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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

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

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

Interns Harvest More Than Veggies

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

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

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

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

 Fruit and Veg interns Leslie and Rachel

Fruit & Vegetable interns Leslie and Rachel weeding the beds

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

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

 Potato flower (Solanum tuberosum 'Kennebec')

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

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

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

 Popcorn cob

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

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

 Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lesley Grill
Rachel Schipull

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Roof to Table

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

 

Stacey Kimmons, Windy city Harvest graduate, works on the rooftop garden at McCormick Place.

Stacey Kimmons, Windy city Harvest graduate, works on the rooftop garden at McCormick Place.

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

 

 

 

Rescuing Local Ravines

Plant Science and Conservation - Wed, 07/30/2014 - 11:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Jim Steffen.

Garden ecologist Jim Steffen in the field

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Chicago Botanic Garden and University of Chicago partner in bid for Obama library

Community Gardening - Wed, 07/16/2014 - 1:42pm

All the possibilities for the Obama Library plus our Windy City Harvest Youth Farm are featured in the Chicago Tribune today! Read about it in Community groups pin hopes on Obama library (PDF).

 Windy City Harvest Youth Farm teen waters in the garden.

( Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune / July 16, 2014 )
Oluwapelumi Ajayi, 15, waters vegetable beds at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban farm in Washington Park last month. Sophia Shaw, the botanic garden’s CEO, hopes the Obama presidential library will settle on the South Side and include a garden.

Click here to download a PDF of this article.

dglanton@tribune.com
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

Praying Mantis “Children” in the Growing Garden

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

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

 Preying mantid egg case on a twig.

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

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

 Hundreds of baby mantids pour out of an egg case.

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

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

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

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

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

This mantis held very still as it eyed its prey.

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

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

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

 Preying mantis on liatris bloom in August.

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Ultimate Play Date: Kids + Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Pick Up a Stick

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

2. Learn to Lash

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

3. Find the Art in Nature

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

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

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

Imagination can run wild when kids are outside.

4. Nature as Paintbrush

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

5. Kid-Made Kites

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

6. Cricket Bug Box

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

“Nature is children’s real home.”

 A log and magnifying glass.

What’s under that log? Life.

7. Lift a Log

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

8. Make a Magic Circle

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

9. D.I.Y. Dyeing

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

10. Paint Chip Color Hunt

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Plant Breeding Program Takes Perennials to New Heights

Plant Science and Conservation - Sun, 06/08/2014 - 1:10pm

Interested in new perennials for your garden? How about ones that have proven to be exceptional—fragrant, colorful, drought tolerant, resistant to disease and pests, and hardy in the Midwest and similar climates? Just turn to our scientists, who have done the legwork for you through the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant breeding and evaluation programs.

Breeding and selecting new perennials is a long, intense process that begins with cross-pollinating two plants, or moving pollen by hand from the flowers of one plant to the flowers of another plant with different traits. The two related plants—which ideally will produce exceptional offspring—are selected for breeding based on desirable attributes.

 Jim Ault poses in a bed of bright pink- and purple-blooming asters he developed at the Garden.

Jim Ault, Ph.D., with Symphyotricum (aster) hybrids developed at the Garden

 A closeup of the rich purple buds of Twilite false indigo.

Twilite false indigo (Baptisia × variicolor ‘Twilite’)

 Using tweezers, Jim Ault hand-pollinates a Baptisia.

Pollinating Baptisia

“In the best-case scenario, from the first cross to the final plant worthy of introduction, it takes about seven years, maybe eight to ten. I have to think long-term in generation time, from seed to first bloom to maturity,” said Jim Ault, Ph.D., plant introduction manager and Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Director of Ornamental Plant Research.

The most promising new plants are propagated by cuttings or tissue culture and then scrutinized by the Garden’s Plant Evaluation Program, managed by Richard Hawke. He compares the plants to cultivars and species already in the trade to ensure that the plants from the breeding program are unique and worthy of introduction. Hawke also recommends plants for use as parents in the breeding program.

 Richard Hawke crouches down, examining the progress of a cultivar planted at the Garden.

Richard Hawke at work

“The public can see about 80 percent of the breeding program plants as we are growing them in the ground in the evaluation gardens,” Dr. Ault said. Plants with the highest marks move to licensed commercial nurseries that also conduct field and container trials and then propagate the new plants for sale to home gardeners and the horticultural trade.

