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Fall Migration

Garden Blog - Thu, 10/02/2014 - 11:34am

Fall migration is happening right now. Stop what you’re doing, grab a camera or binoculars, and go outside! You never know what you might see. It could be a fall warbler (but what kind?), a beautiful grebe, or a rusty blackbird—it may not even be a bird at all!

 Monarch butterfly.

This monarch was fueling up on the asters to prepare for his epic migration to Mexico. ©Carol Freeman

Spring and fall are times of great opportunity and diversity. With hundreds of species moving through, you get a chance to see and photograph some that would be impossible to find at any other time. Since they may be here only a few days before moving on, I like to get out any chance I get. 

Migration is not just for birds. Most know the mighty migration of the monarch butterfly, but did you know that some dragonflies migrate, too? You can often find large numbers of dragonflies hunting other insects almost anywhere in the Chicago Botanic Garden. The most common ones to find migrating are the darners (Anax sp.) and saddlebags (Tramea sp.). 

One of the migrating dragonflies. ©Carol Freeman

One of the migrating dragonflies. ©Carol Freeman

One of the large Darner dragonflies that migrates in the fall. ©Carol Freeman

One of the large darner dragonflies that migrates in the fall. ©Carol Freeman

When you spot a warbler, take a close look and listen closely to its song—birds within the species are notoriously difficult to identify. Also, keep your eyes open for warblers, kinglets, blackbirds, hawks, ducks, shorebirds, sandhill cranes, and more. There will be a steady stream of birds migrating through this area through November. Any place in the Garden can have birds. Listen for the sounds, watch for movement in the trees, and you may be lucky to see one of these beauties. Check the logbook at the Information Desk in the Visitor Center to see what other birders have seen and add your finds as well. 

There are many young hummingbirds zipping around, taking advantage of all the wonder nectar sources. You can find them almost anywhere in the garden where there are flowers. ©Carol Freeman

There are many young hummingbirds zipping around, taking advantage of all the wonderful nectar sources. You can find them almost anywhere in the Garden. ©Carol Freeman

This is a young Magnolia Warbler, another tricky to ID warbler in the fall. I found this beauty in the English Walled Garden. ©Carol Freeman

This is a young magnolia warbler, another tricky-to-ID warbler in the fall. I found this beauty in the English Walled Garden. ©Carol Freeman

 Blackpoll warbler.

This blackpoll warbler is one of several confusing fall warblers. Photographed near the Dixon Prairie. ©Carol Freeman

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Keep them coming

CLM Internship Blog - Tue, 09/30/2014 - 9:27am

We tend to constantly reflect on our lives thinking we haven’t accomplished enough and I am, of course, not the exception. Today, I feel like expressing my appreciation for the experiences I’ve been fortunate to have. I have felt at home here in Cedar City and have met some wonderful people. I get filled with joy as I sit back in the car seat and realize how blessed I am to be able to see many of Utah’s beautiful places.

I was able to visit Richfield to do some seed collecting. Little did I know how amazing this experience would be thanks to Dustin Rooks, the Botanist for the Richfield BLM Office. I got three days of beautiful scenery and great stories. If that wasn’t enough, I got to meet Dustin’s amazing family, enjoy his great cooking, and got to taste elk for the first time. What made this a very enjoyable experience was Dustin’s company. Not only is he a great father, husband, and cook, he is an extraordinary botanist!

I continue my internship with an open mind and welcome the rest of the extraordinary experiences to come.

Montana Fall

CLM Internship Blog - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 4:07pm

photo 2 (1)photo 1

Fall in Montana is lovely.  Being from Michigan I didn’t think fall could get much better with our mixed-deciduous forest, but Montana is up there.  The air is crisp, the willows and aspens are turning, the bears are getting ready to sleep.

We wrapped up all the seed collections for Seeds of Success, and I have been working with the Range Staff.  We implement new studies in watershed areas where the streams have been impacted by cattle grazing.  This helps us make sure our management techniques are working.

photo 3This photo is from a day in the field. We had to walk past this person’s private land to get to our study area and I got this shot of these beautiful horses.

photo 3 (1)

Last week, my mentor and I spent a few days at the Special K Ranch in Columbus, Montana.  The ranch is a non-profit where 32 residents with disabilities live and they learn different skills such as how to care for horses, sheep, cows, plants, etc.  They have a massive hydroponic tomato hoop house and they sell the tomatoes to local grocery stores.  They also have a large garden of vegetables they sell at market.  Along with that, they have a contract with the BLM to grows out native seeds from our SOS Collections. We can then use those seeds for restoration and other purposes.  It was a real treat to go to the ranch and stay the night.  I got to see other fellow CLM Interns in the process and it was nice to talk about the summer.

photo 5 (1)

The residents of the ranch were all so warm and sweet to us.  Here is Andrew, their newest resident from California.  He liked showing us tricks where he’d dance around and throw his hat in the air and try to make it land on his head.  He, along with several others, helped us break the ground for a new plot of land where we will grow out plants of the seeds we collected to have a local source for coming years.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Montana. The experience of the Chicago Botanic Garden Internship has taught me so much I will bring with me to my coming experiences. I didn’t even know what a ‘Range Specialist’ was before coming here, and now I’m basically a ‘Range Technician’ myself.  The issue with cattle grazing and public lands is a very heated topic with environmentalist and ranchers often battling it out.  I’m grateful I got to work in a very prominent cattle ranching area to broaden my scope of how I see the issue.

photo 5

Here is another sweet photo of some horses I saw while working in Horse Prairie near the Lemhi Pass, Montana.

