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You’ve Never Seen a Baptisia Like This Before

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 04/11/2016 - 8:41am

Be the first to grow these ten new plants—including Lunar Eclipse false indigo—just patented via the Chicagoland Grows, Inc. plant introduction program and on sale for the first time.

Purchase these new Baptisia and more online at Sooner Plant Farm and Bluestone Perennials.

Look for them at Chicago-area garden centers, said Jim Ault, Ph.D., who manages the program for the Chicago Botanic Garden. He’s proud of all of them, but two are special, said Ault, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Director of Ornamental Plant Research: Baptisia ‘Lunar Eclipse’, for its flowers that change from creamy white to deep violet as the plant ages, and Baptisia ‘Sunny Morning’, for its profusion of yellow flowers on dark charcoal stems.

 Blue Mound false indigo.

Blue Mound false indigo
Baptisia australis ‘Blue Mound’

 Lavender Rose false indigo.

Lavender Rose false indigo
Baptisia ‘Lavender Rose’

 Lunar Eclipse false indigo.

Lunar Eclipse false indigo
Baptisia ‘Lunar Eclipse’

 Mojito false indigo.

Mojito false indigo
Baptisia ‘Mojito’

 Royal Purple false indigo.

Royal Purple false indigo
Baptisia ‘Royal Purple’

 Sunny Morning false indigo.

Sunny Morning false indigo
Baptisia ‘Sunny Morning’

 Sandstorm false indigo.

Sandstorm false indigo
Baptisia ‘Sandstorm’

 Tough Love spiderwort.

Tough Love spiderwort
Tradescantia ‘Tough Love’

 Pink Profusion phlox.

Pink Profusion phlox
Phlox × procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’

 Violet Pinwheels phlox.

Violet Pinwheels phlox
Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’

Read more about these cultivars on the Chicagoland Grows website.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

All-Season Nature Crafts for Kids

Youth Education - Wed, 04/06/2016 - 9:12am

As a mom and working artist, I try to think of ways I can introduce my 3-year-old daughter to the outdoors and the power of imagination through craft projects. And as an employee at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I am inspired by all sorts of family programs and drop-in activities for kids and families that celebrate the outdoors.

What’s fun about nature art is that it starts with an adventure and ends with a surprise. For instance,  the “family of owls” that we created may appear in story time later.

Here are some of the nature-inspired activities and kid-friendly crafts that have come out of my journey as a mother and continue to get the best reviews from Laila, my toughest little critic.

Dirt is cool

Even when she was a baby, my daughter was intrigued by dirt. She is still fascinated by it, in any form. In the long winter, when we’re tired of being cooped up, we bring a little of the outdoors inside and put together a mud pie prep kitchen. Supplies include dropcloth, potting soil, spray bottle, pouring cups, pie plates, and sticks, rocks and/or sand for decorating.

 Mudpie in progress.

Don’t forget to have an old towel underneath your creation station.

 Laila holds her finished mudpie.

The finished muddy treat

Happiness is when mom says it’s OK to play with your food

This is the best way to distract a picky eater, or wow guests with an inexpensive dish you can design with your kids. Laila and I made these creations out of various fruits, vegetables, herbs, and cheeses.

 A cheese and fruit plate in a holiday theme is fun for kids to graze.

Bite-sized holiday snacks are great for kids who graze.

 A vegetable butterfly makes for delicious, healthy snacking.

A vegetable butterfly makes for delicious, healthy snacking.

It’s an outdoors treasure hunt

Laila and I start by taking adventure walks and filling our pockets or a basket with sticks, leaves, flowers, and other found art objects. Everywhere you look, there are free art supplies.

 Laila through the year, enjoying the outdoors.

Every season has something outside to explore.

 Sticks and grass make a portrait of our house; Laila works on a mulch sun.

We made a portrait of our house. Sticks and grass set the scene; Laila works on a mulch-made sun.

 Onion skins provide the fall leaves for our tree painting.

Take gatherings inside to make nature scenes or collages inspired by the seasons. Here, onion skins provide the fall leaves for our tree painting.

Rock ’n’ roll with it

Hand-picked rocks can be collected, cleaned, painted, and polished to transform into precious stones with a story attached. Even little nature lovers can apply homemade or washable paint to their rocks before an adult adds a clear topcoat finish. The rock art can be used as a paperweight or embellishment to a potted plant. Add a pipe cleaner and clothespin to make it a photo holder.

 Laila collects stones on the beach; the painted stones below.

Every child likes to collect rocks.

 A photo holder made from a painted stone, clothespin, and colorful pipe cleaner.

Collected stones can be painted or polished as keepsakes. Here, we’ve added a pipe cleaner and clothespin for a photo holder.

Impromptu art

One day we found pine cones and added fabric, buttons, and ribbon to create a family of owls that found a new home in our Christmas tree. Another time we used sticks, wire, glitter, and beads to build a twinkling mobile.

 A family of hand-made pinecone owls using buttons for eyes and ribbon feet.

A family of pine cone owls made great Christmas ornaments.

When the projects are done, we talk about what we made, where our supplies came from, and who we can share our creations with.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of outdoor exploration with my mom. I hope Laila someday will feel the same way.

Want to get more nature into your child’s world? Join us for a Nature Preschool open house April 7, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Deeply Rooted: Garden educators, scientists, and horticulturists are made early in life

Youth Education - Mon, 04/04/2016 - 9:39am

A growing body of research tells us that children are better off when they have daily contact with nature.

Nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps children focus, increases physical activity, improves eyesight, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships. 

Chicago Botanic Garden scientists, educators, and horticulturists credit their personal growth and professional development to early doses of “Vitamin G” (a term used to describe the benefits of exposure to green environments). Their words and childhood pictures best capture the joyful effect of nature on their lives.

Deeply Rooted Educators

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Ph.D. Jennifer at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, age 4

Jennifer, age 4, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

Vice president, education and community programs

“Even though I spent the early part of my childhood in Hyde Park, Chicago, I can’t remember a time when as a family, we didn’t take every opportunity to head out of the city to northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula, or northern Michigan for camping, canoeing, or hiking. Later, we moved to (almost) rural New York, where my sister, friends, and I became intimately familiar with the acres of woods, fields, and streams behind our house, disappearing for hours to explore our private, imagined world. As an adult, when I had the opportunity at the Chicago Botanic Garden to combine my expertise in learning science with my love of nature and share it with others, I thought, ‘This is the place for me.’”

Eileen Prendergast Eileen at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan, age 4

Eileen, age 4, at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan

Eileen Prendergast

Director of education

“The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”—Richard Louv, journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

“Some of my fondest memories of childhood include our summer vacations at Silver Lakes in southwestern Michigan. My brothers and cousins and I would spend all day, every day, playing in the sand and splashing in the water. We’d take the rowboat out to the ‘lily pads’ to see if we could catch any frogs—we were (disappointingly) never successful, though we did manage to get the rowboat stuck once for what seemed like an hour, but was probably just a few panicked minutes.

I have a particular fond memory of my close cousin Jean and I filling buckets with sand, mixing in just the right amount of water, and carefully making a batch of sand pancakes to cook on our folding chair stove. The simple pleasures derived from the freedom to play and explore outside throughout my childhood reinforces for me the importance of ensuring those same opportunities for play time in nature are available for my own children at home and the children participating in the programs at the Garden—making sure there are places to run, to hide, to dig, to splash, to have fun.”

Julia McMahon Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pensylvania

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Julia McMahon

Coordinator, family programs

“I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and ‘designing’ and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we ‘discovered’ a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.

“Preschool educators have long known that animals, plants, water, and other aspects of the natural world delight children and draw them in as learners.”—Natural Start Alliance

This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University, Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.”

Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River clean-up

Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River cleanup

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro

Manager, secondary education

“Here I am in my teens at a Chicago River cleanup in the woods, holding a toad. I was lucky enough to have attended a Chicago public high school that got me out in the forest preserves and into nature. The experiences are part of why I studied ecology, and also why I wanted to inspire other Chicago teens to do the same. Now, I recruit Chicago public high school students for Science First and College First.”

Deeply Rooted Conservation Scientists

Kayri Havens, Ph.D. Kay on vacation in Maroon Bells, Colorado, age 7

Kay, age 7, on vacation at Maroon Bells in Colorado

Kayri Havens

Medard and Elizabeth Welch Senior Director, Ecology and Conservation

“My best childhood memories were all outdoors…playing in the garden, growing vegetables, picking up seashells, going bird-watching. That love of nature has stayed with me, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to have a career that allows me to continue to explore and study plants and the natural world.”

