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Prepare for “Wow!”

Garden Blog - Fri, 08/07/2015 - 4:33pm

Yesterday we moved our first titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), “Spike,” to the Semitropical Greenhouse. Now we are all watching and waiting for Spike to bloom—a dream of the Chicago Botanic Garden for 12 years! Finally, in the next ten days or so, we’ll see the fruit of our labor in all of its stinky glory.

 Meet Spike, our titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum).

Meet Spike, our titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum). We expect great things from this magnificent plant.

What’s next, and when?

Over the next several days, Spike will grow taller—some days, a barely noticeable inch, and other days, a remarkable 4 or 5 inches. Below the soil is a giant corm, which is a type of underground tuber or bulb (some can weight up to 200 pounds). The titan arum bloom has previously gone through three to ten annual cycles of emerging as a leafy stalk, dying back, and sending that energy back into the corm, which began as a germinated seed about the size of a quarter. 

Big bloom!

While it will look like Spike is a 6- to 8-foot-tall flower, what you will see is actually a tall spadix (flower structure) wrapped by a spathe (a frilly modified leaf). Over the next week, the spadix will emerge out of the top of the bud and continue to grow taller, until it’s time for the bloom. For a single day, the spathe will unwrap and open to a dark, velvety red “bloom,” closing again roughly 24 hours later. 

Big stench. No, really.

Inside the tightly wrapped spathe, the plant uses stored energy from the corm to heat up internally to 90+ degrees Fahrenheit. As the spathe opens, the 750 small female flowers ringing the bottom of the spadix release scent molecules that are volatilized (vaporized) by the heat, creating a blast of scent so powerful that it can travel an acre (or the distance between individual plants in their native Sumatran rain forests). The scent is a calling card for pollinators. 

 The spathe of the Amorphophallus titanum unwraps from the spadix at bloom time.

The spathe unwraps from the spadix at bloom time. Photo by Elke Wetzig (elya) (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What does Spike smell like? Chemically, the scent is a combination of dimethyl trisulfide, isovaleric acid, dimethyl disulfide, and trimethylamine—or, as our friends at Huntington Botanic Gardens described it, “a combination of limburger cheese, garlic, rotting fish, and smelly feet.”

The titan arum will be worth the wait! (Follow our #CBGSpike)

This is yet another “Wow!” produced by our production greenhouse staff for our visitors to rave about. 

Other Chicago Botanic Garden “Wows”:

  • More than 180,000 colorful and bountiful annuals and vegetables produced for displays throughout the Garden
  • The stunning and dramatic cascading chrysanthemums seen atop the bridge at the Visitor Center each fall, and the nearly 100 or so chrysanthemum “balls” we create every year for display in the Esplanade
  • The 10-foot-tall floral pyramids and blooming obelisks created to enhance seasonal displays

But Spike is the most distinguished of them all.

When Spike is ready to bloom, the Chicago Botanic Garden will stay open until 2 a.m., so everyone will have a chance to take in the odor and the remarkable color of the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence—a “Wow!” indeed. Blooming corpse flower.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What’s that smell?

Garden Blog - Thu, 08/06/2015 - 4:40pm

In gardening, as in life, patience is a virtue. Twelve years ago, the Garden embarked on a mission to bring a rock star of the plant world to the Chicago Botanic Garden. The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the corpse flower, is the largest flowering structure in the world. When it blooms, it puts on a show like no other. 

Huge. Rotten. Rare. Watch our video on YouTube of Spike moving to his display location.

Why the big stink? During the peak of its bloom, which could happen in the next two weeks, the titan arum will emit a foul odor that pollinators can detect from about an acre away. Who would want to miss that?

 Checking in on the progress of the titan arum, or corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum).

Checking in on the progress of the titan arum, or corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum)

Native to the rainforests of western Sumatra, Indonesia, the titan arum is distinguished by its large size, odd shape, and terrible stench (hence its common name, corpse flower). Plants bloom for a single day every seven to ten years, and it is nearly impossible to predict the day it will be at the peak of bloom. When those magical hours finally occur, the bloom unfurls into a dramatic, blood red “flower” with a nauseating stench that can be detected up to an acre away. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

We have been cultivating nine of these mysterious plants behind the scenes in the production greenhouses, watching them grow foliage each year, and guessing what a flower might look like as it emerges.

Today we are so excited to be moving Spike to the Semitropical Greenhouse in the Regenstein Center. (We have named our titan arum Spike because when you grow a plant for 12 years, you start to think of it as a child.) Spike is growing several inches every day. We are so proud of Spike and are also thrilled he is the first titan arum to bloom in the Chicago area.

Come welcome Spike, and join the countdown to the big bloom! If you do, let us know what you think in comments here, via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Tumblr. Use the hashtag #CBGSpike and our handle @chicagobotanic

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

African emperor moths hatch at the Garden!

Garden Blog - Wed, 08/05/2015 - 9:51pm

July 29, exactly one week ago, was definitely the most exciting day for me at the Butterflies & Blooms exhibit this year! 

 Dorsal view of the enormous African emperor moth (Gonimbrasia zambesina).

Dorsal view of the enormous African emperor moth (Gonimbrasia zambesina)
Photo by Judy Kohn.

On July 3, we received what looked like “naked” pupae. These were the pupae of the bull’s eye silk moth, or African emperor moth (Gonimbrasia zambesina). Aside from a very slight wiggling the first day or two, the pupae just sat there in their box. Then, on Wednesday morning, I checked on them and noticed one of the pupae looked like it was broken open like an empty eggshell…but I couldn’t find a moth or anything else—until I looked up and saw it hanging in the top corner of the display! It was fabulous. I literally ran out to the volunteers to tell them the good news! (They ask, “Are there any new moths?” on a daily basis, and I usually have to say no.) I brought it out and placed it in the safest place I could think of, while still being easily visible to guests. I personally didn’t take a photo, but all the volunteers did—so that’s what you see here. It’s been a dramatic week!

 Ventral view of the Gonimbrasia zambesina.

Ventral view of the Gonimbrasia zambesina
Photo by Judy Kohn.

As far as the native butterflies and moths in our exhibition right now, we received 30 white peacocks, 12 buckeyes, and 8 gulf frits. I’ve never seen a gulf frit, so I’m looking forward to those pupae hatching. They came in on July 28, so I expect them to emerge any time now. (The smaller butterflies seem to emerge the fastest.)

 Patrick Sbordone talks butterflies with a group of younger visitors.

Come on by and ask me questions!
Photo by Judy Kohn.

Hope you can visit often—we have new species of butterflies hatching all the time! Check out our species list.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Beer From Here

Garden Blog - Fri, 07/31/2015 - 10:37am

Begyle Brewing, Chef Cleetus Friedman and the Garden are launching a series of seasonal, small-batch saisons—Change of Saisons. The beer captures the best flavors of the season.

Chef Cleetus Friedman has had a long relationship with the Chicago Botanic Garden. You may know him as the executive chef of Fountainhead, the Bar on Buena, and the Northman, soon to open in Chicago. Perhaps you have enjoyed his appearances at the Garden Chef Series, where he teaches visitors to prepare local, seasonal recipes at the open-air amphitheater of the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. If you are lucky, you have experienced one of our Farm Dinners over the past six years, where Chef Friedman dreams up memorable meals with local food and drink for guests to enjoy in a garden setting. 

And now, that relationship has grown into something even more mouth-watering… 

 Cleetus Friedman of Fountainhead / The Bar on Buena.

Chef Cleetus Friedman of Fountainhead and the Bar on Buena!

Together with Begyle Brewing, a community-supported brewery in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, Chef Friedman and the Garden are launching a series of seasonal, small-batch saisons—Change of Saisons. The beer will capture the best flavors of the season at the Garden, beginning with a strawberry rhubarb saison, sourced this spring. The team worked fast to bring this brew right back to the Garden for visitors to enjoy. The small batch of strawberry rhubarb saison will be followed by a berry-based saison and each will be available for only a limited time. 

“It’s a versatile beer for everyone coming to the Garden,” said Chef Friedman. 

Beer Rhubarb and Laura

On May 21, Laura Erickson, market manager of Windy City Harvest, harvested rhubarb from the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Chef Friedman cooked it down to make a puree to use in the brew.

“Change of Saisons furthers our commitment to serve food and beverages that are sourced locally,” said Harriet Resnick, vice president of visitor experience and business development, “and you can’t get more local than our own backyard.”

What is a Saison?—The Garden’s new beer is a saison, a lighter type of ale originating from a French-speaking region of Belgium. It typically contains fruit and spice notes. Farmers brewed this ale during the cooler months and stored it until the following summer, where it was given to seasonal workers, or “saisonniers.”

Change of Saisons is available on tap (while supplies last) at the Garden Grille on the Garden View Café deck. You may also sip saison at Autumn Brews on Thursday, October 8, 2015. 

