A House Is Like a Garden

Mario Buatta is known as “The Prince of Chintz,” but a minute on the phone with the legendary interior designer tells you an off-the-wall sense of humor is also part of his trademark: “Decorating is only decorating. It’s not brain surgery.”

The 80-year-old can afford to be self-deprecating. One of his latest projects—transforming the rooms of an 1850 South Carolina mansion for New York socialite Patricia Altschul—was featured in the October 2014 Architectural Digest. In 2013, he published his first book, Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration.

PHOTO: Mario Buatta
Mario Buatta

We’re honored to have Buatta as keynote speaker for our spring kickoff, the Antiques, Garden & Design Show, taking place April 17 to 19, 2015. Buatta’s appearance at the Garden is more fitting than you might realize. The storied New Yorker, whose client list includes Barbara Walters and Mariah Carey, has a great affinity for gardens. His trademark chintzes are bursting with flowers, and he weaves nature into the narrative of his work. He says, “No house is ever complete. It grows with you—just like a garden.”

Buatta may love a nosegay, particularly one printed on cotton and finished with glaze, but he is definitely no shrinking violet. Ask his take on current decorating trends and you’ll hear, “I see a lot of bad trends. Younger people want everything done overnight. Instant gratification. Everything simple, easy to take care of. No silver. No brown wood. No antiques. No old pieces.”

The result is a cold, unwelcoming home, in Buatta’s opinion. He says, “The things that make a house a home are the things with a family connection.” He’s been drawn to antiques since childhood, purchasing his first piece at age 11—an eighteenth-century lap desk acquired with $12 in saved allowance. “Antiques spoke to me, because they reminded me of the old days that don’t exist any more.”

A home needs connection to family and the past, but it also needs color. No white walls, or chrome, steel, and glass desert for Buatta: “I couldn’t live in a house without lots of color. Color is a like a garden. It brings a house to life.”

Hours in museums as a youth, looking at the works of Matisse, Bonnard, and other impressionists, taught Buatta a great deal. A professor at his alma mater, Parsons The New School for Design, put it this way: “If you don’t understand the colors these artists use on their canvases you will never be a good decorator.”

PHOTO: Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Design
A book signing will follow Mario Buatta’s lecture on April 17.

Some of Buatta’s favorites include apricot, chartreuse, blood red, and nature’s colors, such as sky blue and green. He’s also crazy for blue and white with yellow. His own living room is three shades of pistachio green, and his bedroom is eggplant. “You should always have a touch of red in a room,” he says. “It gives it life. A touch of black pulls in all colors. It says quality. It’s very important not to repeat colors in two rooms so your house is a palette. You really want to set the mood for the time of day you use the room.”

In our brief conversation, snatched between urgent phone calls, Buatta displayed mastery, humility, showmanship, and outrageous humor. He quips, “I’ve been a celebrity since I was born.” His upcoming lecture, sponsored by Veranda and titled “If You Can’t Hide It, Decorate It,” promises to be anything but dull. Carolyn Englefield, director of decoration and special projects, will moderate!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Our Scientist Takes on Thomas Jefferson

Hear “vanilla” and what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Ice cream, right?

While we were researching vanilla for our annual Orchid Show, we kept discovering new scoops on vanilla ice cream.

PHOTO: Plain vanilla ice cream cone.First we learned that one-third of all the ice cream that Americans eat is vanilla.

Next, we learned about vanilla beans’ different flavors—at a tour of the Nielsen-Massey Vanillas facility in nearby Waukegan. (Who knew that vanilla extract was produced right here in Chicago?)

And then we came across Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream at the Library of Congress—such a beautiful document that we included a copy of it in the Orchid Show. (The knowledgeable staff at the Library of Congress pointed out that there’s a second recipe on the back of Thomas Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream notes—for the Savoy cookies to accompany it.)

All those moments dovetailed nicely when our own orchid expert, Pati Vitt, Ph.D., got inspired to make her own homemade vanilla ice cream. Naturally, as a scientist, she set herself a bigger challenge: to tackle Jefferson’s thorough (albeit old-fashioned) recipe, using three different types of vanilla beans kindly provided by Nielsen-Massey.

