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Monographic plant systematics : fundamental assessment of plant biodiversity / edited by Tod F. Stuessy and H. Walter Lack.

New Book Arrivals - Tue, 01/12/2016 - 12:01pm
Monographic plant systematics : fundamental assessment of plant biodiversity / edited by Tod F. Stuessy and H. Walter Lack.
Call Number: QK14.5.M66 2011

Home outside : creating the landscape you love / Julie Moir Messervy.

New Book Arrivals - Tue, 01/12/2016 - 12:01pm
Home outside : creating the landscape you love / Julie Moir Messervy.
Author: Messervy, Julie Moir.
Call Number: SB473.M48 2009

P. Allen Smith's container gardens : 60 container recipes to accent your garden / photographs by Jane Colclasure and Kelly Quinn.

New Book Arrivals - Tue, 01/12/2016 - 12:01pm
P. Allen Smith's container gardens : 60 container recipes to accent your garden / photographs by Jane Colclasure and Kelly Quinn.
Author: Smith, P. Allen.
Call Number: SB418.S64 2005

Classic garden structures : 18 elegant projects to enhance your garden / Jan & Michael Gertley.

New Book Arrivals - Tue, 01/12/2016 - 12:01pm
Classic garden structures : 18 elegant projects to enhance your garden / Jan & Michael Gertley.
Author: Gertley, Jan.
Call Number: TH4961.G48 1998

Exploring garden style : creative ideas from America's best gardeners.

New Book Arrivals - Tue, 01/12/2016 - 12:01pm
Exploring garden style : creative ideas from America's best gardeners.
Call Number: SB473.E97 2001

Gardening in small spaces / creative ideas from America's Best Gardeners.

New Book Arrivals - Tue, 01/12/2016 - 12:01pm
Gardening in small spaces / creative ideas from America's Best Gardeners.
Call Number: SB473.G36 2002

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

An Ode to OAKtober!

Youth Education - Mon, 10/26/2015 - 2:56pm

Did you know that pin oaks hold their anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall? Or that the oldest oak at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a white oak that lives near the Lake Cook entrance? Download our infographic below to learn more about the popular and beautiful native oak trees we are celebrating this October and beyond.

Oaktober infographic to color

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What’s so powerful about a powerfully bad smell?

Community Gardening - Wed, 10/21/2015 - 9:12am

Having recently experienced the magical bloom of our titan arum Alice the Amorphophallus at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we were reminded of the pure joy that plants can bring.

Alice provided special moments for many people—including me.

On September 28, at 12:51 a.m., I received a text from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s senior director of marketing, Jennifer Napier. All night, she had been watching the feed from a camera trained on the plant we hoped would yield the result that our first titan arum, Spike, did not. She texted because she had noticed something incredible: Alice was blooming.

 Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw pollinates a titan arum from the collection.

That’s me! Pollinating Alice the Amorphophallus took steady hands and quite a bit of concentration.

What a wonderful surprise. I took a breath and thought: This is it. This is what so many dedicated horticulturists at the Garden have been waiting for, and watching for, with our collection of eight titan arums over these last 12 years.

I arrived at the Garden just after 3 a.m.—my headlights reflecting in eyes of the raccoons who call our 385 acres home—and was let in by the third-shift security officers who keep the Garden safe at night.

At the Semitropical Greenhouse, I met outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak, “Titan Tim,” and we breathed in the plant’s horrible, wonderful smell. Tom Zombolo, senior director, facilities and maintenance, joined us soon after. I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but it was my impression that Alice “knew” we were there; maybe our warmth and carbon-monoxide exhales made the plant believe we were pollinators? I don’t know, but in the several minutes following our greenhouse entry, we perceived that Alice’s rotten scent became even more intense. There would be a lot of activity very soon, but we shared a quiet moment to reflect on this rare phenomenon and the extraordinary dedication of so many to reach this point.

Later, thanks to Tim and scientists Shannon Still and Pat Herendeen, I had the chance to hand-pollinate Alice with pollen supplied by “Spike” and our friends at the Denver Botanic Gardens. That moment was one of the most exciting and moving experiences of my life.