 

 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

 

A Swede in Glencoe

Garden Blog - Tue, 07/28/2015 - 9:44am

My name is Duana Pearson, and I work as a full-time horticulturist at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. But this summer I’ve had the opportunity to travel and work at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 Visiting horticulturist Duana Pearson visits and lends a hand in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden.

Visiting horticulturist Duana Pearson visits and lends a hand in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

When I first joined the Eden Project four and a half years ago, my role was to focus on outdoor crops. These days, that’s expanded, and I get to do a wide variety of tasks: I’m one of nine horticulturists in the outdoor garden, and my areas of responsibility include the Spiral Garden (our children’s garden), Myth & Folk—a woodland glen-type area, and a soft fruit garden. My most demanding and favorite area is Plants for Taste—an ornamental vegetable garden where I demonstrate beautiful vegetable varieties, edible flowers, and companion planting. This was the first area I was given when I joined the Eden Project, even though I didn’t have a lot of vegetable-growing experience. It’s a high profile part of the garden too, so I’ve had a very steep learning curve!

This is why I chose to spend most of my time at Chicago Botanic Garden in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. I’ve wanted to experience working in other botanic gardens for some time now. When I started looking at options last year, the Garden’s Fruit & Vegetable Garden really attracted me. Thankfully, I was able to put together a project—two weeks volunteering at the Chicago Botanic Garden, plus attending the American Public Gardens Association conference in Minneapolis—that successfully received support and funding from my employer, the Royal Horticultural Society, and the Merlin Trust.

But rather than just share a diary of my time in the Garden, I want to talk about food. 

While working here and talking to other horticulturists in the Garden, we discovered some culinary differences—my favorite was rutabaga. Firstly, in the UK, we call it swede. From what I understand, people in the United States don’t mind eating it in autumn, but few really like it; and mostly it’s fed to animals.

 A cartful of Laurentian rutabaga, plus carrot cultivars ‘St. Valery’ and ‘Danvers’ just harvested July 8—all from 1890s vegetable beds!

A cartful of Laurentian rutabaga, plus carrot cultivars ‘St. Valery’ and ‘Danvers’ just harvested July 8—all from 1890s vegetable beds!

Well! You can be forgiven for not knowing this, but swedes are an essential ingredient in one of our national dishes, the cornish pasty. Steeped in history and beef, cornish pasty is considered Cornwall’s national dish. You will find versions of the traditional pasty—claimed to have originated as a meal for Cornish miners—wherever those miners moved, and I would love to pass this delicious dish on to you. Swedes are a home garden staple, and I hope you will make them a part of your garden, too.

Disclaimer: I am not Cornish!—though this recipe has come from a real Cornish lady. In 2011, the cornish pasty was awarded a Protected Geographic Indication. This means that only pasties made in Cornwall, following the traditional recipe, can legally be called (and sold as) a “Cornish Pasty.” You can call them steak pasties instead! Enjoy!

 Cornish pasty.Pasty Recipe from J. Kendall
(Proper Cornish maid, and my supervisor)

Short Crust Pastry
You can make this a day ahead and refrigerate. (Making extra to freeze, too, saves work next time.)

1 pound all-purpose flour
4 ounces cold butter 
4 ounces cold lard*
Up to 1/3 pint water (1/3–2/3 cup)
Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Farenheit (220 Celsius).

Mix the dry ingredients together, and cut in very cold fats with a knife. Add water a bit at a time until dough just comes together. Wrap dough ball in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Knead, but don’t over-knead, or dough will go tough. Roll out the dough, and place a dinner plate over the dough to cut out a circle. 

Filling
(I’ve never weighed this.)

A good handful of chipped potato (1-2 potatoes), heaped in the centre of the pastry disc. (Don’t dice or slice! Hold the potato in one hand, and chip off wedges with a knife in your other hand.)
One coarsely chopped onion
Peeled, diced swede—the amount to match the amount of onion
A handfull of diced beef skirt (belly area)
A generous pinch each of salt and pepper
Add a knob of butter (or clotted cream, to be properly Cornish) if the beef looks a bit lean

Fold the pastry edge up over the innards. It won’t look like it will fit, but be gentle and it will go. Crimp the edges shut using your fingers—we don’t approve the use of forks to do this! Make a slit on the top of the pasty to let out steam as it cooks. For a golden-brown finish, whisk an egg and apply egg wash to the pasty before putting in the oven.

Bake for about 30 minutes until done. For presentation: Cornish men think a pasty should at least meet the edge of the plate you are serving it on. If not, hang the pasty over the edge.

*Note for Americans: shortening can be used in place of lard. We at the Garden have attempted to Americanize the measurements in our translation of this recipe—at least for the pasty crust.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Sky’s the Limit

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 07/20/2015 - 4:03pm

When the Green Roof Garden was first planted in 2009, everything we knew about long-term rooftop gardening was theoretical. Which plants would live more than one year on the roof? No one knew for sure. Were native plants better to plant than non-natives? Unknown. What about soil depth, extreme weather, pests, diseases? The list of questions was long.

Download An Evaluation Study of Plants for Use on Green Roofs here.

 The Roof Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Conservation Science Center.

Download the results of this 5-year study. Click here.

Today, after five years of watching, waiting, documenting, and evaluating, we now have actual data to guide us—and others—on the ever-more-popular topic of green roofs! I’ve just published the Plant Evaluation Notes from our research—the first national plant evaluation study of its kind.

Among the data are a few surprises.

The biggest surprise may seem the most obvious—it’s that the green roof survived as well as it did!

I was blown away by the survival rates among plants, and by the fact that so many of them thrived and even excelled in such a challenging landscape. Of the more than 40,000 plants that we installed on both roofs, 30,568 of them were still alive in 2014. Just 14% of the 216 taxa died—that’s a pretty good success rate when you consider rooftop conditions. In fact, adaptability was one of the main criteria that we evaluated each plant on. Here’s the five-point list:

  • Adaptability (to hot/cold, dry, windy conditions, plus shallow soils)
  • Pests/diseases
  • Winter hardiness
  • Non-weediness
  • Ornamental beauty

Other surprises? Definitely the wild white indigo (Baptisia alba var. alba). Although I didn’t expect it to fail, I also didn’t expect it to be as large and vigorous as it has become. By year five, it was nearly three feet tall, with dramatic spires of white flowers. Meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis) was in the same elegant category. But the absolute standout was prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). It looked good all year, at all soil depths, and the fragrant flowers made the roof smell like popcorn in August and September.

 Antennaria dioica.

Antennaria dioica

 Baptisia alba var. alba.

Baptisia alba var. alba

 Phlox subulata 'Emerald Blue'.

Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Blue’

 View of the Green Roof Garden from above.

The Green Roof Garden today: a tapestry of plant life

It also surprised me that some of the drought-tolerant plants like sulfur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), tufted fleabane (Erigeron caespitosa), and long-petaled lewisia (Lewisia longipetala ‘Little Plum’) didn’t do better on the green roof. Same goes for sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis). In a broader sense, I’m disappointed that we haven’t had greater success with plants in the shallowest, 4-inch soil depth. It’s the most challenging area on the green roof, so we’ll strive to add more types of plants to this trial area in the coming years.

 Richard Hawke, Plant Evaluation Manager.

Monitoring plants in the field

Top 10 starstarstarstarstar Performers
on the Green Roof

  1. Pussytoes (Antennaria dioica)
  2. Dwarf calamint (Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta)
  3. Juniper ‘Viridis’ (Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii ‘Viridis’)
  4. Creeping phlox ‘Emerald Blue’ (Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Blue’)
  5. Creeping phlox ‘Apple Blossom’ (Phlox subulata ‘Apple Blossom’)
  6. Creeping phlox ‘Snowflake’ (Phlox subulata ‘Snowflake’)
  7. Aromatic sumac ‘Gro-Low’ (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’)
  8. Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
  9. Prairie dropseed ‘Tara’ (Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’)
  10. The 69 other plants that got four-star ratings (good)! 

 

What else is coming to the Green Roof Garden?

We’ll bring in a new set of plants (both native and non-native) to be evaluated and increase the replication of trials in 4-, 6- and 8-inch soil depths. Our goal is to compile a broad list of proven plants so that anyone—businesses, architects, governmental groups, and residential homeowners—has the information they need to grow a green roof. The sky’s the limit!

Visit the Green Roof Garden at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Center—open ‘til 9 p.m. all summer. The garden has two halves: the Ellis Goodman Family Foundation Green Roof Garden South and the Josephine P. & John J. Louis Foundation Green Roof Garden North.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Embracing Trees for Our Future

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 07/13/2015 - 9:34am

If you spot a Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer wrapping their arms around a tree trunk this summer, don’t be surprised—what looks like a loving hug is actually a scientific measurement in process.

