Archives For October 2015

There’s a tree 20 feet above the Chicago Botanic Garden

Celebrating the halfway mark of the Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus construction

Sophia Shaw —  October 30, 2015 — 4 Comments

Why is there a tree on the exposed beams of the under-construction Education Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus?

PHOTO: A construction worker "tops off" the site, as the team reaches the halfway point in the construction of the new campus.

A construction worker “tops off” the site, as the team reaches the halfway point in the construction of the new campus.

That tree is part of a more than 1,000-year-old tradition to recognize a very special moment in the construction of a building. The tree is hoisted up and placed on the beams by the project’s construction workers, in our case by those from Waukegan Steel, LLC, during a “topping out” or “topping off” ceremony.

The practice of placing a tree atop a building signals the end of the framing phase of construction, and it is a tradition that originated in eighth century Scandinavia. The tree used is often a pine, but it can be of any type; originally, sheathes of wheat were used. As the tree is raised, usually adorned by a flag, to the building’s final beam, the team celebrates with a toast or a meal. It’s a moment to acknowledge the workers’ skill and successful accomplishment, the safety of the worksite, and the transition to the next phase of the project. The tree also provides a blessing of sorts to those who will dwell, work, and play in the building in the future, and pays homage to the materials (originally wood) that make shelter possible.

PHOTO: Despite the blustery day, the construction team was excited to celebrate the success of the project so far.

Despite the blustery day, the construction team was excited to celebrate the success of the project so far.

We know that plants are critical to sustain life on Earth. Much of our food, clean air and water, clothing, medicine, and shelter derive from plants. And, in addition to needing plants to sustain life, we rely on plants to help us enrich our life and to celebrate its important milestones. We give plants and flowers as gifts—to court those we desire, to lift the spirits of friends or acquaintances who are sick—or to memorialize and honor those who have passed away. Guests coming to a friend’s house for dinner bring a fragrant hostess gift. In some places, a homecoming corsage is still part of coming of age.

Our Science and Education curriculum is made possible by you, our generous donors and sponsors.

So when I look up at the tree atop the beams of the Education Center on our soon-to-be Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus, not only do I celebrate this milestone of construction and the accomplishments of the steelworkers who are making this important project possible, I also think about how many wonderful ways plants enrich our lives.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Did you know that pin oaks hold their anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall? Or that the oldest oak at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a white oak that lives near the Lake Cook entrance? Download our infographic below to learn more about the popular and beautiful native oak trees we are celebrating this October and beyond.

Oaktober infographic to color


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On September 19 and 20, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden hosted a fantastic Harvest Weekend for a crowd of enthusiastic visitors eager to learn more about extending their harvest and preserving the fruits of their labor. 

As an interpretive programs intern, I was lucky enough to run a honey-tasting demonstration that introduced many guests to the breadth of flavor, color, and aroma of a favorite sweetener. By extension, I was able to add yet another check mark to the long list of reasons we should actively participate in the protection and conservation of honeybees. 

Getting the goods with a hand-cranked honey extractor

PHOTO: View inside a honey extractor.

Tasting  A view inside the top of a honey extractor. Centrifugal force is used to “spin” the honey from the frames into an attached receptacle. Photo by Audriusa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Harvest Weekend was favored with two beautiful fall days—breezy and clear, with plenty of sun—and I was stationed next to our wonderful beekeepers, who oversee the popular display and free-standing hives.

They brought along authentic beekeeping gear for curious individuals to try on and a hand-cranked honey extractor (generously loaned by Windy City Harvest), positioned near the tent. On Sunday, we featured a live honey extraction demonstration, much to the delight of the onlookers.

Once the visitors had chatted with our beekeepers, they could then engage their palates and senses by tasting three very distinct types of honey: basswood, wildflower, and buckwheat.

The Color of Honey

PHOTO: Basswood (Linden flower) honey.

Basswood (linden flower) honey

Basswood is made from the blossoms of the basswood, or linden tree (Tilia americana). It is especially light in color and very sweet, with a delicate floral aftertaste. Overall, it was the most popular flavor of the weekend.

PHOTO: Wildflower honey.

