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Red-Bellied Woodpecker: Colorful Year-Round Woodland Denizen

Birding - Mon, 10/03/2016 - 8:39am

When someone first hears the name of the red-bellied woodpecker, it doesn’t make sense. The bird has a bright red crown and nape, but where’s the red belly? Actually, there is a small pinkish tinge on the bird’s stomach, but it’s difficult to see unless you look for it with binoculars (and if it’s not covered with gray feathers).

 A red-bellied woodpecker looking for food. Photo by Carol Freeman.

A red-bellied woodpecker looking for food. Its eclectic diet consists of nuts, berries, seeds, insects, and suet from feeders. Photo © Carol Freeman

Unfortunately, the name “red-headed woodpecker” was already taken by another bird—incidentally, much rarer in northern Illinois—so ornithologists named this common, year-round bird the red-bellied woodpecker.

The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) has creamy-to-white underparts, and a black-and-white, zebra-patterned back. The male’s forehead is red; the female’s is creamy white. (By contrast, the red-headed woodpecker’s entire head is blood red, and its back is solid black with white patches on the wings.) The red-bellied woodpecker’s preferred year-round habitat is woodlands, and the oak, pine hardwood, and maple forests of the eastern United States. Occasionally, it can be found in wooded suburban neighborhoods.

Woodpeckers have long, barbed tongues. A woodpecker’s tongue is so long that when it is not extending it to grab a meal deep within a crevice, it pulls it in, and wraps it around the inside back wall of its skull, almost to its nostril holes. Because they can get food from deep within a tree instead of relying on what is readily available, they are well-suited to spend winter in northern Illinois, when other insect-eating birds need to move south.  

 Female red-bellied woodpecker.

Female red-bellied woodpecker by www.birdphotos.com [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If a red-bellied woodpecker visits your yard, you may be able to observe some interesting behavior: the woodpecker puts a nut into the crevice of tree bark, then hits the nut with its beak to get to the yummy morsel inside. It also may store the food there to eat later.

The woodpecker makes its presence known in woodlands and yards or at feeders by calling “querr” or “cherr-cherr” several times, or giving various chattering sounds. Its boisterous noises and colorful plumage add cheer to a cold winter’s day.

In February or March, the male red-bellied woodpecker begins seeking places to excavate cylindrical cavities—in dead trees or dead limbs of trees—and enticing a female to mate and lay eggs, which happens in late March and early April.

As with many birds, red-bellied woodpeckers will nest in the same location year after year. The male typically builds a new cavity—often in the same tree, near the old one—each season. The nest cavity is from 10 to 14 inches deep and usually built on a limb (as opposed to the trunk). The female lays four to five white eggs each season, and both parents incubate the eggs for about 12 days and take care of the nestlings, which fledge in another 24 to 27 days.

Numbers of this beautiful, common bird have grown across most of its range over the past 50 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Once most common and found mostly in central and southern Illinois, it has expanded its range northward in the state in the past century, including into northern Illinois, where it had been decidedly rare in the early twentieth century.

The red-bellied woodpecker is the November bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org. Additional photos by Ken Thomas and Tom Friedel.

Fresh Recipes in Windy City Harvest’s New Cookbook

Community Gardening - Fri, 09/23/2016 - 11:00am

‘Tis the season for the harvest bounty at Windy City Harvest! Our staff and program participants are busy harvesting our final summer crops: peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant; and early fall crops: kale, carrots, and cabbage.

This harvest season we are excited to unveil our new cookbook, Cooking in Season with Windy City Harvest. This cookbook is a collection of our favorite seasonal recipes and features the fresh produce grown and harvested at our farms transformed into healthy dishes by our program participants, staff, and local chefs.

 Windy City Harvest Youth Farm participants.

Windy City Harvest Youth Farm participants

Our program has been lucky to develop wonderful partnerships with local chefs and restaurants. Many of these chefs, including Cleetus Friedman, executive chef and creative chef for Caffé Baci; and John des Rosiers, chef/proprietor of Inovasi, Wisma, and The Otherdoor, have generously shared seasonal recipes that feature Windy City Harvest produce.

 Harvesting kale at the Washington Park farm.

Harvesting kale at the Washington Park farm

Just like planting seeds and harvesting the bounty, cooking is an essential component of the Windy City Harvest program. Program participants learn how to cook with produce grown on the farms, sometimes using fruits and vegetables that may be unfamiliar to them. The participants then share their newfound culinary skills with their communities, whether trading recipes with market customers, providing cooking demonstrations at local WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) clinics, preparing multicourse lunches for their peers, or showcasing their dishes at our annual Open House celebrations.

One of our favorite fall recipes is a grilled kale salad.

Grilled Kale Salad
Preparation: 15 to 30 minutes. Serves: 6 to 8

 Grilled kale salad.

Salad:

  • 3 pounds (about 4 bunches) toscano kale, washed and dried
  • ½ cup vegetable oil, divided
  • ½ teaspoon salt, plus more for bread
  • 2 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • ½ loaf of sourdough bread (cut into ¾-inch thick slices)

Dressing:

  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Preheat the grill to high. Stack the kale and cut off the thick end of the stems about 3 inches from the end of the leaf. Compost the stems. In a large bowl or large plastic bag, toss the kale with ⅓ cup of the vegetable oil and salt, until the leaves are evenly coated with oil.

Rub each slice of bread with a garlic clove half. Drizzle the remaining oil on the bread. Grill the bread slices until golden brown with nice grill marks on each side. Set aside. Grill the kale leaves until crispy and cooked—about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side. Dice the grilled bread into croutons, and julienne the kale into bite-size pieces. Place the mixture in a large bowl.

To make the dressing, combine the minced garlic with the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt in a Mason jar. Tighten the lid and shake the jar vigorously to combine the ingredients. Pour the dressing over the kale and bread, and toss the mixture to coat. Add the feta and toss again. Transfer the salad to a serving platter or bowl.

 Windy City Harvest student cooks in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden kitchen.