In recent years, popular offerings from the breeding program have included the first orange coneflower ever released, Art’s Pride coneflower (Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’), and Forever Pink phlox (Phlox ‘Forever Pink’). “The interest in ‘Forever Pink’ has exploded,” Ault said. “It has three weeks of peak bloom in late May to early June and then it repeat-blooms on about 10 percent of the plant all summer and fall. It’s compact and, unlike other summer-blooming phlox, has had no powdery mildew whatsoever.”

You can expect to see more noteworthy perennials in coming years. Ault is hybridizing several types, including ground-cover phlox, asters, and other genera. “Something really wonderful should bloom this spring out of the hundreds of new seedlings that we’re growing,” said Ault.

Visit chicagobotanic.org/research/environmental/breeding for a full list of the perennials released commercially through the Garden’s Plant Breeding Program.

 A closeup of the unusual bright orange color of Art's Pride coneflower.

Art’s Pride coneflower (Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’)

 A bed of a dozen plantings of Forever Pink phlox in full bloom.

Forever Pink phlox (Phlox ‘Forever Pink’)

 Tidal Pool prostrate speedwell.

Tidal Pool prostrate speedwell (Veronica ‘Tidal Pool’)

Support for the plant evaluation program is provided by the Bernice E. Lavin Evaluation Garden Endowment, the Woman’s Board Endowment for Plant Evaluation Research and Publication, and the Sally Meads Hand Foundation.

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Plant Conservation Is Happening Right Over Your Head

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 05/29/2014 - 11:31am

What if the next plant conservation project wasn’t down the street, or in the neighboring county, or far away in the wilderness? What if it was right above your head, on your roof? In our increasingly urban world, making use of rooftop space might help conserve some of our precious biodiversity in and around cities.

 Ksiazek bending to examine blooming sedums on Chicago's City Hall green roof.

The green roof on Chicago’s City Hall supports an amazing diversity of hundreds of plant species.

Unfortunately, native prairie plants have lost most of their natural habitat. In fact, less than one-tenth of one percent of prairies remains in Illinois—pretty sad for a state whose motto is the “Prairie State.” As a Chicago native, I found this very alarming. I thought, “Is it possible to use spaces other than our local nature preserves to help prevent the extinction of some of these beautiful prairie plants?” With new legislation at the turn of the century that encouraged the construction of many green roofs in Chicago, it seemed like the perfect place to test a growing hypothesis I had: maybe some of the native prairie plants that were losing habitat elsewhere could thrive on green roofs.

This idea brought me to the graduate program in Plant Biology and Conservation, a joint degree program through Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Here, I am investigating the possibility that the engineered habitats of green roofs can be used to conserve native prairie plants and the pollinators that they support.

 Ksiazek examines plants in a prairie, taking data.

Which plant are you? In 2012, I surveyed natural prairies to determine which species live together.

Since I began the program as a master’s degree student in 2009, I’ve learned a lot about how native plants and pollinators can be supported on green roofs. For my master’s thesis, I wanted to see if native wildflowers were visited by pollinators and if they were receiving enough high-quality pollen to makes seeds and reproduce. Good news! The nine native wildflower species I tested produced just as many seeds on roofs as they normally do on the ground, and these seeds are able to germinate, or grow into new plants.

Once I knew that pollinator-dependent plants should be able to reproduce on green roofs, I set out to learn how to intentionally design green roofs to mimic prairies for my doctoral research. I started by visiting about 20 short-grass prairies in the Chicago region to see which species lived together in habitats that are similar to green roofs. These short-grass prairies all had very shallow soil that drained quickly and next to no shade; the same conditions you’d find on a green roof. 

 Ksiazek poses for a photo among prairie grasses.

Plant species from this dry sand prairie just south of Chicago might also be able to survive on green roofs in the city.

 Plant seedling.

A tiny bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) seedling grows on the green roof at the Plant Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 Hand holding a seedling; paperwork is in the background, along with a seedling tray.

One of my experiments involves planting tiny native seedlings into special experimental green roof trays. They’re now on top of the Plant Science Center. Go take a look!