Best,

Leah Murray-  Dillon, Montana 2014

 

You Say Tomato, I Say Science Fair Project

Youth Education - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 3:23pm

It’s that time of year in schools again: time for science fair projects!
tomato project

As I’ve stated before, we in the education department of the Chicago Botanic Garden are committed to helping parents and teachers find great projects that teach students how plants sustain and enrich life. Last year we talked about using radish seeds; this year, it’s tomato seeds. And like last year, this project can be done by an individual student, a small group or ecology club, or an entire class.

Let’s begin by thinking about tomato seeds. Cut open a tomato and try to pick out a single seed. Go ahead and try it, I’ll wait.

 This close up of a tomato seed shows the transparent coating that surrounds the tomato seed.

These tomato seeds glisten and mock me when I attempt to pick them up with my fingertips. The little brats also resist sliding off the cutting board.

 
As you will discover (if you didn’t already know) the seeds are coated in a gelatinous substance that makes them slippery and difficult to handle. So the first question is, what purpose does the slimy coating serve?

This is not the kind of blog post where I give you all the answers. That would not be good science teaching. I will tell you that tomato seeds can pass through the digestive tract of an animal and still germinate. Not all seeds can do that. It is possible that in nature, the coating protects the seeds on their journey from the mother plant through the hostile environment of a hungry animal’s gut and on to wherever that animal relieves itself.

Another theory is that the coating prevents premature germination of the seeds while they are inside the warm, moist, ripening fruit. Whatever the true reason—and there may be several—seed savers find it’s better to remove that coating after the seeds are harvested, because they become easier to handle and store.

The natural way to remove the coating is to ferment the seeds in a jar or bowl. It’s a simple procedure.

1. Scoop or squeeze the seedy pulp out of the tomatoes and put it into a bowl. (I prefer glass, but some people use plastic.) Add water equal to the volume of tomato pulp. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the top.

 glass bowl about a third full of tomato pulp, covered with plastic wrap, sitting on the windowsill.

Here are the seeds from three medium sized tomatoes, sitting by the window on the back porch, waiting to ferment.

2. Place the bowl in a warm location such as a sunny window. It is going to smell bad, so don’t put it in your dining room, unless you’re trying to reduce your appetite. You will also want to avoid fermenting your seeds next to bananas and other fruit ripening in your kitchen, because it can attract fruit flies. Leave it there for 3 to 5 days, depending on the conditions. Natural “beasties” in the air (yeast) will settle on the sugary goodness of the tomato. They will gorge themselves and reproduce, resulting in a yucky mess floating on top of the mixture. This is exactly what you want.

 the bowl of tomato seeds is covered in white stuff.

In four days, my tomato seeds were ready, with a thin layer of white scum floating on top. Be very glad odors are not transmitted over the internet.

3. After you have grown a nice head of gunk on your seeds, remove that film and throw it away. (Unless you’d like to keep it for some reason.)  If you can’t skim all of it, no worries, the remaining goo will rinse off in the next step. Remove any floating seeds, too—they are not viable.

4. Pour the mixture into a sieve or wire strainer with fine mesh and rinse well, shaking the seeds gently to remove any remaining pulp and seed coatings.

 The tomato seeds are spread out on a wax paper so they do not touch.

The most tedious part of the process is spreading out the seeds so they do not touch each other.

5. Dump the seeds onto wax paper. Poke at the seeds with a toothpick or other clean utensil to separate them. Remove any dark seeds that don’t look right. They are not viable. Let the seeds air dry on the wax paper in a protected place for about a week.

6. Store the completely dried seeds in an envelope until you are ready to use them.

 close up of several tomato seeds - you can see the fuzzy outer layer of the seeds.

The cleaned and dried seeds are coated with tiny white hairs. These hairs were holding the gooey coating on the fresh seeds and now they will help the seeds soak up moisture when they are planted.

Now comes the science question: Do tomato seeds really need this kind of abuse to germinate?

The only way to find out is to experiment. Collect seeds from some ripe tomatoes—2 or 3 tomatoes will do. Ferment half of the batch using the directions above. Rinse the remaining half with water in a sieve (to remove any attached tomato pulp), and then dry them on wax paper without any other treatment. When you have all the seeds dried, use the same procedure from Eleven Experiments with Radish Seeds to measure and compare germination rates.

 Ten tomato seeds are arranged on a paper towel in three rows; the towel is on a plate.

These ten fermented and dried tomato seeds are ready for germination testing.

Since you’re curious and kind of into this now, see if you can figure out if there are other ways to remove the seed coating that result in equal or better germination success. Some seed savers skip the fermentation and instead clean their tomato seeds with a solution of Oxi Clean. You can add this treatment to your experiment by dividing your batch of tomato seeds into three parts for: untreated, fermented, and Oxi Clean treatments.

The Oxi Clean method goes like this:

  1. Put the tomato seeds in a measuring cup and add water to make 1 cup of liquid.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon Oxi Clean power to the mixture and stir to dissolve.
  3. Let the seeds soak for 30 minutes.
  4. Rinse thoroughly in a sieve and dry on wax paper, just as you would with the other treatments.

