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Updated: 11 min 26 sec ago

Give Thanks with Pumpkin Fudge

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 9:08am

No Thanksgiving is complete without a pumpkin dish—and it doesn’t hurt to spice it up with a little something extra…

If you’re ready to start a new tradition (enough already with the pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin cookies), consider chef Michael Kingsley’s bourbon pumpkin-pecan fudge (available now at the Garden View Café). The bourbon bakes off so it’s safe for kids, but it gives the fudge a bit of a kick (and who doesn’t need a little jump-start during the holidays?).

The recipe is simple enough to get the whole family involved. Think butter…pumpkin…toasted pecans—what’s not to like? And what better way to celebrate the season than to spend time together, break fudge together, and give thanks that you’re able to do so?

Pull out your candy thermometer, 4-quart sauce pan, wooden spoon, measuring cups and spoons, 13-by-9-inch pan, aluminum foil, nonstick cooking spray, and seasonal cookie cutters (and get the camera ready—not that anyone is going to lick the spoon…). This is going to be delicious.

Bourbon Pumpkin-Pecan Fudge

 Pumpkin fudge

1¾ cups sugar
1¼ cups brown sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup evaporated milk (5-ounce can)
½ cup canned pumpkin purée (no added sugar) 
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
2¼ cups white chocolate chips
7 ounces marshmallow fluff (any brand)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bourbon (optional, but worth it!)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Start by covering a 13-by-9-inch pan with aluminum foil. Spray the covered pan with cooking spray. Sprinkle the chopped pecans evenly over the bottom of the pan. (They do not have to completely cover it.) Set aside.

Combine the sugar, brown sugar, butter, evaporated milk, pumpkin purée, spices, and salt in a pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and continue to boil until the temperature reaches 236 degrees Fahrenheit on your candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

Working quickly, add the white chocolate chips, marshmallow fluff, and vanilla to the pan. Be careful, as this may spatter and will be very hot! Fold ingredients in until completely incorporated. Pour the hot fudge mixture over the chopped pecans and quickly spread evenly; it will immediately start to set up as it cools.

Place the pan uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Your mouth is probably watering already, but unfortunately, it will take this long to set up completely.

After cooling the pan completely for 3 hours, remove the pan from the refrigerator, and turn it upside down on a cutting board. The fudge should pop right out. Peel off the aluminum foil and discard. Want to make your treats extra special? Use cookie cutters to cut your fudge into festive autumn shapes—or maybe dinosaurs if you’re that kind of person—and enjoy!

Note: If you have it in your spice rack, you can substitute 3½ teaspoons of “pumpkin pie spice” for the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Checking the Weather? So Are We.

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 10:00am

It’s the humblest patch of green at the Garden, yet the information gathered there has national implications—and, though you may not realize it, it’s part of your daily prep for work, school, and play.

Although dealing with the weather is part of everyone’s job here, there is no meteorologist on staff at the Garden. Got questions about weather specifics or cooperative weather stations?

In a small, sunny, grassy, flat, fenced-in plot (there’s a reason for that), located on the outer road that encircles the Garden, stands an official National Weather Service Cooperative Station—a collection of instruments that measures the atmospheric conditions of the day. And every morning at 8 a.m., rain (or snow) or shine, a dedicated Garden staff member steps into the plot to read the instruments and record the results, then heads back indoors to transfer the information to the National Weather Service (NWS).

I got to tag along with Celeste VanderMey, Plant Records supervisor, on a recent fall morning for the daily readings.

 Celeste at the weather station temperature booth.

Celeste VanderMey explains that its beehive appearance might deter curious critters from poking around inside the weather shelter.

Reading #1: Temperature

Though it looks vaguely like a beehive, the little white structure is a weather shelter that houses two temperature gauges. The maximum temperature thermometer’s mercury rises to the high temperature mark of each day, then stays at the setting until it’s read the next morning. To reset it, Celeste just gives it a spin and the mercury drops.

An alcohol thermometer records the low temperature of each day: pure alcohol molecules move closer together as the temperature drops, shifting a tiny bar that marks the number.

Why no digital thermometers? “Not considered as reliably accurate,” Celeste says.

 The weather station rain gauge.

A long metal cylinder like a tiny rocket ship turns out to be a rain gauge. Celeste removes the lid and takes a reading.

Reading #2: Dew

Admittedly the least scientific of the daily measurements, dewfall is indicated as low, moderate, or heavy, simply by examining a surface: the top of the weather shelter, or the grass itself.

Reading #3: Rain

The National Weather Service provided us with the rain canister, which can hold up to 10 inches of precipitation (not that we’ve ever had that amount—see records below). Inside is a plastic funnel that directs rainwater into a smaller brass tin. A measuring stick—like a car’s oil dipstick—is inserted, then pulled out and read for rain depth—one-tenth inch of rain equals one inch on the stick.

Reading #4: Soil Temperature

A soil thermometer is as handy for home gardeners as it is for us—especially in spring, when it tells gardeners if it’s warm enough to put seeds in the ground. We measure the high and low temperatures of both bare soil and soil under sod/grass (that’s why the plot is flat, sunny, and grassy). An interesting fact: no matter what the air temperature in winter, the soil seldom drops below 26 degrees (it’s measured at 4-inch depth). 

 Weather station soil temperature gauge.

This gauge takes a reading of bare soil temperatures. Five feet over, another gauge measures the temperature under grass. It’s important information for farmers germinating seed.

Reading #5: Snowfall

It’s low tech, but it works: a white plastic board catches a winter day’s snowfall, which is measured with a yardstick to the tenth of an inch. Two or more inches of snow? Then a core sampling is taken down to the ground, and the core is brought indoors to melt for a water equivalency reading. As mentioned below, the NWS uses this information to predict flooding.

Reading #6: Evaporation

Next we moved to the 4-foot in diameter evaporation pan. Its three readings tell forecasters how much water has been absorbed into the atmosphere at this location.

An instrument with an intriguing name, a six’s thermometer, measures both high and low daily temperature of the water in the pan. An anemometer (wind meter) tells how many miles’ worth of wind has passed this spot. And a hook gauge in a stilling well measures the amount of water lost to evaporation (or added by rain).

 An anemometer measures wind speed.

The anemometer attached to the evaporation pan measures the wind speed at an exact height. All weather station gear must meet siting requirements, so that data are measured consistently from station to station.

 The hook gauge which usually rests in a container inside the evaporation pan.

The hook gauge rests in a standard-size stilling well inside the evaporation pan—the structure the anemometer is attached to in the previous photo.

Reading #7: River and Lake Levels

Finally, we take a short walk across the road to the South Bridge, and the weir (dam) beneath, where the waters of the Garden Lakes meet the Skokie River. Along the banks on each side of the bridge are measurement markers that are read (bring the binoculars!) and recorded daily, although they’re for the Garden’s own record keeping rather than the NWS.

Why track the lake and river levels? Flooding is always a threat in our lake system, says Bob Kirschner, director of Restoration Ecology. “We look at the levels every day,” he explains, “and we can adjust the lake level in anticipation of excessively wet or dry weather forecasts.” All of the Garden’s property is irrigated with water drawn from our lakes. Water levels matter to the half-million lakeshore plants that line the lakes, too—all installed with our normal lake level (623.95 feet above mean sea level) in mind.

 Fall in the Great Basin

Fall in the Great Basin

It takes just a few minutes’ time to record the morning’s numbers. Indoors, Celeste logs on to the NWS site and inputs the results, adding noteworthy conditions as needed: fog…haze…ice…thunderstorms.

