What's in Bloom - Fri, 04/19/2013 - 8:00am
Garden Blog - Tue, 04/16/2013 - 10:34am
Is there any more welcome sight than daffodils blooming in the spring? Not to me! I’m thrilled by the sight of these flowers, their colors ranging from the most vivid yellows and oranges to muted pastels to pure white.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, daffodils so captivated the poet William Wordsworth that he wrote “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” a poem celebrating their ability to lift the spirit.
“…A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…”
“…The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company…”
Also enchanted by the flower, the prophet Mohammed reportedly said, “Let him who hath two loaves sell one, and buy the flower of narcissus: for bread is but food for the body, whereas narcissus is food for the soul.”
During the Victorian era, when flowers were selected carefully for their meanings, daffodils conveyed a number of messages, such as friendship, chivalry, and respect. Depending on the context, a daffodil could also signal unrequited love or misfortune. The last two interpretations stem (so to speak) from the plant’s genus name, Narcissus, with its connection to Greek mythology. Most people are familiar with the story of handsome Narcissus, who spurned the affections of the wood nymph Echo and thereby irritated Nemesis, the goddess of revenge; Nemesis doomed Narcissus to becoming so obsessed with his looks that he faded away, reborn as a flower that sprang up beside the pool where he gazed himself into oblivion.
When Wordsworth came upon “A host, of golden daffodils” he marveled, “Ten thousand, saw I, at a glance.” Were the poet to time-travel forward to the twenty-first century and emerge here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, he would no doubt be amazed for many reasons, not the least of which would be the sight of more than 500,000 daffodils. There are 90,000 daffodils on the North Lake’s Bird Island alone, and thousands of others massed on Evening Island and within the Lakeside, Crescent, and Bulb Gardens, among other places. Daffodils are a bright and hopeful beacon of spring, and at the Garden, visitors of all ages, interests, abilities (and centuries) can enjoy 230 varieties of them in all of their forms: trumpet, large-cupped, small-cupped, double, triandus, clyclamineus, jonquilla, and tazetta.
Visit the Midwest Daffodil Society Show, April 27 – 28, for more eye-popping cultivars.
Wander the Garden’s beauty this spring, and keep your favorite Narcissus in your heart. Then, plan for fall and our annual Fall Bulb Festival. Next spring, your landscape will come alive with daffodils, and your heart—like Wordsworth’s—will fill with pleasure at their beauty.
What's in Bloom - Fri, 04/12/2013 - 8:00am
Garden Blog - Wed, 04/10/2013 - 1:53pm
Who doesn’t love a warm winter blanket? With unseasonably cold temperatures continuing into early April, that blanket has been especially welcome this year. If you are like me, though, you just can’t wait for that first day when you lose the covers and open the windows. It is that breath of fresh air that tells us summer is just around the corner.
Our Krasberg Rose Garden is ready for its breath of fresh air, too. All winter, many of our roses have been under their warm blanket of composted horse manure. Compost protects roses from the harsh winter winds and freeze and thaw cycles that can be deadly to many cultivars.
As the hours of sunlight increase and daytime temperatures get warmer, however, we need to start inspecting our roses for signs that it is time to remove the compost and prepare the roses for the beauty yet to come.
The process is fairly straightforward. In late March, or whenever we have had several warm days with limited risk of a killing frost, we use our hands to carefully remove the thawed compost from around a rose bush. We need to inspect several bushes because some areas of our Garden thaw and start actively growing earlier than others.
We look for yellow, bright green or reddish growth around the base of the plant — these are new rose canes. If we do not see any new growth or if new growth is still very small, we may cover the roses for a few more days. The warm compost encourages rose bushes to break dormancy.
However, if we see new growth and it is an inch or longer, then is it time to completely remove the compost and let the canes grow freely. The sooner this new growth begins to photosynthesize in the sun, the healthier and stronger your plant will be the rest of season. Remember that this new growth is very fragile, so we use gentle care when removing the compost.
Once we remove the compost, our team then prunes the canes for optimum health. We first remove any cane that is black or brown — these are dead or dying — and anything that looks diseased.
From there, we prune the shrub until it has five or six healthy, large canes that are at least the diameter of a pencil. The pruning should result in an open center, with the top bud on each remaining cane facing away from the center of the plant. The open center maximizes the amount of sunshine and air circulation within the plant — important components to plant growth and disease prevention.
We also take time to frequently disinfect our pruning tools as we work through this late-winter chore. Tools can easily transfer diseases from one rose shrub to another, so sanitation is very important. Mix a solution of 10 percent rubbing alcohol or bleach and 90 percent water in a spray bottle to spray on your tools.
By taking a few simple steps like these right now, the rose bushes will be on their way to beautiful blooms in June. Now that’s a breath of fresh air.
You can learn more about rose care with a class at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Click here to see what classes are currently available.