Get in the kitchen with Windy City Harvest

If you would like to see more seasonal recipes and learn about the Windy City Harvest program, purchase a cookbook from createspace.com or pick one up in the Garden Shop. Bon appetit!

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Expedition to Door County

Plant Science and Conservation - Wed, 09/21/2016 - 2:44pm

Last June, I headed up to Door County, Wisconsin, with Kay Havens, our director of plant science and conservation,  for a 31-day trip to undertake our annual fieldwork. “A month at the beach!” you say, thinking it such a treat! Well, yes and no.

Four undergraduate students in our REU program joined us to track literal life and death events in two plant populations on the dunes of Lake Michigan. The dunes can be more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than ambient temperatures, and we work in the interdunal swales, where no lovely breezes off the lake can reach us. It is often well over 95 degrees in the dunes, even if it’s a balmy 75 degrees in Sturgeon Bay. But, no matter—we are on a mission! On days with the hot sun both beating down and reflecting up from the sand, we observed, measured, and recorded the births, deaths, and reproductive successes of one of our favorite plants: the threatened pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). 

 Pitcher's thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

We find every seedling we can, and place a flag next to it to help us keep track of the ones we’ve counted. We don’t want to miss a single one. Each seedling is a measure of successful reproduction for this monocarpic perennial. Monocarps—plants that only flower once before they die, are completely dependent upon producing as many successful offspring as they can, all in the quest to ensure that they just replace themselves. When all plants successfully replace themselves, a population is stable.

Just to replace yourself is a monumental undertaking for a plant that flowers once and then dies. Especially for pitcher’s thistle. The dunes are a harsh environment for a tiny baby plant. Many of them die—exposed to the heat, and without enough water to sustain them. We estimate that fewer than one in ten seeds germinate and survive each year, and in some years, only a small percent of those survive the winter to become a juvenile plant the next year. That means that each flowering plant must produce many seeds to replace itself. The good news? Generally, if a seedling survives to the juvenile stage, it has a much increased chance of survival to make it to the next stage—a vegetative plant—and the vast majority of those go on to reproduce at some point.

 Kay Havens, ready to record data at Ship Canal Nature Preserve, owned by the Door County Land Trust.

Kay Havens is ready to record data at Ship Canal Nature Preserve, owned by the Door County Land Trust.

However, seed germination and seedling survivorship and growth depend upon two things: where you come from and where you live. To look at this, we took 100 seeds from each of our two study populations and grew them in “seed baskets” in our study garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. We also grew the same number in seed baskets at their respective home sites. Regardless of population, they germinated and grew very readily in our study garden. But there were very stark differences at our study sites in Door County: seed germination was 39% at one site, but only 9% at the other.

 Pitcher’s thistle seedlings sprouted in one of our seed baskets at the Ship Canal Nature Preserve.

Pitcher’s thistle seedlings sprouted in one of our seed baskets at the Ship Canal Nature Preserve. The pair of yellow-green “leaves” opposite each other are actually cotyledons, or seed leaves, and are the first photosynthetic organs to emerge from the seed during germination.

 These are Pitcher's thistle seedlings that have grown very large under the favorable conditions of the test garden on the south side of the Plant Science Center.

These are pitcher’s thistle seedlings that have grown very large under the favorable conditions of the test garden on the south side of the Plant Science Center. In just one growing season, they have grown as large as plants three to four years old that grow under natural conditions.

Why the difference? Well, our first site is definitely more hospitable! Even we are happier to work here. It’s not nearly as hot, and the dune structure is more flat, so the breeze off the lake makes things more pleasant—for plants and people alike! And it appears to this observer’s eye that there’s more water available close to the surface here. This year, there are two large patches in the dune that have been perpetually damp. In contrast, our second population is literally high and dry, making life hard for the little pitcher’s thistle seedlings. How does this affect the prospects of these two populations overall? Stay tuned! We’ll let you know when we have finished our analysis of the long-term trends at these two very different sites.

One plant, two places—offering a fascinating glimpse of a life of contrasts.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Becoming a Plant Sleuth for Plants of Concern

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 09/15/2016 - 9:12am

Last year, with great anticipation, I became a plant sleuth. Tired of my relative ignorance of plants, I wanted to learn more about them and become more productive while being outdoors, which I am—a lot. So I joined Plants of Concern as a volunteer.

Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Plants of Concern (POC) was launched in 2001 by the Garden and Audubon–Chicago Region, supported by Chicago Wilderness funding. The program brings together trained volunteers, public and private land managers, and scientists, with the support of federal, state, and local agencies. For more than 15 years, the POC volunteers—a generally mild-mannered but formidable force of citizen scientists—have monitored rare, threatened, and endangered plant populations in our region to assess long-term trends. 

 On this foray with Plants of Concern, we marked endangered plants with flags.

On this foray with Plants of Concern, we flagged and counted targeted plants.

Broadly speaking, the data we plant detectives collect provides valuable information. Land managers and owners can use it to thoughtfully and effectively manage land, protecting ecosystems that have helped to support us humans. Scientists and students can use the data to help them understand rare-species ecology, population genetics, and restoration dynamics. The implications are significant, with climate change an important factor to consider in altered or shifting plant populations.

I quickly discovered that many POC volunteers are way more plant savvy than I am. Fortunately for me, the organization welcomes people of all knowledge levels. Our goal is to gather information about specific plant populations, ultimately to protect them against the forces of invasive plant species and encroaching urbanization. And our work is paying off. Some POC-monitored plant populations are expanding—reflected in the removal of those species from state lists of threatened and endangered species.

We are (mostly) unfazed

Yes, we POC volunteers are a hardy lot. Stinking hot, humid days on the sand dunes near Lake Michigan or the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie? We drink some water and slap on sunscreen. Steep ravines with loose soil and little to hang onto? Bring it on! An obstacle course of spider webs? No prob—well actually, those are a real drag. Last time I wiped a web from my sweaty face I muttered, “There ought to be a word for the sounds people make when this happens.” (Oh, right, there is: swearing!) But webs slow us down for just a few seconds before we resume the business at hand.

 Amy Spungen out in the field, volunteering for Plants of Concern.

