Have you heard the sounds coming from nearby lakes, ponds, and puddles this month? The American toads are singing!
Every spring, the toads emerge from hibernation in wooded areas and hop to the nearest standing water to breed. The sound you hear comes from the males, who are singing to attract a mate. You’ll hear the sound of hundreds of toads at the Kleinman Family Cove for the next week or so, maybe longer.
The toads will pair up and lay a string of eggs in shallow water where it is warmest and rich in food for their offspring. After laying eggs, the adults will return to the woods or shady gardens to look for food, leaving their babies to fend for themselves.
The black embryo inside each egg will grow into tiny tadpoles and hatch in about a week. They will grow and develop into half-inch toadlets over the next few weeks. Then they will leave the water and join their parents in the shady gardens and woods. With any luck, some of them will survive the next two years, developing to full maturity, and return to the Cove to breed.
This is the only time of year to hear the toads singing, so visit the Cove this month. If you visit over the next four weeks, maybe you’ll see some little black tadpoles swimming in the water.
Please resist the urge to collect them to take home. You won’t be able to provide enough of the right kind of food for a growing tadpole or toadlet, and they will die. Watch them grow up successfully in their natural habitat at the Cove throughout the month of May and early June instead!
This year, it sure felt like spring was a long time coming — especially compared to last year when it seemed that we went straight into summer! I wonder how the wildflower timing of spring compared to previous years in the Chicago area…
For several years now, I’ve been working on a web-based citizen scientist project, called Project BudBurst, with colleagues at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). We study the phenology — the timing of natural events like blooming, fruiting, and leaf fall — of plants around the country. Our participants track when plants bloom in their area, and we compare the reports to records from other parts of the country.
For instance, I’ve been tracking when the first forsythia flower opens on the plants near the Garden’s front gate since 2007. The earliest bloom I have on record in that time was last year, on March 15, 2012. The latest first flower for this specimen was this year, on April 20, 2013. In 2007 and 2008, however, we also had first flowers in mid-April (April 16, 2007, and April 17, 2008, respectively). So, as we look back in time, this year’s bloom time doesn’t feel quite so late. In the graph below we show the variation in flowering dates (using Julian dates, which standardize for differences in dates between nonleap and leap years).
In the Chicago area, we have a wealth of phenology data collected by the authors of our local flora, Plants of the Chicago Region by Swink and Wilhelm (1994). While they were gathering data for their book, they recorded when they saw plants in bloom from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. They record the forsythia bloom period as April 25 to May 5. So, when we look still further back in time, our “late” spring is much earlier than it has been in the past.
I took a similar look at several other species, both native and nonnative, for which we have both Project BudBurst data and data from Swink and Wilhelm’s book. About 70 percent of the species have earlier flowering dates in the last six years compared to those recorded by Swink and Wilhelm. Some of the species that have advanced their flowering dates are in the table below.
Earliest First Flower Observations
Common name Genus species
Swink & Wilhelm 1950s – 1990s
Project BudBurst 2007 – 2012
Forsythia Forsythia x intermedia
Spiderwort Tradescantia ohiensis
Dogtooth violet Erythronium americanum
Red Maple Acer rubrum
Mayapple Podophyllum peltatum
Lilac Syringa vulgaris
Black locust Robinia pseudoacacia
Bradford pear Pyrus calleryana
Plant phenology, particularly when plants leaf out and bloom in the spring, is remarkably sensitive to the annual weather. Looking at phenological records over much longer periods of time can tell us a lot about how the climate is changing. Many scientists are comparing contemporary bloom times with historic bloom times recorded by naturalists like Aldo Leopold in the early 1900s, and Henry David Thoreau in the mid 1800s, as well as records kept by farmers, gardeners, and others interested in the natural world. Two of the longest phenological data sets are those maintained for cherry blossoms in Japan (dating back to 900 AD) and for grape harvest dates by winemakers in Switzerland (dating back to 1480 AD).
Plants have so much to tell us, if we take the time to listen!
Wow, the woods have come alive after a loooooonnnngggg, winter. Just feet into McDonald Woods you will be greeted by a variety of amazing spring flowers. These include spring beauties, cutleaf toothwort, purple cress, marsh marigold, trillium, Virginia bluebells, wild ginger, trout lily, rue-anemone, and many more. Take a few minutes to enjoy the bounty through the end of May. Once the trees get all their leaves, the spring flowers begin to fade. They bloom now to take advantage of the extra sun that reaches the ground before the trees take over.
