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The Love Lives of Orchids

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

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

 A spray of blooming orchids, which resemble tropical spiders.

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

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

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

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

 Closeup of a hammer orchid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The incredibly long nectar spur of Angreacum sesquipedale.

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photosynthesis Made my Rock Candy

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

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

 Burgundy leaves of the Bull's Blood sugar beet.

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

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

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

How to Make Rock (Sugar) Candy

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

You will need

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

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

Directions

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

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

 Glasses and skewers set up for making rock sugar candy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Rock sugar candy skewers.

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

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

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

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

 A weighted string coated in rock sugar crystals.

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

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

Sugar from Plants

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

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

This basic diagram shows photosynthesis in action.

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

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

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

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

 Sucrose molecule.

This sucrose molecule looks good enough to eat!

 Sugar cubes.

Just kidding. It looks better in normal scale.

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

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

 Fresh produce in a wicker basket.

Yum!

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

Culture, Climate, and Rubber: Reflections on Xishuangbanna

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 01/30/2014 - 1:48pm

Why go all the way to China to talk about climate change, when there are plenty of conversations to have here in the U.S.?

MAP

Xishuangbanna shares border land with Myanmar and Laos.

Returning from a week at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden for their Third International Symposium focused on “The Role of Botanic Gardens in Addressing Climate Change,” I’m struck both by the complexity and difference of the Chinese culture from ours, and by how many of the same challenges we face.

These challenges are global, and to solve them, we need to take a global perspective. Though the United States and China are in very different stages of economic development, we are the two leading emitters of greenhouse gasses—and we must lead the way in reducing our impact.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden is located near the village of Menglun in the Dai Independent Prefecture of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province in China, which shares 619 miles of borderland with Myanmar and Laos.

The area is a lush, tropical paradise, and does not seem at all affected by climate change, but it is a concern: the tropical areas of China—only 0.2 percent of its total land mass—represent more than 15 percent of the biodiversity in the country.

 Peach-colored epiphytic orchids wrap their roots around a branch.

Native epiphytic orchids in Xishuangbanna

 A view up into an enormous strangler fig.

Strangler figs and other enormous tropical trees create a high canopy above the forest floor.

Biogeographically, Xishuangbanna is located in a transitional zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical East Asia, so the climate is characterized as a seasonal tropical rain forest, with an annual average temperature of 18-22℃ (64.4-71.6℉), with seasonal variation. At about 20 degrees north of the equator, it is just on the northern edge of what is considered the tropics, though it does follow the rainy/dry seasonal patterns—May to October is the rainy season and November to April is the dry season. During my stay, they were experiencing weather somewhat colder than usual, with nighttime temperatures in the upper 40s and daytime temperatures in the low 60s. Earlier in the month, it was only in the upper 30s, but still far warmer than here in Chicago!

 A view of the Mekong River Valley

A view of the Mekong River Valley

The vistas were breathtaking. This is a mountainous region, covered with lush tropical and semitropical plant life, wild bananas, lianas (long-stemmed, woody vines), tualang (Koompassia), and Dipterocarpaceae trees—some of which are more than 40 meters tall!

When I arrived on January 10, I noticed that many of the mountains were covered with what looked like vast areas of rust-colored trees. Rust-colored, I learned, because of a recent cold snap that damaged the leaves of the local monoculture: rubber trees.

 View of Menglun Village, China.

A view of Menglun Village from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. The Mekong River tributary is in the foreground; rubber trees cover the hills in the background.

Rubber is the new thing in Xishuangbanna. Over the past 40 years, rubber trees have been bred for cooler climates, so production has moved northward from the true tropics to areas like Xishuangbanna. This has had enormous benefits for the local Dai population. Subsistence farmers in the past, they have been able to substantially improve their town infrastructure and their standard of living. But as rubber plantations expand, the ecosystem here is increasingly threatened, with only scattered fragments of untouched tropical forest left. While not directly related to climate change, the impacts of rubber were extensively discussed among conference attendees, because climate change exacerbates other environmental stresses like the fragmentation caused by the rubber plots.

 The bark is stripped from a rubber tree. The sap is gathered and turned into rubber.