As you will see, the Oxi Clean method is faster and there is no offensive odor, but is it better for germination?

 A 16 ounce container of Oxi Clean Versatile Stain Remover

This product contains sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate, no bleach, and will work for your experiment.

Note: if you Google information about this, you will find articles that discuss Oxiclean (one word) vs. Oxi Clean (two words). The two commercial products are made of different chemicals. The former is a liquid that contains sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach), the latter, promoted by Billy Mays, does not. For the purposes of this experiment, the less caustic, powdered Oxi Clean pictured in this blog post works perfectly well. Students should report the actual chemical names in the materials list, not just the product name. It’s just like using the scientific name of a plant instead of the common name—it’s more accurate and less confusing for someone who wants to replicate the experiment.

If you are ambitious, try a treatment of your own. After all, three tomatoes are going to give you a lot of seeds to test. My daughter tried soaking some of her seeds in vinegar. Perhaps regular dish soap or ordinary laundry detergent will remove the seed coating. Or you could try a cleaner that contains chlorine bleach. It’s up to you. Please remember to wear goggles and plastic or latex gloves while handling any chemicals because, like the tomato seeds, your eyes and hands may need a protective coating to escape harm.

I’d like to tell you what is going to happen, but then I would totally lose street cred and face ridicule from my science teacher peeps. One hint, though: be sure to measure the timing of germination as well as the number of seeds that germinate in each condition. If you want to know what happens, you’ll just have to cut open some tomatoes and try it yourself.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

You Say Tomato, I Say Science Fair Project

Garden Blog - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 3:23pm

It’s that time of year in schools again: time for science fair projects!
tomato project

As I’ve stated before, we in the education department of the Chicago Botanic Garden are committed to helping parents and teachers find great projects that teach students how plants sustain and enrich life. Last year we talked about using radish seeds; this year, it’s tomato seeds. And like last year, this project can be done by an individual student, a small group or ecology club, or an entire class.

Let’s begin by thinking about tomato seeds. Cut open a tomato and try to pick out a single seed. Go ahead and try it, I’ll wait.

 This close up of a tomato seed shows the transparent coating that surrounds the tomato seed.

These tomato seeds glisten and mock me when I attempt to pick them up with my fingertips. The little brats also resist sliding off the cutting board.

 
As you will discover (if you didn’t already know) the seeds are coated in a gelatinous substance that makes them slippery and difficult to handle. So the first question is, what purpose does the slimy coating serve?

This is not the kind of blog post where I give you all the answers. That would not be good science teaching. I will tell you that tomato seeds can pass through the digestive tract of an animal and still germinate. Not all seeds can do that. It is possible that in nature, the coating protects the seeds on their journey from the mother plant through the hostile environment of a hungry animal’s gut and on to wherever that animal relieves itself.

Another theory is that the coating prevents premature germination of the seeds while they are inside the warm, moist, ripening fruit. Whatever the true reason—and there may be several—seed savers find it’s better to remove that coating after the seeds are harvested, because they become easier to handle and store.

The natural way to remove the coating is to ferment the seeds in a jar or bowl. It’s a simple procedure.

1. Scoop or squeeze the seedy pulp out of the tomatoes and put it into a bowl. (I prefer glass, but some people use plastic.) Add water equal to the volume of tomato pulp. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the top.

 glass bowl about a third full of tomato pulp, covered with plastic wrap, sitting on the windowsill.

Here are the seeds from three medium sized tomatoes, sitting by the window on the back porch, waiting to ferment.

2. Place the bowl in a warm location such as a sunny window. It is going to smell bad, so don’t put it in your dining room, unless you’re trying to reduce your appetite. You will also want to avoid fermenting your seeds next to bananas and other fruit ripening in your kitchen, because it can attract fruit flies. Leave it there for 3 to 5 days, depending on the conditions. Natural “beasties” in the air (yeast) will settle on the sugary goodness of the tomato. They will gorge themselves and reproduce, resulting in a yucky mess floating on top of the mixture. This is exactly what you want.

 the bowl of tomato seeds is covered in white stuff.

In four days, my tomato seeds were ready, with a thin layer of white scum floating on top. Be very glad odors are not transmitted over the internet.

3. After you have grown a nice head of gunk on your seeds, remove that film and throw it away. (Unless you’d like to keep it for some reason.)  If you can’t skim all of it, no worries, the remaining goo will rinse off in the next step. Remove any floating seeds, too—they are not viable.

4. Pour the mixture into a sieve or wire strainer with fine mesh and rinse well, shaking the seeds gently to remove any remaining pulp and seed coatings.

 The tomato seeds are spread out on a wax paper so they do not touch.

The most tedious part of the process is spreading out the seeds so they do not touch each other.

5. Dump the seeds onto wax paper. Poke at the seeds with a toothpick or other clean utensil to separate them. Remove any dark seeds that don’t look right. They are not viable. Let the seeds air dry on the wax paper in a protected place for about a week.

6. Store the completely dried seeds in an envelope until you are ready to use them.

 close up of several tomato seeds - you can see the fuzzy outer layer of the seeds.

