Twenty years ago, I was running school field trip programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden when then-education manager Alan Rossman received a grant to start a brand new program called “College First.” This program would use the Garden site and staff to introduce 12 students from three Chicago Public Schools to careers in the green industry. He hired retired teacher Gwen Yvonne Greenwood to coordinate the program and enlist staff from all over the Garden to mentor and teach these young people.

PHOTO: Six high school students are posing in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, wearing dark green uniform College First T-shirts

These six students from 2003 are all college grads with jobs now.

At the time, there weren’t many programs like College First anywhere in the country. College First was even unique among the other museum teen program start-ups, in that our goals were not merely to make the institution more relevant to this age group, but also to provide a springboard to meaningful careers in science-related fields. Who knew that 20 years later, with some changes and improvements along the way, this small program would evolve and grow into the Science Career Continuum we have today?

We now bring 60 students (like Mely Guzman, whom I blogged about earlier this year) from all over Chicago to the Garden every summer and expose them to environmental and conservation sciences, with the hope that a few of them will be inspired to pursue a career in this field, and maybe go on to do something important for our planet. To date, College First has served more than 500 students from 116 schools. The majority of them have attended college and have entered—or are entering—productive careers. Many of them have pursued science-related careers as a direct result of their experiences at the Garden.

PHOTO: At the reception of the College First 20-year reunion.

Program manager, Amaris Alanis Ribeiro (standing on the right) reminds a group of former students to visit Wonderland Express after they are finished eating.

We celebrated the success of College First on December 14, with a reunion party at the Garden, including a visit to Wonderland Express, for all past students, instructors, mentors, donors, and their families. More than 200 people attended the event. In between the many reunion hugs, congratulations, and words of encouragement for current students, we gave all program participants an opportunity to reflect on their experiences by telling us their stories on video, writing comments on a talk-back wall, and tweeting about the event while a live Twitter feed displayed the comments.

PHOTO: College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on a mural outside the auditorium.

College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on the comment wall outside the auditorium.

A former program coordinator, William Moss, is now a gardening guru and media celebrity. (Even our instructors have moved on to great things in their careers!) William presided as master of ceremonies during a presentation to recognize all the people who have made this program possible. We honored staff mentors, Louise Egerton-Warburton, Jeremie Fant, and Tom Soulsby as outstanding mentors. The College First 20th Anniversary event was made possible by the generous support of Joel Friedman of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund. Awards were presented to Annette Kleinman and family of the Sheridan Foundation, the W.P. & H.B. White Foundation, and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation for their generous financial support over the years.

PHOTO: William Moss at the podium.

William Moss—television celebrity, author, gardener, and all-around good guy—helped us to honor all the people who have made this program successful.

For me, this was a very rewarding event. It was such a pleasure to see so many past and present students coming together and sharing in the success of this program, especially those who are now adults with spouses and children of their own. This group represents our scientific future.

PHOTO: Group photo of past College First participants.

A total of 57 past and present College First participants attended the celebration and posed for a picture. Wow!

I wish each and every one of these smart and talented young people a happy new year and all the best in their bright futures!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Gift of Bonsai

Chris Baker —  December 17, 2014 — Leave a comment

Thirteen years ago, when I was working as an exotic animal veterinary technician, I bought my friend a gift—a juniper bonsai—that would set me on a course that I never could have imagined.

I already had a yard full of tropical plants, succulents, and orchids, but once I added my first bonsai, I knew something had changed. It was the beginning of a journey that took me from Gainesville, Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Japan and finally here to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am the curator in charge of the Bonsai Collection, which is known as one of the best of its kind in the world.

PHOTO: Chris Baker pruning bonsai.

Tending this large bonsai is a delicate task.

Shortly after I purchased my first tree, I started learning about bonsai and joined a prominent bonsai club in Gainesville. In 2006, Gainesville (home of the Gators) hosted the State Bonsai Convention. That weekend was an eye-opening experience for me, as I got to learn from and assist international bonsai artists like Jim Smith, Colin Lewis, and others. That weekend convention was very influential and would fuel my desire to continue learning.

Less than a year after that convention, I had an opportunity to move to Baltimore, Maryland, and work at the National Aquarium. I quickly joined the Baltimore Bonsai Society and continued learning. Feeling more and more drawn to a career in horticulture, I made the move from veterinary technician to horticulturist of the Rainforest Exhibit at the National Aquarium. This opportunity made me think that I actually could have a career working with bonsai. Then, during a Baltimore Bonsai Club event at the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., I had a chance meeting with the curator Jack Sustic. I introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Chris Baker. I have aspirations of being a bonsai curator some day, and I would like to volunteer here at the collection.” That sentence would forever alter my path. My time as a volunteer and then intern at the National Arboretum was inspirational and educational, and ultimately would lead me to Japan.