Using a specially designed tape measure, volunteers are recording the diameter of each tree before calculating the amount of carbon dioxide it stores. The study, launched by the Living Plant Documentation department five years ago, records the amount of the pervasive greenhouse gas stored by the Garden’s trees. The research team is interested in determining which trees are able to hold the most carbon for the longest amount of time.

 Boyce Tankersley is researching the trees' response to increased carbon in the atmosphere, using data such as the growth rate of the particular tree species.

Boyce Tankersley and volunteers measure the diameter of each tree on the Garden campus.

The Tall and Short of It

It is one of the first such studies underway in a botanic garden setting. “We know carbon is increasing but we don’t have the numbers on how much carbon is being locked up by the urban forest,” said Boyce Tankersley, director of the Living Plant Documentation department. “This is where the Garden can play a role.”

Although similar studies have been completed by the lumber industry and others, it is important to understand how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are mitigated by cultivated trees, explained Tankersley. It’s also essential to document how those trees fare long term in evolving conditions.

The Garden has an especially diverse number of taxa, Tankersley said, positioning it perfectly to document how numerous species behave in locations from the McDonald Woods to the English Walled Garden to the parking lot. “The Garden is among the first to look at the trees in a Garden setting and at the diversity of taxa,” said Tankersley. “That’s a piece we’d like to shed more light on.”

This summer marks the second time the trees have been measured since the original data was gathered in the first year. Measurements will continue to be taken for another 15 to 20 years.

“We hope, when the data is analyzed, to be able to identify not only the trees that are best but the Garden settings that support their efforts in this regard,” anticipated Tankersley.

 Tree canopy.

The Living Plant Documentation department is calculating the amount of carbon dioxide stored in each of the Garden’s trees.

Deep in the Woods

Trees are lauded for coming to our rescue in the face of climate change, but scientists have learned that these strapping heroes may not be infallible. “One thing we are looking for is the influence of carbon on the growth rate,” said Tankersley. His research team is paying close attention to the trees’ response to increased carbon levels in our atmosphere.

According to Tankersley, it has been documented that trees are growing more quickly than they have in the past, which comes with positive and negative repercussions. “Trees are providing an environmental service in a major way by absorbing carbon, but there’s a point of diminishing returns,” he explained. The wood of a fast-growing tree is softer, for example, which has a negative impact on the lumber industry, he explained. In addition, “with an increased growth rate, you also get increased susceptibility to insects and diseases.”

The concern underscores the need to observe the Garden’s trees for many years to take all such factors into consideration.

In addition, the team is watching the impact of weather on the trees, and taking dry spells or rainy periods, for example, into account when documenting tree growth over a given time frame. The Garden hosts a National Weather Service monitor on-site, which allows for weather-related calculations to be even more precise.

The Zipline

When the measurement phase of the study is complete, Tankersley plans to provide the data to a doctoral student in the Garden’s joint degree program with Northwestern University for formal analysis. “My take-home would be a list of the six best trees, perennials, and shrubs for sequestering carbon in the landscape in Chicago,” he said.

“We expect to find that trees like oaks, elms, and hickories—trees that are long-lived—provide a greater environmental service in this regard,” he added.

For homeowners who would like to assist with the issue now rather than wait for the final analysis, he suggests that they begin planting longer-lived trees. It may help mitigate, or reduce, the amount of carbon in the air and resulting climate change impacts such as extreme weather.

Our 2013 adaptive planting study carefully selected 60 suitable trees to plant for future generations. View the full list of suggested trees here.
 Fastigiate English Oak acorns (Quercus robur).

It takes more than one year for the Garden volunteers to check the diameter of the 13,493 trees on-site, and enter the estimated carbon storage into a specialized database. The calculations are made using a formula developed by the U.S. Forest Service, said Tankersley.

The technique of measuring existing trees and planning for new plantings is something Tankersley hopes will have broad impact. He has already shared his process with countries in Africa through The Eden Projects and in China in an effort to help governments replace denuded forests there.

Tankersley is hopeful about the long-term implications of the study. After all, he said, when pioneers first came to the United States, they found oak trees that were about 300 years old, and had been providing benefits such as carbon sequestration for all of that time. Many of those hard-working, long-lived species have been a key part of our natural heritage since the beginning. By embracing the issue now, Tankersley and team have cleared the way for trees and their vital functions to endure.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Local Restoration Successes Lead Global Movement

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 07/06/2015 - 9:37am

Wildfire. Flooding. Thirst.

These issues can all be addressed through large-scale landscape restoration according to speakers at the 2015 Janet Meakin Poor Research Symposium. Addressing a crowd of regional stewardship professionals and academics, as well as Conservation Land Management (CLM) and Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) interns at the Chicago Botanic Garden on June 12, they focused on solutions for ecological challenges.

The effects of strong conservation work are magnified when done on a large scale, they shared, and the theme of the day was how to magnify every step from seed-management procedures to restoration time frames and budgets to make the process as beneficial as possible. As mining, drilling, and similar industries move broadly across open lands in the United States and abroad, along with increasingly frequent and far-reaching extreme weather events, conservation practices must evolve with the times to keep pace.

 Conservation and Land Management (CLM) interns measure species density in the field.

Conservation and Land Management (CLM) interns measure species density in the field.

As the CLM interns prepare to set off on a summer of hands-on restoration work across the United States, and potentially launch their careers shortly thereafter, these are critical issues for them to understand, according to Kay Havens, Ph.D., of the Chicago Botanic Garden, who organized the symposium. Many of the interns work in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on the ground in forestry, wildlife management, and habitat restoration, among others.

Fittingly, the first speaker of the day was Amy Leuders, the acting assistant director of BLM who noted that the partnership with the Garden since 2001 has led to the training, hiring, and placement of more than 1,000 interns on federal lands. About 50 percent of those interns are later hired by a stewardship agency. “The Bureau of Land Management has had a long and successful partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden…developing the next generation of land stewards,” she said.

In particular, she imparted to the audience the importance of developing a large scale national seed strategy, so that targeted plant seeds will be thoughtfully collected and preserved for future use. She cited examples of events in which seeds saved by chance allowed for the restoration of areas that later succumbed to natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. This new process would allow for seed saving to take place in a more proactive and calculated manner.

 Seeds are collected at the Garden and stored in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Collected seeds are stored in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

According to the second speaker, Kingsley Dixon, Ph.D., professor at Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, the current supply of wild seed cannot support global restoration demands. Innovations are helping to change that. Tools that process seeds into pellets or other small packets facilitate their successful mass delivery into recovering ecosystems, helping to achieve the level of seed performance seen in the agricultural sector. He noted that, “Only by thinking at an industrial level of efficiency will ecological restoration be able to achieve the pace needed to protect and enhance natural resources.”

Drinking water quality can also be managed by restoration, said Joy Zedler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She shared examples of how restoration has been ‘scaled up’ adaptively (learning while restoring) to benefit large areas. When it comes to managing water, she explained, it is essential to manage an entire watershed. One area of poor water quality will flow into every crevice in the system, for example. In the end, she explained, it is about safeguarding ecosystem services that human health and wellbeing depend on, from clean water to fresh air. “Our global society needs to redirect itself to achieve a sustainable future,” she said.

Brian Winter of the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota echoed her sentiments, as he ran through a real-life wetland restoration process for the audience. He emphasized that wetlands hold rainwater and are capable of preventing disastrous amounts of water from washing through nearby agricultural fields. The value of wetland restoration is immense and ongoing, he explained.

Conservation is in transition, explained speaker John Rogner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Rogner discussed the steps involved in planning for a successful restoration, and the importance of landscape conservation cooperatives that can work together across states or even countries to identify and address issues in a given geographic area such as the Great Lakes watershed. He outlined an ongoing project to improve blockages in the Great Lakes system that impede fish migration. This can lead to a buildup of invasive plant species that create additional system blockages. A regional perspective and collaboration across entities is critical, he said. “It is absolutely essential that everyone have access to the same information to keep moving in the right direction,” added Rogner.

Issues that often fall to the side in planning are conceptual, according to James Aronson of the Missouri Botanical Garden. He urged the audience to pay attention to the economic side of their work by learning to speak and think in terms of renewable natural capital. Across land and ocean, natural capital can be restored to facilitate the flow of ecosystem services such as fresh air and clean water.

 the Colorado River Basin.

One of our greatest national resources and treasures: the Colorado River Basin.

Lastly, Megan Haidet with Seeds of Success emphasized the importance of partnerships to meet the goals of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration 2015-2020. She noted that increased coordination is vital to accelerate the pace and scale of restoration and provide native plant materials when and where they are needed.

The Garden’s CLM interns have now dispersed across the United States where they will work for the next five months on public lands to put these lessons into action.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Get Ready, Get Set, Grow! New Windy City Farm Launches

Community Gardening - Sun, 06/14/2015 - 9:37am

Something is growing in a food desert on Chicago’s West Side. A farm designed, built, and managed by Windy City Harvest for the PCC Austin Family Health Center began operation in the spring to help provide more of what the challenged Austin neighborhood lacks—ready access to produce that is fresh, affordable, and nearby—and enable the center’s patients to more easily fill the prescription for healthy living they receive in the examination room: eat more fresh vegetables. Spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce grown at the farm will be sold on-site.

