Tomato-licious!

See what we’re harvesting just in time for Heirloom Tomato Weekend, Saturday & Sunday, 11a.m. to 4 p.m.

PHOTO: An infographic on tomatoes.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The secret is out; visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden have unprecedented access to plant information, guides, and tours through a groundbreaking smartphone app, called GardenGuide, launched last year. Garden staff and volunteers used their skills and savvy to squeeze interactive maps, audio guides, points of interest, and botanic details on more than 10,000 plants into an application that sits in the palm of your hand. How did they do it, and what keeps the wheels turning?

Dorothy Peck, volunteer team leader at work.

Dorothy Peck, volunteer and team leader, at work

The ability to access this information in real time during a Garden visit is what makes the app so special, according to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation. He said that people “look down at the app, they see what they need to see, and then they are back to experiencing the Garden, just as we had hoped.” In addition, photos and plant information are frequently being added, so there is always something new to discover.  

Before new data and photos were added to the plant collections database, Tankersley and his team upgraded their long-time plant collection’s database to include 37 new information fields that would work well with the app, from soil type to bloom time to sun requirements. Many of the fields were added as check boxes, to make them easier to sort through with the app. It was then that he recruited another 80 volunteers to help gather and enter all of that new information.

As the project progressed, a new team of highly specialized volunteers came together to help build the data that is shared via the app. A group of 20 volunteer photographers captured digital images to accompany each species listed, under the direction of their team leader, Dorothy Peck. A group of 12 volunteers, led by team leader Glenn Kohlmeyer, scanned plant information slides researched by Richard Hawke, the Garden’s plant evaluation manager. Under Tankerley’s watchful eye, another 20 volunteers researched and input key facts about the plants. Perhaps furthest under the radar, was the smallest group of volunteers who handled the intricacies of GIS mapping with guidance from Veronica Harry-Jackson, a Garden GIS specialist. “We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated staff and volunteers,” said Tankersley.

“It was a Garden-wide project which was fantastic,”
said Van Deraa

The process to create the app began more than two years ago, when project manager Cheri Van Deraa, the Garden’s director of online marketing, assembled a team including representatives from different areas within the Garden. She led the initial step of researching similar products on the market and incorporating possible features. The list began with the Garden’s plant collections, and grew from there. The planning team considered a growing list of needs that visitors have when they come to the Garden, and included functions to address them. “The visitor needs we documented over time are now being met in this app,” said Tankersley.

John Moore

John Moore, volunteer photographer

Veronica Harry Jackson

Veronica Harry-Jackson with GIS equipment

“We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated volunteers.”

“The basis of the app was the plant collections database, but we realized that people like to find other things at the Garden, so we created a new second database for the app. It has points of interest at the Garden, like water fountains, classrooms, sculpture, the location of the Japanese Garden, and more,” said Van Deraa. Once the two databases were polished, they were worked into the architecture and mapping system for the app software.

The GIS, or interactive mapping function, was also a critical component. Both Tankersley and Van Deraa saw tremendous value in offering the ability for a user to go from their Garden location to their desired destination. “We have a large campus and much to see,” said Van Deraa, who uses the app herself. “I just get a thrill every time I want to find a plant,” she said. “There was an iris I wanted to see in the spring, I dialed it in, and I could just walk right up to it. That was so cool.”

Crested iris on the GardenGuide

For those who are not sure what to look for, there is a feature called What’s in Bloom Highlights. The feature highlights plants in bloom twice each week, with a map that shows the visitor how to walk to them.

Additional functions that were built in include audio tours, walking tours, and Van Deraa’s, favorite—maps leading to ‘secret spots’ such as the quiet bench atop the Waterfall Garden where birds visit early in the morning. “The GardenGuide app was designed to deepen the visitor experience with the Garden,” said Van Deraa. 

Gabriela Rocha and Sil Argentin

Gabriela Rocha and volunteer Sil Argentin

GardenGuide has been in use for nearly a year now, and updates are ongoing. In 2014, the app was awarded a Gold Trumpet by the Publicity Club of Chicago for distinguished achievement. Not resting on her laurels, though, Van Deraa has been focused on updating the software necessary to work with a new Android operating system, KitKat, which is now complete. The next version of the GardenGuide 2.0 is in the works.

