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A practical gift…with a rare provenance

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

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

 Delicate orchids decorate a white china tea mug.

My new office mug…tells quite a story.

View all the items in the Orchid Show collection.

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

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

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

 Illustrated orchids from Les Orchidees par Henry Lambert.

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

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

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

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

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

 Montage of orchid-related products in the Garden Shop.

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Homegrown Fruit: Tips for Strawberries and Raspberries

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

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

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

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

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

Plan to plant strawberries

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

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

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

Choose healthy plants for a healthy harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring tasks: Prune Raspberries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Blooms with Boyce: The Orchid Show

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

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

 Dendrobium Comet King 'Akatsuki' orchid.

Dendrobium Comet King ‘Akatsuki’

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

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

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

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

Vanda Orchid

Vanda manuvadee

Nun orchid

Phaius tankervilliae ‘Rabin’s Raven’

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Making a Splash with Orchids

Plant Science and Conservation - Wed, 03/05/2014 - 10:05am

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

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

Anne Nies at work in the field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Microscopic image of beneficial orchid fungi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Anne Nies.

Anne Nies explores the Tropical Greenhouse.

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Undercover Science

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

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

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

Anne Nies at work in the field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Microscopic image of beneficial orchid fungi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Anne Nies.

Anne Nies explores the Tropical Greenhouse.

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On World Wildlife Day

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

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

 Two baby elephants playing on the savannah.

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

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

 Closeup of wetlands flower, "shooting star."

Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star)

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

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

 Closeup of an orb weaver spider.

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

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

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

Sophia Shaw Siskel
President and CEO, Chicago Botanic Garden

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

[1] Association of Zoos and Aquariums

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Darwin’s Orchid and the Wardian Case

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

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

 Closeup of Angraecum sesquipedale bloom.

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

 

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

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

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

Discovery

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

 an illustrated plate of Angraecum sesquipedale from 1822.

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

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

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

The Wardian Case

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Darwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Make Mushroom Spore Prints

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

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

How to Make Spore Prints

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

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

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

 Shiitake mushroom.

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

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

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

 Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

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

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

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

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

 Stinkhorn fungus.

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

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

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

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

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

 Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

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

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

 A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

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

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

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Make Mushroom Spore Prints

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

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

How to Make Spore Prints

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

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

This portabello mushroom is good for making spore prints.

 Shiitake mushroom.

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

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

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

 Mushrooms, gills down, sitting on black construction paper.

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

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

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

 Mushroom spore print.

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

A Little More about Mushroom Spores

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

 Stinkhorn fungus.

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

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

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

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

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

 Mushrooms decomposing bark on the forest floor.

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

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

 A ruler measures the tip of a pencil lead.

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

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

Tiny but essential: Fungus rules.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Five Seed-Starting Secrets

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

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

 A dried sunflower head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Bean sprouts.

Beans sprouted in dampened paper towel.

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

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

Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Let it Snow

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

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

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

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

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

 Closeup of bright red, raisiny eastern wahoo berries.

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

Snow is a great insulator!

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

Snow brings an important nutrient into the soil: nitrogen.

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

 Bare, yellow willow branches against a blue sky.

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

Don’t forget, snow is water!

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

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

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

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

 Boxwood and hemlock trees against a fence in winter.

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

 Boxwood in winter; its branches weighted down with snow.

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Select a Good Orchid

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

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

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

A healthy orchid.

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

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

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

2. Choose a plant you really like.

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

3. Only buy a healthy plant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Closeup of an adult longtailed mealybug with young.

Close-up of an adult longtailed mealybug with offspring.

4. Consider the flower.

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

5. Look for new growth.

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

“But wait! There’s more!”

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

Stacy Stoldt is never not working on an exhibition.

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

 Stacy Stoldt organizing bookshelves.

Stacy Stoldt awaits patrons in the Lenhardt Libary.

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

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

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

An Exhibition Takes Shape

 A meeting with a dozen people gatherered around rare books.

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

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

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

Newest Exhibition Focuses on Orchids

 An illustration of Masdevallia coccinea from an illustrated book panel.

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

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

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

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

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

Art Conservation Key to Documenting Plants

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

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

 An unidentified Cypripedium, or slipper orchid.

Cypripedium VIII. color plate

The Rare Book Collection

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

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

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

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

Cultivating Relationships

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

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

Inspiring the Next Generation

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

 Cattleya aclandiae.

Cattleya aclandiae from a rare book color plate

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Love Lives of Orchids

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

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

 A spray of blooming orchids, which resemble tropical spiders.

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

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

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

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

 Closeup of a hammer orchid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The incredibly long nectar spur of Angreacum sesquipedale.

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

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

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

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photosynthesis Made my Rock Candy

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

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

 Burgundy leaves of the Bull's Blood sugar beet.

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

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

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

How to Make Rock (Sugar) Candy

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

You will need

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

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

Directions

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

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

 Glasses and skewers set up for making rock sugar candy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Rock sugar candy skewers.

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

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

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

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

 A weighted string coated in rock sugar crystals.

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

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

Sugar from Plants

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

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

This basic diagram shows photosynthesis in action.

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

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

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

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

 Sucrose molecule.

This sucrose molecule looks good enough to eat!

 Sugar cubes.

Just kidding. It looks better in normal scale.

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

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

 Fresh produce in a wicker basket.

Yum!

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

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