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Prairie Blooms Beckon

Garden Blog - Wed, 06/15/2016 - 10:35am

It’s time for a visit to the Dixon Prairie to savor late spring flowers and the pollinators visiting these plants.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla)

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla)

A standout plant, looking almost like a small shrub, is white wild indigo (Baptisia alba). This is the white-flowered cousin to blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis); this plant, not native to the Chicago region, was historically a source for blue dye. Both species are in the pea family. Many prairie plants belong to the pea family; other important families of the prairie are sunflower, sedge, and grass. Queen and worker bumblebees primarily pollinate white wild indigo. Their large size allows them to push down the lower part of the flower (the keel) and thus expose the pollen producing anthers. 

A rich palette of blue flowering plants from the Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) surrounds the white wild indigo plants. A variety of bees and butterflies might be seen visiting these plants, bumblebees being the primary pollinator. Butterflies, in their quest for nectar, will not be rewarded for their visit, however, since Ohio spiderwort doesn’t have nectar.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate') and coneflowers bloom on the Prairie.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’) and coneflowers bloom on the prairie.

The prairie also currently hosts numbers of white tubular flowers, foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). On the lower half of the flower is a large hairy sterile stamen (the part of the flower that produces pollen); perhaps this feature is the origin of the plant’s common name. Pollinators, primarily bees, must work their way past this sterile stamen to reach pollen. This effort increases the likelihood of pollen being deposited on the stigma, the organ that is receptive to pollen. Those willing to observe these flowers for a while might be rewarded with witnessing some territory defending. The male of an introduced bee, the European wool carder bee, with sharp spines on their abdomens, will attack other males who come in the vicinity of the female when she is foraging for nectar. 

Pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

Pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida)

Just opening on the gravel hill prairie is the pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida). The narrower leaves of this plant distinguish it from the commonly planted purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) (sometimes called broad-leaved coneflower). Like other members of the sunflower or aster family, the coneflower has what appears to be a singular flower but is actually a head of many flowers. This species has what are called ray and disc flowers. Some sunflower plants have only disc flowers while others, such as dandelions, only ray flowers. This plant is a preferred nectar plant of both bees and butterflies. 

Moving into summer, this palette will change and reveal a new tapestry of grasses and wildflowers. To witness the full bounty of the prairie, a prairie visit should be a weekly affair.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

An Insider’s Story from The Hidden Art of Trees

Garden Blog - Thu, 06/09/2016 - 9:41am

When a massive weeping willow tree fell in the woods near master crafter Mike Jarvi’s studio, he studied it for many weeks before making a first cut.

Then he got out the chain saw.

The tree had stood astride an intermittent stream for nearly 70 years before falling in a storm. As Jarvi hewed into an especially thick area of the trunk, its remarkable grain and age rings were revealed. The fast-growing willow had recorded both floods and ebbs of water in its rings—some remarkably wide, indicating flood years when the tree grew in great leaps, others quite slim, marking years of drought for the water-loving species.

Willow desk and chair by Mike Jarvi.

Willow desk and chair by Mike Jarvi.

The front view of this massive desk, created from a single willow trunk.

The front view of this massive desk, created from a single willow trunk.

Jarvi cut one massive section from the trunk, envisioning a desk, then cut into that piece for a matching chair that fits neatly into the desk “slot.” Both pieces were hoisted into his shop’s loft to dry…for four years. The chair slab weighed in at 230 pounds when it arrived; four years later, is was down to 130 pounds, having lost 100 pounds of moisture.

On view in The Hidden Art of Trees as desk and chair, the willow and its tree rings—and their recorded history—are visible now for all to see.

The Hidden Art of Trees is on view at the Regenstein Center through August 21, 2016. Admission is free; parking fees apply for nonmembers.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Paddling through Eden

Garden Blog - Wed, 06/08/2016 - 9:22am

A great blue heron watched as I glided past. Dragonflies tumbled and hovered just above the water, which was throwing reflections of sunlight onto the tree trunks along the shore. And the air was filled with a characteristic sound of kayaking in the Skokie Lagoons—the roar of traffic on the Edens Expressway.

But so what? The Edens does nothing to detract from this little Garden of Eden, where paddling a kayak through narrow waterways ringed with trees or across wind-swept open water is a magical way to spend part of a sunny day.

And, once a year, you can paddle at the Chicago Botanic Garden. On June 18 to 19, you can canoe the lakes of the Garden in the annual Father’s Day Canoe Adventure. Held in conjunction with Friends of the Chicago River, the hour-long paddles regularly sell out.

Still, there are plenty of other opportunities to get on the water. Canoe and kayak rentals are available from the Garden’s partner, the Forest Preserves of Cook County: Busse Lake in Elk Grove Village, Maple Lake and Tampier Lake in the Palos Preserves, and here at the Skokie Lagoons.

 Kayaking the Skokie Lagoons.

Kayaking the Skokie Lagoons

At the Skokie Lagoons site, you rent your boat from Chicago River Canoe & Kayak, which operates a trailer on Tower Road, just south of the Garden. No experience necessary; kayaking is easy, and the staffers will give you a quick lesson and offer suggestions on a route.

You can paddle around the island in the middle of one of the lagoons, right across from the launch spot, which takes about 45 minutes. Or you can head under the Tower Road overpass and into the long system of lagoons to the north.

“A family of badgers has been seen there,” said Angela Williams, who helps run the Chicago River Canoe & Kayak rental station, as she picked out a paddle for me.

That was tempting, but the island looked plenty inviting. And John Hage, the outfitter’s manager here, said he recommends the island because the narrow waterways keep you closer to shorelines where you see birds.

Grab your camera and a paddle to #birdthepreserves from the water this summer.

 A great blue heron fishes from the shoreline.

A great blue heron fishes from the shoreline

Williams assigned me a kayak—there are three kinds, with different levels of speed, maneuverability, and tippiness—and I lowered myself in and put my feet on the foot rests. She handed me the paddle, pushed me into the water, and I was off.

And immediately having a grand time. Gliding swiftly—you can go pretty fast with just a little effort—and skimming along only inches above the lagoon’s surface, you feel like some kind of water creature, as comfortable paddling as the Canada geese you see.

In fact, you can paddle faster than the geese. I came upon a line of Canada goslings following one parent at the front of the line and followed by another at the back. I caught up and glided alongside, so we were a double line paddling quietly beneath the overhanging trees, the little goslings’ heads bobbing. Even for one who despises the park-fouling birds, I thought it was sweet.

I rounded the island, the highway hum fading enough that I could hear the plops of fishing lines being cast by guys fishing from kayaks. A deer wandered through the woods on the island. A great blue heron soared overhead, its shadow crossing over my kayak. And then, after flushing one last great blue heron along the shore, I crossed the water back to the launch.

Back at the trailer, Hage recommended the Maple Lake location too; Chicago River Canoe & Kayak rents the boats there and at the Busse Lake launch. And for those who would like to paddle but would like company, the outfitter is planning to organize monthly networking paddles.

 Kayaks on the shoreline of Rosewood Beach in Highland Park.

Parking at Rosewood Beach in Highland Park for a quick breather during a paddle

Bring dry shorts to change into; in a kayak, the water drips off the paddle and into your lap as you paddle.

