Most butterflies and moths featured in popular magazines and other media are large, well-known species, such as monarchs and luna moths.

Within scientific communities as well, species descriptions are biased toward larger moths, overlooking the multitude of tiny ones. Despite this tendency to favor larger species, the average moth is actually quite small, though far from nondescript!

PHOTO: Mompha species moth; photo taken in Utah.

Mompha species moth; photo taken in Utah

My research at the Chicago Botanic Garden focuses on an insufficiently studied moth group called Mompha, the largest genus within the family Momphidae. Mompha are tiny moths characterized by 4- to 8-millimeter tufted forewings and distinct color patterns.

PHOTO: Mompha stellella and M. eloisella moths

Specimens up close: Mompha stellella on the left and Mompha eloisella on the right. Both are found in Illinois, typically during the month of August. Photo credit: Terry Harrison

In North America, there are approximately 40 described species, or taxa, of Mompha. In addition to these identified species, a number of undescribed taxa are located throughout the North American West and Southwest. Mompha larvae feed on the reproductive (i.e., flowers, buds, and fruits) and vegetative (i.e., leaves, stems, and roots) structures of members of the Lythraceae, Cistaceae, Rubiaceae, and, most commonly, Onagraceae (evening primroses). In Illinois, Mompha can be collected in your backyard from Oenothera biennis (common evening primrose).

PHOTO: Mompha feeding and caterpillars.

Examples of Mompha bud-feeding and Mompha fruit-feeding caterpillars

Because many Mompha species share the same coloration, the only morphological characteristics—size, shape, and structure of an organism or one of its parts—that accurately differentiate taxa are unique genitalia. Experienced lepidopterists—butterfly and moth researchers or collectors—are able to carefully dissect moths in order to view their genitalia. However, due to the unique skills involved in moth dissection and genitalia identification, few scientists are qualified to identify different Mompha species.

PHOTO: Closeup of Mompha species caterpillar.

Close-up of Mompha species caterpillar

Instead of conducting genitalia dissections, I am sequencing six genes from hundreds of Mompha collected over the span of three years from the Western and Southwestern United States. DNA, like morphological characteristics, can be used to identify and characterize differences between species. To analyze the differences within Mompha DNAI modeled phylogenetic trees.

PHOTO: Tubes of moth DNA samples.

Tubes and tubes of Mompha moth DNA samples

Phylogenetic trees depict evolutionary relationships between species in regard to genetic characteristic; closely related species share similar DNA and are thus placed close together on a phylogenetic tree. These trees will allow me to describe the natural history of Mompha in North America. This means that I will be able to identify new Mompha speciesas well as Mompha host plant preferences, plant structure preferences, emergence times, and geographic isolation.

Check back here in a couple of months to read about the results of my analyses!


Select photos by Donald Hobern (Flickr: Mompha epilobiella) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, and Rick Overson.
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

With more than 1,850 known species of moths in the state of Illinois—more than ten times the diversity of butterflies—it is a real adventure sampling the moth species inhabiting the McDonald Woods at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Using a combination of light and bait traps along with visual searches, I have been investigating the diversity of moth species found in the restored portions of our oak woodland. Moths are removed from the traps and then photographed before being released back to the woodland.

PHOTO: Ctenucha virginica (Virginia Ctenucha) moth.

The metallic scales of Ctenucha virginica (Virginia Ctenucha moth) are striking—even its wings have a metallic sheen.

My interest in moths stems from the fact that many of the species are dependent on one or just a few native plant species for their survival, and as a result, may serve as valuable indicators of the health of our recovering, once-degraded oak woodland. The larval stages—the caterpillars—primarily feed on the roots, stems, and leaves of the plants. Adult moth species are very important pollinators. White-flowered and night-fragrant plant species are often what they seek. There are day-flying moths also, like some of the hawk moths (which are often mistaken for hummingbirds) that are seen visiting a variety of flowers in full daylight. Moths are also a tremendously important part of the food chain. Entomologist Doug Tallamy tabulated the number of caterpillars that were utilized to support one nest of black-capped chickadees and found that they consumed between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars, most of which were moth species. Adding even a few native plant species to your yard can benefit a multitude of these valuable invertebrates.

PHOTO: Smerinthus jamaicensis (Twin-spotted sphinx moth).

Smerinthus jamaicensis (Twin-spotted sphinx moth)

PHOTO: Plusia contexta (Connected looper moth).