Volunteers continue to take and add new photos, and research and input new pieces of information. “Because the Garden is constantly adding new plants to the collection, we are always adding new plants to the app,” said Tankersley. “In the long term, in effect this becomes a digital encyclopedia of plants.” Tankersley hopes to eventually add data on another 46,000 plants that have previously lived at the Garden and may one day return.

Users of the GardenGuide app can be assured that the information in the app has been updated with care by a remarkable team of volunteers and professionals working together.

It’s all there, in the palm of your hand, just waiting to be tapped.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grant #MA-04-11-0101-11).

Lunchtime? How about a pickled pepper sandwich?

Courtesy of volunteer Larry Aronson

Karen Z. —  August 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

Out at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, there’s a whole group of volunteers with really interesting career histories and double-digit years of volunteer service. Larry Aronson is one of them.

You’re likely to find Larry on Thursdays at his favorite volunteer station: the Pepper Discovery Cart. There, he presides over 120 different pepper samples and flavorings. “When I started volunteering 11 years ago, there were four pepper samples and a book on the cart,” Larry says.

PHOTO: Pepper spices from the Pepper Cart.

Think there’s only one kind of paprika? Think again.

So he made it his mission to add to the cart. Dried peppers, ground peppers, pepper flakes and pepper sauces. Peppers from Brazil and Peru, France and Spain, China and Japan, Africa and South America. Well-known peppers like paprika (the seasoning made from dried and ground pimento peppers) and obscure peppers like Capsicum chacoense (an ancient species).

Ask Larry a question about peppers and he’ll not only have the answer, but he’ll also add a conversation-starting fact or story to go with it. What’s his favorite pepper to eat? It changes over time. The Brazilian malagueta pepper is a current favorite that is “better than Tabasco,” Larry says.

What’s the hottest pepper he’s got? Used to be “Ghost” (Buht jolokia), until he got a sample of Trinidad moruga “Scorpion.” Its heat level is said to be the same as pepper spray—essentially, inedible.

Which peppers does he use in recipes? Cayennes. Jalapeños. Habañeros. Why? “Because they have the most universal and interesting flavors,” Larry says. He should know—he eats peppers every single day.

Speaking of recipes, Larry recommends a favorite resource: Chile Pepper magazine. He owns every issue, and says it has the best recipes in the world.

PHOTO: Volunteer Larry Aronson at the Pepper Discovery Cart.

Volunteer Larry Aronson at the Pepper Discovery Cart—come and chat with him on Thursdays!

A professional chef and baker on his non-volunteer days (he’s owned 27 restaurants in his six-plus decades of cooking, including Chicago’s My π Pizza), Larry likes to re-create recipes for great food that is new to him. (He’s in the process of writing a cookbook now.)

While talking recipes, Larry mentioned that he had a new favorite sandwich, using his favorite recipe for pickled red peppers. Naturally, we asked if he’d share.

Larry Aronson’s Pickled Red Peppers

  • 1 ounce sugar
  • 1 ounce salt
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spice, tied in cheesecloth
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled, cut into ½-inch slices
  • 1 medium onion, peeled, cut into ½-inch slices
  • Fresh red pimento peppers, cut into ½-inch slices (amount will depend on pepper and jar size; may substitute other sweet red peppers, such as red bells)
  • Fresh red jalapeño peppers, cut into ½-inch slices (amount will depend on pepper and jar size; may substitute serranos)

In a saucepan, bring the first six ingredients above to a boil. Add the carrots to the boiling liquid. When carrots start to soften (test with a fork), remove from boiling liquid.

PHOTO: Pickled red pepper and turkey sandwich.

Larry’s favorite sandwich: turkey/mayo/pickled red peppers on homemade white bread

Pack carrots, chopped onions, and a mix of 50/50 chopped sweet and hot peppers into sterilized jars. (Follow manufacturer’s instructions for sterilizing jars and lids.) Pour hot pickling liquid over vegetables, filling to ¼-inch from the top of the jar. Seal with sterilized lid and screw top. Let sealed jars cool.

Larry stores his pickled peppers in the refrigerator for several months.

To make a great sandwich: On homemade white bread, spread mayo, then layer with sliced turkey and pickled red peppers.