But go. The waterways are lovely to explore the preserves—and once a year, the Garden. Out here, it’s just you, the herons, and your swift path through the water, and you haven’t left Cook County. 

Photos by Amy Spungen and Bill Bishoff.
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Great Egret: Graceful White Wader

Birding - Mon, 06/06/2016 - 8:48am

The elegant flight and bright white plumage of the great egret (Ardea alba) belie its harsh croak when it takes off from a marsh. It was this bird’s beauty that nearly led to its demise at the turn of the twentieth century, when these and other waders were hunted for their feathery plumes that women wore in their hats.

Since then, the great egret, standing more than 3 feet tall with a nearly 5-foot wing span, has become the symbol for the National Audubon Society, founded in part to stop these birds from being killed to extinction.

Great egrets spend winter as far south as the West Indies, Central America, and South America. In spring, they migrate in small flocks during the day, eventually choosing a place farther north to raise young in nests close to trees and shrubs called colonies, often with other large waders including the great blue heron.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret (Ardea alba) fishes; in the background is a great blue heron. Photo © Carol Freeman

During breeding season, a patch of skin on the bird’s face turns green, contrasting with the bright yellow bill. Males perform fancy courtship displays, opening up and fluffing their white plumes that grow to extend beyond their backs.

Both male and female build a platform-style nest of sticks in a tree or shrub often toward the top and above or near water. The female lays three to four greenish-blue eggs and gets help from her mate during incubation. 

When the young hatch in about 24 days, the nestlings begin their incessant croaking—getting louder as they grow older—and beg for regurgitated food from their parents.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret in flight over the lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

The great egret mostly eats fish, but it also dines on frogs, snakes, and aquatic insects such as dragonflies, and even grasshoppers and rodents in fields near their nesting territories.

The egret wades slowly through the water up to its belly looking for prey. Suddenly, it will stop and stand still, its motionless legs likely looking like branches to a fish, which will come closer, and then get snatched up by the hungry wader. The bird swallows the prey head first, sometimes having to flip it up in the air and catch it so it will be in the right direction to go down smoothly.

Come late summer and autumn, great egrets gather in loose feeding flocks, sometimes creating a sea of white in a wetland and a stunning spectacle for observers.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret wades in the Skokie Lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

Once on the state endangered species list, the great egret is doing well in Illinois; however, habitat loss and water pollution may threaten its future. Visit Baker’s Lake in Barrington to watch the great egret during breeding season and McGinnis Slough in Palos Park late summer to watch large feeding flocks as they head south for the winter.

The great egret is the June bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Great Egret: Graceful White Wader

Garden Blog - Mon, 06/06/2016 - 8:48am

The elegant flight and bright white plumage of the great egret (Ardea alba) belie its harsh croak when it takes off from a marsh. It was this bird’s beauty that nearly led to its demise at the turn of the twentieth century, when these and other waders were hunted for their feathery plumes that women wore in their hats.

Since then, the great egret, standing more than 3 feet tall with a nearly 5-foot wing span, has become the symbol for the National Audubon Society, founded in part to stop these birds from being killed to extinction.

Great egrets spend winter as far south as the West Indies, Central America, and South America. In spring, they migrate in small flocks during the day, eventually choosing a place farther north to raise young in nests close to trees and shrubs called colonies, often with other large waders including the great blue heron.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret (Ardea alba) fishes; in the background is a great blue heron. Photo © Carol Freeman

During breeding season, a patch of skin on the bird’s face turns green, contrasting with the bright yellow bill. Males perform fancy courtship displays, opening up and fluffing their white plumes that grow to extend beyond their backs.

Both male and female build a platform-style nest of sticks in a tree or shrub often toward the top and above or near water. The female lays three to four greenish-blue eggs and gets help from her mate during incubation. 

When the young hatch in about 24 days, the nestlings begin their incessant croaking—getting louder as they grow older—and beg for regurgitated food from their parents.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret in flight over the lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

The great egret mostly eats fish, but it also dines on frogs, snakes, and aquatic insects such as dragonflies, and even grasshoppers and rodents in fields near their nesting territories.

The egret wades slowly through the water up to its belly looking for prey. Suddenly, it will stop and stand still, its motionless legs likely looking like branches to a fish, which will come closer, and then get snatched up by the hungry wader. The bird swallows the prey head first, sometimes having to flip it up in the air and catch it so it will be in the right direction to go down smoothly.

Come late summer and autumn, great egrets gather in loose feeding flocks, sometimes creating a sea of white in a wetland and a stunning spectacle for observers.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret wades in the Skokie Lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

Once on the state endangered species list, the great egret is doing well in Illinois; however, habitat loss and water pollution may threaten its future. Visit Baker’s Lake in Barrington to watch the great egret during breeding season and McGinnis Slough in Palos Park late summer to watch large feeding flocks as they head south for the winter.

The great egret is the June bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A 20-Year Legacy of Conservation Conversations

Plant Science and Conservation - Sun, 06/05/2016 - 11:26am

For more than two decades, leaders in conservation science have come to the Chicago Botanic Garden each summer to discuss timely topics from monarch butterflies to assisted plant migration.

Butterfly on Liatris

Butterfly on Liatris

Seeds will be planted again on Monday, June 13, when regional stewardship professionals, academics, restoration volunteers, and interns gather for the Janet Meakin Poor Research Symposium. The annual day of lectures and discussions covers the latest findings in conservation research and best practices in restoration, while inspiring conversations and new partnerships.

“I think the science that pertains to land management is always evolving, and therefore best practices are always evolving,” said Kay Havens, Ph.D., Medard and Elizabeth Welch senior director, Ecology and Conservation, and the moderator of the symposium.

The 2015 symposium focused on restoration solutions for large-scale implementation, and this year’s theme, Seed Sourcing for Restoration in a Changing Climate, builds on the concept of seed management. “It focuses on conservation research and restoration and tries to make links with the land management community—so not just reporting the science but also reporting how that could influence land management,” explained Dr. Havens. This subject is especially timely, according to Havens, as it follows the first year of the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration. The Garden has played a key role in establishing the seed strategy, which will create a network to ensure native seeds are available in restoration efforts, especially in fire-ravaged western rangelands.

The Dixon Prairie in July

The Dixon Prairie in July

“I think the need for restoration increases annually,” said Havens. “We are facing a more and more degraded planet every year, and as the climate changes and natural disasters like hurricanes and floods increase, the need for restoration increases.”

Read more about the symposium or register online for Seed Sourcing for Restoration in a Changing Climate today.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A 20-Year Legacy of Conservation Conversations

Garden Blog - Sun, 06/05/2016 - 11:26am

For more than two decades, leaders in conservation science have come to the Chicago Botanic Garden each summer to discuss timely topics from monarch butterflies to assisted plant migration.

Butterfly on Liatris

Butterfly on Liatris

Seeds will be planted again on Monday, June 13, when regional stewardship professionals, academics, restoration volunteers, and interns gather for the Janet Meakin Poor Research Symposium. The annual day of lectures and discussions covers the latest findings in conservation research and best practices in restoration, while inspiring conversations and new partnerships.

“I think the science that pertains to land management is always evolving, and therefore best practices are always evolving,” said Kay Havens, Ph.D., Medard and Elizabeth Welch senior director, Ecology and Conservation, and the moderator of the symposium.