Staff has been keeping records since 1982. That’s the year that then-Garden president Dr. Roy Mecklenburg, who was keenly interested in meteorology, arranged for the Garden to become a weather station. Stations existed at the time at Midway Airport and in Antioch, with none in between. A few notable numbers since then (again, note that all are since 1982, when our record keeping began):

  • January 2014 holds our record for snowiest January with 28.7 inches (1967 snowfall was higher).
  • February 2014 holds the record for coldest February: 26.6 degrees average high, usually 35.6 degrees.
  • 1993 holds the record for shortest growing season (number of days between last frost and first frost) at only 123 days. The average? 163 days.
  • August 14, 1987, holds the record for most rainfall in one day: 5.54 inches.

It’s fascinating to think that the Garden contributes daily to the national weather picture and that there’s always an eye on the weather here (thanks to Celeste, Veronica, Gabriella, Therese, and Lauren). Next time you check on the weather and hear a forecaster say, “and the Chicago Botanic Garden reported “x” inches of rain yesterday,” you’ll know where the information came from: a humble patch of green.

A Bit of Weather-Station History

Although it dates back to 1989, the preface of the official National Weather Service Observing Handbook (No. 2) is so wonderfully interesting that it’s blog-worthy on its own. Here’s the text, from page ii, with thanks to the unknown writer:

John Companius Holm’s weather records, taken without the benefit of instruments in 1644 and 1645, were the earliest known observations in the United States. Subsequently such famous personages as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin maintained weather records spanning many years.

The first extensive network of cooperative stations was set up in the 1890s as the result of an act of Congress in 1890 that established the Weather Bureau. Today, there are over 11,000 volunteer cooperative observers scattered over the 50 states, taking observations seven days a week throughout the year.

The above observers regularly and conscientiously contribute their time so that their observations can provide the vital information needed to define the climate in their areas. The records are also used constantly to answer questions and guide the actions of public agencies, agricultural and commercial organizations, and individuals. Their records also form a basis for preparedness for national and local emergencies, such as flooding.

 apples.

Our most frequently asked question this summer at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden: why no apples?

Turns out the weather played a major role.

Last winter’s long, deep cold meant very few flower buds. Then, in spring, when pollinators should have been out to feast on apple flower nectar, the weather was chilly. Since bees don’t fly when it’s less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, little pollination took place. No pollination means no fruit.

Add to that a second factor: apples typically have a two-year boom-bust cycle for fruit bearing. After a bumper crop in 2013, we expected a smaller harvest this year—made even less by the weather conditions above.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Star Appeal for the Holidays

Fri, 11/14/2014 - 10:00am

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to fashion this charming star-shaped wreath from branches, raffia, zip ties, and a little duct tape.

 Heather models the finished star wreath.

Heather models the finished star wreath.

Find additional inspiration with a selection of wreaths created by Chicago Botanic Garden staff in 2013. See this year’s staff wreaths in our Greenhouse Gallery during Wonderland Express

Just follow these step-by-step instructions from Heather Sherwood, one of our very creative senior horticulturists, to get your own star appeal for the holidays. Heather has selected red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) for its warm, cheery color, but the star can be made from any combination of branches and natural materials, including evergreens (such as junipers) and corkscrew willows. If taste dictates, you can bling out with bells, bows, glitter, or other embellishments. Here’s how Heather does it:

Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Time Needed: Two Hours

Materials:  

  • Heavy scissors
  • Pruning shears
  • A large working surface
  • Five heavier red-twig dogwood branches roughly 3/8” in diameter, cut into equal lengths. Heather recommends 30-inch lengths for a front door wreath. You can use shorter lengths to make a smaller star. This will use less plant material and may be quicker and easier to assemble. The base can also be constructed of wooden dowels.
  • Five 4-inch lengths of duct tape  (Heather recommends black.)
  • 20 plastic zip ties (Heather likes 6-inch ties, but shorter ones will do.)
  • Five 1½-inch bundles of red-twig dogwood branches cut in roughly 22-inch lengths (or slightly more than two-thirds of the length of the base branches)
  • Five 1½-inch bundles of twigs cut in roughly 11-inch lengths (or slightly more than one-third of the length of the base twigs)
  • Roughly 90 36-inch lengths of raffia
  • An 8-inch length of floral wire to create a loop for hanging
  • A strand of Christmas lights and additional 8-inch lengths of floral wire (optional)


To Make the Base:

You will need the five heavier branches, duct tape, and zip ties:

  1. Connect the five base branches into one long strand, using the duct tape to create “knuckle” joints: Place the end of the first branch 1 inch away from the top of the duct tape. Position the branch so it covers one-third of the width of the strip. Place the second branch opposite the first branch, leaving a gap between the two branches. Wrap the 1-inch end of the duct tape around the branch ends. Take the longer length of duct tape and wind it around the ends in the other direction. The joint should bend at the gap in the tape between the two branch ends. Create three more joints so that the five base branches form one very long, bendy stick.
  2. Twist into a star: Hold each end of the long, connected stick and bend the first and last joints, creating a rough pentagon shape. Fold the right side of the pentagon over, then the left side. The base twigs should fall into a rough star shape.
  3. Create the final joint in the star: Notch both ends of the last piece of duct tape so it resembles a knuckle bandage. Hold the loose ends of the base sticks together, forming the last point in the star. Center the duct tape under this point. Wrap duct tape ends, one by one, around the point.
  4. Check to see that all five arms of the star are level and even. Rotate star to double check spacing of the points. Adjust as needed.
  5. Use zip ties to secure the base: You’ll see that the base branches intersect to create a pentagram in the center of the star. Loosely wrap a zip tie around each of the intersecting branches at each of the five angles of the pentagram, making sure the ties pull to the back of the star. Check again to make sure the star points are level and even. Tighten the zip locks. If you’re using freshly cut wood, remember that it will shrink and lose diameter.
 Place two branch ends together with a gap of 1/2 inch, and tape together with duct tape.

When creating the branch joints, leave a gap between the ends when taping them together, so that the finished joint will bend.

 Hold both ends of the long, bendy stick to create a rough pentagon shape.

Hold both ends of the long, bendy stick to create a rough pentagon shape.

 Cross the ends over to form the star shape.

Cross the ends over to form the star shape; tape the final joint together.

 Secure the inner joints of the base star with zip ties.

Secure the inner joints of the base star with zip ties.


Make the top layer:

You will need the longer and shorter bundles of branches, zip ties, raffia, floral wire, and optional Christmas lights.

  1. Start with the longer bundles of twigs: Lay the first bundle along a base branch, positioning the cut edges just past the inner edge of the inner pentagram. The uncut edges should extend 2 to 3 inches past the point of the star. “I want the stems to ooze around the base,” explains Heather. Secure the bundle with zip ties at two points, the middle of the pentagon, and the middle of the star point. Make sure the zip ties pull to the back of the work. Continue around the base branches, so that the pentagram and one side of each star point are covered with branches.  
  2. Secure the shorter twigs. You’ll arrange the shorter twigs in a similar fashion, laying the cut edges on the outside edge of the pentagram with the natural edges covering the star point. Blend the cut edges, to give the star a woven look, and fan out the natural edges to soften each star point. Secure the shorter branches with one zip tie in the center of the star point.
  3. Double-check the placement of the bundles. Tighten and trim the zip ties.
  4. Cover the zip ties with raffia: Heather has chosen a simple look, tying the raffia in the back with a square knot. You may decide to pull the knots to the front, tie the raffia in a bow, substitute ribbon for the raffia, or add other types of embellishments.
  5. Using four to five strands held together, wrap raffia around once and tie in the back. Continue winding the raffia around and around until it completely covers the zip ties and creates a nice, thick band around the bundle. Tie in the back and trim. Continue until all the zip ties are covered.
  6. Use floral wire to create a loop to hang your star.
 Start with longer twigs; uncut edges point outwards towards the star tips.

Start with longer twigs; uncut edges point outward toward the star tips.

 Continue placing bundles; one to each side of each star point.

Continue placing bundles; one to each side of each star point.

 Next, position and secure shorter bundles of twigs until the base is completely covered.

Next, position and secure shorter bundles of twigs until the base is completely covered.