Garden Blog - Mon, 04/08/2013 - 10:53am
There is a Native American myth that is believed to have originated with the Onondaga tribe of the Iroquois nation of northeastern North America. It is a creation legend about how the earth (the land) was created. The legend incorporates a number of different animals including swans, pied-billed grebes, muskrats, and many others. The central character in the story is a turtle. The turtle, an island in a world of water, was chosen to carry soil and tree seedlings on its back, which eventually became the land the people lived on. So this story is about preservation and nurturing. Although this legend may have originated with the Onondaga, it is a common myth found throughout many Native American cultures.
The fact that the turtle myth was so widespread across the continent is not really all that surprising when you consider how many different species of turtles there are. There is a turtle species for just about every kind of wetland environment that exists, from sea turtles to bog turtles to river cooters and pond sliders. There are approximately 17 species of turtles native to Illinois and nearly half of those occur at the Garden.
Other than birds, turtles are among the most common animals you are likely to encounter on any given day during the growing season at the Garden. Like the early blooming wildflowers in McDonald Woods, turtles are truly one of the first signs of spring. Soon after the ice melts on our lakes, turtles begin moving from the bottom of the lakes where they spent the winter hibernating. During the dark days of winter under the ice, turtles are able to slow their bodily functions down to the point where they can obtain enough oxygen to survive by absorbing it through the mucus membranes and tiny capillaries of their throat and cloaca (the common opening for defecation and egg laying). They also use some fascinating chemistry, part of which involves dissolving calcium from their shells to help neutralize toxic acids that would be fatal under normal circumstances. Still cold and sluggish from their long winter sleep, they begin swimming around near the surface, often poking their heads out to take their first real breath of air since descending to the bottom of the lakes in fall.
Several years ago, I initiated a turtle project with one of the summer interns. We set out to try to determine how many turtles and how many species occur in our lakes. Utilizing a number of different live traps, we were able to count most of the individuals and almost all of the species that can be found here. Over three months, we were able to capture nearly eighty individuals of eight different species.
The turtles can be divided into two general groups, those that like to bask (sun themselves on logs, rocks, or on the shore) and those that rarely bask. The basking turtles are the species most often encountered at the Garden. The most abundant member of this group is the red-eared slider.
This is the turtle of dime-store fame. There was a time when it seemed like every kid had one of these sliders as a pet – do you remember Cuff and Link from the movie Rocky? They are distinctive, with a bright red slash along the side of their heads. Although they are the most abundant species here, they are not native to this part of Illinois. Sliders have been introduced to many parts of the country where they had not previously been found. This is the result of all those dime-store turtles that grew up to be bigger turtles that were eventually released when their owners either ran out of room for them or the appeal of these long-lived animals wore off. Like many introduced species, the slider is aggressive toward our native species and as a result has achieved a dominant place in the turtle population.
The slider is not the only introduced turtle at the Garden. Some other species that can be found here that were not known in the region historically include the three-toed box turtle, the false map, common map, and the Ouachita map turtles.
Releasing pet turtles is not a good idea. The slider has greatly changed the dynamics of natural turtle populations all over the country. Some species, like the box turtles, which are terrestrial species that do not hibernate in lakes, are sometimes found at the Garden only after they have died after not being able to survive the winter here. There is also the possibility of spreading diseases.
The native turtles found at the Garden include the Midland painted turtle, Western painted turtle, stinkpot or musk turtle, spiny soft-shelled turtle, and the snapping turtle. The stinkpot and the snapping turtles are members of that group of more aquatic turtles that do not typically bask on logs or rocks. So although the snapping turtle is a common species at the Garden, it and the stinkpot are not seen nearly as much as the basking species.
Where do these turtles get their names? The map turtle gets its name from the pattern along the underside of the shell and along its neck and head that looks like topographic lines on a map. The box turtle has a hinged plastron (belly) that allows it to pull its head and legs inside the shell and close the “doors” sealing out predators.
Soft-shell turtles have a soft, leathery shell that bends and flexes like an old leather baseball mitt. They have a very low profile and look like a large, olive-colored drab Frisbee when they are basking on the lawn. Painted turtles often have attractive red markings along the edge of their carapace (shell) and plastron. As far as the stinkpot turtle goes, I’ll let you guess why they have that common name. I’m sure that if you do some digging, you’ll be able to sniff out the answer.
The turtles are egg-laying reptiles. Their eggs are probably best described as leathery-shelled ping-pong balls. During the summer, the adult turtles will haul themselves out along the shore and look for suitable places to dig a hole in which to deposit their eggs. At the Garden, turtles often choose to lay their eggs in the mulch around the tree and shrub planting beds, probably because it is a softer, easier place to dig. This egg-laying season is a dangerous time for turtles.
