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60-Second Science: Green Roof Plants are Tough

Garden Blog - Tue, 07/12/2016 - 9:36am

Gardeners and farmers know that healthy plants need good soil and the right amounts of both water and sunlight. But green roofs are intentionally built with an engineered soil-like substance that more closely resembles a pile of rocks than rich, moist potting soil.

To make matters worse, the tops of buildings are often blindingly sunny and very hot in the summer. So how do plants like grasses and wildflowers survive in this type of harsh environment?

 Cactus and allium grown on green roof.

Cactus and other succulents retain water in their tissues. Ornamental onion (Allium) species have underground bulbs that help them get through cold winters and dry summers.

Not all plants will grow on a green roof, even in the temperate Midwest. Most plant species that are successful in the desert-like habitats of green roofs have beneficial adaptations that allow them to absorb and store water and nutrients. Some have succulent leaves with thick waxy coatings to prevent water from evaporating. Others have roots that grow horizontally rather than vertically to maximize the areas from which they absorb water and nutrients. Some use a modified type of photosynthesis to prevent water loss during the hottest and driest part of the day. Still others use bulbs or underground tubers to store nutrients during the long cold winters. Some species may even form partnerships with special fungi in the soil that help their roots with more effective absorption.

While plant species evolved to develop these various adaptations on the ground, such traits serve the individual plants very well in the harsh environment of a green roof. The next time you visit a green roof, you might see a striking diversity of species but you won’t see any wimps. No, these plants are both beautiful and tough. 

 Shortgrass prairie plants grown on a rooftop garden at shallow depths.

Even in very shallow soil and full sun, some plants that normally grow in shortgrass prairies are able to grow and reproduce. (This is from some of my research at Loyola University.)

 PCSC green roof in summer 2015.

Plants can be both tough and beautiful on green roofs. (This photo is of the Plant Science Center last summer.)

Find more of the best plants for green roofs on our Pinterest board, and see Richard Hawke’s Plant Evaluation Notes for the plants that performed best on our green roof.

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 post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Green Roof Plants are Tough

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 07/12/2016 - 9:36am

Gardeners and farmers know that healthy plants need good soil and the right amounts of both water and sunlight. But green roofs are intentionally built with an engineered soil-like substance that more closely resembles a pile of rocks than rich, moist potting soil.

To make matters worse, the tops of buildings are often blindingly sunny and very hot in the summer. So how do plants like grasses and wildflowers survive in this type of harsh environment?

 Cactus and allium grown on green roof.

Cactus and other succulents retain water in their tissues. Ornamental onion (Allium) species have underground bulbs that help them get through cold winters and dry summers.

Not all plants will grow on a green roof, even in the temperate Midwest. Most plant species that are successful in the desert-like habitats of green roofs have beneficial adaptations that allow them to absorb and store water and nutrients. Some have succulent leaves with thick waxy coatings to prevent water from evaporating. Others have roots that grow horizontally rather than vertically to maximize the areas from which they absorb water and nutrients. Some use a modified type of photosynthesis to prevent water loss during the hottest and driest part of the day. Still others use bulbs or underground tubers to store nutrients during the long cold winters. Some species may even form partnerships with special fungi in the soil that help their roots with more effective absorption.

While plant species evolved to develop these various adaptations on the ground, such traits serve the individual plants very well in the harsh environment of a green roof. The next time you visit a green roof, you might see a striking diversity of species but you won’t see any wimps. No, these plants are both beautiful and tough. 

 Shortgrass prairie plants grown on a rooftop garden at shallow depths.

Even in very shallow soil and full sun, some plants that normally grow in shortgrass prairies are able to grow and reproduce. (This is from some of my research at Loyola University.)

 PCSC green roof in summer 2015.

Plants can be both tough and beautiful on green roofs. (This photo is of the Plant Science Center last summer.)

Find more of the best plants for green roofs on our Pinterest board, and see Richard Hawke’s Plant Evaluation Notes for the plants that performed best on our green roof.

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 post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Osprey: Fish-eater returns as breeder in Cook County

Garden Blog - Thu, 07/07/2016 - 11:38am

Several decades ago, an osprey would be a rare—if not impossible—sight in Cook County in the summer. But now, thanks to the ban on certain pesticides (including DDT), and the creation of osprey nesting platforms, the fish-eating bird is breeding again in local forest preserves.