 Cover zip ties with raffia.

Cover the zip ties with raffia or ribbon. Knot in back.

Add lights!

You can backlight your wreath by securing a strand of holiday lights along the back of the base branches. Lay the strand along the star outline and secure it with floral wire threaded between the base sticks and the stick bundles.

 Add lights by tying them to the back of the frame with floral wire.

Add lights by tying them to the back of the frame with floral wire.

For more holiday decorating ideas, consider Heather’s classes on Holiday Lighting Techniques or Winter Containers at the Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Plant Evolution Infographic

Thu, 11/13/2014 - 11:53am

It’s like having a time machine—supercomputers and gene sequencing allow scientists to study early events in plant evolution. 

One of our conservation scientists, Norman Wickett, Ph.D., is co-leader of a global initiative involving some 40 researchers on four continents. The team has spent the past five years analyzing 852 genes from 103 types of land plants to tease out early events in plant evolution. The results, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, expand our knowledge of relationships among the earliest plants on land.

An Infographic About Plant Evolution

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Veterans Grow at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 7:40am

It was on a seasonably pleasant day this past May, that 15 Veterans from the Thresholds Veteran Project program began a journey to be well in the Buehler Enabling Garden.

 Chalkboard plant pot.

Inspirations: “Keep Going” planter, with a side of coffee.

We toured the garden, got to know each other, and sipped on coffee. Lots of coffee. The activity I led was called, “Inspirational Herb Dish Gardens,” and was intended to provide these vets with a lovely planter of kitchen herbs to cook with, as well as a message of encouragement they could reference for inspiration in their daily life. After the first retreat was done, I thought to myself, “Wow! That was a really good program!” And it was. It was really good. Over the course of the summer, these vets returned to the Garden five more times to participate in various retreats all focused on wellness and using nature to heal.

To date, over 2.7 million people have served our country during the most recent conflicts (OIF, OEF, and OND). Approximately 1 million of these veterans have accessed the VA healthcare system for war-related injuries. Many of the injuries sustained on these missions are unique in that they are “invisible” wounds of war—Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are difficult to diagnose, and have large impacts on a veteran’s life. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include anxiety, hyper vigilance, insomnia, irritability, and physical pain. Other common injuries sustained from these missions are musculoskeletal injuries and missing limbs. For some, reintegration into civilian life, family, society, and employment may be difficult. In fact, even vets who were not technically injured in war often experience anxiety, hyper vigilance, insomnia, and other stresses that inhibit their readjustment.

 Vets gather in the garden, discussing plans.

Growing more than plants in the garden; friendships and individuals flourished this summer.

Veterans who have not had success with traditional medicine often begin to seek out alternative ways to heal. That is where the Garden comes into play. We believe beautiful gardens and natural environments are fundamentally important to the mental and physical well-being of all people. We also believe people live better, healthier lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens. I witnessed the amazing effects interacting with nature has on people this summer as veterans—some on the verge of homelessness—planted the Buehler Enabling Garden with summer annuals, overjoyed to return and observe the garden flourishing throughout the season. I witnessed veterans—some participating in in-patient psych programs—get a pass from the hospital to come to the Garden and learn to rake a dry garden in the Malott Japanese Garden. I witnessed veterans—some clinically depressed—smile and laugh, as they dug potatoes from the ground in the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden.

 Vets digging with pitchforks.

Vets dig deep for potatoes and for well-being.

Each of our six retreats was filled with creativity, education, companionship, and joy. As the summer progressed, so did the veterans; each of them growing stronger and more healthy in their special way, each of them changing and striving to be well. Our group started to call the Buehler Enabling Garden “our garden” and the plantings we planted were “our plants.” Participants would tell me that this day (the day they came to the Garden) was the day they looked forward to the most. They would tell me how amazing the Garden is, and how safe they felt here. It was music to my ears, and I felt so proud of them.

It was easy to draw comparisons to healing, being well, and growing to the garden this summer. Gardens start small and respond to weather and temperature. They grow and change with the season. Sometimes they start to fail or get crowded out, or overgrown, sometimes they need to be watered or groomed to flush out new growth and blooms. With care and attention however, they grow, and flourish, and bloom. They are like us. We are small sometimes. We are big sometimes. We respond to things that happen to us or things we do. But with love and care and attention, we can grow, we can bloom, we can be well. Gardens start over and each year is a new year. We can start over too and each day is a new day.

 Veterans planting in the rain.

Vets plant rain or shine in Operation Summer Change-out.

I saw this summer how powerful gardens can be in healing and in being well. Our program was effective because it created a sense of belonging, comradery, and fostered a feeling of continuing to serve, which is an important value to many vets.

As Veterans Day approaches, remember the people who have served, put their life on the line, and who are still fighting today. Thank them, salute them and honor them.

I was honored to work with this amazing group of vets; resilient, strong and hardworking, they became an inspiration in my own life, and inspired me to be grateful to have the opportunity to deliver such a wonderful program.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Wearable Indian Corn

Sun, 11/09/2014 - 7:50am

I always look forward to seeing Indian corn in the market and finding it in autumn decorations. Indian corn—in its range of hues from blue to deep maroon to oranges, golds, and yellows—extends the colors of the season long after the tree leaves have faded and been raked away. It is one of November’s icons, reminding us of the cultural and botanical history of the continent.

“You call it corn; we call it maize.”

Or so the 1970s TV ad for Mazola margarine told us.

Long ago, “corn” used to be the term for any grain seed, including barley, wheat, and rye, so naturally the new world plant “maize”—botanically known as Zea mays—was labeled as another kind of corn when it was introduced in Europe. For some reason, the name stuck, and we all think of the sweet yellow stuff on our dinner plates (and its close relatives) as the one and only “corn.”

 A comparison of teosinte vs. modern corn, Zea mays.

This drawing shows the similarities between modern corn and its ancestor, teosinte, after 10,000 years of cultivation. Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

There are actually many varieties of maize-corn. Archaeologists are pretty sure that all of them resulted from the domestication and selective cultivation of the grass teosinte (pronounced tay-oh-SIN-tee), around 10,000 years ago by the people living in what is now Mexico. Over time, maize became a staple crop, yielding different varieties of nutritious and versatile grains throughout the American continent.

 Three ears of Indian corn leaning against a pumpkin.

The farmers in my neighborhood sell Indian corn in bundles of three alongside gourds, pumpkins, and bundles of straw.

Indian corn is related to popcorn. These kinds of maize differ from other kinds in that they have a harder outer coating and a starchy interior with a bit of water inside the seed, or kernel. Popcorn pops when the kernel is heated quickly at a high temperature, causing the water inside the seed to suddenly turn into steam, inflating the starch. The sweet corn we love to eat and the dent corn used for tortilla chips and livestock feed will not produce a fluffy white snack when heated.

We can exploit these properties of Indian corn and turn the kernels into necklace beads to wear during the season. 

How to make an Indian corn necklace

You will need the following:

  • Indian corn (one average-size cob will make two necklaces)
  • a sharp embroidery needle, long, with a large eye
  • string; you can use ordinary sewing thread, but a little heavier is better
  • a pot of water to cook and soften the corn
 Indian corn.

My daughter chose this bundle of Indian corn because she liked both the deep red of cob on the left and the pinkish seeds of the one in the middle—but not for the same necklace.

First, remove all the kernels from the cob. You can wedge a butter knife between the rows of kernels and twist to pop out the seeds. Once you get some of the cob stripped, you can rub the kernels loose with your thumb.

 a bowl full of colored corn seeds, or kernels.

These seeds have been removed from the cob and are ready for boiling to soften them.

Place the corn kernels in a pot of water and boil for 30 minutes. (This isn’t hot enough for the corn to pop.) Test for doneness by removing three  kernels. If you can push a needle through each of them easily, they are ready. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. You can add cold water to cool them faster, but be sure to leave them soaking so they do not dry out, even when you are stringing them. (Pushing the needle through dry kernels can be a painful experience.)