During this time they are out of the water, many encounter predators, and often cross roads looking for
nesting locations. Once the eggs are laid, the turtle covers the eggs with soil and then retreats to the water, leaving the eggs and young to fend for themselves. Usually the eggs will hatch in 45-90 days, but sometimes, for individuals that lay their eggs too late in the season, they may overwinter. Although turtles generally lay a good number of eggs (2-40 or more, depending on the size of the individual and species), the failure of those eggs is high due to predators. Skunks and raccoons are probably the two most frequent predators of turtle eggs, but almost any predator that comes across a nest is likely to take at least some.
What do these critters eat? Most species are omnivores. They eat a combination of plant and animal material. The common map turtle specializes in mollusks, like clams and snails that it crushes with its broad hard mouthparts. The spiny soft-shell is a fast swimmer and often feeds on fish. The red-eared slider is also omnivorous, but tends to become more of an herbivore as it gets older. It should also be noted that turtles perform a valuable ecosystem service as carrion feeders by feeding on dead fish and aquatic animals that would otherwise remain for long periods as they decompose. So you can think of turtles as sort of turkey vultures of the aquatic world – the sanitation squad.
Visitors frequently encounter turtles crossing the road at the Garden during the summer. Although the urge is strong to help the turtle back into the lake, don’t approach them too closely since turtle are very good at defending themselves and have long necks that can dart out and grab anyone or anything that gets too close. Turtles have very sharp-edged mouthparts and once they get hold of something, they don’t let go. Many a dog has lost a piece of its nose when getting too inquisitive about turtles.
If you happen to be visiting the Garden in summer and spot a turtle basking in the sun, try to see if you can figure out which species it is. Perhaps more importantly, if you spot a turtle, try to remember the Onondaga legend and the great responsibility bestowed on it to preserve the land and plants for the people.
What's in Bloom - Mon, 04/08/2013 - 9:03am
Garden Blog - Thu, 04/04/2013 - 10:31am
Niwa ni manabu kotodesu.
To garden is to learn.
That’s why Ivan Watters, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s curator of bonsai, travels to Japan every year to attend Kokufu — the Japan National Bonsai Exhibition and most important bonsai show in the world.
“It’s a true learning experience,” he says. “You pick up technical ideas, artistic ideas, and learn a few bonsai tricks.” For example? “The first branch of an informal upright bonsai should come out of the midline across the front of the trunk. But the unconventional branch on one entry started at the back of the trunk and wrapped around to the side, with a secondary branch positioned to hide the manipulation.” It’s a vivid description, sure to be shared with his bonsai volunteers.
Watters is a long-time member of the Nippon Bonsai Association, the venerable group that sponsors the exhibit. Held this year (for the 87th time) at the recently renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Kokufu brought together 204 of the most outstanding trees in the country, culled from 500 entries. As always, requirements for entry are firm. Trees must reside in Japan (quarantine issues prohibit the Garden from competing) and, if selected, entrants must wait three years to compete again in the show.
This year marked Watters’ 20th year attending the show. What caught his eye this year? One large bonsai that combined nine separate Japanese white pines, each more than 100 years old. “It was the majesty of it,” he remarks, “so beautifully placed in their container.” Also large in scale were several bonsai from the Imperial Palace Collection, holding pride of place at the entrance to the show. Displayed on burgundy velvet cloths, the imperial bonsai befit the proportions of the Imperial Palace — many imperial trees are more than 500 years old and have been in the collection for more than 300 years.
Watters took a side trip to the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama, and to a small exhibit (just eight trees) at a temple celebrating ume season, the flowering of Japan’s plum or apricot trees.
The trip wasn’t all business. Watters also hosted an 81st birthday party for bonsai master Susumu Nakamura at the latter’s favorite eel restaurant, Izuei. Nakamura, the former vice chairman of Kokufu, donated 19 of his trees to the Garden’s collection in 2000. (Only one other donated tree has come to America, at the United States Botanic Garden.) On this latest trip to Japan, Watters gifted Nakamura with a copy of the Garden’s newest publication, Bonsai: A Patient Art. The beautifully photographed book illuminates the intricacies of bonsai in both art and history. Most of the trees that came from Nakamura are included in its pages, including an extremely fine example of a formal upright bonsai, the white pine shown here, which has been trained for at least 100 years.
This spring, Watters and his volunteers are busy repotting more than 100 bonsai trees in preparation for the reopening of the bonsai courtyards on April 29. Watters is also teaching bonsai workshops. Bonsai Basics on June 1 is a good first class to begin your learning.
Curious about the Japanese trees at the heart of the Garden’s bonsai collection? Bonsai: A Patient Art is available to purchase. This stunning volume presents more than sixty living masterpieces from the Garden’s collection. Board member and bonsai enthusiast Robert H. Malott supported publication of this beautiful book.
Garden Blog - Wed, 04/03/2013 - 9:38am
A race is on in the Colorado Plateau, where native and nonnative plants are battling to out-compete the other and lay claim to the land. In this dynamic location bridging Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, the situation is heating up.
