“But wait! There’s more!”

Stacy Stoldt is never not working on an exhibition.

Even when the Lenhardt Library’s public services manager is staffing the desk, answering reference questions, and locating articles for staff, the “million and one” details involved in putting together the library’s four annual rare book exhibitions are percolating in her brain.

PHOTO: Stacy Stoldt organizing bookshelves.
Stacy Stoldt awaits patrons in the Lenhardt Libary.

Stoldt has streamlined the process since she first began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2007, but it remains a lot of work to curate an exhibition. “There’s the research, the writing, the editing, the design, the approvals,” she said last month. “Here we are in January, and we’re in the design phase of our next exhibition, which opens in February, but back in November I was already meeting with someone about books for an exhibition that opens this May. There’s always a deadline looming.”

Stoldt loves her work, and one of her chief pleasures is deciding which literary treasures will be selected. It is a process involving research, more research, and finally, she says, just a bit more research. The excitement of finding the perfect volume has prompted Stoldt to burst into song (just ask cataloger Ann Anderson, a neighbor in the basement office who sometimes joins in).

The public services manager and her colleagues have many volumes from which to choose: in 2002, the Lenhardt Library acquired a magnificent collection of 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic journals from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston.

An Exhibition Takes Shape

PHOTO: A meeting with a dozen people gatherered around rare books.
Stoldt shows rare books to a group in the rare book reading room.

Before Stoldt begins hunting down books, there are meetings to decide Lenhardt Library exhibition topics for the year. That process begins with a brainstorming session including Stoldt, Lenhardt Library Director Leora Siegel, and Rare Books Curator Ed Valauskas. Sometimes the trio bases their topics on themes within the collection, such as the upcoming succulent show that features the work of A.P. de Candolle and botanical-rock-star-illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

Alternatively, they might collaborate with another botanical library on a theme, as happened when the Lenhardt Library team worked with the New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library on the recent exhibition Healing Plants: Illustrated Herbals. Other times, they select topics that complement events held at the Garden, such as Butterflies in Print: Lepidoptera Defined, which ran in conjunction with last summer’s Butterflies & Blooms.

Newest Exhibition Focuses on Orchids

PHOTO: An illustration of Masdevallia coccinea from an illustrated book panel.
The Lenhardt Library’s newest exhibition, Exotic Orchids: Orchestrated in Print, runs through Sunday, May 11. This image is from Xenia Orchidaceae: Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Orchideen, by Heinrich Gustave Reichenbach.

The newest Lenhardt Library exhibition complements the Orchid Show and is titled Exotic Orchids: Orchestrated in Print. Running through Sunday, May 11, it features such rare books as Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, published in 1862. Another item is Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with a beautiful color illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale, also known as Darwin’s orchid. “One doesn’t come alive without the other,” said Stoldt. “I’m always trying to put the connections together for people.”

For some exhibitions, Stoldt does it all—A to Z. For others, she receives the researched text, citations, and selected illustrations from Valauskas or Siegel and develops the material into an exhibition. Once the topics are established, research is completed, and explanatory text is written and edited, graphic designers enter the picture. Stoldt selects images from the featured books to use with the accompanying text, and then the designers work their magic. Along the way, Stoldt and Siegel review the progress. The result is an exhibition compelling not only for its content but for its elegant layout, which extends throughout the display cases that greet visitors as they enter the library.

Accompanying library talks are on Tuesday, February 18, and Sunday, March 9, at 2 p.m.

“For our new Exotic Orchids exhibition, we really wanted to show some bling!” said Stoldt. Within the Rare Book Collection, there was so much to choose from on orchids that she found the selection process daunting. Visitors to the exhibition will find the beauty and science of orchids well-represented, and discover items about orchid conservation and preservation as well.