The 2015 symposium focused on restoration solutions for large-scale implementation, and this year’s theme, Seed Sourcing for Restoration in a Changing Climate, builds on the concept of seed management. “It focuses on conservation research and restoration and tries to make links with the land management community—so not just reporting the science but also reporting how that could influence land management,” explained Dr. Havens. This subject is especially timely, according to Havens, as it follows the first year of the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration. The Garden has played a key role in establishing the seed strategy, which will create a network to ensure native seeds are available in restoration efforts, especially in fire-ravaged western rangelands.

The Dixon Prairie in July

The Dixon Prairie in July

“I think the need for restoration increases annually,” said Havens. “We are facing a more and more degraded planet every year, and as the climate changes and natural disasters like hurricanes and floods increase, the need for restoration increases.”

Read more about the symposium or register online for Seed Sourcing for Restoration in a Changing Climate today.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Which Native Milkweeds Should You Plant for Monarch Butterflies?

Garden Blog - Wed, 06/01/2016 - 9:34am

Want to help monarch butterflies? Be careful when selecting your milkweed. Not all plants that go by the common name of “milkweed” are the food that these butterflies need. 

Want to save the monarch butterfly? Plant milkweed. Pick up a free milkweed seedling at World Environment Day this Saturday, June 4.

Danaus plexippus (Monarch) egg on the underside of a leaf.

Danaus plexippus (Monarch) egg on the underside of a leaf. Photo by Bfpage [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Milkweed is both a food source and a host plant on which the monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed foliage.

After hatching, the larvae consume the foliage, which is high in cardiac glycosides—a poison that interferes with the heart functioning of vertebrates (animals with a skeleton). Butterflies are insects with an exoskeleton, and so are not affected by the toxin.

Within the Chicago region, the following milkweed species (Asclepias) are native:

  • Asclepias amplexicaulis is native to our prairies and is suitable for planting in sunny perennial flower gardens. The flowers are described as “eraser pink” in color and are fragrant (honey).
  • Asclepias exaltata is native to our woodlands and is suitable for planting in partially shaded gardens. The flowers are white and also fragrant.
  • Asclepias incarnata is native to both prairie and woodlands and can be planted in a variety of garden locations. The flowers are pink and fragrant. Gardeners may also be interested in three cultivars of this species:
    • ‘Cinderella’ has light and medium pink flowers
    • ‘Ice Ballet’ has white flowers
    • ‘Soulmate’ has medium and dark pink flowers
  • Asclepias tuberosa goes by the common name of Butterfly Weed. It features bright gold and orange flowers—and is fragrant. A native of sunny prairies, it also has cultivars that have been selected for specific colors:
    • ‘Hello Yellow’
    • ‘Western Gold Mix’
    • ‘Gay Butterflies’ (orange, red, yellow)
  • Asclepias purpurascens has fragrant pinkish-purple flowers and can tolerate both sun and shade locations in the home landscape.

Cultivars may be easier to find in your local garden center or nursery, but specialist nurseries do carry both potted plants as well as seeds.

Asclepias syriaca

Asclepias syriaca

Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa

Download the Chicago Botanic Garden Milkweed Map and take a tour of our native milkweeds.

The Bad Seeds

The bad actors, unfortunately, also go by the common name of milkweed, and are in the same plant family but a different genus: Cynanchum. Three species are reported in the upper Midwest and should not be planted by gardeners. All have fragrant flowers and wind-dispersed seeds:

  • Cynanchum louiseae goes by the name of Louise’s swallow wort, or milkweed. It is native to southeastern Europe.
  • Cynanchum louiseae goes by the name of European swallow wort or milkweed. It is native to southern Europe.
  • Cynanchum vincetoxicum goes by the name of white swallow wort or milkweed. It is native to Europe and Asia.

So, why will monarch larvae die on the wrong milkweed? 

Hmmm, perhaps an illustration. Both mango and poison ivy are in the same plant family (Anacardiaceae) and contain similar biologically active compounds. My daughter and I can’t get enough mango in our diet, but both break out in poison ivy rashes if we touch poison ivy plants. The compounds are similar but not exactly the same.

Likewise with the “bad” and “good” milkweeds: Both have fragrant flowers, the flower shapes are similar, the leaf shapes are similar, both have milky sap. But there is an insecticide compound in the “bad” milkweed in addition to the cardiac glycoside.

“Bad” milkweeds evolved in Europe, where there are no native monarch butterflies, but plenty of herbivores, both animal and insect. “Good” milkweeds evolved in North America in conjunction with monarch butterflies.

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar

Somehow, the monarch larvae are able to ingest and retain cardiac glycosides in their tissues without dying. It is a very unique adaptation between these two species. If other species of butterflies were to lay their eggs on milkweed, the larvae would not survive. Each organism has these sorts of “monarch-like” relationships with other, sometimes drastically different organisms that give them a survival advantage. Monarchs just happen to be a wonderful example of mutualistic relationships.

Learn more:

The Monarch Joint Venture lists a number of national and regional partners; each of them will have information about monarch butterflies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is partnering with the National Wildlife Federation and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is also a source for information on milkweed and monarchs. Get free milkweed plants at monarchwatch.org.

Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

Add your garden to the Million Pollinator Gardens project this summer. Learn more at millionpollinatorgardens.org.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Planting this weekend? Remember these tips.

Garden Blog - Fri, 05/27/2016 - 9:29am

We’ve officially reached planting season, and it is now safe to put in warm-season flowering annuals, vines, herbs, and vegetables. Horticulturists at the Chicago Botanic Garden do recommend waiting until Memorial Day for cold-sensitive plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash. Happy planting!

Summer plantings await in the Production Greenhouses.

Summer plantings await in the production greenhouses.


Looking for a challenge? Try these techniques from our blog and the Smart Gardener:

Diascia Barberae 'Flirtation Pink'.

Diascia barberae ‘Flirtation Pink’

Get the best performance from your plants with these tips from the Garden’s Plant Information Service:

  • Pinch back one-third of new growth to encourage stocky habit (except vines).
  • Be sure newly purchased annuals have been hardened off properly before planting them outside. That means moving plants outdoors for a portion of the day to gradually introduce them to the direct sunlight, dry air, and cold nights.
  • Avoid fertilizing newly planted annuals for two weeks.
  • Continue to plant new perennials, ornamental grasses, and roses in containers. If plant roots are root-bound (encircling the pot), make four cuts into the bottom of the root ball with a sharp tool, and flare the sections outward when planting.
  • Stake tall perennials before they reach 6 inches. Begin to regularly pinch back fall-blooming perennials such as chrysanthemums, asters, and tall sedums. Pinch once a week until the middle of July. This promotes stocky growth.
  • Continue to direct the growth of perennial vines on their supports. Climbing roses should be encouraged to develop lateral, flower-bearing canes.
  • Let spring bulb foliage yellow and wither before removing it. The leaves manufacture food that is stored in the bulb for next year’s growth. Even braiding the foliage of daffodils can reduce the food production of the leaves.

Our monthly checklists and Plant Information Service have a host of other gardening tips—including care for lawns, shrubs, and roses.