Alternate serving: Cube fresh turkey and combine with mayo and pickled red peppers as turkey salad. Delicious served with chicken, too!

Our volunteers are awesome.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Sometime around midsummer, we all look at our yards, filled in and blooming, and think about designing something new, dividing plants, or perhaps creating a new hedge. 

Attractive native shrubs are often overlooked—and occasionally hard to come by in local nurseries and garden centers—but they are well worth the effort to find. Already adapted to our particular climate and ecosystems, natives simply do well here—and look spectacular. 

Here are five options to consider.

Chokeberry (Aronia sp.)

With a name like chokeberry, people aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to plant this native shrub. It’s unfortunate, because the chokeberry is one of the best shrubs you can grow in Illinois.

PHOTO: Closeup of chokeberry fruit ripening.

Iroquois Beauty™ chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Morton’) is starting to ripen. The beautiful black fruit stays on the plant longer than some other varieties.

Not to be confused with the chokecherry tree (Prunus virginiana), chokeberry (Aronia sp.) is a fruiting shrub that ranges from 3 to 10 feet tall with red, purple, or black fruit. The name chokeberry comes from the astringency or dryness of the fruit, which may be the result of antioxidants.

There are three main species: Aronia arbutifolia (red chokeberry), Aronia × prunifolia (purple chokeberry), and the most common, Aronia melanocarpa (black chokeberry).

Aronia is an all-season plant. In spring to early summer, the plants become covered in white, apple blossom-like flowers for several days to weeks. The glossy green foliage holds up against extreme heat and drought, and in fall, these great landscape shrubs produce red, purple, or black fruit in combination with orange to red-scarlet fall color.

The fruit attracts birds, though this may often be as late as February depending on Aronia species, food availability, and the density of your bird population. The fruit is also eaten by humans and is popular in Europe. Containing more antioxidants than blueberries and easier to grow, it’s a health food that you should definitely consider adding to your diet! Sweeten the fruit with honey or sugar to make a jam or syrup. I recommend ‘Viking’ for less astringent fruit that is good for harvesting. If fruit doesn’t interest you, consider ‘Professor Ed’ or the Chicagoland Grows variety ‘Morton’, both of which have ornamental fruit, stay somewhat small, and have excellent fall color. Aronia also takes well to renewal pruning if you wish to keep a larger variety at a smaller height.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

PHOTO: Closeup of buttonbush in bloom.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) flowers are attractive, unique, and somewhat unworldly. These are growing by the water in the Lavin Evaluation Garden.

Wouldn’t you want something called buttonbush in your yard? The white, butterfly-attracting flowers are arranged in little celestial spheres that are 1 to 2 inches in diameter, emerging between late May and late July (depending on the region). After the flowers have finished blooming, spherical seedheads remain on the plant, providing winter interest. Buttonbush tolerates well-drained soil well, but loves it wet—making this an excellent choice for a rain garden plant!

They can grow fast—a 6-inch shrub can easily grow to 5 feet within a few years, and can reach up to 15 feet when fully mature! These shrubs also take well to renewal pruning, if you’d like to keep them short. They typically have a good rounded habit, but if you would like more uniformity, prune them in late winter or early spring.

Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina)

PHOTO: Sweetfern in the fall.

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) leaves turn russet in the fall. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Use this plant if you want a unique-looking shrub that can tolerate poor—even salty!—soils. Sweet fern has deeply notched, glossy, fern-like leaves that have a sweet fragrance when crushed. It grows to be around 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide with a nice upright rounded habit, but sweet fern can produce large colonies if left to grow wild.

The flowers and fruit won’t make a huge impact in the garden, but the catkins and fruit may be left as one of those subtle garden curiosities you need to go looking for. The leaves are edible, and are sometimes used for tea as well as insect repellant. These shrubs love part shade to full sun spots, and tolerate drought well.

If your soil is fairly alkaline you may wish to avoid sweetfern, though they will tolerate a degree of alkalinity.

My next pick is another “sweet” choice for the native home garden:

Sweet Gale (Myrica gale)

PHOTO: Sweet gale catkins.

Sweet gale’s (Myrica gale) catkins are certainly attractive, if not particularly showy. You can find a hedge of them in the Native Plant Garden, near the patio.