Not originally a local crop, rubber has become a primary crop of the area.

This seems to me to be a constant tension globally—the competing interest between economic development and conservation—and we’re still looking for the balance. In the United States we continue to have this debate, but around fracking and oil production rather than agriculture. Economic growth at the expense of the environment seems reasonable until we suddenly reach the point where the ecosystem services we depend on to live—clean water and air, food, medicine, etc.—are suddenly in jeopardy, either through direct human action or indirectly though other anthropogenic causes. And that brings us back to climate change.

Climate change is not an easy or comfortable topic of conversation.

Climate change is scary, politically (though not scientifically) controversial, abstract, and easy to ignore. It challenges us as individuals and organizations to rethink our priorities and choices, and to recognize that we may have to change the ways we do things, and how we live our lives, if we are to really address the problem. It is for these reasons, I think, that it generally is not a topic that botanic gardens have focused on when we develop our education or outreach programs. Internationally, gardens are finally beginning to work towards changing that, by building staff capacity to teach about climate change and by integrating climate-change education into existing and new programs.

Where better to understand and communicate how climate change will impact the natural world than at a botanic garden, where we can actually observe its impacts on plants?

The purpose of the conference was to bring together a group of international botanic garden researchers and educators to share their activities around climate change and to think broadly about how botanic gardens can and should use their resources to support movement towards a more sustainable society, as well as how we develop mitigation and adaptation strategies both for conservation purposes and human survival.  Almost 20 countries were represented at the conference, though disappointingly, I was the only U.S. attendee.

 Group shot of a handful of conference attendees around a low table, eating dinner.

Many of our dinners were in the amazing local Dai cuisine—a real treat!

My particular area of expertise is environmental education, so experiencing tropical ecosystems directly, which there obviously isn’t the opportunity to do here in the Midwest, truly amazed and inspired me, and renewed my passion for communicating the wonder of nature to all the audiences that the Chicago Botanic Garden serves. It also drove home the real challenge we have to protect these ecosystems as the climate changes. In our discussions and in the sessions, we really focused on looking for solutions—action items—immediate and long term, that we as researchers and educators, and collectively as botanic gardens, could do to make a difference. 

After dozens of sessions on research and education (everything from paleobotany to using neuroscience to better tailor climate- education messaging—really fascinating!), and discussion in targeted working groups, we produced the Xishuangbanna Declaration on Botanical Gardens and Climate Change

In the education group, we took a multifaceted approach to the challenge—to really make a difference we need to increase our own capacity to communicate about climate change, more effectively engage our visitors in that discussion, and reach out to political, social, religious, and economic leaders to support the development of policies and practices that address the impacts of climate change on plants and society. It sounds like a herculean task, but if we each take one part of the job, I believe we can do it together. For example, here at the Chicago Botanic Garden we’ve stopped selling bottled water, use electric hand dryers rather than waste paper, are committed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for new building construction, and continue to look for other ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

It’s important that as institutions, gardens begin to “live the message” by implementing appropriate sustainability policies at our own institutions.

The entire declaration provides what I think is a concise, yet comprehensive, outline of how botanic gardens can use their strengths to address the very real challenge of climate change: through education, by taking meaningful steps to engage all our audiences; through research, by better understanding how climate change is affecting our environment; and through conservation, by protecting biodiversity and the other natural resources on which we depend.

 Chinese temple.

Highlights outside the symposium included visiting this temple and the local market, and taking a canopy walk.

 Women at market with giat 9-foot stalks of harvested sugar cane.

Sadly, raw sugar cane available in the local market would not fit in my suitcase to go home.

 The author standing at a joint in a canopy walk path.

The signs on this walk warn that there is no turning around on the path. It’s not hard to see why.

 A view back across the canopy bridge reveals how high the path is in the trees.

SO high up in the canopy, but the hills are still taller.

While there is no one “one size fits all” agenda or program that will work for every garden or every individual, I think there is a common approach that can be taken—gardens collectively need to develop a consistent message and mobilize our networks to communicate about climate change and its impacts. Gardens, along with our members, visitors, and patrons, have the capacity and the opportunity, if we will only take it, to inspire the broader community to act now for a better future. Join us.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Wired Nature

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 01/13/2014 - 2:09pm

As winter winds disperse prairie seeds and fragrant pinecones tumble down, Bianca Rosenbaum is busy collecting. As much as she would love to forage through the seasonal natural materials outside of her office at the Chicago Botanic Garden, that’s not what she is after these days. Rather, she is gathering data.

