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Q & A with Miles Redd

Garden Blog - Mon, 03/24/2014 - 9:56am

We can hardly wait for the über-charming design star, Miles Redd, to hit the Antiques & Garden Fair on April 11!

In order to whet our appetites for all things Miles, the fabulously talented Redd graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions—a little hint of what’s to come when he comes to town. All we can say is buy your lecture tickets now so you don’t miss this design legend in the flesh!

 Miles Redd.

Miles Redd
Photo by Patrick McMullan

There is an art to mixing materials, periods, and styles in order to create interest and harmony. You get it right every time. What’s your secret?

I think Picasso said it best: “good artists copy, great artists steal!” I really love to look at the masters, past and present, and really, it is simple; you imitate what turns you on. Also, a feeling in my gut helps a lot!

We’d say you’ve definitely mastered old Hollywood glamour! Does your background in film and set design influence you as an interior designer?

When I was young, blockbusters were among my best friends. I do love the interiors of films in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. They give you a fantasy of what they want it to be, rather than how it probably was, and you know, often it is better—the fantasy, that is!

Which designers inspire you and your work today? Which “up and comers”?

That is a long list, but here goes: Nancy Lancaster, Albert Hadley, Syrie Maugham, Elsie de Wolfe, Francis Elkins, Jansen—and then today I love what Studio Peregalli is doing, and I think Daniel Romualdez has lots of style, and David Kaihoi—a very talented guy in my office—is a terrific springboard. (His apartment was on the cover of House Beautiful and worth a Google search!) Do you think will have staying power in the business?

 Danielle Rollins and Miles Redd hold a tablecloth over his stone circular garden table.

Danielle Rollins and Miles Redd begin to dress the table in his garden. Photo by Quentin Bacon.

We read that you enjoy the view of your garden from your bedroom. What kind of garden have you created in New York City?

Very much a French architecture—it’s all about clipped hornbeams and boxwood and deep turquoise treillage—very architectural, with no flowers…my kind of garden.

You must adore hunting for unique furniture and objects through dealers at shows like this one. What advice do you have for someone shopping an antiques fair?

If you love it, and the price is right, seize the moment! The worst is regretting something you should have gone for!

 High ceilings accentuate a bathroom finished in mirror and Italian marble.

A master bathroom designed with Hollywood glamour by Miles Redd. Photo by Paul Costello.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Negotiating Your Way at the Antiques & Garden Fair

Garden Blog - Fri, 03/21/2014 - 2:02pm

I’m finally doing it: after years of thinking, talking, plotting, and chickening out, I’m finally tearing out everything in my front yard and putting in a practical, useful, well-designed (and hopefully beautiful) vegetable garden this year.

Of course I’ve got a wish list for the hardscape: a few practical, useful, well-designed (and hopefully beautiful) items that I hope to find at this year’s Antiques & Garden Fair (April 11-13). 

    1. Tuteurs for the peas and beans and roses to grow on.
    2. A bench or seat to perch on.
    3. A garden gate or arbor or very-cool-I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it item to mark the entrance.

I’m open to ideas and negotiable on style, materials, shape, color—and, of course, price. All of which made me wonder: just how do you negotiate your way through this enormous (half an acre of halls/galleries/tents), diverse (115-plus vendors from 24 states—and the UK), and visually stunning event to find the right item?

We called an expert to find out.

 Beau Kimball.

Beau Kimball of Kimball & Bean

Antiques expert Beau Kimball has been a friend to the Antiques & Garden Fair for years—in fact, he and wife Nancy will host the first booth you’ll come to under the Krasberg Rose Garden tent. As proprietor of Kimball & Bean Architectural & Garden Antiques in Woodstock, Illinois, Kimball has 27 years of experience with antiques, and lots of insight about negotiating the Fair.

Have fun—you’re at an amazing show!

When so many top-notch antiques dealers gather under the tents, it’s more than an antiques show—it’s the equivalent of “Fashion Week” for the garden. “The quality level of this show is what makes it different,” Kimball says. “Dealers put a lot of time and energy into curating for it, and they bring the best of their best to this show.” Yes, you can pull out your smartphone and take photos at the beautifully decorated booths; Kimball suggests you ask first (it’s common courtesy) and, just as you’d mention the designer’s name at a fashion show, always give credit to the dealer when you’re tweeting or blogging about their merchandise.

 Antiques dealer's booth.

Kimball and Bean’s booth from last year’s Antiques & Garden Fair

Ask questions.

Fun conversations make for a fun show! Antiques dealers are passionate about their collections and love to talk about their merchandise. Dealers are happy to answer questions. “These are the experts among experts—if you want to know an item’s history or how it’s made, they’ll not only give you the real story, but also explain why it’s important,” Kimball said. Got an item you’re looking to sell? Approach a dealer during a lull or less crowded moment, when they can give you and your antique their undivided attention.  

Be prepared to…

Kimball recommends a few pre-show strategies for potential buyers:

  • Bring measurements with you. If you’re in the market for a garden bench with specific size requirements but don’t have them that day, you might miss out on a unique antique to another shopper who came prepared.
  • Take notes as you go. It’s a big show, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed! Jot down booth locations on a business card, show map, or smartphone so you can return for a second look later.
  • Bring checks and/or cash, too. Credit cards are accepted, but the offer of cash or check is appealing to a dealer, who incurs extra fees with credit card use. For the best possible deal, mention that you’re happy to pay with cash or check.
  • Arrange delivery service for larger purchases. The Antiques & Garden Fair offers delivery and shipping services onsite, by companies who know how to handle heavy, large, or fragile antiques. Take advantage of this service—many dealers are from out of town, and not in a position to help you arrange delivery.

The final negotiations

A few courtesies that go a long way toward building rapport and, ultimately, a good price:

  • Unlike at auctions or flea markets, dealers have already done the work for you in terms of condition. Most items are ready to take home and put on display; know that pricing reflects the time, care, and transport costs put into each item.
  • Negotiation is a common practice at antiques shows. Kimball says that antiques are at reasonable price levels these days, with 5 percent to 10 percent flexibility in some prices. Offering much lower than that is considered a bit of an affront to the dealer’s professionalism.
  • There’s a crucial distinction between asking, “What’s your best price?” and “Would you take X dollars?” The former is a courteous way to question a dealer on price; the latter implies that you’re ready to buy the item at that moment if the dealer agrees (like holding up a paddle at an auction). It’s easier to negotiate when both parties are speaking the same “language.”

What’s hot in 2014?

We had to ask! Kimball says to look for indoor/outdoor pieces that are stylish enough to spend the summer outside, then move straight into your home at the end of the season.

Hmm…that garden bench I’m looking for could work in the front hall next winter…practical, useful, well-designed, and hopefully beautiful.

 Whitewashed antique wrought iron bench.

Could this be the kind of bench I’m looking for?

The Benefits of Outdoor Spaces for the Elderly

Garden Blog - Fri, 03/21/2014 - 9:11am

A well-designed outdoor space can do wonders for seniors and those with Alzheimer’s disease. But how do these gardens differ from other outdoor spaces and why are they so important?

Housing for the elderly has been provided in many western cities since the Middle Ages. Facilities such as independent living centers, skilled nursing homes, dementia or memory care units, and hospice facilities have traditionally included some form of outdoor space.

 Book cover.

The Role of the Outdoors in Residential Environments for Aging, published in 2006.

The majority of the elderly (over 65) reside in their own home or with relatives. Whether in a facility or at a personal home, particular symptoms of decreased quality of life begin to show during these stages. These symptoms are often displayed in the form of boredom, helplessness, and loneliness. Fortunately, many, if not all of these symptoms can be improved with gardening and exposure to outdoor spaces.

