So you think you’re an ace tree identifier. Those big scalloped leaves are from oak trees, the three-fingered hand shapes are maple leaves, those little oval leaves marching in a double line along a stem are from an ash—boo yah!

OK, now do it without any leaves.

And yes, you can…with a little help from Jim Jabcon, assistant ecologist for natural areas. The other day Jabcon, walked me through the McDonald Woods and began my education.

PHOTO: Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) bark.

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

Jim Jabcon is giving a class on Identifying Trees and Shrubs in Winter on December 10. Sign up today!

First, he corrected my misinformation. I always thought the trick was looking at the tree’s habit—its size and shape. But no—especially not in a natural woodland like this. A tree’s habit depends on where it is growing—how crowded it is by other trees and what it has to do to catch some sunlight.

“Any tree will change its habit depending on what is given to it,” he said as we walked into the woods. “You can probably get 100 trees in a row, but it’s like a fingerprint. They all have different spaces, different light; they’re all going to be different.”

Still, there are some distinctive shapes. Does the tree have thick branches, even at its top with a fearsome, gnarly look worthy of a horror movie? Jabcon nodded at a towering behemoth that could have played a role in The Exorcist: it was an oak.

But let’s start with a major clue: bark.

Jabcon cast a practiced eye—an artist’s eye, in fact, for his degree is in fine art—over the trees. He pointed out a tall tree whose trunk was covered in thick, rough bark.

That bark is the giveaway. The tree was an oak; the tough bark is its secret to surviving fires.

PHOTO: Black walnut (Juglans nigra) bark.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra)

Nearby, another tree boasted thick bark with a rugged geometry, forming blocky rectangles running vertically up the tree in a kind of forest version of cubism.

“This is your black walnut,” Jabcon said. “It’s got a really good knobby bark.”

It also had another tree, a small sapling, growing in a crook about 5 feet up. Jabcon pulled it out and showed how its slender reddish branches were covered with a white chalky material that scraped off easily. “This is your box elder, in the maple family,” he said.

And further along the trail was a tree that won my heart because it looked like another part of a human body.

Its smooth, gray trunk was wrapped in bark with the sinewy look of muscle.

That was because the tree was a muscle wood—the common name for an American hornbeam, bestowed because of the signature appearance of its bark.

PHOTO: American hornbeam or muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana) bark.

American hornbeam or muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana)

Walking on, we stopped at another tree with its own distinctive bark, which looks like big hunks of bark pasted onto the trunk and separated by deep grooves. That “warty” bark, as Jabcon put it, identified it as hackberry. (Celtis occidentalis)

Blogger Kathy J. gives you a Tree 101 on hackberry in her post This Bark is Rough.

Still, bark isn’t the only clue. Jabcon pulled a slender branch close and examined the leaf buds running along its length.

They were in neat pairs, each bud opposite another. “Very few trees have opposite leaf buds,” he said. “Ashes. Maples. So if you’ve got opposite buds you can narrow it down.”

To make the final ID, he examined the terminal bud—the bud at the very end of the branch. It consisted of a cluster of three tiny points, making the branch look almost like a miniature deer hoof. That distinctive shape settled it: this was a white ash.

And so it went as we wandered through the woodland.

We looked at leaf buds, like the sulphur yellow leaf ones (“I love how cool they are,” Jabcon said) on a bitter nut, one of his favorite trees.

We looked at terminal buds, like the super-long ones that look like a goose’s bill and mark it as a nannyberry, a kind of viburnum.

PHOTO: Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) bark.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)

We looked at bark, like the one hanging in huge strips off a tree. It was a shagbark hickory. This tree’s bark has peeled off in such big pieces that bats have hibernated beneath them.

And if all else fails, there is another clue still there in winter, though soon it could be hidden under snow.

“It’s OK to cheat and look at leaves on the ground,” Jabcon said cheerfully, picking up a few oak leaves to prove the point. “They’re still there.”


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Some of the star attractions of Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden are the dozens of beautiful dwarf conifers used to create Chicago in miniature. What you might not know is that many of these conifers are great plants for the Chicago area and can easily be incorporated into your home landscape.

Dwarf conifers are a good way to add four-season interest and wildlife habitat to your yard, and with their unique colors and growth habits, they are practically living sculptures. I’ve selected four of my favorite interesting and unique conifers (found in Wonderland Express—go check them out) that are hardy in the Chicago region.

Picea englemanii 'Bush's Lace'

Picea englemannii ‘Bush’s Lace’ features elegantly draping stems.