Jack Sustic would become a mentor and friend; he introduced me to Torhu Suzuki at the Daijuen Bonsai Nursery in Okazaki, Japan, where he had spent some time. Suzuki, or “Oyakata” (an honorific reserved for a person of high authority) as we would call him, was a third-generation bonsai master and prominent figure in Japanese bonsai culture. In 2012, I spent six months as an apprentice at Daijuen. In that time I learned so many lessons and skills that I use every day. It also gave me an entirely different perspective on how the practice of bonsai has evolved in Japan for centuries.

In April 2014, I started as the curator of bonsai at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Having the opportunity to be the first full-time curator here at a collection of this caliber is a dream job, which comes with a lot of expectations and responsibility. During the display season (April to November), horticulturists Joe Olsen and Gabe Hutchinson provided great support in keeping the trees watered and benches looking great for our visitors. The remaining trees are kept on the south end of the Garden, in the production area. Brian Clark, manager of plant production, and his team help care for the trees on my days off. Last but not least, the support of my 12 volunteers is essential. They are a great team of dedicated people who each brings something different to the Collection. 

PHOTO: Volunteer Eileen Michal working on Bonsai with Chris Baker.

Volunteer Eileen Michal working on the Collection with me.

I’m often asked what has drawn me to bonsai, and why would I pursue a career in it, with only ten or so full-time curator jobs in the entire country? For me, bonsai starts with an appreciation of nature over all things. An ancient tree has the power to move people and evoke emotion. It’s what inspired the Chinese centuries ago to take something of beauty they saw in nature and grow it in a container.

Creating bonsai takes the eye of an artist, the horticultural knowledge of a botanist, and the hands of a mechanic. I have been painting and creating art with many mediums for years. I often draw my trees prior to styling them. It allows me to see different style ideas before I even touch a single branch. I love the horticultural aspect of bonsai, from soil science, to fertilizing, to advanced techniques of grafting and air layering. To me, the mechanical aspect is fun as well. I enjoy making large bends in branches using rebar and guy wires on developmental trees, as well as doing the fine detail work for a show-quality tree. A bonsai is never finished, and the skills and knowledge of a true bonsai expert take a lifetime of study to master and fully understand all it has to offer.

Bonsai has taught me many things, introduced me to wonderful people, and taken me to places I never thought I’d see…At this point in my life, it just seems silly for me to do anything else.

PHOTO: Bonsai Book

Know someone else curious about the Garden’s Bonsai Collection? Bonsai: A Patient Art makes a great gift.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Long Road Home

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  December 11, 2014 — 1 Comment

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) is gaining ground in its native Oregon for the first time in more than 80 years. Recent reintroductions have seen the charismatic species flourish on its historic prairie landscape. To keep the momentum going, scientists are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the new populations are robust enough to endure.

“Genetic variability will be key to the reintroduction success of golden paintbrush,” explained Adrienne Basey, graduate student in the plant biology and conservation program of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University.

PHOTO: Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta).

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) growing in propagation beds in Oregon. Photo by Tom Kaye

Basey, who previously managed a native plant nursery, is now studying the genetic diversity of golden paintbrush plants before, during, and after they are grown in a nursery prior to reintroduction to the wild.

“My work is looking at the DNA, or genetics, of the wild, nursery, and reintroduction populations to see if there is any change through that process,” she said. If there is a change, she will develop recommendations for adjusting the selection and growing process to better preserve diversity. “My goal is to give both researchers and practitioners more information to work with,” she noted.

Building for the Future

The research is unique in the relatively young field of restoration science, according to Basey’s co-advisor and molecular ecologist at the Garden, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “Adrienne’s study is awesome because of the fact that it has data and the samples to back it up; it is early on in this game of reintroductions and restorations, and potentially could have a lot of impact, not just for that species but what we tell nurseries in the future,” he said.

PHOTO: Adrienne Basey with herbarium specimens.

Basey works with herbarium specimens

Basey is working with data collected over the past decade by research scientists at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Oregon, and University of Washington herbarium specimens from Washington and Oregon dating as far back as the 1890s, and data she has collected from existing plants during field work. “It’s a perfect partnership,” said Dr. Fant, who noted that the Garden is guiding the molecular aspect of the study while colleagues in Washington and Oregon are providing a large portion of the data and samples.

The availability of all of this information on a single species that is undergoing restoration is very rare, explained Fant. “It’s a very unique scenario that she has there, so we can look at how diversity changes as we go from step to step and hopefully identify any potential issues and where they are occurring in the process.”

The study itself will likely serve as a research model for other species in the future. “There isn’t much research out there to help propagators understand when and where genetic diversity may be lost during the production process,” said Basey’s co-advisor and conservation scientist at the Garden, Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.