I’m now setting up experiments that test the ability of the short-grass prairie species to live together on green roofs. Some of these experiments involved using seeds as a cheap and fast way of getting native plants on the roof. Other experiments involved using small plant seedlings that may have a better chance of survival, although, as any gardener could tell you, are more expensive and labor intensive than planting seeds. I will continue to collect data on the survival and health of all these native plants at several locations, including the green roof on the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center at the Garden.

Ideally, I would continue to collect data on these experimental prairies to see how they develop over the next 50 years and learn how the plants were able to support native insects, such as pollinating bees and butterflies. But I didn’t want my Ph.D. to last 50 years so instead, I decided to collect the same type of data on green roofs that have already been around for a few decades. Because the technology is still relatively new in America, I had to go to Germany to collect this data, where the history of green roofs is much older. Last year, through a Fulbright and Germanistic Society of America Fellowship, I collected insects and data about the plant communities on several green roofs in and around Berlin and learned that green roofs can support very diverse plant and insect communities over time. We scientists are just starting to learn more about how green roofs are different from other urban gardens and parks, but it’s looking like they might be able to contribute to urban biodiversity conservation and support.

 Ksiazek collects insects from traps on a green roof in Berlin.

I collected almost 10,000 insects on green roofs in and around Berlin, Germany in 2013.

 Closeup of a pinned bee collected from a green roof in Berlin.

I found more than 50 different species of bees on the green roofs in Germany.

Now that I’m back in Chicago and have been awarded research grants from several institutions, I’m setting up a new experiment to learn about how pollinators move pollen from one green roof to another. I’ll be using a couple different prairie plants to measure “gene flow,” which basically describes how pollen moves between maternal and paternal plants. If I find that pollinators bring pollen from one roof to anther, this means that green roofs might be connected to the large urban habitat, rather than merely being isolated “islands in the sky,” as some people have suggested. If this is true, then green roofs could also help other plants in their surroundings—more pollinating green roof bees could mean more fruit yield for your nearby garden.  

 Aerial view of Chicago at Lake Michigan, with green rectangles superimposed over building which house green roofs.

The green boxes represent green roofs near Lake Michigan. How will pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths move pollen between plants on these different roofs? This summer, I will be carrying out an experiment to find out.

There are still many questions to be answered in this new field of plant science research. I’m very excited to be learning so much through the graduate program at the Garden and to be collaborating with innovative researchers both in Chicago and abroad. If you’re interested in keeping up with my monthly progress, please visit my research blog at the Phipps Conservatory Botany in Action Fellows’ page

 A wasp drinks water from a flower after rain.

A friendly little wasp enjoys the native green roof plants on a rainy day in Paris.

And if you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll get a chance to visit the green roof at the Plant Science Center and see how beautiful plant conservation happening right over your head can be! 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pioneering Woodland Restoration

Plant Science and Conservation - Sat, 05/10/2014 - 8:30am

Tranquil, peaceful, and serene are words often associated with the McDonald Woods, which wrap around the northeastern edge of the Chicago Botanic Garden. But to Jim Steffen, senior ecologist at the Garden, the oak woodland is a bustling center for natural processes and species, and may hold answers to unsolved scientific questions.

 Multi-flowered milkweed blooms.

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) blooms in the McDonald Woods.

“Nothing out there exists by itself. It’s all a network,” said Steffen. Since he arrived at the Garden 25 years ago, he has used his powers of observation to document, study, and breathe life into the systems that sustain a healthy woodland.

In the late 1800s, most area native oaks were cleared for settlement, leaving behind a fragmented and altered landscape. Invasive plants, including buckthorn and nonnative critters, such as all of our present-day earthworms, moved in. The climate began to change. While many may have thrown up their hands and walked away from this complex puzzle, Steffen saw a treasure.

Taking Flight

At age 15, he began to explore the natural world in earnest and to grow the insight that guides him today. After taking a course in his community, he was federally licensed to band birds for research, a pursuit he followed for another 40 years. As he searched for hawks, owls, and other birds of prey, Steffen couldn’t help but notice the activity beneath his feet. Among the fallen leaves were scuttling rodents, insects, and blooming plants. He realized their presence was integral to the entire community of life in the woods.

 A clump of blooming sedge grass.

Carex bromoides is one of many sedge plants essential to the woodland ecosystem.

“I started getting more into how those things are related rather than just narrowly focusing on the birds or the plants,” he said.