Photos by Bill Bishoff
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Give a Gift to the Planet

Garden Blog - Wed, 05/25/2016 - 2:11pm

We’re not afraid to geek out on all things eco-friendly (looking at you, backyard chickens and organic leafy greens), but World Environment Day gives us an excuse to devote a full day to greening the planet.

Dave Cantwell at World Environment Day

June 4 is your chance to meet Garden scientists and horticulturists, and get all your questions answered about roses, lawn care, composting, and more.

Join the global day of action—with people in more than 70 countries—in a daylong celebration of free events and activities (plenty for the kids) on Saturday, June 4, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Chicago Botanic Garden (parking fees apply). World Environment Day is the United Nation’s principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the environment.

Bonus points if you use the day to recycle, add a pollinator-friendly plant to your garden, or consider your ecological footprint by walking, biking, carpooling, or taking public transportation to the Garden (a trolley will be available from the Glencoe Metra station from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; fee applies). Post a picture of what you did for the planet: #CBGWED and #WED2016.

Here are ten free ways to dig the planet on World Environment Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden:

Tom Skilling.

Tom Skilling

1. Ask Tom Skilling.

Bring questions for WGN-TV chief meteorologist and Garden board member Tom Skilling on climate change and more. Skilling will give his climate and weather update at 1:30 p.m in the Plant Science Center.

2. Go to the movies—on us.

The Living Green movie

Director Carey Lundin introduces her award-winning documentary, Jens Jensen The Living Green. Discussion follows the 10 a.m. film; preregistration required.

Shifting Sands on the Path to Sustainability movie

At 3 p.m., catch a screening of Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability, a documentary on the Indiana Dunes.

3. Get the buzz on pollinators and bugs.

Mason and native bee houses.

Learn how to raise bees from beekeepers, and talk to horticulturists about which insects are good for your garden.

4. Score a planet-friendly freebie

Pick up a free butterfly weed plant to grow in your garden to help attract monarch butterflies.

5. Sing, dance, talk up a scientist.

Get your groove on with live music at the Family Entertainment Stage and enjoy Family Drop-in Activities—but don’t forget to leave time for the kids to talk to Garden scientists about plant conservation.

6. Get fresh with us.

Windy City Harvest farmstand.

Windy City Harvest sells fresh, organic produce harvested from the Garden and its urban agriculture sites. While supplies last, pick up a free Costa Rican sweet pepper plant.

7. Be kind to the landfills.

Bring unused prescription medicines for a “medication take-back” sponsored by NorthShore University HealthSystem.

8. Don’t be chicken.

Two young girls pet a chicken and learn about raising chickens at home.

Learn how to bring chickens to your home roost, and learn the real meaning of “fresh eggs.”

9. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Recycle plastic plant pots, and bring vases for re-purposing by Random Acts of Flowers, which delivers flower arrangements to people with health challenges.

Sustainable eating.

Sustainable eating

10. Think farmers’ markets

Chef Cleetus Friedman of Caffè Baci shows you how to cook with seasonal, organic, and locally grown produce from the Garden’s Windy City Harvest program.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Butterflies Are Here

Garden Blog - Mon, 05/23/2016 - 12:00pm

This weekend, the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition opens for its fifth season.

Early in the year we need to place our chrysalis orders with our suppliers for the season. This was the first time I had placed the order, so it was fun to look through the lists—reviewing what had done well, and adding some that we haven’t had. A field trip to the butterfly exhibition at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum gave us a few new ideas to add to the list. Butterflies are so colorful, and their varied patterns make them a joy to watch and photograph!

Snow Peacock (Anartia jatrophae)

Snow peacock (Anartia jatrophae)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Our first shipment of pupae has just arrived. It includes North American species gulf fritillary, painted lady, and white peacock—see them at Butterflies & Blooms.

Most weeks we receive approximately 200 pupae, which are mounted on dowels in the warmth of the exhibition’s pupa room. Visitors thrill at seeing the butterflies and moths emerge from the pupae (or cocoons for the moths). Some emerge relatively quickly while others take longer.

The pupae are all ordered through butterfly suppliers; none of them are collected in the wild. The suppliers receive shipments often from all over the world from the “butterfly ranchers” who specialize in raising butterfly pupae and moth cocoons. They are shipped overnight to us in that state, so all the butterflies can emerge on site.

Get a ten-punch pass for Butterflies & Blooms and the Model Railroad Garden and plan a trip with friends! Passes are available at the exhibition kiosks.

Butterfly species are seasonal—the chrysalides for a species are not available year-round. Our supplier ships us a variety of pupae each week based on what we have requested, but also based on what is available at that time. Some butterflies are more consistently available during the months our exhibition is open, such as the popular blue morpho (Morpho peleides) and giant owl (Caligo memnon). Others may come and go, which is a perfect reason to come to see Butterflies & Blooms more than once during the summer!

Here is a sneak peek at more of the butterflies and moths gracing the exhibition this season:

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides)

Blue morpho (Morpho peleides)

Giant owl butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Giant owl butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Small Blue Grecian (Heliconius sara)

Small blue Grecian (Heliconius sara)

Malachite (Siproeta stelenes)

Malachite (Siproeta stelenes)

Pink Rose (Pachliopta kotzebuea)

Pink rose (Pachliopta kotzebuea)

Great orange tip (Hebomoia glaucippe)

Great orange tip (Hebomoia glaucippe)

Leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Silver spotted flambeau (Dione juno)

Silver spotted flambeau (Dione juno)

Butterfly photos ©Anne Belmont, William Bishoff, and Robin Carlson
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s a Girl: Flowers Climb the Baby Name Lists

Garden Blog - Sun, 05/22/2016 - 8:46am

As proud gardeners, we are thrilled to announce the arrival of flower names as a fresh trend on the best baby name lists. 

While Lily, Rose, and Daisy have been perennial list favorites, Violet has just cracked the top five on Nameberry.

What’s behind the trend? Celebrities, for starters. When Gwyneth named baby Apple a dozen years ago, some scratched their heads. Fast forward to 2012, and Blue Ivy Carter (Beyoncé’s first) sounded just right.

Petunia

Petunia sp.

Media has played a role, too. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling surely knew her flowers: Harry’s mother was named Lily and his aunt, Petunia—and support characters that pop up are named Pansy, Lavender, and Poppy. And then there was Downton Abbey, with its worldwide audience that sighed with happiness when Lady Edith named the baby Marigold.

Speaking of England, behind today’s trend is an even earlier, Victorian-era trend rooted in the language of flowers. This is a topic near and dear to the Garden’s heart, as an amazing gift of 400 books related to the Language of Flowers was donated to the Lenhardt Library in 2015. 

The new exhibition at the Lenhardt Library, Language of Flowers: Floral Art and Poetry, is a great opportunity to examine some of the rarest of those volumes—we’re especially enamored of the 1852 Lexicon of Ladies’ Names, with their Floral Emblems. Modern books are out on one of the library tables for you to browse, too—and that’s where you’ll find these beautiful names for girls (and boys) and their language of flowers meanings.

See Language of Flowers: Floral Art and Poetry at the Lenhardt Library through August 7, 2016.

