You might notice the scarlet, gold, and orange on trees this fall or the crunch of leaves underfoot and go on your way—but Budburst volunteers stop what they’re doing and take the seasonal changes to heart.
For many homeowners, a long, hot summer means mow the lawn, water, repeat. It’s a cycle that feels inevitable if you don’t want a brown, unruly patch of land.
Conservation scientist Becky Barak, Ph.D., is looking to change that assumption. By studying alternatives to traditional turfgrass, she and her collaborators are hoping to offer a “menu of options” for greener lawns that not only look good and stand up well against Chicago’s moody seasons but also have positive ecological implications.
This is a Caribbean cultivar, Kashee, highly valued in Saint Vincent for cooking. Through genetic, historical, and morphological data, we were able to match this cultivar to the Tahitian cultivar, Puero, which has the same distinct spiky skin.
College student Jessica Tillery came to the Chicago Botanic Garden for the summer to work in a plant science lab, hoping to jump start her career in habitat restoration—which she did. And she got the chance to develop something she wasn’t necessarily expecting: a community of scientists, from high schoolers to Ph.D.s, who taught her, supported her, and became her friends. And those relationships, Tillery said, “made her experience.”
Wildlife and plants are constantly on the move. Birds, deer, and even water animals cross trails, roads, and waterways to seek food or habitats that are necessary for their survival, and the seeds of plants can travel by wind or other means to establish in new green spaces.
In the dry Mojave Desert, we think it’s a lovely sight when a tiny blade of a baby Joshua tree nudges up from the soil—but, to be honest, we’re a little proprietary about it. As Chicago Botanic Garden interns, we plant Joshua tree seedlings in the wild and help them flourish.
In 2001, Plants of Concern was launched through the Chicago Botanic Garden to track the status of rare, threatened, and endangered species in northeast Illinois. A landmark program at the time of its conception, Plants of Concern has remained a model for long-term, collaborative community science and still represents one of the only programs of its kind in the world. Here, we’ll look back at our history and celebrate a few of the many accomplishments that make the Plants of Concern program a success – now, and into the future.
It’s hard to think of fall without picturing a mosaic of trees with warm-colored hues. Amber browns, golden yellows, and blazing reds cover many natural areas in the Midwest, including the Chicago Botanic Garden. It’s all thanks to fall’s shorter days and cool nights.
But with our changing climate, what happens to that classic fall color we’ve come to know and love?
It’s hard to think of fall without picturing a mosaic of trees with warm-colored hues. Amber browns, golden yellows, and blazing reds cover many natural areas in the Midwest, including the Chicago Botanic Garden. It’s all thanks to fall’s shorter days and cool nights.
Amorphophallus remains a unique occupant in the world of plants, and visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden recently experienced the fascinating bloom cycle with the titan arum Sprout. However, there is an additional denizen of the Araceae (a.k.a. Aroid, a.k.a. Arum) family with rare and exceptional attributes, which also bloomed at the Garden.
Japanese cobra lily (Arisaema ringens) has an uncanny, serpent-shaped, flower and possesses a remarkable ability to do something that few other plants can do: change its gender from year to year.
If you have heard about milkweed, you no doubt know about the plant’s unique relationship with the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Milkweeds are the only plants on which monarchs lay their eggs, and its caterpillars, also called larvae, eat milkweed leaves to grow. But these plants have other interesting characteristics, including blooms that are amazingly complex.
Tranquil, peaceful, and serene are words often associated with the McDonald Woods, which wrap around the northeastern edge of the Chicago Botanic Garden. But to Jim Steffen, senior ecologist at the Garden, the oak woodland is a bustling center for natural processes and species, and may hold answers to unsolved scientific questions.
“Titan Tim” Pollak here, with some thoughts about Spike the corpse flower as he goes into dormancy. I never thought I’d call myself “Titan Tim,” but Spike has forever changed my life—as he did life here at the Chicago Botanic Garden—during the four weeks he was on display in our Semitropical Greenhouse.
Thousands of visitors to the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden have been delighted to see a special guest star at the Tropical Greenhouse: Alice the Amorphophallus is on display, in full and glorious fruit!