Last year, Basey, Fant, and Kramer worked together to write a paper outlining ten rules to maximize and maintain genetic diversity in nursery settings. “My goal is to support reintroduction efforts by informing nursery practices and demonstrate to nurseries on a broader scale how their practices can influence genetic diversity through a single case study,” said Basey.

A Green Light Ahead

Her preliminary research is focused on four golden paintbrush populations. Early evaluations show clear distinctions between a few of them, which is good news. Basey will next compare those genetic patterns to those of plants in reintroduction sites.

According to Fant, earlier studies by other researchers have shown that many restoration efforts for threatened species suffer from low levels of genetic diversity prior to reintroduction, due to a number of causes ranging from a small population size at the outset to issues in propagation. It is critical to work around those issues, he explained, as the more genetic diversity maintained in a population, the better equipped it is to survive environmental changes from drought to temperature shifts.

Basey will also compare the current level of diversity of golden paintbrush to that of its historic populations, to get a better sense of what the base level should be for reintroduction success. She plans to wrap up her lab work well before her summer 2015 graduation date.

PHOTO: A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

For now, she is pleased with the level of diversity she sees in the current population. “I think the fact that it has a high genetic diversity means that these reintroductions could be successful,” she said. “But if we are creating a bottleneck, we need to know that so we can mitigate it as quickly as possible.” (A bottleneck is an event that eliminates a large portion of genetic variability in a population.)

Fant is enthusiastic about the timing of the study as the field of restoration is taking off. “We can jump in early as programs are being started,” he noted. “If we all learn together, I think it really does ensure that everyone gets what they need in the end.”

For Basey, it’s about building a bridge between the theoretical and the applied aspects of restoration. “My interest isn’t so much in this single species but more in the communication of science to practitioners. I like to bridge the line between research and the people who are using research,” she said.

Basey, like the golden paintbrush, is looking toward a bright future.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium on plant exploration that was held in Des Moines, Iowa. The audience was enthralled following the plant collecting exploits of such luminaries as Dan Hinkley, one of the founders of the renowned (alas, no more) Heronswood Nursery, to far-flung locales such as Vietnam, China, and Bhutan.

Much of my presentation focused on plant collecting a tad closer to home—not as exotic perhaps, but still crucial in support of my research as the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant breeder. So let’s go seek out the elusive wild phlox.

Phlox is predominantly a North American genus (one species sneaks into Siberia) best known for its gaudily—some say garishly colored—harbinger of spring, the moss phlox (Phlox subulata), and for that summer stalwart, the garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). For an idea of the diversity of the garden phlox, you can see Richard Hawke’s latest evaluation report on Phlox paniculata cultivars. The woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and the meadow phlox (Phlox maculata) also have their selections and garden advocates. It’s likely that every midwestern gardener has a phlox or two in their landscape.

Most of the remaining 60-plus phlox species are relatively unknown to horticulture, yet can delight the senses with their almost infinite variation of flower color and fragrance. The underutilized species are admittedly a persnickety group to cultivate, with many of them inhabiting harsh habitats from baking desert valleys to frigid alpine rock outcrops. So phlox breeding efforts in the past have focused (and rightly so) on the more amenable-to-cultivate species mentioned above. 

My breeding work at the Garden has always focused on developing new garden plants from interspecific hybridization, or crossing different species in the same genus. I’ve used this approach to develop new coneflowers (Echinacea) and false indigos (Baptisia), to name a few. In 2006, I started assembling a collection of phlox with the intent of testing my luck in creating novel hybrids between the species here as well. The botanical and horticulture literature wasn’t too encouraging on this front, with perhaps about a dozen authenticated natural and man-made interspecific hybrids known to date. But my perseverance led to two interspecific hybrid phlox, which gardeners may be able to purchase in 2015: Phlox x procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ and Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’.

PHOTO: Pink Profusion phlox.

Phlox × procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ PPAF

PHOTO: Violet Pinwheels phlox.

Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’ PPAF

You may ask,“And where is the plant exploration in this story?” I’m getting there!

Most of the phlox species simply aren’t available in the horticulture trade, yet I desired them for my breeding program. So commencing in 2011, I started my own plant collecting efforts to locate, study, and collect species phlox in the wild. Weeks were spent pouring over old taxonomic literature, maps, herbarium records and the like just to find out where phlox may yet exist in the wild. I say “may,” as the earliest records I located were from the 1940s—never a good harbinger, as urban sprawl, agriculture, and the like all too often swallow up such older stands of native plants. But records from recent years gave me strong hope that some phlox species are still “out there.” Modern collections invariably include GPS coordinates in their notes. Google Earth became my friend at this time, helping to locate potential collecting sites and plan out my trips.

PHOTO: Jim Ault in Russia.