Art Conservation Key to Documenting Plants

Stoldt noted that conserving the books and the artwork that document a plant’s existence is almost as important as preserving the actual plant. In cases two and three of Exotic Orchids, there are select illustrations from two orchid collections, Les Orchidées (1890) and Les Orchidées et les Plantes de Serre (1900–10), which the Lenhardt Library recently had conserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) through grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

How did the conservation process work? Professionally trained book and paper conservators removed the illustrations from their original acidic bindings; then the inks were tested, the surfaces were cleaned, and the illustrations were digitally photographed. Then the illustrations were placed in chemically stable folders and housed in custom-made boxes made from lignin-free archival boards. Conservation completed!

ILLUSTRATION: An unidentified Cypripedium, or slipper orchid.
Cypripedium VIII. color plate

The Rare Book Collection

Stoldt recently brought out some rare volumes to demonstrate the variety within the Rare Book Collection. As noted on its web page, the collection reflects a relationship between people and the plant kingdom that has been documented since the earliest days of print, when botanists were not simply plant describers, but explorers.

Out came volume after volume, with Stoldt pointing out noteworthy details about each. Among them was the oldest book in the collection, Historia Plantarum, written by Theophrastus (d. 287 B.C.E.) and published in 1483 (it has some unusual marginalia). There was also an exquisite Japanese book on flower arranging, Nageire Kadensho: Saishokuzu Iri, published in 1684 and donated by longtime library volunteer Adele Klein. Stoldt continued her informal presentation with seemingly boundless enthusiasm, finishing with lush life-size images from The Orchid Album, published between 1882 and 1897.

More than once, Stoldt returned a book to the vault at the end of the show-and-tell only to call, “but wait! There’s more!” as she glimpsed another book she absolutely had to show. This librarian really, really loves her books. And she feels very protective of them.

Stoldt recalled the horror she felt once when she was installing an exhibition, with a rare book exposed nearby on a book “cradle”: “There was a sign that said ‘Exhibit installation in progress: please do not touch the rare books,’ but this person came in from the rain and loomed over it, dripping wet. I got her out of the way, but that was a close one.”

Cultivating Relationships

More often, visitors are sensitive to the delicate state of the Garden’s rare books. Some Garden members make a point of coming to each new exhibition and attending the free gallery talk. “One patron always calls from Wisconsin to find out about the next talk,” said Stoldt. “And once, a library regular who came to a talk told me how much she loved the book Brother Gardeners [about eighteenth-century gardeners who brought American plants to England]. I was able to show her some books by the book’s featured plantsmen, including Joseph Banks, John Bartram, and Phillip Miller, among others. It’s what I call an ‘on-demand rare-book viewing.’ She was thrilled. These are the kinds of things that lead to relationships with people.”

Devoted patrons feel that the library and its exhibitions enhance their lives; in turn, some are moved to enhance the Rare Book Collection. “We have our patrons, and then we have our patron saints,” said Stoldt. One patron who came to the 2009 exhibit on Kew Garden’s 250th anniversary enjoyed the accompanying talk by Ed Valauskas so much that she donated the 1777 edition of Cook’s Voyage, or A Voyage Towards the South Pole, by Captain James Cook, which had been in her family for family for decades. And longtime members John and Mary Helen Slater made it possible for the library to acquire 11 volumes of Warner’s Orchid Album.

Inspiring the Next Generation

Stoldt loves to see the excitement she feels about the Garden’s Rare Book Collection spreading to a new generation. She recalled a day when a grandfather brought his grandson to the library, and the child asked to see a rare book. “I asked him what he was interested in, and he said, ‘poisonous plants.’ First, I showed him Histoire des Plantes Vénéneuses et Suspectes de la France by Bulliard, a book on poisonous plants written in French from the eighteenth century, but what really spoke to him was a book with the ‘coolest illustrations!’ entitled Poisonous Plants, Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect, Engraved on Wood, 1927, by John Nash. This kid was just amazed. I love seeing young readers light up when they’ve found something intriguing for them in print. It’s heart-warming.”

