Baltimore Oriole: Suburban Garden Songster

In early May, when the leaves of maples are unfolding into a soft green, the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) returns, giving his liquid “tea-dear-dear” song in suburban yards and forest preserve edges.

Homeowners who put oranges and grape jelly in feeders are often rewarded with a look at the male with his black head and back contrasting with his brilliant orange breast as he eats a spring meal.

PHOTO: A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines.
A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines. Photo © Carol Freeman

Later, the female, with a dusky-colored head and yellowish-orange breast, will come. If she sees some 12-inch-long soft strings of light-colored yarn put out by humans, she may snatch them to make her nest. A common breeding bird of open woodlands, natural spaces, gardens, and parklands, the oriole has returned from its winter in the South: Florida, the Caribbean islands, southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

PHOTO: A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring.
A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring. Photo © Carol Freeman

By May, Baltimore orioles have arrived in the eastern United States to set up breeding territories. To get her attention, the male hops around the female, spreads his wings, and bows forward. The female responds by fanning her tail, fluttering her wings, and chattering. The female weaves plant fibers including grapevine bark, grass, and other materials such as yarn (and even horsehair) to build a hanging, pendulous, pouch-like nest. Typically, orioles nest about 20 to 40 feet high at the end of a branch. Their preferred locations are on cottonwoods, American elms, and maples.

PHOTO: Baltimore oriole nest.
The Baltimore oriole nest is a labor of love. Photo © Carol Freeman

In his Life Histories of North American Birds series, Arthur Cleveland Bent noted that the oriole is “perhaps the most skillful artisan of any North American bird.” Those lucky enough to see an oriole nest will most likely agree. It can take a week to ten days for the female to complete her nest. She’ll then lay three to seven pale eggs blotched with brown, which hatch in 11 to 14 days. The young remain in the nest for another 11 to 14 days, getting fed constantly by their parents, until they’re able to hop out onto a branch, exercise their wings, and then fledge.

These colorful birds eat insects, fruit, and nectar, (and grape jelly!), and can help keep populations of pests such as gypsy moth caterpillars in check. Agile members of the blackbird family, orioles can hang upside down and walk across twigs, or fly directly from perches to grab flying insects. Besides the “tea-dear-dear” song, orioles also give a series of chatters and scolding notes, which can alert you to their presence.

As summer goes on, the orioles seem to disappear, spending most of their time feeding young and less time singing and chattering. But come mid-August to early September, the orioles start singing again—often shorter songs—before they leave for winter vacation.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

ExperiMINTing! with mint

With the Kentucky Derby—and mint julep season—approaching, it’s time to consider mint, a fast-growing, almost wonderfully invasive plant.

PHOTO: Spearmint in bloom.
A refreshing digestive, mint can be harvested more than once in a season; use it fresh in your mojito, or dried as tea.

Mint survives Chicago winters and comes back hardier than ever. Cuttings easily take root and begin propagating anywhere they touch soil. For these reasons, grow mint in a plastic pot, so it doesn’t take over your yard. (The roots are so strong they can crack clay pots.) Mint needs at least four hours of sunlight per day, so pick a sunny spot. It is tolerant of most soils and weather conditions—just be sure it gets some water every week to keep it from becoming bitter.

Maintaining flavor

Mints spread in two ways: by runners and by seed. However, many plants are hybrids, which means the sprouts that shoot up from the broadcast seed will probably not be the same as the plant you bought. To keep that lovely flavor you brought home, trim the plants down when they have flowered, but before they drop seed. This causes the plant to bush out and spread from the roots only.

Choosing your flavor

PHOTO: Mint julep by Bill Bishoff.
Mmm-Mmm mint julep—a Kentucy Derby favorite! Photo by Bill Bishoff

There are more than 600 types of mint on the market. Here are a few that work best in the kitchen:

Kentucky Colonel spearmint (Mentha spicata ‘Kentucky Colonel’) got its fame from being the leaf of the classic mint julep, but it’s also perfect for any mint sauce or jelly.

Banana mint (Mentha arvensis) is part of the spearmint family, but grown mostly for its incredible smell. It still maintains a good flavor in cooking, though.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is most often used for its peppermint oil. Peppermint family plants are strong flavored and best used dried or in small quantities because they contain menthol (think Vicks). They soothe stomachs, but are difficult to cook with fresh.

Variegated pineapple mint is a lovely, sweet-scented peppermint hybrid that makes a great tea. To keep it variegated, you need to cut off any green stems.

Orange mint is the most invasive of all mints, so plant accordingly. It smells sharply of orange peel and can turn a nice burgundy color during winter It also works beautifully in baking recipes.

Easy Mint Simple Syrup

PHOTO: Mint simple syrup.Making simple syrup is a great way to put your mint to good use.