Author’s note: Some projects are a little more involved than others. This was one of those.

That business is hunting down and noting targeted plants, and continuing to monitor them over time. Our tools are notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment. In northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, we volunteers, along with Garden scientists and staff from partner agencies, have monitored 288 species across 1,170 plant populations at more than 300 sites, from moist flatwoods to dry gravel prairies to lakefront beaches and sand savannahs. Collectively, since Plants of Concern began, we have contributed 23,000 hours of our time in both the field and office.

“Northeastern Illinois is incredibly biodiverse, and some people are surprised to learn that,” says Rachel Goad, who became manager of the program in 2014, after earning a master’s degree in plant biology from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. “There are so many interesting plant communities and lots of really neat plants. For people who want to learn more about them and contribute to their conservation, Plants of Concern is a great way to do that. We rely on interested and passionate volunteers—we would not at all be able to cover the area of the Chicago Wilderness region without them.”

From the minute I met up with a POC group during my first foray last October at Illinois Beach State Park, I was hooked. Though I often feel like a dunderhead as I bumble around hunting for my assigned plants, wondering why so many plants look so much like other plants, I love it. One reason is the other, more experienced volunteers and staff leaders, who generously help me as I ask question after question after question.

 a man of ultimate patience.

Plants of Concern foray leader Jason Miller: a man of ultimate patience—with me.

Some of us volunteers are walking plant encyclopedias, while others (that would be me) have been known to call out, “Here’s a dwarf honeysuckle!” only to have foray leader Jason Miller, patience personified, respond gently, “Actually, that’s an ash seedling.”

            “Hey Jason,” I say a couple of weeks later, trying to look unconcerned. “Do you guys ever fire volunteers?”

            “Yes, but it’s rare,” he replies. “Of more than 800 volunteers over all the years, maybe five at most—and not recently—were dropped from the program.” He indicates that it’s more a mismatch of interests than a few flubbed newbie I.D.s that can lead to that very rare parting of ways. Miller also acknowledges that some plants are especially tricky, such as sedges (Carex spp.) and dwarf honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). “Some species are straightforward,” he says, “and others are harder to monitor.”

I’m not hopeless—I’m just growing

I decide to interpret my POC foibles as “opportunities for growth,” since slowly but surely, I am starting to catch on. The information sheets distributed as we gather before a foray are making more sense to me. I am getting better at noticing the tiny serrated edges of a leaf, or compound rather than simple umbels, or any number of other subtle ways plants may distinguish themselves from others.

That gradual but steady learning curve fits with what Goad describes as “the most critical characteristic we look for in volunteers: someone who really wants to learn.” She adds that diversity among POC volunteers strengthens the program as a whole, helping to build a “constituency for conservation” among people not traditionally associated with environmental activism.

 Plants of Concern volunteers watch a presentation before heading out on foray.

Volunteers get a debriefing before heading out on a foray. Newbies go with experienced volunteers.

Goad and her staff, which includes research assistants Miller, Kimberly Elsenbroek, and Morgan Conley, work to match volunteers with something that fits their level of expertise. This “hyper-individualized” approach to training POC volunteers can limit the number of participants per year, currently about 150 (a year-end tally firms up that number). “We tend to fill up our new volunteer training workshops, which means that our staff is always working at capacity to get those folks up and running,” says Goad. “I encourage people to sign up early if they know they are interested.”

Another challenge for managing the volunteer program, Goad adds, is that “any time you have a whole bunch of different people collecting and sending in data, there has to be a really good process for checking it and cleaning it and making it useful.” Over the years, the program has improved its volunteer training and data processing so that errors are minimized.

Get ready, get set—learn!

Miller was majoring in environmental studies at McKendree University when he came to POC in 2013 as an intern. Now, among other things, he’s in charge of volunteers at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Like Goad, he says the main requirement in a volunteer is a willingness to learn. “We want someone who is interested in plants and their habitats,” he said. “If so, whenever you can help us out, great! We realize you’re giving your time to do this.”

Goad hopes to expand POC into other parts of Illinois over the next decade. “There are populations across the state that should be visited more regularly,” she says. “We do a lot with the resources we have, but it would be great to expand, and to do so, we need to continue to be creative about funding.” With partners that include forest preserve districts, county conservation districts, many land trusts, and nonprofit agencies that own land—and with its knowledge about challenged plant populations—POC is uniquely positioned to help facilitate collaboration.

 Plants of Concern volunteers.

The world’s best volunteer group

Whatever the time frame, wherever Plants of Concern volunteers are found, the hunt is on. Some days are glorious for us plant sleuths, such as my first foray last fall. We hiked over the dunes, Lake Michigan sparkling beside us, the cloudless sky brilliant blue. A light breeze kept us cool as we spread out, flagging the targeted plant—the endangered dune willow (Salix syrticola)—which was readily apparent and accessible. Then there are days like one this past June, when the sun beat down over a hazy Lake Michigan, humidity and temperatures soared, and my assignment was a steep, prolonged scramble over ravines to find and flag my elusive target, the common juniper (Juniperus communis). By the end of it I was, to coin a phrase, literally a hot mess—but a happy and triumphant one, for I had indeed been able to plant a few flags.

 planting flags on a foray to monitor slipper orchids.Perhaps it’s time for you to sleuth around and plant a few flags, too! Visit Plants of Concern and find out how to join.

Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Black-Capped Chickadees Are Preparing for Winter

Birding - Wed, 09/14/2016 - 10:08am

Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

Most people recognize that familiar call of the black-capped chickadee. It’s often heard in late summer and fall as chickadees gather in family groups and small feeding flocks to prepare for the winter.

The chickadee’s song—translated as “Hey, sweetie,” (though you can’t often hear the third syllable)—is reserved for late winter, spring, and summer, when the bird is courting and nesting. Nothing brightens a mid-February day more than when a chickadee sings because to those who hear it, the song signals spring’s arrival.

 Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Photo © Carol Freeman.