Steffen developed a broad ecological background as he pursued his education and worked toward a career in conservation science. He was hired to manage 11 acres of woods alongside a nature trail at the Garden. Now, that management responsibility includes more than 100 acres.

Master Plan

Although he does not expect to recreate the exact natural community of the past, Steffen does aim to grow an oak woodland of today. “My goal is to increase the native species diversity and improve the ecological functioning that is going on in the Woods,” he said.

Early in his career, he successfully advocated to expand the managed area to include adjacent acres. His management activities and detailed inventory work has grown the number of species there from 223 to 405. Of those species, 345 are native to the region.

 The woods in winter, showing both cleared, walkable woods and unpassable buckthorn-infested area.

Invasive buckthorn plants are interspersed among the trees on the right, while they have been removed on the left.

The leaf canopy of the second-growth woodland was nearly 100 percent sealed when he arrived. It is now more open, allowing sunlight to punctuate the ground—encouraging the reproduction of oak species and promoting the flowering and seed-set of the native grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. The rewards of his work? Less carbon being released from the soil, improved water retention and nutrient cycling, and a place to bolster native species of plants and animals.

 Jim Steffen in full protective gear including helmet and goggles, up in a tree with a chainsaw.

Jim Steffen begins to remove an ash tree infested with the invasive emerald ash borer insect.

Each season brings new challenges. This winter, Steffen, his crew, and hired contractors carefully removed nearly 600 ash trees killed by emerald ash borers, cleared three acres of mature buckthorn, and conducted a six- to seven-acre controlled burn.

“It’s a difficult thing to do,” he said of oak woodland management. Steffen is grateful for each helping hand. “I’d say I’d be about ten years behind if it hadn’t been for my dedicated volunteers who help with the physically demanding work.”

Springing Into Action

This spring, Steffen and his team will begin to collect seed from more than 120 native plants they nurture in the Garden nursery and from dozens more in the woodland.

The process continues through November. It includes plants like the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which was once common in Glencoe’s natural areas.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Steffen also collects seed from external natural areas, bringing new genetic diversity into the Woods to strengthen existing plant populations. (This is an increasingly challenging task, as 50 percent of his collection sites has been lost.) Collected seeds are scattered in prepared areas of McDonald Woods, either in the spring or fall, or sometimes in the middle of winter on top of the snow.

Groundwork

“Everything you see growing, walking, or flying in the woodland is just 10 percent of the picture. In any native ecosystem, probably 90 percent of the diversity is at and below the soil surface,” he said. An entire network of plants and other living organisms exist and interact there, helping to sustain what grows above them. Oak trees and most other native plants rely on entrenched fungi, for example, to deliver nutrients and water or protect them from herbivores and disease.

 Closeup of a tiny brown spider clinging to the back side of a leaf.

This tiny Pisaurina spider helps support the woodland ecosystem.

Microarthropods living in the leaf litter and soil, such as tiny springtails and mites, and larger organisms including spiders, also play important roles. Together with a volunteer, Steffen has dedicated 14 years of work to better understanding those interactions. They have found several species never found before in Illinois and some that even appear to be new to science. “We are still identifying some of the things we collected ten years ago,” Steffen said. And similar, rarely studied subcommunities exist higher up in the trees. “That’s another hint as to how complex the system is and how much we don’t know about it,” he added.

Some things are clear. A pioneer of oak woodland restoration, Steffen was among the first to notice that the natural layer of decomposing oak leaves and plant material was vanishing from the ground in the McDonald Woods and most other woodlands in the region. He attributes the effect to higher levels of nitrogen from the decomposing leaves of nonnative plants, and the presence of exotic, invasive earthworms. “Because so many organisms live in that layer and depend on it for survival, they are disappearing,” he cautioned.

But first, it is time to take in the rewards of winter. May is peak season for migrating birds in the Woods, including warblers and flycatchers. Sedges will bloom, along with spring ephemerals such as trillium.

 A spare woods has dappled sunlight throughout.

The lush woodland landscape is healthy today.

Activity is everywhere, and it is a welcome sign of progress for Steffen. “It’s much healthier now than it was when I started,” he said. “All this diversity is able to function more easily now.”