Visitors are asking: why are some of the berries on the titan arum (or corpse flower) skinny and small, while others are big and plump?
Dr. Pat Herendeen and “Titan Tim” Pollak plucked a few of each in mid-February, X-rayed them, and performed a bit of berry surgery to get the answer.
As plant enthusiasts, we often focus on how plants are affected by their environments. Their growth is affected by weather, water, nutrients, etc. But the plant-environment relationship is a two-way street, and plants can have a strong influence on the habitats they live in. We might experience this by walking in a forest and feeling ground beneath our feet that is spongy from the buildup of slowly decaying leaves that accumulated over decades or centuries.
Project Overview: Shannon Still and Nick Jensen work on a project studying the impact of climate change on the distribution of rare plants in the western United States. The grant, funded through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), examines the changes in projected species distributions between now and 2080. The goal of the research is to help BLM to make informed management decisions regarding rare plants. The research takes them to many exciting destinations searching for rare plants in the west.
On Tuesday, April 24, #CBGSprout raised a big stink at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Our day included these snapshots of the early morning visitors to the rare phenomenon of a corpse flower in full bloom.
We chatted with the early birds and met some “regulars”—visitors who had come by to meet Spike, the Garden’s first titan arum on display last August, and Alice, the corpse flower that bloomed last September.
Yesterday we moved our first titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), “Spike,” to the Semitropical Greenhouse. Now we are all watching and waiting for Spike to bloom—a dream of the Chicago Botanic Garden for 12 years! Finally, in the next ten days or so, we’ll see the fruit of our labor in all of its stinky glory.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is on #TitanWatch. That’s right: if you visit the Garden’s Semitropical Greenhouse, you will see Sprout, the latest corpse flower from the Garden’s collection of 13 titan arums to begin a bloom cycle.
Our corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) are now on display in a variety of life stages: in fruit, leaf, and imminent bloom.
When my mother first moved from England to Chicago in the late 1950s, she’d never heard of a prairie. In England, a grassland is called a meadow. But every kid in the neighborhood near Chicago’s Midway Airport called the empty, overgrown lots between buildings, and the grassy areas in the giant railroad yard, “the prairie.”
The clock was ticking—a little girl was seriously ill—when I got the call for help. A Denver hospital needed living tissue from Thujopsis dolabrata or any of its cultivars within 24 hours to determine if the plant was the cause of the girl’s life-threatening allergic reaction.
Did you know that one in every three bites of food you take required a pollinator visit? Pollination is essential for many of our favorite foods—from almonds to vanilla, and so many fruits and vegetables in between.
The decline of pollinators around the world is threatening not only our food supply but also the function of plant communities and ecosystems. Multiple factors play a role in pollinator decline, including land-use changes, pesticide use, climate change, and the spread of invasive species and diseases.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium on plant exploration that was held in Des Moines, Iowa. The audience was enthralled following the plant-collecting exploits of such luminaries as Dan Hinkley, one of the founders of the renowned (alas, no more) Heronswood Nursery, to far-flung locales such as Vietnam, China, and Bhutan.
Much of my presentation focused on plant collecting a tad closer to home—not as exotic perhaps, but still crucial in support of my research as the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant breeder. So let’s go seek out the elusive wild phlox.
In late October 2012 when I was driving down a country road in rural northwest Illinois, I spotted some bright sky-blue asters blooming near the corner of a woodlot. I was traveling between nature preserves in this area of the state collecting seeds for the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank, so my mind was already tuned in for interesting native flora that might produce a collection for the seed bank. It was impossible to make a positive I.D.
Maps had been followed, clues tracked, and early this summer the fortune was found.
Standing on the far side of a hummock swamp in Delhaas Woods in Bristol, Pennsylvania, Andrew Bunting had located a unique magnolia tree population on the edge of fading away. He had discovered the treasure he set out to find. Often, this is where the story ends. But when the prize is an elusive plant sought by scientists nationwide, this is where the story begins.
Rosa setigera, or Illinois rose, grows in moist prairies and thickets, and is a typical wild rose in many ways: five pink petals, with lots of yellow stamens in the center supported by prickly stems. There are distinct differences, however. Illinois rose is larger than most wild roses of the prairies—often growing up to 8 feet tall, while others rarely grow more than 4 feet tall and usually less.