Pati Vitt, Ph.D. Pati in Virginia, age 6

Pati, age 6, in Virginia

Patt Vitt

Susan and Roger Stone Curator, Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank

“There are very few pictures of me as a child, most of them posed…except this one. It is outside in an open field, where I and my siblings tramped around at will, falling in love with the outdoors.”

Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. Andrea in her backyard in Nebraska, age 2

Andrea, age 2, in her backyard in Nebraska

Andrea Kramer

Conservation scientist, restoration ecology

“I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in the corn belt where, as you can imagine, trees were not very common. I spent a lot of quality time either climbing in or sitting under this particular tree when I was young. A few years after this photo was taken, a family of owls took up residence in it. I can’t imagine a childhood that didn’t involve nature play—climbing trees or sitting quietly with binoculars to watch owls interact with each other and the plants that they called home helped me see the world from a larger vantage point, and made me want to understand it by becoming a scientist.”

Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie Fant

Conservation scientist, molecular ecology lab manager

“Growing up in a part of Australia where the weather was often nice, it was easy to spend most of your time outside. I am not sure I can remember when I was not outside in flip-flops and board shorts. No matter what we were doing, there was always something to get me excited. Sometimes it was something as amazing as a dolphin swimming close to the beach or a kangaroo caught by surprise on our hikes. It was clear from a young age that the thing that got me so excited was the flora, and a botanist was born. The smell of the eucalyptus still sends memories flooding of hikes after rains, recalling the wonderful discovery of small patches of donkey orchids in winter.

Ultimately, I combined this love of native flora with working in the garden. I would often spend afternoons walking through the Adelaide Botanic Garden for inspiration and to marvel at its collections. I went to university to study horticultural sciences and volunteered on weekends at the botanic gardens as an undergraduate. All of these interactions played an obvious role in my life’s trajectory as a scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.”

Deeply Rooted Horticulturists

Lisa Hilgenberg Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa Hilgenberg

Horticulturist, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

“My mother was a teacher and felt that it was so important to incorporate learning play. Here’s what she had to say: ‘Lisa, there was probably no time in your early years that you were not connected to nature. Starting with the simple joy of playing outdoors, you watered flowers for grandma and dad, made daisy chains, raked and played in the leaves, built snowmen, ice skated, and sculpted sand castles at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis. You planted gardens, learned to fish at Deer Lake. You loved having collections of rocks and leaves (author’s note: yes, I majored in geology and my childhood rock collections are still in the basement). You showed a love of dogs, gerbils, fish, white mice, even squirrels (you fed them peanut butter crackers at the back door). You were bonded to nature as a young child and it continues to this day!’”

Heather Sherwood Heather in a greenhouse in California, age 7

Heather, age 7, in a greenhouse in California

Heather Sherwood

Senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden and English Oak Meadow

“In my early childhood, I remember playing at my friend’s house. They had a very old forsythia bush, perfect for ‘house building,’ great tunnels, and hours of imaginative fun! When we were a bit older, the same best friend and I would meet down by the creek (between our two houses about a mile from each of us). We would spend hours walking in the creek bed, looking for crayfish, spiders, plants. (We brought skunkweed home to harass our siblings.) We would build forts with branches and grasses. When I was 12 years old, on a family vacation, we went to an enormous conservatory at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel. I walked into a breathtaking environment, and I knew. I knew I wanted to make people feel that same rush, excitement, wonder, as I did, and I was going to do it with plants. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Tom Weaver Tom in Little Canada, Minnesota, age 7

Tom, age 7, in Little Canada, Minnesota

Tom Weaver

Horticulturist, Waterfall Garden and Dwarf Conifer Garden

“This picture (left) was the first time I had flowers of my own, and it was so exciting! Even to this day I still try to make sure I have at least one zinnia plant somewhere in my life, whether it’s in a garden I work in at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at home because I fell so in love with the flowers as a child.”

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Painting with Veggies

Youth Education - Fri, 03/25/2016 - 11:08am

We’ve discovered a fun way to encourage our Camp CBG campers to try a salad. Many kids turn up their noses when they hear the word, but after painting with food, our campers are eager to “dig into” their creation.

For little ones, this project is easy and fun to do with a grown-up and provides opportunities to identify colors and start learning about plant parts. Older kids can use new kitchen tools (with adult supervision) and discuss what is really a fruit or a vegetable

Watch Painting with Veggies on YouTube.

Supply list:
Cutting board
Sharp knife
Food processor or grater
White plates

Recipe:
1 red bell pepper (see notes)
2 carrots
¾ cup chopped pineapple
½ head red cabbage
1 head broccoli (see notes)
Favorite salad dressing—we used ranch

Notes from the chef/artists:

  • Bell peppers don’t work well in the food processor. I recommend finely chopping them with a good knife. 
  • Broccoli was a bit difficult to work with. Next time I’d use a bag of broccoli slaw.
  • Other vegetables I’d like to try are fresh corn (off the cob), chopped celery, black beans, and dried fruits or nuts.
  • This would be fun to do with a spiralizer, which would add a different texture. Check out this post by fourth-grade teacher Lindsay for eight great spiralizer ideas.

Prepare veggies by shredding in a food processor, and place each kind in a bowl. Use your imagination to “paint” your canvas (plate). Make sure to take a picture before digging in. Once you are done creating, top with dressing and enjoy.

 Face made from veggies.For details about more fun for the family, visit chicagobotanic.org/forfamilies. Camp registration is open. Register for Camp CBG today.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Seed Library opening soon at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Lenhardt Library Blog Posts - Fri, 02/26/2016 - 9:08am

Come to the Seed Swap on February 28, and see a demonstration of the Lenhardt Library’s new seed library, set to launch next month.

Seed sharing is a resource for the community, just as libraries are a community resource for books. A seed library is where one may “borrow” seeds to sow, and if successful, harvest, save, and return some to the library for others to borrow the following season. We aim to cultivate an interest in home gardening and seed saving.

 Seed packets.Many are familiar with planting seeds, so we’ll focus on seed saving—a less familiar aspect of the food cycle. The Lenhardt Library’s seed library will be geared toward the novice who has little experience with seeds, but all are welcome to participate. We’ll provide horticultural assistance and step-by-step instructions as part of our program.

Seeds in this seed library are primarily heirlooms (varieties that have been in cultivation for 50 years or more), and/or open-pollinated (pollinated by bees or wind), so that the next generation seed retains the identical characteristics of the parent. Seed companies Renee’s Garden and Seed Savers Exchange have generously donated seeds to get us started; tomato, beans, lettuce, and more await you.

In 2015, the Illinois Seed Law was amended, making noncommercial seed libraries such as this one legally exempt from commercial requirements such as testing and labeling. Now we’re ready to get started!

We hope you’ll visit and borrow seeds for your home garden, whether it’s a large plot or a terra cotta pot on a windowsill.

 peas.Get more tips for starting seed in our Smart Gardener series, and consider starting some early spring crops.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: The Janzen-Connell Model or Why Are the Tropics So Diverse?

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 02/23/2016 - 9:34am

Imagine a large, beautiful canopy tree standing in the middle of a lush, tropical rainforest. This centuries-old tree produces thousands of seeds every year that densely litter the forest floor around it. Where then would you imagine its seedlings are likely to spring up? Probably in the seed-covered area around the tree right? Well, according to the Janzen-Connell model, you’d be wrong.

Daniel Janzen and Joseph Connell are two ecologists who first described this phenomenon in the early 1970s. They put their exceptional minds to the task and independently discovered that the probability of growing a healthy seedling was actually lower in the areas with the most seed fall. They hypothesized that seed predators and pathogens had discovered the seed feast around the parent tree and moved in, preventing any seeds in the area from growing into seedlings. These predator pests include beetles, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and have been labelled as host-specific predators and pathogens since they appear specifically around the parent tree, or host.

 Janzen-Connell hypothesis.

 This Malaysian silverleaf monkey eats fruit as part of its diet, dispersing seeds far beyond the canopy line.

This Malaysian silverleaf monkey eats fruit as part of its diet, dispersing seeds far beyond the canopy line.