Because of its curiosity and propensity to visit feeders, the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) can often introduce youngsters and adults to bird-watching. Its telltale black cap and throat with white cheeks makes it easy to identify. Photo © Carol Freeman

The black-capped chickadee is the September bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; there is a free walk at the Garden on September 17, 7:30 to 9 a.m.

The black-capped chickadee is considered a non-migratory species—it can survive the harsh winters of northern Illinois. These birds can lower their body temperature when sleeping at night, which protects them from freezing.

While some birds need to leave the region in fall because insects and other food will soon become difficult to find, chickadees know how to find insect larvae overwintering in tree bark (although flocks of chickadees do make small geographic movements, depending on food availability in colder months).

They also stash seeds to eat later, and unlike squirrels, they remember where they put them. Chickadees eat berries and animal fat in winter, and they readily come to feeders feasting on seeds and suet. Supplemental food, especially sunflower seed from feeders has been shown to help these little balls of feather and hollow bones survive when it gets really cold and wet outside. Those who feed birds can observe an interesting behavior in chickadees—they form a hierarchy, meaning the top chickadee gets to eat at the feeder first—it snatches a seed and leaves, then the second in command gets its turn.

 berries.

A black-capped chickadee enjoys a plentiful and tasty treat in early February: berries.

In February, chickadees begin singing and looking for a cavity hole in which to nest—and there’s a wide variety of homes they’ll find suitable. They’ll choose abandoned woodpecker cavities and man-made nest boxes, or excavate their own small, natural cavities. Chickadees will nest in rotted, old wooden fence posts and abandoned mailboxes, and a pair once built a nest in an old shoe hanging from a line.

The female builds a cup-shaped nest with moss for the foundation, lining it with rabbit fur or other soft material. She has one brood each year, laying an average of seven to eight eggs. After 12 days of incubation, the young hatch, then remain in the nest for another 16 days. When they fledge, they continue to follow their parents, calling and begging for food. Come winter, they travel in small feeding groups, often with nuthatches, titmice, and other small songbirds.

West Nile, which came to the U.S. about 17 years ago, likely may not have affected black-capped chickadees as much as some thought, according to a recent study.

Though people were seeing fewer chickadees in their backyards and in woodlands when the virus came to the region, a 2015 study showed that overall black-capped chickadee numbers have not been affected by the mosquito-borne disease, especially compared with other species. Studies will continue on how the virus is affecting bird populations—but one thing is for certain—when the virus struck, it reminded humans not to take for granted the common birds they enjoy. And the black-capped chickadee is certainly a species that humans enjoy watching and hearing.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Opening the Doors to a Dream at Learning Campus

Youth Education - Thu, 09/08/2016 - 9:00am

Seven years ago, we dreamed of turning a gravel parking lot at the Chicago Botanic Garden into something defining—a place where learners of all ages could explore and become inspired by the natural world.

My name is Eileen Prendergast, and I’m director of education at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time flipping through blueprints of that place, the Regenstein Learning Campus, the new home base for the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. And I’ve been counting the days until we could open the doors to the public.

That day has finally arrived.

 The Regenstein Learning Campus, as viewed by drone.

The Regenstein Learning Campus

I never could have imagined the rich details, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the Learning Campus connects people to nature. Consider the heart of the campus, the Learning Center, which has 12 indoor and two outdoor classrooms (for cooking, yoga, and other classes, along with space for the new Nature Preschool). The Learning Center is also home to:

  • an art installation that reveals the transitioning shades of the Chicago Botanic Garden throughout the seasons—color rectangles show leaves, stems, berries, or flowers, photographed in extreme close-up,
  • benches made by a master wood-carver from the reclaimed wood of ash trees, and
  • an enclosed indoor beehive that allows honeybees to roam outside—and pollinate flowers in the new Nature Play Garden—and return through a long tube in the Learning Center’s roof.
 A young visitor examines the new indoor beehive in front of nature photographed in extreme close-up by artist Jo Hormuth.

A young visitor examines the new indoor beehive in front of nature photographed in extreme close-up by artist Jo Hormuth.

Now the last—and most important—piece of our dream is about to come true. I can’t wait to see the Learning Campus come alive with people—splashing, rolling, climbing, and finding their own inspiration—at the free Opening Celebration. I look forward to meeting you.

 Yoga is in session at the new Learning Campus.

Yoga is in session at the new Learning Campus.

Come to the free Opening Celebration, September 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; parking fees apply. Enjoy live music and activities, take home a free plant, and more. Take 10 percent off classes when you sign up on-site on opening weekend (members get 30 percent off). Members are welcome to stop by the lounge for light refreshments and a commemorative gift.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Nature Preschool: Awesomeness and ABCs

Youth Education - Tue, 09/06/2016 - 8:50am

A small pink bicycle—with training wheels and pink ribbons—was parked outside the new Nature Preschool at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It was just a sign of things to come at the preschool, which opens September 6 at the new Regenstein Learning Campus, home to the Garden’s education programs.

 Bike parking right outside the new Regenstein Learning Campus.

Parking right outside the new Regenstein Learning Campus

Learn more about the Nature Preschool at the Garden on our website.

Open houses for the 2017-18 school year will be held this fall. Meanwhile, we talked to some of this year’s students at the orientation for 4-year-olds about their future career plans and other matters.

 Gemma plays in the outdoor mud kitchen.

Gemma plays in the outdoor mud kitchen.

Gemma

Q. What are you looking forward to doing in school?
A. I like studying and putting all the things into baskets and seeing if the temperature is hot or cold and climbing trees and playing outside and looking at the stream and measuring and weighing things and to paint and do art.

Q. What’s so interesting about plants?
A. I like to see if a little walnut will grow into a walnut tree.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. An explorer.

 Ethan works with homemade play dough.

Ethan works with homemade play dough.

Ethan

Q. What are you looking forward to doing in school?
A. I like playing on the big hills and the rocks and in the garden and cutting the putty and working in the mud kitchen and ABCs.

Q. What is your favorite plant?
A. Cactus. [Why?] Because it has pointy things.

Q. So you already know things about nature.
A. I know a blue jay eats worms. I know that the cactus keeps water so he doesn’t need much.

 Harrison explores tools in the science corner.

