Archives For November 2012

While the construction crew and the railroad guys were busy laying out the trains and buildings in Wonderland Express, 28 horticulturists and other staff members were busy building their own creations—making the wreaths that now line the Greenhouse gallery walls.

The big “now” story is that they’re all for sale.*

The big “wow” story is that behind each wreath are the hands and hearts of our horticulturists, our maintenance staff, our plant healthcare guys, our security personnel, our managers, etc. Although each person started with the same thing—a wreath form and the beauty of the Garden—we are rocked by the imagination, talent, and joy that they brought to the project.

Here are a few of their stories:

It took Cindy Nykiel (tram driver) and daughter Stacey (security) 46½ hours to engineer a wreath loaded with fun details: birch bark train cars with pistachio shell trim, black bean “coal,” and tiny battery-operated lights twinkling within the ginkgo leaf/catalpa pod bow.

Cindy wreath

A highly-decorated wreath by a mother/daughter team.

The twisted palm frond rosettes are genius.

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A close-up of the palm frond rosettes.

 Senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood redefined starlight in three easy steps:

  1. Bamboo sticks duct taped together for a frame.
  2. Red tube lights zip-tied to the bamboo.
  3. Red twig dogwood, raffia-tied over it all.
Heather wreath

Red tube lights work straight through Valentine’s Day.

Nuts for the holidays? Plant Information Service Manager Kathie Hayden pairs nuts (oak, buckeye), beans (coffee tree), and pods (honey locust, sweetgum) with an appropriately amusing mascot. All but the walnuts (store bought) were collected from Garden grounds.

Kathie wreath

A wreath with a sense of humor.

Custodian Carlos García’s exuberant design is rooted in a vivid memory of a wreath he made in his fifth grade class in Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacan, Mexico. The construction was a family affair: his kids helped with the cheery and heartfelt decorations.

Carlos wreath

A great solution for a plain front door.

Horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg has a passion for seeds. Her stunning 11-bean-and-legume snowflake wreath celebrates the great variety found in just one species and hints at the fun we’ll be having at our second annual seed swap on February 24, 2013.

Lisa wreath

By the horticulturist in our Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

After cutting the birch trunks to size for Wonderland’s entrance hall, Exhibitions Manager Dawn Bennett took the leftover trimmings over to the carpenter shop…got out the chop saw…and turned waste into wonderful.

Dawn wreath

A wreath made from slices of birch.

*Priced at $150 each, wreaths are available for pickup after January 6.  Many were made with dried materials gathered at the Garden, which may last for many months indoors.


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bohemian Waxwing: Lifer

Carol Freeman —  November 27, 2012 — 2 Comments

For those birders who keep lists, a Lifer bird is one that you see in the wild for the first time in your life. Always exhilarating, often amazing, and really pretty cool when you think about it.

I love birds. I know a bit about the local ones, and I know enough birders to know when a rare bird is around. Thankfully birders like to share info—a nice trait.

I had heard through the grapevine that a Bohemian waxwing had been seen at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the last two days. This is a bird that spends most of its time in the boreal forests of Canada, and only very rarely visits Illinois in the winter. Similar to the cedar waxwing, which can be found here year round, it is larger, lacks the yellow on the belly, and has lovely reddish markings on the face and under the tail.

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©Carol Freeman, all rights reserved.

Birds don’t sit still, and this particular bird had been seen in several different locations at the Garden. No telling where it would be today, or even if I would see it.

Luckily, when I headed toward its last known location near the Enabling Garden, I came upon several birders. They were pointing to the top of a tree. I look up. Yep, there’s a bird about 20 feet up, backlit against a white sky. Hmmm, not the view I was hoping for. But I can just make out the identifying marks of a Bohemian waxwing. Ok, there it is, my Lifer. Hmmm, kinda anticlimactic. In case this is the one and only time I ever see this species, I take a few obligatory shots. I personally don’t count a bird on my list unless I have a photo, and now I have a few. They aren’t going to win any awards, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. 

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©Carol Freeman, all rights reserved.