It’s a race scientists are not willing to gamble on. Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is working with a research team to determine how to give native plants the lead.
Since invasive species such as cheatgrass arrived on the Plateau more than a century ago, they have fueled destructive fires and caused numerous other problems, according to Dr. Kramer.
These problems do not deter the expansion of cheatgrass, but they do inhibit many native species. This clears the way for more cheatgrass to grow each year. In this area that is home to numerous native animals including the nearly endangered sage grouse bird, a solution is imperative.
The cheatgrass invasion is an accelerating problem that once seemed hopeless. But now, building on research begun in the Garden’s Plant Production Greenhouse by Becky Barak, currently a Ph.D. student in the Garden’s joint graduate program in plant biology and conservation with Northwestern University, Kramer and her team have learned that native species are not as helpless as they once seemed. Some of them may even be unlikely heroes.
“We’re focusing on the native wildflowers, particularly on the Colorado Plateau because they are so important to the functioning of those natural communities, and because so little is known about them,” said Dr. Kramer.
She has worked with botanists around the Colorado Plateau to identify specific species of native plants, categorized as native “winners,” that have naturally begun adapting to the new circumstances.
Unlike their counterparts in unaltered locations, these species have learned how to grow their roots deeper, faster to access water, or found other ways to gain an advantage. Not only are they capable of surviving in an unnaturally harsh environment, but Kramer believes they could prove to be smart and fast enough to help keep invasive species in check.
In labs at the Garden, she is working with graduate student Alicia Foxx to stage trials between cheatgrass and these plants in conditions nearly identical to those in the Plateau. Kramer’s goal is to identify the strongest native “winners.” Once they are known, she will work with local partners in the west to test the best seeds on the ground in this struggling landscape. Then, they will make sure the seed is available for restoration work — positioning the native “winners” for success.
“Ultimately, we want to get the right seed in the hands of the right people,” said Kramer.
Kramer’s field research began last year, and will resume in coming weeks. On a typical expedition, she flies into the Las Vegas airport — the closest access point to the Plateau. Along with fellow Garden researchers and graduate students, she climbs into a research vehicle and rolls into the field armed with data from the lab, a bundle of tools, and camping equipment. Over a series of days at a range of locations, they meet with local botanists and collect seeds from key locations to take back to the Garden lab for study.
This year, they are eager to return to a site they planted with native “winners” last year, in order to check for progress. The site, called Pine Ridge, experienced an extensive fire in July 2012 when lightning struck an area with abundant cheatgrass.
When compared to lab results, their findings will inform which seeds may go into development for restoration use on the Plateau.
The concept of native “winners” is helpful to many newer research projects in other locations, including Illinois. Another graduate student in the Garden’s program is beginning to apply the process to plants found in Illinois wetlands.
It is this opportunity for collaboration and expansion that most excites Kramer. “It’s a great project because it uses the expertise of many garden research staff members and engages students,” she noted. “We have this in-house expertise in working with the species, the labs here are unique, and the opportunity to engage students is also unique.”
Kramer spent her youth exploring an agricultural area of Nebraska where she grew up. Her love of the outdoors led her to study botany in Minnesota, where she quickly became enamored with prairie plants. At the Garden, she takes every opportunity to stroll the Dixon Prairie. “It’s like revisiting old friends,” she said.
Clearly, Kramer is a good friend to have.
Garden Blog - Mon, 04/01/2013 - 11:30am
Remember when plant-care experts suggested that talking to your plants could make them healthier? New studies indicate that WALKING plants will keep your plants extra healthy, extra happy, and extra green. Perhaps you thought that dog-walking was just for dogs?
At the Chicago Botanic Garden we’ve been walking our plants for years—it’s one of the little-known reasons for our lush foliage and gorgeous flowers. Crews are out at the break of dawn around the Garden walking plants before the crowds arrive.
“All it takes is a wheelbarrow and a little patience,” says horticulturist Heather Sherwood. “I’ve never had a plant refuse a morning walk—but make sure temperatures are above freezing, and even warmer for tropical plants, before you take them out.”
Despite the groundhog’s forecast on February 2, spring’s arriving late this year, and temperatures have remained too cold to walk all but the hardiest native plants. Consider taking advantage of this week’s warmer air to get housebound plants moving now.
“It’s important for plants to get out and moving early in the season,” says plant scientist Dr. Pat Herendeen. “Movement and exercise open the stomata (tiny holes in the leaves that allow gas exchange), letting fresh air into the leaves. It gets the plant breathing and the sugars flowing, which improves their overall condition and promotes healthy flowering.”
Health experts agree that a walk is good for you and your plants alike. For houseplant owners, there are plenty of plant-walking strategies. My neighbor combines the daily duties of dog walking with plant walking in a novel way. He saddles up his dog and attaches his smaller plants to the dog’s back. The two of them draw a lot of attention from other neighbors, and it’s easy to see why!