While the corn is cooling, cut a string about three times as long as you would like your necklace to be. (You can work in shorter sections and tie them together, but it won’t look as nice.) Thread the needle and double the string; then knot the ends.

Now, select kernels in the colors you like, or pick them up randomly so the string resembles the color pattern of the corn cob. Try to pick softer pieces. Hold each kernel by the sides, and push the needle through the middle of the kernel so that the needle is not pointing toward your finger. Then slide it down the string. Leave a few inches of string below the first piece so you have some string to tie when you’re finished.  

 This image shows how holding the seed by the sides puts fingers out of the way of the sharp end of the needle.

It is very important to hold the kernel by its sides as you poke the needle through the middle of the seed.

If the kernel is too hard and resists piercing, do not force it! Try to push the needle through at another angle, or discard that piece and select a softer one. This is important because you will prick yourself with the sharp needle if you are not careful. In fact, you’ll probably stab yourself at least once even if you are careful, so this is not a project for very young children. 

Pack the moist seeds close together on the string. As they dry, they will shrink in size. You may want to slide them together a little tighter so the string doesn’t show, but you’ll also want to leave enough wiggle room so the necklace has flexibility. When your string of corn is long enough, allow the seeds to dry completely. Then tie the ends together and you will have an attractive necklace to wear to Thanksgiving dinner or other festive gatherings!

 Indian corn necklaces.

The finished necklaces look great layered in different lengths and colors.

One final note: when I made a corn necklace in third grade as part of a unit on Native American culture, I was under the impression that indigenous people of long ago made and wore necklaces like this. No way. All corn was grown for food, and it  was needed to sustain the population, so it would not have been turned into jewelry. This season, we can be thankful for the plentiful food we have to eat, and we can appreciate the beautiful colors of the corn as decoration during the feast.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Genomic Discovery Unearths New Theories on Plant Evolution

Thu, 11/06/2014 - 11:44am

There’s less mystery in the natural history of aquatic green algae and its relationship to land plants, thanks to research co-led by Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Norm Wickett, Ph.D., published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and GigaScience.

The study examined how major forms of land plants are related to each other and to aquatic green algae, casting some uncertainty on prior theories while developing tools to make use of advanced DNA sequencing technologies in biodiversity research.

“We have known for quite some time that all plants on land share a common ancestor with green algae, but there has been some debate as to what form of algae is the closest relative, and how some of the major groups of land plants are related to each other,” explained Dr. Wickett, conservation scientist in genomics and bioinformatics.

Over the past four years, he has collaborated with an international team of researchers on the study that gathered an enormous amount of genetic data on 103 plants and developed the computer-based tools needed to process all of that information.

The study is the first piece of the One Thousand Plants (1KP) research partnership initiated by researchers at the University of Alberta and BGI-Shenzhen, with funding provided by many organizations including the iPlant Collaborative at the University of Arizona (through the National Science Foundation), the Texas Advanced Computing Center, Compute-Calcul Canada, and the China National GeneBank. The results released this week were based on an examination of a strategically selected group of the more than 1,000 plants in the initiative.

Researchers dove into the genetic data at a fine level of detail, looking deeply at each plant’s transcriptome (the type of data generated for this study), which represents those pieces of DNA that are responsible for essential biological functions at the cellular level. In all, they selected 852 genes to identify patterns that reflect how species are related.

The study is consistent with ideas and motivations that parallel research Wickett is pursuing in work funded by the National Science Foundation program called “Assembling the Tree of Life.” Both studies seek to better understand how the earliest land plants that first appeared more than 460 million years ago evolved from green algae to yield the diversity of plants we know today.

 Land plant tree of life.

The “land plant tree of life”

Understanding those lineages, Wickett explained, allows scientists to make better-informed decisions in their research pursuits, and illuminates historical environmental conditions that may have impacted evolution. “Knowing that set of relationships offers a foundation for all evolutionary studies about land plants,” he said.

Using Bioinformatics to Better Understand Our World

Wickett’s expertise in a field of science called bioinformatics allowed him to serve as one of the leaders in the data analysis process, which relied on a set of tools developed by the research team. Using those tools, Wickett helped develop the workflow for a large part of the 1KP study. “The tools we have developed through this project are able to scale up to bigger data sets,” he said. This is significant because “the more data you have, the more power you have to correctly identify those close relatives or relationships.”

By working with a large amount of data, explained Wickett, the team was able to resolve patterns that were previously unsupported. Until recently, the scientific community has largely believed that land plants are more closely related one of two different lineages of algae—the order Charales or the order Coleochaetales, which share complex structures and life cycle characteristics with land plants. However, the study reinforced, with strong statistical support, recent work that has shown that land plants are actually more closely related to a much less complex group of freshwater algae classified as Zygnematophyceae.

A Simpler Ancestor

It may mean that the ancestor of all land plants was an alga with a relatively simple growth form, like the Zygnematophycean algae, according to Wickett. More than 500 million years ago, that ancestral species split into two new species; one became a more complex version that colonized the land, and the other continued on to become the Zygnematophyceae we know today. The unique direction of both species was likely influenced by environmental conditions at the time, and this study may suggest that evolution could have reduced complexity in the ancient group that formed what we now recognize as Zygnematophyceae.

“Our new paper suggests that the order of events of early land plant evolution may have been different than what we thought previously,” said Wickett. “That order of events informs how scientists interpret when and how certain characteristics or processes, like desiccation tolerance, came to be; our results may lead to subtle differences in how scientists group mosses, liverworts, and hornworts, the lineage of plants (bryophytes) that descended from the earliest land plants.”

Wickett can’t help but feel encouraged by the wave of enthusiasm around the release of the publication. “When you get involved in these kinds of projects, it never seems as big as it is—you just get used to the scale. It’s been really great to get the public reaction and to see that people are really excited about it,” he said.

 Norman Wickett, Ph.D.

Norman Wickett, Ph.D.

Where We Go from Here

Wickett will convene with the research team in January in San Diego to discuss next steps for 1KP, which will lead to the analysis of some 1,300 species. The team will likely break into subgroups to focus on sets of plants that share characteristics such as whether they produce flowers or cones, or have a high level of drought tolerance.

With the publication of this research, a door to the past has been cast wide open, offering untold access to natural events spanning some 500 million years. After such significant discovery it’s hard to imagine that there could be more in the wings. But with the volume of data generated by the 1KP project, there are certainly exciting results yet to come.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Masks to Disguise, Expose, Celebrate—and Amaze

Mon, 11/03/2014 - 12:08pm

Gather together a vibrant group of textile artists, pose a problem that sparks their creativity, and you get “Masks: Disguise – Expose – Celebrate.” The bold and thought-provoking exhibition will be on display as part of the Fine Art of Fiber show opening at the Chicago Botanic Garden this Thursday evening.

“Masks” is the 11th project by “Women’s Journeys in Fiber,” an ongoing exploration of the artistic process that began 16 years ago with an eclectic mix of quilters, lace makers, bead workers, weavers, and others. This year’s challenge: use a textile technique to construct a mask that’s celebratory, ceremonial, entertaining, theatrical, decorative, ethnic, or personal.

The resulting “fireworks display” of creativity foments growth and transformation for the artists, and provides visitors an inspiring and engaging experience, said Jan Gerber of Wilmette, Illinois, the group’s founder. Let’s take a sneak preview:

 "Dia de los Muertos" mask.

Dia de Los Muertos/Day of the Dead 
by Valerie Rodelli of Inverness, IL

It’s said that the spirits of the deceased can return to earth and visit their families on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Images of skeletons, depicting the beloved activities of the departed, are used to welcome back the dead. Perhaps the soul commemorated in Valerie Rodelli’s mask was a gardener, farmer, botanist, or nature lover.

 "Ma Bell Transformed" mask.