The keys (and often the greatest challenges) to successful aging are to remain physically active and socially engaged, and to retain a sense of self. There are many measureable health outcomes for seniors and the outdoors. Even a short visit in a garden can lower blood pressure, improve vitamin D absorption, improve stability, and help with better sleep patterns.

Boredom can be remedied with sensory stimulation and interaction with nature. Nature can aid the feeling of helplessness with providing a space for temporary escape (actual or visual), and the feeling of loneliness can be decreased in a garden that provides multiple places for socialization.

The benefits are endless. So how do we make sure these wonderful gardens are implemented properly so that they will be used by seniors?

 An elderly woman smelling a yellow rose and smiling.

A senior engages with colorful and inviting roses at Elm Tree Gardens in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

For today, we’ll concentrate on four factors of design: The entrance and exit to the outdoor space, plant material, pathways and ease of accessibility (circuit and materials), and seating.

The entrance/exit to an outdoor space—the threshold—is perhaps the most important factor to consider when designing an outdoor space for the elderly, and this largely comes down to one single detail: the door. Doorways are high on the list of residential complaints. Often they’re hard to open, or locked. They don’t have windows and therefore inhibit visitors from viewing the garden (…what’s the weather like?). Perhaps the door has a lip that makes it difficult for seniors in wheelchairs to cross the threshold on their own.

Another factor involving the threshold is the comfort (or perceived comfort) when entering or exiting the garden. Creating a transition or “comfort zone” between the indoor and outdoor space is key. Aging eyes have difficulty adjusting from indoor light to outdoor sunlight. Providing shade at the entrance/exit in the form of an awning or patio will increase the transitional comfort.

This brings us to the next factor: plant material.  I didn’t mention a pergola with draping vines as a possibility for the transition space. That’s because it’s a detail that is strongly discouraged in outdoor design for seniors.  A pergola or draped plant material creates patterned shadows on the ground. This is referred to as “visual cliffing” in design. Seniors react to changes in paving color, or deep shadows on a path as if they were a change in depth. This may lead to stumbles, fear, and discomfort. Simply avoiding structures such as arbors or trellises will alleviate this issue.

Plant selection for the garden is fairly straightforward. Use a variety of trees, shrubs, flowers, and vines and place them where they can be touched and smelled. Aging eyes can see highly saturated colors—such as oranges, reds, and yellows—more easily than blues, purples, and greens. Also, certain plant material such as herbs and traditional shrubs (hydrangeas, roses, etc.) help to stimulate memory as they often bring deep-rooted and cherished memories to mind for those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Color choices are not just important when it comes to plant material, they’re also important for paving, our third factor. Since aging eyes have trouble with glare, use non-glare paving surfaces such as tinted concrete. Other satisfactory surfaces include rubberized asphalt and stabilized decomposed granite.

 A brick garden path leads to a white gazebo in a circular garden.

A gazebo provides an easily accessible destination to garden visitors.

The pathway circuit is also pivotal. Creating interesting places to walk with shorter and longer loops, destinations points (such as a water fountain or gazebo), and changing vistas will encourage engagement and exercise. With these pathways, be sure to pay attention to safety. Pathways with edges or railings will ensure safety for wheelchair users or individuals with impaired sight.

It should be noted, however, that in a facility for those with Alzheimer’s disease, a destination point or wandering path should be adjusted so that its pathway circuit never takes an individual to a point where the entrance/exit is no longer visible. This may lead to the feeling of being “stuck” or agitated if confusion sets in. Not knowing which route to take or how to get back can be very stressful for someone with Alzheimer’s. Instead, create a series of large and small destinations and landmarks that will help users orient themselves in a space (flagpole, gazebo, group of chairs, etc.).

Lastly, think about seating. It is important to design different areas for seating to create options. Some may like an area to sit alone. Living with other people in a facility is a new experience for many residents and it can be stressful. A garden can provide a place for quiet contemplation. On the other side of the spectrum, there should also be places to sit with others. These spaces create socialization, either with visitors or among the residents.  

 A lush urban garden has raised beds which provide seating, and a riot of colorful plantings.

Lush planting, smooth pathways, and seating areas enhance the quality of the experience in—and use of—any garden.

Consider also the kind of seating to be provided. Wood, fabric, or hard plastic materials are preferred, as they are more comfortable than steel, aluminum, or concrete surfaces. When possible, provide seating with cushions to increase comfort. Using moveable seating is also very popular. Use of the overall space skyrockets when people of any age are able to move or manipulate their seat for optimal comfort and satisfaction. This enables garden users to feel in control, which may be lacking inside the building.

These factors as well as countless others help to create spaces that are inviting and engaging to the elderly. There are additional factors to consider in an outdoor space that relate to programmatic intentions on top of the physical design but we’ll visit those topics another day.

Outdoor spaces in facilities for the elderly and aging are immensely important. The next time you visit one, take a moment for a quick assessment. With these basic tips, everyone can be an expert and wonderful advocate for successful outdoor spaces and gardens for the elderly. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring Awaits in Production Greenhouses

Garden Blog - Wed, 03/19/2014 - 2:56pm

Spring isn’t progressing very quickly outside, so we stopped by the production greenhouses to find out how spring is growing behind the scenes. Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, was excited to show us what it takes to grow thousands of the spring annuals and vegetables that will soon be planted outdoors.

Tim told us we are growing 73,000 spring annuals and vegetables this year to be planted outside in the gardens in April. If you like pansies and violas, you are in for a treat, as we’ve planted almost 30,000 of them! A lot of planning goes into scheduling when to start seeds, thin them, transplant them, and harden them off to be ready when each horticulturist needs them. The production team of more than 50 staff members and volunteers makes it all look easy, but I’m guessing with this harsh winter, it hasn’t been easy.

Just one of the wows visitors will see this spring are the hayracks that hang over the bridge from the Visitor Center to the main island. Staff members and volunteers just recently spent 12 hours planting them with 1,200 plants. They will grow safely in the greenhouses until the weather gets warm enough to bring them outside. Can’t wait!

 

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to learn all about getting ready for spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A practical gift…with a rare provenance

Garden Blog - Thu, 03/13/2014 - 9:06am

A friend/colleague recently gifted me with a new Chicago Botanic Garden office mug—so appropriate since she knows I don’t go anywhere without a cup of tea. What she didn’t know was that I’d soon be digging into the Rare Book Collection at the Lenhardt Library because of it.

 Delicate orchids decorate a white china tea mug.

My new office mug…tells quite a story.

View all the items in the Orchid Show collection.

On the cup is a lovely graphic design of orchids—a topic that’s very top of mind here because of the Orchid Show, now in its final week at the Garden (click here for tickets). Fueled by a new-found love of the family Orchidaceae (a classic case of orchid fever), I took a closer look at the design. Was that a slipper orchid? Which one? What was the story behind it?

Turns out the design stemmed from one of the Garden’s great treasures: our Rare Book Collection. At the Lenhardt Library, director Leora Siegel related the history and details.

The drawings are by Henry Lambert, from a portfolio of 20 plates published as Les Orchidées et les Plantes de Serre; Études. The plates are chromotypogravures (a nineteenth-century French style of photolithography); Paris bookseller Armand Guérinet compiled and issued them in portfolio form, rather than as a book, between 1900 and 1910.

 Illustrated orchids from Les Orchidees par Henry Lambert.

The portfolio’s title translates as Orchids and Plants of the Greenhouse; Studies.