Just after I get my shot, the bird flies to another clump of trees a short distance away. Then it flies out of sight. A few birders go off to see if they can relocate it. I chat with the others who have stayed behind. Some had seen the bird before today. But for many, this is a Lifer for them too.

While waiting for the bird to hopefully make another appearance, I take a moment to photograph the many cedar waxwings that are enjoying the abundant berries nearby. Suddenly I hear shouts from the birders. The Bohemian waxwing has just flown into the trees where the cedar waxwings are feeding, not far from where I’m standing. The bird is a few trees back and blocked by branches. I don’t want to move and scare it off, risking the wrath of the birders, so I just wait. Soon the Bohemian waxwing makes its way toward me. Wow! It’s hopping onto branches, closer and closer to where I’m standing. Oh my! Now it’s right in front of me. Whooo, hoooo! I couldn’t have gotten any closer if I had tried. Click, click, click, wow, wow, wow, amazing! I’m stunned. What an incredible encounter. This is one Lifer experience I’ll never forget. And…I have the photos to prove it!

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©Carol Freeman, all rights reserved.


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The story has been passed down through generations of Native American cultures:

There are three sister spirits who dwell among the fields and protect the crops.

Sister Corn, with hair of gold, stands tall as the guardian of the crop.

Sister Bean feeds the shallow roots of Sister Corn (beans draw nitrogen from the air into the soil), then reaches for the sun as she twines in a spiral up her sister’s sturdy stalk.

Sister Squash, the eldest of the three, stays close to the Earth, encircling her sisters protectively with her large, prickly leaves that shade the soil and hold in moisture. Planted together on a mound of Mother Earth’s nurturing soil, the sisters receive water from Father Sky, who arches above them.

Close-up of green corn still on stalk.

Beans growing in a Three Sisters garden.

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The Iroquois called the Sisters “De-o-ha-ko,” which translates to “life support,” not only because the plants rely on each other as they grow, but also because, eaten together, they provide a healthy, life-sustaining diet for humans. Corn is rich in carbohydrates and amino acids, beans are rich in lysine (an amino acid that corn doesn’t supply), and squash seeds provide protein and vitamins essential for growth and development. “De-o-ha-ko” recognizes that humans are one and the same with the plants they eat.

Resolve to plant the Three Sisters in your vegetable garden in 2013…and Happy Thanksgiving!


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

With the holidays now officially approaching, all hands have turned to preparations for our annual holiday exhibition, Wonderland Express.

The ever-creative Nancy Clifton is putting the finishing touches on her fun and fragrant project for Wonderland Express: she’s making more than 400 wreath and garland decorations from a no-bake “faux dough” made of just two all-natural ingredients, cinnamon and applesauce. Nancy is a horticulture program specialist and popular Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden teacher. This project is “baking” in name only, as the dough is simply mixed, rolled, and cookie-cut—the ornamental “cookies” then air dry on the counter for a couple of days, becoming surprisingly lightweight and a pretty, cinnamony color. The process is easy and kid-friendly, great to try at home for your seasonal decorations.

Nancy let us photograph her at work, while supplying some tips along the way.

THE BASIC RECIPE

1 pound (16 oz.) cinnamon
3 pounds (large 48 oz. jar) applesauce

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The first question: Where do you buy a whole pound of cinnamon? Nancy orders bulk cinnamon online from San Francisco Herb Company. Any house-brand, non-chunky applesauce can be used. Since these ornaments are decorative only, non-branded, inexpensive ingredients work just fine.

Are you thinking this might be edible anyway? Well, it’s non-toxic, but no, don’t eat this dough! “I tried it,” Nancy says, “And it tastes terrible. It’s for crafting only!”

MIXING AND ROLLING

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Slowly and carefully pour 1 pound of cinnamon into a large stainless steel, glass, or ceramic bowl. (Note: because cinnamon can create a fine dust cloud when poured, make sure that your work area is well ventilated and adult supervised.) Empty the contents of a 3-pound jar of applesauce onto the cinnamon and stir slowly.