Angelica (Angelica gigas)

Angelica gigas

Angelica: Inspiration

Apple (Malus 'Adams')

Malus ‘Adams’

Apple: Temptation

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Mertensia virginica

Bluebell: Constancy

Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum ('Darling Daisy')

Leucanthemum × superbum (‘Darling Daisy’)

Daisy: Innocence

China rose (Hibiscus 'Mrs. Jimmy Spangler')

Hibiscus ‘Mrs. Jimmy Spangler’

Hibiscus: Beauty always new

Holly (Ilex aquifolium 'Monvila') GOLD COAST™

Ilex aquifolium ‘Monvila’ Gold Coast™

Holly: Foresight

Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis)

Hyacinthus orientalis

Hyacinth: Sport, game, play

Iris (Iris 'Superstition')

Iris ‘Superstition’

Iris: Message

Ivy (Parthenocissius)

Parthenocissus

Ivy: Fidelity, marriage

Jasmine (Jasminum polyanthemum)

Jasminum polyanthum

Jasmine: Amiability

Laurel (Laurus nobilis)

Laurus nobilis

Laurel: Glory

Lavender (Lavendula)

Lavendula

Lavender: Distrust

Lily (Lilium 'Acapulco')

Lilium ‘Acapulco’

Lily: Majesty

Marigold (Tagetes patula 'Janie Deep Orange')

Tagetes patula ‘Janie Deep Orange’

Marigold: Grief

Pansy (Viola x wittrockiana 'Matrix')

Viola × wittrockiana ‘Matrix’

Pansy: Thoughts

Pinks (Dianthus hybrida 'Valda Louise')

Dianthus hybrida ‘Valda Louise’

Pinks: Boldness

Poppy (Papaver sp.)

Papaver sp.

Poppy: Consolation

Rose (Rosa 'Medallion')

Rosa ‘Medallion’

Rose: Love

African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha)

Saintpaulia ionantha

Violet: Faithfulness

 

Don’t like the idea of an associated flower meaning? You can always choose Flora, Fleur, or Blossom. Or just stick with Sweet Pea as a nickname, because, girl or boy, what baby isn’t a “delicate pleasure”?

Rocket (Eruca sativa)

Rocket (Eruca sativa) by Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

What About the Boys?

Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) meant “gallantry” and Rocket (Eruca sativa) connoted “rivalry” in the language of flowers, but names for boys are few in the world of blooms. Expand into the wider world of plants and a few more names emerge: Sage, Forest, Ash, Bay, Glen.

What other nature-related names for boys can you think of?

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Summer Reading Program launches on June 4

Lenhardt Library Blog Posts - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:01pm

Read, play, earn prizes! Kids of all ages are welcome to participate in the Lenhardt Library’s summer reading program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Summer Nature Explorer: Reading and Activity Program begins on June 4 and runs through September 5.

With the program, you can encourage the joy of reading and literacy skills in your kids and help reluctant readers enjoy STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities to develop critical thinking skills.

Research has shown that reading 20 minutes per day (or 300 minutes per summer) reduces the “summer slide” and enables students to maintain their reading level during summer vacation.

Here’s how the program works:

  • Sign up at the Lenhardt Library and receive your Summer Nature Explore: Reading and Activity Log.
  • Read a book to get a stamp.
  • Play at Family Drop-In Activities sites to get a stamp.
  • Earn 5 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 10 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 15 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 20 (or more) stamps: Get a certificate of completion and a big prize at the Lenhardt Library.

 

Summer Nature Explorers

Here are a few books in the Lenhardt Library’s children’s corner to pique your interest. (Books with yellow dot are for younger readers, while those with blue star are for more advanced readers.)

 Explore Honey Bees! by Cindy Blobaum.

Explore Honey Bees!

Blobaum, Cindy. Explore Honey Bees! White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press, 2015.

Amazing honey bees have been pollinating our world for thousands of years. With descriptions and activities, this book covers it all.

Call Number: QL568.A6B56 2015 blue star icon.

 A Pop-Up Book by David A. Carter.

Spring: A Pop-Up Book

Carter, David A. Spring: A Pop-Up Book. New York, NY: Abrams Appleseed, 2016.

A bright and colorful pop-up book of flowers, trees, birds, and bugs that delights!

Call number: QH81.C37 2016 yellow dot icon.

 From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky and Julia Patton.

From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! 

Chernesky, Felicia Sanzari, and Julia Patton. From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! Chicago, Illinois: Albert Whitman & Company, 2015.

From apple varieties on their trees to the cider press, this family’s rhyming visit to an orchard is great fun to read.

Call number: PZ8.3.C42Fr 2015 yellow dot icon.

 When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Fogliano, Julie, and Julie Morstad. When Green Becomes Tomatoes. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2016.

Poems for each season with lovely illustrations to accompany the journey.

Call number: PS3606.O4225A6 2016 yellow dot icon.

 How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World by Loreen Leedy and Andrew Schuerger.

Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World

Leedy, Loreen, and Andrew Schuerger. Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World. New York: Holiday House, 2015.

Spike E. Prickles, the superhero plant, teaches all about plant life in a whimsical way.

Call number: QK49.L44 2015 yellow dot icon.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Summer Reading Program launches on June 4

Youth Education - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:01pm

Read, play, earn prizes! Kids of all ages are welcome to participate in the Lenhardt Library’s summer reading program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Summer Nature Explorer: Reading and Activity Program begins on June 4 and runs through September 5.

With the program, you can encourage the joy of reading and literacy skills in your kids and help reluctant readers enjoy STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities to develop critical thinking skills.

Research has shown that reading 20 minutes per day (or 300 minutes per summer) reduces the “summer slide” and enables students to maintain their reading level during summer vacation.

Here’s how the program works:

  • Sign up at the Lenhardt Library and receive your Summer Nature Explore: Reading and Activity Log.
  • Read a book to get a stamp.
  • Play at Family Drop-In Activities sites to get a stamp.
  • Earn 5 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 10 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 15 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 20 (or more) stamps: Get a certificate of completion and a big prize at the Lenhardt Library.

 

Summer Nature Explorers

Here are a few books in the Lenhardt Library’s children’s corner to pique your interest. (Books with yellow dot are for younger readers, while those with blue star are for more advanced readers.)

 Explore Honey Bees! by Cindy Blobaum.

Explore Honey Bees!

Blobaum, Cindy. Explore Honey Bees! White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press, 2015.

Amazing honey bees have been pollinating our world for thousands of years. With descriptions and activities, this book covers it all.

Call Number: QL568.A6B56 2015 blue star icon.

 A Pop-Up Book by David A. Carter.

Spring: A Pop-Up Book

Carter, David A. Spring: A Pop-Up Book. New York, NY: Abrams Appleseed, 2016.

A bright and colorful pop-up book of flowers, trees, birds, and bugs that delights!

Call number: QH81.C37 2016 yellow dot icon.

 From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky and Julia Patton.

From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! 

Chernesky, Felicia Sanzari, and Julia Patton. From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! Chicago, Illinois: Albert Whitman & Company, 2015.

From apple varieties on their trees to the cider press, this family’s rhyming visit to an orchard is great fun to read.

Call number: PZ8.3.C42Fr 2015 yellow dot icon.

 When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Fogliano, Julie, and Julie Morstad. When Green Becomes Tomatoes. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2016.

Poems for each season with lovely illustrations to accompany the journey.