Ma Bell Transformed
by Mary Krebs Smith of Wilmette, IL

What have we gained and what have we lost in the Internet Age? Ma Bell Transformed reflects Mary Krebs Smith’s family traditions, as well as her frustrations with new modes of communication. Adornments to her mask include trinkets her mother and aunt received during their 45 years of service with Illinois Bell (AT&T).

 "Going Gray Without Becoming Invisible" mask.

Going Gray without Becoming Invisible
by Dvorah Kaufman of Kenosha, WI

Do women really become invisible when they go gray? Dvorah Kaufman explored and ultimately rejected this notion in a playful mask, made with gray fiber donated by friends and family. “Women who have joy, energy, friends, and family in their lives will never become invisible,” Kaufman said.

 "Bye Bye Butterflies " mask.

Bye Bye Butterflies
by Virginia Reisner of Elmhurst, IL

 Virginia Reisner grew up on the northwest wide of Chicago near open spaces, where she played amid butterflies of all sizes and colors. “Things changed when a super highway was built through the area,” Reisner said. “Gone were the woods, the prairie and most importantly, the butterflies.” Her beaded mask pays tribute to “past, present, and, hopefully, future” winged beauties.

 "The Unity" mask.

The Unity
by Hyangsook Cho of Barrington, IL

Air, water, and earth are essential elements of nature that embrace all life. Hyangsook Cho’s mossy mask—sprouting wires wrapped with yarn—symbolizes the environment supporting all.

 "Whiskers" mask.

Whiskers—The Real Thing
by Marcia Lee Hartnell of Northbrook, IL

An exploration of macramé, incorporating real whiskers shed by pet cats, led to the creation of Marcia Lee Hartnell’s cat mask.

 "Crazy Crackpot" mask.

CRAZYCRACKPOT
by Maria Snyder of Lake Forest, IL

Mental illness—a thread running through Maria Snyder’s family history—should be treated and discussed like any physical illness, she said. Snyder’s mask is a call to lift the stigma of mental illness and bring the topic into the open.

 "When Life Gives You Junk Mail, Create!" mask.

When Life Gives You Junk Mail, Create!
by Gretchen M. Alexander of Glenview, IL

A mailbox stuffed with colorful, abundant junk mail led Gretchen Alexander to ponder the debris generated and discarded by society. She created a mask from the overflow to serves as a metaphor for innovative ways to reuse and recycle materials.

 "Face of Time" mask.

Face of Time
by Elizabeth Mini of Browns Lake, WI

The Honduras mahogany used to carve this mask reminded Elizabeth Mini of her childhood home, where she grew up amid descendants of the Maya Indians. “Carving wood is normally a man’s work,” Elizabeth wrote. “Breaking this mold has been my woman’s journey in time.”

 Shaman Spirit mask.

Shaman Spirit Mask
by Cathy Mendola of Lake Forest, IL

Western and Native American astrology, Hindu traditions, and a crown of seashells help express Cathy Mendola’s deep connection to nature in this interpretation of a Shaman spirit mask.

All photos are by Patrick Fraser of Chi-Town Foto

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Journey to the Fine Art of Fiber

Sat, 11/01/2014 - 11:05am

Each year at the Chicago Botanic Garden, fall is heralded by more than brilliant leaf color and crisp temperatures. It’s around this time that thousands of visitors flow into the Regenstein Center for the Fine Art of Fiber, visions of gorgeous quilts and exquisite woven and knitted items dancing in their heads.

Liberated Stars by Amy Spungen 2013

This is the quilt I entered in last year’s Fine Art of Fiber show.

For three days in November, Illinois Quilters, Inc., the North Suburban NeedleArts Guild, and the Weavers Guild of the North Shore offer one of the most anticipated needle art shows in the Midwest. The combined show and sale is an outgrowth of similar events dating back to 1981. 

I used to be among those who meandered around the show, dazzled by the patterns and colors and textures, wondering what on earth it took to make one of those spectacular pieces on display.

Eventually, I found out.

Before I began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I became a quilter. In the early 1990s, my daughter Hannah (now 24) was toddling around the house, and baby Naomi was more or less velcroed to my body. In the evenings I was going to school, one class at a time, but I needed to do something fun. Something creative. Something inside, given Chicago’s long, long winters and the need to be within hearing distance of my children as I temporarily ignored them.

One day, I drove past a quilt shop and saw a sign for quilting classes in its window. Impulsively I pulled over, went inside, and signed up. You know what’s said about addiction, how people who are susceptible become instant slaves to an expensive habit upon exposure? That would be me. Fabric. Give me more fabric! And make it batik!

 Amy Spungen with her quilt, "Fanfare"

Posing with another Fine Art of Fiber quilt. I gave this one to my friend Jeannie in South Carolina.

So.
I started  making quilts, and my first efforts were generally awful. Family members were too polite to protest when I inflicted these early quilts upon them. Little by little, however, I improved. And I loved the process, even if the inevitable mistakes of learning prompted a few curses—O.K., many curses—on some occasions. There is something both challenging and relaxing about quilting: finding a pattern that sparks the imagination; choosing the right colors and fabrics, an art in itself; marking, cutting, and piecing—stitching—together the top; pinning it to the middle batting (think “stuffing”) and the cotton backing; and then sewing, sewing, sewing the “sandwich” into a completed quilt. (You find “sandwich” an odd term? I am now intimately familiar with “feed dogs,” “throat plates,” and “Wonder­-Under” as well.*) 

 Hannah and Naomi show off the latest quilting projects.

Hannah and Naomi show off a pair of quilted pieces. It’s been fun to see my children grow up in quilt photos.

I joined Illinois Quilters, Inc., which is when I found out about the Fine Art of Fiber. Members are encouraged to display pieces in the show. It took years, but finally, in 2001, I felt I was ready for showtime. By then I had another child, Oren (below, wrapped in the quilt I displayed in that show). This year Oren left for college, and I have now replaced his ping-pong area in the basement with a new, expanded quilting studio. Won’t he be surprised!

Despite working full time and having what some might consider to be an excessive number of hobbies, I keep quilting. Sometimes I manage only one quilt a year. I am not discouraged at my snail’s pace of production, though: it’s all about enjoying the process. And when I see my quilts displayed alongside the “big boys” at the show, I am thrilled to have made the journey from that first quilting class to the Fine Art of Fiber.

 Warm and snuggly in one of mom's quilts.

Oren, warm and snuggly in the first quilt I displayed at the Fine Art of Fiber.

This year’s Fine Art of Fiber is from Friday to Sunday, November 7 to 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There is also a public preview night on Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Click here for more details. I hope to see you there—perhaps you, too, will find inspiration!

 

*Feed dogs are metal ridges inside a sewing machine that help grip and move fabric; they are located beneath a hole in the throat plate, which is under the needle mechanism. Wonder-Under is fusible webbing that bonds two pieces of fabric together.

 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Echoes of a Silent Night

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:00am

A few years ago, in early spring, I was traveling through McDonald Woods at the Chicago Botanic Garden, searching for some of the flat-bodied crab spiders (Philodromus) that typically spend the winter in communal groupings under the loose bark of dead trees. Upon reaching a small stand of dead American elm trees, I began to lift the loose remaining bark away from one of the trees to see if any spiders were present.

As I gently pulled the bark away from the trunk, a tiny black hand reached up over the top edge of the bark. It quickly became obvious that there were more than spiders under this bark!

Although I was a little startled to have this hand slowly reach out in front of my face, I immediately realized that this piece of loose bark was the day roost of a silver-haired bat. The silver-haired bat is a medium-sized bat that is a dark chocolate brown or black with white hairs scattered among the dark hairs on its back. I gently released the bark so as not to disturb the napping bat any more than I already had. This is just one example of why it is important to maintain at least some dead standing trees in our woodland communities.

 Silver-haired bat.