The McDonald Woods are also an educational resource. Steffen will lead a rare off-trail hike there this year, and teach classes in bird watching and sedges through the Garden’s Adult Education programs.

Learn more about Jim Steffen and watch a video about his work.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bottle Cap Bouquets

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

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

 The supplies for creating bottlecap bouquets.

The supplies for creating bottle cap bouquets.

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

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

What you need:

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

The directions are pretty simple.

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

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

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

 hands poking flowers into floral foam.

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

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

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

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

 a tiny bouquet of baby's breath and thyme.

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

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

 a tiny garden created in an old contact lens case.

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

Tips

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

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

 the final bottlcap bouquet arrangements in a group.

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Enriching the Lives of Future Plant Scientists

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

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

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

Science First participants gather data in the Greenhouse.

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

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

The Science Career Continuum consists of five programs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In Bloom in the Garden, April 01, 2014

What's in Bloom - Tue, 04/01/2014 - 9:40pm
The dramatic banana plant (Musa x paradisiaca), a hybrid of Musa acuminata x Musa balbisiana, is a member of the Musaceae family often incorrectly referred to as a tree. It is actually a large perennial herb, with succulent, very juicy stems that arise from a fleshy rhizome or corm and reach a height of 20 to 25 feet. The huge, smooth, paddle-shaped leaves can grow as large as 8 feet. They number from 4 to 15 and are arranged spirally around the stems. They unfurl upward and outward at the rate of one per week in warm conditions. The flowers first appear as large, long, oval, tapering, purple-clad buds, which are actually waxy, hood-like bracts that cover the flowers inside. As they open, slim, nectar-rich, tubular, toothed white flowers are clustered in whorled double rows along the floral stalk. Hardy in USDA Zones 9-11, the banana plant is an ornamental, tropical-looking houseplant that in the Chicago area should be grown indoors in organically rich, moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Edible bananas originated in the Indo-Malaysian region, reaching to northern Australia. They were known as early as the third century B.C.E. Commonly called edible banana or French plantain, the genus is named for Antonia Musa, a first-century B.C.E. Roman physician.
The canary tree mallow is a tropical tree that produces a canary-yellow terminal (at the tip of the branch) and axillary (formed in the leaf axils) corymbose inflorescence (flat-topped clusters of flowers) in winter in the Chicago area. With a native range from Mexico south to Colombia and Venezuela, the flowers can vary from pale yellow through gold, sometimes with a red blotch near the center of the flowers. Grow canary tree mallows like abutilons — in full sun, in well-drained soil, and cut back the 12-foot-tall plants to a more manageable size during the dormant nonflowering season, from late winter to early spring.
Genista canariensis, commonly known as Canary Island broom, is a shrubby member of the pea family (Fabaceae) endemic to the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. For years it was taxonomically placed in the genus Cytisus. For two to three weeks in early spring, it is covered with masses of fragrant gold flowers. The delicate little leaves have three leaflets, resembling clover, to which it is related. It requires cool nights, under 60 degrees Fahrenheit to flower, but cannot withstand frosts. Despite its limited natural distribution, Genista canariensis has become widespread in natural communities in southeastern Europe, California, and Washington.
A striking member of the Bromelioideae family, the urn plant (Aechmea zebrina ‘Surprise’) is an exotic, stately plant with beautiful, spiky, bright orange flowers held upright above rosettes of wide, thick, strappy gray-green leaves with dark stripes on the underside and backward-curving spines along the edges. The stunning flowers can last for months, making this one of the most popular bromeliads for the home. It should be planted in fast-draining potting soil with its central cup filled with fresh water, where it will thrive in indirect to moderate light in temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Native to Mexico through South America, bromeliads are epiphytic (growing on trees) plants whose name comes from the Greek aichme (spear). They are technically air plants that use their roots for support.

Shoreline Showtime

Plant Science and Conservation - Sat, 03/29/2014 - 9:22am

The dress rehearsal is complete, spring is preparing to turn on the lights, and within a few weeks the curtains will go up on the Chicago Botanic Garden’s newest shoreline restoration—the North Lake.

According to Bob Kirschner, Woman’s Board Curator of Aquatic Plant and Urban Lake Studies, the project that began in 2010 will come to full fruition this year.

“One of the most important details is the maintenance and management after it is installed,” he said.