Call number: PS3606.O4225A6 2016 yellow dot icon.

 How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World by Loreen Leedy and Andrew Schuerger.

Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World

Leedy, Loreen, and Andrew Schuerger. Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World. New York: Holiday House, 2015.

Spike E. Prickles, the superhero plant, teaches all about plant life in a whimsical way.

Call number: QK49.L44 2015 yellow dot icon.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Summer Reading Program launches on June 4

Garden Blog - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:01pm

Read, play, earn prizes! Kids of all ages are welcome to participate in the Lenhardt Library’s summer reading program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Summer Nature Explorer: Reading and Activity Program begins on June 4 and runs through September 5.

With the program, you can encourage the joy of reading and literacy skills in your kids and help reluctant readers enjoy STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities to develop critical thinking skills.

Research has shown that reading 20 minutes per day (or 300 minutes per summer) reduces the “summer slide” and enables students to maintain their reading level during summer vacation.

Here’s how the program works:

  • Sign up at the Lenhardt Library and receive your Summer Nature Explore: Reading and Activity Log.
  • Read a book to get a stamp.
  • Play at Family Drop-In Activities sites to get a stamp.
  • Earn 5 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 10 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 15 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 20 (or more) stamps: Get a certificate of completion and a big prize at the Lenhardt Library.

 

Summer Nature Explorers

Here are a few books in the Lenhardt Library’s children’s corner to pique your interest. (Books with yellow dot are for younger readers, while those with blue star are for more advanced readers.)

 Explore Honey Bees! by Cindy Blobaum.

Explore Honey Bees!

Blobaum, Cindy. Explore Honey Bees! White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press, 2015.

Amazing honey bees have been pollinating our world for thousands of years. With descriptions and activities, this book covers it all.

Call Number: QL568.A6B56 2015 blue star icon.

 A Pop-Up Book by David A. Carter.

Spring: A Pop-Up Book

Carter, David A. Spring: A Pop-Up Book. New York, NY: Abrams Appleseed, 2016.

A bright and colorful pop-up book of flowers, trees, birds, and bugs that delights!

Call number: QH81.C37 2016 yellow dot icon.

 From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky and Julia Patton.

From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! 

Chernesky, Felicia Sanzari, and Julia Patton. From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! Chicago, Illinois: Albert Whitman & Company, 2015.

From apple varieties on their trees to the cider press, this family’s rhyming visit to an orchard is great fun to read.

Call number: PZ8.3.C42Fr 2015 yellow dot icon.

 When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Fogliano, Julie, and Julie Morstad. When Green Becomes Tomatoes. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2016.

Poems for each season with lovely illustrations to accompany the journey.

Call number: PS3606.O4225A6 2016 yellow dot icon.

 How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World by Loreen Leedy and Andrew Schuerger.

Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World

Leedy, Loreen, and Andrew Schuerger. Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World. New York: Holiday House, 2015.

Spike E. Prickles, the superhero plant, teaches all about plant life in a whimsical way.

Call number: QK49.L44 2015 yellow dot icon.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Evening Primroses, Pumps, and Pollinators

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 05/16/2016 - 9:11am

Rick Overson is fascinated with insects—especially the kinds that love desert climates like in Arizona, where he grew up and earned his Ph.D. in biology. After completing a postdoctoral assignment in northern California, he decided it was time to get to know the little buggers even better, so Dr. Overson hopped on a plane for Chicago and stepped out into the subzero temperatures of the polar vortex to do just that.

 Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens.

Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens

The devoted entomologist didn’t expect to see the insects in Chicago, but he was eager to join research at the Chicago Botanic Garden. A multidisciplinary team was assembling there to look for scent variations within Onagraceae, the evening primrose family, and connections from floral scent to insect pollinators and predators. The findings could answer questions about the ecology and evolution of all insects and plants involved. Overson is a postdoctoral researcher for the initiative, along with Tania Jogesh, Ph.D.

“Landscapes of Linalool: Scent-Mediated Diversification of Flowers and Moths across Western North America” is funded by a $1.54 million Dimensions in Biodiversity grant from the National Science Foundation. The project is headed by Garden scientists Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., Norman Wickett, Ph.D., and Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. It was developed from prior research conducted by Dr. Skogen on scent variation among Oenothera harringtonii plants in southern Colorado.

“For me, the most important thing coming out of this project is documenting and showing this incredible diversity that happens inside a species,” said Overson. “It’s vitally important for me to break down this idea of a species as a discrete unit. It’s a dynamic thing that is different in one place than another. That factors into conservation and our understanding of evolution.” In this case, he and his colleagues theorize that the evolution of the insect pollinators and predators is connected to the evolution of the scent of the plants.

 Evening primrose in bloom on the plains of New Mexico.

Evening primrose in bloom on the plains of New Mexico. Photo by Dr. Rick Overson

The first two years of field work brought Overson back to his desert home. He traveled across Arizona, Utah, and nearby states with a group of about five scientists during summer months when the flowers were blooming. The team visited several populations each of 16 species of flower for a total of 60 locations. Overson and the team identified and documented the insects visiting the plants and compiled scent chemistry from the flowers. Their tool kit included a pump to pull the scent from a flower onto tiny polymer beads that held the scent inside of a vial. From there, they extracted the scent chemicals at the end of the research day or night. “It’s definitely the case that this pattern of scent variation inside a species is very common in this group,” he said of the team’s preliminary findings.

 Hawkmoth on evening primrose.

A beneficial pollinator, the hawkmoth, visits an evening primrose (Oenothera harringtonii).

In the field they also took video recordings of pollinator behavior to see who visited which flowers and when. The pollinators, including hawkmoths and bees, follow scents to find various rewards such as pollen or nectar. The insects are selective, and make unique choices on which plants to visit.

Why do specific pollinators visit specific plants? In this case, the Skogen Lab is finding that it is in response to the scent, or chemical communication, each flower releases. “In the natural world those [scents] are signals, they are messages. Those different compounds that flowers are producing, a lot of them are cocktails of different types of chemicals. They could be saying very different things.”

 Closeup of a Mompha moth on evening primrose.

A predator insect, this Mompha moth lays eggs on a budding evening primrose. Photo by Dr. Rick Overson

A destructive micromoth called a microlepidopteran (classified in the genus Mompha), has also likely learned how to read the scent messages of its hosts. The specialist herbivore lays eggs on plants leading to detrimental effects for seed production. The team’s field work has shown that Mompha moths only infect some populations of flowers. When and why did the flowers evolve to deter or attract all of these different pollinators? Or was it the pollinators who drove change?

At the Garden, Overson is currently focused on exploring the genomes, or DNA set, of these plants to create a phylogeny, which looks like a flow chart and reads like a story of evolution. “Right now we don’t know how all of these species are interrelated,” he explained. When the phylogeny is complete, they will have a more comprehensive outline of key relationships and timing than ever before. That information will allow scientists to determine where specific scents and other traits originated and spread. He will explore the evolution of important plant traits using the phylogeny including the color of the flowers and their pollinators, to answer as many questions as possible about relationships and linked evolutionary events.

In addition, the team is looking at population genetics so they can determine the amount of breeding occurring between plant locations by either seed movement or by pollinators. They will also look for obstacles to breeding, such as interference by mountain ranges or cities.