If you don’t have a dog, you can carry your plants in a backpack, roll them in a wagon, or even pull them on a skateboard. Just getting them moving is the key. I don’t recommend recruiting your cat, however.
Remember for lush green happy plant results—keep those plants moving!
This was posted on April 1, 2013. April Fools!
What's in Bloom - Fri, 03/29/2013 - 8:00am
Garden Blog - Thu, 03/28/2013 - 1:32pm
It’s been a fairly cold and snowy winter in the Chicago area (though some of us longer-term residents might call it rather normal!). But the temperatures now are moderating, and signs of spring are popping up all over. The daffodils are quickly breaking the ground surface, and bits of green are reappearing at the crowns of our native plants.
After last summer’s record-breaking heat and drought, our first thoughts this spring may not be about rain or flooding. But heavy rains are sure to return at some point, and how we manage that water runoff can have a big impact on flooding, on groundwater levels, on water quality, and on the health and beauty of our garden landscapes.
A remarkably simple and effective approach to capture excess rain water is rapidly gaining popularity, especially in residential settings. Rain gardens are aptly named, nifty landscape features that capture rain water traveling across a lawn before it reaches a waterway or storm sewer, allowing much of that water to percolate down into the soil. Rain gardens truly are a win-win-win trifecta: 1) they help reduce flooding (and recharge ground water) by allowing more rainfall to soak into the ground; 2) they improve the quality of water reaching our streams and lakes by slowing the runoff and allowing soil particles and related contaminants to settle out; and 3) with a little thoughtful design, they become a spectacular native plant garden that’s rich in seasonal color and texture—as well as an important habitat for butterflies, dragonflies, and insects that songbirds love to eat.
Around homes and apartments, a rain garden often is situated downslope of a roof downspout so that it can capture the roof’s runoff water before it reaches the street or storm sewer. Think of a rain garden as a shallow “bowl” depression in the ground, with the downslope lip of the bowl just a bit higher than the surrounding land so that water is trapped behind it. A modestly sized rain garden often can be easily installed as a weekend project: a few shovels, a rototiller to loosen the soil, about 100 native plants, and some mulch are all that’s needed to create a 10-foot by 10-foot rain garden.
The Chicago Botanic Garden advocates the use of native plants in rain gardens including sedges, rushes, grasses, and various forbs (flowering species). Native plants recommended for rain gardens are particularly well-suited for both submerged conditions that occur right after it rains, as well as the dry conditions that develop between rainfall events. These native plants also help support our native populations of wildlife. Chicago Wilderness has great information about using native plants in the landscape.
You can assure yourself (and your neighbors) that there’s no need to worry about your rain garden becoming a breeding site for mosquitos. When installed in soils that drain reasonably well, a rain garden’s standing water will disappear within a day or so (and that’s far shorter than the seven to 12 days needed for mosquitos to lay and hatch eggs).
There are many guides available on how to design, install, and maintain a rain garden, including quite a few on the Internet. One particularly well-written resource was prepared by experts in Wisconsin and is titled “Rain Gardens: A How-to Manual for Homeowners.” This manual provides excellent information about how to site a rain garden in your yard, and suggests good native plants to use for both sun and shade conditions.
You can learn more about rain gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Saturday, June 1, 2013, as we celebrate World Environment Day. A how-to rain garden station will be set up alongside the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society Rainwater Glen at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center.
On a related note: Perhaps you’ve heard recently in the news about the dire situation for monarch butterflies this spring (for example, see this National Geographic bulletin). If you’ve thought in the past about planting milkweed to help the monarchs but still haven’t, 2013 could be an especially important year for you to add some to your garden. The native swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) can be a great rain garden plant!
Garden Blog - Wed, 03/27/2013 - 2:04pm
Spring is here, although it might not feel that way. The days are getting longer and the ducks are migrating through Chicago on their way to the breeding grounds in the north. A few will stay around all summer, but most are here only for a short visit. Now is a great time to see a delightful variety of waterfowl.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is a perfect place for the ducks to stop during their migration. They look for any open water they can find. The south end of the Garden near the prairie is one of the best places to look for them. I take the paths that are closest to the open water, and walk very slowly so as not to alarm them. If I’m careful, the ducks will only swim to the far side, but not fly away. Patience is key. I like to sit down, get very still, and wait for the ducks to get used to me being there. This might take 20 to 30 minutes…did I mention, patience is key! Sometimes I sit for 30 minutes and the ducks never get any closer. Occasionally new ducks will fly in and I can get a few shots before they realize I’m there and swim off. This is what makes duck photography so challenging.
