park District of Highland Park.

 A bike path along the bottom of Millard Park ravine, next to a small stream.

Millard Park is one of the many Lake County ravines that face challenges from erosion.

The Garden and the Park District have put together a scientific research and “ravine trauma” team to help reestablish native plant cover that will slow surface erosion. The team is developing a mix of native seeds that private landowners can sow to help restore vegetation to the slopes of ravine and bluff properties. The seeds will be sold commercially. In addition, the team will provide homeowners with a guide on how to care for the native plants.

“The Garden has a responsibility to partner with our neighboring communities to conserve and protect oases of biodiversity such as those found within the Lake Michigan ravines,” said Bob Kirschner, the Garden’s director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board Curator of Aquatic Plant and Urban Lake Studies. “We’re pleased to be able to pair our ecologists’ knowledge with the Park District of Highland Park’s progressive approach of helping landowners help themselves.”

The project team includes Garden ecologist Jim Steffen. With 25 years of experience, Steffen has worked on other Lake County ravines, where the lake’s cooler, damper air is funneled to create a microclimate not found anywhere in Illinois. (The ravines also are home to some of the state’s rarest plants.) As part of the project, Steffen helped design a seed-trial experiment and develop potential seed mixes.

 Jim Steffen.

Garden ecologist Jim Steffen in the field

For the next three years, the seed mixes will be tested in plots within Highland Park’s Millard Park, one of the district’s four lakefront parks with ravines adjacent to Lake Michigan. (Check pdhp.org for more information.)

After that, the next step will be up to homeowners near the ravines. “We hope to build a better awareness about the potential they have to regenerate the diversity of native plants,” said Grill.

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Victory Garden

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 4:24pm
The Victory Garden is gaining ground again, 70 years after redefining gardening in America. Check out our infographic to learn more.   An infographic about Victory Gardens  

Desert Island Herbs

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 8:40am

In case you missed it, the International Herb Association has named tarragon the herb of the year. “What?” you might be thinking. “What about basil?” 

 Unusual herb cultivars in display pots.

Discover a world of uses for your herb harvest—essential and flavored oils, vinegars, jams and jellies—at Herb Garden Weekend.

Sure, tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) has silvery leaves and an anise-like flavor, but basil is the king of herbs, beloved by all. It’s such a crowd-pleaser that we’re giving away Napoletano Bolloso basil seedlings during Herb Garden Weekend, July 26 and 27, and the rest of the month as well.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink tarragon and the diverse palette of herbs available to modern cooks. The late author and farmer Noël Richardson once wrote, “If we could take only one herb to grow on a desert island, it would be difficult to choose between basil and tarragon.”

How about you? What (culinary) herb would you choose? We put the desert island question to staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden and received colorful, informed, and surprising answers.

 Italian basil in the garden.

Italian basil—and other basil cultivars and species—find their way into the cuisine of many nations.

“Wilson! I’m sorry!”

Basil, it turns out, not only tastes delicious, but might also help deal with the many stresses of island life. Gabriela Rocha Alvarez, plant labeling technician, notes that basil repels insects, has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and could help her keep calm while she’s waiting to be rescued. She would pick the varieties Ocimum basilicum and O. tenuiflorum. “These types of basil need warmth and full sun, and self-seed.”

Sophia Shaw, president and CEO of the Garden, says, “Hands down, basil.” She uses dried and whole fresh leaf basil, and pesto. “I hope my island also has tomatoes and garlic!”

Survivor: Desert Island

Inspired by the practices of many coastal societies, Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, would choose dill (Anethum graveolens). Besides going well with all types of fish and seafood, it’s also a good source of vitamins C and A, and the minerals manganese, iron, and calcium, he says, and the monoterpenes and flavonoids—antioxidants and chemoprotectors—help neutralize the carcinogens found in smoke. “I do love smoked fish,” says Tankersley. “Please let there be driftwood available!”

 Dill plant in bloom with an abundance of yellow flowers.

Beautiful in bloom, dill is delicious as a fresh herb, or use the seeds as part of a pickle.

Dill is also known to help soothe upset stomachs and relieve insomnia. “Although the sound of waves on a sandy beach normally puts me to sleep—I might be a bit stressed if marooned. And dill’s volatile oils have antibacterial properties that could come in handy,” says Tankersley, “if I get injured and need to dress a wound.”

The savory herb also wins a vote from Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, who likes dill for both its flavor and growing habits. “It’s my favorite tasting herb, especially with fish, which I suppose would be a staple of my diet,” she says. “It is a self-sowing annual so I could save seed and grow it again the following year if I hadn’t been rescued.”

 Parsley in a pot.

A mediterranean standard, don’t underestimate parsley—it’s more than a garnish!

It will get stuck in your teeth!

Parsley is the choice of horticulturist Ayse Pogue, who says it reminds her of growing up in Istanbul. “We have many dishes where we mix parsley and feta cheese—pastries, breads, and salads. We also sprinkle it on cold dishes cooked with olive oil and served with parsley and lemon juice.” One such favorite is barbunya.