Janzen and Connell’s hypothesis shows just how important the animals that eat the seeds are to the parent tree. These primates, birds, and other vertebrates move the seeds to different areas where they can successfully grow without being bothered by those pesky host-specific predators. Without these animal helpers, the forest couldn’t continue to grow, and the world’s most diverse areas would be in serious trouble.

Garden post-grads and scientists are in the field working on restoration efforts in the Colorado plateau, fossil hunting in Mongolia, and filming videos on sphinx moths. Interested in our graduate programs? Join us. 

 Peter DeJonge.Peter DeJongh is a first-year master’s student studying land management and conservation in the graduate program at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. His academic focus is on developing strategies to optimize plant and wildlife conservation and restoration. He aims to work in applied conservation or environmental consulting upon completion of his degree.

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This is our fifth installment of their exploration.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How Love and Science May Defend a Wild Orchid

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 02/18/2016 - 10:27am

Life on the prairie hasn’t been a breeze for the beautiful eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Once common across the Midwest and Canada, the enchanting wildflower caught the attention of collectors and was overharvested throughout the 1900s. At the same time, large portions of its wet prairie, sedge meadow, and wetland habitat were converted to agriculture. By 1989, just 20 percent of the original population of Platanthera leucophaea remained, and the orchid was added to the federally threatened species list.

 Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

The struggles of the captivating orchid did not go unnoticed. Its lacey white flowers and unique biological attributes sparked a passion in scientists and volunteers across the Midwest who began gathering leaf samples for genetic analysis and recording measurements on the health of certain populations. Some volunteers dedicated decades to this work, and many continue to monitor their assigned location today.

As long ago as the mid 1800s, an earlier generation of the wildflower’s enthusiasts had preserved samples of actual plants, pressing them onto archival paper with their field notes and placing them in long-term storage facilities called herbaria, for future reference. As it turns out, some of the plant materials they saved are from populations that no longer exist.

Now, all of that data is coming together for the first time in a research study by graduate student Claire Ellwanger.

The master’s degree candidate—in a Plant Biology and Conservation graduate program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University—is using modern analysis tools to uncover the genetic history of the species. What she finds will give scientists a better picture of the present-day status of genetic diversity of the species, and insight into the best ways to manage it for the future.

 Clarie Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

Claire Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

“This orchid is a pretty interesting species because there has been this massive volunteer effort for over 20 years to restore it in Illinois,” noted Ellwanger, who said that Illinois currently houses more populations, or locations, of the species than any other state.

She is focused on collecting and analyzing genetic information on the remaining plants, working with field collectors in the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio, and also from Maine. She is examining the genes, or DNA, of each of the sampled populations, along with genetic information she collected at eight sites right here in Illinois.

Ellwanger is also extracting DNA from the older herbarium samples to better understand how much genetic diversity was a part of the species in the past. “The herbarium samples will allow us to get a sense of historic genetic variation to compare to levels today,” she explained.

Along with her thesis advisor, Garden molecular ecologist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., she is especially interested in finding ways to maintain genetic diversity. “We know that if you are able to preserve the most genetic diversity in a species, it is more likely to persist for longer,” she explained.

 Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

In the lab today with her research assistant, Laura Steger, she uses a genetic fingerprinting technique on all groups in her study subjects. By watching the same sequence of genes over time and locations, she can see clear patterns and any changes. The bonus to it all is that “understanding more about these plants and their genetic variation will be pretty applicable to other species that have undergone the same processes,” she noted.

As scientists and volunteers worked in the field over the last several decades, they did more than collect genetic information. They also took steps to boost new seed production by hand pollinating plants or conducting a form of seed dispersal. Through her study, Ellwanger is also tracking the success of each technique. “I’ll be able to complete a genetic comparison over time to see if these recovery goals are achieving what they set out to do,” she said, by comparing the genetic composition of a given population from the recent past to today.

 A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds

A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds.

At sites Ellwanger visited personally, she collected seeds as well, and brought them back to the lab for examination. There, looking under a compound light microscope, she checked to see what percentage of seed embryos from the sites were plump and therefore viable. Her findings offer an additional perspective on what her genetic analysis will show. After examination, the seeds were returned to their field location.

In early analysis results, “it looks like reproductive fitness does differ between sites so it will be really interesting to see if those sites that have lower reproductive fitness also have higher levels of inbreeding,” noted Ellwanger. Inbreeding, the mating of closely related individuals, can result in reduced biological fitness in the population of plants. In such cases, it could be helpful to bring in pollen or seed from other populations to minimize mating with close relatives and strengthen populations for future generations.

 Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

The eastern prairie fringed orchid will soon be better understood than ever before. The findings of the study may also provide insight into other problems that may be happening in the prairies where they live. “Orchids will be some of the first organisms to disappear once a habitat starts to be degraded. If we can better understand what’s going on with this plant it, could help out similar species,” said Ellwanger.

The researcher is looking forward to the impact this work could have on the future of the plant and the habitat that sustains it. “What motivates me about research is definitely the conservation implications,” said Ellwanger, who developed her love of conservation while growing up on the East Coast and learning about the complex systems that play a role in the health of the environment.

Read more about orchid research at the Garden, and don’t forget to visit the Orchid Show, open through March 13, 2016.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Phylogenetic Trees

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 02/16/2016 - 1:19pm

When a scientist says that chimpanzees are related to humans, or that chickens are related to dinosaurs, what do they mean?

They mean that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor from many thousands of generations ago. Although that shared great-great-great-great-(etc.)-great-parent lived many years ago, that shared ancestor lived more recently than the ancestor that humans share with dogs. So humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than dogs because they have the most recently shared ancestor. Scientists call this the “most recent common ancestor.”

This most recent common ancestor wasn’t a chimp, and it wasn’t a human—it was a different species with its own appearance, habits, and populations. One of these populations evolved into humans, and one of the populations evolved into chimpanzees. We know this because of a field of study called “phylogenetics.” Scientists use phylogenetics to study how species are related to each other. 

Phylogenetic tree diagram.

Using DNA sequences, scientists construct tree-like diagrams that trace how species are related. A human’s DNA is more similar to a chimpanzees’ than to a chicken, so a tree diagram would connect humans and apes. Dinosaurs and chickens would be shown as related as well, and then these two groups would be connected.

Interested in learning more? Explore phylogenetics with the Tree of Life Web Project. Dig deep into the study of the phylogenetic roots of food plants with The Botanist in the Kitchen

 Dr. Evelyn Williams, Conservation Scientist.Dr. Evelyn Williams is an adjunct conservation scientist at the Garden. She’s interested in genetic diversity at multiple scales, from the population to the family level. While at the Garden, Dr. Williams has worked on rare shrubs from New Mexico (Lepidospartum burgessii), systematics of the breadfruit family (Artocarpus), and using phylogenetic diversity to improve tallgrass prairie restorations.

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This is our fourth installment of their exploration.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Prairies Need Fire

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 02/09/2016 - 9:50am

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This is our third installment of their exploration.

A dark, stinky plume of smoke rising from a nature preserve might be alarming. But fire is what makes a prairie a prairie.

A prairie is a type of natural habitat, like a forest, but forests are dominated by trees, and prairies by grasses. If you’re used to the neatly trimmed grass of a soccer field, you may not even recognize the grasses of the prairie. They can get so tall a person can get lost.

Prairies are maintained by fire; without it, they would turn into forests. Any chunky acorn or winged maple seed dropping into a prairie could grow into a giant tree, but they generally don’t because prairies are burned every few years. In fact, fossilized pollen and charcoal remains from ancient sediments show that fire, started by lightning and/or people, has maintained the prairies of Illinois for at least 10,000 years. Today, restoration managers (with back up from the local fire department), are the ones protecting the prairie by setting it aflame.

 Chicago Botanic Garden ecologist Joah O'Shaughnessy monitors a prairie burn.

Garden ecologist Joan O’Shaughnessy monitors a spring burn of the Dixon Prairie.

 New growth after a prairie burn.

New growth emerges a scant month after the prairie burn.

Prairie plants survive these periodic fires because they have incredibly deep roots. These roots send up new shoots after fire chars the old ones. Burning also promotes seed germination of some tough-seeded species, and helps keep weeds at bay by giving all plants a fresh start.

Read more about our conservation and restoration projects on the Chicago Botanic Garden website. Want to get involved in our local ecosystem conservation? Find your opportunity with Chicago Wilderness.