The portfolio entered the Garden’s collection in 2002 as part of the purchase of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s rare books. In need of TLC—“bumpy, bruised, and dirty,” according to Siegel—the loose prints were sent for conservation to the prestigious Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in 2011. (Read more about the process in this recent blog.)

Looking lively upon their return in 2012, the plates then became contenders for an interesting project: the development of the Garden’s own line of merchandise to complement the Orchid Show. Of ten finalists, Plate 4 from the portfolio won out, as seen here in the Illinois Digital Archives (page 8).

Two orchids share the plate. The daintier, spotted, clustered flower is identified as Saccolabium giganteum (later re-classified Rhynchostylis gigantea), an orchid that’s native to Myanmar (formerly Burma). In 1893, its habitat was described as “where the hot winds blow and where the thermometer in the dry season is about 45 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade….” (Veitch, A Manual of Orchidaceous Plants…).  The American Orchid Society has a nice write-up about this species and its varieties here.

The slipper orchid Cypripedium schrodere is listed in the 1906 Hortus Veitchii as Cypripedium (Selenipedium) x Schröderae, with the note, “It is one of the finest of the Selenipedia hybrids, and was named as a compliment to the late Baroness Schröder of the Dell, Egham.” Nomenclature for lady slipper orchids gets complicated; the American Orchid Society goes deep into the history here.

 Montage of orchid-related products in the Garden Shop.

A Mother’s Day (May 11) gift idea: an exclusive Orchid Show item, plus the promise of a trip to the Orchid Show in 2015!

Next, a graphic design specialist worked with the orchid illustrations, using a bit of creative license to fit the prints to the shape of the products: the cut of a coaster, the drape of a tote, the curve of a coffee cup. From that work came the Garden’s exclusive collection—it’s only available online and at the Garden Shop!—of items that are practical, meant for everyday use, yet connected to a deeper story.

Good design transcends time. It’s quiet, yet thought-provoking. Now that I know the story behind the orchid design, I look at my friend’s gift differently.

Come to think of it, it’s time for a nice cup of tea…

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Homegrown Fruit: Tips for Strawberries and Raspberries

Garden Blog - Mon, 03/10/2014 - 9:43am

Historically, fruit trees, shrubs, and berries were grown at home out of necessity. Colonialists were entirely dependent on what they could produce themselves, and in time, a fruitful garden became a common symbol of independence from foreign imports—highlighting a new American pride in agriculture.

The farm-to-table movement of today epitomizes the fruit-growing traditions of the past by “growing as close to the plate as possible.” Sweet, juicy fruit can be easily grown in gardens of all sizes: on small urban lots, in containers on terraces, or in large suburban gardens. Harvesting homegrown fruit continues to be a gardener’s most satisfying pleasure, and with a bit of advance planning, choosing suitable varieties to plant this spring is possible. Here are a few ideas to get you started creating, and/or caring for, your edible landscape.

 A hanging basket growing a mix of strawberry cultivars and lettuces.

Day neutral strawberries are grown in our vertical wall and hanging baskets in the Regenstein Fruit &  Vegetable Garden.

Plan to plant strawberries

No grocery store strawberry ever tastes as good as one grown in your own yard. An easy starter crop, strawberries are self-fertile, so you can start small if you like—plant just one variety or only one plant—and still reap a reward. Choose strawberry varieties carefully, however—they vary greatly in flavor, disease-resistance, tolerance of different climates, and harvest time.

Good choices for Illinois gardens are larger June-bearing strawberries such as ‘Earliglow’ and ‘Allstar’. Day-neutral or everbearing strawberries were developed to produce flowers and fruit continuously throughout summer and fall, ignoring the seasonal effects of day length on fruit production. Of the many day-neutral and everbearing varieties to choose from, ‘Tristar’ is a reliable berry for our zone. At the Garden, we grow everbearing strawberries ‘Mara de Bois’ and ‘Seascape’ in hanging baskets and vertical plantings, because they are among the first to fruit in the spring, but also produce a June crop followed by a final fall crop.

Planting several varieties together in your garden extends your harvest time, ensuring there are plenty of strawberries for eating out of hand and enough fresh berries left over to make strawberry jam.  

Choose healthy plants for a healthy harvest

Start with quality, virus-free, and disease-resistant plants. Mail order nurseries and garden centers have bundles of bare-root plants available. Lesser quality plants are prone to fruit rot, mold, and fungal diseases like Verticillium wilt.

 Glass cloche cover strawberry plants in a garden plot in early spring.

Strawberry flowers are susceptible to frost. Here, a transparent plant cover called a cloche (from the French word for bell) is used to protect plants if frost is expected.

Select a planting location in full sun; avoid low-lying spots or crop beds that have grown tomatoes, potatoes, or cane fruit in prior years. These crops can harbor soil pathogens like Verticillium and Phytophthora which can affect new plantings. While strawberries prefer to grow in soil with a bit of acidity, a pH of 6.2 is ideal; the varieties mentioned above perform well in Chicago.

Aim for early spring planting, as soon as the soil can be worked, and its temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Mid-April to mid-May is ideal. Space plants 12 inches apart, leaving 3 feet between rows. Fifty plants produce enough fresh home-grown fruit for four people all summer long.

Plant with midpoint of crown at soil level. Roots should be planted straight down. Strawberries are shallow-rooted, and mother plants spread by runners—which can be removed if desired, to develop stronger plants and to promote bigger fruit.

Water your plants well, particularly when they are fruiting. Mulching with straw helps keep fruit clean and dry, and up off the soil.

Spring tasks: Prune Raspberries

Red, yellow, black, or purple raspberries are easy to grow in hedgerows as natural barriers along lot lines or on post-and-wire trellises. Cane fruit is best managed with proper spring pruning, which prevents a tangled mess and makes your late-summer harvest far easier. Regular pruning keeps brambles in line while allowing air flow through the plant—lessening the risk of fungal diseases like Botrytis and rust, and increasing both yield and berry quality. Both types of raspberries—summer-bearing and everbearing (or fall raspberry)—benefit from a good March pruning.

 Different kinds of berries in baskets, lined up in a grid.

A bountiful berry harvest on its way to our Farmers’ Market? A bountiful home harvest is also possible with vigilant pruning.

Summer-bearing raspberries produce a single crop in the summer on canes which have overwintered. It is important to confine them to a 1- to 2-foot-wide hedgerow to encourage air flow and sunlight. Begin your pruning by removing dead, diseased, or damaged canes first. Then, head back (prune) the spindly top 6 inches of cane tips. Removing the thinnest wood which produces the smallest berries forces the growth into the more vigorous lower part of the plant.  Finally, remove less vigorous canes—in an established plant, those canes with less than a pencil’s diameter thickness—leaving 6 inches between canes (enough room to easily pass your hand between canes).

Fall-bearing red and yellow raspberries can produce fruit on both the current season canes (called primocanes) and second-season growth (floricanes). Thus, they can be pruned to bear one or two crops with a method called, “double cropping.” (We demonstrated both methods last year on our brambles in the Regenstein Fruit &  Vegetable Garden.)

  1. To produce one heavy fall crop, cut all autumn raspberry canes back to ground level in the spring. Canes should be cut as close to the ground as possible to encourage new buds to break just below the surface. All new canes will grow from this radical pruning and produce a single crop of berries.
  2. A second method of pruning produces a small crop on the previous year’s growth and later, a second crop on the current season’s canes. When a double crop is desired, remove dead, diseased, or damaged canes in March, leaving the vigorous canes to fruit. Tip-prune those back by one-third of the total length of the cane, or to trellis height. The new shoots or primacies will produce the second larger crop. After the second fruiting, the canes will die and should be removed.