If you’ve got a sunny to somewhat shady wet area, consider sweet gale for your garden. This native shrub prefers moist areas, but tolerates dryness and even some salt. It even fixes nitrogen in its roots, which can help improve the soil. The plants have an attractive mounded, candelabra-like habit, becoming 4 to 5 feet tall in the landscape. The leaves, which are a glossy dark green to gray-green, are fragrant when crushed. The branches, leaves and cones can be used like hops in brewing beer, and were used extensively before hops were widely available. Though sweetgale is native to North America, the species is also native to northern and western Europe, so it appears in European folklore and carries a history of use as a dye, insecticide, tea, and more!

The flowers appear in summer and are not very showy, but the fruit that comes afterward offers a food source for yellow-rumped warblers on their way south.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

PHOTO: New Jersey tea plant on the green roof.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) thrives on the green roof of the Plant Conservation Science Center.

New Jersey tea is one native shrub that I hear recommended over and over again, but I can’t recall a time I’ve seen it in a landscape outside of public gardens.

New Jersey tea is a small deciduous shrub that grows to about 4 or 5 feet in height. This nitrogen-fixing member of the buckthorn family grows in open woods and produces leaves that can be dried and used for tea. In fact, its leaves were often used as a tea substitute during the revolutionary war—providing a similar flavor to imported teas, though lacking in caffeine.

New Jersey tea does well in moderately well-drained soils, but it develops a deep root system within a few years so it can withstand drought easily once established. It also provides nectar to butterflies and hummingbirds, acts as a butterfly host plant, and provides food for birds. The yellow twigs that remain in winter can be quite showy, and the white, fragrant flower clusters provide interest in summer.

If you want to make a short but attractive native hedge, start with small plants spaced two to three feet apart. You might also consider Ceanothus ovatus for a hedge that will grow to only 3 feet high.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Herbal Mixology

Fun summer drink recipes from Herb Garden Weekend

Karen Z. —  August 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

So many great ideas came out of our most recent Herb Garden Weekend (always the fourth weekend in July) in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden! Here are a few to get your taste buds going:

  • Add a bit of mint to a basil pesto (a Chef Series tip)
  • Grow thyme in unexpected flavors: orange, lime, lemon (all are growing in our kitchen herb garden)
  • Dry and mix your own herbes de Provence (check out our recipe here)
  • Infuse lavender blossoms in lemonade (delicious advice from local vendor Three Tarts)

Speaking of infusions, “herb mixologist” Kasey Bersett Eaves had enthusiastic crowds at the demo tent on Saturday and Sunday, as she opened our eyes to the world of herb-infused beverages.

From Garden to Glass

PHOTO: A sprig of basil tops off a mason jar basil lemonade.

Muddled basil adds a refreshing twist to lemonade.

Just about any herb you’d grow in your yard can be used to flavor drinks. Herbs + fresh fruit = a yummy base for all sorts of hot and cold beverages. Grab what’s in season in the yard and experiment. A few fresh ideas: 

Basil + strawberry
Mint + raspberry
Sage + cherry
Rosemary + watermelon
Lemon verbena + honeydew melon
Thyme + cucumber
Lavender + berries
Dill + lime
Oregano + berries
Cilantro + watermelon
Tarragon + peach

Thirsty for more? Let’s move on to muddling.

Muddling 101

Infusion starts with muddling.

Here’s the first rule of muddling: Don’t overmuddle. Muddling is the process of gently—repeat, gently—bruising the leaves of herbs. As Kasey said, “If you hear the leaves tear, you’re overmuddling.” The goal is to release the fresh, green taste and aroma of the leaves, not to break or pulverize them (think Cary Grant, not Iron Man).

PHOTO: The Fountainhead Chicago mixologist Kasey Bersett muddles basil leaves in a Mason jar.

Herb Garden Weekend presenter Kasey Bersett Eaves demonstrates proper muddling technique—check out the natural wood muddler.

Here’s the second rule of muddling: always hold your arm at a 90-degree angle, pressing straight down from the elbow through the wrist through the muddler. (What’s a muddler? Read on.) Press down once, release, and rotate the jar a quarter turn. Repeat five more times. Six presses are about right for a single drink—more if you’re making a pitcher’s worth.