Wildflower honey

Wildflower honey refers to any honey derived from a mix of flower blossoms, that is—distinct from a monofloral crop such as clover or orange-blossom honey. As such, the flavor is more complex and the color is darker than basswood honey, though not as dark as buckwheat.

PHOTO: Buckwheat honey.

Buckwheat honey

Interestingly, the majority of our Sunday visitors found this flavor to be their favorite. Derived from the nectar of buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) blossoms, buckwheat honey is one of the darkest available, and perhaps the most polarizing—people either really liked it or they really didn’t. Our visitors described it as “molasses-y,” “malty,” “smoky,” “yeasty,” and according to one visitor, “like an animal”—gamey.

Want to make your own very local honey?

PHOTO: Bee life-stages models.

Learn more about bees and beekeeping: take our upcoming Beginning Beekeeping workshop!

While lining up for samples, recipes were exchanged: honey mixed with sesame seeds for energy and promoting childrens’ growth, several tonics of honey and cinnamon to soothe sore throats and coughs, and a tangential recipe for cooking buckwheat grains with salt or mushrooms as a side dish. Visitors had questions too, like how to ensure a pure single-blossom crop (hive location and timing), or what makes honey “raw” (the minimal steps used during processing). I heard loads of stories illustrating how visitors have interacted with bees, from the fellow who grew up on a farm with hives to the guests who were just expanding their understanding of bees as hardworking, fastidious insects.

Discover liquid gold.

PHOTO: Tasting honey takes all this small boy's concentration!

Honey tasting requires focus and concentration! Find out more about honey varietals from the National Honey Board.

The Garden visitors also proved to be very adventurous tasters, with most of them sampling each variety of honey. Unsurprisingly, basswood and wildflower were the predominantly favored flavors, although buckwheat tended to be preferred by adults with a penchant for molasses and, surprisingly, by several children with impressively sophisticated palates. Happily, guests were also adventurous about the bees themselves—even the occasional wandering honeybee, drawn by the hopes of a quick meal, was greeted more with humor than apprehension and provided yet another learning experience in what has been a season full of education and outreach!

Things have quieted down for the bees over here at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden as the cooler weather sets in, but I hope that visitors to the Garden will have as much fun as I did, and will take the time to learn from our hardworking and tireless volunteers, and admire the occasional honeybee going about her day.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Having recently experienced the magical bloom of our titan arum Alice the Amorphophallus at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we were reminded of the pure joy that plants can bring.

Alice provided special moments for many people—including me.

On September 28, at 12:51 a.m., I received a text from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s senior director of marketing, Jennifer Napier. All night, she had been watching the feed from a camera trained on the plant we hoped would yield the result that our first titan arum, Spike, did not. She texted because she had noticed something incredible: Alice was blooming.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw pollinates a titan arum from the collection.

That’s me! Pollinating Alice the Amorphophallus took steady hands and quite a bit of concentration.

What a wonderful surprise. I took a breath and thought: This is it. This is what so many dedicated horticulturists at the Garden have been waiting for, and watching for, with our collection of eight titan arums over these last 12 years.

I arrived at the Garden just after 3 a.m.—my headlights reflecting in eyes of the raccoons who call our 385 acres home—and was let in by the third-shift security officers who keep the Garden safe at night.

At the Semitropical Greenhouse, I met outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak, “Titan Tim,” and we breathed in the plant’s horrible, wonderful smell. Tom Zombolo, senior director, facilities and maintenance, joined us soon after. I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but it was my impression that Alice “knew” we were there; maybe our warmth and carbon-monoxide exhales made the plant believe we were pollinators? I don’t know, but in the several minutes following our greenhouse entry, we perceived that Alice’s rotten scent became even more intense. There would be a lot of activity very soon, but we shared a quiet moment to reflect on this rare phenomenon and the extraordinary dedication of so many to reach this point.

Later, thanks to Tim and scientists Shannon Still and Pat Herendeen, I had the chance to hand-pollinate Alice with pollen supplied by “Spike” and our friends at the Denver Botanic Gardens. That moment was one of the most exciting and moving experiences of my life.