The cleaned and dried seeds are coated with tiny white hairs. These hairs were holding the gooey coating on the fresh seeds and now they will help the seeds soak up moisture when they are planted.

Now comes the science question: Do tomato seeds really need this kind of abuse to germinate?

The only way to find out is to experiment. Collect seeds from some ripe tomatoes—2 or 3 tomatoes will do. Ferment half of the batch using the directions above. Rinse the remaining half with water in a sieve (to remove any attached tomato pulp), and then dry them on wax paper without any other treatment. When you have all the seeds dried, use the same procedure from Eleven Experiments with Radish Seeds to measure and compare germination rates.

 Ten tomato seeds are arranged on a paper towel in three rows; the towel is on a plate.

These ten fermented and dried tomato seeds are ready for germination testing.

Since you’re curious and kind of into this now, see if you can figure out if there are other ways to remove the seed coating that result in equal or better germination success. Some seed savers skip the fermentation and instead clean their tomato seeds with a solution of Oxi Clean. You can add this treatment to your experiment by dividing your batch of tomato seeds into three parts for: untreated, fermented, and Oxi Clean treatments.

The Oxi Clean method goes like this:

  1. Put the tomato seeds in a measuring cup and add water to make 1 cup of liquid.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon Oxi Clean power to the mixture and stir to dissolve.
  3. Let the seeds soak for 30 minutes.
  4. Rinse thoroughly in a sieve and dry on wax paper, just as you would with the other treatments.

As you will see, the Oxi Clean method is faster and there is no offensive odor, but is it better for germination?

 A 16 ounce container of Oxi Clean Versatile Stain Remover

This product contains sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate, no bleach, and will work for your experiment.

Note: if you Google information about this, you will find articles that discuss Oxiclean (one word) vs. Oxi Clean (two words). The two commercial products are made of different chemicals. The former is a liquid that contains sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach), the latter, promoted by Billy Mays, does not. For the purposes of this experiment, the less caustic, powdered Oxi Clean pictured in this blog post works perfectly well. Students should report the actual chemical names in the materials list, not just the product name. It’s just like using the scientific name of a plant instead of the common name—it’s more accurate and less confusing for someone who wants to replicate the experiment.

If you are ambitious, try a treatment of your own. After all, three tomatoes are going to give you a lot of seeds to test. My daughter tried soaking some of her seeds in vinegar. Perhaps regular dish soap or ordinary laundry detergent will remove the seed coating. Or you could try a cleaner that contains chlorine bleach. It’s up to you. Please remember to wear goggles and plastic or latex gloves while handling any chemicals because, like the tomato seeds, your eyes and hands may need a protective coating to escape harm.

I’d like to tell you what is going to happen, but then I would totally lose street cred and face ridicule from my science teacher peeps. One hint, though: be sure to measure the timing of germination as well as the number of seeds that germinate in each condition. If you want to know what happens, you’ll just have to cut open some tomatoes and try it yourself.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Carson City, cooler and cooler.

CLM Internship Blog - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 3:20pm

We’ve been here quite busy for the last few weeks with a few outreach events, deadlines for fire rehabilitation monitoring reports, and seed collecting on top of that. Seed collecting is a fascinating process though – it is not a usual practice of work flow when you have a goal, means, and you work on it until you reach a certain result. On the contrary, it is more like a continuous process with an unexpected work load and unpredicted results. We’ve been doing our collections since April – May, through the whole summer and now, in late September there are still quite a few species which are about to be ready. To some extent, it is perhaps the result of the Great Basin climate and plant organisms coexistence – a huge amount of warm days in a year with such limited resources to use. And as a consequence, we have a big time differentiation between different species bloom and physiology peaks. In April we planted few sunchokes around our house and a couple weeks ago, in the middle of September, they just started to bloom. I should say that I’m not the best plant keeper, but for them to flower in September or not must be a tough decision to make. Same in the field, some ephemers and early spring annuals give their second growth right at this moment, which is probably a usual but very interesting phaenomenon at the same time. I guess autumn is a great season not only in boreal zone with deciduous forests and their colours but everywhere, with its own surprises and peculiarities. Until next time!

Andrii,

Carson City, BLM

Our beautiful sunchokes

Our beautiful sunchokes

 

Changing of the Seasons

CLM Internship Blog - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 10:53am

In Boise, Fall is officially here. It seems to have occurred overnight–the days are shorter, brilliant foliage paint the mountains and streets, dry leaves rattle in the wind, and the weather has finally dropped from 90 to a cool 65.

With the final days of this internship we have one last big collection push to gather seeds of some higher elevation and late blooming plants. These particular plants seem to be a bit more of a challenge as they drop seed quickly but also do not mature uniformly within the population. But the dynamic duo is always up for a challenge!

Speaking of which the managers and co-workers in our office have made it their challenge to expose us to a variety of natural resource tasks other than botany. This is something I appreciate greatly and have loved most about the Four Rivers Field Office: they understand how interconnected and multi-faceted natural resources is and want us to get involved in as much as possible.