The osprey looks somewhat like an adult bald eagle, but doesn’t have the eagle’s full white head or tail. Instead, it has a broad brown band through the eye, a brown back, and white belly. An osprey flies with a crook in its wings. Immature bald eagles, with their mottled black and white plumage, can easily be mistaken for ospreys. In summer, visitors can watch an osprey (Pandion haliaetus)—with its 6-foot wingspan—soar above a lake, then plunge in to snatch a meal with its talons to bring to its young. 

 Osprey in flight.

Osprey in flight
Photo © Carol Freeman

Once endangered in Illinois, the osprey disappeared as a breeding bird from Illinois about 60 years ago. Scientists think, as with the bald eagle, that when the osprey ingested certain pesticides, the chemicals caused its eggs to thin and crumble during brooding. After DDT was banned, state biologists hoped the osprey would return to breed in Illinois. But the bird needed some help, including cleaning up local waterways and providing nesting areas.

In the 1990s, Cook County Forest Preserves officials, following the lead of biologists in other states, began erecting osprey nesting platforms—40-inch-wide platforms atop 50-foot-tall posts—in the preserves, hoping the ospreys would use them to nest.

It worked. The tall structures gave the ospreys a 360-degree view of their surroundings, something scientists say the birds need when choosing a nesting spot. Today, at least a dozen osprey pairs breed in Cook County, with several more in other nearby counties.

This year, the Chicago Botanic Garden installed an osprey nesting platform, and is waiting to see if a pair will find it to their liking.

According to officials of the Cook County Forest Preserves, 12 osprey pairs bred on man-made platforms in the county in 2014, including at Long John Slough at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Willow Springs. A pair of osprey tending to their nest atop a platform was photographed at Saganashkee Slough in the Palos Preserves this year by Wes Serafin, a long-time proponent of helping ospreys return as a breeding species to Cook County.

 An osprey keeps a tight grip on lunch.

An osprey keeps a tight grip on lunch.
Photo © Carol Freeman

The ospreys return in April, often to the same platform they used the previous year. They build a nest of sticks atop the platform, adding new ones each year. The female lays three to four eggs, which hatch in about 38 days. While she broods, the male fiercely defends their territory and brings food to his mate. The young remain in the nest for about two months, begging constantly for food. Then they take their first flights off the platform.

Watching an osprey grab a meal can be fascinating. The bird appears as if it is going to plunge head-first into the water, but then it straightens its head and grasps the fish with its talons. Two forward-facing and two backward-facing toes have sharp spines that enable the bird to clutch the fish. Occasionally an osprey will grab a fish too heavy for it to carry, in which case the osprey might drop it, and try for another meal.

The osprey that nest in northern Illinois in summer spend winters in Florida, Mexico, and South America.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is now in the fourth year of their program designed to bring more osprey to the state to increase the number of breeding pairs.

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Osprey: Fish-eater returns as breeder in Cook County

Birding - Thu, 07/07/2016 - 11:38am

Several decades ago, an osprey would be a rare—if not impossible—sight in Cook County in the summer. But now, thanks to the ban on certain pesticides (including DDT), and the creation of osprey nesting platforms, the fish-eating bird is breeding again in local forest preserves.

The osprey looks somewhat like an adult bald eagle, but doesn’t have the eagle’s full white head or tail. Instead, it has a broad brown band through the eye, a brown back, and white belly. An osprey flies with a crook in its wings. Immature bald eagles, with their mottled black and white plumage, can easily be mistaken for ospreys. In summer, visitors can watch an osprey (Pandion haliaetus)—with its 6-foot wingspan—soar above a lake, then plunge in to snatch a meal with its talons to bring to its young. 

 Osprey in flight.

Osprey in flight
Photo © Carol Freeman

Once endangered in Illinois, the osprey disappeared as a breeding bird from Illinois about 60 years ago. Scientists think, as with the bald eagle, that when the osprey ingested certain pesticides, the chemicals caused its eggs to thin and crumble during brooding. After DDT was banned, state biologists hoped the osprey would return to breed in Illinois. But the bird needed some help, including cleaning up local waterways and providing nesting areas.

In the 1990s, Cook County Forest Preserves officials, following the lead of biologists in other states, began erecting osprey nesting platforms—40-inch-wide platforms atop 50-foot-tall posts—in the preserves, hoping the ospreys would use them to nest.

It worked. The tall structures gave the ospreys a 360-degree view of their surroundings, something scientists say the birds need when choosing a nesting spot. Today, at least a dozen osprey pairs breed in Cook County, with several more in other nearby counties.

This year, the Chicago Botanic Garden installed an osprey nesting platform, and is waiting to see if a pair will find it to their liking.