 Creating the raised beds at PCC Austin Farm last fall.

Creating the raised beds at PCC Austin Farm last fall

The project finds Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden urban agriculture and jobs-training program, partnered with an urban health provider, PCC Community Wellness Center, in paired missions of feeding communities and improving the health of those living in them. The Austin location is one of the PCC system’s 11 Chicago-area centers.

“We needed to come out of the four walls of our medical center and look at ways to give back to the community, get the community involved, explore ways to change the environment, and let people learn about gardening,” said Bob Urso, PCC president and CEO, explaining the project’s genesis. Funding comes from a $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grant awarded to PCC Wellness Community Center by the Humana Foundation.

The farm’s groundbreaking took place in October on a grassy vacant lot a few steps from PCC’s modern LEED Gold-certified building at Lake Street and Lotus Avenue. Called the PCC Austin Community Farm until neighborhood residents choose a permanent name, the 8,000-square-foot site comprises more than 20 raised beds that include plots where eight families each year can grow food for their own use, a hoophouse (similar to a greenhouse), and a small outdoor seating area surrounded by fruit trees for gatherings and relaxation. Housing flanks the 50-foot-wide, fenced-in farm on two sides, with a parking lot on the third and more homes across the street. Trains rumble by on the Chicago Transit Authority elevated tracks a half block away.

 Harvesting carrots.

Carrots: a late spring crop, and one of the first to come out of the PCC Austin Community Farm.

The farm’s seasonal coordinator is Windy City Harvest’s Brittany Calendo, whose role dovetails with her background in public health and social work. “It’s exciting to look at the farm as a away of promoting health and preventing disease rather than just treating symptoms,” she said. Plans include monthly workshops on nutrition and gardening for neighbors and patients led by Windy City Harvest and PCC. “Preventive medicine is some of the best medicine,” agreed Humana spokesperson Cathryn Donaldson. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with PCC on this important initiative.” Looking ahead, Urso said he will know the farm has achieved success when he meets patients who say they feel healthier and whose chronic conditions are under control after learning to eat better.

While it is among Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, “Austin is beautiful,” Tyrise Brinson said of the people in the place where she grew up and lives now. Although no one believes the project can by itself meet the area’s produce needs or change lifelong eating habits overnight, “It breaks cycles within the community,” Brinson said. “It’s the beginning of a chain of beautiful events to come.”

This post by Helen K. Marshall appeared in the summer 2015 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden. ©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Speaking Science: Bringing Plant-Based Research to All Ages

Plant Science and Conservation - Wed, 05/13/2015 - 9:30am

Do you ever feel like trying to understand plant science research can be as daunting as deciphering a passage written in a foreign language?

As a budding plant scientist in the joint Chicago Botanic Garden/Northwestern University Ph.D. program, I find it exciting to pick through dense scientific text. Uncovering the meaning of a new acronym and learning new vocabulary can be thrilling, especially when decoding something new.

 Kelly Ksiazek speaking in Sydney, Australia.

This past fall I spoke to a group of green infrastructure professionals in Sydney about the importance of urban biodiversity.

But the commonly used styles in scientific writing and presentation packed with language used to convey big topics in small spaces can be really off-putting to an audience of non-scientists. Many of us can conjure up a memory of a professor or teacher who seemed to like their subject matter but couldn’t convey the material in an interesting way. All of a sudden, science became boring.

Rather than struggling to learn this “foreign language,” many folks stop paying attention. Lack of scientific literacy, especially as it applies to plants, is a pity. Plants are all around us! They are so valuable to the entire planet. The very applicable field of botany shouldn’t be something that’s only discussed and understood in laboratories or scientific conferences—it should be for everyone.

This idea inspires me to try and bring my current botany research to a wide variety of people.

 Ksiazek takes her presentation on the road to Pittsburgh.

I’ve had the chance to speak with many visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden about my research, and typically bring some of my research supplies, as seen here from a trip to Pittsburgh.

 A Book About Green Roofs.

Writing and publishing a children’s book helps bring my research findings to kids all over the world.

For example, I recently realized that there are very few resources available to teach young students about the habitat where I currently collect most of my data: green roofs. While some of the methods I use for data collection and analysis can be quite complex, the motivations behind my work and some of the findings can be broken down into some basic ideas, applicable to students of all ages. So a fellow botanist and I wrote and produced Growing Up in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Our children’s activity book teaches youngsters about some of our research findings. The book follows a pair of native bumblebees through a city, where they guide the reader through engaging activities about the structure, environmental benefits, and motivations for building green roofs. At the end, readers even have the opportunity to ask their own research question and carry out a green roof research project of their own.

Interested in your own copy of our book? More information and a free digital download of the book are available at greeningupthecity.com.

 Ksiazek presents her work to a girls' middle school.

Talking to 100-plus middle school girls about why it’s cool to be a botanist was a great experience!

The activity book is just one example of ways that plant scientists can engage with a broader audience and make their research findings more accessible. Some of the other activities that my colleagues here at the Chicago Botanic Garden and I have participated in include mentoring undergraduate and high school students, speaking to community organizations, creating lessons for schools and school groups, volunteering for summer programs, and maintaining a presence on the Internet through online mentoring, blogging, websites, and Twitter.

 Ksiazek and an undergraduate student identify green roof plants.

Teaching undergraduate students how to identify plants on green roofs is one way of passing on my research knowledge.

 Ksiazek discusses her research with a visitor to the PCSC.

My experiments on the green roof at the Plant Science Center are visible to everyone. Come take a look!

Here at the Garden, we scientists also have a unique variety of opportunities to share our science with the thousands of visitors who come to the beautiful Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. If you’ve never been to the Plant Science Center, you should definitely stop by the next time you’re at the Garden. You can see inside the laboratories where the other scientists and I collect some of our data. There are also a lot of interactive displays that aim to demystify plant science research and decode some of the “foreign language” that science speak can be. For a really interactive experience, come visit us on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 6, and talk to scientists directly. Bring your kids, bring your neighbors, and ask a botanist all those burning plant questions you have! We promise to only speak as much “science” as you want.

For more information about my research and science communication efforts, please visit my research blog, Kelly Ksiazek’s Botany in Action, and follow me on Twitter @GreenCityGal.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Easy Peas-y: Planting Pea Seeds with Little Sprouts

Youth Education - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 10:08am

Plant, water, and grow! Whether you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver, teaching children to plant seeds is a simple and authentic way to help them engage with nature. It’s an activity that the littlest of sprouts can do “all by myself,” or at least with minimal help from you.

 Little Diggers pea planting in the raised beds.

Growing future gardeners in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Planting seeds leads to discussions about what seeds and plants need to grow and how food gets to our tables. Watering is a simple chore young children are capable of doing; it teaches them about responsibility and helps them feel they are making a contribution to the family or classroom. 

Students from our Little Diggers class, ages 2 to 4, planted peas indoors in mid-March and transplanted them outside into the raised beds in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in mid-April. Come follow the steps we took to get there.

March: Planting the Pea Seeds Indoors

Supply List:

  • Seeds
  • Soilless potting mix or seed-starting potting mix in a wide-mouth container
  • Plant pots (plastic or biodegradable, roughly 2.5 inches in diameter)
  • Trowels, spray bottles, or watering cans
  • Plastic seedling tray with lid

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 10–40 minutes of actual planting (depending on the size of the group)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10–15 minutes

 Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

 Use this kind of plastic seedling tray and lid.

Here I am modeling the latest in seedling trays. You can purchase these and our other supplies at your local garden center or home improvement store.

Select seeds that are big—the smaller the hands, the bigger the seed should be—and quick to sprout, or germinate. Also consider the amount of space the mature plants will occupy, and the time of year you are planting. Some seeds can be planted during the cool spring, while others should go in the ground once the threat of frost has passed.

We chose ‘Tom Thumb’ pea seeds because they are large enough for little hands to easily manipulate, they germinate in 7–14 days, they thrive in the cool spring weather, and they only grow to be 8 inches tall and 8 inches wide, making them great for small-space gardens and containers.

Tip: Some other large seeds suitable for little hands are sunflowers, beans, nasturtium (edible flower), pumpkin, and other squash. For more details about how and when to plant these seeds visit www.kidsgardening.org/node/101624.

 A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

 Watering the seeds in is the best part of planting.

Watering in the seeds is the best part of planting.

 

Set out the potting mix in a wide-mouth container such as a flexible plastic tub, sand bucket, or cement mixing tray on the ground. Have trowels, pots, seeds, and spray bottles ready.

Tip: A soil container with a wide opening will lead to less soil on the ground. Also, more children will be able to plant at the same time.