Harrison explores tools in the science corner.

Harrison

Q. What do you think the Nature Preschool is going to be like?
A. Awesomeness.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. A scientist.

 Erin works in the math station.

Erin works in the math station.

Erin

Q. Why do you want to go to the Nature Preschool?
A. I want to learn about plants. I like digging in the dirt. At home, I pull weeds. Mom does, too. I want to climb a tree.

Q. What’s your favorite subject?
A. I like writing and animals.

 Serena enjoys a snack.

Serena enjoys a snack.

Serena

Q. What do you want to do in preschool?
A. Go down the hills, play in the water and splash, read things.

Q. What’s your favorite subject?
A. Science.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. When fishes and sharks get sick, I’ll fix them.

Q. What else will you do?
A. Just that.

 Kids and families explore the Kleinman Family Cove.

Explore with us.

Come to the Regenstein Learning Campus’s free Opening Celebration, September 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; parking fees apply.

Enjoy live music and activities, take home a free plant, and more. Members can stop by the lounge for light refreshments and a commemorative gift.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Nature Play Never Stops

Youth Education - Thu, 09/01/2016 - 1:30pm

Keep summer fun going with outdoor activities that encourage creativity and independent thinking.

School is in session, but that doesn’t mean outdoor summer fun has to stop. Sure, going back to school might mean the long summer days of riding bikes and playing hide-and-seek outside will be replaced with classrooms and school bells, but kids can still find time to play in nature when they aren’t in school. And the good news is that outdoor play time has many benefits; a growing body of research shows that nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps people focus, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships.

 Three young boys peek into a bucket full of lake water looking for life.

Sharing discoveries—like water creatures from Garden lakes—is a great way to cement knowledge.

Nature play abounds at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and can be found in many of our education programs, including family drop-in activities, Camp CBG, and the new nature preschool. Ann Halley, coordinator of early childhood programs, outlined a few nature play activities kids and families do at the Garden that can also be done at home. Choose an activity—or two—to keep children playing in nature throughout the school year:

 British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy inspired this nature art at Camp CBG.

British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy inspired this nature art at Camp CBG.

Create land art. Use twigs, rocks, and leaves to create artistic sculptures and let creativity be the guide. Build a stone tower topped with a flower, or let a design naturally reveal itself. Discover the beauty of natural materials and make whatever feels right. There are no limits on what can be created using material found in the backyard and a bit of imagination.

 A young boy mixes mud in kitchen baking pans.

Half the joy of painting with mud: mixing your colors.

Paint with mud. Why use regular paint when mud is so much more fun? Swap out watercolors for mud and ditch brushes for hands to create all-natural art. Take sustainability up a notch by using an outside surface—the sidewalk, a driveway, or back patio—instead of paper as your canvas. Wash creations away when you’re through.

Dissect flowers. Pick a few wildflowers and take them apart. Examine each petal and stamen. Compare different flowers and notice the shapes and colors of each. For older children who are interested in art, use the dissected flower pieces to make geometric patterns. Budding scientists can compare different kinds of flowers to learn more about what attracts certain pollinators.

 A small girl picks apart the seed pods of Lunaria, or money plant.

Peeling apart leaves, seeds, and flowers reveals all kinds of interesting information about the natural world.

Go on an adventure hike. It seems obvious to suggest a hike when talking about activities that can be done outdoors. But an adventure hike makes the walk more fun. Give the hike a theme and try to hunt for on-topic items. The theme can be a color (things that are blue), a shape (look for circles), or whatever else you think might be fun. Turning the hike into an adventure means children will be more aware of what’s all around them and will stop—maybe even literally—to smell the flowers.

Study the clouds. Look up. A cloudy day provides an opportunity to find inspiration in the sky. Younger children can look for different shapes. Older kids can discuss the different types of clouds and identify those currently over their heads. The best part about this activity? No tools required.

Can’t get enough nature play? Check out the new Regenstein Learning Campus and sample some of the Garden’s educational offerings at the Opening Weekend celebration on Saturday and Sunday, September 10 and 11, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can get artistic with a photography or mosaics class demonstration, stretch your muscles with yoga or tai chi, or have some fun running on rolling hills or splashing in the water of the Nature Play Garden.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Deeply Rooted at the Regenstein Learning Campus

Youth Education - Fri, 08/19/2016 - 12:00pm

This September, find even more ways to learn, play, and get inspired. Our new Nature Play Garden’s plants and natural features encourage discovery, sensory interaction, and imaginative play.

But the best learning opportunities you’ll find on the Regenstein Learning Campus come from horticulturists and educators with lives deeply rooted in nature. Here are a few of their personal stories.

Explore the Nature Play Garden at the Learning Campus’s free Opening Celebration, September 10 & 11, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (parking fees apply). See the complete schedule for our Opening Celebration events on our website.

Kris Jarantoski

 Kris Jarantoski, age 3.

Kris at age 3.

 Kris Jarantoski, Executive Vice President and Director, Chicago Botanic Garden.

Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director, Chicago Botanic Garden

I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We lived across the street from a woods and river, and I played there all the time. With friends, we built forts and swung around on grapevines. I noticed that the hawthorn flower had a funky smell, and to this day, whenever I smell hawthorn flowers, I’m transported back to those woods.

My parents took me to visit Mitchell Park Conservatory and Boerner Botanical Gardens. Boerner Botanical Gardens especially made a huge impression on me. It had gardens on a scale that I did not have at home and a diversity of plants from around the world that could never fit into my yard. It expanded my horticultural horizons immensely and was a fantasy world to me.

I started out in college majoring in music, playing the organ. In my sophomore year I took a botany class and was fascinated. I switched my major to horticulture and loved designing and planning gardens. Once I decided to pursue a career in horticulture, I knew it had to be working in a botanic garden.

I got my dream job in 1977, when I started working at the Garden as an assistant horticulturist. Over the years I have been fortunate to work with talented staff to plan and plant 27 distinct display gardens and four natural areas.

Amy Kerr Wells

 Amy Wells as a child in her grandmother's garden.