According to officials of the Cook County Forest Preserves, 12 osprey pairs bred on man-made platforms in the county in 2014, including at Long John Slough at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Willow Springs. A pair of osprey tending to their nest atop a platform was photographed at Saganashkee Slough in the Palos Preserves this year by Wes Serafin, a long-time proponent of helping ospreys return as a breeding species to Cook County.

 An osprey keeps a tight grip on lunch.

An osprey keeps a tight grip on lunch.
Photo © Carol Freeman

The ospreys return in April, often to the same platform they used the previous year. They build a nest of sticks atop the platform, adding new ones each year. The female lays three to four eggs, which hatch in about 38 days. While she broods, the male fiercely defends their territory and brings food to his mate. The young remain in the nest for about two months, begging constantly for food. Then they take their first flights off the platform.

Watching an osprey grab a meal can be fascinating. The bird appears as if it is going to plunge head-first into the water, but then it straightens its head and grasps the fish with its talons. Two forward-facing and two backward-facing toes have sharp spines that enable the bird to clutch the fish. Occasionally an osprey will grab a fish too heavy for it to carry, in which case the osprey might drop it, and try for another meal.

The osprey that nest in northern Illinois in summer spend winters in Florida, Mexico, and South America.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is now in the fourth year of their program designed to bring more osprey to the state to increase the number of breeding pairs.

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Attack of the Clones!

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 07/05/2016 - 9:35am

Those of us who are Star Wars fans know just how powerful genetic cloning can be. 

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s discovery of a secret clone army illustrated the power of advanced cloning technology. That army of genetically identical clone warriors went on to become the face of the epic Clone Wars. Meanwhile, in a galaxy much closer, plants are also equipped with the ability to copy themselves as a form of reproduction. This form of asexual reproduction is very common in the natural world, and just as powerful to an ecosystem as a clone army is to a galaxy. 

 Clone trooper.

This clone may not take over your Garden…

 Red Monarda (beebalm).

…but this Monarda might!

Clonality is a form of plant growth that results in genetically identical individuals.

Unlike in sexual reproduction, clonal individuals often spread horizontally below ground via unique root systems. Above ground, these plants appear to be distinct individuals, but beneath the soil surface, they remain connected, as clones of the same original plant.

The Pando, or "Trembling Giant," is a colony of clonal quaking aspens roughly 80,000 years old, in Fish Lake, Utah.

The Pando, or “Trembling Giant,” is a colony of clonal quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), roughly 80,000 years old, in Fish Lake, Utah. All the trees are a single living organism sharing one massive root system. Photo by By J Zapell via Wikimedia Commons.

From a plant’s perspective, there are many benefits to clonal growth. For example, in an environment with limited pollinators to facilitate sexual reproduction, it might be better to take matters into your own hands and make a copy of your already awesome self. On the other hand, a vulnerability in one clone (for example, to a fatal fungal outbreak) is just as likely to affect all of the other clones, because they share the same genetic makeup. It is important to note that there are ecological downsides to clonality as well. Many invasive species do well in foreign environments because asexual reproduction enables them to reproduce very quickly. Thus, just as we see in Star Wars, clones can either be a powerful asset or a potent enemy.

Abigail WhiteAbbey White is a graduate student working with Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., and Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., developing genetically appropriate seed mixes of vulnerable plant species for restoration.

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 post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Cultivating Nostalgia

Community Gardening - Thu, 06/30/2016 - 9:19am

The Garden’s head of urban agriculture took a trip to Cuba and reminded me of my culture’s resiliency and connection to gardening.

How do you farm when you have little to no resources? Cubans “inventan del aire.”

Literally meaning “inventing from air,” this is the philosophy that is required to get by in Cuba.

Angela Mason, the Garden’s associate vice president for urban agriculture and Windy City Harvest, traveled to Cuba to see firsthand how the farmers there create and maintain collective farms. These farms provide much-needed produce for a population that lives without what we’d consider the basics in the United States. The average hourly wage in the Chicago area is around $24.48. That’s more than the average monthly wage in Cuba.

“Before going, I didn’t understand why people would risk their lives getting on a raft and floating 90 miles,” she said. “But when you see the degree of poverty that some of the people are living in, it’s heartbreaking.”

Angie recounted to me the details of her trip; the people she met, all of whom were welcoming and warm, and the places she saw. She visited several farms just outside of Havana and another in Viñales, in the western part of the country.

 Angie Mason, Fernando Funes and Madeleine Plonsker in Cuba.

Angie Mason, associate vice president Urban Agriculture/Windy City Harvest (center), poses with Cuban trip liason Fernando Funes, and Madeleine Plonsker, a member of the Garden’s President’s Circle who has visited Cuba many times and who helped Angie put the trip together.