ILLUSTRATION: Cattleya aclandiae.
Cattleya aclandiae from a rare book color plate

Although that particular drop-in visit and viewing request occurred on a busy weekend day, another library staff member was available to manage the circulation desk while Stoldt showed the books. “I can’t stress enough the importance of making an appointment for a viewing,” she said. “Besides kids, grandparents, and garden clubs, people from all over the world come to Lenhardt Library to see primary resources they can’t find elsewhere. We’ve had writers and scholars from England and the Netherlands, and even a Thai princess, come to see the Rare Book Collection. Everyone is welcome.”

Don’t be surprised if you come to see one specific book in the collection and end up seeing many more. It will be a visit you won’t forget!

Rare book viewings are by appointment only during the hours of 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, subject to availability. For an appointment, call (847) 835-8201.

Click here to purchase tickets to the Orchid Show online.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Love Lives of Orchids

Valentine’s Day has special meaning for us at the Chicago Botanic Garden—it’s opening night for our Orchid Show (purchase tickets here). With that in mind, we’ve gathered a few stories about how orchids will do just about anything to attract a pollinator…along with a few soundtrack suggestions…

PHOTO: A spray of blooming orchids, which resemble tropical spiders.
A spray of Brassia rex “spider” blooms await pollinating parasitic wasps.

She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
With a love like that, you know you should be glad, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Granted, a little makeup can work wonders on date night. But the spider orchid, Brassia, takes things even further in order to attract an insect: it makes itself up to look like a pollinator’s favorite food.

The orchid’s flower has developed the color and shape of a large tropical spider. But it’s not trying to attract the spider—no, that would be too obvious. Rather, scientists think that the orchid attracts a wasp that hunts the spider as potential food for its own larvae. Thus the wasp is fooled into landing on the flower—and picking up its pollen—while hunting. So cheeky!

PHOTO: Closeup of a hammer orchid.
A hammer orchid (Drakaea glyptodon) awaits its next suitor. Photo by Mark Brundrett.

I’ve Just Seen a Face
Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again.

When the hammer orchid (Drakaea species) set its sights on the Thynnid wasp as a pollinator, it didn’t mess around: it developed a flower that looked like a lady wasp and a scent like the female pheromone used to attract a male.

In nature, the lady wasp climbs to the top of a plant and awaits a male—who recognizes the pheromone, flies over, plucks her off the plant, and mates. The hammer orchid’s flower mimics the look of the waiting female, but when the male flies up and lands, his weight throws him into the back part of the flower that carries the pollen—with the force of a hammer strike. He realizes he can’t carry her off, and heads off for another orchid, where the next hammer throw deposits the pollen he’s already carrying.

PHOTO: Closeup of Coryanthes speciosa, showing bucket and drip of nectar.
Coryanthes speciosa by Dalton Holland Baptista [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Taste of Honey
I will return, yes I will return. I’ll come back for the honey and you.

The right perfume can change a man. The bucket orchid, Coryanthes speciosa, has singled out the male euglossine bee for a pollinator. The flower produces a highly scented perfume that attracts swarms of male bees—which know that it’s a female’s favorite and rub it all over themselves. But step carefully, gentlemen: it’s a slippery slope into the flower’s bucket, where you’ll have to swim to the exit—picking up the flower’s pollen on your way out. On the plus side: you’ll smell great to that female bee when you finally find her!

(Check out more on orchids fooling mating bees with this famous video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-h8I3cqpgnA.)

PHOTO: A spray of fuchsia-colored, ruffled-petal blooms.
Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’ has dancing skirts and chocolate fragrance.

I’m Happy Just to Dance with You
Before this dance is through I think I’ll love you too. I’m so happy when you dance with me.

The most fashion-conscious orchids (Oncidium) are called “Dancing Ladies,” because of their wonderfully ruffly petals that look like the spread skirts of dancers. The most prominent petal on the orchid’s flower—called a lip, or labellum—can be ruffled, spotted, hairy, pouched, or fringed. All are features meant to attract a pollinator into using it for a miniature landing platform (the lip is much sturdier than this bloom’s delicate design lets on), drawing it in close to the center column that holds pollen.

Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’ is the supermodel of dancing ladies—and did we mention that it just happens to smell like chocolate? Most fragrant in the late afternoon to early evening, this is truly an orchid that knows the way to a woman’s heart.

PHOTO: The incredibly long nectar spur of Angreacum sesquipedale.
Angraecum sesquipedale ‘Flambouyant’ x var. bosseri ‘Lisa’—pollinated by the light of the moon.

Bonus Track! Mr. Moonlight
And the night you don’t come my way, Oh I pray and pray more each day, ’cause we love you, Mr. Moonlight.

At the Orchid Show, which opens this weekend, you’ll get introduced to Darwin’s orchid, or Angraecum sesquipedale, an orchid with an elegantly long nectar spur. When Charles Darwin first described the orchid in 1862, he postulated that it must have a pollinator with a long tongue, though none was known at the time. The mystery persisted for 40 years until a hawkmoth with a fantastically long 12- to 18-inch proboscis—a straw-like tongue—was finally identified. The moth flits from flower to flower at night, reaching deep into the brilliant white flower’s spur in a split second—all by the light of the moon.

With thanks and apologies to the Beatles, who performed for the first time in America on TV’s the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago this week. Since then, generations have grown up knowing the words to their love songs.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Creating a World of Wonder: The Orchid Show 2014

In three days, the Chicago Botanic Garden will present its first ever Garden-designed Orchid Show (purchase tickets here).

PHOTO: Gabe Hutchison in the greenhouse.
Horticulturist Gabe Hutchison attaches orchids to their new habitat: the orchid trees in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Looking at it now, the winter of 2014 has not been an ideal year to tackle an in-depth and delicate project of this scale. A winter season with near record snowfall and record low temperatures has posed plenty of challenges in getting warmth-loving tropical orchids to the snowy, freezing Midwest, and securely into the Regenstein Center Greenhouses. Single-digit and sub-zero temperatures have been putting the Garden’s horticulture staff on heightened concern to protect these orchids in their various stages of buds and blooms. The transfer and well-being of more than 10,000 orchids has been a well-orchestrated undertaking shared by Garden staff (especially horticulturist Sharon Nejman) and the vendors who packed and sent the trucks.

PHOTO: A metal cage holding branches is suspended from the greenhouse's glass ceiling.
A combination of metal cage and hazelnut (Corylus) tree branches creates the perfect framing to place an orchid display.

Beginning just a month ago, the Garden’s horticulture staff began a tear-down of Wonderland Express, immediately switching gears to the equally large endeavor of creating and setting up the Orchid Show. Existing Greenhouse beds have been modified to make room for impressive structures, and organic materials host epiphytic orchids of different genera. Presenting these impressive splashes of colorful orchids in a nontraditional display comes with some scalp-scratching challenges.

More than 10,000 orchids find homes on a variety of structures designed and fabricated by Garden staff.

Working closely with Orchid Show designer and horticulturist Brian Barker, I had the shared task of designating orchid choices based on the length of bloom life and needed care, while trying not to limit creativity and whimsy. My experience in maintaining private orchid collections for individuals and overseeing the care and aesthetics of three preexisting cork bark orchid “trees” in the Regenstein Greenhouses opened a role in the planning and installation of the show for me.

PHOTO: Pine bark lines the walls of a hallway, and vines and creepers stretch across the ceiling.
The entry to Nichols Hall transforms into an incredible tropical gateway.

In June 2012, when first presented with the challenge of building a new exhibition—an orchid show—we discovered logistical riddles we hadn’t considered being thrown at us. Along the way, new visions and ideas were presented, and have become focal points of the show during planning. Now we are here at the installation stage, with our materials, wondering,”How do I get hundreds of this particular orchid in these two or three colors to hang sideways or upside down over the visitors’ heads (sometimes way over), and keep the flowers happy?” Or, “How do we water a structure like this, and how do we do it efficiently?” Or, when we discover orchids are not happy in a location, how do we replace them quickly and in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the aesthetics of this visual centerpiece?