Alice was on view until 2 a.m. that night, and visitors of all ages patiently stood in line up to three hours to see, and smell, the corpse flower. I was grateful for the Garden operations staff, led by Harriet Resnick, who—in ways large and small—made the experience so satisfying for our visitors. More than 20,000 people visited Alice, and it was such a happy occasion for all.

 #CBGAlice was the see-and-be-seen event on September 29-30. It's true—she was more popular than Beyoncé for a while.

Twitter tells the story: #CBGAlice inspired and amazed visitors September 29-30.


Help us harness the power of plants to engage our senses and our communities—sponsor a program through our Annual Fund today.

Alice has now returned to the production greenhouse, joining the seven other titan arums in the Garden’s collection. Will serendipity happen again with another corpse flower bloom? Nature will determine that. But I do know these kinds of special moments truly reflect the power of plants to educate, inspire, and bring joy.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Capturing the Value of Wild Plants

Plant Science and Conservation - Sun, 10/11/2015 - 9:58am

Maps had been followed, clues tracked, and early this summer the fortune was found.

Standing on the far side of a hummock swamp in Delhaas Woods in Bristol, Pennsylvania, Andrew Bunting had located a unique magnolia tree population on the edge of fading away. He had discovered the treasure he set out to find. Often, this is where the story ends. But when the prize is an elusive plant sought by scientists nationwide, this is where the story begins.

 Andrew Bunting collecting sweet bay magnolia samples in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Andrew Bunting collecting sweetbay magnolia samples in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Bunting, the assistant director and director of plant collections at the Chicago Botanic Garden, was on day three of a nine-day adventure across the East Coast to collect northern populations of Magnolia virginiana var. virginiana L.

Bunting welcomes any opportunity to stroll the Garden campus. “I like all the Gardens, of course, but there are a few favorites,” he admitted. “Part of me likes horticulture and part of me likes the scientific evaluation side of things.” He often stops through the Heritage Garden with a nod to statue of Carolus Linnaeus and the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden.

After locating a group of trees in Delhaas Woods, he and his team took cuttings from new growth and packed them into their bags. The murky waters that now stood between them and a successful exit from the overgrown site were deep and dangerous, and wading out was not an option. They had no choice but to leap between hummocks—floating islands—of knotted blueberry vines, wild roses, and other invasive plants to reach stable ground.

It’s all in a day’s work for Bunting, who has gone on wild plant-collecting trips around the country and world during his career. Days after returning home, he explained that this adventure was no more tame than those in tropical jungles. However, the importance of this collection made it all worthwhile. The target species, commonly called sweetbay magnolia, is generally underrepresented in living collections and arboreta. That means that if it is lost in the wild due to extreme weather or other threats, there is no backup. It could be gone for good.

 A sweetbay magnolia tree stands out in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

A sweetbay magnolia tree stands out in Delhaas Woods, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

By taking plant samples from the field, he and his team hope to grow new generations of sweetbay magnolia plants that can be safely maintained in secure locations long term and used to study and potentially boost the wild populations in the future.

The success of the trip required more than one stop. The team visited multiple locations, collecting from several plant populations across the northern range of the species. Their goal was to collect trees with novel traits, or genes, which would be beneficial for future breeding.

When the team navigated the swamp, their spirits were still high from an especially unique collection they made the day before in the Michaux State Forest, about 125 miles west of Philadelphia. There, they had carefully taken cuttings from a population of state-threatened magnolias that grows far from any other. “I’m hopeful that some of our work may lead to help figure out why that population is where it is,” remarked Bunting, who theorized that the population may have had a broader range millions of years ago and retracted to the coastal plain. He hopes that future DNA tests of the samples will provide answers by clarifying genetic similarities and differences between this and other populations they collected.

Moving into New Jersey, he and his team next gathered additional cuttings. Working closely with project partner Joe Rothleutner, tree and shrub breeder at the Morton Arboretum, and other local experts who joined them along the way, Bunting assembled a detailed logbook to accompany the physical samples.

 Magnolia virginiana var. virginiana L. in Michaux State Forest, Pennsylvania.

Magnolia virginiana var. virginiana L. in Michaux State Forest, Pennsylvania.

