Archives For November 2017

Full bellies and full hearts. It’s what great Thanksgivings are made of. This year, add a special touch to your holiday table with harvest-inspired centerpieces that bring the whole family together.

We asked Nancy Clifton, program specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, to share some easy, crafty ideas that would fit a variety of party styles. Here are three centerpieces you can create (and mix-and-match) to impress your guests.

A Festive Friendsgiving

Friends are family you choose, as the saying goes. For these cozy gatherings, pick your own flowers, too. Here’s how you can make Thanksgiving-themed floral centerpieces like a pro:

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Pick flowers in autumn colors. Buy a few bunches of flowers in different fall colors and textures at your local grocery store. Nancy chose red roses, yellow mums, red-yellow mums, and hypericum berries to give the arrangements some variety.

Paint Thanksgiving mason jars. If you want to up your Thanksgiving game, paint your vases in holiday colors such as brown, orange, and ivory. Nancy used craft paint on mason jars, and sanded the lettering on the jars to give them a vintage look.

Save time by measuring flowers. Nancy’s time-saving hack is to trim one flower with pruners and remove foliage at the bottom of the stem. Place that flower in the mason jar vase. If you’re happy with the height, remove the flower and use it as a measuring tool to trim the rest of your flowers. Make sure you trim the flowers low enough so you can see your friends’ faces!

Impress-the-in-laws Pumpkin Planters

If you’ve got some serious entertaining to do (or at least want more excuses to use your hot-glue gun), wow your crowd with pumpkin succulent centerpieces. The best part? You can repurpose and eat parts of them when you’re done.

See the demo video on YouTube here.

Thanksgiving Centerpiece

The finished succulent and squash centerpiece

Gather the basic tools and ingredients. Grab a hot-glue gun, reindeer moss, and floral picks from the craft store. At your local grocery store, find small- and medium-sized pumpkins (you will want several), a succulent container, bunches of kale, and cabbages.

Assemble the planters. Cut the ends off of your succulents so they have a flat base, and set them aside. Adhere moss to the top of your medium-sized pumpkins with your hot-glue gun. Once the glue is dried, add the succulents on top of the moss, and adhere with hot glue or floral picks.

Arrange your centerpiece. When the pumpkins are dried, place them in the center of a large decorative tray. Add smaller pumpkins, bunches of kale, and cabbages to tray, arranging them in a bountiful display. You can even paint the stems of your small pumpkins with glitter-paint to give them extra-fancy glitz.

Give Thanks Table Runner

One of our favorite Thanksgiving traditions is sharing what we’re grateful for. A fun way to involve the whole family in this tradition is to have everyone write their “thanks”on a centerpiece mural.

Buy a roll of Kraft paper. Think of this as your table runner. You may want to lay this on top of a tablecloth to protect your table from stray doodles.

Decorate with thanks. Place markers around the table for guests to write their thanks on the runner.

Add an intimate glow. Nancy added pumpkin planters, candles, and string lights to the centerpiece to bring a warm, enchanting feeling to your party.

We hope you enjoy creating these centerpieces, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Find more of Nancy’s ideas, check out her 101 on creating Thanksgiving cornucopias.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Martian: Many of us watched and loved the movie. Some of us read the book. A few of us got inspired to use the story to teach plant science to students.

PHOTO: Book cover art for The Martian: a novel

If you are a science enthusiast, I highly recommend reading the book.

The Martian by Andy Weir tells the fictional story of NASA astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, who becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to figure out how stay alive until the next NASA mission returns to rescue him. He plants six potatoes and successfully propagates a crop of potatoes in Martian dirt fertilized with human poop.

The story got me wondering if we could replicate Martian soil with local ingredients and use it for plant experiments. So I contacted the Garden’s soil scientist, Louise Egerton-Warburton, and asked her if this was possible. She responded with a recipe:

  • Mix two parts crushed volcano rock, two parts basalt dust, one part sand, plus 0.2 parts feldspar
  • Autoclave (heat to very high temperature) three times to kill microbes
  • Experiment away!

You know you work in a great place when you can ask a colleague for directions for making Martian soil and you get an immediate, enthusiastic response with suggestions for how to use it. I acquired the materials and cooked up a batch.

PHOTO: a box of basalt, a cup of sand, a bag of feldspar, and a glass beaker containing the Martian soil mixture

I keep the ingredients for Martian soil in my office, in case Mark Watney drops by. Because you just never know. Matt Damon and Andy Weir are also welcome, but I hear they have both moved on to other projects.