PHOTO: Two staffers gently weave orchids and roots into a metal cone framework.
Teamwork is critical! Leah Pilon and Aysa Pogue gently weave orchid roots into a display frame.

Together, the horticulture staff is figuring out the solutions to these in-no-way-little challenges as they are presented, and in the process, admiring the great orchid creations that are coming together around us with pride. With every step, we are enjoying Brian Barker’s visions with the awe they deserve, knowing that in a few more days, we will be able to step back and appreciate our final creation and see it in the eyes of a Garden visitor.

Winter white blankets the ground outside, but inside, the Greenhouses are alive with jewel tones.

From the moment the public enters Nichols Hall, crossing through Joutras Gallery and the entrance into the Greenhouses, our goal is to present an experience of grandeur, a lush habitat of color, and a mix of curiosity and wonder.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Roses Are Red…

A dozen red roses say, “I love you,” but horticulturists at the Chicago Botanic Garden transcend tradition on Valentine’s Day. Read on for thoughtful, unusual, and homemade floral gift ideas.

PHOTO: Delphinium in bloom.
Delphinium (Delphinium elatum ‘Royal Aspirations’)

Spouses can evoke their wedding day by combining flowers from their ceremony and reception into a Valentine’s bouquet, said Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist at the Garden. Tim would use sweet peas, freesias, and delphinium for a nostalgic, sweetly scented gift. Tropical flowers from spots such as Hawaii and Florida can conjure up memories of a romantic getaway.

Seeking a seasonal and local bouquet? Consider some of the dormant shrubs growing in your yard, said Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist. A little advance planning can produce beautiful flowering branches from early-spring flowering shrubs, such as forsythia. Prune 2- to-3-foot lengths, put them in a container filled with water, and place them in a sunny location. The bright yellow forsythia flowers will begin blooming in roughly a week, while other shrubs may take longer. Heather likes mixing the forsythia with silvery pussy willow. You can tie the bunch with a big red bow and attach a homemade card with a big “I Love You” on it.

PHOTO: Forsythia in bloom.
Forsythia (Forsythia ‘Northern Sun’)

Flowering plants such as kalanchoe, African violets, cyclamen, and azaleas can bloom for weeks and serve double duty in the summer garden. Tim Pollak likes giving indoor blooming plants to friends and family, because they serve as a lasting reminder.

Want to remember Mom on Valentine’s Day? Fragrant and long-lasting carnations can denote love for a mother, says Jill Selinger, manager of adult education. Delicate, blooming four-leaf clovers (Oxalis tetraphylla) can boost a friend who’s down on his or her luck. The clover leads into St. Patrick’s Day and can be transplanted outside in summer. Primroses, symbols of young love, can be put in the garden in spring and come back year after year.

PHOTO: Oxalis tetraphylla (four leaf clover).
A lucky gift: four-leaf clover (Oxalis tetraphylla)
Photo by © Alice Wiegand, CC BY-SA 3.0

Considering a recipient’s color preferences can create a Valentine’s bouquet that’s in harmony with their decor, said Jacob Burns, curator of herbaceous perennials. “Not that many people have red and pink rooms,” he said. “If I had to pick, I’d want a simple bouquet of ranunculus, anemones, or tulips.”

Presentation adds thought, meaning, and beauty to a floral gift, agrees Selinger. Gardenias, symbols of secret love, can be floated in a bowl, filling a room with their intoxicating scent for several weeks. How about placing a posy or small violet plant in a souvenir mug from a special date or trip? Remember, roses are red, violets are blue…

PHOTO: Orchid in bloom.
An unusual and stunning gift: this lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

Orchids can make an exotic, very feminine Valentine’s gift, and some varieties, such as Phalaenopsis, are very elegant and easy to grow, notes Sherwood. Plant biology graduate student (and our informal orchid spokesperson) Anne Nies recommends adding red and pink orchids—her favorite flower and research subject—into a mixed bouquet to add color, fragrance, and texture. “You can also make a bouquet or arrangement out of orchids alone; they have a wide variety of shapes and sizes,” said Nies. Among her recommendations are red Cattleya with their spicy scent, and mysterious-looking, blood-red Paphiopedilum, or lady slipper orchids. She also likes one of the stars of our upcoming Orchid Show: Oncidium ‘Sharry Baby’, which smells like another Valentine’s favorite—chocolate!

