Interested in a healthier, happier life? Try connecting with the natural world. A new, technologically advanced body of research shows that spending time in nature can provide protection against cancer, high blood pressure, depression, stress, and more.

Take a walk in nature to improve your mood and your health.

Take a walk in nature to improve your mood and your health.

Earlier this year, a National Geographic article noted that advances in neuroscience and psychology have provided scientists with more tools to look at the way nature affects our brains and bodies. According to the article, “These measurements—of everything from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves to protein markers—indicate that when we spend time in green space, ‘there is something profound going on,’” said University of Utah cognitive psychologist David Strayer.

University of Illinois environment and behavior researcher Ming Kuo found that nature has the ability to enhance the functioning of the body’s immune system. “Nature doesn’t just have one or two active ingredients,” she told the university’s College News. “It’s more like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of the nutrients we need. That’s how nature can protect us from all these different kinds of diseases—cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, musculoskeletal, etc.—simultaneously.”

Improve learning with time spent in the natural world.

Improve learning with time spent in the natural world.

Other studies show that nature is essential to the well-being of children. Children learn and focus better, and are healthier and more relaxed in green spaces, researchers say. In its national guidelines on encouraging nature play, the National Wildlife Federation says, “Nature play is defined as a learning process, engaging children in working together to develop physical skills, to exercise their imaginations, to stimulate poetic expression, to begin to understand the workings of the world around them.”

Come experience the Chicago Botanic Garden’s new Nature Play Garden, where visitors of all ages and abilities can roll down hills, splash in water, hide in logs, and more.

The Nature Play Garden is part of the new Regenstein Learning Campus. Come to the free Opening Celebration on September 10 and 11.

It’s been another fantastic season at Butterflies & Blooms, which is open through September 5 at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This is my second year working at Butterflies & Blooms, and I think it’s looking better than ever. 

The biggest surprise this year happened this week.

We received some big, hairy atlas moth cocoons, and I was a little concerned about whether they would have time to emerge before we have to shut our doors for the season. When I came into the pupae chamber a few days after they arrived, there was a giant female Attacus atlas staring at me, as if to say, “Ha! I showed you!” I chuckled to myself. Our volunteers had also assumed we might not have any more moths this season, so they were equally surprised. I brought it out of the display, its strong feet clinging to my finger. I reached far up into a serviceberry tree and placed the moth where visitors could get an ideal view. Just a few minutes later, a handful of photographers stopped by, and they happily snapped away.

PHOTO: Photographers snap pictures of our new atlas moth, “Aaliyah.”

Volunteer Robyn Lynblad came up with the idea of naming each moth the way meteorologists name tropical storms, so we named this one “Aaliyah.”

To make that week even better, a new African moon moth (Argema mimosae) emerged. We are not sure if it’s male or female, so we decided to name it “Bobby.” Bobby and Aaliyah (the atlas moth) will definitely be hanging around for a couple of weeks, so come over and say hello.

PHOTO: Atlas moth.

Photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTO: African moon moth.

Photo by Tucson Botanical (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies & Blooms will be moving to its new home at the Regenstein Learning Campus in 2017. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for visitors to come to interact and learn about nature in some of its most beautiful forms. Being able to study and interact with nature has a profound effect on people of all ages, especially children. It awakens the childlike wonder that we all have. It certainly has for me.

See Butterflies & Blooms in its current location from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through September 5, 2016.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

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

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


Kris Jarantoski

PHOTO: Kris Jarantoski, age 3.

Kris at age 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amy Kerr Wells

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

Amy in her grandmother’s garden

PHOTO: Amy Wells, Manager, Youth & Family Programs.

Amy Wells, manager, Youth & Family Programs

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

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


Ann Halley

PHOTO: Ann Halley as a child.

Ann helps in the backyard garden.

PHOTO: Ann Halley, Coordinator, Early Childhood Programs.

Ann Halley, coordinator, Early Childhood Programs

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

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


Julia McMahon

PHOTO: Julia McMahon as a baby.

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

PHOTO: Jullia McMahon, Coordinator, Family Programs.

Julia McMahon, coordinator, Family Programs

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

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

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

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


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: Dr. Greg Mueller in the field.

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

Take a glimpse into the wilderness from their eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum).

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: Dr. Andrea Kramer at Arches National Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Are you staring at the glorious color wheel of peppers at your local grocer or farmers’ market and salivating over your peppers growing at home?

If so, you are a pepper lover, and while you hold yourself back from buying every type you see on the shelf, you also know that this feeling is fleeting.

PHOTO: pickled peppers.

Savor the flavor—pickling lets your harvest last longer and tastes amazing.

Those beautiful colors and unusual varieties are in their prime now, when the hot summer days and good strong rains are perfect support for a fruiting pepper plant. In just a month or two, the number of varieties will start to dwindle and your hot spicy recipes will taste bland again.