Picea omorika 'de Rutyer'

Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’ displays bright blue needles.

Engleman spruce (Picea engelmannii ‘Bush’s Lace’) is a tall, powder blue spruce that is grown for its upright habit and pendulous side branches. Unlike some evergreens, this spruce will keep the gorgeous blue color throughout the year. This tree thrives in the extremes of Chicago’s summers and frigid winters. It is a vigorous plant and will often put on two feet of growth in one season, so make sure to plant it somewhere where it has some room. Engleman spruce are happiest in full sun with well-drained soil. A mature specimen of this tree can be found in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

De Ruyter Serbian spruce (Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’) is another spruce that will thrive in the Chicago region. Serbian spruce typically feature dark green needles with silver undersides that shimmer in the breeze, but on this variety, the silver is on top, making for a pop of silvery blue on each branch. This is a slower-growing cultivar, often growing only six to eight inches a year in a loosely conical shape. Because it is a spruce, it requires full sun and well-drained soil to look its best. There is also a large specimen of De Ruyter in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

Pinus mugo 'Tannenbaum'

Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’ holds its beautiful green color all winter.

Tannenbaum mugo pine (Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’) is a twist on a classic mugo pine. Most people are familiar with mugo pines as the little round pines that often resemble boulders in the landscape. Tannenbaum, as the name suggests, is an upright form that grows as a perfect green pyramid, with the classic Christmas tree shape. It is a relatively slow-growing plant—approximately six inches per year—and holds its dark green color all year. Mugo pines are amazingly hardy and should do well throughout the Chicago area, provided they receive full sun and have relatively well-drained soil.

Glauca Prostrata noble fir (Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’) grows as a creeping mat of icy blue foliage. Weeping blue noble fir makes an unusual addition to the landscape due to its rounded needles, unlike the similar weeping Colorado blue spruce, which has incredibly sharp needles. This makes it a far better choice for placing near walkways. This slow-growing plant averages four to six  inches of growth a year, eventually forming a clump about two feet tall and about six feet wide. As with other conifers, this noble fir prefers full sun and well-drained soil.

Abies procera 'Glauca Prostrata'

Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ stands out among the surrounding greenery.

Top tips for keeping your conifers happy:

  1. Most conifers prefer full sun and have very little shade tolerance. All of the trees in this article prefer full sun.
  2. Conifers are generally adapted to areas with well-drained soil. Avoid places that stay wet to prolong the life of your plant.
  3. Avoid windy locations. Because conifers keep their needles all year, it is best to site them in less exposed places so they don’t dry out and lose their needles.
  4. Water thoroughly in the fall. You only have once chance to make sure the plant has enough water before the ground freezes and you can’t water it anymore. If we have a dry fall, it is helpful to water your newly planted trees until the ground freezes so they have enough water to last the winter.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Holiday plants and flowers make great gifts for everyone on your shopping lists. They are perfect gifts for family members, the host and hostess of the holiday parties you attend, and of course, are beautiful for decorating your own home. Plus, they can be enjoyed long after the holiday season is over, adding color and life to your home on chilly winter days.

But getting your plants to last longer will require a little special care. Here’s how to take care of the most popular gift plants, both during the holiday season and long after.

Jubilee Red poinsettia

Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jubilee Red’

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) appreciate bright light away from heating vents, fireplaces, and drafty windows or doors. Maintain even moisture (but avoid soggy soil); plants will wilt dramatically if allowed to dry out. The plants should never be allowed to stand in water for more than 20 minutes if possible.

Poinsettia plants can be a challenge to keep year-round, and most gardeners discard the plant after the holidays. However, those trying to force a rebloom the following season can follow these guidelines:

  • As long as the plant looks healthy, continue to provide it with even moisture and warm temperatures in a bright location, out of direct sun. In six to eight weeks, it will begin to lose its leaves and turn slightly off-color. At that point, cut the entire plant back to 6 inches and repot in a larger pot, adding enough extra soilless mix or potting soil to fill the pot. Water thoroughly and place the plant in a south-facing window.
  • Begin to fertilize the plant twice a month with a dilute 20-20-20 or 10-10-10 mix. New growth should begin. Begin pinching new stems back once a month to encourage bushy growth. Continue this pinching until the end of summer.
  • In mid-May, after all danger of frost has passed, gradually introduce the plant to the outdoors, bringing it back in at night until the nighttime temperature remains above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Then place the pot in a sunny spot where it is protected from strong afternoon summer sun. Water and fertilize regularly.
  • When night temperatures approach 60 degrees, it’s time to bring the poinsettia back inside to a sunny windowsill. By the end of September, the plant must be placed in a completely dark closet or covered with a box every night from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.—with no exceptions. After 7 a.m., it can be placed back in a sunny window but returned to the closet at 5 p.m. This dark treatment is necessary for the plant to set its flower buds. Provide normal water during the day and fertilize monthly.
  • Poinsettia plants thrive in warm rooms with bright light and will suffer if exposed to drafts, sudden temperature changes, or excess dryness from heating vents. Continue this treatment until the middle of December, when the plant should be fully colored up for display again for the holidays.