Still can’t decide what flowers to give for Valentine’s Day? How about all these flowers throughout the whole year? A gift membership to the Garden affords free parking, discounts, and blooms in all four seasons. Loved ones receiving a tribute gift will get a beautiful notecard from the Garden acknowledging the donation made in their honor. How’s that for a very special Valentine’s card?

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photosynthesis Made my Rock Candy

While you are inside wondering if winter will bring another chilling polar vortex, or six feet of snow, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit and rain, join me in contemplating the sweetness of plants.

PHOTO: Burgundy leaves of the Bull's Blood sugar beet.
The common sugar beet, Beta vulgaris (this one is cultivar ‘Bull’s Blood’), is the source of our refined white sugar—not sugar cane!

All sugar comes from plants. All of it. Plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar, and plants are made of sugars. Even plant cell walls are composed of a substance called cellulose, which is a compound sugar. Sugars from plants are the basis of our food chain.

Our favorite dietary sugar, sucrose, comes from the juices of sugar cane or sugar beets, which are boiled until the water evaporates, leaving the sugar crystals we all know and love as table sugar. Now that you know where your candy comes from, let’s use some sucrose to make a treat.

How to Make Rock (Sugar) Candy

Rock candy is pure, crystallized sucrose, and you can make it at home. This will take one to two weeks, so get started now if you want to give it to someone special for Valentine’s Day.

You will need

  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups sugar, plus about a spoonful extra to coat the skewers
  • Food coloring (optional)
  • Flavoring (optional)
  • Bamboo skewers
  • Very clean, heat-resistant drinking glasses or glass jars (like Ball or Mason jars)
  • 2 clothespins
PHOTO: Tools and ingredients for making rock sugar candy laid out on the kitchen counter.
All the ingredients for the solution are assembled and ready to go. Note: the flavoring pictured here is not the best to use, because it contains alcohol. Use an essential oil for better results.

Directions

First, assemble the hardware. Cut the bamboo skewer to 6–8 inches, depending how long you want it. Attach two clothespins to one end. They will rest on the edges of your glass, suspending the skewer straight down in the glass without allowing it to touch the sides.

Cut a piece of paper towel with a hole in the center. This will go over the top of your glass to prevent dust from settling on the surface of the solution. Remove the paper towel and skewers; you’ll reassemble this after you’ve poured the solution in the glasses.

PHOTO: Glasses and skewers set up for making rock sugar candy.
Suspend the skewers using one or two clothespins as pictured here, and be ready to cover loosely with a piece of paper towel like the glass shown in the middle.

Important tip: The directions I followed (from a reputable source) instructed me to moisten the end of the skewer with water and roll it in some sugar to “seed” the formation of new crystals. When I tried this, the sugar crystals all fell off the skewer the minute I put them into the solution. Crystals will not grow on a bare skewer. What did work was dipping the skewer into the sugar solution (which you are about to make) and then rolling it in sugar. This kept the tiny sugar crystals stuck on the skewer and allowed larger crystals to grow.

Making the sugar solution. Pour 1 cup of water in a saucepan and heat to boiling. Then turn the heat to low. You do not want to boil the water after you have added sugar, or you will make a syrup that is stable and will not yield crystals. Add the 3 cups of sugar gradually, and stir to dissolve. Push down any crystals that form on the sides of the saucepan during heating to dissolve in the water. This takes some time! Your final solution should be clear—not cloudy at all—and you should not see any crystals.

PHOTO: Green-dyed rock sugar candy solution in a Mason jar.
You can choose to pour the liquid into two small glasses or one larger jar.

