Plant Science & Conservation

Banning Species Blindness in Budding Botanists

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.

Spike’s Teachable Moment

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).

About That Smell…

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

Trouble for Monarchs — But You Can Help

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. 

This Bark is Rough: Hackberry

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.

The Evolution of a Research Idea

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.

Trees for 2050

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.