This past weekend was National Public Lands Day and Zander and I helped with the group project down in Little Jack’s Creek Wilderness in the Owyhees. It takes two hours to drive down there and we both were amazed at the support for NPLD and how many volunteers showed up–particularly young people. Around 40 people attended the event all together and we helped build trail and take down fence in a recently acquired parcel that was added to the wilderness. Ages 3 1/2 to 60+ were in attendance and all had a passion for spending time on public land. So often we get caught up in the data collection, the numbers, and the land-status maps and it was so reassuring to know that what we do at the BLM really does matter and so many people really do value these lands. This up coming week we have coordinated a planting event at a popular area called Dedication point. After many days out in the field with just our crew, usually picking plants in silence, I am looking forward to working with the volunteers as a change of pace. We have 1,000 plants to work with, so we certainly will be busy!!

Here are a few photos of what we have been up to lately:

One of our collection sites is up on Bogus Basin--a popular ski resort just outside of Boise. Seeing these fall colors and ski slopes just puts a little extra pep in my step!

One of our collection sites is up on Bogus Basin–a popular ski resort just outside of Boise. Seeing these fall colors and ski slopes just puts a little extra pep in my step!

National Public Lands Day in Little Jack's Creek Wilderness of the Owyhee Canyons.

National Public Lands Day in Little Jack’s Creek Wilderness of the Owyhee Canyons.

We helped Bruce Haak and BLM Wildlife Biologists Jill Holderman in building a raptor trapping station for banding during the migration. He we caught a juvenile Coopers Hawk in a bow net.

We helped Bruce Haak and BLM Wildlife Biologists Jill Holderman in building a raptor trapping station for banding during the migration. Here we caught a juvenile Coopers Hawk in a bow net.

Dedication Point--a scenic canyon where we will be planting tomorrow!

Dedication Point–a scenic canyon where we will be planting tomorrow!

 the white layer here is ash from the Mount Mazama volcanic explosion--the one that created Crater Lake in OR.

We took a trip out to learn about fire effects in riparian areas. On our way we passed through the very end of Hell’s Canyon. The vertical walls told such a geologic story: the white layer here is ash from the Mount Mazama volcanic explosion–the one that created Crater Lake in OR.

While doing riparian work we have seen so much wildlife and wildlife sign. From bugling elk to aspens clad in bear claw marks to new reptile friends. Here is a Western Side-blotched Lizard.

While doing riparian work we have seen so much wildlife and wildlife sign. From bugling elk to aspens clad in bear claw marks to new reptile friends. Here is a Western Side-blotched Lizard.

On Becoming a Human Seed Bank

CLM Internship Blog - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 10:16am

Last week, I climbed into my tent after a long day of fire monitoring. As I slithered into my sleeping bag, I heard a soft drizzle, much like the sound of a very full rain stick. I looked down to see seeds pouring out of my shirt. Months of seed collecting have honed my rapid estimation of seed quantity. So, I watched, amazed, as several thousand Sisymbrium altissimum seeds flowed out of my sleeves, my pants pockets, and the linings of my shoes. Further inspection revealed tumble mustard seeds had made it into my ears, under my fingernails, and were even stuck between my teeth (like that unfortunate poppy seed no one will tell you about).

To work in the field is to not only study but to interact with the plants that I so love. I don’t just read about the widespread weediness of cheatgrass, I feel its needle-like seeds scratching away at my ankles. I don’t simply learn how medusa head is spread, but have had my wool socks co-opted by this adventurous grass. Everyday I fight hard to avoid become a vector for the aggressive graminoids I so despise.

The more time I spend with invasive plants (and their super villain cousins the noxious weeds) the more my ardent hatred is replaced by a healthy respect and even admiration. These foul little plants each have suites of adaptations that allow them to spread rapidly, grow quickly, and, unfortunately, disrupt the ecosystems I am in Nevada to protect and study. That fact (and the blisters they are giving me) makes us sworn enemies. But I can’t help but admire these precocious plants.

I took a side trip to Yosemite to see the seeds of this very large, very native plant; Sequoiadendron giganteum.

I took a side trip to Yosemite to see the seeds of this very large, very native plant; Sequoiadendron giganteum.

 

Playing Tag

CLM Internship Blog - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 10:13am

We’re coming to the end of the Summer of Mishaps here in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Our project was to raise larval sucker fish in floating cages with the hopes that the controlled predator-free, high oxygen environment would improve their survival compared to the rest of the lake. Anyone who has read my blog posts will remember that at first we couldn’t find any adults to get eggs from and had to resort to plan B, collecting larvae from the river during a week of late night fishing. We spent months constructing our cages, only to realize that we needed to rearrange them when we tried to attach our nets. We spent nearly every day checking the water quality in the cages and were prepared to give the cages oxygen via portable aerators but the oxygen would dip on weekends or days off. The hundreds of fish we saw swimming around in our cages turned out to be invasive fathead minnows. When we quickly pulled up one of our nets several weeks ago to check our fish, we saw an estimated ten suckers total and that was before we found that river otters had chewed a hole in every one of our nets and presumably had a fish banquet.

To sum it up, hopes were not high that we would find many suckers when we emptied our cages to tag and release them.

We were wrong.

We only had time to empty one of our nets out of three today because we had eighty-seven shortnose and Lost River suckers. Eighty-seven! Eighty-seven beautiful little fish that we spent all summer raising and nurturing and finally got to release into the wide world of Upper Klamath Lake. I feel so proud. We have four more cages to empty, two at Tule Lake and two at Upper Klamath and for the first time in months, I am optimistic.