On a trip a few years ago, a bit further afield: an expedition in Russia with colleagues

Finally: boots on the ground! I’ve made local trips around northern Illinois and Indiana, and trips further afield to South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. I’ve settled into a now-familiar routine. Do my research ahead of time, as above. Then go locate the plants in bloom, which translates into days of cruising bumpy, muddy, delightfully scenic and isolated dirt roads out west with one eye on the curves and drop-offs ahead and the other on the disturbed road edges, where so many phlox tend to congregate. Phlox as a rule are resentful of heavy plant competition, and so ironically, often thrive on road edges where the occasional mower or bulldozer damage clears out the competitors. It is that or scramble up steep cliffs and talus slopes, or venture out on to harsh alkaline flats, where yet again the plant competition is light, allowing phlox to thrive.

PHOTO: Haemanthus aliblos in vitro specimen.

Another project in vitro: Haemanthus aliblos specimen
Photo by Jim Ault

As I find populations with plants that appear promising for cultivation, I record field notes and GPS readings, then return in another month or year with collecting permits in hand to collect seed or cuttings. Slowly, I have been building collections of several phlox species, with the hope of ultimately combining through breeding their traits of varied flower shapes, color, and fragrance, plant habits, and adaptability for cold, heat, drought, moisture, high pH, and salinity. Phlox typically take two years from a rooted cutting or a germinated seed to grow into a flowering-sized plant, so the process of growing the species and then using them in breeding is taking time. But this year marked the first I saw a significant number of plants bloom that were hybrids made between garden cultivars and wild-collected plants. As is typical in plant breeding, most of the plants were “dogs” with terrible flowers or habits, or poorly adapted to our local garden conditions. These all got the heave-ho to the compost pile. But a few gems stood out. Stay tuned for future updates!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I’m a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have an incredible job that allows me to work with many wonderful graduate students and a team of researchers to study ways to restore natural areas in the Colorado Plateau.

If you’ve ever visited national parks like the Grand Canyon or Arches, you’ve experienced at least some of what the Colorado Plateau (also known as the Four Corners region) has to offer. It includes more than 80 million acres across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—and the largest concentration of national parks in the country.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer in the Colorado plateau.

Our research team heads out across a recently-burned area in search of data.

Although beautiful, the Colorado Plateau’s natural areas are facing many threats, including wildfires, a changing climate, and destructive invasive species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens). Working with many partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, we are studying which native plants may be best able to handle these growing threats (we refer to them as “native winners”). The ultimate goal is to help make restoration of these plants and habitats as effective as possible in order to maintain healthy natural areas that support wildlife and pollinators, and help keep our air and water clean.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer at Rio Mesa.

Another beautiful day at Rio Mesa

This is no small task. The invasive species that the native plants are up against are very impressive. For example, Russian knapweed is allelopathic (prevents other plants from growing nearby), and it has roots that can grow more than 20 feet deep, seeking the water table. Fortunately, some native species are also able to grow in these conditions, and some even appear to be evolving and adapting to be better competitors.

Three Northwestern University graduate students are working with me. Master’s student Nora Talkington is testing how different populations of a native grass are able to compete with Russian knapweed, while doctoral student Alicia Foxx is researching how different root structures of native plants help them compete with invasive species. Master’s student Maggie Eshleman is studying six native wildflower species including the smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia), which has tiny, fiery orange flowers. These wildflowers are likely “native winners” and are strong candidates for increased use when restoring habitat in the Colorado Plateau.

A rainbow of wildflowers for restoration:

  • Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens): This purple-flowered plant is good for pollinators, one of the few plants that flowers late in the season, and on top of that, is really good at growing in sites that need to be restored.
  • Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica): This cute little annual plant is often the only thing we find flowering and producing seeds during extreme drought years. It is very impressive!
  • Bee plant (Cleome lutea): This annual plant has gorgeous yellow flowers. It’s good at growing in disturbed areas and, as its name indicates, is a great forage plant for bees.
PHOTO: Cleome lutea.

Bee plant (Cleome lutea) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Sphaeralcea parvifolia.

Smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Machaeranthera canescens.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens or Dieteria canascens) by Maggie Eshleman

PHOTO: Plantago patagonica.

Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica) by Andrea Kramer

This summer was a busy one. My students and I spent many weeks in the Colorado Plateau working with collaborators to collect seeds (as part of Seeds of Success collectors—a national native seed collection program). These seeds are now being used for studies in the Garden’s research greenhouses and growth chambers, and at study plots in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. In the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, we are also using incubators to create spring- and summer-like conditions that will help us understand when and why seeds of certain species are able to germinate and grow. This is an important aspect of ultimately being able to restore species in a degraded habitat.

PHOTO: La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May.

La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May

How cool is it to be able to take research that’s been done on a small scale and actually apply it to the real world? I feel so lucky to be able to do this work, and being here at the Chicago Botanic Garden has allowed me to build long-term partnerships that investigate the application of research, rather than just focusing on publishing it. Stay tuned for updates on how these native winners perform.


This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org