Since the restored North Lake was dedicated in September 2012, its 120,000 native plantings have been busy growing their roots as far as 6 feet deep into the soil, trying to establish themselves in their new home. The process has been all the more tenuous due to the barrage of extreme weather during that time, from droughts to floods to the deep freeze.

 Bob Kirschner poses on the restored lakefront.

Bob Kirschner was trained as a limnologist, or freshwater scientist.

“The first few years after a large project is installed, we’re out there babying the native plants as much as we can because these plants are serving an engineering function,” said Kirschner, who explained that plant roots play an integral role in the long-term stability of the shoreline and are essential to the success of the entire restoration.

Wading In

The Garden’s lakes were rough around the edges when Kirschner arrived 15 years ago. Wrapped in 60 acres of water, the land was eroding where it met the lakes.

Although the Garden could have surrounded the shores with commonly used barriers such as boulders or sheet piling, Kirschner advocated another route.

“We’re using much more naturalized approaches,” he explained. “They are taking the place of conventional, structural approaches.”

Why? In the long run, the shoreline becomes relatively self-sustaining. In addition to preventing erosion, it offers habitat for native wildlife such as waterfowl and turtles, and filters water to help keep it clean. When the plants flower, a shiny bow of blooms wraps all of those benefits up in a neat package.

 View across the lake of the Cove; swamp loosestrife is in bloom.

The North Lake shoreline restoration surrounds the Kleinman Family Cove.

Bright Ideas

For many Garden visitors, a stop at the shoreline is inspirational. “We’re trying to help them visualize that native landscapes can be created within an urban context to be both beautiful and ecologically functional at the same time,” said Kirschner, who counts on the attractive appearance of the plantings to open conversations about restoration, and how individuals can generate similar results. “When thoughtfully designed, you can have both the ecology and the aesthetics,” he added. 

It was this concept of incorporating the art and science of restoration in a public setting that brought him to the Garden in the first place, after more than 20 years as an aquatic ecologist with Chicago’s regional planning commission.

Kirschner, who is also the Garden’s director of restoration ecology, has managed six Garden shoreline restorations incorporating a half-million native plants.

 Marsh marigol (Caltha palustris) in bloom along the shoreline.

Marsh marigold is a harbinger of spring.

He and his team know where all of the plants are, and they track them over time to identify those best suited for urban shoreline conditions. His favorites include sweet flag (Acorus americanus), common lake sedge (Carex lacustris), swamp loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus), and blue flag iris (Iris virginica). Perhaps the most exciting of them all is marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), the first shoreline plant to bloom each spring.

Natural areas comprise 225 of the Garden’s 385 acres.

According to Kirschner, the Garden’s hybrid approach to shoreline restoration, which incorporates ecological function and aesthetic plantings, is unique. “Part of our mission as environmental scientists is finding a way to make our work relevant and valued by as much of the public as we can reach,” he said. “It’s emotional for me because I believe so strongly in it, and that this is a path to increase ecologically sensitive landscape values within American culture.”

Changing Seasons

 Drifts of native plants along the restored shoreline.

Drifts of native plants are a hallmark of the Garden’s restored shorelines.

The North Lake was his last major shoreline restoration for the time being. He is looking forward to taking a breath of fresh air and enjoying the show this spring. “It should be really interesting to watch how this year progresses,” he said. Because the long winter may mean a compressed spring, he said the blooms could be that much more intense once they begin in about May. “Every day when we come to the Garden, the plants will be noticeably bigger than they were the day before,” he anticipated.

When Kirschner finds a moment for reflection, he wanders over to the Waterfall Garden, where he enjoys serenity in the sound of the rushing waters, and walking the two staircases that invite discovery along the way.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Making a Splash with Orchids

Plant Science and Conservation - 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

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

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

Planting the Future

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 02/04/2014 - 11:33am

David Sollenberger is building a time machine. He is capturing the prairie of today so that it can appear again in the future.

Moving about the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank Preparation Laboratory at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Sollenberger works with a combination of everyday and high-tech tools. Brown paper bags filled with seeds scatter the windowsill, while metallic seed-drying machines with dials, switches, and gears line a wall. A long, stainless steel work table in the middle of the room is often surrounded by a team of focused volunteers.

The pulse of this active lab is the heartbeat of the Garden’s Seed Bank — a living collection of plant seeds reserved for potential future plantings.