Suckers recovering nicely from having identification tags inserted in their stomachs.

Suckers recovering nicely from having identification tags inserted in their stomachs.

A sucker!

A sucker!

Be free!

Be free!

Freedom!

CLM Internship Blog - Mon, 09/29/2014 - 10:11am

Today we stared releasing our fish! We had a surprising amount too. A few weeks ago we had estimated about ten suckers per net but today after pulling one net and removing all of the fish, we had around 80 healthy suckers to tag and release! We put PIT tags in them to track them over the next few years and see how many of them make it and spawn and live happy lives. To do this, we used an anesthetic to knock them out long enough to get length measurements, species determination, and put tags in. Then we held them in a recovery bucket full of aerated water to make sure none of them had adverse effects from the drugs or the tags. We had zero mortalities which was great, and we released them at the edge of a patch of vegetation so they could have some protection from predators. Now we just have four more nets of fish to tag and release over the next week or so, so hopefully we have just as many fish in those nets!

Getting measured before getting tagged.

Getting measured before getting tagged.

Waiting for release in the recovery bucket.

Waiting for release in the recovery bucket.

Freedom!!!!!!!!

Freedom!!!!!!!!

Autumn Blooms in the Bulb Garden

Garden Blog - Sat, 09/27/2014 - 9:12am

It’s now early fall and that means it’s time for Colchicum! Colchicum is a group of flowers also known as autumn crocuses, though they’re not related to the true crocus. Seventeen species and varieties of Colchicum grow in the Graham Bulb Garden. Flower colors range from white to magenta-violet, and include doubles and bicolors.

 Colchicum cilicum.

Colchicum cilicum

Colchicum blooms are a great way to brighten up the early autumn landscape. They’re best grown in a groundcover or as an underplanting for taller bulbs such as lilies (Lilium sp.). The spring foliage can be rather large and hosta-like, making them sometimes difficult to pair with smaller spring-blooming bulbs such as Scilla, but it makes them perfect for hiding bare stems of tall plants in the summer while providing a jolt of color to your beds just before everything goes to sleep for the fall.

 Colchicum 'Antares'.

Colchicum ‘Antares’

 Colchicum x agrippinum.

Colchicum × agrippinum

In addition to the crocuses, dahlias and lilies are still bursting forth with color, like jewels in the September garden. The cooler temperatures help create richer colors in the dahlias, and longer-lasting blooms, while their large size provides a contrast with the dainty blooms more typical of fall bulbs. We’re still seeing the final blooms of Lilium speciosum ‘Uchida’ as well. This lily is notable for being the latest-blooming lily in our climate. These plants started blooming in early September and are still holding on. Due to their late blooming nature, these beauties must be planted in the spring in a well-drained but fertile area. 

 Lilium speciosum 'Uchida'.

Lilium speciosum ‘Uchida’

 Dahlia 'Bahama Mama'.

Dahlia ‘Bahama Mama’

 Dahlia 'Diva' and Salvia guaranitica 'Argentina Skies'.

Dahlia ‘Diva’ and Salvia guaranitica ‘Argentina Skies’

 Dahlia 'Jitterbug'.

Dahlia ‘Jitterbug’

While these might be the last blooms of the season in the Bulb Garden, this certainly isn’t the end of interesting things happening in the Chicago Botanic Garden. Fall foliage color will be peaking soon, and winter holds its own interest in the colors of berries, dogwood stems, and the exfoliating bark of the birches against snow’s white blanket.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fire Monitoring in the Smokey Shadows of the King Fire

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 09/26/2014 - 3:50pm

After monitoring many fires through fields of cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), tumble-mustard (Sisymbrium altissimum), and charred pinyon pine (Pinus monophylum), we set up our last and final fire monitoring plot. This week, we finished our last fire monitoring plot. As we finished up our last plots, westward blowing afternoon winds rushed through the valley towards our fire monitoring plots, bringing with them walls of thick smoke from the King Fire in California. The King Fire is a large fire that is currently burning east of Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and has been burning for almost two weeks now. As of September 24, the fire was 38% contained and had burned over 90,000 acres. Although this fire is no threat to the Carson City district, the westward blowing winds blanket the Washoe and Carson Valley with a thick layer of smoke. Often visibility has been reduced so much that it is impossible to see adjacent mountain ridge lines.

A plume of smoke rises more than a mile into the sky across Lake Tahoe.

A plume of smoke rises more than a mile into the sky across Lake Tahoe.

 

The sun shines orange as it barely is seen through a thick cloud of smoke from the King Fire in California

The sun shines orange as it barely is seen through a thick cloud of smoke from the King Fire in California

 

Intensive Stream Monitoring

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 09/26/2014 - 3:47pm

A majority of my last month of field time has been dedicated to Intensive Stream Monitoring in The Bodie Hills Wilderness Study Area. It has been a unique and adventurous process to locate monitoring plots that have not been read in over 30 years. I have become familiar with the use of a metal detector as a field tool, and am now more understanding of the placement of rebar as permanent plot makers. These plots have been useful in the development of my cross country land navigation skills, use of maps over GPS units, ability to find a location using 1, maybe 2, old photographs and hand drawn plot schematics. Many of these plots required multiple miles of hiking to get to, thus they also allowed me the opportunity to spend a few nights camping in the Bodie Hills, something I have wanted to do all season. Overall stream monitoring has been a nice way to culminate my field season and has taught me a variety of new techniques and skills, as well as taken me to some remote places to scout/collect native seed.