 Bianca Rosenbaum at her desk.

Rosenbaum manages data from her colorful office.

Seated at her desk in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, Rosenbaum taps away at her computer’s purple keyboard. The Garden’s conservation science information manager is busy finishing her masterpiece—a searchable collection of visual and numeric plant data. The new product is a one-stop-shop for information previously housed in three separate databases and accessible by few.  

Named the Science Collections database, the project centralizes the Garden’s data on seed collections, herbaria, and plant DNA. For the first time, the information is accessible online by anyone from international scientists to curious children.

“We saw this great opportunity to combine our databases and be able to cross reference collections,” she said. “It’s been very exciting. It’s one of my biggest, most challenging projects. It feels extremely rewarding.”

Since she began working at the Garden in 2002 as an expert in Microsoft Access, Rosenbaum has overseen the safekeeping of the data in all three of these areas as well as other Garden research collections. In just a few years, the way the information was stored and managed became outdated as technology progressed. She was thrilled with the opportunity to advance its management system.

When the Science Collections project began four years ago, one of her first tasks was to identify data used by all three databases and merge them into common tables to eliminate repetition and guarantee standardization. The result was a complicated set of linked tables that comprise the structure for the final product—called a relational database.

 Collections database search results screen.

A search in the Science Collections database reveals merged information about each species.

She then merged all of the data on each species. Now, rather than going to different databases to find all of the herbarium, seed, and DNA information recorded about a plant, it can be found in one place. 

Rosenbaum then worked with the Garden conservation GIS lab manager, Emily Yates, to add a spatial component to the data by mapping plant locations, which are linked to each collection record. Lastly, she built a web page to serve as a portal from the database to the internet.

Data from the Garden’s Nancy Poole Rich Herbarium are mainly visual, with 17,000 images of pressed plants alongside notes about location and related details. Information from the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank includes high-resolution images of seeds from 2,600 species. The program also includes notes about whether the Garden houses material that may be accessed for DNA sampling for a given plant. The records include information on all classifications of regional plants, and some international. Only those labeled as threatened or endangered are not shown on a map.

 Page from the herbarium with Liatris aspera sample and data.

Liatris aspera (Herbarium acc. 4439)

“This job has totally changed my outlook,” said Rosenbaum, who had no real interest in botany before coming to work at the Garden. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve been here and I’ve been able to combine both the tech world and the environment.”

As a child, she grew her love of technology with encouragement from her parents—an engineer and electronic assembler. She went on to study computer engineering in college, and gained work experience with coding and data management. As a Garden employee, she has coupled those computer skills with a new set of plant-related skills. She is now comfortable with plant names, discussing scientific processes, and even growing her own vegetable garden at home.

Although she spends much of her work day glued to her computer screen, Rosenbaum does find time to look out her window, or step outside to connect with her subject matter. “I think it’s very easy to not notice this world when you are in the tech world, or the business world,” she said. “Now I can connect the two and know what it is I am working on and see what I am working to protect and conserve.”

Rosenbaum often strolls the Waterfall Garden in warm months, but she especially looks forward to spending time in the peaceful Dixon Prairie.

The recently launched database is now open to exploration at www.sciencecollections.org. Check back in coming months for Rosenbaum’s forthcoming addition of advanced search options. 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Grapefruit Bird Feeder

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

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

 The supplies needed for the project.

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

To make a grapefruit bird feeder you will need:

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

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

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

 Skewering the grapefruit rind.

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

 Tying yarn to the grapefruit to hang it.

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

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

 The final product.

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

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

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

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

 Grapefruit birdfeeder hung from a snow-covered fir.

The final product is ready for visitors.

What is birdseed?

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Christmas Tree Taxonomy

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

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

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

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

Conifer vs. Evergreen

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Closeup of a bald cypress branch in golden fall color.

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

 Boxwood in the Japanese Garden.