Pruning for blackberries is similar to raspberries. They are also pruned in March by heading back the “leaders”—the main canes—by one-third (or about 36 inches). This tip-pruning helps to stimulate the growth of lateral branches, which is where blackberry sets fruit. The lateral branches should be pruned back to 12 inches, or where the branches’ thickness is about the diameter of a pencil. 

Want to learn more about cultivating berries? Join us for Growing Fruit Trees and Berries, May 29 to July 10, or check out other fruit cultivation classes at the Garden this spring.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Blooms with Boyce: The Orchid Show

Garden Blog - Fri, 03/07/2014 - 7:43am

We learned about some of the more unusual orchids featured in the Orchid Show when we toured with Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation.

 Dendrobium Comet King 'Akatsuki' orchid.

Dendrobium Comet King ‘Akatsuki’

Boyce told us we have 183 taxa of orchids in our plant collections and 53 of those are straight species found in the wild. Of course, none of our orchids are wild-collected because that does damage to the species, so the orchids we acquire are propagated through tissue culture. We display the orchids that do best in our greenhouse growing conditions, and most of those do best in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Some of the orchids Boyce shows us in the video below are Vandas, which are native to the Philippines and other islands in Southeast Asia.

Boyce shared his love of Dendrobiums and revealed a goal to visit an area of the Himalaya Mountains where they cover the oak trees. But watch out: Boyce warns us of leeches in the area! (Don’t worry, we don’t have those in our greenhouses!)

Finally, we examined an interesting ground orchid, Phaius tankervilliae ‘Rabin’s Raven’, which is growing very well in our greenhouse conditions.

Vanda Orchid

Vanda manuvadee

Nun orchid

Phaius tankervilliae ‘Rabin’s Raven’

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to get the full tour! Click here to purchase your tickets! The Orchid Show closes March 16, 2014.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Undercover Science

Garden Blog - Wed, 03/05/2014 - 10:05am

Anne Nies hopped off the corporate ladder and landed in a wetland. There, she was charmed by the enchanting yet elusive white lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum). Or maybe it was the mountain of data that pulled her in.

 Anne crouched in the field on a sunny day, in sun hat and gardening gloves, scribbling notes.

Anne Nies at work in the field.

After years of working in management, Nies enrolled in a master’s degree program with the Northwestern University-Chicago Botanic Garden Graduate Program in Plant Biology and Conservation. She was curious to see how she could apply her mastery of numbers and modeling from an earlier degree in mathematics to conservation challenges.

Now 1½ years later, as she prepares to graduate in June, she is completing a study of the state-threatened orchid that has a spotty record of success in Illinois.

Working with more than ten years of data collected by Plants of Concern volunteers, she has sorted through some perplexing trends with the delicate white plants. The orchids showed varied success levels in separate locations that are all classified as high-quality prairie. If the locations were equally strong, then what was causing certain populations to thrive and others to falter?

It was a question Nies had to answer, because, as she explained, when one of these plants perishes, it is almost impossible to restore or replace.

 The orchids in the field; surrounded by taller grasses and plants.

White lady’s-slipper orchid can be camouflaged by surrounding foliage.

“What I’m looking at is how the population has access to nutrients in its habitat and how that drives population behavior,” she said. “What are the nutrients that are available to the population, and how does that affect the plants’ behavior, and in particular, how does that affect flowering?”

After a preliminary review of the data, armed her with questions and theories, Nies traveled into the field in the spring and again in the fall for a first-hand analysis.

The initial challenge was to actually find the plant. When it isn’t flowering, white lady’s-slipper blends in easily with surrounding foliage. So she learned where to look and found herself returning again and again to wet and sandy locations, such as wetlands, within the prairie ecosystem.

“Orchids in general tend to be really specific in their habitat,” she said. “I realized there was probably something really different between the prairie as a whole where the orchids live and the specific spot where they are growing.” 

Nies brought back samples of plant tissue, soil, and even root tissue where fungus lives to the Garden’s Soil Laboratory in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center for exploration.

She hoped to find that a high level of fungus, which lives in the roots of many orchid species, was leading to the healthier populations. But that wasn’t what she found. 

 Microscopic image of beneficial orchid fungi.

Helpful fungi live in the roots of orchids and can be identified through a microscope.

Lab results showed that in locations with nutrient-rich soil, the plants had high levels of the beneficial fungi. They also had low levels of photosynthesis—the internal process that creates food from sunlight for a plant. They were not doing very well.

In locations where the plants had higher levels of photosynthesis, Nies found that they had soil low in nutrients.

“What I’m hoping is that knowing the nutrient levels and the high sand composition can help maybe inform land managers and also with the propagation of this orchid,” she said.

Nies plans to incorporate this information with her pending conclusions into her final thesis for her master’s program, before going on to pursue a doctoral degree in the near future.

Much like math, according to Nies, everything is connected in botany, which is what makes it appealing to study. “One of the reasons I’m so interested in orchids is because they are so deeply connected to their habitat,” she explained.

 Anne Nies.

Anne Nies explores the Tropical Greenhouse.

Even though she has transitioned to botany, Nies will surely stay connected to her background in pure math, bringing a new perspective and skills to mounting scientific challenges. “It’s amazing to me how much we still don’t know, and how much is out there that still needs to be learned,” she said.

When she has time to wander, Nies heads to the Garden’s Tropical Greenhouse, where there is always another plant calling her name.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On World Wildlife Day

Garden Blog - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 3:54pm

On March 3, we inaugurate World Wildlife Day, designated by the United Nations to raise awareness of wild animals and plants—from ivory to ebony—worldwide. This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the intrinsic value of all living things and remember that the well-being of humans is inextricably tied to the well-being of nature.

 Two baby elephants playing on the savannah.

Elephants in the wild. Photo by Jonathan D. Sherman.

Botanic gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta protect live plants and animals and play an important role in conserving wildlife and wild places throughout our local communities, nationally, and worldwide. More than 200 million Americans each year visit gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta. This is more than all who attend NFL, NBA, and major league baseball games combined.1 From dolphins to snow leopards, kookaburras to monarchs, oaks to asters to mosses, the living collections visitors enjoy along our paths and through our windows engage and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Our institutions provide protection to many thousands of rare and endangered species, some of which now exist only in our care.  Our conservation biologists conduct important research and create practical, effective solutions to preserve wildlife and biodiversity throughout the world.  Our intensive preK through Ph.D. education and training programs for students of all backgrounds and abilities enable the next generation of scientists, teachers, and innovators to continue our work.

 Closeup of wetlands flower, "shooting star."

Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star)

Garden, zoo, aquarium, and arboretum leaders also serve as leading international resources for biodiversity conservation policy, leading conservation commissions such as those facilitated by the United Nations, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the U.S. State Department, and Department of Interior. Together, and with other nongovernmental partners as well, we strive to implement the tenets of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, build and deliver comprehensive curriculum and education in science and climate change, and implement robust wildlife conservation programs.

March 3 was chosen as the day to inaugurate World Wildlife Day because it is the anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While CITES has not become a household acronym, 179 countries have signed on to this intergovernmental agreement to help ensure that what we buy—whether it be food, leather, musical instruments, timber, medicine, jewelry, or a vacation memento—has not cost a protected or endangered species its life.  More than 35,000 species of plants and animals are protected by CITES, and these species’ continuing survival, along with the habitats where they live, are critical to the web of life on which all life—our life—depends.