 Becky Barak.Becky Barak is a Ph.D. candidate in Plant Biology and Conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University. She studies plant biodiversity in restored prairies, and tweets about ecology, prairies, and her favorite plants at @BeckSamBar.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Plants’ Roots Helped Them Move to Land

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 02/02/2016 - 2:28pm

 Alicia Foxx.Alicia Foxx is a second-year Ph.D., student in the joint program in Plant Biology and Conservation between Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on restoration of native plants in the Colorado Plateau, where invasive plants are present. Specifically, she studies how we can understand the root traits of these native plants, how those traits impact competition, and whether plant neighbors can remain together in the plant community at hand.

Life for plants on land is hard because the environment can become dry. Water is important because it is used when plants take in sunlight and carbon dioxide to make energy; this is called photosynthesis. In fact, the largest object in a plant cell is a sack that holds water. Without water, plants would die.

Plants first evolved in water, which is a comfortable place: there is little friction, you almost feel weightless, and…there was plenty of water back then. These plants had no difficulty photosynthesizing, as water diffused quite easily into their leaf cells! They had little use for roots.

Evolving Plant Structures

In the time plants evolved to live on land (100 million years later), water shortages and the need to be anchored in place became issues and restricted plants to living near bodies of water. Some plants evolved root-like structures that were mostly for anchoring a plant in place, but also took in some water.  

It wasn’t until an additional 50 million years after the move on to land that true roots evolved, and these are very effective at getting the resources essential for photosynthesis and survival. In fact, the evolution of true roots 400 million years ago is associated with the worldwide reductions in carbon dioxide, since more resources could be gathered by roots for photosynthesis. Importantly, plants were no longer tied to bodies of water!

 tree roots.

Large roots anchor a plant in place.

 bulb with tiny bulblets and root hairs.

Tiny root hairs on a bulb take up nutrients when moisture is present.

Water issues continued, however, even with true roots. Early roots were very thick and could not efficiently search through the soil for resources. So plants either evolved thinner roots, or formed beneficial associations with very tiny fungi (called mycorrhizal fungi) that live in the soil. These fungi create very thin, root-like structures that allow for more effective resource uptake. In general, while life on land is hard, plants have evolved ways to cope via their roots.

Garden scientists are studying the relationships between plants and mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Orchids are masters of nutrient collection. The vanilla orchid has terrestrial (in soil) and epiphytic (above ground, or air) roots—and forms relationships with fungi for nutrient collection. Read more about research on Vanilla planifolia here

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This is our second installment of their exploration.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Osprey Nesting Platform Installed at the Garden

Birding - Sat, 01/30/2016 - 8:48am

Look up! In partnership with Friends of the Chicago River (FOCR) and the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC), an osprey nesting platform was installed on Friday, January 29, along the North Branch Trail at the south end of the Chicago Botanic Garden near Dundee Road.

MAP

The Garden’s new osprey nesting platform is located near Dundee Road and is viewable from the North Branch Trail.

The osprey is listed as an endangered species in Illinois, which means it’s at risk of disappearing as a breeding species. Fish-eating raptors that migrate south and winter from the southern United States to South America, osprey are often seen during their migrations—yet few remain in Illinois to nest. The lack of suitable nesting structures has been identified as a limiting factor to their breeding success here.

Males attract their mates to their strategically chosen nesting location in the spring. In order for a nest to be successful, it must be located near water (their diet consists exclusively of fish, with largemouth bass and perch among their favorites), the nest must be higher than any other nearby structure, and it must be resistant to predators (think raccoons) climbing the nest pole and attacking the young.

FOCR and the FPCC sought out the Garden as a partner for an installation site, in large part owing to the Garden’s strong conservation messaging and proximity to other nearby nesting platforms that have been recently installed (two are located alongside the FPCC’s Skokie Lagoons just to the south).

The Garden’s nesting platform was installed atop an 80-foot “telephone pole,” set 10 feet into the ground and extending upwards by 70 feet. The 40-inch hexagonal nest platform atop the pole has a wire mesh on the bottom so that water can pass through the sticks and stems that the osprey will bring to construct the nest.

 Installing and osprey nesting pole.

A truck-mounted auger and crane set the nesting pole and platform into place.

 Installing an osprey nesting pole.

The nesting platform sits atop the pole and is ideally sized for a future osprey nest; notice that we even “staged” the new osprey home with a few sticks of our own!

 Installing an osprey nesting pole.

A metal band was wrapped near the bottom of the pole to prevent predators from being able to climb it.

 Installing an osprey nesting pole.

The nesting pole and platform is fully installed and is visible from the North Branch Trail that runs through the Garden.

With the osprey nesting platform now in place, our hope is that within the next few years, a migrating male will select the site and pair with a female. Osprey generally mate for life, though they’re together only during the breeding and rearing seasons.

You can learn more about the how and why of the osprey nesting platform project at the FOCR website. Follow the links on that webpage for images, video, and a press release relating to the installation of an identical osprey platform at the Skokie Lagoons last spring.

Read more about the long-term effort, and about ospreys making a comeback in Cook County. Discover birding at the Garden and find our full bird list online at chicagobotanic.org/birds.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Dormancy and Germination

Plant Science and Conservation - Wed, 01/27/2016 - 11:14am

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. Each week this spring, we’ll publish some of the results.

These brief explanations cover the topics of seed dormancy and germination, the role of fire in maintaining prairies, the evolution of roots, the Janzen-Connell model of tropical forest diversity, and more. Join us the next several weeks to see how our students met this challenge, and learn a bit of plant science too.

 A tiny oak sprouting from an acorn.

A tiny oak emerges from an acorn. Photo by Amphis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dormancy and Germination

The seed is an essential life stage of a plant. Without seeds, flowers and trees would not exist. However, a seed doesn’t always live a nice, cozy life in the soil, and go on to produce a mature, healthy plant. Similar to Goldilocks, the conditions for growth of a seed should be “just right.” The charismatic acorn is just one type of seed, but it can be used here as an example. Mature acorns fall from the branches of a majestic oak and land on the ground below the mother tree. A thrifty squirrel may harvest one of these acorns and stash it away for safekeeping to eat as a snack at a later time. The squirrel, scatterbrained as he is, forgets many of his secret hiding places for his nuts, and the acorn has a chance at life. But it’s not quite smooth sailing from here for that little acorn.

Imagine trying to be your most productive in extreme drought, or during a blizzard. It would be impossible! Just as we have trouble in such inhospitable conditions, a seed also finds difficulty in remaining active, and as a result, it essentially goes into hibernation until conditions for growth are more suitable. Think of a bear going into hibernation as a way to explore seed dormancy. The acorn cozies up in the soil similar to the way a bear crawls into her den in the snowy winter and goes to sleep until spring comes along. As the snow melts, the bear stretches out her sore limbs and makes her way out into the bright world. The acorn feels just as good when that warmer weather comes about, and it too stretches. But rather than limbs, it stretches its fragile root out into the soil and begins the process of germination. This process allows the seed to develop into a tiny seedling — and perhaps eventually grow into a beautiful, magnificent oak tree.

Our scientists are studying seed germination in a changing climate. Learn how you can help efforts to help match plants to a changing ecosystem with the National Seed Strategy

 Alexandra Seglias at work in the field.Alexandra Seglias is a second-year master’s student in the Plant Biology and Conservation program at Northwestern University/The Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on the relationship between climate and dormancy and germination of Colorado Plateau native forb species. She hopes that the results of her research will help inform seed sourcing decisions in restoration projects.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Search for Rare Oak Species Yields Results

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 01/21/2016 - 12:30pm

On October 25 last year, I met Matt Lobdell, curator at the Morton Arboretum, in Orange Beach, Alabama, to begin a ten-day plant expedition trip to Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. 

Matt Lobdell had received a grant from the American Public Gardens Association and the U.S. Forest Service in the spring to collect seed of Quercus oglethorpensis from as many genetic populations as possible, so that the breadth of this species could be preserved in ex-situ collections in botanic gardens and arboreta. This expedition was an opportunity to collect this species and other important oak species, as well as other species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that could be added to our collections.

We were targeting the collection of four oaks with conservation status: Oglethorpe oak (Quercus oglethorpensis), Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana), Boynton sand post oak (Quercus boyntonii), and Arkansas oak (Quercus arkansana). All four of these oaks are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which identifies plants that have important conservation status. (Quercus georgiana and Q. oglethorpensis are listed as endangered.)

 Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Any successful plant expedition is the result of a very collaborative effort. Because we are often looking for hard-to-find species, we rely on local experts. For different parts of the trip we had guidance from Mike Gibson of Huntsville Botanical Garden; John Jensen and Tom Patrick at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Brian Keener at the University of Western Alabama, assisted by Wayne K. Webb at Superior Trees; Fred Spicer, CEO of Birmingham Botanical Gardens; and Patrick Thompson of Davis Arboretum at Auburn University.

We were also joined by other institutions that helped with both the collection of seed and the associated data, but also helped with the collecting of two herbarium vouchers for each collection (pressed specimens), which are now housed in the herbaria at the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden respectively. Assistance was provided by Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum; Amy Highland and Cat Meholic of Mt. Cuba Center; Ethan Kauffman of Moore Farms Botanical Garden; and Greg Paige from Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum.

Our expedition begins

On October 26, we collected at Gulf State Park in pelting rain and very high winds that resulted from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, which had made landfall near Puerto Vallarta days earlier. Nevertheless, we found several small, windswept oaks in this sandy habitat, including Q. myrtifolia, Q. minima, Q. geminata, and Q. chapmanii.

 Talladega National Forest

Talladega National Forest

The next day, we moved north to the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama. In addition to collecting more oaks, we made collections of the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Euonymus americanus, and the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). We also saw fantastic specimens of the big-leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but we were too late to find any viable seed.

 Quercus boyntonii

Quercus boyntonii

Fred Spicer, CEO of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, joined us the next day, October 28, to take us to several populations of Q. boyntonii, where we were able to make collections for six different populations. He also took us to Moss Rock Preserve in Jefferson County, where we made collections of the Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana). We also made a collection of the Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera).

On October 30, we spent the day in Sumter County, Alabama, with Brian Keener, where we encountered Quercus arkansana, Dalea purpurea, Viburnum rufidulum, and Liatris aspera.

On October 31, we botanized in Blount County, Alabama, at Swann Bridge. Below the bridge was a small river, where we saw an array of interesting plants including the yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima); hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana); a small St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum); and a native stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron), in which we were able to find a few seeds. From there we continued on to the Bibb County Glades and collected Silphium glutinosum and Hypericum densiflorum.

 Bibb County Glades

Bibb County Glades

 Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

On the following day, we made another collection of Quercus boyntonii in St. Clair Country and then headed to the Little River Canyon in Cherokee County. This was a rich area filled with native vegetation of many popular plants including the maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), with its wine-red fall color; both the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), and the Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Interestingly, many of these Alabama natives are perfectly hardy in the Chicago area.

Toward the end of the trip, we headed into Jasper County, Georgia, and met up with John Jensen and Tom Patrick of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who helped us find populations of Quercus oglethorpensis. In Taylor County, we collected several oaks, including Q. margarettae, Q. incana, and Q. laevis.

We finished the expedition in Sumter National Forest in McCormick County, South Carolina. This was the final collecting site for Q. oglethorpensis, which was cohabiting with Baptisia bracteata and Q. durandii.

 Little River Canyon

Little River Canyon

 Quercus ogelthorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

Quercus oglethorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

An expedition’s rewards

In total, we made 92 collections of seed and herbarium vouchers. The seed is being grown at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Most likely, plants will not be ready for distribution until 2017 and most likely would not be planted into the Garden’s collections until 2018 at the earliest.

In spring 2016, Northwestern University graduate student Jordan Wood will retrace some of our steps in search of leaf samples of Q. oglethorpensis so he can study the DNA and fully understand the genetic breadth of this species throughout its native range from Louisiana to South Carolina.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Water Works

Plant Science and Conservation - Sat, 01/02/2016 - 8:59am

In a first-time summer internship research project, two college students set out to understand how plants were responding to the Garden’s shoreline restoration projects. They took a deep look into how variations in water levels may be affecting the health of the young plants. The results of their work will help others select the best plants for their own shorelines.

A silent troop of more than one-half million native plants stand watch alongside 4½ miles of restored Chicago Botanic Garden lakeshore. The tightly knit group of 242 taxa inhibit erosion along the shoreline, provide habitat for aquatic plants and animals, and create a tranquil aesthetic for 60 acres of lakes.

 The North Lake shoreline.

The North Lake shoreline
(photo by Bob Kirschner)

Now ranging from 2 to 15 years old, the plants grow up from tiered shelves on the sloping shores. Species lowest on the slope are always standing in water. At the top of the slope, the opposite is true, with only floods or intense downpours bringing the lake level up to their elevation.

Wading In

Jannice Newson and Ben Girgenti moved through clusters of tightly knit foliage along the Garden shoreline from June through August, taking turns as map reader or measurement taker. On a tranquil summer day, one would step gingerly into the water, settling on a planting shelf, before lowering a 2-foot ruler into the water to take a depth measurement. The other, feet on dry land, would hold fast to an architectural map of the shoreline while calling out directions or making notes.

Newson, a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) intern and sophomore at the University of Missouri, and Girgenti, a Garden intern and senior at Brown University, worked under the guidance of Bob Kirschner, the Garden’s director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board curator of aquatics.

 Interns Ben Girgenti and Jannice Newson.

Interns Ben Girgenti and Jannice Newson gather plant data on the shoreline.

When the summer began, Girgenti and Newson had hoped to locate and measure every single plant. But after the immense scope of the project became clear in their first weeks, they decided to focus on species that are most commonly used in shoreline rehabilitation, as that information would be most useful for others.

View the Garden’s current list of recommended plants for shoreline restoration.

“We’re interested in which plants do really badly and which do really well when they are experiencing different levels of flooding, with the overall idea of informing people who are designing detention basins,” explained Girgenti, who went on to say that data analysis of the Garden’s sophisticated shoreline development would be especially useful for others.

“The final utility of this research will be to inform other natural resource managers,” confirmed Kirschner, who added that successful Garden shoreline plants must be able to withstand water levels that can rise and fall by as many as 5 feet several times in one year.

Steering the Ship

Along the shoreline, the interns followed vertical iron posts that were installed as field markers during construction, in order to find specific plants shown on the maps. “The posts are pretty key to being able to map out the beds,” said Girgenti.

 The Malott Japanese Garden shoreline 3 years after the 2011-12 restoration project.

The Malott Japanese Garden shoreline three years after the 2012 restoration project.

Once they found a target plant, they then counted clumps of it, and put it into one of six categories based on the amount of current coverage, ranging from nonexistent to area coverage of more than 95 percent.

They also measured the average depth of water for beds with plants below the water line, noting their elevation. For plants above the water line, the elevation was derived from the architectural drawings.

Data about the elevation and coverage level of each measured plant, together with daily lake water level readings dating back to the late 1990s, was then entered into a spreadsheet and prepared for analysis to identify correlations between planting bed elevation and plant survival.

Beneath the Surface

For her REU research project, Newson was careful to collect data for one species in particular, blue flag iris. “As a preliminary test of the project hypothesis, data relating to 101 planting beds of Iris virginica var. shrevei were analyzed to see if there was a significant correlation between the assessed plant condition and each planting bed’s elevation relative to normal water,” she explained in her final REU poster presentation in late August.

 Southern blue flag iris.

Southern blue flag iris (Iris virginica var. shrevei), photo by Jannice Newson

An environmental science major, she initially experienced science at the Garden as a participant in the Science First Program, and then as a Science First assistant, before becoming an REU intern.

Girgenti began his Garden work in the soil lab, where his mentor inspired him to focus on local, native flora. “I was kind of pushed up a little bit by the Garden,” he said. The following year he did more field work in the Aquatics department. “I wanted to come back because I really enjoyed being here the last two years,” he said. “Every year I’ve come back to the Garden, I’ve been very excited about what I’m going to do.”

Aside from the scientific discovery, the two also refined their professional interests. “I do enjoy being out in the field as opposed to maybe working in a lab; it’s a lot more interesting to me. And also just working in the water with native plants is very interesting,” said Newson.

“I was really interested in getting into more of the shoreline science and also learning which native species were planted there,” said Girgenti. “I really love working here. I’ve never really been involved this much in science, so this has been a really great experience—just all of the problem solving that we’ve had to do over the course of the summer.”

Newson also enjoyed the communication aspect of her work, as Garden visitors stopped to ask what work she and Girgenti were doing along the shoreline. She was especially excited to share with them and her fellow REU interns that “the purpose of why we are doing this is that it provides a beautiful site for visitors to see, it helps with erosion, and also improves aquatic habitat.”