Amy in her grandmother’s garden

 Amy Wells, Manager, Youth & Family Programs.

Amy Wells, manager, Youth & Family Programs

Here I am, at age 5, with my Grandma Kerr in her garden in Iowa, which we visited every summer. I loved her garden—she told me that she had a fairy living in her garden, and we would look for it as soon as we got there. Her flowers were big and tall—almost unreal to me as a youngster. Her magical touch in nature really stuck with me; her flowers were amazing, and I did not see them anywhere else.

I still carry that “garden magic” with me. I ask our camp teachers to have kids look for the magic in a seed, a tree, a pond—to take the time to just be in nature, whether that is listening to all the sounds in the Kleinman Family Cove, digging in the soil sandbox, chasing fireflies, or rolling down a hill—taking it all in—the sights, sounds, and smells.

Ann Halley

 Ann Halley as a child.

Ann helps in the backyard garden.

 Ann Halley, Coordinator, Early Childhood Programs.

Ann Halley, coordinator, Early Childhood Programs

My parents were born in Ireland, and, to hear them tell it, were outside every day. We lived on the west side of Chicago, and when I was 3 years old, my dad decided that we would put in a garden. I decided that he needed my help. We gardened, played under the sprinkler, jumped in puddles, and came home covered nearly head to toe in dirt just about every day.

The influence of being exposed to nature—the pretty and the messy—has very much influenced my life. Having this childhood, with parents who encouraged us to “live” outside every chance that we could, allowed me to value its importance and led me to teaching children how to learn in and through nature.

Julia McMahon

 Julia McMahon as a baby.

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 Jullia McMahon, Coordinator, Family Programs.

Julia McMahon, coordinator, Family Programs

I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and “designing” and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we “discovered” a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.

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

Discover more about our deeply rooted scientists, educators, and horticulturists in our previous post, Deeply Rooted: Garden educators, scientists, and horticulturists are made early in life.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Are We There Yet? Celebrating the National Parks Service Centennial

Plant Science and Conservation - Tue, 08/16/2016 - 1:34pm

The National Parks provide dream vacations for us nature lovers, but did you know they also serve as vital locations for forward-thinking conservation research by Chicago Botanic Garden scientists?

From sand to sea, the parks are a celebration of America’s diversity of plants, animals, and fungi, according to the Garden’s Chief Scientist Greg Mueller, Ph.D., who has worked in several parks throughout his career.

“National Parks were usually selected because they are areas of important biodiversity,” Dr. Mueller explained, “and they’ve been appropriately managed and looked after for up to 100 years. Often times they are the best place to do our work.”

As we celebrate this centennial year, he and his colleagues share recent and favorite work experiences with the parks.

 Dr. Greg Mueller in the field.

Dr. Greg Mueller working at Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas, in 2007.

Take a glimpse into the wilderness from their eyes.

This summer, Mueller made a routine visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to examine the impact of pollution and other human-caused disturbances on the sensitive mushroom species and communities associated with trees. “One of the foci of our whole research program (at the Garden) is looking at that juxtaposition of humans and nature and how that can coexist. The Dunes National Lakeshore is just a great place to do that,” he explained, as it is unusually close to roads and industry.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., adjunct conservation scientist, relied on her fieldwork in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study one of only two known populations of Lepidospartum burgessii, a rare gypsophile shrub, during a postdoctoral research appointment at the Garden. “We were able to work with park staff to study the species and make recommendations for management,” she said.

 Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work.

Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work. Photo by Adrienne Basey.

As a Conservation Land Management intern, Coleman Minney surveyed for the federally endangered Ptilimnium nodosum at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park earlier this year. “The continued monitoring of this plant is important because its habitat is very susceptible to invasion from non-native plants,” explained Minney, who found the first natural population of the species on the main stem of the Potomac River in 20 years.

 Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum).

Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum) grows on scour bars of rivers and streams. Photo by Coleman Minney.

According to conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., “In many cases, National Parks provide the best and most intact examples of native plant communities in the country, and by studying them we can learn more about how to restore damaged or destroyed plant communities to support the people and wildlife that depend upon them.”

The parks have been a critical site for her work throughout her career. Initially, “I relied on the parks as sites for fieldwork on how wildflowers adapt to their local environment.”

Today, she is evaluating the results of restoration at sites in the Colorado Plateau by looking at data provided by collaborators. Her data covers areas that include Grand Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Along with colleague Nora Talkington, a recent master’s degree graduate from the Garden’s program in plant biology and conservation who is now a botanist for the Navajo Nation, Dr. Kramer expects the results will inform future restoration work.

 Dr. Andrea Kramer at Arches National Park.

Dr. Kramer collects material from Arches National Park as a part of her dissertation research in 2003.

At Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Natalie Balkam, a Conservation Land Management intern, has been hard at work collecting data on vegetation in the park and learning more about the intersection of people, science, and nature. “My time with the National Park Service has exposed me to the vastly interesting and complex mechanics of preserving and protecting a natural space,” she said. “And I get to work in one of the most beautiful places in the world—Alaska!”

 The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska.

The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The benefits of conducting research with the National Parks extend beyond the ability to gather high-quality information, said Mueller. Parks retain records of research underway by others and facilitate collaborations between scientists. They may also provide previous research records to enhance a specific project. Their connections to research are tight. But nothing is as important as their ability to connect people with nature, said Mueller. “That need for experiencing nature, experiencing wilderness is something that’s critical for humankind.”

For research and recreation, we look forward to the next 100 years.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Reforestation from the Ground Up

Plant Science and Conservation - Wed, 08/03/2016 - 10:47am

Experts in reforestation are concerned with the reasons why some replanted sites struggle. They suspect the problem may be solved through soil science.

The health of a forest is rooted in soil and the diverse fungi living within it, according to researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Northwestern University, and collaborators at China’s Central South University of Forestry and Technology.

In densely populated places such as the Chicago area and Changsha, the capitol of the Hunan province, ongoing development and urban expansion frequently lead to the deforestation of native natural areas.

Collaborators tour a study site in China.

Research collaborators tour a study site in China.