 Closeup of an orb weaver spider.

An orb weaver spider ties off a corner of its web.

We, as leaders of the living collections organizations in Chicago, urge you to celebrate World Wildlife Day with us and to join our personal and institutional efforts to promote the importance of conserving plants and animals, and the healthy habitats on which all wildlife—and we—depend. By protecting wildlife, we can ensure that the diversity of life on our planet will endure. We also ensure that the pleasures and basic needs we derive from wildlife continue in the future. These include everything from food and shelter to clean air, water, protection from the effects of floods, droughts, and pollution, as well as the joy of the living world around us.

Please visit your local garden, zoo, aquarium, or arboretum to find out more about what we are doing to preserve wildlife and get involved. Show your support for World Wildlife Day by following @WildlifeDay on Twitter and “liking” the Facebook page.

Sophia Shaw Siskel
President and CEO, Chicago Botanic Garden

Ted Beattie, President and CEO, Shedd Aquarium
Kevin Bell, President and CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo
Gerard T. Donnelly, Ph.D, President and CEO, Morton Arboretum
Stuart D. Strahl, Ph.D, President and CEO, Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo)

[1] Association of Zoos and Aquariums

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Darwin’s Orchid and the Wardian Case

Garden Blog - Wed, 02/26/2014 - 3:42pm

There’s something very special about this orchid. Can you tell what it is?

 Closeup of Angraecum sesquipedale bloom.

A native of Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale is an epiphyte that prefers the drier branches and trunks of trees as a host.

 

The nectar of this orchid resides almost entirely at the tip of the orchid's spur.

The nectar of this orchid resides almost entirely at the tip of the orchid’s spur.

If you guessed that it was the long tubular structure coming from the back of the flower, you are right! That spur contains energy-packed nectar and is the reason this plant has a place in history.

Discovery

Angraecum sesquipedale was first described in 1822 by French botanist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars and would be shrouded in mystery for decades after. It arrived in the United Kingdom 33 years later.

 an illustrated plate of Angraecum sesquipedale from 1822.

An illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale from Histoire particulière des plantes orchidées recueillies sur les trois îles australes D’Afrique de France, de Bourbon et de Madagascar (1822) .

At the time  this orchid was discovered, transporting plants from one continent to another was extremely difficult and often unreasonable. The long sea journey, combined with polluted conditions in industrialized cities, made it difficult to collect and maintain specimen plants. This would all soon change.

It was in 1829 that Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered the mechanism that revolutionized horticulture and botany forever. 

The Wardian Case

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was an English doctor who spent most of his life in eighteenth-century London. In his youth, he perused the writings of Linnaeus and spent some time in Jamaica, which fostered his love of entomology and botany. As an adult, Ward was inspired to create a wall of ferns and mosses in his own yard, but failed due to the polluted air of East London. He was distraught.

In the summer of 1829, Ward took a glass jar and placed a hawkmoth chrysalis inside, atop a bed of moist leaf mold. Ward regularly checked on the progress of the moth, finding that before it hatched, grasses and a fern emerged from the leaf mold. Ward observed that the glass jar retained moisture because as it warmed up, water evaporated, condensed on the glass, and returned to the base of the jar, never escaping. With this success he repeated his experiment and, to his delight, found that he could keep plants growing within the chamber for years. His discovery brought about the invention of the Wardian case, the predecessor to the modern terrarium. He wrote extensively about this in his book, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. Soon the Wardian case became a popular feature of the parlor in Victorian society. These parlor versions, both tabletop and freestanding forms, often held one or more plants and could be rather ornate.

 A large Wardian case, made of steel and glass—an individual greenhouse for an orchid.

One of four Wardian cases appearing in our Orchid Show this year. Wardian cases like this one could be found in parlors of wealthy Victorians.

In 1843, the Wardian case was used for the first time to bring plants from China by sea. The director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, observed that in 15 years, the Wardian case brought six times as many plants as had been imported in the last century. If you do the math, that means it made importing plants almost 40 times as efficient as regular ocean travel! This was of particular use to collectors like James Bateman, a wealthy landowner who sponsored several plant exploration trips through the Royal Horticultural Society. One such trip would bring several rare Angraecum sesquipedale from Madagascar to England, and in 1862, this plant would find its way to one of the prominent figures in history.

Charles Darwin

By 1862, Charles Darwin had already become a prominent figure internationally. Having published On the Origin of Species three years earlier, Darwin was already the subject of scrutiny by religious groups and scientists who disagreed with his theories on evolution and natural selection. In this same year that he received a number of orchids from Bateman, Darwin published his book The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, which proposed that Angraecum sesquipedale must be pollinated by a “huge moth with a wonderfully long proboscis” (or straw-like tongue). He proposed that it might be a Sphingidae moth since these are typically large. No such moth was known to exist on Madagascar.

Though largely overlooked by the public, his proposal became a subject of controversy, particularly in the religious community. Critics attributed any existence of such a creature to be by divine will and not natural selection; most mocked the possibility of such a moth existing. Others viewed his prediction with skepticism since only smaller moths had been discovered in Madagascar.

 Morgan's sphinx moth, with its 30-centimeter tongue unrolled to show its length.

Morgan’s Sphinx moth, the predicted pollinator. Photo by Esculapio (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1903, 21 years following Darwin’s death, a subspecies of moth known as Xanthopan morgani praedicta, Morgan’s Sphinx moth, was found in Madagascar. This moth has a wingspan of 5 to 6 inches and a proboscis of 10 to 12 inches long. The subspecies name, praedicta, was intended as an homage to Darwin’s prediction that such an insect existed.

Angraecum sesquipedale, frequently referred to as Darwin’s Orchid, is currently being displayed in the Greenhouse Gallery of our Orchid Show this year.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Make Mushroom Spore Prints

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

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

How to Make Spore Prints

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

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

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

 Shiitake mushroom.

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

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

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

 Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

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

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

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

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

 Stinkhorn fungus.

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

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

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

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

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

 Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

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

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

 A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

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

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

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Make Mushroom Spore Prints

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

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

How to Make Spore Prints

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

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

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

 Shiitake mushroom.

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

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

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

 Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

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

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

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

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

 Stinkhorn fungus.

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

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

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

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

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

 Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

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

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

 A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

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

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

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Five Seed-Starting Secrets

Garden Blog - Sat, 02/22/2014 - 8:44am

Anticipation is running high for the third annual Seed Swap tomorrow, from 3 to 5 p.m.

 A dried sunflower head.

Panache sunflower (Helianthus annuus ‘Panache’) shown in its native seed packet.

It’s always a fun day with a community vibe, as Chicago area gardeners gather to swap seeds, stories, and green-thumb tips. A special bonus this year: keynote speaker Ken Greene (founder of the terrific Hudson Valley Seed Library) will be available during the swap to answer questions and offer “sage” seed-starting advice.

With that in mind, here are five simple secrets for seed-starting success:

1. Quality seed starter. Give your seeds a healthy jump start by planting them in a really good seed starting mix. Don’t skimp on quality here—plants grown in inferior mix will never perform like those grown in a high-quality medium. Some adjectives that should describe the product you buy: sterile, fine-grained, free-draining, fluffy, uniform. One brand we’ve had success with: Black Gold.

2. The back of the pack. It’s a simple step that can make a big difference: read the back of the seed packet before you sow. It’s full of important and helpful information—often spelled out in great detail—such as planting depth, days to germination, and watering requirements. Save the seed packs after you sow, too, since there’s often valuable transplant and harvest info there as well.