 View of the Kleinman Familly Cove.

A view of the Kleinman Family Cove highlights the small bay where our youngest science explorers can learn about the shoreline.

Although the interns have left the Garden for now, the data they collected will have a lasting impact here and potentially elsewhere. Kirschner is currently working with his colleagues on the data analysis to complete a comprehensive set of recommendations for future use.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter Birds Are Here!

Birding - Tue, 12/29/2015 - 8:23am

The flowers are gone, the trees are bare, now what to photograph? Birds, of course! Winter is a great time to get some fabulous shots of winter birds. One huge bonus is that there are no leaves on the trees and the birds are much easier to see!

There are the “regular” local birds, like robins (yes, some robins do stay around all winter), goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, mallards, Canada geese, red-tailed hawks, and cedar waxwings, to name a few. Plus, winter has the bonus of birds that actually migrate to our area just for the winter. Some migrants you will see every year are juncos, tree sparrows, and a variety of ducks. Other birds are occasional, or eruptive, and only show up once every few years, like pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, and redpolls. Then there are the, “wow! I’m really lucky to find this species!” birds, like crossbills, snowy owls, bald eagles, and bohemian waxwings. That is the fun part—you never know what you will find on any given day. That is why I go out every chance I get!

You can check the list of birds that you can expect to see at the Garden here.

Goldfinch in toned-down winter plumage, enjoying seeds on Dixon Prairie.

A goldfinch in toned-down winter plumage enjoys seeds on the Dixon Prairie. ©Carol Freeman

Male cardinal surveying the bounty on the prairie.

A male cardinal surveys the bounty on the prairie. ©Carol Freeman

Common redpoll feasting on birch tree seeds around the Regenstein building. It was a nice find to see this occasional visitor at the garden.

This common redpoll was feasting on birch tree seeds around the Regenstein Center. It was a nice find to see this occasional visitor at the Garden. ©Carol Freeman

Tap, tap, tap, I heard the Downy woodpecker before I saw him.

Tap, tap, tap…I heard the downy woodpecker before I saw him. ©Carol Freeman

When you get to the Garden, some places to look are all the trees with berries! Yes, the birds love them. Another good place to look is the Dixon Prairie, where all those seeds attract a lot of birds. Be sure to check out the bird feeders at the Buehler Enabling Garden too. You can also find a variety of birds—especially woodpeckers—in the McDonald Woods. If there is open water, check there for ducks and geese. You might be surprised at just how many birds you can find in winter.

What a surprise to find this adult bald eagle sitting in a tree just next to the Plant Science building!

What a surprise to find this adult bald eagle sitting in a tree just next to the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center! ©Carol Freeman

The local Robins are taking advantage of the abundant food supply at the garden.

The local robins take advantage of the abundant food supply at the Garden. ©Carol Freeman

The pine siskins were enjoying the bounty at the Enabling Garden bird feeders.

The pine siskins enjoy the thistle seeds at the Enabling Garden bird feeders. ©Carol Freeman


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Secret Society of Soil

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 12/21/2015 - 8:57am

When you lift a rock in your garden and glimpse earthworms and tiny insects hustling for cover, you’ve just encountered the celebrities of soil. We all know them on sight. The leggy, the skinny, the pale…the surprisingly fast.

Behind this fleeting moment are what may be considered the producers, editors, and set designers of the mysterious and complex world of soil—fungi. They often go unrecognized, simply because most of us can’t see them.

 Otidea decomposer.

Otidea, a decomposer

Fortunately, new technologies are helping experts, like Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Louise Egerton-Warburton, Ph.D., get a better look at fungi than ever before, and discover vital information.

“One of the problems we have with soil science is that you can’t see into it so you really depend on a lot of techniques and methods to work out what’s happening,” explained Dr. Egerton-Warburton, associate conservation scientist in soil and microbial ecology. 

In the last year, she has used high-throughput sequencing (also termed Next Generation Sequencing) to identify more than 120 species of mycorrhizal fungi in a single plant community. In contrast, previous reports suggested there were, at most, about 55 mycorrhizal species in a plant community. These tiny heroes are microscopic organisms that attach themselves to plant roots, for example, to carry out critical functions that support all life on earth. They are essential for the well-being of more than 85 percent of all plants, including those in your garden.

Mycorrhizal fungi are fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with roots of a vascular plant; from the Greek for “fungus” and “root.”

 White mushrooms.

Mushrooms are the above-ground fruiting body of fungi.

If climate change results in more intense rainfall and drought—as is predicted by climate change scientists—mycorrhizal fungi will also play an important role in processing varied levels of water in the soil.

Egerton-Warburton has just returned from November field work in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, where she has been testing the responses of mycorrhizal fungi to changes in rainfall and soil moisture, especially to drought. Will fungi be able to keep pace? Will they be able to survive? What does that mean for other plant life? “Fungi are really good indicators of any environmental problems. So they are more likely to show the effects of any environmental stress before the plants will,” she said.

Each type of fungi also has a specific role, according to Egerton-Warburton, with some specialized to take up nutrients from the soil, while others cooperate to complete a function, such as fully decomposing a leaf.  A lot of fungi are needed to keep the system working. “You get 110 yards of fungal material in every teaspoon of soil,” she explained.

Aside from breaking down deceased plant material, fungi play a key role in many plant-soil interactions and the redistribution of resources in an ecosystem. They filter water that runs into the ground, cleaning it before it hits the bottom aquifers and drains out into rivers. Also, in the top few inches of soil, many fungi are respiring, along with their earthworm and other living counterparts, helping to filter gases and air that move through the system. Of growing interest, is also the fact that fungi could have a major role in soil carbon sequestration.

Soil carbon sequestration is the process of transferring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil in a form that is not immediately reemitted.

 Leucocoprinus fungi.

Leucocoprinus fungi

For the past four years, Egerton-Warburton and colleagues at Northwestern University have been working to better understand the flow of carbon through fungal communities that results in long-term soil carbon sequestration. Soil’s capacity to store carbon is a reason for hope and a potential way to mitigate climate change. According to Egerton-Warburton, soil is known to hold three times more carbon than plants and trees above ground. “Maybe there are other ways we can manage the systems and enhance that capacity in the soil,” she said.

The study has required a lot of ‘getting to know you’, as the researchers first sought to identify each type of fungi involved in the process of carbon sequestration. As plant parts above ground are faced with absorbing and converting larger and larger amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere into sugars, and sending it down into their roots, the more beneficial it will be to have a healthy suite of fungi waiting to receive it, use it, and move it along for future long-term storage.

Part of this equation has been to understand which fungi benefit from the increasing supply of sugar. Previous work by Egerton-Warburton has shown that mycorrhizal fungi respond to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide by producing large quantities of hyphae, a fine root-like structure, in the soil. This is because increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide allow a plant to produce more sugars during photosynthesis, and these sugars are shunted below ground for use by roots and their mycorrhizal fungi. At the other end of the equation are saprophytic and decomposer fungi, waiting to break down the new hyphae.

Recent work in the Dixon Prairie has used the high throughput sequencing and chemical fingerprinting to identify the fungi involved in this decomposition phase. Once that is resolved, they will be able to better understand how the fungi interact and balance the cycle carbon through specific pathways of activity.

Learn more about soil science in the winter 2015-16 issue of Keep Growing, pages 28-30.

 Louise Egerton-Warburton.

Louise Egerton-Warburton at work in the soil lab

The more the merrier, when it comes to fungi, and when it comes to people who are willing to help them endure, said Egerton-Warburton. The scientist often works with students who are interested in careers in the field, but encourages additional people to consider this critical line of work. “There’s a real need for soil ecologists in the country,” she said.

The good news is that the future story of fungi is one we can all help to script. Gardeners, she advised, can pay attention to the type of mulch they use in their garden, and plant lots of native species that will naturally enrich the function of that wonderful world that holds us up.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Mini-Terrarium Holiday Ornament

Youth Education - Thu, 12/10/2015 - 3:35pm

For one December session of our Plant Explorers after school program at Chicago International Charter School—Irving Park, the students made living ornaments for the holidays.

This tiny terrarium project can have a calming influence on a potentially hectic holiday, because green and growing plants make us feel more relaxed. It requires you to find some live moss, but it makes an extra special decoration for kids—and adults—who love plants. 

 The finished moss terrarium ornament.

The finished moss terrarium ornament

 Moss globe ornament supplies.