Using a trowel, fill the pot with soil. Set two pea seeds on the soil and push them down ½- to 1-inch deep. Then cover the seeds with soil. Spray with a spray bottle until the soil is saturated.

Tip: Planting depth will depend on the type of seeds you are planting. Read the back of the seed packet for details.

Finally, each child should label their pot. We used craft sticks to easily identify each child’s plant.

Tip: Pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate. I potted up 10–15 extras. Every child needs to feel successful and have peas to transplant when the time comes. Once kids have planted seeds a few times and are a little older, you won’t need to pot up extras. Having seeds fail is the next great gardening lesson for more experienced young gardeners.

 Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It's a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It’s a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

 Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on slightly open helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don't grow fungus.

Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on, but slightly open, helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don’t grow fungus.

Put the containers on the plastic tray and cover with a clear plastic lid. This will keep moisture in and will require less frequent watering. Allow the soil surface to dry out slightly between watering. Using the misting setting on the sprayer works well because it doesn’t create a hole in the soil and expose the seed like a watering can will.

Tip: Watch for white fungus growing on the soil surface. If this occurs, remove the plastic lid. This will kill the fungus and promote germination. If you will be away from the classroom or home for a few days, put the plastic lid on so the soil doesn’t dry out. Remove it when you return.

Tip: Peas don’t respond well to transplanting, so we planted the seeds in biodegradable pots to avoid this problem. These pots break down in the soil, allowing the roots to continue to grow undisturbed.

 Seeds are absorbing water.  The roots and stems have started to grow.  True leaves have appeared.  Getting ready put our seedlings in the ground.

April: Transplanting the Pea Plants into the Garden

Supply List:

  • Pea plants
  • Trowels
  • Spray bottles or watering cans

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 20–30 minutes or more (depending of the size of the group and the number of helpers)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10 minutes

Choose a sunny location that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight every day and has well-drained soil. We planted our peas in the raised beds at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Bring all the supplies out to the site. Have each child choose where they would like to dig their hole. Pass out a trowel and plant to each child. Dig a hole as deep as the soil in the pot. Place the plant, pot and all, in the hole. Fill in the space around the plant with soil and water the plants.

Check the peas daily and water them with a watering can or hose when the soil is slightly dry. About 50 – 55 days after planting, these shelling peas will be ready to harvest and eat! Come see the plants that the students of our Little Diggers class planted in the raised beds, just south of the orchard at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden!

 Watering seedlings in the raised beds.

Remember to water in your seedlings when you put them in the ground!

 Watering seedlings in the raised bed.

Sunshine and a good squirt of water will help this pea seedling grow!

Direct Sowing: Easy Peas-y Approach

 it's fun.

Direct sowing is the easiest approach—and often the most successful with early spring vegetables. Not to mention: it’s fun.

As a working parent, I chose this approach with my almost three-year-old. All you really need is a sunny spot with well-drained soil, seeds (we used ‘Tom Thumb’ peas because we have a small garden), a small shovel (trowel) and water. Choose a sunny spot for planting (6–8 hours of direct sun).

First I showed him how to draw lines in the soil with his trowel (they should be ½– to 1-inch deep). Then he dropped seeds along the lines. I wasn’t concerned about spacing 2 inches apart as recommended on the seed packet because I can always thin them out once the seeds start to grow. He covered the seeds up and watered them with the hose. Every evening, we enjoy checking to make sure the soil is damp.

Tip: If you’re little one is getting impatient, these peas can be harvested early and eaten, pod and all, like snow peas!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Next Generation Starts Now

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 04/06/2015 - 9:10am

When you dream of saving plants for a living, you don’t expect to wait for tribal elders to rule on whether you can get started…or to sleep in the sage-scented high desert on your first camping trip ever…or to walk through the woods to spray your hand-raised seedlings with a deer repellent that smells likes rotten eggs and garlic.

But when you are driven by a passion for plants, you do whatever it takes to move forward, said three alumni of a graduate program offered by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University. The two institutions combined their resources in 2005 to offer a unique program in plant biology and conservation; the program marks its tenth anniversary this year.

 Tracy Misiewicz climbs into the canopy of a tropical rainforest to collect data on pollination.

Tracy Misiewicz climbs into the canopy of a tropical rainforest to collect data on pollination.

Students take courses at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University and work with researchers and faculty from both institutions. Alumni of the graduate program—which includes a doctoral track—are working for nonprofits and agencies including the Field Museum, the Morton Arboretum, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and participating in research projects in places including India, China, and Malaysia.

Here are the stories of these three graduates from the master’s program: 

Tracy Misiewicz

 Masters graduate Tracy Misiewicz in the field.

Program graduate Tracy Misiewicz in the field.

Tracy Misiewicz’s research project was on hold, while the village elders poured fermented rice wine into the ground. During the ceremony, in the western mountains of Cameroon, the elders chanted in Bakossi, a Bantu language, asking their ancestors if Misiewicz—a native of Maryland who decided to become a scientist in the seventh grade—could enter the rainforest. Then the elders threw down a handful of cacao nuts to see if they would land in a certain order. They did; the ancestor had granted permission.

And that, recalled Misiewicz with a delighted laugh, is how she began her fieldwork in Cameroon. With her sister as a research assistant and their Ngomboku neighbor—a basket weaver—as a guide, Misiewicz trudged through the forest to look for Dorstenia, the second largest genus in the moraceae (mulberry) family. Dorstenia species—some of which are considered threatened or are already extinct—are used by indigenous people for medicinal purposes and show promise in their use in modern medicine. As part of her master’s thesis, Misiewicz looked at the family tree and evolutionary history of some species within the genus.

In Cameroon, Misiewicz and her sister learned how to cook local dishes and dance to local music. “You really get to know the people and the culture,” said Misiewicz. “When we left, we were crying, and the ladies in the village were crying.”

For her master’s research at the Garden, Misiewicz worked with adviser and Garden scientist Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., and Garden conservation scientist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “They are two of the smartest and nicest and most supportive mentors I could have had,” said Misiewicz, who went on to get her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. “They made science fun. They made me understand that when your experiment didn’t work out or things are going wrong, it’s OK. I learned to overcome and move forward and still love science…at Berkeley, my experience was wonderful, but there were times where I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m not having fun. Nothing is working.’ Always, I would think back to my experience at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and think, ‘I love science.’”

Misiewicz now works as a science project specialist for the Organic Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that focuses on research and education projects related to organic food and farming. The job is a good fit—she loves policy, science, and thinking through problems. “I think science is sort of like cooking in that you can follow a ‘recipe’ and learn to extract DNA,” Misiewicz said. “That’s not the hard part. It’s the thinking critically and creatively and problem solving, and understanding what’s going on. That’s what I really took away from the Garden…I learned how to think.”

Alicia Foxx

 Masters program graduate Alicia Foxx with Northwestern University Provost Daniel Linzer, and Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw.

Program graduate Alicia Foxx with Northwestern University Provost Daniel Linzer, and Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw.

Alicia Foxx hit the ground running when she started her master’s degree program, under the supervision of Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., a conservation scientist at the Garden. “The second time I met her,” recalled Foxx, “we were getting on a plane” to work on a research project in the Southwest.

The two of them drove and camped in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, which covers parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, including the Grand Canyon. Foxx, a native of Chicago, had never slept outside or seen mountains before. And she had never seen the way that invasive species could choke out native plants, including bunch grasses and wildflowers.

“On paper, it was a very interesting subject,” Foxx said. “You’ve got invasive plants that are taking over the West. But I think seeing how there were pretty much one or two [native plants left] in a very large landscape and how we’re losing the plant diversity that we really need to gain back was very different than just learning about it. It made me think, ‘This work is really important.’”

Originally, as an undergraduate at Elmhurst College, Foxx had planned to become a veterinarian—until she worked with her advisor, a botanist, on an invasive species project. “I just loved it,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is really interesting, and plants are really cool.’” One day, while looking up a list of invasive plants on the Garden’s website, something else caught her eye. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a graduate program there?’ So I clicked on the link.”

Foxx was accepted into the Garden’s master’s program and, in June 2012, made the weeklong trip with Dr. Kramer to the Colorado Plateau. With a team of researchers, they gathered the seeds of promising native plants—those tough enough to thrive in harsh conditions—as part of the national Seeds of Success collection program.

For her master’s thesis, Foxx studied native species that may be able to compete with cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an invasive species in the Plateau. Now, she is a doctoral candidate in the plant biology and conservation program. “I am so excited about working at the Garden for another five or six years,” she said. On some days, especially in the summer, she gets to the Garden an hour early to visit favorite spots, including the English Walled Garden.

Someday, Foxx hopes to have a role similar to Kramer’s, as both a researcher and an advisor. “Andrea is a very intelligent researcher who thinks of rather elegant research questions,” Foxx said. “On the advising side, she is very kind, understanding, and patient, and this has helped me to grow as a scientist.”