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

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

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

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

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

Have a wonderful holiday season!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Youth Farm celebrates double digits!

Community Gardening - Mon, 12/09/2013 - 9:49am

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban youth outreach and development program, Green Youth Farm, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year!

What started as one lone staffer and 13 teens on 1.5 acres in the Lake County Forest Preserve has grown to a program with up to six sites all across Chicago and in Lake County, cultivating a new appreciation for plants and wholesome food in 90 young people a year, while teaching them job skills for future success! Here’s a year-end recap on the people and hard work that make up Green Youth Farm (GYF).

That “lone staffer” mentioned above is also known as our fearless leader and Green Youth Farm program founder, Angela Mason. Angie is also celebrating her ten-year anniversary at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Maybe you haven’t met her…that’s probably because Angie has kept herself pretty busy over the past ten years!

Some of the things she’s developed have been the Windy City Harvest (WCH) adult certificate program in sustainable urban agriculture; the Harvest Corps program for young male offenders to learn about gardening while incarcerated and then placed in transitional jobs with our programs post release; the Kraft Foods Garden in Northfield; and most recently, a new partnership with McCormick Place to turn its green roof into a food production site. If you see Angie around the Garden, grab her quick, because she walks really fast, even in heels!

 Angie Mason with Vince Gerasole and GYF kids

That’s Angie with the shovel and the heels! :D

 Green Youth Farm alum/intern Joe Young.

Green Youth Farm alumni/intern Joe Young

 Green Youth Farm crew member Evon at the North Lawndale community farm stand.

Green Youth Farm crew member Evon at the North Lawndale community farm stand

Green Youth Farm hires program graduates! To date, we have two WCH graduates on staff, and have hired 15 Green Youth Farm graduates and WCH students as summer interns.

Green Youth Farm grows food! This season alone, on less than two acres of land, students and staff grew more than 25,000 pounds of sustainable fruits and vegetables.

 Truck bed laden with grocery bags full of fresh vegetables.

Delivery for the WIC cooking demos!

Green Youth Farm feeds communities! Eighty percent of the food we grow is distributed back into the food desert communities where our farms are located. We sell at below-market value prices at our community farm stands and accept all types of federal benefits — the Illinois Link Card; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons — as payment. We also partner with WIC through the Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County, the Lake County Health Department, and Sinai Health System to distribute boxes of food to moms with young children in need.

Green Youth Farm cooks! Teens learn that “all life depends on plants” by turning the plants they grow into delicious meals! Each week, a crew cooks a wholesome, plant-based meal for their peers, staff, and farm guests.

 Staff and crew feast at picnic tables in the shade on a sunny day.

Green Youth Farm staff and students enjoy a farm-fresh meal cooked by crew members!

Green Youth Farm students are successful adults! Our alumni leave GYF with a sense of community responsibility, a greater appreciation for the environment, and an understanding of what it means to be successful in whatever career they choose for themselves. They carry these values with them through life, no matter what they choose to do…whether that’s college, a job, farming, or raising a family. We are proud of our GYF alums!

 Facebook status update.

Facebook post from one of our alumni currently studying environmental studies abroad during a semester at Colgate University. Julio is the first in his family to attend college.

GYF inspires horticultural and food entrepreneurs! Former interns, growers, and coordinators have started businesses all over the United States. These include urban farms at tenspeedgreens.com, food trucks using local, sustainably grown food at luluslocaleatery.com, and sustainable floral design with fieldandflorist.com!

 Ten-Speed Greens  Lulu's Local Eatery  Field & Florist
 GYF student Tatiana talking with a guest about the farm's honey.

Tatiana shows off her hard work at the After School Matters annual gala event.

Green Youth Farm partners! Staff from Green Youth Farm works with more than 34 partners from all different kinds of organizations to help deliver quality programming in the communities we serve. Some of these include the Lake County Forest Preserve District, the Chicago Park District, NeighborSpace, Chicago Public Schools, After School Matters, and Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, Inc.

Green Youth Farm loves volunteers! This year, GYF saw the most dedicated crew of volunteers in its history…volunteers came together to support programming when teens were on-site and do the dirty work of farming when teens were back in school. If you are interested in learning more about the work we do at GYF to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life in our city’s youth, contact the Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer department!