A fillable plastic globe ornament, small amount of potting soil, live moss, ribbon, and little wooden reindeer are what we used to create our ornaments. (Charcoal is not shown.)

To make your own “moss-some” terrarium ornament you will need:

  • 3-inch or larger plastic sphere ornament that splits into two halves (available at craft stores)
  • Live moss that you find growing in a shady place in your yard (or you can buy it from a garden store that sells terrarium supplies)
  • Activated charcoal (sold in garden and aquarium stores)
  • Soil
  • About 12 inches of decorative ribbon
  • Any miniature item you want to add for whimsy (optional)

Separate the halves of the DIY ornament. If your ornament is like mine, it has little “loops” for attaching a hook at the top. Start by tying a 12-inch piece of ribbon to each half of the ornament through the loops.

In one half of the ornament, add about a teaspoon of activated charcoal. Fill the rest of that ornament half with very wet soil to about a half inch below the top.

 Tying the ribbon a the globe ornament.

Use whatever decorative ribbon you like, but make sure it’s narrow enough to fit through the ornament loops and that it’s knotted securely.

 The moss ornament is almost complete with charcoal, soil, moss, and reindeer!

The moss ornament is almost complete with charcoal, soil, moss, and reindeer!

Place the moss on top and gently press it into the soil. If you like, add a miniature object to add a little whimsy. Craft stores have lots of miniature objects that would look good in this ornament. We chose these woodcut reindeer to look like the animals were walking through a forest. And there were enough in the pack for all 15 students to get one. Use whatever you like!

If you have a spray bottle with water handy, it helps to give the moss leaves a gentle misting before closing the ornament.

 Moss globe terrarium ornament.

Seal the moss in a closed terrarium ornament. The moss can live inside this globe indefinitely.

Place the other half of the ornament on top, but instead of lining up the two loops, put them at opposite ends so that you can hang the ornament ball sideways and not disturb the arrangement. You can tape the two halves together with clear tape if you are concerned about them coming apart. I suggest only taping the sides near the loops rather than wrapping it all the way around so the tape is less obvious and you can open the ornament later if you want to.

The moss just needs light from your home to survive through the holidays. Moisture will evaporate from the soil and will collect on the insides of the ornament. It will roll back down to keep the moss watered indefinitely.

Now you’re wondering if (and how) the moss will survive. I have your answers: read on.

Some Facts About Moss

Mosses are simple plants that scientists classify as bryophytes.

What you see as a clump of velvety green carpet is actually hundreds of tiny individual moss plants clumped together. Botanists refer to these as gametophytes.

 A close up of moss seen from above shows the tops of hundreds of individual plants clumped together.

A close-up of moss seen from above shows the tops of hundreds of individual plants clumped together.

 Seen from the side, the moss looks like a tiny, dense forest.

Seen from the side, the moss looks like a tiny, dense forest.

Mosses do not have true roots. They have rhizomes that anchor the plant to the soil and send up buds for new individual moss plants, but the rhizomes do not transport water like true roots. Mosses absorb water, nutrients, and carbon dioxide through their leaves. 

The rhizomes are fine and grow at the surface of wherever they are planted, so they do not require deep soil. As a result, moss can grow in any porous surface, like tree bark or a stone (but maybe not on a rolling stone!). So moss can thrive in the small amount of soil in your ornament. The moisture sealed inside the globe will keep the air humid and supply the leaves with water.

Mosses also do not flower or make seeds. They produce tiny spores that are difficult to see without magnification. The spores are carried by wind until they fall, and there they wait for the right conditions to grow into new moss plants.

 A single moss gametophyte grows from a root-like rhizome.

A single moss gametophyte grows from a root-like rhizome.

 Moss reproductive structures.

The tips of the taller slender structures are sporophytes that will release spores and continue the life cycle of the moss.

If your moss dries up or becomes dormant, do not despair! You can bring it back to life by soaking the dry clump in water and keeping it moist. This will reinvigorate the dormant moss and activate spores that are lying hidden in the dry moss, enabling them to grow into new moss.

 Moss terrarium ornament with deer.Find more fun projects for the holidays! Make Spicy Greeting Cards and Rock Candy, or a Grapefruit Bird Feeder. ‘Tis the season for a little Christmas tree taxonomy!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

These Greeting Cards Will Spice Up the Holidays

Youth Education - Tue, 11/24/2015 - 2:59pm

Handmade greeting cards make people feel loved. Here is a fun and festive way to show friends and relatives that you care about them. It’s a great project for kids who need something to do during Thanksgiving break. (It’s also a way to use up some of those 20-year-old spices that are languishing in your kitchen cabinet!)

 Spice holiday cards.

Finished spicy holiday cards smell absolutely fantastic.

MATERIALS

  • White glue in a squeeze bottle
  • Construction paper 
  • Dried herbs and spices, whole or ground 
  • Salt and water in a small dish, with a paint brush
  • Markers, crayons, or colored pencils

Work over a large paper towel or mat, because this project is messy!

Fold a piece of stiff paper (construction paper or card stock) in half. Draw a design with glue on the front of the card. Try to use glue sparingly, because the paper will warp if the glue is too thick or wet. Sprinkle the herbs or spices of your choice on the wet glue.

You can apply the spices by gently tapping them out of the jar onto the page, or take small pinches and apply them where you want them to go. If you want more control, fold a small piece of paper in half, put some spices in the crease, and gently tap the paper to slide the spices down the crease to apply them to your picture. 

It helps if you make the glue design for one spice at a time, and let each spice dry before putting a new one on. When each spice has dried, shake the card to remove excess, and apply glue for the next spice. This reduces blending.

 snowman.

Cream of tartar dries white to make this snowman. Other dried spices were used for hat and arms, and whole cloves make the face and buttons.

 wreath.

One of my daughters combined different herbs to make this wreath, and decorated it with dots of cinnamon, whole cloves, and a bay leaf and paprika bow.

Dried herbs are all slightly different shades of green. Tarragon leaves are a lighter green, and a little brighter than oregano. For yellow, try ground turmeric or curry. Paprika, cinnamon, chili powder, and crushed red pepper flakes deliver warm reds. Pink and green peppercorns make nice accents. Cream of tartar and alum powder dry white, but require special handling or they will flake off. Everything sticks better if you gently press the herbs into the glue.

You can also glue whole spices such as bay leaves, cloves, fennel seed, or pieces of cinnamon bark to the card. Keep in mind that whole spices will make the card bulkier and may make it difficult to fit the card into the envelope. 

 birds.

Turmeric, paprika, and bay leaves were used to create this scene of birds perched on a branch.

 snowflakes.

It’s too bad your screen is not “scratch and sniff,” because this card smells of cinnamon, cardamom, paprika, oregano, and tarragon.

Want to add some sparkle? Glue salt crystals in some areas or paint salt water on the paper with a fine paintbrush or cotton swab. Like glue, you’ll want to use a light touch so the paper does not become too wet and wrinkled.

My daughters are teenagers, so they made an effort to make a picture of something recognizable. If you have younger children, they will probably make a picture that resembles abstract art. It doesn’t matter, because it will still smell wonderful! What’s important is that they make it themselves and have fun doing it.

 Christmas tree.

My daughter used tarragon for the tree, crushed red pepper for the trunk and garland, whole cloves for ornaments, and turmeric to make the star.

After the glue is completely dry, gently shake the card over a bowl one final time to remove the loose spices. When you are finished working on this project, you can place all of the leftover spices from your work area into a bowl and place them in a room to make the air fragrant. 

One final step: don’t forget to write your message on the inside! You might say something clever like, “Seasoning’s Greetings,” “Merry Christmas Thyme,” “Have a Scent-sational Hanukkah,” or “Wishing You a Spicy New Year.” Don’t forget to sign your name!

A card like this does not fit into an envelope easily and is best hand-delivered. If you must mail it, cover the front with a piece of paper to protect it. Carefully pack the card with a stiff piece of cardboard in a padded envelope to reduce bending and crushing while it’s in transit. If you are delivering a small bundle to the post office, ask them to hand-cancel your cards (they’ll appreciate the tip).

I hope your special creations brighten someone’s day and fill them with memories of good times with family and friends!