On a recent visit to the garden, I had one of those magical moments that you always wish for as a photographer. I was sitting still, hoping the ducks on the far side of the pond would make their way a bit closer for some photos. As I was waiting, a single resident swan swam straight toward me. So I took a few shots. Then, I noticed one of the ducks starting to follow the swan. Cool! So I took some shots of the duck. Then I noticed that ALL the ducks were swimming in my direction. Wow! I must have had 15 ducks all around me. They apparently deemed me to be okay once their swan friend showed confidence in being around me. They kept a watchful eye, and every time I moved my camera for a shot, the ducks backed off a bit.
Then, just as mysteriously as it came, the swan swam away, taking all the ducks with it, and I was left basking in their trust and in the glow of that moment, realizing just how rare it is and how lucky I was.
Since the ducks are migrating through, I never know what I’m going to see from one day to the next. That is really the fun part for me. In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen hooded merganser, red-breasted merganser, common merganser, lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, redhead duck, coot, northern shoveler, common goldeneye, canvasback, and gadwall.
There will be a stream of ducks from now through April. So get out and see what you can find. And if you are patient and lucky, you might be graced with a magical moment of your own!
Garden Blog - Tue, 03/26/2013 - 3:58pm
A walk in McDonald Woods in late winter or early spring might be uninspiring to many people because of the drab gray trunks of dormant trees and seeming lack of activity. You might see the occasional black-and-white flash of a downy woodpecker flitting from tree to tree, or spot a white-breasted nuthatch as it navigates upside down, probing for whatever bits of protein it might have missed on earlier explorations.
But who would expect butterflies? After all, 80-degree days and abundant flowers overflowing with nectar haven’t even awaken in our minds. But they are here, at least those few species that spend the winter, hidden away as adult butterflies under loose bark, inside piles of brush, or maybe in an old woodpecker nest or hollow log.
Even though I know they are here, it is still a surprise the first warm day in March when I spot a mourning cloak basking in the strengthening sunlight. As I approach for a better look, it is likely to spiral upward, erratically flitting off to another patch of sun.
The mourning cloak, eastern comma, and question mark are three of the common woodland butterflies at the Garden that generate a brew of chemical antifreeze earlier in fall that allows them to survive the coldest weather winter has to offer. Instead of migrating like the monarch or spending the winter wrapped in a chrysalis, these three are adults, wings at the ready to take advantage of the first warm weather of spring.
The lack of nectar-producing flowers this time of the year does not deter them as they are perfectly happy to feed on sap from any of the branches that may have been damaged during winter storms, or drink the fermented liquid oozing from an injured willow or oak tree. Although butterflies are a generally short-lived organism, usually living only a few weeks, these three can survive for eight to ten months.
The dark, purple-brown color of the mourning cloak gives it an advantage at this time of the year. Those richly colored wings, held out to the sides, act like solar collectors absorbing the sun’s energy and passing it on to the body where it raises the temperature of their muscles enough to allow them to fly.
The comma and question mark utilize a similar basking strategy. They often posses sun-absorbing, dark-colored under wings, which, when held closed against their bodies and perpendicular to the sun’s rays, elevate their temperature. The thermal boost gives this group of insects a head start on the season by allowing them to exploit a habitat at a time of the year when there are few other butterflies around to compete for precious resources.
Although these three butterflies are insects, and as you know all insects have six legs, these three belong to a group known as the brush-footed butterflies. They have modified fore legs that are smaller than their other legs and cannot be used for walking.
If you get a chance to get a close look at one of them, you might be surprised to see that they are only standing on four legs. The other two are tucked under their heads.
Next time you think of taking a walk in the dormant woods, pick a sunny day when these not-so-fragile gems might be out and about, soaking up sun and supping on sap.
What's in Bloom - Fri, 03/22/2013 - 8:00am
Garden Blog - Thu, 03/21/2013 - 3:38pm
If you are longing for spring blooms as much as we are, you might like to try forcing branches to bloom indoors! Spring-flowering trees and shrubs form their flower buds in late summer or fall before the plants go dormant for the winter. The buds can be forced into bloom indoors in late winter or early spring.
In order to flower, the buds need to undergo a period of cold. I’m sure you’ve noticed in the Chicago area, we’ve had plenty of cold temperatures this year! Now is a great time to cut branches from spring flowering shrubs for forcing indoors.
Once the branches are indoors in water it may take one to four weeks for the blossoms to open, although two weeks is typical. The closer to their natural bloom time you cut the branches, the sooner they will open.
Prune branches for forcing carefully, using proper pruning techniques, and cutting off only those branches that are not essential to the plant’s basic shape. On a day above freezing, cut branches at least 1 foot long that have plenty of flower buds. Flower buds are usually larger and more plump than leaf buds.
If you are pruning branches just for forcing, try to choose branches from more dense areas of the plant and cut them evenly around the plant, as you will be removing some of its natural spring display. Be careful not to disfigure the tree or shrub. Cut a few more branches than you expect to use, because some may not absorb water properly.