3. D.I.Y. pots. You don’t need a fancy setup to start seeds. D.I.Y.ers can make their own paper pots; recyclers can put egg cartons to good second use; and the organically minded can replace plastic with peat or compost pots that go straight into the ground and disintegrate as the season progresses. Reusing last year’s plastic pots? Wash them out thoroughly and rinse in a 10 percent bleach solution to knock out fungus and residues before filling with starting mix.

4. The right light. A strong light source is crucial for stimulating plant growth. Without it, plants turn leggy, making them weak and more susceptible to breakage. Consider full southern window exposure as a mere starting point—even better is a grow light that can be raised with the plant’s height, while offering the 12 full hours of strong, even light that seedlings need.

 Bean sprouts.

Beans sprouted in dampened paper towel.

5. Self-watering system. Started seeds in years past, only to have them dry out and wither before you know it? You may be a candidate for a simple capillary mat/self-watering system. After filling pots with seed starting mix, set them on the specially-designed mat/tray—fill the tray with water, which the mat draws up to the pots, keeping them properly moist without being waterlogged. The system is a boon to those who can’t water every day; an optional lid helps keep humidity high. They’re available at many nurseries and online.

At Seed Swap, Garden experts and master gardeners from our Plant Information Service desk will be available to chat, but we’ve found that the best way to get an answer is also the simplest and most satisfying: turn and ask the gardener next to you.  

Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Let it Snow

Garden Blog - Thu, 02/20/2014 - 9:17am

If you’ve been around Chicago in the past month, you’ve probably noticed the sort of weather we’ve been having.

Snow covers the grass of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden in 2013. This protected grass can expect good growth in spring.

Snow covers the grass of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden in 2013. This protected grass can expect good growth in spring.

You may even be bitterly cursing the snow and hoping winter will end, cheering this week’s thaw and higher temperatures. What you might not know is that all this snow has a number of benefits that will help your garden and landscape later this spring.

 Closeup of bright red, raisiny eastern wahoo berries.

The fruit of eastern wahoo (Euonymous atropurpureus) creates a striking contrast against the snow.

Snow is a great insulator!

As winter presses on, the ground freezes deeper and deeper. This prolonged cold soil can damage roots over time. Snow helps create a blanket that reduces freezing of the soil. Warmer soil keeps microbes more active, which helps break down any plant waste that is in the soil, releasing nutrients. As a result of this insulation, your plants will have a much better start in spring!

Snow brings an important nutrient into the soil: nitrogen.

There are not many ways for nitrogen to enter the soil. While planting legumes and adding fertilizer are the most common ways we add nitrogen to soil, the weather provides nitrogen as well! Nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere and is most easily collected by falling snow. As the snow melts, it deposits the nitrogen into the ground. (Apple trees and other plants benefit greatly from nitrogen deposited by snow.) When the ground is soft, plowing the snow into the soil will give the greatest benefit. Snow is sometimes called the poor man’s fertilizer.

 Bare, yellow willow branches against a blue sky.

The yellow whips of this willow make an excellent contrast to the snow in most landscapes.

Don’t forget, snow is water!

When snow melts, it provides moisture for evergreen trees and shrubs. This moisture helps keep these plants happy and healthy throughout the winter. You won’t see damage right away, but a few years of snow-free winters can cause health problems in your trees.

Last but not least, snow can be very attractive in a landscape.

Snow makes plants with ornamental fruit, flowers, and bark stand out in the winter landscape. Plants like holly, ornamental grasses, euonymus, crabapples, roses, birches, ghost bramble, striped maple, dogwoods, willows, hazels, winter hazels, and witch hazels are only a few of many very attractive plants for a winter landscape. Dogwoods and willow varieties often will have young growth that is orange, yellow, or red. These same colors appear in the fruit of euonymus, crabapples, roses, and holly. Look for varieties that will complement your landscape.

If you find that snow is weighing down branches in your landscape and disfiguring the appearance of your shrubs or young trees, brush off the snow regularly and prune in the spring to remove any dead or broken branches.

 Boxwood and hemlock trees against a fence in winter.

Evergreen trees and shrubs like boxwoods and hemlock need water through the winter to stay healthy.

 Boxwood in winter; its branches weighted down with snow.

Boxwoods are prone to damage from heavy snows. Minimize damage by removing snow as soon as possible from the branches.

When the snow melts, check your trees and shrubs for damage near the trunk of the plant. Rodents, particularly voles, take advantage of winter snow cover and feed more aggressively on tender bark of young trees. If your lawn has developed paths of dead grass from these garden pests, rake affected areas of the lawn, apply a light application of fertilizer and seed the affected areas if damage is severe.

While many of us are hoping for an end to this winter, this abundance of snow is promising us a great spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Select a Good Orchid

Garden Blog - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:41am

After visiting the Orchid Show, you may be inspired to try growing an orchid in your home, but for the new orchid grower, selecting an orchid may seem overwhelming. Here are a few tips to get you started. 

(Can’t play the movie above? Watch here on YouTube.)

A healthy orchid.

A healthy orchid. Notice the plump pseudobulbs (stems), smooth green leaves, and beautiful flowers. If you look closely, you’ll even see new buds forming.

1. Know yourself, your growing environment, and what you’re buying.

Orchids live in a wide variety of habitats and come in a wide variety of sizes, so you’ll want to make sure that you choose one that’s well suited to your home and to your schedule. For example: if you have lots of bright, direct sun in your home, a Cattleya will do very well, but a Phalaenopsis may struggle. If you have questions about an orchid’s growing conditions, you can always ask the grower you’re buying from, or check out the American Orchid Society’s Culture Sheets. Also, make sure that your plant has a tag identifying it, or that you get its name and put a tag in the pot right away. There are thousands of orchid species and hybrids, and often it’s difficult to identify a plant on the flower alone. Having a tag will help you to always remember what species or hybrid your orchid is.

2. Choose a plant you really like.

This may sound obvious, but orchids aren’t like other house plants. Most only flower once a year  so you will probably need some good motivation to keep caring for it when it’s not in flower. Also, sometimes the shock of moving from the greenhouse to your house will cause orchids to skip a year in flowering. Don’t lose all hope though! There are some orchids that flower continuously for most of the year, and others from which you can get multiple flowerings in a year.

3. Only buy a healthy plant.

 Closeup of an adult soft brown scale with offspring (tiny pollen-sized dots).

Soft brown scale (Coccus hesperidum) and offspring on Phalaenopsis.

The easiest way to tell if a plant is healthy is to look at it. It should have smooth green leaves, fleshy, plump pseudobulbs (if present), and no bugs. Discoloration and spotting of the leaves may be due to cultural conditions, but it may also be a sign that the plant has a virus. Unlike people, orchids don’t recover from viruses. Like people, however, they can spread the virus to other plants in and around your home.

Leaf pitting, scaring, and holes also may be cultural, but more likely are an indication of bugs. Bugs are small and can be difficult to spot. Some examples are soft brown scale and the longtailed mealybug. These bugs are quite common and quite difficult to get rid of once you have them. They survive by feeding on the sap of the plant, sucking away its life and leaving behind ugly marks. Although the adult bugs are usually easy to spot, the juveniles are easy to miss because they’re tiny and hard to see.

 An otherwise healthy orchid shows a yellowing leaf with pale scale spots.

Yellowing and pitted leaves are signs of the stress this orchid is suffering because of a scale infection.

 Closeup of an adult longtailed mealybug with young.

Close-up of an adult longtailed mealybug with offspring.