Fear not! You can preserve that color and flavor easily with pickled peppers! But even Peter Piper couldn’t pick a peck of them. You have to pickle them yourself. Luckily, pickling peppers is perfectly painless.

PHOTO: Use gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Play it smart! Wear gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Note: Be careful when handling hot peppers; don’t rub your eyes as the capsaicin will migrate and can really irritate them (and be detrimental to contact lenses). One way to avoid this is to use disposable gloves. Wash your hands thoroughly after removing the gloves as well.

Hot or not:

Just how spicy do you want your peppers? Go ahead and take a bite. If it’s too hot, it’s not too late. Before you pickle, core your peppers (removing the seeds and inner ribs). This removes some of its spiciest elements. You can also run them under water once they are cored to lessen the heat.

PHOTO: Coring peppers removes some of their "heat."

Coring and removing the ribs and seeds takes a lot of the heat out of the pepper. Like the pepper hot? Leave them in.

If you like it hot, leave your peppers whole. Just poke or slit holes in the side of the pepper to expose the inside to the pickling liquid.

Be sure your pickles are tender, firm, crisp and not showing any spots, wrinkled skin, or decay. Also, wash them well before pickling.

Skin off:

Pickled pepper skin can be unpleasant and rubbery. If you are thinly slicing your peppers (or your peppers are very thin-skinned), you may choose to leave the skin on. However, if you are pickling your peppers whole, remove the skin now by blistering the outside of the pepper on the grill, in the oven, or with the broiler. Once the skin is blistered on all sides, let the pepper cool and the skin will slide right off.

If you don’t want to heat up the kitchen on a summer day, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin (preserve as much of the flesh as possible).

PHOTO: peppers on a roasting rack.

A brief roast will blister the skins of your peppers, making them slide right off when cool.

PHOTO: skinning peppers with a vegetable peeler.

You can also skin peppers with a peeler.

Sterilize your jars and make pickling liquid.

Use glass jars that can vacuum seal (Mason® or Ball® jars work great). Wash them well, then heat them in the dishwasher or fill with boiling water until the glass is hot. Pour out water just before you fill them with peppers and brine.

A basic brine for a 1 pint jar contains the following:

  • 2 cups vinegar (white distilled vinegar preserves the pepper colors best)
  • 1¼ teaspoons canning or pickling salt
  • ½ tablespoon of sugar or honey (*may be left out if you prefer)

PHOTO: Ingredients for pickled peppers.

Dill, onions, garlic, and peppers: this is going to be awesome.

What to add?

Onion, garlic cloves, peppercorns, mustard seeds, dill seeds, sesame seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and many other spices can add flavor to the brine. For a true Chicago hot dog, add two garlic cloves and a pinch of mustard seed. For a sweet approach, add 2 tablespoons of honey and some chopped onion. For Thai Chilies, add sesame seed for richer tasting pickles.

TIME OUT TO TASTE TEST!

Take a sliver of your pepper and a bit of your pickling liquid and set to the side. Let the liquid cool and then taste them together. Hold your nose—the vinegar will be strong! This is not exact, but gives you can idea to the flavors you’ve mixed. Adjust your spices as you may need.

PHOTO: packed jars ready for pickle brine.

Leave space to pour the brine in, and for the jars to seal properly.

Pack your jars:

Bring the brine to a boil; reduce heat and cook just long enough for the salt to dissolve in the vinegar (about 2 minutes). Pack your garlic cloves, extra dill, or other ingredients with your peppers into the hot jars, leaving 1 inch of air (called headspace) in the top of the jar. Then, ladle the hot pickling brine over the peppers until the brine is ½ inch from the top of the jar.

Put on your lids and rings and close gently. Don’t turn as tight as you can—you want the lid to be easy to loosen later.

Store:

If you plan to use your peppers right away, put the jars into the fridge for two days and start eating!

If you want to hold on to you peppers longer, you will want to can them. Place your newly packed jars into a canning pot filled with boiling water. The water should sit 1 inch above the jars. Keep the water boiling for 10 minutes. Then lift the jars out of the water and let them cool on a towel (not touching each other). After they have cooled overnight, press the center of the lid down with your finger. If the lid doesn’t move, it has sealed and your peppers will keep for up to a year! If the lid pops up and down, the jar didn’t seal and should go into the fridge for quick eating.

Don’t forget to have fun! Play with different color and flavor combos or chop the peppers for something spreadable. As long as you use the right amount of vinegar and salt, the sky is the limit!

Already perfected pepper pickling? Then make giardiniera!

Use half the recipe above and add carrot, celery, onion, cauliflower, green olives, and garlic to the jars. Also add 2 tablespoons oregano, 1 teaspoon celery seed, 1 teaspoon ground pepper, and 3 cups of olive oil to the pickling liquid. Rather than canning, let the jars ferment in your fridge for at least two days before eating for the best flavor.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org