“There has been a lot of deforestation in China and so there is interest in knowing how best to do reforestation, whether we’re using native plants or introduced plants in plantation settings,” explained Greg Mueller, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Garden. “Understanding who the players are both above ground and below ground helps us understand the health and sustainability of that above-ground plant community,” he added. “It’s analogous to restoration work being carried out here in the Midwest.” The climate, he explained, is similar in Changsha and Chicago.

A wide variety of fungi live in a symbiotic partnership with roots of trees everywhere. These fungi and trees are involved in a vital exchange of goods. The fungi deliver water and nutrients to the trees, and in return take sugars the trees produce during photosynthesis. Without this symbiotic relationship, the system would fail.

Not all tree species and fungi can team up for success, according to Dr. Mueller, who explained that it is essential for the partners to be correct if the tree is to survive. “The wrong fungi may actually be more pathogenic than beneficial,” he explained. Mueller is guiding research on this delicate soil-tree relationship as conducted by his doctoral student Chen Ning.

Ning is on leave from his position as a lecturer at Central South University of Forestry and Technology while he completes his studies with the Garden and Northwestern University. However, much of his work is taking place in China, where he has just completed the first phase of fieldwork.

After completing his master’s degree, Ning was keenly aware of the important role fungi play in the health of the natural world. He knew that he “wanted to ask some questions about the environment and how fungi influence the environment.” He added with a smile, “that’s why I chose to do some dirty work in the soil.”

IMG_2726

Chen Ning stands behind Dr. Greg Mueller and collaborating professors.

The bright scientist is using the latest technology available, next-generation sequencing, to examine the molecular composition of soil samples taken from locations where native or nonnative trees or both were replanted 30 or 40 years ago. Specifically, he is looking at the replanting of Mason pines, a native Chinese pine, and slash pine (Pinus ellitottii), a nonnative pine introduced to China from the tropical state of Florida.

Ning recently completed his first review of those samples, finding large numbers of fungi in each. In addition, he found that the three different habitats have very different fungal communities.

Mueller and Ning visited the university and collaborators in Changsha in February. Mueller was able to visit the sites Ning sampled during the first phase of research and see the setup for the second phase of research in the greenhouses. The level of disturbance in the natural areas was extensive, a point of interest for Mueller who said, “that again makes it interesting to look at some ecological questions about disturbance and how that impacts these systems.” The team also had time to discuss the importance of considering fungi in related research initiatives.

 Dr. Greg Mueller and Chinese collaborators.

Taking a break for a selfie and some sightseeing

Next up, Ning will examine his greenhouse plantings that use soils taken from his different field sites to determine if the fungi community changes in response to what type of tree is planted. When that is complete at the end of this summer, Ning will look at the enzyme activity in the soil to determine if fungi are functioning differently in the three different plantings (native forest, native tree in plantation, exotic tree in plantation). The study is on a fast track with a targeted completion date in late 2017 and is expected to add new understandings to the biology of plant-fungal relationships while generating important information on reforesting disturbed sites in south-central China.

After completing his Ph.D., Ning hopes to work as a professor to inspire students in China to pursue similar research. He also aspires to serve as a bridge between the United States and China for new research collaborations on topics such as climate change in order to help figure out the ‘big picture’ in the future.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Ruby-throated hummingbird migration begins

Birding - Mon, 08/01/2016 - 9:11am

In August, when the jewelweed and cardinal flowers bloom, the ruby-throated hummingbird is migrating. It’s perfect timing, because the hummingbirds get energy for their journey southward by sipping nectar from the blossoms of these plants native to northern Illinois.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird photo © Carol Freeman

Ruby-throated hummingbird © Carol Freeman


The ruby-throated hummingbird is the August bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; there are two free upcoming walks at the Garden.

 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 the Circle Garden in summer.

The ruby-throat is the only hummingbird to breed in eastern North America, and these tiny jewels are somewhat common nesters in Cook County woodlands. They become more numerous in late summer and fall, as those that nested farther north pass through on their way to their winter homes in Mexico and Central America.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) wears emerald green on its back and crown, and in good light, the male reveals an iridescent red throat. (During fall migration, you’ll see males as well as females and young, both of which lack the ruby throat.)

They return to Illinois in April and May, seeking nectar from early blooming trees and shrubs as well as insects and spiders.

It’s at this time you might get lucky enough to observe the courting male as he flies in a U-shape and also buzzes in front of a perched female. Buzzes? Yes! Hummingbirds aren’t silent—you can hear their wings buzz and vocalizations from their throats when they’re defending feeding territory or seeking a mate.

The female builds a thimble-sized cup nest on a horizontal branch, adding grasses and spider webs, lining it with plant down and then covering the outside with lichens and dead leaves. The young hatch in about 15 days, and remain in the nest for another 20 days or so as the female brings them insects.

An aerial wonder, the ruby-throated hummingbird, can beat its wings 53 times per second, and can fly backward and upside down.

You can attract ruby-throated hummingbirds to your yard by planting the flowers they love—tubular and brightly colored in red hues—and by putting up feeders. Hummingbirds are fun to watch at feeders as they have spats in flight trying to hoard the food to themselves. 

To make hummingbird food, add ¼ cup white sugar to 1 cup boiled distilled water. Stir to dissolve, then cool before you put it into the feeder. It’s not necessary to put red food coloring in the water. Use a red feeder to attract the hummers. Hang out of direct sunlight, and clean and refill often.

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds are gone by the end of October in this area. You can put your feeders back up in April when they return.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Moth Pollinators and Hungry Caterpillars

Plant Science and Conservation - Thu, 07/28/2016 - 10:11am

To most people, the word “pollinator” is synonymous with the word “bee,” but only a fraction of plants are pollinated by bees.

In fact, many different insects and mammals are pollinators—bats, birds, beetles, moths, and more. As part of National Moth Week, we wanted to highlight our work on a very special group of moths: the Sphingidae, or hawkmoths, which pollinate more than 106 plant species in North America alone, and many more around the world.

 A newly emerged Hyles lineata hawkmoth.