Poverty in Cuba means the farmers there grow without supplies and tools that are standard here. But they are still able to create beautiful and sustainable harvests through ingenuity. For example, Angie asked one of the farmers she met what he used to start seeds. He showed her dozens of aluminum soda cans that he’d cut in half. One farmer dug a well by hand. He then used the rocks he dug out to build a terraced garden.

 Isis Maria Salcines at her farmer co-operative, Organopónico Vivero Alamar in Havana, Cuba.

Isis Maria Salcines at her farmer cooperative, Organopónico Vivero Alamar, in Havana, Cuba

 Finca Marta, Fernando Funes' farm outside of Havana, Cuba, in the province Artemisa.

A glimpse of Finca Marta, Fernando Funes’s farm outside of Havana, Cuba, in Artemisa Province

I asked Angie many questions about her trip and what she saw, because I relish every detail I can learn about Cuba, the country where both of my parents were born.

The reasons for Angie’s trip felt especially close to my own family’s heritage, because I come from a long line of farmers on both sides. My mother’s family had a farm in the province of Matanzas. My father’s side did as well, in the more rural province of Las Villas. Both properties have since been seized by the Cuban government, as was all private property after the revolution in 1959. Neither one of my parents has been back to visit since they moved to the United States as children (my father was just a few years old and my mother was 11) so the stories they can share are scarce. The only tangible evidence of childhoods spent in the Cuban countryside are a handful of faded photographs: my mom riding a horse when she was in kindergarten; my father in diapers and running around with farm dogs. And as each year passes, the memories of Cuba are farther and farther in past.

 his Jeep.

My mother and grandparents and uncle on the family farm in Matanzas province with my grandfather’s most memorable purchase: his Jeep

Two of my grandparents, both now deceased, had many stories to share with me as well. My maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother were fixtures in my life and both often shared stories of their lives before the United States and growing plants and food in the fertile Cuban soil. It’s a talent that apparently never leaves a person, even if they change their country of residence, because both had beautiful backyard gardens at their homes in Miami.

My grandmother had a knack for flowers. The bougainvillea in her yard was always resplendent. Hydrangeas were the centerpieces at my sister’s wedding shower; months later the plant repotted and cared for by my grandmother was the only one that thrived. My grandfather leaned more toward the edible. His yard was full of fruit trees. Whenever he’d visit, he usually brought something growing in the yard: fruta bomba (more commonly known as papaya), mamoncillos, or limon criollo (a type of small green lime).

 My grandfather and uncle, circa 1940s in Bolondron, Cuba.

My grandfather and uncle, circa 1940s in Bolondron, Cuba

Growing up, I always associated the cultivation of plants, whether flowers or fruit, as just a part of their personalities. Gardening was a hobby they enjoyed. While that was true, I realized later that it was also an activity that kept them connected to Cuba. As long as they could grow the plants they remembered from back home, that life was not completely gone.

My grandparents, as well as parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and pretty much most people I’m related to, have all tapped into their resiliency to make it as immigrants in the United States and adapt to their changed lives. The same personality trait that allows a Cuban farmer to grow vegetables without any tools has gotten my family through decades of living outside of Cuba. No matter the situation, members of the Cuban diaspora “inventan del aire.” It’s how people survive in Cuba, but it’s also how Cubans outside of the country get through exile.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Can Frozen Seeds Survive for Centuries? We’re Banking on It

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 06/28/2016 - 8:51am

In the race to save native plants like purple New England aster and fragrant American mountain mint, the Chicago Botanic Garden freezes seeds for future use—but will frozen seeds be able to grow after hundreds of years in storage? Researchers are trying to find out.

Environmental threats such as climate change have caused thousands of plants to become rare or endangered. The tallgrass prairie, which has lost 96 percent of its land to agriculture and other human activities, is one of the earth’s most endangered habitats. By preserving seeds in the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank, researchers are working to ensure that native species don’t disappear in the wild.

Inside the seed vault at the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Inside the seed vault at the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

In winter 2015–16, two students from the Garden’s graduate program, which is offered in collaboration with Northwestern University, helped with the Seed Bank’s first germination trials. In the trial, a sampling of our oldest seeds was removed from deep freeze—a vault at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit—and placed in favorable growing conditions to see if they would germinate after 13 years of dormancy.

Alicia Foxx germination trials.

Graduate student Alicia Foxx hard at work counting…

Alicia Foxx germination trials.

…and removing seeds that have germinated on an agar medium.