Alice was on view until 2 a.m. that night, and visitors of all ages patiently stood in line up to three hours to see, and smell, the corpse flower. I was grateful for the Garden operations staff, led by Harriet Resnick, who—in ways large and small—made the experience so satisfying for our visitors. More than 20,000 people visited Alice, and it was such a happy occasion for all.

PHOTO: Twitter tells the story: #CBGAlice was the see-and-be-seen event on September 29-30. It's true—she was more popular than Beyoncé for a while.

Twitter tells the story: #CBGAlice inspired and amazed visitors September 29-30.


Help us harness the power of plants to engage our senses and our communities—sponsor a program through our Annual Fund today.

Alice has now returned to the production greenhouse, joining the seven other titan arums in the Garden’s collection. Will serendipity happen again with another corpse flower bloom? Nature will determine that. But I do know these kinds of special moments truly reflect the power of plants to educate, inspire, and bring joy.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Paranormal Perennial

Jacob Burns —  October 20, 2015 — 4 Comments

I appreciate any cultivar name that invokes thoughts of my favorite holiday: Halloween.

It is fun to stumble upon some Gaillardia ‘Goblin’, Hemerocallis ‘Bela Lugosi’, or Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’ and suddenly wonder, “What should my costume be this year?” One perennial in particular has a designation so dark, it can conjure up a gruesome ghost story: 

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’
Side-flowering aster

PHOTO: Symphyotrichum lateriflorum 'Lady in Black' with frost.

A late-fall frost, not ghostly images, sets off Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’. Image courtesy Northcreek Nursery

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ was one of only seven asters to receive a five-star rating of excellence by Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The straight species, S. lateriflorum, was also among the seven, so you can see that this is one of the best asters for your garden.

The foliage of ‘Lady in Black’ is an almost black-purple color, enhanced in autumn by numerous sprays of teeny white daisies with pinkish-purple centers. A location in full sun or partial sun will produce the darkest foliage.

Side-flowered asters can grow three feet tall, and a striking effect is to plant it in front of Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) or any other shrub with amazing fall color.

“Lady in Black” also happens to be the popular name for a mournful soul who haunts Fort Warren, located on George’s Island in Boston Harbor.

The myth goes like this:

In 1862, Mrs. Melanie Lanier of South Carolina tried to rescue her husband, who had become imprisoned at the fort during the Civil War. On a stormy night in January, she rowed across the freezing water with nothing more than a pickax and an old pistol. She chopped off her hair and disguised herself in men’s clothing. She snuck her way to the prison cells and signaled to her husband by whistling a Southern refrain. He signaled back, and quickly she found a way to squeeze through the bars of his cell window.

Worried about seeing the Lady in Black?

PHOTO: Victorian Lady in Black wearing mourning jewelry and clothing.

Pick your superstition: In Victorian times, seeing an owl during the day, finding a single snowdrop flower in your garden or witnessing a sparrow land on a piano all foretold imminent death.

After weeks of tunneling underground with the pickax, they were discovered. Mrs. Lanier shocked the guards and tried to shoot a Union officer with her pistol. However, the antiquated weapon backfired, and some shrapnel ended up killing her husband. She was captured, tried, and hung a month later.

Just before her death, she was given a black robe, the closest thing to a dress they could find. Visitors to George’s Island now claim to see a woman in this same black robe. The Lady in Black has been known to appear in photos, and her moans have even scared away fishermen.

Not spooked? These creepy (or dangerous) plants might do the trick!

YIKES!

While I’m fairly certain that the Dutch breeders who named Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ were not familiar with this particular ghost story, you can’t help but wonder if they were not aware of some other spirit dressed in dark garb, drifting or moaning down the paths of their garden.

So the next time you notice an eerie cultivar name like Geranium phaeum ‘Stillingfleet Ghost’, Hemerocallis ‘Snowy Apparition‘ or Eupatorium dubium ‘Phantom’, try not to get shivers down your spine.

PHOTO: "The Fly" Halloween costume.

The author as pollinator and (much) larger-than-life pest

Get your costumes on and discover more spooky fun in the Garden at HallowFest and the Spooky Pooch Parade! Corpse flower costumes, anyone?


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org