Plusia contexta (Connected looper moth)

PHOTO: Ponometia erastrioides (Small bird-dropping moth).

Ponometia erastrioides (Small bird-dropping moth)

PHOTO: Plagodis phlogosaria (Straight-lined Plagodis moth).

Plagodis phlogosaria (Straight-lined Plagodis moth)

It is a never-ending surprise to see what new species will show up each time traps are placed.

Some species are so small (usually referred to by lepidopterists as micromoths) that most people would pass them off as gnats or pesky flies. Some micromoths are only 3-4 millimeters long. One in particular I like to refer to as the “Nemo” moth, as in Finding Nemo. I gave this species that name because its colorful pattern reminds me of a clown fish.

PHOTO: A cryptically-colored Noctua pronuba (Large yellow underwing moth).

A cryptically colored Noctua pronuba (Large yellow underwing moth)

At the other end of the spectrum are the moth species that are quite large. The giant silkworm moths, like the luna and Cecropia moths, have a wingspan of more than 140 millimeters. Starting in mid-July and going through September, a group of medium to large moths known as underwing moths starts appearing in the woods. These delta-shaped species are usually very cryptically colored on their forewing and brightly and starkly colored on their hind wing. The cryptic forewing allows them to blend in with the tree trunks they are resting on; the hindwing only becomes visible when they spread their wings to fly. It is thought to be a distraction or scare tactic to foil predators.

Although there is a subtle nuance of shapes, colors, and textures that distinguish many species, there are also those that are in-your-face with shockingly bright colors, metallic ornamentation, stark patterns, and jagged ridges of scales—much like a mountain range on six legs—that never fail to impress me. The looper moths are one good example. Many have stigmas (distinctive white patches and scrolling) on the surface of the wing and spectacular assortments of peaks, crowns, and ridges of scales on the thorax and inner edges of the wings. The scale patterns most likely evolved to break up the silhouette of the moth to make it less visible. One of the hooded owlet moths has a tall patch of scales on its thorax that looks like a witches hat when erect, but it can also be laid down over the moths head to make it look like a broken-off stick.

PHOTO: Leucania pseudargyria (False wainscot moth).

Leucania pseudargyria (False wainscot moth)

In general, there is a new group of species that emerges about every two weeks during the year, with midsummer being the peak for species and abundance. Many moth species have relatively short flight periods and can only be seen at certain times of the year, but some have multiple broods that show up several times during the year. When I show some of these moths to colleagues, they almost always say, “I never knew these things existed.”

Under the cover of darkness, there is a world of beauty and fascination fluttering silently among the trees. It makes me wonder if the full moon doesn’t show up once a month just to shed a little light on the show, just so we don’t miss it completely.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I am an enthusiast of space design.

After a two-year technical degree at École Boulle (a school of fine arts and crafts and applied arts in Paris, France), I decided to study for my master’s degree at the National School of Landscape Architecture of Versailles.

PHOTO: French summer intern Lisa Ho.

I spent most of my time working and learning in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

For me, work in landscape architecture is the best way to unite many different and interesting fields, such as art, sociology, and ecology. Designing spaces where people will live and have an emotional connection to their surroundings is my way of creating happiness.

I chose to do an internship in the United States to broaden my understanding of how cities here developed over time in comparison with France, which has had many hundreds of years to develop. In Chicago, I saw that the gardens were designed like the links of the city, and learned one of the reasons for this is Chicago’s motto, Urbs in horto, which means “city in a garden.”

Through my internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I also wanted to learn practical horticulture skills, like plant identification, choosing the right plants for certain spaces, and techniques for good plant health. For example, to improve air circulation and the growth of some vegetables, I learned to stake up tomatillos, and use trellises for beans.

PHOTO: Lisa Ho's sketchbook illustrations and notes on plantings in the vegetable beds.

My sketchbook illustrations and notes on plantings in the vegetable beds. Three Sisters is a trio of vegetables planted together for their mutual benefit. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the soil. Squash vines shade emerging weeds and keep the soil moist.

I spent a total of four weeks at the Chicago Botanic Garden, working mainly in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden under that garden’s horticulturist, Lisa Hilgenberg. During Pepper Sundays, I learned that one of the special plants in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden is the bull-nose pepper—a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who was an ambassador to France and a great plant enthusiast. He made many plant exchanges with people around the world, especially France. It goes to show that plants everywhere bring people together, no matter the country or culture.