The results? Species such as New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), water speedwell (Veronica comosa), and American mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) germinated well. Species such as enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) did not germinate; more research is needed to determine whether these seeds did not germinate because we were unable to figure out how to break their dormancy.

 

 Seed sample sizes for trial were either 24, 60, or 75 seeds, depending on the number of seeds in the collection.

Seed sample sizes for trial were either 24, 60, or 75 seeds, depending on the number of seeds in the collection.

The results show that seed collection is an efficient and cost-effective way to preserve biodiversity for future generations; experts predict that many of our native seed can survive hundreds of years in a seed bank (we’ll repeat the germination test in another ten years). Meanwhile, if you’re interested in joining our team and helping with the critical work of seed collection or banking, contact us

Download/read the full results here: Germinating Native Seeds from the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On a Course for International Collaboration

Plant Science and Conservation - Sun, 06/26/2016 - 10:03am

As an active leader in international research collaborations, the Chicago Botanic Garden is participating in an initiative to set the stage for new partnerships.

Patrick Herendeen, Ph.D., senior director, systematics and evolutionary biology at the Garden, served as co-coordinator of “A Workshop to Explore Enhancing Collaboration Between U.S. and Chinese Researchers in Systematic Biology,” held in late February at the South China Botanical Garden in Guangzhou, China.

Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Natural Science Foundation of China, the workshop brought systemicists from both countries together to explore research techniques and opportunities. (Systematics is the branch of biology that aims to understand the diversity of life and relationships among different groups of organisms, and spans subjects from plants and fungi to primates and viruses.)

Patrick Herendeen leads a discussion among systemisists from various fields

Patrick Herendeen leads a discussion among systemisists from various fields.

“People bring different expertise to a research project, and people with different areas of expertise ask different questions or think about things differently,” explained Dr. Herendeen.

Greg Mueller, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Garden, also attended and spoke at the workshop. “There is an ongoing and increased interest in collaboration,” he said. “Chinese science is very mature…and China would be a great international collaborator.” In his presentation, Dr. Mueller addressed his experiences with international collaborations and offered advice to attendees.

Collaboration is key to scientific research. Diverse questions require multifaceted solutions. Often these approaches are best identified and pursued by a team of individuals with unique specialties, who at times may just happen to be sitting on opposite coasts of an ocean.

More than 60 scientists—about half from the United States and half from China—participated in two days of lectures, panels, and small group discussions. Speakers included Garden postdoctoral researcher, Fabiany Herrera, Ph.D., who discussed data and collections. Dr. Hererra works with his academic adviser, Herendeen, on a research initiative with partners in Japan, China, and Mongolia, in which they are studying plant fossils from the Early Cretaceous period.

Also in attendance was Chen Ning, a Ph.D. student in the joint degree program at the Garden and Northwestern University. Under the guidance of his adviser, Mueller, Dr. Ning is studying fungal communities in native pine forests and exotic pine plantations in south-central China.

Garden researchers Fabiany Herrera, Patrick Herendeen, Greg Mueller, and Chen Ning

Garden researchers Fabiany Herrera, Patrick Herendeen, Greg Mueller, and Chen Ning in the field in China.

One of the greatest takeaways of the conference, according to Mueller and Herendeen, was the opportunity for attendees to learn about the many similarities between the education and research systems in both countries. “We had very good discussions and everyone was very open about talking about how research works and the kinds of motivations that people have in the United States and China,” said Herendeen. “I think one of the things that surprised people were the similarities of the two programs. The systems are similar enough that it is possible to figure out how to do those collaborations,” added Mueller.

Workshop attendees also had an opportunity to participate in field trips to rural areas of Guangdong Province including Dinghushan and Heishiding Nature Reserve. They visited high-quality forested areas to discuss restoration work, seed banking, and related topics.

The workshop “gave everyone a chance to meet a lot of new people and talk about possible collaborations, and there were a number of new or potential new collaborative pairings or groups that formed as a result,” said Herendeen, who looks forward to continued—and new—collaborations.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60 Second Science: That’s Not a Seed: Propagating in Saltwater

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 06/21/2016 - 11:20am

Most plants hate saltwater. Pour saltwater on your houseplants and, a little while later, you’ll have some wilty plants. But mangroves can grow—and thrive—in saltwater.

You may have seen mangroves if you’ve been to the Florida Everglades or gone to an island in the Caribbean. Mangroves are trees that live in tropical, coastal zones and have special adaptations for life in saltwater. One of these adaptations is in how they reproduce: mangroves don’t make seeds. Instead, they make living, buoyant embryos called propagules (prop-a-gyule).