Pogue appears to have chosen wisely. Parsley is also packed with nutrition—and is used as a natural breath freshener. 

I’d Have the Thyme

Versatility—and a pleasing bloom—makes thyme the herb of choice for Celeste Vandermey, supervisor of plant records. “Thyme adds flavor and aroma to any soup or stew. It is easy to grow and creeps along the ground, producing beautiful little spikes of pink or white flowers,” she says.

 Spearmint in bloom.

A refreshing digestive, mint can be harvested more than once in a season; use it fresh in your mojito, or dried as tea.

 

Mojitos, Mint Juleps, and More

Many refreshing drinks—think iced tea, mojitos, and mint juleps—get some of their cool from mint, the herb of choice of Laura Erickson, coordinator of market sales for our Windy City Harvest Youth Program. “Hopefully, I could bring a hammock and a few good books along, too.”

Herbes de Provence

What about cilantro, chives, rosemary, and sage? What about herbes de Provence, a mixture favored by the French? If you’re interested in learning more about these and other flavorful, nutritious, and potentially beneficial herbs, come to our Herb Garden Weekend, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, July 26 and 27, in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Looking for more herbalicious ideas? Check out our previous posts on herb grill brushes, and a host of flavorful basils for your home garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

True Garden Love Stories

Sun, 07/20/2014 - 10:20am

Of all the summer evening sights at the Chicago Botanic Garden, only one can compete with the flowers: the brides.

38 Weddings at the Garden in 2013!

Beautiful in their gowns, stepping delicately into the Krasberg Rose Garden or walking down toward the fountain at the Esplanade, they trail bridesmaids and tuxedoed men and happy families. As they pass, we onlookers stop in our tracks, smile goofily, gawk unabashedly…and let our thoughts turn to romance.

Over the years, the Garden has been the site of many a romantic story for both staff and visitors.With summer in full swing—and romance in the air—here are a few more of our favorites.

2013: It Takes a Flash Mob

Early on a 2013 summer evening, a seemingly random group of visitors slowly gathered at “the Ken,” the lovely green field with the photo-perfect view of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. As a young couple approached, a few people walked out on the grass, took their places, cued the music, and began to dance. Popping up from benches and stepping out from trees, others skipped into the action…and suddenly the young man of the couple jumped into the flash mob and joined the choreography, while his girlfriend threw her hands up to her face in surprise. 

 A group of people dancing on the Ken, a green field in front of the Japanese Garden.

When the music finished, the crowd of friends and family formed an aisle, and the young man lowered to his knee to propose.

 

 Wedding proposal at the Garden.

She said yes.

2008: Starting off on the Right Track 

The engineers in the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America love to tell the story of the groom-to-be who worked closely with them on a one-of-a-kind, finely-timed marriage proposal.

Strolling leisurely through the Model Railroad Garden with his girlfriend, the thoughtful young man arrived at a pre-determined spot just as a miniature train pulled up (guided by engineers in the wings). Surrounded by a curious crowd (and the wedding party-to-be), he stepped over to the track, reached down to the flower-bedecked gondola car that bore an engagement ring in a box, and dropped to one knee to ask for his lady’s hand. She said yes. 

2005: Where to Hide a Ring in Spring

 Heather Sherwood and husband Tommy.

She said yes—Heather and husband Tommy married in McGinley Pavilion.

Like any workplace, the Garden has its share of romantic stories starring staff, too.

For horticulturist Heather Sherwood, the story began with a memorable date: 5/5/05. She worked late that day, and was ready to head for home when her beau came by and insisted on a stroll around the Garden to see the tulips in bloom. After quite a long walk, they came to the Graham Bulb Garden, where he asked her to look at something strange inside one of the bright red tulips planted there. Leaning in, she saw something…shining. He reached down, pulled out the diamond ring he’d hidden there, and proposed on the spot.

1989: Dedicated to the One I Love

 A tree tag labeled, "Will you marry me?"

When you make a tribute gift of a tree at the Garden, a tree tag marks your personal dedication. See what other tribute dedications you can make here.

It’s 25 years later, but the hybrid paperbark maple tree in the Waterfall Garden that bears the dedication “Will you marry me?” (Scott asked Laura; she said yes) is still called the “marry me tree” by our staff.

(Curious romantic? Find this unusual maple near a bench at the path split between the third and top levels of the garden. In fall, its leaves turn a brilliant red, and in winter, its cinnamon-brown bark peels to reveal beautiful texture amid the snows of winter.)

Sketch by artist Tuki79 of deviantart.com of Chip and Dale Disney chipmunks.Timeless: “Oh No, I Do Insist!”

A former horticulturist recounts having weeks of critter problems in the Heritage Garden, when a man dressed in a chipmunk costume sauntered into her garden, grabbed her, and started dancing. Turned out to be her future husband, who asked her there and then to marry him.

Love: it’s in bloom at the Garden.

Daisy Chain

Music and Dance to Enhance Your Romance

Daisy Chain

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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