Cocktail amaryllis

Hippeastrum ‘Cocktail’

Amaryllis (Hippeastrumbulbs should be potted up in wide, squat containers using a soilless mix. Allow the “shoulders” of the bulb to remain above soil level; water well once and then allow soil to dry out before watering again. Keep the pot away from direct sunlight, drafts, and heating vents.

  • Most amaryllis plants will send up stalks and flower first (leaves will emerge after a bloom cycle). As the stalk grows, rotate the pot for even growth. After flowering, allow the stalks to yellow and wither before removing them from the bulb.
  • Continue to water the plant after leaves emerge. After May 15, take the plant outside and place it in a location where it receives morning sunlight. Fertilize regularly with a dilute 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 mix.
  • Around October 15, bring the plant inside for its resting period. If the leaves have yellowed, remove them from the bulb. If they are still green, allow them to yellow before removing them from the bulb. Take the bulb out of its container; shake off the dirt and place it in a cool, dark room (40 to 50 degrees). At that time, cut off any dried roots from the bulb and re-pot. Signs of new green growth can occur from six to 10 weeks later.

Cyclamen 'Salmon with Eye'

Cyclamen ‘Salmon with Eye’

Cyclamen plants prefer quite cool indoor conditions. Water only when the soil dries out, and avoid splashing water on foliage.

  • Water these plants below the foliage, or set them in a shallow saucer to soak up water. Discard any unused water after 20 to 30 minutes. (To prevent root rot, make sure the plants don’t sit in water for long periods of time.)
  • Cyclamen will continue to bloom for a few weeks if they are kept in a north- or east-facing window. Remove the faded flowers and their stems at the base of the plant as soon as possible to keep the plants blooming in a tidy fashion. Most gardeners find it too difficult to force the plant to bloom again the following season.
Azalea 'Big Joe'

Azalea ‘Big Joe’

Azaleas require moist soil, bright light, and occasional misting. They perform best if kept in cool locations. Flowers will remain for months if old blossoms are quickly removed, the plant receives adequate moisture, and it is kept in cool conditions.

  • In May, once all danger of frost has passed, the plant can be taken outside to a shaded or partially shaded spot where it only receives morning light in the garden. At that time, begin to fertilize twice a month with a dilute liquid fertilizer formulated especially for acid-loving plants.
  • Bring the plant back indoors before October 15.

Phalaenopsis orchid

Phalaenopsis orchid

Phalaenopsis or moth orchids prefer warm rooms in bright, but not direct sun. Moth orchids will bloom for months, but sudden temperature changes can cause the plant to drop buds. Remove drying buds to maintain the beauty of the plant. Orchids potted in fir bark generally require once-a-week watering. Those in potting soil can be watered less often.

  • After flowering, allow the stem to yellow before cutting it off at the base of the plant. Begin fertilizing plant twice a month with a dilute orchid fertilizer. This will encourage the growth of a new stem and more flowers the following year.
  • Wash the foliage monthly. It’s not necessary to take this plant outdoors for the summer; but it will tolerate being moved outside if kept in shady location, and not allowed to dry out.
  • Continue normal watering and fertilizing until a new stem appears, approximately 10 to 12 months later. When the plant initiates flower buds, discontinue fertilizing.
  • Continue to provide bright light—but keep out of direct sunlight—in a warm room. During winter, try to provide extra humidity from pebble trays, or by misting daily if possible. 

 


Ivy topiary

Ivy topiary

Ivy topiaries are popular holiday plants that can last for years if given proper care.