 Group photo of the 2013 Washington Park participants.

Green Youth Farm class of 2013 at the Washington Park (Chicago) Green Youth Farm

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Using Genetics to Rescue a Rare Desert Shrub

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 12/05/2013 - 9:03am

Huddled on a sand dune, the small community of bristly Lepidospartum burgessii plants would be easy for most of us to overlook. But to scientists from the Chicago Botanic Garden, the rare shrubs shine like a flare in the night sky. This is one of two known locations of the species worldwide—both in New Mexico—and the center of a rather dazzling rescue mission.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., a Garden postdoctoral research associate, is pulling out all the stops to save the sensitive species. Commonly called Burgess’ scale broom, it has suffered from a mysterious lack of seed production since the late 1980s.

 Burgess' scale broom (Lepidospartum burgessii).

Burgess’ scale broom (Lepidospartum burgessii) are among the tallest plants in their New Mexico location.

Standing about five feet tall, the silvery-green plants only grow on gypsum dunes. They possess unique characteristics that allow them to help stabilize sand dunes in the desert conditions where they live.

“I’m interested in how we can use genetics broadly to address conservation and ecological restoration questions,” said Dr. Williams. Her curiosity led her to the Garden in 2011 to join a team of genetic experts for this formidable undertaking.

The team suspects that, because the two populations of Lepidospartum burgessii are relatively small, the existing plants have interbred and are now too closely related to pollinate one another—which means they cannot produce seeds and create new plants.

Williams set out to confirm this theory, gathering plant cuttings during summer fieldwork in 2013. She hoped to grow the cuttings into full plants that she could cross-pollinate and study at the Garden. She also took samples from 320 plants back to the Garden. There, using a microsatellite technique, she recorded the genetic pattern of each plant, noting similarities and differences.

“When we have all of these different shrubs from a population, we want to use a fine genetic tool to tease apart genetic variations,” she explained. The microsatellite approach allowed her to identify genetic markers occurring in multiple plants down to the finest level of detail.

The results were encouraging. Williams found enough genetic diversity within the two populations that they should be able to cross pollen, or DNA material, and produce seeds. “Because there is diversity in these populations, we’re really hopeful that if we do a genetic rescue we can get some seeds in these two different populations,” said Williams. A genetic rescue, she explained, is when a species is revived with the addition of new genes, which normally occurs during pollination.

That day didn’t come right away, as the cuttings failed to grow in the Garden greenhouses. Accustomed to the trial and error process of scientific discovery, Williams moved on to her backup plan.

 Dr. Williams hand-pollinating a specimen.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., delivers pollen to a plant.

She returned to the field in October, where she personally carried pollen-filled flowers from one population of plants to another, brushing the fluffy yellow blooms against other plants that may accept their genetic material. With plants as much as one mile apart, it was a process of patience and precision.

She will soon look for seeds in the resulting buds from that pilot study with an x-ray machine in the Garden’s Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory.

Williams is poised for the challenge of whatever she may, or may not, find. Ultimately, she hopes to convey a successful technique to land managers who carry out the daily work of furthering the species and enriching the biodiversity of the southwestern landscape.

“I really like that as part of the Garden we can help these public agencies and use our knowledge of genetics and conservation to stabilize and increase some of these rare populations. That’s really important to me,” said Williams.

 Lepidospartum burgessii, framed by the sunset.

Lepidospartum burgessii, framed by the sunset. Photo: Mike Howard

She has been intent on advancing conservation science since childhood, inspired by her aunt, an ecologist. Her interest grew into expertise as she studied the genetics of ferns while earning her Ph.D. in botany at the University of Wisconsin.

In winter at the Garden, Williams takes every opportunity to walk through the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. “I like being here in the winter and seeing a side of the Garden that’s unexpected: the snow and the beautiful structures in the Malott Japanese Garden,” she said.

Perhaps it is that perspective, of looking for the unexpected, that will unlock the mystery of Lepidospartum burgessii one day soon.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tree-O-Caching in Fall

Youth Education - Thu, 10/24/2013 - 10:02am
 Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden.