PHOTO: Lisa Hilgenberg, and Lisa Ho pose with Christine Moore from the United States National Landscape Arboretum in Washington DC.

Lisa Hilgenberg and Lisa Ho pose with Christine Moore from the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Moore is the curator of the National Herb Collection, and we were able to work together for several days.

Gardens are always changing, so there were always new things to see and learn each day—not just with the plants, but also with understanding how people use the gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Visitors come to learn about plants, to enjoy their day in a beautiful place, and to be inspired. I saw how important green spaces are to people. My internship has encouraged me to share knowledge with the visitors, the interns, the staff, and volunteers. It is a true collaboration and exchange between people. For example, when I worked in the nursery, the staff and the interns showed me the breadth of the production and how the Garden is constantly trying to help people experience the Garden in a new way.

For me, the Chicago Botanic Garden, in addition to being a beautiful garden, is an amazing, open-air encyclopedia of plants and garden design, as well as a wonderful space for public enjoyment.

I am grateful to the French Heritage Society, which partners with the Garden on a collaborative internship exchange, to the Ragdale Foundation, which has hosted me, and to the Chicago Botanic Garden and Lisa Hilgenberg for giving me this extraordinary opportunity. And finally, I hope that this will be the beginning of new friendships for me.


This is the fifth year of our wonderful intern exchange with the French Heritage Society. As Lisa Ho spent her summer in Chicago, Chicago Botanic Garden employee Eileen Brucato went over to France to gain experience in three chateau gardens: Château de Brécy, Château d’Acquigny in Normandy, and Château de la Bourdaisière in Tours.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pokémon hunting in the Garden can be a great way to stop and take a closer look at some of the gardens while connecting with other visitors. Ordinarily, we love our visitors to enjoy our gardens with their senses, not their phones, but with the new Pokémon GO app, you can do both.

PHOTO: Screen shots of Pokémon GO game being played at the Garden.

Tagging us on Facebook, Pokémon hunter Patricio28 shared these screen shots of the forest of PokéStops and Gyms at the Garden.

Essentially an app that lets you run around and catch Pokémon using GPS and the camera on your phone, Pokémon GO has taken over the imaginations of kids and adults alike since its recent release. The game is global—users can play anywhere in the world—and the Garden is one of the locations with many features for those using the game.

Nearly 50 PokéStops dot the Garden grounds, typically tied to sculptures and commemorative plaques embedded in walkways. In addition, six Gyms—virtual locations where players can train and battle their Pokémon—are currently found on-site.

But that’s not all that’s to be found: the gardens are a mass of blooms and butterflies, herons and hostas, and beautiful sunsets. The best of both worlds—real and virtual—is here.

The Circle Garden in summer

The Circle Garden in summer

Circle Garden Fountain Pokemon Screenshot

Two PokéStops can be found at the Circle Garden.

PHOTO: Birds on Eggs by Sylvia Shaw Judson is a Poké Stop at the Garden.

Hidden behind tall corn and sunflowers at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, Birds On Eggs by Sylvia Shaw Judson would ordinarily be missed in the height of summer, but as a PokéStop, visitors get to enjoy the sculpture and explore the path to the orchard behind it.

PHOTO: Olivier Sequin's  Caricia sculpture .

A Pokémon Gym location near Olivier Sequin’s Caricia sculpture takes visitors on a path less traveled behind the Farwell Landscape Garden.

As you discover the Garden and the Pokémon here, please keep these tips in mind:

Look up! Please always be aware of people around you, especially in the Visitor Center. This is a popular location to plant Lures, as people take a break and eat at the Garden View Café and on outdoor decks. When you find a Pokémon on a path or in a garden, please take a moment to look around you first—you want to frame your screen shot nicely, but you also don’t want to ruin the visitor experience for our other guests, who may not have any idea what you are doing with your phone. 

PHOTO: Goldeen Pokémon at the Visitor Center bridge.

Goldeen

PHOTO: Psyduck Pokémon at the Visitor Center bridge.

Psyduck

PHOTO: Kukuna Pokémon in the Heritage Garden.

Kakuna

PHOTO: Meowth Pokémon at the Visitor Center entryway.

Meowth

Walk away, and walk back. If the GPS signal stops or you can’t get to a particular PokéStop, just keep walking. There is probably another one close by that’ll spit out more PokéBalls, eggs, and potions.