At every collection location, each team member played a specific role to capture information about the site; from the type of soil to the slope of the land to a description of the local ecosystem, and a list of associated plants. At each site, two 10-inch plant samples, ideally with forming fruits and/or flowers, were pressed between cardboard and labeled for future storage in a herbarium. Other samples were packaged for propagation. The collection project was funded by the U.S. Forest Service and American Public Gardens Association (APGA).

The challenges along the way made every discovery that much sweeter. “What’s nice is you all kind of bring your own expertise and experiences and figure out how to navigate the areas and how to extricate yourself from the areas,” said Bunting. “What’s great about the collecting trips is that you can do a lot of front-end research but there are always surprises,” he added.

On the final leg of the journey, the team members found themselves wearing knee-high boots in the thigh-high waters of a sphagnum swamp in Staten Island. Sinking in deeper with every step, they waded through, only to find no evidence of magnolias. Swatting away mosquitoes and dodging deer ticks, they navigated a thick understory of sharp phragmites reeds and Japanese knotweed to make their escape.

 An extended telescopic pole is used to take cuttings of the current season’s plant growth.

An extended telescopic pole is used to take cuttings of the current season’s plant growth.

In all, they returned home with representatives from nine populations and 850 unique cuttings.

Many of the species on display at the Garden today were once such wild treasures, explained Bunting, who, after years working for esteemed institutions across the country, returned to the Garden this spring in part to re-establish a collection program.

Records of wild collected plants’ origins hold a value that extends beyond dollars. Details of when and where each collected plant was gathered are stored in the Garden’s plant records database. Those pieces of information build a story for each specimen. The stories provide guidelines for conservation scientists who may need to propagate the species should a natural habitat be temporarily lost, and for breeders who may wish to develop a new, hardy species to better endure harsher winters, for example.

Many other species of plants are preserved when their seeds are collected and placed in seed banks. However, for some, such as the sweet bay magnolias, timing the seed collection and storing them long term is difficult, so the cuttings are the best approach.

Mapping the Journey

Bunting is building a ten-year collection plan that he expects will take Garden experts to one or two national and one international location(s) each year. “I would like this new plant-collecting program to really think about filling a lot of needs at the Garden, whether it’s evaluation, breeding, plant conservation, adding to our horticulture collection, or maybe interpretation and education,” he said. Collections will take place in similar climates to the Chicago area.

 In Delhaas Woods, cuttings are labeled and pressed between pieces of cardboard for transportation to a herbarium for further processing and storage.

In Delhaas Woods, cuttings are labeled and pressed between pieces of cardboard for transportation to a herbarium for further processing and storage.

Plants selected for collection may be representative of a different country, or they may expand the Garden’s representation of a specific species, for example. Working with other Garden scientists, graduate students, and the Morton Arboretum, he is also building in steps to ensure that species are screened in advance so that no potentially invasive species are collected.

“There are lots of parameters and variables that will evolve over time and also partnerships,” he said. The collecting trips will be done with a consortium of institutions from across the country. Results will be shared and tracked among them, and stored at the herbarium at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Many will also remain long term at the Garden or other similar institutions. “We do want to fill in gaps (in the Garden’s collection), but we also want to add diversity,” said Bunting.

Sweet bay magnolia trees in a New Jersey state forest

Sweetbay magnolia trees in a New Jersey state forest

Over the next several months, Rothleutner will work to propagate the recent sweetbay magnolia cuttings. They will then be dispersed among selected gardens, including several that together hold a full representation of magnolia species from the United States and that are coordinated by the APGA. Plants will also be cultivated at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Freshest Food for the Neediest Neighbors

Community Gardening - Mon, 10/05/2015 - 2:56pm

Late summer was a great time for a visit to Windy City Harvest’s Legends South incubator farm.

This fall, we hosted Katie Wilson, Ph.D., USDA deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services (FNCS), who walked the entire two-acre site with us in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Dr. Wilson marveled at all the organic greens—kale, collard, lettuce, and more—that eventually makes its way to low-income mothers whose young children are at risk for nutritional problems. Wilson mentioned that small-scale farming is close to her heart—her son helps led operations at his college’s farm in Wisconsin.

 Rosario Maldonado of Creciendo Farms, a Windy City Harvest 2013 Apprenticeship Graduate.