Place cut branches in a container of warm water. Then, while holding each stem underwater, make a fresh cut 1 inch from the base. Cutting stems underwater will help prevent air from entering the stem through the cut end and blocking water uptake.
Remove any buds and twigs that will be underwater in the vase. You may want to add a floral preservative to the container water to help control bacteria.
To start, keep the branches in a cool room out of direct sunlight and change the water every other day. When color appears on the buds or the foliage begins to unfurl, arrange the branches in a vase and display them in a cool room out of direct sunlight.
Some good choices for forcing include serviceberry (Amelanchier), magnolia (Magnolia), flowering quince (Chaenomeles), forsythia (Forsythia), crabapple or apple (Malus), flowering pear (Pyrus), flowering cherry (Prunus), viburnum (Viburnum), cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas), and redbud (Cercis).
Learn more about how to force branches to bloom indoors in this video we taped in 2010 with Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist in the English Walled Garden.
Garden Blog - Mon, 03/18/2013 - 9:17am
Go greener at the holidays this year! With Easter just a couple of weekends away, forgo the food coloring and kits, and go for naturally safe, naturally kid-friendly, and naturally beautiful “homemade” egg dyes instead. Dyes can be used on hardboiled or fancy blown out eggs. Most of what you need is probably already in your own kitchen and pantry.
Step 1: Gather your supplies.
Stainless steel utensils and glass containers won’t stain; always rinse utensils as you go from color to color, so there’s no contamination.
- Pint and half-pint Ball jars or heat-safe glass bowls (the better to watch stuff happen!)
- Non-reactive stainless steel or enamel saucepans
Step 2: Gather your ingredients.
Vegetables, fruits, and spices can all create lovely, earthy colors. Vegetables, fruits, and spices can all create lovely, earthy colors. We hardboiled large white eggs and used plain white vinegar, which helps to set the color. Here are the dozen dyes and “recipes” we tried, in order of color intensity (after about 20 minutes of steeping):
- Beets = Purple. 1 large beet (cut into chunks) + 4 cups boiling water + 2 Tbs. vinegar. Cool and strain.
- Yellow onions = Yellow-orange. Skins only of 6 medium yellow onions + 2 cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.
- Grape juice = Magenta. 1 cup all-natural grape juice + 1 Tb. Vinegar.
- Coffee = Gold. ½ cup ground coffee + 2 cups boiling water. Steep, strain and add 1 Tb. vinegar.
- Red onions = Blue. Skins only of 6 red onions + 2 cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 3 tsp. vinegar.
- Green tea = Light green. 6 green tea bags + 1 cup boiling water. Steep 5 minutes and strain.
- Red cabbage = Pale blue. ½ head red cabbage (cut into chunks) + 4 cups boiling water + 2 Tbs. vinegar. Cool and strain.
- Turmeric = Yellow. 2 Tbs. turmeric + 1 cup boiling water + 2 tsp. vinegar.
- Paprika = Orange. 2 Tbs. paprika + 1 cup boiling water + 2 tsp. vinegar.
- Blueberries = Blue/Gray. 1 cup frozen blueberries + 1 cup water. Let stand ‘til room temperature and strain.
- Carrot tops = Pale yellow. 2 cups chopped carrot greens + 1½ cups water; simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.
- Orange peels = Palest yellow. Peels of 6 oranges + 1 ½ cups water; simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and add 2 tsp. vinegar.
Step 3: Gather your family.
Kids love to color eggs. Guided by the recipes above, experiment with veggie/spice quantities and steep times. The longer you steep, the deeper the color—steeping eggs can even be left overnight in the refrigerator. Hardboil eggs or blow them out:
- Use a heavy needle or bent paperclip to poke holes in each end of a fresh egg.
- Wiggle the needle around inside to pierce the yoke.
- Blow strongly through one hole, collecting the contents from the other in a small bowl.
- Rinse eggs thoroughly inside and out.
- Don’t waste your egg contents—scramble them or use in baking.
Kids with the urge to decorate can:
- Wrap rubber bands around eggs before dyeing for striped designs.
- Wrap onion skins around eggs and secure with rubber bands for marbled looks after coloring.
- Write names, etc. in wax crayon on eggs before dyeing: magic!
Step 4: Embrace the imperfect!
Naturally dyed eggs sometimes splotch or dye unevenly—we had great success with beets and green tea, but our paprika-dyed egg looked marbled and our orange peel dye gave up just a tinge of color. Nonetheless, all look beautiful in an Easter basket!
We loved the look of natural-colored, shredded kraft paper with white baskets. Tell us below: How did you display your naturally dyed eggs?
Enjoy brunch and an Easter egg hunt at the Garden and spend the rest of the day viewing all that spring has to offer.
Garden Blog - Sun, 03/17/2013 - 8:34am
With just two months to go until the Model Railroad Garden opens, one dedicated group of volunteers undertook a big job this week: cleaning and retouching the 500+ miniature figurines that accessorize the garden’s landmark buildings.