I just returned from two weeks in Mongolia searching for fossil flowers. Why go halfway around the world to look for fossils of flowering plants when there are plenty of fossil flowers closer to home? Easy—because nobody has really looked there before.
Camping on the Mongolian steppe. it doesn’t get any better than this!
I’m a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have an incredible job that allows me to work with many wonderful graduate students and a team of researchers to study ways to restore natural areas in the Colorado Plateau.
If you’ve ever visited national parks like the Grand Canyon or Arches, you’ve experienced at least some of what the Colorado Plateau (also known as the Four Corners region) has to offer. It includes more than 80 million acres across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—and the largest concentration of national parks in the country.
What an amazing plant science moment occurred in the Semitropical Greenhouse this morning, as a fascinated crowd gathered to see what was happening with Spike, the titan arum.
On Saturday, it was determined that Spike had run out of the energy it needed to continue its bloom cycle. Spike is powered by energy from the sun, stored in its beach-ball-sized corm—a tuber-like underground structure. A tremendous amount of energy goes into producing the single, giant flower structure that a titan can send up in its first decade or so of life (Spike is about 12 years old).
Now that most of the trees have dropped their leaves, the scenery appears brown and boring UNLESS you know what to look for. I’m talking about tree bark. Learning to identify trees by their bark can be a fun winter challenge.
For starters, I’d like to share one of my favorites: the hackberry, Celtis occidentalis. Hackberry may not be in the top ten trees you think of, but maybe it should be.
Life in the prairie in the middle of winter is fairly uneventful; at least for humans who focus primarily on life above ground. Perhaps now is a good time to reflect on the diversity of life in a prairie below ground.
Life on the prairie hasn’t been a breeze for the beautiful eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).
Once common across the Midwest and Canada, the enchanting wildflower caught the attention of collectors and was overharvested throughout the 1900s. At the same time, large portions of its wet prairie, sedge meadow, and wetland habitat were converted to agriculture. By 1989, just 20 percent of the original population of Platanthera leucophaea remained, and the orchid was added to the federally threatened species list.
Five years ago this past May, I found myself starting a new job and a new research project. My job, of course, was as a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the research project had me sitting on the side of a road at dusk in Pueblo West, Colorado. I sat there in front of a group of plants that produce lovely-smelling flowers, waiting for their impressive pollinators to show up.
I scratch my head and wipe the sweat from my brow. One of my summer interns found a little plant, under a bunch of big plants, and we thought for a second it might be the same as the big plants, but it is definitely different. It’s our first field day. We don’t know what this plant is called, and it’s a hot and humid summer day in Chicago, and we have been searching through our identification guidebooks for what seems like forever. “Is it this one?” we ask each other, pointing to pictures in the book where the leaves kinda sorta look like our little plant.
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.
For this year’s Orchid Show, we’ve gathered stories about the most famous orchid of them all: the genus Vanilla. (Yes, vanilla is an orchid.) One unusual story comes from Ph.D. student Lynnaun Johnson, whose work in our doctoral program in Plant Biology and Conservation took him to Mexico, the native land of edible vanilla.
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.
So you think you’re an ace tree identifier. Those big scalloped leaves are from oak trees, the three-fingered hand shapes are maple leaves, those little oval leaves marching in a double line along a stem are from an ash—boo yah!
OK, now do it without any leaves.
And yes, you can…with a little help from Jim Jabcon, assistant ecologist for natural areas. The other day, Jabcon walked me through the McDonald Woods and began my education.
Vanilla cookies, vanilla perfume, and everything vanilla swept through my nostrils at an Orchid Show scented display one year. The sweet smell was a great way to show many Chicago Botanic Garden visitors that vanilla comes from the fruits of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia).
As a docent at that Show, I was eager to show off the Garden’s vanilla plant (located in the Tropical Greenhouse next to the banana trees), because I knew that may visitors didn’t know that they had an orchid in their spice cabinet.
One of the most recognized lines from Shakespeare is the following: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” You would have to read Hamlet to get the backstory, but one thing I know as an ecologist, is that we would be in a lot of trouble if there wasn’t a whole lot of rot going on all over the place.