Rosario Maldonado of Creciendo Farms, a Windy City Harvest 2013 Apprenticeship Graduate

What prompted her visit is the unique approach the site offers in leveraging two USDA programs—the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Windy City Harvest has partnered with Community and Economic Development of Cook County, Inc. (CEDA) for more than five years to distribute produce through WIC channels and is proud to now offer it as a channel for farmers. Farmers at the two-acre urban refuge grow an assortment of vegetables for WIC produce boxes, distributed to 95 families per week at various offices throughout the city from June through October.

 Stacey Kimmons of Return To Life Farming, a Windy City Harvest 2014 Apprenticeship Graduate.

Stacey Kimmons of Return To Life Farming, a Windy City Harvest 2014 Apprenticeship Graduate

As part of a BFRDP grant program, the businesses receive necessary infrastructure and support from the Chicago Botanic Garden to help mediate the risks involved in starting their own farming-related business. An affordable lease of ⅛-acre ready-to-farm land, irrigation, tools and equipment, a processing area, technical assistance, and a guaranteed point of sale for their produce are provided under the grant. The BFRDP also funds industry-specific, 14-week courses created by Windy City Harvest in business and entrepreneurship, aquaponic production, season extension, and edible landscaping/rooftop farming. These courses are open to farmers looking to continue their education in this ever-expanding field of opportunity. The Garden is in its third year of the BFRDP program and has incubated 11 farm businesses; two in its pilot year, three in it first full year, and currently six in 2015.

The farm businesses providing to WIC this year are Creciendo Farms, owned by Rosario Maldonado and Fernando Orozco of McKinley Park, and Return to Life Farming, owned by Stacey Kimmons of South Shore. Both farms have a deep commitment to the mission of WIC—to provide supplemental nutrition to babies, including the unborn.

 The growers of Creciendo Farms, including Windy City harvest graduates Rosario Maldonado and Fernando Orozco (far right).

The growers of Creciendo Farms, including Windy City harvest graduates Rosario Maldonado and Fernando Orozco (far right)

Fernando and Rosario both received WIC benefits themselves as children. They believe that farm-to-clinic WIC boxes serve as a great way to introduce families to fresh, local produce, while allowing farmers to serve their communities and build sustainable businesses.

Stacey chose WIC as his primary market to serve because, he said, “I wanted to make sure I helped assist them in having healthy choices of food.” When developing his business plan, he knew he wanted to farm for profit as well as support a great cause. “I have friends who have WIC, and they have nothing but positive things to say about it, and now to know that I have something to do with that positive thing, is a great feeling.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Save the Earth, Watch Dandelions Grow

Youth Education - Thu, 09/24/2015 - 6:07pm

I am often asked, “What can kids do to help the Earth?”

There is a standard litany of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” suggestions that almost everyone can tell you: recycle your garbage, turn the lights off when you leave a room, turn the water off while brushing your teeth, and so forth. 

EarthWe’ve been saying these same things for decades. And while they’re great ideas, they’re things we should all be doing. It’s time to give kids a chance to do something bigger. During Climate Week this year, I am offering a different suggestion: Watch dandelions grow and participate in Project BudBurst.

 Dandelions.

These happy dandelions could contribute valuable information to the science of climate change.

Project BudBurst is a citizen science program in which ordinary people (including kids 10 years old and up) contribute information about plant bloom times to a national database online. The extensive list of plants that kids can watch includes the common dandelion, which any 10-year-old can find and watch over time.

Why is this an important action project?

Scientists are monitoring plants as a way to detect and measure changes in the climate. Recording bloom times of dandelions and other plants over time across the country enables them to compare how plants are growing in different places at different times and in different years. These scientists can’t be everywhere watching every plant all the time, so your observations may be critical in helping them understand the effects of climate change on plants.

What to Do:

1. Open the Project Budburst website at budburst.org and register as a member. It’s free and easy. Click around the website and read the information that interests you.

2. Go to the “Observing Plants” tab and print a Wildflower Regular Report form. Use this form to gather and record information about your dandelion. 

3. Find a dandelion in your neighborhood, preferably one growing in a protected area, not likely to be mowed down or treated with weed killers, because you will want to watch this plant all year. It’s also best if you can learn to recognize it without any flowers, and that you start with a plant that has not bloomed yet.