Fall leaves in the Sensory Garden

This is a treasure hunt to find trees.
Follow the clues to find them with ease.

Each clue has a hint to the tree’s location,
And a few facts for identification.

The numbers provided are GPS* clues,
Just in case our rhyming stumps you.

When you get to each tree you’re meant to find,
Read the message on the large brown sign.

*GPS coordinates give the general area and my not be exact. Use them to get in the vicinity, then look for a tree that fits the clues. (All trees can be found in adjacent gardens on the west side of the main island.) Don’t have a GPS device? You can use your iPhone or Android phone’s compass utility to follow the clues. Remember: leave any seeds you find for the critters that need food for winter!

 

 This shows the end of a branch with green pointed leaves and black berries.

Tree #1

1.

Enter a Garden of native flowers and grasses;
Walk ’round the fence and try not to pass this.

It’s tall and stately, and rough is its bark;
Look up to see woody, small berries, which are dark.

If you go past the fliers, frozen midflight,
“backtrack” your footsteps to the tree that is “right.”

GPS: N 42˚08.899′, W 087˚47.510′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’54″  W 87˚ 47’31″

CIMG1081

Tree #2

2.

If these trees were shorter, this clue’d be a hard one.
Follow the path through the Landscape Garden.

An evergreen trio are loaded with seeds;
They form narrow cones—look up high to see.

You may cross a stream discover these gems, 
Enjoying the moisture, to the water they bend.

GPS: N 42˚08.879′, W087˚47.499′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″  W 87˚ 47’31″

 close up of a yellow, star-shaped leaf

Tree #3

3.

For those who love fall color it’s plain to see,
Edna Kanaley Graham would have loved this next tree.

Come into the garden, where spring bulbs sleep.
Look right in the entrance and take a quick peep.

This tree’s fruits (now all fallen) are small prickly balls,
Star-shaped leaves are what’s left now—orange and yellow in fall.

GPS: N 42˚08.890′, W 087˚47.566′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’53″, W 087˚ 47’34″

 This is a pair of leaves with some type of nuts.

Tree #4

4.

Near the Circle Garden and the whistling of trains,
A group of large trees makes nuts from sun, air, and rain.

Squirrels and critters think that these nuts are great;
It’s also a favorite of Ohio State!

Can’t find our trees on your wander? Look down:
This time of year, fruit and husks litter the ground.

GPS: N 42˚ 08.849′, W 087˚47.465′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’50″, W 087˚47’34″

 Long seedpods hang between heart-shaped leaves

Tree #5

5.

From here, it’s off to the Enabling Garden you go;
Where a smattering of these trees you’ll find in a row.

This specimen grows very large heart-shaped leaves;
Long, narrow seed pods hang from its eaves.

Either side of the path they drip like fresh wax;
We hope from these clues you discover the facts.

GPS: N 42˚08.810′, W 087˚47.416′
iPhone Compass: N 42˚ 08’49″, W 087˚ 47’25″
 

Our ephemeral signs have now been removed from each site, but here are the answers:

  1. Hackberry (Celtis Occidentalis)
  2. Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’)
  3. Moraine sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moraine’)
  4. Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
  5. Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Cicadas by the Numbers

Youth Education - Mon, 09/23/2013 - 10:37am

Cicadas have been out and singing for a while now. If you live around trees, you may be enjoying their late summer serenade. You also may be finding them on the ground. After they emerge from underground burrows, they molt and enter their adult stage. Then they mate, lay eggs, and die. When you find one, you can examine it to learn more about these big bugs.

Did you know that cicadas have five eyes?

In school we learn that insects have compound eyes, and we use toy bug eye viewers to get a sense of what dragonflies and bees see. But the real picture is a little more complicated. In addition to the pair of compound eyes, many insects, including cicadas, have three simple eyes. They are easy to see on a cicada if you look carefully.

 Front "face" view of a cicada, showing 5 eyes.

This cicada’s three simple eyes show up as three spots reflecting the flash from the camera.

The simple eyes are called ocelli, and they are usually arranged in a triangle between the compound eyes, like those in picture of the cicada’s face. Grasshoppers, bees, and praying mantids also have them.

 Side view of a cicada.