A silver-haired bat curls up tightly on a tree in McDonald woods. Photo by Jim Steffen

Even though bats are fairly common mammals in our area, since they are almost totally nocturnal, we don’t get to see them all that often—especially at close range, when we would be able to admire their delicate form and attractive appearance. Bats are in the order Chiroptera, roughly translated as “hand wing,” and are the only mammals that are actually capable of true flight (unlike flying squirrels—which we also have at the Garden). 

You might be familiar with another group of small mammals known as shrews. Shrews are mouse-like animals that are actually carnivores that feed heavily on invertebrate populations. Although bats may have varied diets around the world, here they are primarily insect eaters, much like shrews with wings.

When I was in college studying mammology, we used to go out at night and look for streetlights where there were large numbers of moths and other flying insects attracted to the lights. We would then take out our car keys and jangle them around to make high-pitched sounds with the keys clinking together. These high-pitched sounds would simulate the high-pitched sounds produced by the echolocation sounds produced by hunting bats to locate their prey. (Unless we are equipped with special listening devices, we are not able to hear the sound of bat echolocation.) Often times, many of the moths would begin flying erratically, or drop out of the air as though they had been struck with a stupefying charm from Harry Potter’s wand. These moths have evolved defensive tactics to help them avoid being eaten by bats by flying in erratic patterns or closing their wings and dropping if they heard the sounds of an approaching bat. 

 Eastern Red Bat

An eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis) clings to black landscape fabric at the back of one of the buildings here at the Garden. Photo by Jim Steffen

Many years later, while removing invasive garlic mustard from our oak woodland a few summers ago, I came upon an oak tree with a broken branch. All of the leaves on the branch had turned a bright reddish-brown that stood out against the backdrop of all the other green foliage. On closer examination of the branch, I spotted a female eastern red bat hanging upside down, in typical bat fashion, with its single offspring clinging to it. I don’t know if the bat was aware of it, but this dead branch provided the perfect camouflage for her rich color.

This made me think about how these mammals perceive the world. Do bats have color vision, and was this red bat able to tell that the dead branch would be such a good match for its own color? Most nocturnal animals tend not to have color vision, since color does them little good in the dark. Most bats are various shades of brown, black, or gray. (It is a different story for birds that are mostly active during the day and use bright colors as a means of attracting mates or advertising territories.)

 Lasiurus cinereus (hoary bat).

Hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus by Daniel Neal [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We have five species of bats that are likely to be seen at the Garden. Some of them are summer residents, like the little brown, big brown, and eastern red bat, while others are mostly migratory species, like the silver-haired and hoary bats that show up during their spring and fall migrations. Years ago, in the late fall, while using fine nets at night to capture owls for attaching U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bird bands, I often caught many of the large, hoary bats migrating south for the winter. These large bats have an attractive frosted appearance with a mix of white and reddish hairs all over their bodies.

While I was studying birds in the tropical rain forest of Central America, I often encountered small colonies of bats hanging at eye-level, under the broad leaves of Heliconia plants. I think these wide, tent-like leaves were chosen mostly for the protection they gave the bats from the torrential downpours that occurred every day. However, the bats we find here are either solitary animals, like the red, silver-haired, and hoary bats that live solitary lives in the woodlands and forests, or they are colony-forming bats, like the little and big brown bats, that search out attics, barns, or large hollow trees where they gather in groups to raise their young.

Some of the bat species also search out caves or old mine shafts during the wintertime, where the subterranean habitat provides moist, stable conditions with above-freezing temperatures suitable for hibernation. It is possible to construct bat houses that, if placed in the proper locations, can attract and support colony-forming bats during the summer.

We have several of these bat house installed on buildings around the Garden. This summer, one of those houses contained half a dozen bats—probably little browns. It is best to place bat houses in full sunlight, since the bats have high body metabolisms and prefer very warm conditions for roosting during the summer. Think you’d like to build a bat house? Construction details can be found at the Bat Conservation International website at batcon.org.

 Flying squirrel.

Another local flier, this very tame flying squirrel enjoyed a snack of walnut with his photo op. Photo by Jim Steffen

Bats are more than curious and beautiful creatures; they are also tremendously important components of a healthy environment. They are extremely important control agents of insect populations. Many of the insect species they eat are harmful crop pests, like army cutworm, or irritating or disease-carrying species like mosquitoes. Some bats can consume more than 1,000 mosquitoes in a single night! Bats are in trouble now for many reasons—not the least of which are climate change, exotic diseases like white-nose syndrome, and habitat loss.

Although bats are seldom seen and often have scary, erroneous wives-tales associated with them, we should be working hard to correct the problems that might lead to a truly silent night.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Halloween Treat: Pumpkin “Roll-ups”

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 9:45am

Parents! Here’s a kid-friendly, fun-to-make idea from Kasey Bersett Eaves, who “talked squash” with fall-minded visitors at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden on a gorgeous fall weekend.

With winter squash and pumpkins readily available at grocery stores and farmers’ markets, a nicely spiced fruit leather is a great way to use a post-Halloween pumpkin (uncarved) or extra can of purée—and to get kids to eat their vegetables in a new and tasty way. Super simple to assemble, it’s a whole lot healthier than candy!

Kids AND adults love the cinnamon-y pumpkin flavor.

Kids and adults love the cinnamon-y pumpkin flavor.

Pumpkin-spiced Snack Leather

  • 1 can of plain pumpkin or 3½ cups of cooked pumpkin pulp*
  • 1 cup of unsweetened applesauce
  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and honey according to taste

Purée all ingredients together by hand or in a blender or food processor.

Spread purée on a foil-lined or greased cookie sheet, and smooth until just a little more than ¼-inch thick. Bake on your oven’s lowest setting (around 150 degrees) until no longer sticky to the touch (this takes close to eight hours).

Remove and cool until you can lift the edges and corners of the pumpkin leather off the foil or cookie sheet. Peel off and cut into strips. Roll each strip into plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to eat.

If you have a food dehydrator, it’s even simpler. Spread the purée on the plastic sheeting provided with your dehydrator—or wax paper—and dehydrate until no longer sticky. Roll, refrigerate, and snack away!

 first, blend puree with applesauce and spices to taste.

It’s a kid-friendly process: first, blend purée with applesauce and spices to taste.

A tin foil base rolls up easily.

A tin foil lining makes cleanup easy.

*Basic Technique for Cooked Squash

Fresh-cut pumpkin (which is actually a squash) has a much higher water content than canned pumpkin. You will need to cook your pumpkin first, and use more fresh pulp. Cut your squash in half and remove the seeds. Place the squash skinside down on a baking dish, and bake at 350 degrees until the flesh is tender and the cut edges have caramelized. Remove the squash from the oven and let it rest until cool. Scoop out the pulp and discard the cooked skins.

See Kasey’s summer post, too — “Herbal Mixology

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Windy City Harvest Youth Farm Joins a Growing Community

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 9:12am

Can you remember a time when farmers’ markets were few and far between, and local food was nearly impossible to find, unless you grew it yourself?

Today—October 24, 2014—is National Food Day. Learn more about this initiative by visiting foodday.org, and join the movement with @FoodDayCHI and @FoodDay2014, and #CommitToRealFood.

Now farmers’ markets are popping up all across Illinois—in rural, suburban, and urban landscapes—providing healthy food to many communities.

According to the USDA, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has grown by 67 percent since 2008, with more than 8,000 markets and counting. Illinois ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers’ markets, with nearly 400 markets.

 Juaquita holds up a freshly washed carrot harvest.

Windy City Harvest Youth Farm participant Juaquita holds up part of her freshly-washed carrot harvest.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has been a part of the growth of farmers’ markets in Illinois. With the farmers’ market held at the Garden, along with the farm stand markets hosted at Windy City Harvest Youth Farm sites, we have contributed to the improved access of healthy, local food, especially in underserved neighborhoods of Chicago and North Chicago.