4. Fill in the Wildflower Regular Report with information about the dandelion and its habitat.

Common Plant Name: Common dandelion

Scientific Name: Taraxacum officinale

Site Name: Give the area a name like “Green Family Backyard” or “Smart Elementary School Playground”

Latitude and Longitude: Use a GPS device to find the exact location of your dandelion. (Smartphones have free apps that can do this. Ask an adult for help if you need it.) Record the letters, numbers, and symbols exactly as shown on the GPS device. This is important because it will enable the website database to put your plant on a national map.

Answer the questions about the area around your plant. If you don’t understand a question, ask an adult to help you.

 This is a printout from the Project BudBurst Website, that asks about the location of the plant and provides places to record bloom times, as well as other comments.

The BudBurst Wildflower Regular Report is easy to use and will guide you through the process.

girl with data sheet

After you find a dandelion you want to watch, record information about the location of the plant.

5. Now you’re ready to watch your dandelion. Visit it every day that you can. On the right side of the form, record information as you observe it.

budburst notebook

  • In the “First Flower” box, write the date you see the very first, fully open yellow flower on your dandelion.
  • As the plant grows more flowers, record the date when it has three or more fully open flowers.
  • Where it says “First Ripe Fruit,” it means the first time a fluffy, white ball of seeds is open. Resist the temptation to pick it and blow it. Remember, you are doing science for the planet now!
  • For “Full Fruiting” record the date when there are three seedheads on this plant. It’s all right if the seeds have blown away. It may have new flowers at the same time.
  • In the space at the bottom, you can write comments about things you notice. For example, you may see an insect on the flower, or notice how many days the puffball of seeds lasts. This is optional.
  • Keep watching, and record the date that the plant looks like it is all finished for the year—no more flowers or puffballs, and the leaves look dead.
  • When your plant has completed its life cycle, or it is covered in snow, log onto the BudBurst website and follow directions to add your information to the database.


Other Plants to Watch

You don’t have to watch dandelions. You can watch any of the other plants on the list, such as sunflower (Helianthus annuus) or Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). You can also watch a tree or grass—but you will need to use a different form to record the information. Apple (Malus pumila), red maple (Acer rubrum), and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) trees are easy to identify and interesting to watch. If you are an over-achiever, you can observe the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) bloom times and do citizen science research for monarchs at the same time! (The USDA Forest Service website provides information about that; click here for more information.) 

 Two girls are looking closely at a milkweed plant that has about eight green seed pods.

These students are observing a milkweed that is in the “First Ripe Fruit” stage.

For the past two springs, educators at the Chicago Botanic Garden have taught the fifth graders at Highcrest Middle School in nearby Wilmette how to do Project BudBurst in their school’s Prairie Garden. The students are now watching spiderwort, red columbine, yellow coneflower, and other native plants grow at their school. Some of these prairie plants may be more difficult to identify, but they provide even more valuable information about climate.

So while you are spending less time in the shower and you’re riding your bike instead of asking mom for a ride to your friend’s house, go watch some plants and help save the planet even more!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Banning Species Blindness in Budding Botanists

Plant Science and Conservation - Sun, 09/13/2015 - 9:12am

I scratch my head and wipe the sweat from my brow. One of my summer interns found a little plant, under a bunch of big plants, and we thought for a second it might be the same as the big plants, but it is definitely different. It’s our first field day. We don’t know what this plant is called, and it’s a hot and humid summer day in Chicago, and we have been searching through our identification guidebooks for what seems like forever. “Is it this one?” we ask each other, pointing to pictures in the book where the leaves kinda sorta look like our little plant. Finally, we flip through the book one last time, and it seems to open all on its own to the right place. It’s called water horehound (Lycopus americanus). We cheer! Now that we know this little plant’s name, we start to see it everywhere.

 Poring over a specimen in the field.

Poring over a specimen in the field

I’ve been working all summer with a fresh-faced team of undergraduate interns to quantify plant community biodiversity (i.e. identify and count plants) in restored prairies around Chicago. Some of our sites have been right by the lake, some have been in community parks, some in forest preserves, and one in what seemed to be a drainage ditch. So far, we have identified more than 200 plant species.