4. Consider the flower.

You have basically two choices when buying an orchid: buy one that’s flowering or about to flower, or buy one that’s not in flower. Especially for the beginning grower, buying orchids in flower is often the better choice. The biggest reason is that you get to see your orchid flower at least once. People who grow orchids will readily tell you about how many they’ve killed—it’s just part of the learning process. If you buy your plants in flower and they die, it’s not really any worse than buying a bouquet of cut flowers. (Orchids are about the same price, and the flowers last much longer.) Another reason to buy when the plant is flowering is so that you can be sure that you like the flower, and that it has no abnormalities that you find unattractive. 

5. Look for new growth.

This is an indication that the plant is doing well and will continue to do well. Often, next year’s flowers come from this year’s growth, so if there’s no growth, there may also be no blooms. You can find new growth in two ways: new leaves or green tips on the roots. Roots sticking out of the pot are no problem and are the easiest to check.

Find an orchid at the Orchid Marketplace, open weekends throughout the Orchid Show.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

“But wait! There’s more!”

Garden Blog - Thu, 02/13/2014 - 4:16pm

Stacy Stoldt is never not working on an exhibition.

Even when the Lenhardt Library’s public services manager is staffing the desk, answering reference questions, and locating articles for staff, the “million and one” details involved in putting together the library’s four annual rare book exhibitions are percolating in her brain.

 Stacy Stoldt organizing bookshelves.

Stacy Stoldt awaits patrons in the Lenhardt Libary.

Stoldt has streamlined the process since she first began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2007, but it remains a lot of work to curate an exhibition. “There’s the research, the writing, the editing, the design, the approvals,” she said last month. “Here we are in January, and we’re in the design phase of our next exhibition, which opens in February, but back in November I was already meeting with someone about books for an exhibition that opens this May. There’s always a deadline looming.”

Stoldt loves her work, and one of her chief pleasures is deciding which literary treasures will be selected. It is a process involving research, more research, and finally, she says, just a bit more research. The excitement of finding the perfect volume has prompted Stoldt to burst into song (just ask cataloger Ann Anderson, a neighbor in the basement office who sometimes joins in).

The public services manager and her colleagues have many volumes from which to choose: in 2002, the Lenhardt Library acquired a magnificent collection of 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic journals from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston.

An Exhibition Takes Shape

 A meeting with a dozen people gatherered around rare books.

Stoldt shows rare books to a group in the rare book reading room.

Before Stoldt begins hunting down books, there are meetings to decide Lenhardt Library exhibition topics for the year. That process begins with a brainstorming session including Stoldt, Lenhardt Library Director Leora Siegel, and Rare Books Curator Ed Valauskas. Sometimes the trio bases their topics on themes within the collection, such as the upcoming succulent show that features the work of A.P. de Candolle and botanical-rock-star-illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

Alternatively, they might collaborate with another botanical library on a theme, as happened when the Lenhardt Library team worked with the New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library on the recent exhibition Healing Plants: Illustrated Herbals. Other times, they select topics that complement events held at the Garden, such as Butterflies in Print: Lepidoptera Defined, which ran in conjunction with last summer’s Butterflies & Blooms.

Newest Exhibition Focuses on Orchids

 An illustration of Masdevallia coccinea from an illustrated book panel.

The Lenhardt Library’s newest exhibition, Exotic Orchids: Orchestrated in Print, runs through Sunday, May 11. This image is from Xenia Orchidaceae: Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Orchideen, by Heinrich Gustave Reichenbach.

The newest Lenhardt Library exhibition complements the Orchid Show and is titled Exotic Orchids: Orchestrated in Print. Running through Sunday, May 11, it features such rare books as Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, published in 1862. Another item is Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with a beautiful color illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale, also known as Darwin’s orchid. “One doesn’t come alive without the other,” said Stoldt. “I’m always trying to put the connections together for people.”

For some exhibitions, Stoldt does it all—A to Z. For others, she receives the researched text, citations, and selected illustrations from Valauskas or Siegel and develops the material into an exhibition. Once the topics are established, research is completed, and explanatory text is written and edited, graphic designers enter the picture. Stoldt selects images from the featured books to use with the accompanying text, and then the designers work their magic. Along the way, Stoldt and Siegel review the progress. The result is an exhibition compelling not only for its content but for its elegant layout, which extends throughout the display cases that greet visitors as they enter the library.

Accompanying library talks are on Tuesday, February 18, and Sunday, March 9, at 2 p.m.

“For our new Exotic Orchids exhibition, we really wanted to show some bling!” said Stoldt. Within the Rare Book Collection, there was so much to choose from on orchids that she found the selection process daunting. Visitors to the exhibition will find the beauty and science of orchids well-represented, and discover items about orchid conservation and preservation as well.

Art Conservation Key to Documenting Plants

Stoldt noted that conserving the books and the artwork that document a plant’s existence is almost as important as preserving the actual plant. In cases two and three of Exotic Orchids, there are select illustrations from two orchid collections, Les Orchidées (1890) and Les Orchidées et les Plantes de Serre (1900–10), which the Lenhardt Library recently had conserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) through grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

How did the conservation process work? Professionally trained book and paper conservators removed the illustrations from their original acidic bindings; then the inks were tested, the surfaces were cleaned, and the illustrations were digitally photographed. Then the illustrations were placed in chemically stable folders and housed in custom-made boxes made from lignin-free archival boards. Conservation completed!

 An unidentified Cypripedium, or slipper orchid.

Cypripedium VIII. color plate

The Rare Book Collection

Stoldt recently brought out some rare volumes to demonstrate the variety within the Rare Book Collection. As noted on its web page, the collection reflects a relationship between people and the plant kingdom that has been documented since the earliest days of print, when botanists were not simply plant describers, but explorers.

Out came volume after volume, with Stoldt pointing out noteworthy details about each. Among them was the oldest book in the collection, Historia Plantarum, written by Theophrastus (d. 287 B.C.E.) and published in 1483 (it has some unusual marginalia). There was also an exquisite Japanese book on flower arranging, Nageire Kadensho: Saishokuzu Iri, published in 1684 and donated by longtime library volunteer Adele Klein. Stoldt continued her informal presentation with seemingly boundless enthusiasm, finishing with lush life-size images from The Orchid Album, published between 1882 and 1897.

More than once, Stoldt returned a book to the vault at the end of the show-and-tell only to call, “but wait! There’s more!” as she glimpsed another book she absolutely had to show. This librarian really, really loves her books. And she feels very protective of them.

Stoldt recalled the horror she felt once when she was installing an exhibition, with a rare book exposed nearby on a book “cradle”: “There was a sign that said ‘Exhibit installation in progress: please do not touch the rare books,’ but this person came in from the rain and loomed over it, dripping wet. I got her out of the way, but that was a close one.”

Cultivating Relationships

More often, visitors are sensitive to the delicate state of the Garden’s rare books. Some Garden members make a point of coming to each new exhibition and attending the free gallery talk. “One patron always calls from Wisconsin to find out about the next talk,” said Stoldt. “And once, a library regular who came to a talk told me how much she loved the book Brother Gardeners [about eighteenth-century gardeners who brought American plants to England]. I was able to show her some books by the book’s featured plantsmen, including Joseph Banks, John Bartram, and Phillip Miller, among others. It’s what I call an ‘on-demand rare-book viewing.’ She was thrilled. These are the kinds of things that lead to relationships with people.”