Winding down

CLM Internship Blog - Fri, 09/26/2014 - 1:52pm

Every time I submit my timesheet, I get to watch the hours remaining in my internship tick down towards zero. 6 weeks left. 5 months seems like a nice long time when you’re getting started, but by the time you’ve settled into your new home, made friends, joined the softball team or whatever, there’s almost no time to enjoy it. Time to start looking for something new. I suppose it’s probably still a little early, blogwise, to start reflecting but these last six weeks are going to be spent thinking continuously about the end, and the vast, empty space beyond it. It’s the curse of the early twenties; the daunting uncertainty of complete freedom. The cliche is “I don’t have anywhere to go!”, but that’s the opposite of my problem; I have everywhere to go. I can pack everything I own in my car and drive as far as my will can take me. That should be exciting but to me it just feels scary right now. Every decision and its impact on the person I am becoming is painfully evident to me, and I’m tempted to run away to some remote corner of the world and forget about building a career for a little while. I imagine I’m not the only twenty-something that feels this way.

For now, though, I should enjoy what time I’ve got left in Cedar City. I still haven’t gotten bored of driving out into the middle of nowhere, glancing down at my GPS, then looking up to see a nighthawk bursting out of the brush, walking ten miles of seemingly invariant desert, or even just sitting down and taking it all in for a while.

I’m glad I’ve got 6 weeks of that to look forward to.

Cool Crops for Fall

Garden Blog - Thu, 09/25/2014 - 11:11am

Now that the leaves are turning and the days are growing shorter, if you’re tempted to pack away your gardening gloves…don’t!

 Baby brussels sprouts budding at the end of September.

Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea) enjoy the cooler weather of fall for producing their delicious edible buds.

At the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, we’re as busy as ever. Our cool-weather crops include brussels sprouts, spinach, and toscano kale. Fall is a great time to grow vegetables—insects die off, weeds wither, and moisture is plentiful. If you don’t have much space, remember that you can grow vegetables in containers, window boxes, and hanging baskets.

Don’t say good-bye to your summer garden yet

  • Document the good, the bad, and the ugly. Walk around your garden making notes, drawing pictures, and taking photographs; document challenges and successes, problems, tasks, and ideas for next year. Make a list of the plants that worked and should be planted again.
  • Bring in twigs, nuts, berries, and seedheads to dry for fall decorations or winter wreath making. Gather the stems into bunches, and secure them with a rubber band. Hang the bunches for several weeks to dry in a warm spot (but out of direct sun).
  • Harvest herbs to dry, freeze, or use fresh.
  • Lift tender perennial herb plants like rosemary and lavender to replant in pots. Annual basil lasts for several additional weeks in a sunny kitchen window.
 Dried plants and seedheads.

Now is the best time to gather plants at the end of the season for beautiful arrangements for the fall table.

Other prep work

  • Remove debris such as leaves, clippings, and bits of fruits and vegetables. Garden sanitation is important to remove the overwintering habitat for many insects. Cucumber beetle and squash bugs overwinter on leaf litter and create problems in the spring.
  • Perform bed prep and broad forking—break up densely packed soil now to avoid working heavy soils in the spring (when you do so, you further compact the soil and destroy soil structure). Fall prep ensures that the bed will be ready for early peas around St. Patrick’s Day.
  • Add organic matter to feed the soil rather than using fertilizers to feed the plant.
  • Add mulch, thumb deep, to help maintain soil temperature and moisture.
  • Everbearing raspberry bushes produce their fall crop on the top half of the canes. After harvesting, prune out the top half of the plants. The lower half of the canes will produce fruit early next summer.
  • As you harvest, remember to save seeds for next season! Got extra? Join us for our annual Seed Swap.
 Butternut squash.

Harvest warm-season vegetables, including winter squash and pumpkins, before the first frost.

 Tropaeolum majus 'Kaleidoscope Mix' nasturtium.

The edible flowers of nasturtium last well into fall and make a wonderful planting in the garden or containers.

Plant cool season crops

 Spotted cucumber beetle.

Thorough fall cleanup is important to avoid pests like potted cucumber beetle, whose larvae overwinter in leaf litter. Photo by Pollinator at en.wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

  • Short-season crops and salad plants—radish, spinach, 
arugula, lettuce, mustard, mizuna, and tatsoi—should be sown 30 to 40 days before the first frost (roughly October 15 in Chicago-area suburbs and a bit later downtown).
  • Plant cool-season herbs like parsley (flat or curly), chervil, cilantro, and edible flowers such as calendula and nasturtium.
  • Get edible bulbs—such as garlic bulbs, shallot, and onion sets (small onions for planting)—into the ground by Halloween; they’ll be ready for harvest in July.
  • Harvest hardy vegetables after the first frost, when they become sweeter—kale, brussels sprouts (remove the tops of the plants in early September), cabbage, broccoli, collard greens, and cauliflower.
  • Harvest warm-season vegetables, including winter squash and pumpkins, before the first frost. Don’t let the first frost touch your peppers and tomatoes; if they’re still green, they’ll ripen a bit indoors.
  • Think about ways to extend the growing season—with row covers, garden blankets over raised beds, cold frames, etc.