The Latin name for this cicada is Tibicen canicularis. “Canus” is the Latin word for dog. Why do you think he’s called the Dogday cicada?)

Let’s do some cicada math!
If you find a cicada on a tree or the ground, see if you can count:

1  mouth part to drink sap from trees

2  antennae that grow under the eyes and look like whiskers

3  body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen

4  wings, arranged in two pairs

5  eyes, 3 simple + 2 compound

6  legs

Want more cicada by the numbers? Click here to download a Color-by-Number Cicada.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Working toward a new harvest—on top of McCormick Place

Community Gardening - Mon, 08/12/2013 - 3:01pm

Earlier this summer I stood on the rooftop of the McCormick Place convention center along Chicago’s lakefront and looked around. In front of me were vast rectangular trays of a monoculture of low yellow sedum and bare soil.

 The roof of McCormick Place West planted with sedum

McCormick Place West planted with sedum

What I saw in my mind’s eye was bed after garden bed bursting with kale, collards, carrots, radishes, lettuces, peppers, beans, beets, tomatoes, and herbs. For in that space, as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s ongoing mission to promote sustainable gardening and to train Chicago residents for jobs in urban agriculture and green industries, we had just launched the largest farm-to-fork rooftop garden in the Midwest.

In partnership with SAVOR…Chicago, the food service provider for McCormick Place, the Garden has created a 20,000-square-foot rooftop enterprise that will likely yield about 4,000 pounds of produce this year—its first—and double or triple that amount in subsequent years. Already, we are well on our way to that first half-season harvest.

 More of McCormick Place West, this time planted with vegetables

McCormick Place West planted with vegetables

Within this enormous rooftop garden we will expand our urban agriculture capabilities, create more hands-on training and job opportunities for our Windy City Harvest participants, and serve as a local source of fresh produce to this major international convention center. Later this summer, we expect the first of what will be many harvests in years to come—and many lives changed for the better.

The McCormick Place rooftop garden was designed and planted by Angela Mason, the Garden’s director of urban agriculture, and staff from our Windy City Harvest program, which offers the state’s first accredited urban agriculture certificate.

 Stacey Kimmons, a crew member of Windy City Harvest, harvesting lettuce from the roof.

Stacey Kimmons, a crew member of Windy City Harvest

Over the past five years, Windy City Harvest has planted and maintained five acres of vegetable gardens at six Chicago locations. This newest rooftop garden, like the other sites, will become one of the program’s living laboratories, offering hands-on experience to Windy City Harvest students.

As I lingered on the rooftop that day, contemplating the garden-to-be in front of me amid the magnificent expanse of Chicago, I felt acutely my place as one of many people, within the Garden and well beyond, committed to the idea of making the world a better place, one step—or one garden bed—at a time.

Read more about the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture programs.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Food for Thought from Garden Interns

Community Gardening - Fri, 08/02/2013 - 12:23pm

Everyone one must eat. This basic need creates both common ground and opportunity for Myrna Vazquez and Sophie Krause, Chicago Botanic Garden interns bringing vegetables to market as they prepare for careers in environmental education.

“Food is more than a daily life necessity, it is a link to our cultures, economies, industries, and environments,” said Krause, who recently graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Because of this, I see food as a powerful tool for fostering a more environmentally literate society.”

From left, Sophie Krause and Myrna Vazquez, sell Windy City Harvest produce at the Chicago Botanic Garden Farmer's Market.

Sophie Krause (left) and Myrna Vazquez sell Windy City Harvest produce at the Chicago Botanic Garden Farmers’  Market.

The Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture certificate program, an accredited nine-month course offered in partnership with the Richard J. Daley College, is providing Krause and Vazquez a practical, hands-on education in sustainable urban agriculture. Six months of study at the college’s Arturo Velasquez Institute taught the two women such farming techniques as soil testing, prepping raised beds, seeding, and planting. Their knowledge is growing through a three-month internship in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

“I’m learning to grow beautiful, functional, and educational gardens,” said Vazquez, who worked in an after-school drug-prevention program before enrolling in the certificate program as part of a midlife career change. Vazquez says she’s absorbing all the Garden has to offer, including beekeeping, natural pest control and native plant gardening.