Byron Tsang

 Masters graduate Byron Tsang working in the field.

Program graduate Byron Tsang working in the field.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Byron Tsang—now a project manager and ecologist with the Chicago Park District—was a chemistry and biology major. Tsang, who grew up in Atlanta, thought he might go into some sort of disease research, specializing in immunology and diagnostics. But something else tugged at him.

With a passing interest in ecology, Tsang took some field ecology classes and volunteered to work on the North Branch Restoration Project. (The organization helps protect and restore native Illinois ecosystems along the North Branch of the Chicago River.) And on vacation in New Zealand, he happened to learn about a challenging ecological problem—a common weed was taking over pastureland needed for sheep. When he finished his undergraduate studies and decided to pursue a master’s degree, Tsang had settled on a new field: plant biology. “I thought, ‘Hey, I could actually do this for a living,’” Tsang recalled.

Tsang wasn’t sure what his master’s thesis would be about, but he knew that he wanted to focus on a local problem. “I ended up falling in love with midwestern ecology,” he said. His adviser, associate conservation scientist Daniel Larkin, Ph.D., steered him to the Garden’s Jim Steffen, a senior ecologist. Steffen, who is leading restoration efforts in the Garden’s McDonald Woods, mentioned an intriguing question: why had two native wildflowers—pointed-leaf tick trefoil and violet lespedeza—failed to take off in the Woods? (The two legume species had been able to grow in other area oak woodlands; both are indicator species that appear in healthy woodlands.) Tsang took on the question as his master’s thesis; as part of his research, he sprayed young seedlings in the woods with a smelly deer repellent.

Tsang’s connection to the Garden has continued in his work for the Park District’s Department of Natural Resources. When he heard about a Garden project to evaluate urban nature pockets—as part of its Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program—he realized that the Park District had a similar goal. This summer, he hopes to work with an REU intern in the Park District’s natural areas.

“My experience studying at the Garden really set the stage for my career as an ecologist,” Tsang said. “I learned a great deal about the intricate and often delicate ecological relationships that tie Chicago’s natural areas together, but equally important, I built invaluable personal relationships with academics, scientists, and restoration specialists in the Chicago area, all of whom I consider my colleagues and co-conspirators in my ongoing work at the Park District.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Unfolding the Mysteries of the Ravines

Plant Science and Conservation - Sun, 03/29/2015 - 9:10am

Standing guard along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the ravines are a naturally engineered filtration system from land to water.

Curving up from the flat lands of Illinois and arching alongside the coast into Wisconsin, their hills and valleys are filled with an abundance of foliage, plants, and animal life unlike any other ecosystem in the Chicago Wilderness region. Among other benefits, they help to filter rainwater. Rare plants, migratory birds, remnant woodlands, and fish are a part of this shadowed world that has long been entrenched in mystery for local residents and scientists alike.

As urbanization, erosion, increasingly intense weather events, and invasive plants begin to peel away at the perimeter of the ravines, it has become increasingly urgent for us to unwrap those mysteries and help protect the system that has long protected us.

New volunteers are welcome to dig in this spring and summer. Register to begin by attending a new volunteer workshop.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

“The ravines are one of Illinois’s last natural drainage systems to the lake,” said Rachel Goad, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. “They are delicate landscapes. It can be challenging to get in to them. It can be challenging to move around on the steep slopes.” Those challenges have not deterred Goad and a team of citizen scientists from digging in to look for solutions.

For 15 years, the many contributors to Plants of Concern have been collecting data in the ravines, with a particular focus on the rare plant species that can be found there. The data, now quite valuable due to its longevity, is a treasure chest for land managers and others who are trying to better understand the system and how to save it.

Goad and her team are now in the final stages of testing a vegetation assessment connected to a virtual field guide for the ravines. She hopes it will be completed by the end of this year. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for ravine restoration and management long term. The plant-focused sampling method, called a rapid assessment, is the third piece of a larger ravine-management toolkit that includes a way to evaluate erosion and stream invertebrates considered to be indicator species. The toolkit has been assembled by Plants of Concern and partner organizations in recent years.

“The idea is that a land manager or landowner could pull these tools off of the Internet—there would be data sheets and an explanation for how to use them, and these resources would provide a practical, tangible way for people to better understand the ravines,” explained Goad. She and her volunteers will test the protocol this summer, as they meander through the ravines with their notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment in hand. What they learn could benefit managers trying to determine whether to focus on vegetation management or restoring the stability of a ravine, for example. The toolkit, according to Goad, “is complementary to restoration and understanding these plant communities.”

The data, however, is only one piece of the solution. Goad believes the connections people make when monitoring the ravines are what will impress upon them the significance and urgency of the issue. Her goals are to create connections between people and their local natural communities, and to engage a more diverse representation of volunteers in the program.

“What Plants of Concern is doing is engaging local citizens, introducing them to ravines, and getting them interested in what’s happening in these mysterious V-shaped valleys around them,” said Goad.

In all, Plants of Concern monitors 288 species across 1170 populations in 15 counties, covering 13 habitat types.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Goad hopes that by growing connections between these ravines and those who live nearby, she can increase the chances that this system will continue to protect rare plant species and one of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. As a recent recipient of a Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship, administered by Audubon, Goad is intent on better understanding how to build such connections.

“We are working to make connections between monitoring and stewardship,” she said. “Monitoring can be a transformative experience.” Once a volunteer is in the field, navigating the terrain and gaining familiarity, they learn to see existing threats, such as encroachment by invasive species. Documenting these threats is important, but can feel disempowering if they’re not being addressed. Goad wants to show volunteers that there is something that can be done about the problems they encounter, and build a proactive understanding of conservation. “I believe in citizen science, which is the idea that anybody can do science and get involved in research,” she said.

Goad stepped in as manager of Plants of Concern just last year, after earning her master’s degree. It was like returning home in some ways, as she had previously helped to manage natural areas at the Garden.

In part because of that initial experience, “I knew I wanted to work in plant conservation,” she said. “It felt pretty perfect to get to come back and work with Plants of Concern. It’s an amazing experience to live in Chicago and to be able to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas in the region.”

Early spring ephemerals in bloom on a ravine bluff.

Early spring ephemerals bloom on a ravine bluff.

Plants of Concern has been a mainstay at the Garden for 15 years, dispatching committed volunteers to the ravines and other key locations across the Chicago Wilderness region to monitor and collect data on endangered, threatened, and rare species. The mounting data collected by the program is often used as baseline information for shifting or struggling species, and is shared with land managers. Through special projects, such as with one of the Garden’s recent REU interns, they have also contributed to habitat suitability modeling for rare species.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mapping the Future of the Wild West

Plant Science and Conservation - Fri, 03/06/2015 - 11:29am

Silvery-green sagebrush cascades over the canyons of the Great Plains and Great Basin in numbers that would strike envy into the hearts of most rare and endangered plants. The abundant species keeps the wheels turning in a system where struggling plant and animal species rely on it for life-sustaining benefits.

As the climate changes and brings new rainfall levels and other environmental conditions, will this important species transition to new locations? What are the potential consequences for its current neighbors? These questions concern Shannon Still, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 Dr. Shannon Still looks over the area of his research.

Dr. Still looks over the area of his research.

“Sagebrush is a very big part of the ecosystem in the West, and we need to see what is going to happen,” said Dr. Still. “It’s a workhorse species that is important for pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and mice that live around it, and it helps to stabilize soils.”

Still made several trips into states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada in 2014 to investigate the likelihood of such a transformation and to help prepare land managers for the potential results. “When a climate changes, species often shift their location within it,” he explained. When that species has already become an integral part in the lives of its neighbors, it can mean a ripple of changes across the entire system.

It’s All About That Brush

 Wyoming big sagebrush, the focus of the study.

Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus of the study

Standing in a thicket of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus species of his study, Still reaches into a 3-foot tall plant with his Felco 8 pruners to take a sample. (He’ll later send this sample to his collaborator in a Utah Forest Preserve Service field office who will confirm the subspecies identification through a genetic test.)

Still plots the location of the plant with his GPS unit, which he also uses to track his route through the dusty wilderness in the Garden research vehicle. He snaps a few photos for visual reference and makes notes in his computer tablet before moving on to the next site.

There are millions of plants out there now, Still estimates. So, he strategically collects information from 150 key locations during multiple visits. He then returns to the Garden to add the new information to his database, which also holds data from herbaria records he collected earlier.

At his desk in the Garden, he inputs new data. He then uses a software workflow he built himself to compare a map of the plants with a map of how the climate will look in those locations in future years. He runs models that overlay one map on top of the other to see where climate shifts will occur in the current species range. This allows him to predict where Wyoming big sagebrush will continue to prosper, and where it may disappear due to a lack of rain, too much rain, or temperature shifts, for example.

Staking a Claim

Still is excited about the ability of the software to provide climate-related analysis on sagebrush and other species. In fact, it’s the second study he has run with the program in the last two years since it was developed, using specialized algorithms for each.