When you lift a rock in your garden and glimpse earthworms and tiny insects hustling for cover, you’ve just encountered the celebrities of soil. We all know them on sight. The leggy, the skinny, the pale…the surprisingly fast.
Behind this fleeting moment are what may be considered the producers, editors, and set designers of the mysterious and complex world of soil—fungi. They often go unrecognized, simply because most of us can’t see them.
Why did five midwestern horticulturists hike through the oak-hickory forests of the Missouri Ozarks? And why did we need a desiderata? The first question is easy—we were on the trail of specific wildflowers and woody plants to preserve and add to our collections.
Collections trip horticulturists Michael Jesiolowski, Tom Weaver, Josh Schultes, Kelly Norris, and Steve McNamara (left to right)
Just like magic, a ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) appears overhead in a Florida swamp. Its pale roots extend like gloved fingers across the bark of a pond apple tree (Annona glabra), while its graceful flower reflects onto the shadowed water below.
Doctoral student Lynnaun Johnson wades over for a closer look. Habitat is shrinking for this reclusive orchid, and he is using a unique approach to better understand the species’ uncommon lifestyle.
Did I mention Gentian? If I didn’t, I should have. These are the stars of the autumn prairie. If you're lucky, you may stumble upon a prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta). You’ll find them among the myriad of pale blues, whites, and violets of the dominant fall asters, many of them blooming throughout October. Look for bottle and cream gentians in the Garden’s Dixon Prairie or elsewhere.
Competition is heating up in the western United States. Invasive and native plants are racing to claim available land and resources. Alicia Foxx, who studies the interplay of roots of native and invasive plants, is glued to the action. The results of this contest, says the plant biology and conservation doctoral student at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, could be difficult to reverse.
Black-eyed Susans are among the most recognizable and beloved wildflowers, but there are a few things you may not know about them. For one thing, there are several wild species of Rudbeckia growing in the region and several cultivars with bigger and/or fancier flowers that have been developed for people’s gardens.
The night Spike blooms will thrill us all in the semi-tropical greenhouse, with its breathtaking flower…accompanied by a titanically rotten smell.
“Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch. The three words that best describe you are as follows— and I quote: stink, stank, stunk!” —Dr. Seuss
“Titan Tim” Pollak here once again, with an update on Spike, our still-growing titan arum. Spike continues to get bigger, not only in height, but also in girth! What we’re really curious about, however, is the aroma.
A weevil is a type of beetle. It typically has an elongated head that appears as a snout. In fact, its other name is snout beetle. Weevils, or snout beetles, make up what many believe to be the largest family of insects in the world—estimated at almost 40,000 species. The majority live in and around plants, and feed on plants and various plant parts.
You may have noticed more garlic mustard in your garden, yard, or alley this year. The ecologists who tend to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s natural areas have, too. We had not seen much garlic mustard in our natural areas in recent years, and its reemergence is a reminder for all of us that controlling and managing invasive species is an ongoing challenge.
Perhaps you noticed the spiderwort, with its striking royal blue flowers, in the Dixon Prairie as part of the perimeter walk of the Garden. Or did you say cow slobbers? Whatever you call it, Tradescantia ohiensis is just one of the prairie plants that has a unique story to tell.
Home gardeners can sympathize: not every seed that is planted grows.
This truth extends to restored prairies that are grown from seed mixes, according to Rebecca Barak, Ph.D., who completed research examining the success of individual species within seed mixes, and their combined potential to power up to the diversity level found in remnant prairies.
On a walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, you are likely to encounter dozens of woody plants—short, tall, flowering, or simply lending structural beauty to a landscape. It’s OK to have a favorite. Phillip Douglas, the Garden’s new curator of woody plants, is not shy about listing his top picks.
Well, here we are with another titan arum in bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden. (Java, the taller of our Titan Twins, began blooming at 8:28 p.m. on May 30.)
We never really considered the possibility that we might have two plants developing inflorescences at the same time. But it did not take too long to brainstorm some ideas on what we hope to learn from this rare possibility.
There are some remarkable prairie plants in the Midwest. Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Dixon Prairie boasts more than 250 species of native plants. You don’t have to go far to find plants that have something interesting or unique about their life story. Something that might help you remember them when you happen upon them in a local natural area. Something other than a pretty face.