 Sophie Krause

Sophie Krause gets vegetables ready for market.

The women gain market-management skills when they sell the produce at the Garden’s bimonthly Farmers’ Markets, offered the first and third Sundays of the month through
October 30. “Nothing feels better than working hard to harvest for market, where I get to see the whole system come full circle—from planting a seed to feeding a customer and to helping the Windy City Harvest program grow,” Krause said. “Today’s food system demands a revival, and it feels good to be part of that process.”

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter Farming

Community Gardening - Thu, 02/28/2013 - 1:32pm

Whenever I tell anyone that I work for the Chicago Botanic Garden, the first response I get is “Wow, you must have the best job ever!” (well, yes, in fact I do) followed quickly by “So, what do you do in the winter?” In response to this question, I have spent the last month or so keeping a photo journal of some winter days at Green Youth Farm.

 hoop house in winter.

Winter in the hoophouse, with a great crop of greens.

So what is it we do in the winter?
WE FARM!

Even though everything looks like it is frozen solid, under hoophouses and low tunnels, tucked beneath coldframes and cozy in greenhouses, food continues to grow! Spinach, lettuce mix, and swiss chard will be harvested all winter long, while carrots, onions, and kale await warmer weather and contribute to an earlier spring harvest. Last year alone, Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest grew more than 80,000 pounds of produce—all on less than four acres of land. This number would not be possible without maximizing our short Chicago growing season with low-tech season extension.

 beehives in winter

Keeping bees warm in winter — hay bales cut down on winter wind getting into the hives.

In addition to growing produce we keep beehives, and last year we harvested more than 70 pounds of honey with our students (many of whom were scared silly of bees when they started the program). Over the winter, we need to check the bees to make sure they have enough food and are staying warm. We are happy to report these hives at our Washington Park location are buzzing!

Confession time: just like the home gardener, we professional gardeners face winter frustrations, too. I’m not proud to admit that we left a couple of hoses out in the garden, now full of frozen water. So yes, some of our wintertime is spent making up for summertime haste.

 frozen hose in winter.

Who can we blame this on?

P.S. It was 14 degrees F. this day and the lock to the gate was frozen solid— so to add insult to injury, I had to scale the fence, get the hose, schlep the hose back over the fence…

P.P.S. Word to the wise: put the hose away in October, not February.

WE TEACH

Every year, Community Gardening staff go out to corporations, schools, and garden clubs, as well as conferences and meetings (American Community Gardening Association, Good Food Fest, American Public Garden Association, etc.) spreading the gardening gospel. Last year alone, we reached more than 500 people outside the Chicago Botanic Garden. Our favorite event of the year is our own Facilitator Training program, where we teach folks interested in replicating the Green Youth Farm model more about what we do and how we do it. This year participants came all the way from Springfield!

 playing roles in the food distribution system.

Laura Erickson leads the group in one of Green Youth Farm’s favorite workshops: The Food System Chain Game.

 

Recruiting new Green Youth Farmers!

Recruiting new Green Youth Farmers!

WE RECRUIT

The Green Youth Farm will hire 13 staff and more than 90 student participants. This year, we more than 50 applications for the three coordinator positions alone. In addition, each year the Green Youth Farm receives more than 250 applications from students from 15 different Chicago, North Chicago, and Waukegan high schools. It’s always fun reconnecting with former students during high-school recruiting visits.

WE MEET

Between Windy City Harvest and The Green Youth Farm, the Community Gardening Department has more than 50 community partners who enable us to do the work we do outside the Chicago Botanic Garden, providing us space to grow on and work in, and program enhancements like art and access to Women, Infant and Children (WIC) clinics and coupons (we distributed almost 1,000 boxes of produce to the clinics last season). The winter is a great time to reconnect with all of these partners to debrief how last season went and think about how we can constantly improve on our work together.

 The Community Gardening team.

Good times in Community Gardening.

While everyone’s job here at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a little different, each one of us is just like those bees in the hive—while the Garden might look peaceful from the outside, on the inside, we are all flapping our wings like crazy to stay warm and productive until spring shines her light on us once again. So until then, stay warm and think spring!!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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