We had to document Dr. Vitt’s ice cream-making adventure: see how she interpreted Jefferson’s recipe—and what three guest chefs/tasters had to say about the flavor—in our video (view on YouTube).

PHOTO: Jefferson's vanilla ice cream recipe: Holograph, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Holograph recipe, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Bookmark this item

Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream

(Jefferson’s lovely script can be hard to decipher, so here’s the recipe’s text in full.)

2 bottles of good cream
6 yolks of eggs
½ pound sugar

  • mix the yolks & sugar
  • put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of vanilla.
  • when near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar.
  • stir it well.
  • put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s [sic] sticking to the casserole.
  • when near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel.
  • put it in the sabottiere*
  • then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt.
  • put salt on the coverlid of the Sabottiere & cover the whole with ice.
  • leave it still half a quarter of an hour.
  • then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes
  • open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabottiere.
  • shut it & replace it in the ice
  • open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides
  • when well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.
  • put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee.
  • then put the mould into the same bucket of ice.
  • leave it there to the moment of serving it.
  • to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.

*Footnote from the Library of Congress: A “sabottiere” is an ice cream mold (“sorbetière” in modern French).

Vitt’s notes:

  • You can use the recipe without modification, just cooling the mixture in an ice bath and then in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
  • One tablespoon of vanilla extract may substitute for the vanilla bean.
  • The recipe makes about 4 pints (2 quarts, or one ½ gallon).

BONUS RECIPE!

Ice cream wasn’t the only vanilla treat on Vitt’s mind: she also canned a batch of vanilla spice apple butter (we shared it in a meeting—delicious!) and made her own vanilla sugar. Vitt agreed to share her recipe—and presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags, that we had to include a photo, too. 

Vanilla Spice Apple Butter

PHOTO: Pati Vitt's vanilla apple butter.
Vitt not only agreed to share her recipe for vanilla apple butter with us—but presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags.

Wash, core, and slice 8 to 12 apples (Granny Smiths, or a mix of varieties) to fill a 6-quart crockpot to about 1½ inches from the top; add ½ cup of apple cider. Cook until completely soft—about the consistency of apple sauce.

Using a food processor, sieve, or Foley mill, puree the sauce. Put the mixture back into the crockpot, along with half of a fresh vanilla bean. Cook several hours on the “low” setting of your crockpot until the extra liquid cooks off and the mixture begins to thicken. (Place the lid of your crockpot slightly off kilter to allow steam to escape. This will speed up the evaporation and thickening of the mixture.)

After the apple butter begins to thicken, add ½ cup sugar and the juice of one lemon. Cook an additional 30 minutes. Stir in cinnamon to taste, plus a pinch each of ground cardamom and cloves. 

Pour into hot, sterilized jars and place in a canning bath according to your canner’s recommendations for applesauce—usually about 10 minutes.

For more ideas—sweet and savory—for cooking with vanilla, check out our February issue of the Smart Gardener.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

New Year, New Pests

At the start of every growing season, I get the same question: what are your thoughts as far as garden pests are concerned? Here are my predictions:

First, plants may show signs of cumulative stress from the inconsistent and extreme weather patterns of the past few years: the 2012 drought, followed by the cold winter of 2013-14, and greatly fluctuating seasonal temperatures. These stress factors have an accumulative negative effect on plant health. When plants are under stress, their defense mechanisms are down, and they are much more prone to disease and insect attack, just as people who don’t eat properly and don’t get enough sleep are much more prone to illness. So what can we do? Primarily, just a bit more TLC in the way of cultural care: watering, mulching, pruning, fertilizing, monitoring and managing pests, protecting, and focusing on the more delicate plants in your landscape.  

Second, new high-consequence invasive pests will become of concern. We now live with Japanese beetles, which are here to stay; we have experienced the Asian longhorned beetle (which was supposedly eradicated in our area, but I doubt that’s the case); and we are right in the middle of managing the emerald ash borer crisis. So what’s next? Sad to say, there are many other invasive pests to be on the watch for. Two that are literally knocking at our door now are the brown marmorated stink bug (primarily an agricultural concern) and the viburnum leaf beetle (primarily an ornamental landscape concern).