Here’s the third rule of muddling: muddlers are very cool. Essentially a press that reaches to the bottom of a glass or pitcher, muddlers can be found at most kitchenware stores, both in hardwood (walnut, maple) and stainless steel versions. Yes, a wooden spoon works, too. Vintage aficionados: look for stainless steel bar sets from the ’50s and ’60s. That big bump at the end of the long swizzle stick is a muddler.

Infusions

Herbal infusions are a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea that’s easy, healthy, and really tasty (hot on the restaurant scene, too). Kasey shared her recipe:

PHOTO: A mash of water, sugar, watermelon, tarragon, and basil steeps to create a flavored syrup.

A muddle of fruit and herbs, destined to become a tasty beverage.

Herbal Water Infusion

  • Fresh herbs (see list above)
  • Fresh fruit (any but bananas; see list)
  • 2-quart jar or pitcher
  • Muddler or wooden spoon
  • Water

Wash fruit and rinse herbs thoroughly. Place enough herbs inside the jar to cover the bottom. Add about a cup of fruit. (Amounts of both will vary according to taste—feel free to experiment!) Bruise fruit and herb leaves with muddler to release some of the juices and flavor. Do not pulverize! Fill jar with ice and water. Cover and refrigerate for two hours. Strain water into glasses. Refrigerated infusions will keep in the refrigerator up to five days.

Icy & Sweet: Herbal Tea

In summer, iced tea is the beverage du jour. Love sweet tea, but don’t like its sugar? Kasey’s tea recipe uses fresh stevia—an herb that’s 30 times sweeter than sugar—plus other herbs from your garden for a greener version of sweet. Just add ice and a tall glass.

PHOTO: Mint infuses in a quart mason jar for 24 hours.

An infusion of mint and stevia makes a refreshing, instant herbal tea— just strain and serve over ice.

Backyard Herb and Stevia Iced Tea Concentrate

  • ¼ cup stevia leaves
  • 2 cups water
  • 1½ cups fresh herb leaves (mint or lemon verbena taste best, but feel free to experiment!)

For concentrate: Rinse and drain herbs. Add all ingredients above to a small, nonreactive pot and bring to a boil on the stove. Let boil for one minute; remove from heat. Allow mixture to steep and cool six hours or overnight. Strain cooled liquid into a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator up to one week, or freeze for later use.

To use: Mix 1 cup of concentrate to 3 cups water, or to taste. 

Simple Syrups Rock

“Simple syrups” are called that for a reason: they’re truly easy to concoct. Added in place of sugar to your favorite lemonade, soda, sweet tea, or cocktail recipe, simple syrup is the secret to a full-flavored summer drink.

PHOTO: Tarragon simple syrup and fresh peaches enliven a sparkling wine cocktail.

A simple syrup drink made with tarragon + peaches + Prosecco = lovely.

Easy Herbal Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup herb of your choice (whole leaves or lightly chopped, packed into measuring cup)

Rinse and drain herbs. In a small, nonreactive pot, stir water and sugar together over heat until sugar dissolves, bringing the mixture just to a boil. Add herbs in, stir gently for 30 seconds, then remove from heat. Let the mixture cool (approximately 30 minutes). Strain.

Store the syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for use within a week to 10 days, or freeze in ice cube trays for convenient later use.

Simple syrups make memorable cocktails. Add a splash of herbal simple syrup to a champagne flute before topping off with Prosecco or dry white wine for a cheers-worthy toast. Or enjoy your herbs on ice—freeze the syrup in ice cube trays (top off each cube divider with a small herb leaf for garnish before freezing) and use as a sweetener for iced tea or cocktails. Imagine a glass of bourbon that slowly becomes a mint julep because you added minty simple syrup ice cubes! 

PHOTO: An array of cocktail mixers and cocktail recipe books.

Stock the hippest minibar in town—yours—with your own herbal elixirs, concentrates, and simple syrups from the Garden Shop.

Interested in dabbling in the cocktail arts yourself? Kasey recommends The Home Distiller’s Handbook as a good starter guide. Find drink enhancers and more at the Garden Shop, including elderflower and rose elixirs, and the mysterious Owl’s Brew tea concentrate—best with bourbons and whiskeys. Cheers!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org