If you want to color or flavor your candy, now is the time. Add 2 to 3 drops of food color and/or 1/2 tsp of food-grade essential oils (like peppermint), and stir in thoroughly. Avoid using alcohol-based extracts like the bottle you see pictured in the blog. I’m not sure if this caused a failure during one of my trials, but I can say with certainty that I had better results when I used a flavoring oil.

Dip the end of the skewer a few inches into the solution and remove. Let the excess sugar water drain into the pot, and then roll the sticky end in dry granulated sugar to coat evenly. Set aside.

Pour the warm solution into the glass container(s), and fill to the top. With this recipe, you will get about 3 and 1/2 cups of solution, which will fill one jar or two glasses. You can scale the recipe up if you want more.

PHOTO: Rock sugar candy skewers.
After about eight days, you can see the cube-shaped sugar crystals on these skewers. The longer you leave them in the solution, the larger the crystals will grow.

Carefully lower the sugar-coated skewer into the solution, holding it in place with the clothespins. Cover lightly with the paper towel and place it in a safe location where nothing will bump it or land in it for at least one week—two weeks if you want larger crystals. Do not totally seal your glass or jar. The water needs to evaporate for the sugar to come out of solution and crystalize on the skewer. If all goes well, then over the next week you will see large crystals forming only on the skewer.

Got candy? Remove the skewer and drain the syrup. Eat immediately, or allow to dry, wrap in plastic, and save for later. Now that is what I call cultivating the power the plants!

One more thing: You can use string instead of a stick. Tie a small weight on the bottom and tie the top to the a pencil balanced on top of the glass so that the string hangs in the liquid.

PHOTO: A weighted string coated in rock sugar crystals.
The string was weighted with a metal nut so it would sink into the solution.

While you are waiting for your sucrose to crystalize, let’s contemplate where it came from.

Sugar from Plants

You probably know that plants harness energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen in a process we call photosynthesis.

PHOTO: diagram of a plant showing carbon dioxide and light energy entering the plant leaf andwater entering through the roots, while glucose is formed in the leaf and oxygen is released into the air.
This basic diagram shows photosynthesis in action.

The product of the reaction is a sugar called glucose, which is chemical energy that a plant can use to build plant cells and grow. The formula looks like this:

6CO2 + 6H2O (+ light energy) C6H12O6 + 6O2.

Translated, it means that inside plant cells, six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules combined with energy from the sun are converted into one sugar molecule and six oxygen molecules.

Glucose molecules are combined to form more complex sugars. Sucrose, or table sugar, has a molecular formula C12H22O11.  It looks like two glucose molecules stuck together, but missing one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms (or one water molecule).  

ILLUSTRATION: Sucrose molecule.
This sucrose molecule looks good enough to eat!
PHOTO: Sugar cubes.
Just kidding. It looks better in normal scale.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, plants are the only thing on earth that can make sugar. Through modern chemistry, food scientists have figured out how to extract and modify plant sugars more efficiently. They have also developed different kinds of sweeteners, because the food industry is always striving to develop less expensive ways to satisfy our craving for sweets, as well as supply alternative sweeteners for different dietary needs. Some sugars you may see on food labels include dextrose (which is another name for glucose), sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, and sucralose. All of these “natural” sweeteners were processed from plants, even though they do not exist without help from a laboratory.

Have you noticed that all of these sugars, including the sugars in plant cell wall structures, have names that end in “ose”? That is no accident. The suffix “ose” is the conventional way chemists identify a substance is a sugar. Go ahead, share that information at your next party as you consume goodies made from plant sugars. Having some chemistry facts at your sticky fingertips makes you sound smart while you’re nibbling on sweet treats.

PHOTO: Fresh produce in a wicker basket.
Yum!

Please enjoy sucrose crystals responsibly, as part of a balanced diet that includes forms of sugars closer to their origins. (In other words, eat fruits and vegetables, too.) And remember to brush your teeth!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org