Find more information on identifying and dealing with emerald ash borer on our website, and in our previous posts on EAB.

In ornamental horticulture (your home landscape plants), I feel the viburnum leaf beetle is on the verge of having a great impact in our area, as nearly everyone’s home landscape has viburnum; I’d like to take a moment to review this new critter.

Viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni)

The viburnum leaf beetle (VLB) is native to Europe and was first found in the United States in 1994 in Maine. In 2009, it was first found in Illinois (Cook County). In 2012 and 2013, the number of reports increased from Cook County and also from a new county, DuPage, as well. In late summer 2014, there were numerous reports from Cook County and some specifically from our neighbor Winnetka, where complete defoliation was reported—only five miles from the Garden!

PHOTO: Viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni)
Viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni) by Siga (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The VLB larva and adult both feed on foliage and can cause defoliation, and several years of defoliation can kill a viburnum. We have not yet found VLB at the Garden but have been monitoring our viburnums closely. If you live in the area, I strongly suggest you begin monitoring your viburnums for this critter. There are many great university-created fact sheets for VLB that can be found online, or contact the Garden’s Plant Information Service for additional information. Please report new finds to the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois Department of Agriculture, or University of Illinois Extension Service.   

PHOTO: Plugged cavities on a viburnum twig containing egg masses of the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni).
Plugged cavities on a viburnum twig containing egg masses of the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). Photograph by Paul Weston, Cornell University, Bugwood.org

The Garden is a member of the Sentinel Plant Network, a group that unites botanic gardens in monitoring and providing education on exotic plant pests and pathogens, and works in partnership with the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN).

If you are a plant and bug person like me, please consider becoming a NPDN First Detector and help be on the lookout for these exotic invasive plant pests and pathogens. The NPDN offers an online training course to become a First Detector at firstdetector.org. It’s free, and upon completion, you even get a printable certificate!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mapping the Future of the Wild West

Silvery-green sagebrush cascades over the canyons of the Great Plains and Great Basin in numbers that would strike envy into the hearts of most rare and endangered plants. The abundant species keeps the wheels turning in a system where struggling plant and animal species rely on it for life-sustaining benefits.

As the climate changes and brings new rainfall levels and other environmental conditions, will this important species transition to new locations? What are the potential consequences for its current neighbors? These questions concern Shannon Still, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: Dr. Shannon Still looks over the area of his research.
Dr. Still looks over the area of his research.

“Sagebrush is a very big part of the ecosystem in the West, and we need to see what is going to happen,” said Dr. Still. “It’s a workhorse species that is important for pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and mice that live around it, and it helps to stabilize soils.”

Still made several trips into states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada in 2014 to investigate the likelihood of such a transformation and to help prepare land managers for the potential results. “When a climate changes, species often shift their location within it,” he explained. When that species has already become an integral part in the lives of its neighbors, it can mean a ripple of changes across the entire system.

It’s All About That Brush

PHOTO: Wyoming big sagebrush, the focus of the study.
Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus of the study

Standing in a thicket of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus species of his study, Still reaches into a 3-foot tall plant with his Felco 8 pruners to take a sample. (He’ll later send this sample to his collaborator in Utah who will confirm the subspecies identification through a genetic test.)

Still plots the location of the plant with his GPS unit, which he also uses to track his route through the dusty wilderness in the Garden research vehicle. He snaps a few photos for visual reference and makes notes in his computer tablet before moving on to the next site.

There are millions of plants out there now, Still estimates. So, he strategically collects information from 150 key locations during multiple visits. He then returns to the Garden to add the new information to his database, which also holds data from herbaria records he collected earlier.

At his desk in the Garden, he inputs new data. He then uses a software workflow he built himself to compare a map of the plants with a map of how the climate will look in those locations in future years. He runs models that overlay one map on top of the other to see where climate shifts will occur in the current species range. This allows him to predict where Wyoming big sagebrush will continue to prosper, and where it may disappear due to a lack of rain, too much rain, or temperature shifts, for example.