“Relationships among flowering plants and insects represent one of the great engines of terrestrial diversity,” wrote principal investigator Krissa Skogen, PhD, in a blog post announcing the grant.

The way that genes have flowed through different populations, or have been blocked from doing so over time, can also lead to changes in a species that are significant enough to drive speciation, or the development of new species, said Overson. “The big idea is that maybe these patterns that are driving diversity within these flowers could ultimately be leading to speciation.”

By understanding these differences and patterns, the scientists may influence conservation decisions, such as what locations are most in need of protection, and what corridors of gene flow are most important to safeguard.

 Dr. Rick Overson in the field.

Dr. Rick Overson in the field

“We absolutely can’t live without plants or insects, it’s impossible,” remarked Overson. “Plants and insects are dominant forces in our terrestrial existence. Very few people would argue that we haven’t heavily modified the landscape where these plants and insects live. I think it is crucially important to understand these interactions for the sake of the natural world, agriculture and beyond.”

When Dr. Overson is taking a break from the laboratory, he visits the Desert Greenhouse in the Regenstein Center, which feels like home to him.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Primroses, Pumps, and Pollinators

Garden Blog - Mon, 05/16/2016 - 9:11am

Rick Overson is fascinated with insects—especially the kinds that love desert climates like in Arizona, where he grew up and earned his Ph.D. in biology. After completing a postdoctoral assignment in northern California, he decided it was time to get to know the little buggers even better, so Dr. Overson hopped on a plane for Chicago and stepped out into the subzero temperatures of the polar vortex to do just that.

 Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens.

Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens

The devoted entomologist didn’t expect to see the insects in Chicago, but he was eager to join research at the Chicago Botanic Garden. A multidisciplinary team was assembling there to look for scent variations within Onagraceae, the evening primrose family, and connections from floral scent to insect pollinators and predators. The findings could answer questions about the ecology and evolution of all insects and plants involved. Overson is a postdoctoral researcher for the initiative, along with Tania Jogesh, Ph.D.

“Landscapes of Linalool: Scent-Mediated Diversification of Flowers and Moths across Western North America” is funded by a $1.54 million Dimensions in Biodiversity grant from the National Science Foundation. The project is headed by Garden scientists Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., Norman Wickett, Ph.D., and Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. It was developed from prior research conducted by Dr. Skogen on scent variation among Oenothera harringtonii plants in southern Colorado.

“For me, the most important thing coming out of this project is documenting and showing this incredible diversity that happens inside a species,” said Overson. “It’s vitally important for me to break down this idea of a species as a discrete unit. It’s a dynamic thing that is different in one place than another. That factors into conservation and our understanding of evolution.” In this case, he and his colleagues theorize that the evolution of the insect pollinators and predators is connected to the evolution of the scent of the plants.

 Evening primrose in bloom on the plains of New Mexico.

Evening primrose in bloom on the plains of New Mexico. Photo by Dr. Rick Overson

The first two years of field work brought Overson back to his desert home. He traveled across Arizona, Utah, and nearby states with a group of about five scientists during summer months when the flowers were blooming. The team visited several populations each of 16 species of flower for a total of 60 locations. Overson and the team identified and documented the insects visiting the plants and compiled scent chemistry from the flowers. Their tool kit included a pump to pull the scent from a flower onto tiny polymer beads that held the scent inside of a vial. From there, they extracted the scent chemicals at the end of the research day or night. “It’s definitely the case that this pattern of scent variation inside a species is very common in this group,” he said of the team’s preliminary findings.

 Hawkmoth on evening primrose.

A beneficial pollinator, the hawkmoth, visits an evening primrose (Oenothera harringtonii).

In the field they also took video recordings of pollinator behavior to see who visited which flowers and when. The pollinators, including hawkmoths and bees, follow scents to find various rewards such as pollen or nectar. The insects are selective, and make unique choices on which plants to visit.

Why do specific pollinators visit specific plants? In this case, the Skogen Lab is finding that it is in response to the scent, or chemical communication, each flower releases. “In the natural world those [scents] are signals, they are messages. Those different compounds that flowers are producing, a lot of them are cocktails of different types of chemicals. They could be saying very different things.”

 Closeup of a Mompha moth on evening primrose.

A predator insect, this Mompha moth lays eggs on a budding evening primrose. Photo by Dr. Rick Overson

A destructive micromoth called a microlepidopteran (classified in the genus Mompha), has also likely learned how to read the scent messages of its hosts. The specialist herbivore lays eggs on plants leading to detrimental effects for seed production. The team’s field work has shown that Mompha moths only infect some populations of flowers. When and why did the flowers evolve to deter or attract all of these different pollinators? Or was it the pollinators who drove change?

At the Garden, Overson is currently focused on exploring the genomes, or DNA set, of these plants to create a phylogeny, which looks like a flow chart and reads like a story of evolution. “Right now we don’t know how all of these species are interrelated,” he explained. When the phylogeny is complete, they will have a more comprehensive outline of key relationships and timing than ever before. That information will allow scientists to determine where specific scents and other traits originated and spread. He will explore the evolution of important plant traits using the phylogeny including the color of the flowers and their pollinators, to answer as many questions as possible about relationships and linked evolutionary events.

In addition, the team is looking at population genetics so they can determine the amount of breeding occurring between plant locations by either seed movement or by pollinators. They will also look for obstacles to breeding, such as interference by mountain ranges or cities.

“Relationships among flowering plants and insects represent one of the great engines of terrestrial diversity,” wrote principal investigator Krissa Skogen, PhD, in a blog post announcing the grant.

The way that genes have flowed through different populations, or have been blocked from doing so over time, can also lead to changes in a species that are significant enough to drive speciation, or the development of new species, said Overson. “The big idea is that maybe these patterns that are driving diversity within these flowers could ultimately be leading to speciation.”

By understanding these differences and patterns, the scientists may influence conservation decisions, such as what locations are most in need of protection, and what corridors of gene flow are most important to safeguard.

 Dr. Rick Overson in the field.

Dr. Rick Overson in the field

“We absolutely can’t live without plants or insects, it’s impossible,” remarked Overson. “Plants and insects are dominant forces in our terrestrial existence. Very few people would argue that we haven’t heavily modified the landscape where these plants and insects live. I think it is crucially important to understand these interactions for the sake of the natural world, agriculture and beyond.”

When Dr. Overson is taking a break from the laboratory, he visits the Desert Greenhouse in the Regenstein Center, which feels like home to him.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring is for the Birds at the Garden

Birding - Sat, 05/14/2016 - 8:08am

“Baltimore oriole,” my husband Chuck called out—and there it was, its orange coloring glowing so brightly in the morning sun that it seemed lit from within. The bird almost seemed to be posing for us, perching in full view on a nearby tree branch and bobbing its black head as it sang.

Al Stokie, our expert birding companion, recorded it in his notebook; it would become part of the weekly bird survey he supplies to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

We continued on our walk through a wonder of the natural world that anyone in the Chicago area can see for the price of a pair of binoculars: spring bird migration.

Every spring, small, colorful warblers fly through the Chicago area on their way from their winter homes in Central and South America to their nesting grounds in the northern United States, Canada, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. And every year, birders at the Garden and beyond delight in the sight.