Biodiversity is all around us. And I’m not just talking about in the tropical rainforest or a coral reef, though there are many species there, too. Even in the temperate zone, even in a park, and probably even in your backyard, there are many species. A species is defined as a group of organisms that can breed with one another. While most people would feel comfortable declaring that an elephant is different from a carp, an oak tree, or a shiitake, there are often much more subtle distinctions that can signify that organisms belong to different species. To humans trying to identify plants, the distinction between two species could be as minute as whether the leaf hairs are hooked or straight. Seeing species is hard but worthwhile. It will help you develop keen observation skills, and (I hope!) an appreciation of the world around you.

 Dodecatheon meadia.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) is a distinctive early flowering species of the prairie. Photo by Jessica Riebkes

Before we can identify what a species is, we first have to determine that it is something different from the other surrounding plants. We tend to look at plants as a bunch of green stuff, not always recognizing the diversity present even in seemingly mundane habitats. We call this phenomenon “plant blindness,” the tendency to see plants as background, and not as unique organisms. My Ph.D. advisor said I should call our inability to recognize differences between species, “species blindness” (The only other reference I could find for species blindness was in Rutgers University Professor Lena Struwe’s bioblitz project).

Recognizing differences among species is only the first hurdle. Then, you have to identify them. The identification can be confounded in many ways, like the issue of timing. Some species may be distinctive at maturity but can remain a mystery at other times. Take rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). There is no mistaking the master when it’s flowering. The flowers are small, green and white, but are contained within a spiky ball of a flowering head. The leaves are thick, pointy, and spear-like, prickles sticking out all along the edges. But when the mighty rattlesnake master pokes out of the ground in the spring, you would definitely mistake it for a grass; there are no flowers, no spiky balls, no spears. The only way to know it isn’t a grass is to observe the sparse, puny prickles just starting out.

 Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with a co-occuring species.

The distinctive rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium with co-occuring species. How many can you spot?

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about grass. (No, no I am not talking about marijuana.) Botanist Chris Martine already addressed that in his essay, “I am a botanist, and no, I don’t grow marijuana.”) I just mean grass, the stringy green stuff that grows out of the ground. This demonstrates another hurdle to combating species blindness: the sheer number of species out there. Guess how many species of grass there are. Go ahead, guess. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew keeps a database of grasses called, of course, GrassBase. Currently, GrassBase includes 11,313 different species of grass. Grass is actually a plant family, containing many different species (please see this amazing rap if you need a refresher on biological classification). As you can figure out by exploring an overgrown park, an abandoned field, or my favorite place to study grass, a prairie, there are grasses that are incredibly distinctive. Some have seedheads that smell like popcorn! Sometimes, though, the grass isn’t blooming (grasses are flowering plants, by the way), and you end up pulling back leaf after leaf trying to find a ligule to help with the identification. A ligule is what’s found where a grass leaf blade meets the stem. The ligule can be rigid or floppy, membranous, or hairy, or totally absent. Once you know that the ligule exists, you might try to find it on any and all grasses you pass (I do!).

Once you’ve found a distinct species, how do you figure out its name? We budding botanists have a few tricks. We search through field guides so many times that we memorize the pages for certain families. We spend a lot of time looking at the glossary of our field guides, trying to remember the meaning of botanical terms like panicle, petiole, connate, cordate, corolla, and cyme. We use multiple senses. We are known to crush leaves and breathe deep, searching for the piney smell of a goldenrod, the freshness of a mountain mint, or the musk of bee balm. We are almost obsessive about our rubbing of leaves to distinguish new textures. And we hunt for tiny clues (often with a hand lens) like a line of hairs down a stem or a gland at the base of a hair on the edge of a leaf blade. We value the time we get to spend in the field or the lab with expert botanists that put our identification skills to shame. And when all else fails, we post to Twitter or Facebook botany groups and someone always knows.

 Becky Barak in the field.

The best part of the job—doing research in the field!

I’m asking you to combat species blindness by working hard to notice species. Dig a little deeper, look a little closer. If you’re out with children, challenge them to find as many different species as they can. At first glance, it may seem like everything is the same, but with careful observation, the species will begin to show themselves. Look at all parts of the plant. Flowers sometimes get all the love, but stems and leaves and fruits and seeds can hold the keys to identification. Plants are a good place to start because they are known to stay in one place, but the same patterns apply to all living things. Biological diversity is out there; you just need to know how to look.

©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

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