Staking a Claim

Still is excited about the ability of the software to provide climate-related analysis on sagebrush and other species. In fact, it’s the second study he has run with the program in the last two years since it was developed, using specialized algorithms for each.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden research vehicle parked in the field.
Colorado Rockies in the background; research subjects all around

First, he developed the software workflow to better understand how more than 500 rare species in the same western region might fare in the future if their environmental conditions change as predicted, and to which changes they are most vulnerable. The study results are like a crystal ball for land managers, identifying which species are most urgently in need of their care. The three-year investigation will come to a close in late 2015.

Already, both studies have received attention, with publications in the January issue of Nature Areas Journal authored by Still and his collaborators.

Still’s initial findings reveal that the Wyoming big sagebrush species already appears to be shifting. An anticipated increase in precipitation in the Great Plains and a drier climate in the Great Basin may lead to a contraction of the species into a smaller range, he explained. “By 2050, models show that 39 percent of the current climate for Wyoming big sagebrush will be lost.”

Still hopes that by identifying locations where sagebrush may fail to thrive, land managers can immediately focus on restoring areas that will continue to be suitable for the species long term.

PHOTO: Sagebrush in the canyon.
Sagebrush population in the canyon

“We don’t expect sagebrush to go extinct,” said Still. “But we may lose plants in areas where we don’t want to lose them, or more rapidly than we hoped. That could lead to more erosion or the loss of suitable habitat.”

Always moving forward, Still is continuing to work with the data, now adding details about plant locations such as the slope of the land and the direction they face. With those details, he will run new models in the future.

The wild West once again finds itself at the forefront of exploration and change. If Still has any say in the matter, its mysteries and historic charm will endure.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Sip of Salep

We gathered around a table at the Garden View Café the other day to taste something that only one of us had ever tasted before: powdered orchid roots.

A traditional winter drink in the cafés and restaurants of Turkey, salep is made from the tuberous roots of orchids—specifically, terrestrial orchids in the genus Orchis. Dried and powdered, the resulting flour is combined in a drink mix with other ingredients, much as hot chocolate or chai spices would be: sugar, cornstarch, powdered milk, cinnamon, and vanillin (the main flavor component in vanilla) are added.

PHOTO: Salep and dendrobium orchids.
A warm cup of salep is perfect on a wintry day.

The instructions are hot-chocolate simple, too: mix 1½ tablespoons of powdered salep into 6 ounces of steamed or boiling milk. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Serve in small cups.

Our lesson in salep came from the one person who had not only tasted salep before but had grown up drinking it—horticulturist Ayse Pogue, who hails from Istanbul.

PHOTO: Horticulturist Ayse Pogue
Horticulturist Ayse Pogue

Salep is not readily available in America; it arrived here courtesy of Ayse’s mother, Figen Ormancioglu, who kindly brought it with her on a recent visit. (The family surname translates as “son of the forester”—Ayse’s love of botany is in her blood.)

What does salep taste like? “Chai,” “junipers,” and “I’ll have another glass,” were three answers; the flavor is hard for American taste buds to define. Sweet and savory and spicy all at once, there’s a note of bark or tree in it—Ayse explains that gum arabic, made from the sap of the acacia tree, is also an ingredient, one more familiar to eastern palates than western.

And what is served with salep? “Good conversation,” Ayse says, as is true of all café drink orders. Heading to Istanbul? You’ll spend $4 to $5 on a cup of salep in a city café.

Edible Orchids

We’ve been talking a lot about edible orchids recently, especially with vanilla as a prominent part of this year’s Orchid Show. While vanilla is, by far, the most well-known food produced from orchids (it’s the bean-like fruit of the vining orchid Vanilla planifolia), other orchids are eaten in different ways around the world.

  • Chikanda is a Zambian food made from pounded orchid tubers and thickened to the consistency of jelly, then served in slices.
  • Olatshe is a daily dish in Bhutan, where Cymbidium orchids are cooked with spices and cheese.
  • Some Dendrobium flowers are edible, and the bamboo-like canes are ingredients in Asian stir-fries and sauces.
  • Turkish ice cream, or dondurma, is also made from salep; some dondurma is so chewy and elastic that it can be sliced and eaten with a knife and fork.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org