 David Sollenberger in a large, walk-in freezer room. He's wearing winter gear and a knit cap.

David Sollenberger files a seed packet in the Garden’s vault.

“Tallgrass prairie is a globally threatened ecosystem, and we’re working hard to preserve what is left,” said Sollenberger, Seed Bank manager at the Garden.

While the prairie was once visible from horizon to horizon in the Midwest, it is now reduced to small, disconnected pieces of land that struggle to survive. While many of those remnants are protected from threats such as continued development, they remain fragile due to their disconnect from other natural areas and impending threats such as climate change. Seeds preserved in a seed bank can be used to create new habitat, or used to enhance existing areas in the future.

Prairie Protocol

The Garden began its Seed Bank as a part of an international effort led by the Millennium Seed Bank and the Bureau of Land Management’s Seeds of Success program. Together with partners from across the globe, they banked 10 percent of the world’s flora by 2010. Then, the Garden chose to continue to save seeds regionally, along with Seeds of Success.

 A view through the window into the prep lab, where staff and volunteers are sorting seeds.

Peek into the Seed Bank Preparation Laboratory on your next stroll through the lobby of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to see the seed savers in action!

During warmer months, Sollenberger and a small group of contractors individually go into the field to gather seeds from a list of 544 target species. Each year they visit parts of the 12 interconnected ecoregions of the tallgrass prairie system, including wetlands, meadows, and prairies. Although there are more than 3,000 prairie species in the Midwest alone, Garden scientists identified a critical list of plants to focus on that are important species within the habitats they represent.

Following collection protocols established by the Millennium Seed Bank, they try to collect seeds from at least 50 plants in a population, which allows them to capture up to 95 percent of the population’s genetic diversity. When they do, they can share a section of the collection with national seed banks for backup storage.

However, due to the small size of many prairie remnants, there are sometimes fewer than 50 individual plants of a species in a population. In that case, Sollenberger explained, they collect along maternal lines, which means that seeds are collected separately from each plant. This results in a systematic representation of the genetic diversity of a species within a population.

Time Traveling

 Closeup of a volunteer's hand moving seeds from a bulk pile to a smaller pile with tweezers.

Seeds are counted for packaging.

During winter in the laboratory, the collected seeds are first sorted and cleaned. It can be a meticulous and time-consuming process. But Sollenberger uses a number of techniques to add efficiency.

To sort viable seeds (those that hold an embryo inside) from those that are empty hulls, the team loads a batch into a large, clear cylinder with a motor-run fan called a column blower. When the seeds are blown about within the container, the heavier ones ­fall to the bottom while the lighter ones rise to a top shelf and can be disposed. They also use an X-ray machine to look inside a sample of seeds to determine what percentage is filled and potentially viable.

For seeds from the Aster family, goldenrods, and milkweeds, the team must first remove the silky hairs, or pappus. First, seeds are rolled on a rubber mat to loosen the pappus.

Then, they are run through a typical Shop-Vac that separates the pappus from the seeds. By using this process, “we’ve been able to improve the quality of the seeds,” noted Sollenberger. “It decreases the volume of seeds so there is less packaging, which allows for more space in the seed vault, and it improves our ability to separate light, non-viable ‘empty’ seeds and other light extraneous plant materials (chaff) from heavier, potentially viable ‘filled’ seeds.”   

 A hand with paper towel rolls seeds on a baking mat.

Seeds are rolled on a mat to remove the pappus.

 A hand pulls seed pappus "lint" from the shop vac's filter.

A filter inside the vacuum separates the pappus from the seed.

Throughout this process, seeds are stored in the dryers. There, they are dried to 15 percent humidity, which is critical for their successful storage at minus 20-degrees Celsius. Using this process, the majority of Midwestern prairie seeds can be stored for up to 200 years.

Early in his career, David Sollenberger helped to build the Garden’s Dixon Prairie. Learn more about his work. Bring your own seeds to our annual Seed Swap, Sunday, February 23.

Another few months of seed sorting await Sollenberger and his team, but he is already thinking of spring. “We take a breath in springtime when everyone else is busy,” he chuckled. It is then that he likes to visit  McDonald Woods to soak in the beauty of a truly native natural area, before heading out in the summer to collect the next batch of seeds.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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