A few years ago, my Daisy and Brownie Girl Scout troop was working on their Household Elf badge. We needed a fun way to teach about conserving water at home—not a lecture—because let’s face it, after a full day of school, 6- to 9-year-old girls would will not sit still and listen to another lesson. I decided to make a board game for them. The main message of this game was a really important one: in Chicago, all of our water for drinking, cleaning, and recreation comes from Lake Michigan. If we waste water, then we waste the lake. It is that simple.
Monarch butterflies have left their overwintering sites in Mexico and are heading back toward the Midwest, including the Chicago area.
In the 1990s, hundreds of millions of monarchs made the journey each fall from the northern plains of the United States and Canada to forested sites north of Mexico City. In western North America, more than a million monarchs made a shorter flight to tree groves on California’s coast. However, monarch numbers have been declining for more than a decade, and scientists documented record low numbers in the 2010s.
In the Chicago area, record-breaking weather was recorded in 2016 and 2017: For the first time in 146 years, the National Weather Service documented no measurable snowfall in either January or February. Chicago’s record year was mirrored globally. Scientists from both NASA and NOAA released reports showing that 2016 was the hottest year since global temperature tracking began in 1880. If that sounds familiar, it is: It was the third record-breaking warm year in a row. And the warmth continued into 2017.
In recent years, the plight of pollinators has gotten a lot of press, and rightly so.
I spoke with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune when they were investigating the well-intentioned distribution by General Mills of “one size fits all” wildflower seed packets to combat the declining populations of bees and other pollinators.
I remember vividly the first time I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was silent (unusual for me) and in awe. Everywhere I looked, I saw plant labels, and looking at them provided me some kind of familiarity—like when you meet someone new, you want to know their name, what they do, what they like, right? Well, the same with plants.
The iconic Antarctic environment has captured the imagination of scientists for many years. Until a few decades ago, that frontier mostly remained inaccessible to women because of the challenges many women continue to face in participating in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) careers.
When you think of fires that occur in the natural world, you might think of destruction and loss of wildlife. But when it comes to the North American prairie, fires are a crucial tool for native plants to thrive and to safeguard against extinction.
How does a college intern help advance science on pollinators of native prairie wildflowers and other plants? It starts with a summer filled with scientific observation at the Nativars Research Plot in the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden.
Leaves are intriguing—with all their shapes, colors, textures, and their incredible ability to harness the energy of the sun. But when you come to realize that there is a whole world living within them, you can’t help but be amazed.
What happens if spring wildflowers open up too early—or too late? How does the timing of flowering synchronize with native bees and other pollinators?
These are just some of the questions I’m studying as a master’s of science candidate in the Plant Biology and Conservation graduate program run by Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden.
“The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades—these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.” —Anonymous lines found on an old tombstone in Cumberland, England
"While life lasts." This can be a very brief moment in time for a spring ephemeral. In that narrow window that exists between thawing ground and the leafing out of the tree canopy, spring ephemerals—those woodland wildflowers that emerge, then quickly go dormant—live their life.
A living museum presents special challenges to its curators.
At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we not only acquire and display our collections, but we must also keep them alive and healthy. As curator of the Garden’s collection of woody plants, I’m responsible for the welfare of more than 13,000 trees. Disease, infestations, and extreme weather events are the kinds of things that keep me awake at night.
Today, on International Women’s Day, the Chicago Botanic Garden celebrates women in science at our institution and around the world. At the Garden, 21 of our 35 scientific staff members are women and, in our graduate program in plant biology and conservation with Northwestern University, more than 70 percent of the students are female or nonbinary.
Persistence can be a good trait for prairie plants. Take this tale of the return of the Hill’s thistle (Cirsium hillii) to the Dixon Prairie at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
I’m the assistant ecologist for the natural areas at the Garden. While managing some tall vegetation on the gravel hill of the Dixon Prairie in summer 2016, I noticed something I have not seen in a while. It was a thistle!
Have you ever noticed the first crocuses poking out of the snow or the brilliant, changing colors of fall leaves? If so, we need your help with the critical work of studying how plants are affected by a changing climate.