Mangrove propagules come in different shapes and sizes. Each species has its own unique propagule.

Mangroves produce a huge number of propagules the same way an oak would make hundreds of acorns.

Mangroves produce a huge number of propagules the same way an oak would make hundreds of acorns.

These relatively small propagules could become giant red mangrove trees.

These relatively small propagules could become giant red mangrove trees.

Black mangrove propagules on a branch; their outer coating will dissolve on their journey downstream.

Black mangrove propagules on a branch; their outer coating will dissolve on their journey downstream.

Propagules come in different shapes and sizes. These are from a tea mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae) tree.

Propagules come in different shapes and sizes. These are from a tea mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae) tree.

Normally, trees reproduce with seeds. You’ve probably seen the whirlybirds of maples and acorns of oaks. These seeds can go dormant. They are basically “asleep” or hibernate until something—water, temperature, or physical damage—wakes them up, allowing them to start growing months or years after they are produced.

Here I am with a couple of mangrove specimens. These roots are in water at high tide, but exposed at low tide.

Here I am with a couple of mangrove specimens. These roots are in water at high tide, but exposed at low tide.

Propagules, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury—they fall off their parent tree, ready to start rooting and growing a new tree. Nature has provided an amazing way for the mangrove seeds to move away from the parent tree: they float.

As the propagules float through the water, they shed their outermost layer and immediately start growing roots. The clock starts ticking as soon the propagules fall—if they don’t find a suitable place to start growing within a certain amount of time, they die. If a mangrove propagule ends its journey at a location that’s suitable for growth, the already-rooting propagule will send up its first set of leaves—cotyledons.

Ocean currents can take propagules thousands of miles away from where they started. A mangrove’s parent tree might be around the corner or around the continent.

Dr. Emily DangremondDr. Emily Dangremond is a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and a visiting scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She is currently studying the ecological and evolutionary consequences of mangroves responding to climate change at their northernmost limit in Florida.

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 post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

60-Second Science: Begone, Buckthorn!

Plant Science and Conservation - Fri, 06/17/2016 - 11:07am

When buckthorn moves in to the ecosystem, it dominates.

Imagine a friend invites you to a dinner party, promising a delicious spread of food and libations. You arrive, excited and hungry, only to find nothing but raw kale, brought by an uninvited guest. Regardless of your feelings about kale, this would be pretty underwhelming. The other guests are obviously disappointed about the monotonous spread. Most people leave, and because most people aren’t eating the kale, the kale continues to dominate the party. Even if someone brought in better foods that more people enjoy, there is no room on the tables. The kale is everywhere!

 Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)

While not a perfect analogy, this anecdote relays the reasons why buckthorn invasion is detrimental to forest ecosystems. The dinner guests are like the other plants and animals that usually live in the woods. They have certain dietary needs, and if those needs cannot be met, they will have to leave and find another place to live. The more one species dominates (kale, or in many local forests, buckthorn) the fewer species can live there, leading to the ecological equivalent of a party that ends at 8:30, just as everyone was arriving. While it may be true that one person at the party really likes kale, it’s hardly fair for the preferences of that person to supersede everyone else’s needs. In the case of buckthorn, many have opposed its removal because that denies robins a berry that they enjoy. However, keeping the buckthorn (which doesn’t belong there in the first place) is like keeping all of the kale on the tables and not allowing for other foods to be served just for that one person. Even more frustrating, the person that likes kale has plenty of other dietary options. Kale isn’t even their favorite food!

 The McDonald woods shows healthy filtered sunlight and native plant understory growth after buckthorn removal.

The McDonald woods shows healthy filtered sunlight and native plant understory growth after buckthorn removal.

To many people, the idea of cutting down trees to help forests grow stronger is counterintuitive. But buckthorn is no ordinary tree. It is an invasive species, meaning that it doesn’t belong in Chicago area forests, and it steals resources from the plants that are supposed to live here. So remember, when you hear people talking about cutting down buckthorn, they are actually doing it to make the habitat healthier and more inclusive in the long term. They are working to replace the kale at the party with better food and drinks, ensuring that all the guests that were invited can have a good time, staying up until sunrise.

Read more about our ongoing buckthorn battle, and see the difference removal makes in restoring an ecosystem.

Bob Sherman

Bob Sherman is an undergraduate studying environmental science at Northwestern University. His research interests include prairie restoration and how abiotic factors impact prairie and forest ecosystems. He hopes that his research will have a positive impact on ecosystem restoration and management.