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The ingredients will pull together into a shiny, moist-looking mix with few cracks. If the dough seems too wet to roll out, add more cinnamon. (Nancy suggests starting with a 1:3 ratio of cinnamon to sauce, then gradually working toward a 1:2 ratio, adding cinnamon until achieving the feel and sheen of pie dough). If too many hairline cracks form in dough, add a bit more applesauce and mix until glossy and smooth.

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Prep your rolling surface (a granite countertop or marble dough board is handy for this) by spreading a thick layer of extra cinnamon all over it. Heavily dust your rolling pin with cinnamon as well. Remove the dough from the bowl, set it onto the surface and coat the top generously with cinnamon.

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Roll dough to about ¼” thickness (thinner dough can result in brittle ornaments), constantly re-dusting surfaces so dough does not stick.

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Now comes the fun part—dust cookie cutters with cinnamon and cut as many decorations as desired. Like pie dough, extra scraps can be scooped up, rolled into a ball, and re-flattened. A dusted spatula helps to move the cut-outs to a wax-paper-covered surface to dry.

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Dough can also be:

  • Pressed into candy/chocolate molds (dust heavily with cinnamon)
  • Pierced with a wire to string as a hanging ornament when dry
  • Rolled into 3-D shapes: deer, snowmen, branches
  • Rolled into small cinnamon-scented balls to add to potpourri
  • Fragranced with ground cloves or allspice in addition to cinnamon

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FAUX CINNAMON STICKS

They’re fake, they’re inexpensive, and they smell like the real thing! For cinnamon sticks, roll out dough as above, working it into an elliptical shape. Use a sharp knife to cut a straight edge across the short width, about 4″ from a rough edge. Starting at the straight side, roll dough tightly into a cinnamon stick shape. Dust with cinnamon. Continue with remainder of dough.

DRYING AND DECORATING        

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Let ornaments air dry for at least 48 hours (thicker dough will take longer to dry completely) before experimenting with paint, faux frosting, or glitter as decorations. Nancy has displayed these ornaments on the large wreath and garland in the Joutras Gallery in the Wonderland Express exhibition (opening on Friday, November 23). Stop by to see the final result in person!


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

This Bark is Rough: Hackberry

Kathy J. —  November 15, 2012 — 3 Comments

PHOTO: A tall hackberry stands at the south entrance of a wooden bridge that crosses a seasonal stream in McDonald Woods. All the trees in the wood are leafless.

PHOTO: This shows a close up of the bumpy, scraggly bark of a hackberry tree.

Hackberry bark, south view

Now that most of the trees have dropped their leaves, the scenery appears brown and boring UNLESS you know what to look for. I’m talking about tree bark. Learning to identify trees by their bark can be a fun winter challenge.

For starters, I’d like to share one of my favorites: the hackberry, Celtis occidentalis. Hackberry may not be in the top ten trees you think of, but maybe it should be.

Take a look at the interesting texture of this bark. If you use your imagination, it’s like a miniature Grand Canyon on its side, with layers of material exposed on the edges of steep plateaus.

I find the texture on this north-facing side of the trunk to look like bicycle chains. What do you see?

PHOTO: The bark on the north side is also bumpy and scraggly, but the texture is more like a bike chain.

Hackberry bark, north side

Hackberry trees are related to elms and they grow all over North America. We have a few of them on the east side of Parking Lot 4. Scroll back up—do you recognize the large picture above? This was taken in McDonald Woods, along the trail near Parking Lot 4. The large tree to the left of the bridge is a hackberry.

One reason for the popularity of this tree is that the fruits—hackberries—feed birds, squirrels, and other woodland creatures. In the summer, caterpillars of mourning cloak, question mark, and hackberry emperor butterflies feed on the leaves. If you came to see Butterflies & Blooms in late summer, you may have seen the many mourning cloaks fluttering around the Learning Campus thanks to our hackberry trees.

PHOTO: Hackberry emperor butterfly shown with its characteristic pattern of black and white stripes against brownish orange background.

Hackberry emperor butterfly, shown with its characteristic pattern of black and white stripes against brownish orange background.

Open your eyes to tree bark this winter. You’ll find a range of interesting patterns and textures and maybe even learn something new about the trees around you.


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org