Led by Becky Maganuco, volunteers got out the toothbrushes and toothpicks, the glue and the triple-zero paintbrushes, and set to work.
Over the course of several days, they washed (the cars, trucks, and tractors were especially dirt encrusted), touched up paint (eyes and eyebrows are the trickiest), and glued back the tiny hands and feet that are inevitably broken (weather, errant human footsteps) during five months spent outdoors in the Model Railroad Garden.
I always look forward to the May days that Becky and fellow miniaturists, many of whom are members of Northbrook’s North Shore Miniature Society, accessorize the garden. It takes them a couple of days to layer in all the right details: the barber pole on Main Street…the sunbathers and sailboaters on Cape Cod…the lone wolf and the bears in Yellowstone National Park…even Bo the dog at the White House.
Their work makes the buildings come to life, and never fails to delight—key factors in a garden that’s especially for children, for whom the magic and humor of the small will always trump the realities of life-sized.
There’s a practical side to their miniature work as well: “Visitors take close-up pictures and use telephoto lenses a lot in this garden, so it’s nice to make the details look a little more real,” says Becky.
What’s new for 2013? Volunteers are mulling how to accessorize the most recently added landmark, the Lincoln Memorial.
Garden Blog - Sat, 03/16/2013 - 8:56am
Spring is here and the birds are returning from their winter homes. Some birds fly through the Chicago area to their nesting habitats up north, while others return and stay in the area.
Spring is the season for laying eggs, because it gives the juvenile birds all summer to mature and become strong before they need to migrate in the fall. Also, as spring turns to summer, the growing chicks require more food. The trees grow leaves, insects hatch, fruits ripen, and other food sources become more plentiful. The birds’ habits are perfectly synchronized with the seasons.
At this time of year, recently returned birds will be looking for material to build a nest and lay eggs. You can provide some bling for a lucky bird family with a few things you have around your home.
You will need items including these:
- A plastic netting or mesh bag, like the kind oranges and apples are sold in
- Scraps of yarn or strips of fabric cut 1/4 inch wide and at least 6 inches long (longer is fine)
- Optional — dryer lint, metallic thread, any other attractive loose materials
Put all of the scrap materials into the mesh bag. Tease out the ends of the material through the holes in the netting all around the bag so it looks like a bundle of loose stuff. Tie the top of the bag. Hang the bag securely on a tree branch where a bird can perch and pluck pieces of material from the bag.
Now you will be ready for International Migratory Bird Day, which is Saturday, May 11, this year. Watch the bag for signs that a bird is using the material. Look around your neighborhood for nests to see if any bird used the materials to build its nest. And have a happy bird day!
What's in Bloom - Fri, 03/15/2013 - 8:00am
Garden Blog - Thu, 03/14/2013 - 9:25am
Recently, I helped kick off an exhibition of artwork focusing on wildflowers and other plants found in midwestern woodlands and prairies. This amazing show, at Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods, Illinois, features works by members of the Reed-Turner Artists’ Circle, some of whom teach in the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. This exhibition and activities related to it provide a terrific example of what a “citizen artist” program can accomplish, helping to protect our native plants and the benefits they provide humankind by documenting their beauty and engaging the public.
The Artists’ Circle works to further the interests of botanical art, conservation science, botany, and horticulture at the local level. To highlight the beauty and importance of plants in our lives, the Artists’ Circle promotes and exhibits members’ work in collaboration with local and regional institutions.
In my opening remarks, I spoke briefly about how all life depends on plants, which is one of the basic tenets of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Plants provide us with food, shelter, oxygen, and medicine; they also provide vital services such as climate regulation, air and water quality improvement, and flood control. Yet we are in the midst of a well-documented plant biodiversity crisis, and some experts estimate that up to one-third of the world’s plant species may become extinct within the next 50 years. Unfortunately, far too little is being done to address this crisis. In fact, much of society suffers from “plant blindness”—an inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.
Members of the Artists’ Circle, thankfully, are acutely tuned in to the environment, viewing plants and their role in the world with a unique clarity of vision. Not only are they producing beautiful works of art, they are thinking about developing a “citizen artist” program, and some members have been brainstorming about this idea with me. This program would parallel and enhance the important work that citizen scientists are performing throughout the region and beyond, through Garden involvement in such programs as Project BudBurst and Plants of Concern.
The Drawn to Nature II exhibition, which runs through April 30, highlights the important contributions of botanical artists. It is impossible to be unimpressed by the beauty and complexity of plants when viewing the outstanding drawings and paintings here, created by members of the Artists’ Circle. The subtlety of the art prompts the viewer to see these objects of nature in a new light, eliciting a powerful, emotional response. By provoking such a visceral response, botanical art becomes an effective tool in fighting plant blindness.
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