Devoted patrons feel that the library and its exhibitions enhance their lives; in turn, some are moved to enhance the Rare Book Collection. “We have our patrons, and then we have our patron saints,” said Stoldt. One patron who came to the 2009 exhibit on Kew Garden’s 250th anniversary enjoyed the accompanying talk by Ed Valauskas so much that she donated the 1777 edition of Cook’s Voyage, or A Voyage Towards the South Pole, by Captain James Cook, which had been in her family for family for decades. And longtime members John and Mary Helen Slater made it possible for the library to acquire 11 volumes of Warner’s Orchid Album.

Inspiring the Next Generation

Stoldt loves to see the excitement she feels about the Garden’s Rare Book Collection spreading to a new generation. She recalled a day when a grandfather brought his grandson to the library, and the child asked to see a rare book. “I asked him what he was interested in, and he said, ‘poisonous plants.’ First, I showed him Histoire des Plantes Vénéneuses et Suspectes de la France by Bulliard, a book on poisonous plants written in French from the eighteenth century, but what really spoke to him was a book with the ‘coolest illustrations!’ entitled Poisonous Plants, Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect, Engraved on Wood, 1927, by John Nash. This kid was just amazed. I love seeing young readers light up when they’ve found something intriguing for them in print. It’s heart-warming.”

 Cattleya aclandiae.

Cattleya aclandiae from a rare book color plate

Although that particular drop-in visit and viewing request occurred on a busy weekend day, another library staff member was available to manage the circulation desk while Stoldt showed the books. “I can’t stress enough the importance of making an appointment for a viewing,” she said. “Besides kids, grandparents, and garden clubs, people from all over the world come to Lenhardt Library to see primary resources they can’t find elsewhere. We’ve had writers and scholars from England and the Netherlands, and even a Thai princess, come to see the Rare Book Collection. Everyone is welcome.”

Don’t be surprised if you come to see one specific book in the collection and end up seeing many more. It will be a visit you won’t forget!

Rare book viewings are by appointment only during the hours of 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, subject to availability. For an appointment, call (847) 835-8201.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Love Lives of Orchids

Garden Blog - Thu, 02/13/2014 - 11:00am

This year, Valentine’s Day has special meaning for us at the Chicago Botanic Garden—it’s opening night for our first-ever Orchid Show! With that in mind, we’ve gathered a few stories about how orchids will do just about anything to attract a pollinator…along with a few soundtrack suggestions…

 A spray of blooming orchids, which resemble tropical spiders.

A spray of Brassia rex “spider” blooms await pollinating parasitic wasps.

She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
With a love like that, you know you should be glad, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Granted, a little makeup can work wonders on date night. But the spider orchid, Brassia, takes things even further in order to attract an insect: it makes itself up to look like a pollinator’s favorite food.

The orchid’s flower has developed the color and shape of a large tropical spider. But it’s not trying to attract the spider—no, that would be too obvious. Rather, scientists think that the orchid attracts a wasp that hunts the spider as potential food for its own larvae. Thus the wasp is fooled into landing on the flower—and picking up its pollen—while hunting. So cheeky!

 Closeup of a hammer orchid.

A hammer orchid (Drakaea glyptodon) awaits its next suitor. Photo by Mark Brundrett.

I’ve Just Seen a Face
Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again.

When the hammer orchid (Drakaea species) set its sights on the Thynnid wasp as a pollinator, it didn’t mess around: it developed a flower that looked like a lady wasp and a scent like the female pheromone used to attract a male.

In nature, the lady wasp climbs to the top of a plant and awaits a male—who recognizes the pheromone, flies over, plucks her off the plant, and mates. The hammer orchid’s flower mimics the look of the waiting female, but when the male flies up and lands, his weight throws him into the back part of the flower that carries the pollen—with the force of a hammer strike. He realizes he can’t carry her off, and heads off for another orchid, where the next hammer throw deposits the pollen he’s already carrying.

 Closeup of Coryanthes speciosa, showing bucket and drip of nectar.

Coryanthes speciosa by Dalton Holland Baptista [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Taste of Honey
I will return, yes I will return. I’ll come back for the honey and you.

The right perfume can change a man. The bucket orchid, Coryanthes speciosa, has singled out the male euglossine bee for a pollinator. The flower produces a highly scented perfume that attracts swarms of male bees—which know that it’s a female’s favorite and rub it all over themselves. But step carefully, gentlemen: it’s a slippery slope into the flower’s bucket, where you’ll have to swim to the exit—picking up the flower’s pollen on your way out. On the plus side: you’ll smell great to that female bee when you finally find her!

(Check out more on orchids fooling mating bees with this famous video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-h8I3cqpgnA.)

 A spray of fuchsia-colored, ruffled-petal blooms.

Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’ has dancing skirts and chocolate fragrance.

I’m Happy Just to Dance with You
Before this dance is through I think I’ll love you too. I’m so happy when you dance with me.

The most fashion-conscious orchids (Oncidium) are called “Dancing Ladies,” because of their wonderfully ruffly petals that look like the spread skirts of dancers. The most prominent petal on the orchid’s flower—called a lip, or labellum—can be ruffled, spotted, hairy, pouched, or fringed. All are features meant to attract a pollinator into using it for a miniature landing platform (the lip is much sturdier than this bloom’s delicate design lets on), drawing it in close to the center column that holds pollen.

Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’ is the supermodel of dancing ladies—and did we mention that it just happens to smell like chocolate? Most fragrant in the late afternoon to early evening, this is truly an orchid that knows the way to a woman’s heart.

 The incredibly long nectar spur of Angreacum sesquipedale.

Angraecum sesquipedale ‘Flambouyant’ x var. bosseri ’Lisa’—pollinated by the light of the moon.

Bonus Track! Mr. Moonlight
And the night you don’t come my way, Oh I pray and pray more each day, ’cause we love you, Mr. Moonlight.

At the Orchid Show, which opens this weekend, you’ll get introduced to Darwin’s orchid, or Angraecum sesquipedale, an orchid with an elegantly long nectar spur. When Charles Darwin first described the orchid in 1862, he postulated that it must have a pollinator with a long tongue, though none was known at the time. The mystery persisted for 40 years until a hawkmoth with a fantastically long 12- to 18-inch proboscis—a straw-like tongue—was finally identified. The moth flits from flower to flower at night, reaching deep into the brilliant white flower’s spur in a split second—all by the light of the moon.

With thanks and apologies to the Beatles, who performed for the first time in America on TV’s the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago this week. Since then, generations have grown up knowing the words to their love songs.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photosynthesis Made my Rock Candy

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

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

 Burgundy leaves of the Bull's Blood sugar beet.

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

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

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

How to Make Rock (Sugar) Candy

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

You will need

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

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

Directions

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

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

 Glasses and skewers set up for making rock sugar candy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Rock sugar candy skewers.

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

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

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

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

 A weighted string coated in rock sugar crystals.

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

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

Sugar from Plants

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

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

This basic diagram shows photosynthesis in action.

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

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

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

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

 Sucrose molecule.

This sucrose molecule looks good enough to eat!

 Sugar cubes.

Just kidding. It looks better in normal scale.

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

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

 Fresh produce in a wicker basket.

Yum!

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Grapefruit Bird Feeder

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

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

 The supplies needed for the project.

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

To make a grapefruit bird feeder you will need:

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

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

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

 Skewering the grapefruit rind.

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

 Tying yarn to the grapefruit to hang it.

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

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

 The final product.

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

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

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

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

 Grapefruit birdfeeder hung from a snow-covered fir.

The final product is ready for visitors.

What is birdseed?

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Christmas Tree Taxonomy

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

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

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

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

Conifer vs. Evergreen

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Closeup of a bald cypress branch in golden fall color.

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

 Boxwood in the Japanese Garden.

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

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

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

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

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

Have a wonderful holiday season!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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