“In May, you always go crazy,” said Stokie, who has become the official compiler of the Garden’s bird statistics.

Cape may warbler.

Cape May warbler

Blackburnian warbler.

Blackburnian warbler

But May isn’t just for experienced birders; the birds are so numerous and their breeding plumage so gorgeous that it’s a perfect time for anyone to explore bird-watching. The 385 acres of the Garden are an excellent place to start. “The Garden is a pretty well-known spot for birding,” said Jim Steffen, the senior ecologist who oversees the Garden’s bird-friendly practices and its cumulative bird list, which currently numbers 255 species.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

FPDCC Bird of the Month chart.

Learn about the bird of the month at birding events at your local forest preserves.

And this year, the Garden is partnering with the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s #birdthepreserves initiative. There are events at the preserves, and a different bird is featured each month. (In May, it’s the Baltimore oriole.) There’s even a good-natured competition to see which site can record the most bird species. 

Where to look for birds at the Garden? It depends.

“You bird the Garden at different times of the year in different places,” Stokie said. “May is warbler month, and warblers are found in the woods.” So he started us off in the McDonald Woods, in the Garden’s northeast corner. We walked along the wood-chipped path, and on boardwalks and bridges over streams and ephemeral ponds, watching for movement in the trees. It was a blustery morning. “Our problem today is going to be the wind,” Stokie said, and he was right. We saw blue-gray gnatcatchers, catbirds, ovenbirds, and that beautiful oriole. And when we got to a small forest pond, we saw a solitary sandpiper scurrying through the water on its stick-like legs.

Stokie saw far more than I did—he recorded 48 species—but we didn’t get the full-on spring migration blast of birds.

You might, though.

The peak of spring migration is typically May 10 – 20, and International Migratory Bird Day is May 14. Most of the warblers will still be moving through in the next few weeks, Steffen said, and there should be flycatchers, goldfinches, woodpeckers, and orioles. Around the Garden Lakes, he said, people can see wood ducks, mallards, night herons, green herons, and great blue herons.

Great blue heron.

Great blue heron

Ruby-crowned kinglet.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

It’s a grand sight. But along with the beauty, Steffen sees cause for concern due to climate change. Trees are leafing out earlier, before the warblers—cued by the lengthening of days—arrive. “The buds are already open, and the insects associated with them are gone,” Steffen said. “It’s messing up the synchronization.”

The best places to see birds at the Garden in spring, Stokie says, depend on the bird. Warblers and vireos will be in woodlands like the McDonald Woods and the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the Garden’s southeast corner. Sparrows will be in open areas like the Dixon Prairie; and shorebirds and late migrating ducks will be found in the wet areas just north of Dundee Road.

Hairy woodpecker.

Hairy woodpecker

Sign up for a bird walk with an expert. The Garden will have a spring migration walk on May 21. 

Or go to any forest preserve or park. Look for people with binoculars, and ask what they’re seeing. You’ll be off and birding.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring is for the Birds at the Garden

Garden Blog - Sat, 05/14/2016 - 8:08am

“Baltimore oriole,” my husband Chuck called out—and there it was, its orange coloring glowing so brightly in the morning sun that it seemed lit from within. The bird almost seemed to be posing for us, perching in full view on a nearby tree branch and bobbing its black head as it sang.

Al Stokie, our expert birding companion, recorded it in his notebook; it would become part of the weekly bird survey he supplies to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

We continued on our walk through a wonder of the natural world that anyone in the Chicago area can see for the price of a pair of binoculars: spring bird migration.

Every spring, small, colorful warblers fly through the Chicago area on their way from their winter homes in Central and South America to their nesting grounds in the northern United States, Canada, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. And every year, birders at the Garden and beyond delight in the sight.

“In May, you always go crazy,” said Stokie, who has become the official compiler of the Garden’s bird statistics.

Cape may warbler.

Cape May warbler

Blackburnian warbler.

Blackburnian warbler

But May isn’t just for experienced birders; the birds are so numerous and their breeding plumage so gorgeous that it’s a perfect time for anyone to explore bird-watching. The 385 acres of the Garden are an excellent place to start. “The Garden is a pretty well-known spot for birding,” said Jim Steffen, the senior ecologist who oversees the Garden’s bird-friendly practices and its cumulative bird list, which currently numbers 255 species.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

FPDCC Bird of the Month chart.

Learn about the bird of the month at birding events at your local forest preserves.

And this year, the Garden is partnering with the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s #birdthepreserves initiative. There are events at the preserves, and a different bird is featured each month. (In May, it’s the Baltimore oriole.) There’s even a good-natured competition to see which site can record the most bird species. 

Where to look for birds at the Garden? It depends.

“You bird the Garden at different times of the year in different places,” Stokie said. “May is warbler month, and warblers are found in the woods.” So he started us off in the McDonald Woods, in the Garden’s northeast corner. We walked along the wood-chipped path, and on boardwalks and bridges over streams and ephemeral ponds, watching for movement in the trees. It was a blustery morning. “Our problem today is going to be the wind,” Stokie said, and he was right. We saw blue-gray gnatcatchers, catbirds, ovenbirds, and that beautiful oriole. And when we got to a small forest pond, we saw a solitary sandpiper scurrying through the water on its stick-like legs.

Stokie saw far more than I did—he recorded 48 species—but we didn’t get the full-on spring migration blast of birds.

You might, though.

The peak of spring migration is typically May 10 – 20, and International Migratory Bird Day is May 14. Most of the warblers will still be moving through in the next few weeks, Steffen said, and there should be flycatchers, goldfinches, woodpeckers, and orioles. Around the Garden Lakes, he said, people can see wood ducks, mallards, night herons, green herons, and great blue herons.

Great blue heron.

Great blue heron

Ruby-crowned kinglet.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

It’s a grand sight. But along with the beauty, Steffen sees cause for concern due to climate change. Trees are leafing out earlier, before the warblers—cued by the lengthening of days—arrive. “The buds are already open, and the insects associated with them are gone,” Steffen said. “It’s messing up the synchronization.”

The best places to see birds at the Garden in spring, Stokie says, depend on the bird. Warblers and vireos will be in woodlands like the McDonald Woods and the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the Garden’s southeast corner. Sparrows will be in open areas like the Dixon Prairie; and shorebirds and late migrating ducks will be found in the wet areas just north of Dundee Road.

Hairy woodpecker.

Hairy woodpecker

Sign up for a bird walk with an expert. The Garden will have a spring migration walk on May 21. 

Or go to any forest preserve or park. Look for people with binoculars, and ask what they’re seeing. You’ll be off and birding.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Now Blooming: Vanilla

Garden Blog - Thu, 05/12/2016 - 9:50am

Attention orchid fans: our vanilla orchid is blooming in the Tropical Greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It’s a rare occurrence in the wild—and in a greenhouse. Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, seized the moment to hand-pollinate the flower. 

Vanilla planifolia before pollination

Vanilla planifolia before pollination

Why hand pollinate? In hopes of producing a vanilla bean. Yes, the fruit of a vanilla orchid is used to make pure vanilla extract, which flavors many foods we enjoy.

Vanilla vines typically begin to flower at five years or older. Flowers are produced in clusters, with one flower opening each day in the morning. Stop by the Tropical Greenhouse soon to see what’s in bloom. 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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