Throughout the summer, the Windy City Harvest Youth Farm program operates three farm stand markets as way to share its fresh, sustainably grown produce with the surrounding neighborhoods. These markets are set up on-site (or nearby) at each of our three Youth Farms. These farms are located in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, the South Side neighborhood of Washington Park, and the community of North Chicago/Waukegan. All of these communities are considered food deserts, as the access to fresh food is extremely limited.

The produce sold at Windy City Harvest Youth Farm markets is grown by the community for the community. Teenagers from local high schools are hired to work at the Youth Farms from May through October. They participate in all aspects of farming, including the growing, cooking, and marketing of the produce. Every week during the summer, the teens set up a farm stand to offer their fresh bounty to the community. The produce is sold at very affordable prices. Our markets accept food stamps and other government assistance benefits, so the food can be accessible to all members of the community.

 Happy customer at the first market.

Happy customers enjoy a bounty of fresh vegetables at the first market.

Season after season, the benefits of these markets can be seen in both the teen workers and community. The teens learn business and customer service skills, practice their public speaking, and make positive connections in their community. One of our teen workers, Henry, said that this year’s opening market in North Chicago was the “best day of his life” because the participants nearly tripled their sales goal and broke the previous sales record for an opening day. A former participant of Science First (another wonderful Garden program), Henry was especially proud to host the program at the farm that day and assist with farm stand purchases. He even persuaded a young Science First participant to purchase black currants (later reporting that the Science First participant was eating the tart currants like candy).

We often hear from our market customers how grateful they are to purchase local, sustainably grown produce at an affordable price. They comment on how tasty and fresh our farm produce is compared to the produce available at their local grocery store, and they enjoy the farm tours and recipes provided by our teens. We often hear how our Youth Farms remind them of a farm they grew up on in Mississippi or Mexico. 

 Potato harvest success.

Potato harvest success!

Besides impacting the food system and community health at a local level, we also help shape food policy and accessibility statewide. I have had the privilege of representing the Chicago Botanic Garden on the Illinois Farmers Market Task Force and on the board of the Illinois Farmers Market Association. The Task Force—which consists of farmers, market managers, and public health officials—advises the Illinois Department of Public Health on statewide local food regulations. We also provide education to consumers and market managers on food safety at the market. The Illinois Farmers Market Association connects the farmers’ market community to resources and educational tools. Lately we have been training market managers on how to accept food stamps at their markets and working with government agencies to better inform food stamp recipients on the markets that accept those benefits.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Emerald Ash Borer: Sad But True, Part 3

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 8:56am

Last week, a college biology professor in Ohio announced he had found evidence that the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive insect decimating the continent’s ash trees, is also attacking white fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus).

 White fringetree in bloom.

White fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) in bloom

In August he found the telltale D-shaped exit holes on a fringetree near his home. When he investigated further by peeling back the bark, he found feeding galleries and live borers. He had the borers positively identified morphologically as well as with DNA tests conducted by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). He also found evidence of EAB activity on fringetrees in three other locations in Ohio.

The recent discovery marks the first time EAB has been found completing its life cycle on anything other than ash in the United States.

The finding adds an alarming new element to the EAB story:

  • Researchers have been wondering whether the host range for EAB could be wider than just ash. That theory had seemed unlikely up to now but is proven with the fringetree discovery. There has already been a lot of research investigating other possible hosts, and with the new discovery, there will likely to be more.
  • Is the insect adapting? This is a scary thought!
  • Will EAB kill fringetrees as it does ash, or just cause damage? So far the invasive insect appears to only be damaging—not killing—fringetrees.
  • Has EAB moved to fringetrees because EAB populations are locally so high? If the buffet is crowded at the “prime rib station,” it seems logical that “meatloaf station” may get some visits.
  • What will happen when ash tree populations dwindle? Will the EAB population die back, or just move to a secondary host (the meatloaf, as the prime rib is gone) and/or develop a completely new palate?
 A D-shaped exit hole left by EAB.

This D-shaped exit hole was left by a mature emerald ash borer as it exited this host tree.

The Ohio professor’s find was not all by luck; he had reason to focus on the white fringetree. Laboratory studies have shown that the adult EAB will feed on the foliage of other tree species in the same family as ash—the olive family, or Oleaceae. Members include ash (Fraxinus), fringe tree (Chionanthus), lilac (Syringa), forsythia, privet (Ligustrum) and swamp privet (Forestiera). Literature from Asia, the homeland of the EAB, indicates other secondary EAB hosts.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has 42 fringetrees; all have been inspected and show no signs of EAB activity. Even a fringetree that is 25 feet from an ash tree that was heavily infested with EAB shows no signs. If you have a fringetree, you should inspect it for signs of EAB. These include dieback starting at the upper limbs of the tree, new growth on the lower trunk, and small, D-shaped holes where the larvae have exited through the bark. Emerald ash borer larvae can kill a mature ash tree in two to three years by destroying the tree’s vascular system.

Find more information on identifying and dealing with EAB on our website, and in our previous posts, Signs of Emerald Ash Borer, and Emerald Ash Borer: Sad But True, Part 2.

As the world has become less fragmented by ease of transportation, more exotic, high-consequence plant pests and pathogens like EAB have entered—and will continue to enter—the country. Other exotic plant pests and pathogens we are watching for at the Garden include the following: viburnum leaf beetle, Asian gypsy moth, brown marmorated stink bug, Asian longhorned beetle, thousand cankers disease, plum pox virus, chrysanthemum white rust, sudden oak death, and so on; most are already in the country. Vigilance and education are the key to managing and slowing the spread of these foreign invaders.

The Garden is a member of the Sentinel Plant Network, a group that unites botanic gardens in monitoring and providing education on exotic plant pests and pathogens, and works in partnership with the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN).

If you are a plant and bug person like me, please consider becoming a NPDN First Detector and help be on the lookout for these exotic plant pests and pathogens. The NPDN offers an online training course to become a First Detector at firstdetector.org. It’s free, and upon completion, you even get a printable certificate!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spooky Plants!

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 11:12am

Creepy, gooey, stinky, thorny…for some plants, every day is Halloween. Find out more in our Spooky Plants infographic!

 an infographic about spooky plants

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pumpkin Seed Math Games

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 9:32am

If you carve a pumpkin for Halloween or make pumpkin pie from scratch, you’re going to have a lot of pumpkin seeds. You can put them to good use by turning them into “dice” and playing math games this fall.

First, you’ll need to remove, clean, and dry the seeds. After scooping the pulp from your pumpkin, place it in a bowl of water and gently rub the stringy pulp off the seeds. Rinse them in a colander and let them drain. Prepare a baking sheet with a layer of parchment paper. Do not add any oil. Spread seeds in a single layer on the paper. Bake in an oven preheated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-40 minutes to dry them. Store them in a plastic bag or airtight container.

 Pumpkin seeds on baking tray.

These seeds were baked for just over 30 minutes at 300 degrees. After they have cooled, they will be ready to become instruments of learning.

The kind of dice you make will depend on the game you want to play, but for all games the basic idea is the same. Players will toss the seeds and the side that lands face up is the number they will work with. You’ll want to select seeds that are more flat than rounded. Remove any transparent skin that remains on the seeds, so it won’t dissolve in the marker ink and make a mess. Use a regular fine Sharpie or other permanent marker. I find that the extra fine markers tend to dry out while writing on the seed. You can use any color, but for some games the color matters. You’ll also want to establish a top and bottom of the seed. I write all the numbers with the point of the seed on the bottom so 6s and 9s don’t get confused. 

Here are some games you can make:

 Pumpkin seeds painted like dominoes.

To make a game of “Count the Dots,” draw dots on one side of each seed as shown.

Count the Dots

This works well for young children learning to count. Take six pumpkin seeds. On one side of each seed draw dots like those on a die. Leave the other side blank. To play, toss the seeds and let them land. Count all the dots facing up. The person with the most dots wins!