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 post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Great Egret: Graceful White Wader

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

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

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

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

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

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

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

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

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

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

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

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

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

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

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

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

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

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A 20-Year Legacy of Conservation Conversations

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

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

Butterfly on Liatris

Butterfly on Liatris

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

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

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

The Dixon Prairie in July

The Dixon Prairie in July

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

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Summer Reading Program launches on June 4

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the program works:

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

 

Summer Nature Explorers

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

 Explore Honey Bees! by Cindy Blobaum.

Explore Honey Bees!

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

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

Call Number: QL568.A6B56 2015 blue star icon.

 A Pop-Up Book by David A. Carter.

Spring: A Pop-Up Book

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

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

Call number: QH81.C37 2016 yellow dot icon.

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

From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! 

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

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

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

 When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

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

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

Call number: PS3606.O4225A6 2016 yellow dot icon.

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

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

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

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

Call number: QK49.L44 2015 yellow dot icon.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Summer Reading Program launches on June 4

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the program works:

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

 

Summer Nature Explorers

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

 Explore Honey Bees! by Cindy Blobaum.

Explore Honey Bees!

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

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

Call Number: QL568.A6B56 2015 blue star icon.

 A Pop-Up Book by David A. Carter.

Spring: A Pop-Up Book

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

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

Call number: QH81.C37 2016 yellow dot icon.

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

From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! 

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

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

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

 When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

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

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

Call number: PS3606.O4225A6 2016 yellow dot icon.

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

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

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

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

Call number: QK49.L44 2015 yellow dot icon.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Evening Primroses, Pumps, and Pollinators

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

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

 Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens.

Dr. Rick Overson with hawkmoth specimens

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

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

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

 Evening primrose in bloom on the plains of New Mexico.

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

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

 Hawkmoth on evening primrose.

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

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

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

 Closeup of a Mompha moth on evening primrose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Dr. Rick Overson in the field.

Dr. Rick Overson in the field

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

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring is for the Birds at the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cape may warbler.

Cape May warbler

Blackburnian warbler.

Blackburnian warbler

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

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

FPDCC Bird of the Month chart.

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

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

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

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

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

You might, though.

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

Great blue heron.

Great blue heron

Ruby-crowned kinglet.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

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

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

Hairy woodpecker.

Hairy woodpecker

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

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Baltimore Oriole: Suburban Garden Songster

Birding - Sat, 05/07/2016 - 8:32am

In early May, when the leaves of maples are unfolding into a soft green, the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) returns, giving his liquid “tea-dear-dear” song in suburban yards and forest preserve edges.

Homeowners who put oranges and grape jelly in feeders are often rewarded with a look at the male with his black head and back contrasting with his brilliant orange breast as he eats a spring meal.

 A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines.

A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines. Photo © Carol Freeman

Later, the female, with a dusky-colored head and yellowish-orange breast, will come. If she sees some 12-inch-long soft strings of light-colored yarn put out by humans, she may snatch them to make her nest. A common breeding bird of open woodlands, natural spaces, gardens, and parklands, the oriole has returned from its winter in the South: Florida, the Caribbean islands, southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

 A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring.

A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring. Photo © Carol Freeman

By May, Baltimore orioles have arrived in the eastern United States to set up breeding territories. To get her attention, the male hops around the female, spreads his wings, and bows forward. The female responds by fanning her tail, fluttering her wings, and chattering. The female weaves plant fibers including grapevine bark, grass, and other materials such as yarn (and even horsehair) to build a hanging, pendulous, pouch-like nest. Typically, orioles nest about 20 to 40 feet high at the end of a branch. Their preferred locations are on cottonwoods, American elms, and maples.

 Baltimore oriole nest.

The Baltimore oriole nest is a labor of love. Photo © Carol Freeman

In his Life Histories of North American Birds series, Arthur Cleveland Bent noted that the oriole is “perhaps the most skillful artisan of any North American bird.” Those lucky enough to see an oriole nest will most likely agree. It can take a week to ten days for the female to complete her nest. She’ll then lay three to seven pale eggs blotched with brown, which hatch in 11 to 14 days. The young remain in the nest for another 11 to 14 days, getting fed constantly by their parents, until they’re able to hop out onto a branch, exercise their wings, and then fledge.

These colorful birds eat insects, fruit, and nectar, (and grape jelly!), and can help keep populations of pests such as gypsy moth caterpillars in check. Agile members of the blackbird family, orioles can hang upside down and walk across twigs, or fly directly from perches to grab flying insects. Besides the “tea-dear-dear” song, orioles also give a series of chatters and scolding notes, which can alert you to their presence.