What you need:
½ cup mint of your choice (washed leaves; lightly chopped pieces packed down)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

Directions:
Rinse and drain mint leaves. Bring water to boil in a small pot on the stove. Add mint leaves and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves, and then turn off heat. Let mixture cool (approximately 30 minutes). Strain off leaves.

Store the syrup in the refrigerator for use within two weeks, or freeze for later use.

To use:
Add this simple syrup in place of sugar in your favorite ice cream, sorbet, lemonade, soda, or cocktail to add balanced mint flavor to any recipe. Even better, add to a dry wine or prosecco for an easy happy hour treat.

Want to take it higher? Freeze the syrups in ice cube trays with a few small leaves and use as a sweetener for tea or cocktails. A glass of bourbon becomes a Mint Julep when you add Mint Syrup ice cubes.

Peppermint Extract

PHOTO: Peppermint extract.Peppermint oil is often used for cleaning, pest control or aromatherapy. What you produce is not the professional essential oil (that takes more time and effort than most of us can muster), it will do the jobs needed.

What you need:
A sealable/airtight jar or glass container
Enough chopped peppermint or peppermint family leaves to fill the jar
Vegetable oil, olive oil or nut oil 

Directions:
Place washed chopped mint leaves in the container (no need to pack; they need to breathe a bit). Heat the oil of your choice (use enough to fill the jar) on the stove in a small pan until it is too hot to touch. Pour the oil over the leaves and seal the container. Let the mixture sit on the counter until it has cooled, then move it to a dark place or cupboard for a week and a half to two weeks. Once it has set, strain out the liquid into a spray bottle.

Uses:
Peppermint oil sprays are said to prevent mold and can be mixed with vinegar to create a simple disinfectant cleaner. They also create a great air freshener, massage oil, or natural control against ants, mosquitos and even rodents.

PHOTO: Tarragon simple syrup and fresh peaches enliven a sparkling wine cocktail.
Add simple syrup to Prosecco and peaches: lovely.

Want to save more of the amazing herbal flavors in your yard this year? Check out our post on Herbal Mixology for ideas.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring It On—Spring Annuals for 2016

Did the striking Silver Fox foxglove make it into “the show” this spring? Who decides which flowers make the cut anyway for the unfurling of 75,000 annuals at the Chicago Botanic Garden?

We’ll show you a few of our spring favorites that made it through the multi-level review process.

Digitalis purpurea ssp. heywoodii ‘Silver Fox’
Digitalis purpurea ssp. heywoodii ‘Silver Fox’ (Sensory Garden)

“Behind all of these beautiful displays, there is a lot more happening than what you may think,” said Tim Johnson, the Garden’s senior director of horticulture. “It can be very complex—different plants have different production times.” Besides considering how long it takes for a plant to grow in our greenhouses, the Garden’s experts also consider the desired size and bloom time.

Every season, each horticulturist proposes a color scheme and submits plans to Johnson. About ten months before spring or the start of the other seasons, the proposals are reviewed by experts, including Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director; Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist; Brian Clark, manager of plant production; Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Garden and director of plant collections, and Johnson. The team also considers how each proposed plant fits into a garden’s design and color scheme, along with its habit, culture, and cost. “They all need to be looked at globally to make sure there are different plants, varieties, and color schemes throughout the entire Garden,” Johnson said. “Each garden should have a unique look to it.”

Viola 'Fizzy Grape' by Ball Seed
Viola × wittrockiana ‘Fizzy Grape’ (Lake Cook Road entrance and gatehouse)
Primula vulgaris ‘Primlet Golden Shade' by Panam Seed
Primula vulgaris ‘Primlet Golden Shade’ (Heritage Garden troughs)
Hyacinthoides hispanica 'Excelsior' by Brent & Becky's Bulbs
Hyacinthoides hispanica ‘Excelsior’ (Heritage Garden troughs)
Ranunculus asiaticus Maché 'Purple' by Ball Seed
Ranunculus asiaticus ‘Maché Purple’ (Green Roof)
Linaria maroccana 'Licilia Peach'
Linaria maroccana ‘Licilia Peach’ (Circle Garden)
Calendula officinalis 'Neon'
Calendula officinalis ‘Neon’ (Sensory Garden)
Dianthus barbatus ‘Sweet Purple’ by Panam Seed
Dianthus barbatus ‘Sweet Purple’ (Sensory Garden)
Tulipa 'Amazone'
Tulipa ‘Amazone’ (Crescent Garden)

Before spring slips away, come see what’s in bloom at the Garden and look for the annuals that made the final cut, including—you guessed it—an unusual foxglove known as ‘Silver Fox’. Before you visit, download our free GardenGuide app to help you find plants.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org