Add the Numbers

Older children who are learning to add can play with numbers instead of dots. You can vary this depending on the skills of the children. For early learners, make two each of 1, 2, and 3. For children practicing higher number adding, make a range from 1 to 9. To practice adding higher numbers, make a set with all 6s, 7s, 8s, and 9s. Those are scary numbers to add until you get the hang of it, which is the whole point of this game.

To play, toss the seeds, then move the blanks out of the way. Line up the numbers so they are easier to see and add up.

Addition and Subtraction

Working on subtraction? Write the number on one side of the seed in black and write the same number on the opposite side in a different color such as red. Now when you toss the seeds, add all the black numbers and subtract the red numbers. The result could be a negative number!

 Numbered pumpkin seeds.

Playing with addition-subtraction rules where black numbers are added and red numbers are subtracted, this toss would be 1 – 7 – 2 + 4 + 8 – 6 – 9 + 3 + 5 = -3.

Evens/odds

This game works with dots or numbers, but requires a set with writing on one side only. Players take turns predicting the outcome of the toss adding up to an odd or even number. The first player calls “odds” or “evens,” tosses, checks the results. S/he gets a point if s/he is right, a point goes to his or her opponent if s/he guessed wrong. 

Numbers and Symbols

You can have more than numbers on your dice. Make a set of seeds that include numbers and function symbols: + , -, ×, and ÷. Each player should have her own identical set of seed dice. All players toss at the same time and the person who can make the number sequence with the highest answer wins. In this game, players are allowed to combine numbers to make a larger number. For example, a 1 and a 2 can become 21, as long as all the exposed numbers and symbols are used. The simplest rules for this game will be to take the order of operations from left to right, but players who want to stick to the “PEMDAS” order of operations (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction), can certainly work that into the game. 

 Numbered pumpkin seeds and some with math symbols.

Working with numbers and symbols gives a score of 413 for this toss.

Matching Equations

To make the game more cooperative, play the same game above, only this time the two players try to make their two number statements equal each other, or get as close as possible. This is more difficult to accomplish. so it’s all right to be a little flexible with the rules, since the players are not competing and you won’t have to settle disputes.

Players can make up their own games. They can also work in more complicated operations like exponents, or they can arrange the placement seeds above and below a line to represent division (this may require paper and pencil). Chances are, if they have reached this level of sophistication with mathematical operations, they would prefer eating the seeds to playing with them, but it’s still a fun challenge.

Whatever their level, when players have exhausted their interest in the seeds, be sure to take a break and enjoy some pumpkin “pi.” Sorry, I had to include that, because let’s face it, if you’re playing math games for fun, you’re a person who appreciates this humor!

 Pumpkin with carved numbers for facial features.

“Pascal Pumpkinhead” gave the seedy contents of its head for mathematics.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Container Change-outs

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 9:06am

Are your summer or early fall container gardens looking tired? Change out your container gardens to extend your displays well into the fall.

 Fall container garden with asters, mums, cabbages, and kale.

A fall container garden with asters, mums, cabbages, and kale. Photo by Tim Pollak

Gardening in containers can offer us year-round seasonal interest, and we can extend the garden seasons to create vibrant container gardens. I’m a huge fan of fall container gardens with a rich variety of color, texture, and hardiness that carry their beauty well beyond the first frost. 

A container garden that changes its appearance from one season to another is the definition of a seasonal “change-out” concept. Change-outs can be done by simply removing or adding one or more plants, objects, or other material to the container to add seasonal interest. Color alone can offer more impact on the container garden than any other design element. (However, nothing has more negative impact on the container garden than a poorly maintained appearance or bloomed-out flowers.)

 Tall grasses at the back of this basin garden offset blooming fall annuals.

Tall grasses at the back of this basin garden offset blooming fall annuals. Photo by Tim Pollak

Change-outs should take advantage of seasonal blooming plants and colorful foliage and textures in prime condition. The change-out can add instant color or texture to the display and create a “wow” from one season to another. Color schemes can change through the seasons as well, such as pastels and soft tones in the spring, bright and colorful combinations in the summer, warm and autumn-like colors in the fall, to greens and interesting textures in the winter. Your container gardens can change and develop through the year much like a garden bed or border do in the landscape.

While chrysanthemums still reign supreme in many gardens and containers every fall, try other interesting plants such as asters, ornamental or flowering kale and cabbage, heuchera, pansies and violas, and ornamental grasses. These plants all are cold hardy, and will tolerate light frosts, lasting well through the autumn season.

 A fall container with grass, pansies, and heuchera, which comes in a host of leaf colors.

A fall container with grass, pansies, and heuchera, which comes in a host of leaf colors. Photo by Tim Pollak

I love the combination of using purple or blue asters with ornamental kale—the colors play off each other nicely in a long-lasting display. Using other lesser-known plants—such as some of the fall-blooming salvias—can add height and create interesting combinations in your container gardens. Cold-hardy vegetables and herbs can also be added for interest and texture. I like using swiss chard, broccoli, Asian greens, parsley, and alliums to add interesting and colorful effects to my containers.

Another thing I like to do when creating fall displays in containers is to incorporate pumpkins, gourds, dried corn, branches and leaves of trees or shrubs, and autumn or Halloween decorations. A fun and simple addition to your fall containers may be to simply carve out a large pumpkin and use the pumpkin as a container, placing a combination of fall plants in it to decorate your front door or patio.

 Fall container garden with cabbages, asters, and curry plant.

A fall container garden planted with cabbages, asters, and curry plant. Photo by Tim Pollak

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall on the Prairie

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 9:12am

While summer blooms elsewhere are winding down, the Dixon Prairie is still alive with many fall flowers.

 Red Admiral butterfly.

Warm fall days bring out the butterflies; this red admiral is enjoying a New England aster. ©Carol Freeman

Asters, sawtooth sunflowers, gaura, and goldenrod are going strong. All of them are abuzz with bees and other insects. Grasshoppers dance from plant to plant. Butterflies fuel up for a last fling or long journey.

Dewy milkweed seeds blow in the wind. ©Carol Freeman

Dewy milkweed seeds blow in the wind. ©Carol Freeman

Grasses, some with tiny fragrant flowers, sway gracefully; many have grown more than 7 feet tall in this one growing season. Early morning dew transforms the seedheads into works of art. Silken strands of unseen spiders glow in the sunlight. Flocks of goldfinches munch on seeds, stocking up for winter, chirping their happy tunes, while shy sparrows occasionally pop up from the shadows, giving us a glimpse of their subtle beauty. Milkweed seeds blow gracefully in the wind.

The prairie truly must be walked to be appreciated. There is so much diversity, and so many stories to tell.

Touch a compass plant leaf on even the hottest day and it will be cool to the touch—with roots going down 14 feet, they pull up water that is chilled underground.

Monarchs live in symbiosis with milkweed plants (as do many other insects). Look closely and you may see a whole world on a milkweed plant.

Surprises can be anywhere—a hummingbird zipping by for a quick sip, a great blue heron flying overhead, drama as a hawk dives down to grab a vole. Fall on the prairie is colorful, alive, and a place of great wonder not to be missed.

Unseen spiders create artwork that catches the early morning dew. ©Carol Freeman

Unseen spiders create artwork that catches the early morning dew. ©Carol Freeman

Seed heads magically transformed with early morning dew. ©Carol Freeman

Seedheads are magically transformed with early morning dew. ©Carol Freeman

Grasshoppers dance from plant to plant. ©Carol Freeman

Grasshoppers dance from plant to plant. ©Carol Freeman

Gaura flowers still attract hover flies. ©Carol Freeman

Gaura flowers still attract hover flies. ©Carol Freeman

Resident Goldfinch stock up on the abundant seeds in the prairie. ©Carol Freeman.

Resident goldfinches stock up on the abundant seeds in the prairie. ©Carol Freeman.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org