As summer goes on, the orioles seem to disappear, spending most of their time feeding young and less time singing and chattering. But come mid-August to early September, the orioles start singing again—often shorter songs—before they leave for winter vacation.

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

For Some Birds, Constructing a Nest Could Be a Stretch

Birding - Mon, 04/18/2016 - 8:32am

While working out in the woods this winter, a small lump on the branch of a young elm tree caught my attention. At first I thought it might be a gall, or an injury that had healed-over. On closer inspection, the lump turned out to be a ruby-throated hummingbird nest from last summer. 

Although I see hummingbirds regularly at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I rarely encounter one of their nests. Hummingbirds themselves are amazing, but their nests are truly a marvel of avian architecture. Not much larger in diameter than a quarter, they are just large enough to hold the one to three navy bean-sized eggs of the hummer. For the pint-sized bird to be able to keep the tiny eggs warm during incubation requires that the nest be not much larger than her body. 

 Hummingbird nest and quarter (for scale).

Not much larger than a quarter, the ruby-throated hummingbird nest is an engineering marvel.

This is all well and good until the eggs hatch. Growing young hummingbirds can double or triple the amount of room necessary to hold the family. One of the ways the hummingbirds get around this need for flexibility is that they construct the nest of soft plant fibers and then wrap the whole thing with spiderweb silk. This creates an elastic nest that has the ability to expand as the contents of the nest increases. Can you imagine yourself going out and plucking a strand of sticky silk from a spider web with your fingers and then trying to use it to build something out of lightweight fuzzy plant fibers? I imagine you might find yourself wrapped up in a ball like some sort of oversized grotesque moth cocoon. The silk also helps to anchor the nest to the top surface of a horizontal branch.

 Spiderweb silk is used by hummingbirds as a nest liner.

Spiderweb silk: the expandable nest liner preferred by hummingbirds.

Keeping the nest just the right size as the need arises helps to keep the growing youngsters warm and secure. In the western states where several species of hummingbirds nest, often at higher elevations, it is not only important to keep the nestlings warm, but also the incubating female, especially at night. Therefore, it is often the case that hummingbirds in these colder situations will locate their nests on a limb with an overhanging branch acting as a sort of roof to help block the nest from the night sky. 

Although this measure helps reduce heat loss, it is often the case that nesting females will go into a state of torpor (reduced physiological activity to lower body temperature) in order to conserve energy on particularly cold nights. This is a principle of physics in which the larger the difference in temperature between objects, the faster the heat flows from the warmer one to the cooler one. Therefore, a hummingbird with a lower body temperature will lose heat more slowly than the one with a warmer body. As I stated earlier, hummingbirds are amazing!

 Parmelia sulcata, a common lichen, is used to help disguise the hummingbird's nest.

Parmelia sulcata, a common lichen, is used to help disguise the hummingbird’s nest.

Part of the reason—besides size—I had not noticed the nest earlier is that the birds do a fantastic job of camouflaging it. This also relates to the spiderweb silk. Some or all of the silk used is sticky. Upon completion of nest construction, the birds collect bits of lichen and attach them to the sticky strands on the outside of the nest. Interestingly, the birds seem to always use the same species of lichen, one that goes by the name of Parmelia sulcata. 

Parmelia sulcata is a light greenish-gray lichen with a leafy (foliose) appearance. One of our more common lichens, it is often seen on the upper branches of trees, and was particularly abundant on the ash trees that died from emerald ash borer. I don’t know if the birds chose this species of lichen in particular or, being common, it is just found most often. It is also interesting that the birds seem to apply the lichens to the nest in an upright position, with the top facing outward, so they look like they could be growing on the nest.

Come birding at the Garden! Take a birding class; join a group, and check your finds against our bird list.

Although this process is fascinating, it is not restricted to hummingbirds. One of the other breeding birds at the Garden utilizes a very similar nest construction technique to hold its three to five small eggs. The blue-gray gnatcatcher, another tiny bird (that somewhat resembles a miniature catbird in appearance and sound), also constructs a nest out of soft plant fibers, including spiderwebs, and applies lichen to the outside of its nest. A nest of this species, a little larger than that of a hummingbird, was found on a branch of one of the locust trees growing in a Garden parking lot.

 A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

 A blue-gray gnatcatcher at the Garden; females look similar, but are less blue.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher at the Garden; females look similar, but are less blue.

If you’re lucky, you might find the nest of one of these birds during the nesting season, but if not, keep an eye out for little bumps, lumps, and knobs on bare branches in winter. You might get lucky.

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

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

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