The perimeter of the Garden is less crowded with Pokémon hunters, and it is a beautiful 2.3-mile walk. Hatch an egg or five while you take in the sights from afar. The Dixon Prairie is in full bloom, and the East Road offers a lovely vista of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. Visit the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center Green Roof Gardens (where a Pikachu was spotted earlier this week), and get back to the main gardens over the Trellis Bridge. 

The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center Rooftop Garden

The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center Rooftop, and its view of the Garden.

Summer Evenings at the Garden

Summer Evenings at the Garden

Find nighttime Pokémon as you picnic at our evening concerts. The Garden is open through 9 p.m. all summer, so stay late, and join us Monday through Thursday nights for open-air concerts at the Garden. Pack a picnic and some lawn chairs—and maybe an extra battery charger. Activate a lure in the app to attract Pokémon to one of the PokeStops nearby while you enjoy the music.

Get creative. The Garden is always a great place to take photos. Get creative by trying to screenshot your Pokémon frolicking on the grounds. Get a shot of Goldeen swimming in a fountain, position Pidgey on the branch of a Linden tree, or catch Charmander riding a train in the Model Railroad Garden. The photos are also a great way to remember what you saw in the Garden, since the app’s journal tells you when you caught certain Pokémon but not where. Use the photos as visual reminders of the places you enjoyed on your Pokémon hunt and as a way to mark what you’d want to experience further on a future visit, either on another virtual adventure or for an unplugged trek.

Tell us what you find. Grab a screen shot and tag us on social media with #CBGPokemonGO—we’d love to know what you find and share with our other visitors.

We have found that Meowth is almost always hanging around the entrance to the Garden, which is also a Gym location, as well as the path to the Visitor Center. Psyduck is usually on the southern end of the Garden, but a Golduck has been spotted by the Crescent Garden. There’s a lot of water here, so expect to catch Goldeen, Magicarp, Polliwag, Shellder, and Staryu. A garden is full of birds and bugs, and ours is no exception—Pidgey and Spearow abound; Weedle, Metapod, Caterpie, and Kakuna are out and about. Ratata can be found near buildings, of course, and Eevee can be found throughout the Garden. Dratini and Bellsprout were lurking here this morning. 

Pokémon GO ChicagolandJoin us at noon on Friday, July 22, for a Pokémon GO Chicagoland meet-up! No need to register in advance; our meet-up starts at the Heritage Garden Gym location. Cosplayers and all ages welcome.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Gardeners and farmers know that healthy plants need good soil and the right amounts of both water and sunlight. But green roofs are intentionally built with an engineered soil-like substance that more closely resembles a pile of rocks than rich, moist potting soil.

To make matters worse, the tops of buildings are often blindingly sunny and very hot in the summer. So how do plants like grasses and wildflowers survive in this type of harsh environment?

PHOTO: Cactus and allium grown on green roof.

Cactus and other succulents retain water in their tissues. Ornamental onion (Allium) species have underground bulbs that help them get through cold winters and dry summers.

Not all plants will grow on a green roof, even in the temperate Midwest. Most plant species that are successful in the desert-like habitats of green roofs have beneficial adaptations that allow them to absorb and store water and nutrients. Some have succulent leaves with thick waxy coatings to prevent water from evaporating. Others have roots that grow horizontally rather than vertically to maximize the areas from which they absorb water and nutrients. Some use a modified type of photosynthesis to prevent water loss during the hottest and driest part of the day. Still others use bulbs or underground tubers to store nutrients during the long cold winters. Some species may even form partnerships with special fungi in the soil that help their roots with more effective absorption.

While plant species evolved to develop these various adaptations on the ground, such traits serve the individual plants very well in the harsh environment of a green roof. The next time you visit a green roof, you might see a striking diversity of species but you won’t see any wimps. No, these plants are both beautiful and tough. 

PHOTO: Shortgrass prairie plants grown on a rooftop garden at shallow depths.

Even in very shallow soil and full sun, some plants that normally grow in shortgrass prairies are able to grow and reproduce. (This is from some of my research at Loyola University.)

PHOTO: PCSC green roof in summer 2015.

Plants can be both tough and beautiful on green roofs. (This photo is of the Plant Science Center last summer.)

Find more of the best plants for green roofs on our Pinterest board, and see Richard Hawke’s Plant Evaluation Notes for the plants that performed best on our green roof.


Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org