 Chicago Botanic Garden research vehicle parked in the field.

Colorado Rockies in the background; research subjects all around

First, he developed the software workflow to better understand how more than 500 rare species in the same western region might fare in the future if their environmental conditions change as predicted, and to which changes they are most vulnerable. The study results are like a crystal ball for land managers, identifying which species are most urgently in need of their care. The three-year investigation will come to a close in late 2015.

Already, both studies have received attention, with publications in the January issue of Nature Areas Journal authored by Still and his collaborators.

Still’s initial findings reveal that the Wyoming big sagebrush species already appears to be shifting. An anticipated increase in precipitation in the Great Plains and a drier climate in the Great Basin may lead to a contraction of the species into a smaller range, he explained. “By 2050, models show that 39 percent of the current climate for Wyoming big sagebrush will be lost.”

Still hopes that by identifying locations where sagebrush may fail to thrive, land managers can immediately focus on restoring areas that will continue to be suitable for the species long term.

 Sagebrush in the canyon.

Sagebrush population in the canyon

“We don’t expect sagebrush to go extinct,” said Still. “But we may lose plants in areas where we don’t want to lose them, or more rapidly than we hoped. That could lead to more erosion or the loss of suitable habitat.”

Always moving forward, Still is continuing to work with the data, now adding details about plant locations such as the slope of the land and the direction they face. With those details, he will run new models in the future.

The wild West once again finds itself at the forefront of exploration and change. If Still has any say in the matter, its mysteries and historic charm will endure.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Students Learn that Science Can Be Beautiful

Youth Education - Fri, 02/27/2015 - 9:10am

The Garden has a bright and cheery answer for overcoming classroom winter doldrums: take a field trip to see the Orchid Show

 Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment -- they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment—they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

At a time when schools are tightening budgets and limiting field trips, you might think that an Outrageous Orchids experience is a frivolous excursion—but, in fact, this is a luxurious way to learn life science principles. Our programs are grounded in fundamental science concepts outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards. From Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, students get meaningful science lessons as they enjoy the sensational display of colors and aromas in our Greenhouses. 

Field trips are tailored to suit different grade levels. Younger students study the variety of color and shapes found in the exhibition to identify patterns. Early elementary level students examine the structures of orchids to understand their functions. Upper elementary students recognize how tropical orchids have adaptations for survival in a rainforest. These core ideas about orchids apply to all plants and are essential for understanding ecosystems. There isn’t a more beautiful way to study plant science anywhere else in the Chicago region.

 It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

As if being surrounded by gorgeous flowers in the dead of winter weren’t enough to engage a person’s brain, each student also gets to transplant and take a tropical plant to continue the learning after the visit. 

The Baggie Terrarium is a mini-ecosystem that reminds students of the water cycle and enables them to observe plant growth. 

Make a Baggie Terrarium

 Baggie terrarium.

We call this a “baggie terrarium.”

Supplies:

  • 1 zip-top bag (quart-size or larger)
  • Potting soil, moistened
  • A small plant or plant cutting (during Outrageous Orchids classes, we let students take a spider plant “pup” from a very large spider plant)
  1. Pour soil into the bag to fill about 2-3 inches deep. Use a finger to create a hole in the soil for the plant.
  2. Bury the roots of the plant in the hole and gently tap the soil around the base of the plant. If you are planting a stem cutting, place the stem in the soil and tamp around the base. If you have a larger bag, you can add more than one plant. Three different plants in a gallon size bag can make an attractive terrarium.
  3. Seal the bag, leaving about a 1-inch opening. Blow into the bag to inflate it and quickly seal the last inch tight so the air doesn’t all escape. The carbon dioxide in your breath is good for the plant, and will give the bag enough substance to stand up.
  4. Place the terrarium in a bright location, but not in direct sunlight. Remember that most tropical plants grow under the canopy of taller trees and do not need full sun. In fact, too much direct sun makes their leaves fade!
  5. Watch for tiny water droplets forming on the sides of the bag. These will gradually roll down the sides of the bag and re-water the soil. As long as the bag is completely sealed, it will stay moist and you will never have to open the bag or add more water. But if it dries out, you will need to water the plants.

You can leave your terrarium alone for a long time and not do anything but watch the plants grow. Eventually, they will outgrow the bag. Then you can transplant them to a pot if you like, or take cuttings and start another baggie terrarium.

Like all of our programs, Orchid Show field trips inspire young people to learn more about plants! Visit our website at chicagobotanic.org/fieldtrips for more information about these programs. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Vanilla inhabitants: The search for associated bacteria and fungi

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 01/20/2015 - 2:26pm

Last April, I ventured to Mexico as part of an international team investigating how cultivation practices influence the growth and health of the orchid Vanilla planifolia.

Vanilla planifolia produces the seed pods used to make vanilla, the spice used for flavoring desserts and beverages, and for providing wonderful aromas in candles, perfumes, and many other things. This collection trip would take me to vanilla’s native habitat of Mexico. All varieties of vanilla originated in Mexico, including those of Madagascar and Tahiti.

Vanilla cultivation

 Vanilla planifolia bloom.

Tahitian vanilla is a hybrid of V. planifolia (shown) and V. odorata. Photo by H. Zell CC-BY-SA-3.0

While in Mexico, I visited three farms in the state of Veracruz and one in the state of Puebla. It was fascinating driving to these vanilla farms with my Mexican collaborators. It took us three days of traveling to complete our field collections. Each of the four farms had very different methods of growing V. planifolia. For instance, one of the farmers said he knew what his plants needed and thought growing his vanilla on concrete blocks was the best method. At another farm, the farmer brought decaying wood from a neighboring forest and used it as mulch for his vanilla plants that grew on living posts known as “tuteurs.” This was different from the other farmers who grew their vanilla on trees in the forest and wooden dead “tuteurs.”

Each of the plantations had different soil textures. At the last organic farm, the soil was compact and hard. At the farms that were in the forest, the soil appeared rich and softer. There is no way to quantify the terrestrial root growth, but I did note that the roots in the organic farms were longer and healthier, with some growing up to 4 or 5 feet when we dug the roots up from the soil.

 A view of the Pantapec vanilla farm.

At the Pantapec farm in the state of Puebla, Mexico, vanilla is cultivated in a highly managed environment.

 A view of the 1 de Mayo vanilla farm

By contrast, the vanilla grown at 1 de Mayo farm in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, is cultivated in a completely natural environment.

The benefits of fungi

 Orchid tissue microscopy at 100x.

Research on rare and endangered orchids usually focuses on finding fungi to help in the germination of orchids. We know that orchids will only germinate in nature using fungi. In addition, fungi living inside of plant leaves can benefit the plants’ health by preventing pathogens from growing. Also, bacteria living within the plants and fungi can be beneficial in the same way as the endophytic fungi. (Photo: V. planifolia tissue microscopy at 100x)

My part of the research project is to collect root samples from V. planifolia from each of these different farms to study the fungi and bacteria inhabiting this orchid. Currently, not much is known about the microbes (fungi and bacteria) that reside in orchid roots. Some fungi and bacteria can cause diseases. For example, with the appearance of a fungal pathogen such as Fusarium oxysporum, Mexican farmers can lose 67 percent of their crops when the Fusarium causes the rotting of the Vanilla’s stem and roots. On the other hand, there are beneficial fungi that inhabit roots, known as mycorrhizal fungi. These beneficial symbiotic fungi acquire mineral nutrients for the Vanilla, and sometimes receive carbon from the orchid in exchange. Although 90 percent of plant species have mycorrhizal fungi, and while we have a good understanding of mycorrhizal fungi of some of these relationships, relatively little is known about the mycorrhizal fungi of orchids, including V. planifolia. The reason for this is that isolating and growing the fungi and bacteria associated with orchid roots can be difficult, and some have never been grown outside of their host.

At each farm, I wanted to sample five individual plants of V. planifolia. Additionally, because of the lifestyle of this orchid, I also wanted to sample the above-ground roots (epiphytic) and the below-ground (terrestrial) roots in the soil. Using either a scissors or a scalpel, I cut small root samples and placed them into Ziploc bags. The vanilla plants are very precious to the farmers, and so a few were initially uncomfortable with our cutting off pieces, but ultimately they were very accommodating.

Epiphytic or terrestrial?

 The Vanilla orchid's epiphytic roots.

Typically, vanilla grows as a vine, with two types of roots: epiphytic roots (those which wrap around trees or other structures) and terrestrial (soil) roots. This is referred to as hemiepiphytic, because it starts within the ground and grows upward onto the tree’s bark. Many research papers suggest that epiphytic roots do not harbor many fungi, because these roots can photosynthesize, and do not need mutualistic fungus partners.