A newly emerged Hyles lineata hawkmoth

I am a research tech in the Skogen lab. I work with Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., her postdocs Tania Jogesh and Rick Overson, and fellow Garden scientist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., on a National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity project entitled, “Landscapes of Linalool: Scent-Mediated Diversification of Flowers and Moths across Western North America.” Our project looks at floral scent and pollination in the evening primrose (Onagraceae) family.

Many species in the evening primrose family are pollinated by the white-lined hawkmoth (Hyles lineata). This pollinator is also an important herbivore! Female moths lay eggs on evening primroses, and their hungry caterpillars feed on the leaves, buds, and flowers. How does scent play a role in attracting hawkmoths? Do moths use it for pollination? Or do they use it to find host plants to lay their eggs? Or maybe both?

 Hawkmoth pupae (Hyles lineata).

Hawkmoth pupae (Hyles lineata)

 Hyles lineata eggs on an Oenothera harringtonii plant.

Hyles lineata eggs on an Oenothera harringtonii plant

From Dr. Skogen’s prior research, we know that floral scent can vary within and between plant populations. For instance, within the species O. harringtonii, some populations produce a scent compound called linalool while others do not. We think that the plants face a signaling dilemma: How do they use floral scent to invite their pollinators and yet avoid getting eaten? If female moths use linalool to lay eggs, then perhaps, in some populations, the plants benefit from not advertising their scent. To test this idea, we needed to conduct behavioral experiments to understand how Hyles perceive floral scent

This summer, along with Victoria Luizzi, a summer REU student from Amherst College, we looked at which plants female moths prefer to lay their eggs on—plants from populations containing linalool, or plants from populations without linalool. To answer this question, we first went to Colorado (where the plants naturally grow) and got plants from two different populations, one population that we know produces linalool and another we know doesn’t. Meanwhile our collaborator, Rob Raguso at Cornell University, sent us hawkmoth pupae and we patiently waited for them to emerge.

 Victoria Luizzi (left) and Andrea Gruver (right) dissect a female moth to count remaining eggs.

Victoria Luizzi (left) and Andrea Gruver (right) dissect a female moth to count remaining eggs.

When the moths emerged they were placed in mating cages. Once mating occurred, females were transferred to a quonset in the evening that contained four plants from the linalool population and four plants from the non-linalool population. The moths were left overnight so the females had plenty of time to choose where they wanted to lay their eggs. The next morning, Victoria counted the eggs on each plant (which was sometimes hundreds!) to see on which plants the females were choosing to lay their eggs. In addition, we dissected each moth to see how many eggs the female did not lay.

 Krissa Skogen moves a moth to its new enclosure in her office.

Krissa Skogen moves a moth to its new enclosure in her office

Over the course of the project, 12 females were flown in the quonset. Overall, the moths showed a preference for plants from the population that produces linalool. These data suggest that plants risk inviting foes while advertising to their friends—but we’ll need to collect a lot more data to be certain. Ultimately, both the insects that pollinate flowers as well as the insects that eat them might determine how a flower smells! We hope to continue this study to test our hypothesis further and learn more about how scent influences hawkmoth behavior, and how hawkmoth behavior influences floral scent and other floral traits of the plants they pollinate.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Studying the cryptic and beautiful Mompha moths

Plant Science and Conservation - Mon, 07/25/2016 - 10:50am

Most butterflies and moths featured in popular magazines and other media are large, well-known species, such as monarchs and luna moths.

Within scientific communities as well, species descriptions are biased toward larger moths, overlooking the multitude of tiny ones. Despite this tendency to favor larger species, the average moth is actually quite small, though far from nondescript!

 Mompha species moth; photo taken in Utah.

Mompha species moth; photo taken in Utah

My research at the Chicago Botanic Garden focuses on an insufficiently studied moth group called Mompha, the largest genus within the family Momphidae. Mompha are tiny moths characterized by 4- to 8-millimeter tufted forewings and distinct color patterns.

 Mompha stellella and M. eloisella moths

Specimens up close: Mompha stellella on the left and Mompha eloisella on the right. Both are found in Illinois, typically during the month of August. Photo credit: Terry Harrison

In North America, there are approximately 40 described species, or taxa, of Mompha. In addition to these identified species, a number of undescribed taxa are located throughout the North American West and Southwest. Mompha larvae feed on the reproductive (i.e., flowers, buds, and fruits) and vegetative (i.e., leaves, stems, and roots) structures of members of the Lythraceae, Cistaceae, Rubiaceae, and, most commonly, Onagraceae (evening primroses). In Illinois, Mompha can be collected in your backyard from Oenothera biennis (common evening primrose).

 Mompha feeding and caterpillars.

Examples of Mompha bud-feeding and Mompha fruit-feeding caterpillars

Because many Mompha species share the same coloration, the only morphological characteristics—size, shape, and structure of an organism or one of its parts—that accurately differentiate taxa are unique genitalia. Experienced lepidopterists—butterfly and moth researchers or collectors—are able to carefully dissect moths in order to view their genitalia. However, due to the unique skills involved in moth dissection and genitalia identification, few scientists are qualified to identify different Mompha species.

 Closeup of Mompha species caterpillar.

Close-up of Mompha species caterpillar

Instead of conducting genitalia dissections, I am sequencing six genes from hundreds of Mompha collected over the span of three years from the Western and Southwestern United States. DNA, like morphological characteristics, can be used to identify and characterize differences between species. To analyze the differences within Mompha DNA, I modeled phylogenetic trees.

 Tubes of moth DNA samples.

Tubes and tubes of Mompha moth DNA samples

Phylogenetic trees depict evolutionary relationships between species in regard to genetic characteristic; closely related species share similar DNA and are thus placed close together on a phylogenetic tree. These trees will allow me to describe the natural history of Mompha in North America. This means that I will be able to identify new Mompha species, as well as Mompha host plant preferences, plant structure preferences, emergence times, and geographic isolation.

Check back here in a couple of months to read about the results of my analyses!

Select photos by Donald Hobern (Flickr: Mompha epilobiella) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, and Rick Overson.
©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

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

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