Want more fun, craft projects for kids over the holidays? Check out our blogs on making Fruit and Veggie Prints, Wearable Indian Corn necklaces, and Bottle Cap Bouquets.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Critical Search for a Plant

Plant Science and Conservation - Fri, 11/13/2015 - 3:02am

The clock was ticking—a little girl was seriously ill—when I got the call for help. A Denver hospital needed living tissue from Thujopsis dolabrata or any of its cultivars within 24 hours to determine if the plant was the cause of the girl’s life-threatening allergic reaction.

Don’t call us first! Call the U.S. Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222. If you need help identifying a plant to determine if it’s poisonous—and it’s not an emergency—try our Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972. Please bring in a live plant sample for an accurate identification.

The girl had been flown in from Japan to be treated at the hospital, National Jewish Health. After I got the call, I looked into the hospital, which is known worldwide for treating patients with respiratory, immune, and related disorders. In the girl’s case, the doctors apparently had a list of potential allergens they were testing, including Thujopsis, a rare evergreen shrub that is native to Japan.

A hospital official began the search for the plant with a colleague of mine at the Denver Botanic Gardens. My colleague met the girl’s grandmother, who showed her a picture of the patient’s red and inflamed face. When my colleague couldn’t help, she checked around and found via the Chicago Botanic Garden’s free smartphone app, GardenGuide, that we have the plant, commonly known as hiba arborvitae.

While the call came out of the blue—in my 17 years at the Garden, I’ve never fielded such a request—this type of emergency was not new to me. I used to be in charge of landscaping at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and occasionally supplied plant samples from the campus gardens to the Texas Poison Control Center. Now, as the Garden’s director of living plant documentation, the response just kicked in.

It’s always a good idea to be aware of toxins in your home. The ASPCA keeps a list of houseplants that are toxic to pets; for a list of commonly available houseplants toxic to humans, check out this most common poisonous houseplants fact sheet from the New York Botanical Garden.

 Thujopsis dolabrata 'Variegata'.

Thujopsis dolabrata ‘Variegata’

In the Garden’s production nursery, I snipped a branch from two different cultivars of Thujopsis. Within three hours of receiving the request, I had dropped the samples off at FedEx on the way home.

As it turned out, Thujopsis did appear to be the culprit, and the hospital is continuing to test the girl’s blood samples with extracts from the Thujopsis to determine what constituents are causing the allergic reaction (the same constituents can be found in related species, so the search to identify other potential sources is prudent). Meanwhile, the girl responded quickly to emergency treatment, was stabilized, and returned to Japan.

While public gardens and other outdoor spaces are often recognized for their mental health benefits, this incident reminded me of the fact that botanic gardens have made important contributions to the physical well-being of people in need.

For more than 450 years, botanic gardens have collected and housed plants from throughout the world for the public good, from medicinal plants in the sixteenth century to food crops used to expand and improve people’s diets (like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn introduced to Europe from the New World, and global economic plants like tea and cocoa). I’m proud to be a part of this history. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Top Five Reasons to Choose Nature Preschool

Youth Education - Mon, 11/09/2015 - 11:17am

Anyone who reads the volumes of research can easily see all the reasons why a nature preschool is not just a real preschool, but should be a standard for all preschool environments to aspire to attain.

Here are my top five reasons why a nature preschool should be the choice of all parents when deciding on their child’s first preschool experience.

Growing and planting teaches a valuable lesson in change over time, and sticking with a project to see results that may take a while to be revealed.

Growing and planting teaches a valuable lesson in change over time, and sticking with a project to see results that may take a while to be revealed.

No. 1: Children in nature preschools learn by doing and with hands-on activities.

You must be hands-on when you learn in nature. You cannot be a passive learner; you must engage. Most nature preschools do not put a heavy emphasis on early academics. Instead, they opt for a balanced curriculum that seeks to develop the “whole child”—i.e., cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and creative development.

According to Ken Finch, president and founder of Green Hearts (a conservation organization dedicated to restoring and strengthening the bonds between children and nature), “Nature preschool students truly learn how to learn…developing the curiosity and joy that should pervade all education, while practicing key social skills such as sharing, waiting one’s turn, and following simple directions.”

These are all principles that the National Association for the Education of Young Children endorses and embraces.

No. 2: Time learning in nature supports creativity and problem solving.

Many children spend time in preschool working on one-answer solutions. Their work is very cut and dry, limiting the amount of critical thinking or creativity needed for the answer. Play in nature allows children to try several solutions to a problem. Nature is unpredictable, and often, answers might not be what we would like, but we learn from this too. A great example is “Spike”, the titan arum that did not bloom here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Was the anticipation and all the new knowledge that so many people learned while waiting a waste of time? Of course not! Spike went back to the greenhouses and is being studied. Our horticulturists have gained even greater knowledge of titan arum cultivation for Spike’s failure to bloom.

Stephen Kellert, social ecologist and senior research scholar at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies states, “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”

Children engaging with nature experience similar failures, and learn from them. They try new ways to solve problems, and find out more about why their solutions did not work for the next time. Nature allows for children to discover how to adapt.

No. 3: Time spent in nature helps reduce symptoms of ADHD.

 Infographic of health benefits of children being active in nature.

This infographic created by the National Environmental Education Foundation is also a quick scan of facts about why being active in nature makes kids healthier. Click here to download or view larger.

Researchers Dr. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor of the University of Illinois’ Landscape and Human Health Laboratory have dedicated themselves to studying the relationship between physical environment and wellness. They have done a number of studies in particular related to ADHD and time in nature. These studies have shown children with ADHD have improved concentration after time spent in nature. I have witnessed firsthand how children respond inside the classroom after spending time outside in nature. They really are ready to listen, concentrate, and settle into tasks either on their own or with others. Think about how you feel after you return from a walk or time outside in your garden—don’t you feel stress-free?

There are many other health benefits related to nature preschool. A good report to find out about more of them is Health Benefits to Children from Contact with the Outdoors and Nature

No. 4: Children who attend a nature preschool are better observers.

“Nature literacy awakens habits of perception (sensory awareness) and cultivates a rich vocabulary of search images (knowledge of place). Through these, our students connect to the natural world in a meaningful way.”—Fostering Outdoor Observation Skills, A Project of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ North American Conservation Education Strategy 2011.

Children must take the time to listen for birds, look for small clues that animals might have come down a trail, and notice the differences between leaves on two different plants or trees. Observation in nature is not just about knowing the names for plants or creatures, but being able to recognize them when out on a hike.

Allowing time to examine the outdoors in detail makes children better overall observers, and better able to focus in class.

Allowing time to examine the outdoors in detail makes children better overall observers, and better able to focus in class.

No. 5: Nature Preschool fosters an appreciation of the world around children.

When a child engages in an activity of any kind, an appreciation develops. Think of children exposed to various genres of music; they become better attuned to musical nuances. It is the same for children who spend time on a regular basis in nature. They see the beauty, explore the changes, and learn to enjoy their time outside. This appreciation is carried over to adulthood.

“Research on human development and learning has long established that the early childhood years are a crucial period in the formation of lasting adult values. Could we do any better than to ensure that one of those values is a deep love for the outdoors?”

“Children enrolled in a nature-focused preschool for even a single year, will probably get more direct contact with the outdoors than they will have in all their subsequent years of K-12 schooling.”—Nature-Focused Preschools: Putting the Heart First in Environmental Education by Ken Finch

It is the frequency of explorations in nature that are probably the greatest benefit of a nature preschool.

It is the frequency of explorations in nature that are probably the greatest benefit of a nature preschool.

In her article, “The Wonders of Nature: Honoring Children’s Way of Knowing,” Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., notes, “Early experiences with the natural world have also been positively linked with the sense of wonder. This way of knowing, if recognized and honored, can serve as a lifelong source of joy and enrichment, as well as an impetus, or motivation, for further learning.

Sadly, the ability to experience the world…as a source of wonder tends to diminish over time. This seems to be especially true in Western cultures, where for the sake of objective understandings; children are encouraged to focus their learning on cognitive models, rather than on first-hand investigations of the natural environment.”

Further reading and resources:

As a parent, can you choose a learning outcome for your child that is more important than that “sense of wonder?” Even for an adult, wonder is so important in order to be a lifelong learner.

As you make the choice of a preschool for your child, I hope that you will take some time to read a bit more on nature preschool values. Are these indoor/outdoor classrooms just the latest new kid on the block, or is there more to this trend? Which ways do you find best for children to learn?

Online registration for the Garden’s 2016 Nature Preschool program begins December 7, 2015. Save the date: Open Houses for the program will be held January 14 and April 7. Click here for more information on the program.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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