Back here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I am in the process of evaluating the microbial community that lives in the root samples I collected. We are using a new technique called high-throughput sequencing that will enable me to evaluate the entire fungal and bacterial community within the orchid’s roots by using their DNA as a way to fingerprint the individual species of microbes. We are not certain how many species of fungi and bacteria we will find, but we predict that this method will give us a good picture of the fungal and bacterial community in these roots and if these communities differ among the different farming techniques. These data will be used to better understand how epiphytic orchids utilize mycorrhizal fungi and refine the best conditions to grow vanilla and prevent diseases in the plants.

This research trip was a delight, not only because of the samples that I collected, but also because I could learn more about how vanilla is grown and used. The farmers showed us how they “cure” and prepare the vanilla by fermenting it in the sun and before drying it thoroughly. I also tasted homemade “vanilla moonshine,” generously offered by the farmer’s wife. When visiting Papantla, I learned about the Aztec myth that explained how forbidden love created the sacred vanilla orchid. And of course, I was elated because I usually spend the majority of my research time in the lab. And here I was in the tropics, after spending the previous months facing the bitter Chicago 2014 winter.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter Infographic

Youth Education - Fri, 01/16/2015 - 9:25am

Think plants look brown and dead in winter? There’s plenty of life still going on beneath the surface!

 An infographic about winter.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Between a Rock and a Future

Plant Science and Conservation - Sat, 01/10/2015 - 9:30am

A pretty little iris growing in the mountainous rocky outcrops of Jerusalem is the focus of a research collaboration stretching over 6,000 miles.

Scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Jerusalem Botanical Gardens have combined their strengths to study the natural population structure, or remaining genetic diversity, of the rare Iris vartanii. What they have discovered may save the species, and others like it, into the future.

The finicky wildflower exists in just 66 locations in Israel’s Mediterranean ecosystem—a dangerously low number. New road construction, urban expansion, and even afforestation in the area have reduced the availability of its natural habitat, fueling the crisis. For a plant that is endemic to, or only lives in, one narrow region, that spells trouble.

 Iris vartanii ©Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir

Iris vartanii Photo ©Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir

“Whenever you have a rare plant, you always have concern that as diversity starts to go down, the plant becomes more and more endangered,” explained Garden volunteer and molecular biologist Eileen Sirkin, Ph.D. “The idea of diversity is that maybe one plant is more drought tolerant, another is more flood tolerant, and another is more wind tolerant, for example, so no matter what the conditions, there will be some survivors. As you narrow that, you are more and more in danger of losing that species.”

Do the existing plants contain adequate genetic diversity? And to sustain the species, how many plants are enough? These are the central questions.

Gaining a Foothold

The scientific partnership between the two gardens was forged when Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’ Head Scientist Ori Fragman-Sapir, Ph.D., who has monitored the species and studied its demography in the field, visited the Chicago Botanic Garden and met with Chief Scientist Greg Mueller, Ph.D. The two quickly saw an opportunity to combine Dr. Fragman-Sapir’s research with the genetic capabilities of the Garden to answer those critical questions.

“Conservation genetics is one of the core strengths of our science program,” said Dr. Mueller.  “There are few other botanical institutions that have this expertise, especially internationally, so we are happy to collaborate on interesting and important plant conservation projects like this one.”

“Conservation genetics is one of the core strengths of our science program,” said Dr. Mueller. “There are few other botanical institutions that have this expertise, especially internationally, so we are happy to collaborate on interesting and important plant conservation projects like this one.”

It wasn’t long before Fragman-Sapir began shipping leaf samples to the Garden’s molecular ecologist, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. Together with his dedicated volunteer Dr. Sirkin, Dr. Fant set to work extracting data from the samples and documenting DNA fingerprints for each plant. Once they had a large enough data set, they compared and contrasted the findings—looking for similarities and differences among the plants’ genetic compositions.

Gaining Altitude

To give scientists a point of comparison, Fragman-Sapir shared tissue samples from five populations (geographically separated clusters of plants) of a more commonly occurring related species, Iris histrio. By also documenting the DNA fingerprints of those plants, which grow in the surrounding area, but unlike Iris vartanii are not rare, Fant was able to determine how much diversity is needed to sustain the species.

 Volunteer Dr. Eileen Sirkin

Dr. Eileen Sirkin volunteers in the laboratory.

Although the study subject is far away from the Garden, its challenges hit close to home. In 2013, Fant and Sirkin published findings from a similar study on a rare plant found at Illinois State Beach Park, Cirsium pitcheri. For that initiative, they examined the DNA of plants from a restored site at the beach and compared them to the DNA of naturally occurring plants across the range, measuring diversity.

“We’re always working with rare and endangered species, and we collaborate with different people around the world to answer those questions,” explained Sirkin.

The Summit

After completing a statistical analysis of Iris vartanii’s DNA fingerprints, Fant made several encouraging conclusions but also issued an alert for continued attention.

The rare species’ genetic diversity was similar to that of Iris histrio. “This does tell us that genetic diversity in Iris vartanii is not likely an issue,” said Fant, who was not surprised by the conclusion. “Genetic diversity of any population is determined by the origins of the species, the age of the population, and proximity to the site of origin,” he explained. “As both species likely arose locally [from Jerusalem northward to the Galilee and further on] and have been around for a very long time, they possess similar levels of genetic diversity.”

 Dr. Jeremie Fant.

Conservation scientist Dr. Jeremie Fant

Especially encouraging was that each Iris vartanii population had significant differences in their genes, likely a result of their longtime separation. The findings highlight that it is all the more valuable to conserve each population for their potential to contribute unique genes to future plants, according to Fant.

Although many populations showed high diversity and low inbreeding, which is preferred, others showed the reverse, increasing their potential risk of extinction. The latter group, explained Fant, may benefit from extra special monitoring and care.

To conserve the existing populations, attention will need to be given to their surrounding natural areas, explained Sirkin. “If you find a species that people like and you study it and say we need to do all these things to save it, you are not just saving one plant, you are saving an ecosystem, including all the other plants, insects, other invertebrates, lizards, birds, and whatever else is involved in that ecosystem,” she said.

The findings and recommendations give land managers a clear direction for their conservation efforts, all because of one eye-catching plant that told the story of many.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mushroom Discovery

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 12/29/2014 - 9:30am

All the possibilities for the Obama Library plus our Windy City Harvest Youth Farm are featured on National Geographic’s website! Read about it in Greg Mueller’s article, The Next New Species Could be in Your Backyard: Why Exploration and Discovery Matter—Everywhere on National Geographic. Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation vice president of science at the Garden, describes the excitement of discovering new species in our own neighborhoods and parks.

 F, C0210207F

Photograph by Patrick R. Leacock

Read more by Garden scientists at voices.nationalgeographic.com
Copyright © 2014 National Geographic

Putting Down Roots: Urban Agriculture at Work

Community Gardening - Tue, 12/23/2014 - 9:15am

Two years ago—before his life took a head-spinning turn—Fernando Orozco was a 19-year-old juvenile offender in the Cook County Sheriff’s detention center. Recently, he completed work as a grower and crew leader on the Kraft Food campus in Northfield, Illinois, as part of a 13-week stint in Windy City Harvest Corps, an educational and transitional jobs program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden.

 Fernando Orozco.

Fernando Orozco at the Kraft Makers Garden

“I never thought I’d have a job like this where I have my own site and, not only that, the responsibility of caring for a crew of other guys,” Orozco said, on a break from work last summer in the 8,000-square-foot Kraft Makers Garden.

His crew included young men, ages 17 to 21, in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice system. The team grew enough tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and other produce to fill 55 boxes a week for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. Other crops included cherries, beets, swiss chard, and watermelon, made pretty with plantings of scarlet runner beans and firecracker flowers, all grown in full view of Kraft employees as they worked out in the company gym. Produce from the site is donated to WIC centers and food pantries in the networks of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Orozco became interested in farming at the sheriff’s detention center, where he learned basic growing and organic practices in a program run by Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative. He went on to complete the nine-month Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program, earned a certificate in safe and sustainable urban agriculture, and interned at locations including chef Rick Bayless’s home garden in Chicago.

The Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program attracts a diverse group of students, including young adults with a history of incarceration and those with significant barriers to employment. “Just because they’re checking that box that says ‘felony offense’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people,” said Angela Mason, director of Windy City Harvest. “They just need someone to give them a chance and support them through those changes. ”

Fernando and WCH Crew work at Kraft

Using organic methods and operating on eight acres at a dozen locations throughout Chicago and Lake County, Windy City Harvest students annually grow about 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, serving an estimated 143,000 people.

Now Orozco tells the former juvenile offenders with whom he works that they can leave their past behind. “I’m not the smartest person in the world,” he tells them, “but I saw an opportunity and I took it, and the same opportunity is happening to you guys. Are you going to take advantage?”

Orozco hopes to run his own farm some day. “But, for now, I’d be happy if I were here, doing the same thing, just perfecting the craft, growing food and helping people, growing people,” he said. “I can’t ask for a better job.” 

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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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