  • Like cyclamen and azaleas, ivy also prefers quite cool conditions and bright light far away from heating vents or fireplaces.
  • Mist the plant regularly, or rinse the plants in a sink to keep the foliage clean and free of spider mites. As new growth emerges, train the new growth to the desired form.
  • Take the plants outside after May 15. Maintain growth during the summer by keeping the plants watered often, and fertilize them at least once a month, keeping the plants in a semi-shaded location. Continue training and pruning the plants periodically to keep their desired form.
Paperwhites

Narcissus papyraceus

Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) may require a cage or a ring of raffia tied around them to keep them from flopping as they grow. If purchased as bulbs, grow them in a shallow dish filled with pebbles rather than soil. Arrange the bulbs close together and cover them with pebbles, with just their tips exposed. (The weight of the pebbles helps to keep them from falling to the side as they grow.) Water just enough to encourage root growth, not soaking the bulbs.

Paperwhites can be discarded after blooming, as they are not hardy to be planted outside in your garden.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Christmas tree lots carry a dazzling array of trees ranging from fragrant balsam firs (Abies balsamea) to shimmering Colorado blue spruces (Picea pungens). With so many choices, how does one choose?

The three most commonly encountered groups of Christmas trees are firs, pines, and spruces.

PHOTO: Siberian fir tree (Abies sibirica).

Siberian fir
(Abies sibirica)

Fir (Abies sp.)

The most common firs available are Canaan fir, noble fir, and balsam fir. All make terrific trees with a classic piney fragrance. They feature dark green needles (often with silver undersides) and are known for their rounded needles, which minimize injuries. They’re among the longest-lived Christmas trees and most resistant to needle drop. The main downside is that some varieties can be very expensive.

PHOTO: Colorado blue spruce (Picea pugens 'Procumbens')

Colorado blue spruce
(Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’)

Spruce (Picea sp.)

Spruces come in colors ranging from dark green to icy blue, but they all share one thing in common; incredibly sharp needles. While they make terrific trees for outdoor decorating, they do not hold up very well to the dry air indoors. If you select a spruce, it is critical that it is kept away from any sources of heat that might dry it out. The branches are strong and can support ornaments well, and their color range is quite appealing. When used properly, spruce can be an excellent plant for holiday decorating.

PHOTO: Pinus cembra 'Blue Mound'.

Pinus cembra ‘Blue Mound’ from our Wonderland Express exhibition showcases its long, soft needles.

Pine (Pinus sp.)

Pines are another popular Christmas tree. The most commonly available pines are white pine and Scots pine. Pines feature long needles and tend to have a more clumpy look on the branches so the overall effect is less formal than the firs and spruce. The branches are generally more stiff than other evergreens, which makes them great for hanging ornaments. The biggest downside to pines is that they often turn a duller green for the winter. Many tree lots dye them a darker green to make them more attractive.

As you can see, every type has its pluses and minuses, but a few things hold true no matter which type of tree you select:

  1. Ask to unbag the tree before purchasing it. Many tree lots have the trees in netted bags, which makes it hard to see if the tree has a flat side or a bald spot. If this is a concern, just ask.
  2. Give the tree a good shake. If you find lots of needles falling off, that means the tree is dried out and will not last long.
  3. Look for trees with healthy, firm needles. Dull, brittle needles are a sign of a dried-out tree.
  4. Always give the trunk a fresh cut before placing it in water. If you have the ability to do this at home, that’s best, but your tree will be fine if you have it done at the lot just before bringing it home.
  5. Get your tree into water as soon as possible. Once the cut end scabs over, the tree will have a hard time taking up water and will lose needles rapidly.
  6. Never allow the water dish to dry out. It’s not uncommon to refill the dish every day, especially for the first week.
  7. Christmas tree food (a liquid food similar to the packets of cut flower food you receive in bouquets) helps extend the life of your tree.
  8. Avoid placing your tree near radiators or heating vents. This will cause needles to dry out very rapidly and can quickly become a fire hazard.
  9. At the end of the season, trees can be “planted” in the snow and used as seasonal decor and shelter for birds, or composted.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Thanksgiving is here again, and we at the Chicago Botanic Garden are thankful for all the pollinators who make our food possible, every day, around the world. Bats, bees, butterflies, birds, and more pollinate plants that create one-third of the food we eat.

As you enjoy a meal with friends and family, take a moment to say thanks for the little things that make such a big difference—pollinators!

Draw and color the foods you are eating at your feast in the center of your plate on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them.Instructions: Click on the image above to download our placemat to enjoy with your feast.

The ideal printing size is tabloid (11 x 17 inches). Letter size paper (8.5 x 11 inches) will also work if you choose “fit to page” when printing.

Draw and color the foods you are eating on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them. Then, fill the Thanksgiving plate by drawing and coloring the foods—fruits, vegetables, and spices—that were brought to you by pollinators.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org