See what we’re harvesting just in time for Heirloom Tomato Weekend, Saturday & Sunday, 11a.m. to 4 p.m.
©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?
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.
“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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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:
Herbal Water Infusion
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.
Backyard Herb and Stevia Iced Tea Concentrate
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.
Easy Herbal Simple Syrup
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!
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