To get great photos of these flowers you will do best with a close-up lens, as many of the flowers are small. Also, be prepared to get a little muddy as most of these flowers are low to the ground. I like to shoot level with the flowers to minimize distractions, which means sitting down or even laying down to get the shot. Be sure to stay on the path as the habitat is fragile. There are great plants close to the path so there are plenty of photo opportunities. For more pleasing compositions look for simple backgrounds, and flowers that stand apart from the others.
Spring is now in full glory at the Chicago Botanic Garden, prompting us to show you the best gardens to visit right now, and hinting at what is yet to come.
We toured the Garden with Boyce Tankersley, director of plant documentation, to get some tips for making the most of your visit. Hint, hint — the crabapples are set to open this weekend, and the effect of over 200 crabapple trees in bloom along the shores of the Gardens of the Great Basin is a sight not to miss! Plus, it’s a great opportunity to try our new app!
Watch the video above to hear Tankersley offer tips to maximize your visit with our new smartphone Garden app, called GardenGuide. The app is designed to enhance and enrich your Garden visit. Using the GPS technology in your smartphone, GardenGuide will guide you to any plant or point of interest with an interactive map. Use it at home as well — the features work without GPS.
Have you ever wanted to know more about a plant you loved on your visit? Are you looking for information on a plant you want to see as you stroll the Garden today? Use the “Find” feature to pull up stunning photos or gardening information about the 2,524,687 plants in the collections database. Enter the common or Latin name, and GardenGuide will pinpoint both the plant’s location and your location so you can walk to it. A touch on the plant name will display gardening information. You can also search by plant characteristics to find types of plants. For example, is it purple, flowering, perennial, or does it have a preference for partial shade? Save the results to a favorite list for future reference, or share your plant favorites on Facebook or e-mail.
Plan your visit
Visiting with small children or a group? Use the GardenGuide to find water fountains and restrooms among other features, or to see what events are happening at the Garden during your visit. Check the Garden app for what’s in bloom, to see our event schedule, or check our open hours.
Let us guide your walk today!
Use the Garden app to learn more about featured gardens with audio tours by Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director of the Garden. Try a curated walking tour of our most popular display gardens. Every tour stop is accompanied by interpretation of that location. Try a 14-stop tour of the English Walled Garden, a 16-stop tour of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden, a four-season photo tour, a bird-watching tour, tours for families, or a fitness walk.
First things first: Mark your electronic calendar for June 1! That way you won’t miss out on the Garden-wide celebration of World Environment Day.
It’s a day to meet our scientists and horticulturists, to see the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center in action, and to check out senior ecologist Jim Steffen’s very cool display table on native spiders, which promises to be a kid magnet (live specimens, a big model spider, lots of good spider stories).
After you’ve saved the date, work this quiz with every kid you know:
1. Spiders can fly.
TRUE. Some spiders travel through the air by “ballooning”—sending out a thread of silk with a clump like a parachute at the end that carries them up into the air, where they swing along like Spider-Man! Spiders have been found as high as 10,000 feet in the air and 200 miles out to sea.
2. Spiders can fish.
TRUE. There’s a group called fishing spiders that can capture everything from tiny water insects to fish as big as a minnow!
3. Spiders can eat their own webs.
TRUE. Webs get damaged all the time, so web-weaving spiders recycle their own silk by simply re-ingesting it. (It’s full of valuable nutrients.) Then they rebuild their web—sometimes every day!
4. Spiders have two eyes.
FALSE. Almost all spiders have EIGHT eyes, the better to watch their prey while holding completely still. Some spiders have two bigger eyes, like binoculars, up front so they can focus on moving prey.
5. Spiders have stingers, like Shelob in The Lord of the Rings.
FALSE. Spiders inject their prey with venom through fangs at the end of their jaws, which are called chelicerae. They don’t have stingers.
6. Spiders mummy-wrap their prey, like Shelob did in The Lord of the Rings.
TRUE. That’s how they keep it from escaping.
7. Daddy Long Legs are spiders.
FALSE. A Daddy Long Legs isn’t a spider; although it is in the Arachnid family, it’s in a separate order from spiders. All spiders have two body segments—a thorax and an abdomen—but a Daddy Long Legs only has one round body part (and just two eyes, see #4).
8. Spider silk is always sticky.
FALSE. Spiders can control the feel of the silk they produce—some is sticky, some is non-stick, some is thick and heavy, some is airy and light.
9. Scientists have identified all of the spider species.
FALSE. There aren’t enough spider scientists! New spiders are being discovered all the time—in fact, our ecologist, Jim Steffen, found a sheet web-weaver last year that might be a new species! Ask him about it on World Environment Day.
10. There’s a spider 3 feet away from you right now.
TRUE. But you’ll have to come to the Plant Science Center on World Environment Day to get the full story! See you June 1!