For more ideas or inspiration, drop by the Fruit & Vegetable Garden (in October, come see the giant pumpkins on display). Did I mention that fall is a good time to plant fruit trees for spring blooms and fruit? Plant the trees in cooler weather, under less stress—and they’ll be ready to soar in the spring.

For more seasonal gardening tips, tune into my weekly Saturday morning audio podcast on news radio WBBM. Get past tips online at chicago.cbslocal.com/audio/gardening-tips.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

September Shorties

Garden Blog - Tue, 09/23/2014 - 9:46am

Fall bloomers are already stealing the show and, while they are colorful, it is largely due to their size.

By the time many of these perennials bloom, they are so tall that they often need to be staked. Not to mention, some end up having unsightly “legs” from shedding lower leaves. Ironweed, monkshood, and sneezeweed are all guilty of this unsightly phenomenon. Fortunately, there is a compact substitute for each of these bulky favorites. So, if you want to give your yard more color in autumn but don’t want it confined to the back of the border, try planting these “shorties” up front.

 Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry'

Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’

Little Henry sweet coneflower
Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 3 feet tall and 24 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Little Henry sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’)  is the petite progeny of Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’. While 3 feet isn’t necessarily short for a perennial, it is definitely an improvement over its 5- to 6-foot-tall daddy. And like Henry Eilers sweet coneflower, each petal is rolled to create a quilled appearance around an obvious chocolate cone. Flowering can begin well before September, but the unique shape and yellow hue really stand out in the fall landscape. (The leaves are said to smell of vanilla, but if you’re like me, ragweed season will make it difficult to notice.) Don’t be afraid to stick these beauties in a vase.

 Helenium autumnale 'Short and Sassy'

Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’

Short and Sassy sneezeweed
Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’

Zones: 3 to 8
Size: 18 inches tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; moist to wet soil

With Short and Sassy sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’), the cultivar name says it all: the plant is 2 feet tall with an assertive orange-yellow color. In the past, all sneezeweeds grew 5 feet tall and would push out flowers from the beginning of August until October. ‘Short and Sassy’, however, has a much longer bloom time. Since it doesn’t have to grow as big, this cultivar begins flowering in midsummer and doesn’t quit until it has fought its way through multiple frosts. Heleniums are plants perfect for rain gardens or any moist, sunny spot. Butterflies find them irresistible, too.

 Aconitum fischeri

Aconitum fischeri

Fischer’s monkshood
Aconitum fischeri

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 2 feet tall and 18 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, rich, well-drained soil

Under favorable conditions, an autumn-flowering monkshood can reach 4 to 5 feet tall—not exactly a plant you can showcase next to a path. Nevertheless, Fischer’s monkshood (Aconitum fischeri) is a lesser-known species that is beginning to find its way into the market. The 2-foot-tall plants sport the same size flowers as the commonly seen Aconitum carmichaelii and its hybrids. The showy blue flowers are perfect for adding fall color to a woodland garden, but are just as nice in a sunny border. Monkshoods are poisonous, so hide the children!

 Vernonia lettermanii 'Iron Butterfly'

Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

Iron Butterfly Ironweed
Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

The reddish-purple color found in ironweed flowers is one of kind. The problem with these natives is that most of them get gigantic, usually around 8 feet tall. Fortunately, you can enjoy that stunning hue on a much more compact plant. Vernonia lettermanii is a 2- to 3-foot-tall species that naturally occurs in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Allan Armitage, Ph.D., selected the best form of this species from his trials and called it ‘Iron Butterfly’. The foliage and form are similar to Amsonia hubrichtii, but without the fall color. This shorty is tolerant of droughty soils or brief flooding, but it requires lots of sun. It’s also a butterfly magnet!

 Anemone x hybrida 'Pretty Lady Susan'

Anemone × hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’

Pretty Lady Susan windflower
Anemone × hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 16 inches tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, rich, well-drained soil

While I would rather see pink in the spring, I do love the poppylike feel of windflowers. They are also known as Japanese anemones and are sometimes listed under the name Anemone hupehensis. The Pretty Lady Series features crosses that stay 16 inches tall, as opposed to unwieldy 3- to 4-foot-high plants. They also have the same 2-inch flowers you would find on other Japanese anemone hybrids. Pictured here is a dark pink variety called Pretty Lady Susan windflower (Anemone x hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’, but the series also includes a double-flowered, a bicolored, and a white-blooming form. Of course, I can’t wait to get my hands on Pretty Lady Maria windflower—the non-pink one.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Chrysanthemums

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

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

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

 A mum cultivar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classification and Breeding

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

 Chrysanthemum 'Wisp of Pink'.

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

Chrysanthemums at the Chicago Botanic Garden

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

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

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

 Hex nuts dangle from wires fastened to mum branches.

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

 Garden mums in bloom.

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

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

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

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

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

Grow your own

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Home on the Prairie

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 09/15/2014 - 12:28pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Little bluestem grass in seed.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a native grass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Home on the Prairie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Little bluestem grass in seed.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a native grass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Learning about Learning at the Garden

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

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

 College First student Mely G.

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

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

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

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

 Mely G. taking notes.

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

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

 Mely G. prepares a display.

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

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

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

 2014 College First student Mely G. gives a demonstration.

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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