One important thing I must mention: technically speaking, this mixture is not truly “soil.” Soil is the upper layer of material on the Earth that serves as an ideal medium for growing plants. It contains inorganic minerals from weathered and broken rocks combined with organic material from the decomposed remains of dead plants and animals. Real soil hosts microscopic bacteria and fungus that facilitate a cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem and convert minerals to a form plants can absorb and use. Soil also supports many little macroscopic critters, like worms and mites, that increase the porosity and affect other properties of the mixture.

The substance we would find on the surface of Mars is called regolith, which is mineral particles that result from weathering of rocks. Since my mixture is an approximation of what might be found on Mars, but made from Earth-sourced ingredients, it should actually be called simulated Martian regolith. But that’s a mouthful, so from here on I’m going to call it Martian soil and ask you, dear readers, to accept the inaccuracy for the sake of simplicity. OK?

I took my Martian soil and set out to answer my first question: what happens if we try to plant seeds in this stuff? Put another way, is it possible to grow plants in Martian soil without adding anything? To answer this question, I took a polystyrene egg carton and planted marjoram seeds (because I had some laying around) in my Martian soil and in some Earth potting soil for comparison.

PHOTO: an 18 egg egg carton that has the 9 cells on the left planted with Martian soil and the nine cells on the right planted in earth potting soil; marjoram has sprouted in all 18 cells.

It was overcast outside when I took this picture in the greenhouse—you’ll have to look closely to see that the marjoram seeds sprouted in both Martian and Earth soils. So far, so good.

The Martian soil is completely different from the potting soil in appearance and texture, and it responds differently when watered. Shortly after the seeds germinated in all of the cells, the Mars side went south. It didn’t hold water very well; it dried out and became hard, almost like concrete. It was no surprise that all of the seedlings on the Mars side died soon after germination. Plants on the Earth side continued to grow and thrive.

PHOTO: The same 18 cell egg carton now has nine Martian soil cells with no plants and nine cells with healthy marjoram growing in Earth potting soil.

It is clear from this test that the Martian soil needs to be amended to grow plants. We were told this in The Martian, but now I know it from personal experience. We can use our observations to understand why Martian soil is not a good medium for plants. That’s real science learning!

In the book, Watney used a bucket of Earth soil and human waste to amend the Martian soil for his potato crop. The book and the movie differ on this part—likely because the process required to make Martian soil suitable for growing potatoes was long and tedious. It wouldn’t make for riveting cinema. Instead of cultivating the soil over time, movie-Watney planted a spoonful of rehydrated human poop next to each piece of potato. 

While movie-Watney’s actions remind us of stories about the Pilgrims teaching the indigenous people to place a piece of fish next to each kernel of corn to improve the crop yield, there are some problems with applying this method to our Martian soil. The Martian soil would still lack sufficient organic materials and therefore not be able to hold water (as I demonstrated with my marjoram seed experiment). There would be an insufficient population of microbes to break down the human waste. Furthermore, the fecal matter might be so concentrated in nutrients that it could actually be toxic to the potato plants. I don’t believe it would actually work.

This compelled me to do some myth busting for my next experiment: since “humanure” would be unsafe—and gross!—I used worm poop, or vemicompost, which I have in plentiful supply from worm bins in our Learning Center nature laboratory. Also, I discovered that you can order “Martian Regolith Simulant” from a company online (who knew?). Although it’s expensive, it saved me the effort of crushing rocks, so I’m using it from now on.

This time I planted russet potato pieces and some sweet potatoes that had sprouted in my pantry at home (oops!) in azalea pots. I set up three conditions: Martian soil, Martian soil plus vermicompost, and Earth potting soil for comparison. 

 

PHOTO: Three 10-inch pots with potatoes planted in each of the soil conditions: Martian soil, potting soil, and mixture of Martian soil with vermicompost

In spite of my doubts, I’m actually hoping that the potatoes in Martian soil plus vermicompost out-perform the potatoes in plain Martian soil, because bringing worms on a space voyage could prove to be a good solution for future colonists on Mars! But we’ll have to wait and see.

Underlying these experiments (and few other I have tried) is a basic investigation of what plants need to survive. By testing to find the right combination of Martian soil and amendments, and limiting solutions to those that could be transported by a spaceship to another planet, we are using engineering practices because we are trying to solve a problem. This is real-world science and engineering that students could do in the classroom. 

PHOTO: Kathy J. sitting in her office wearing a space suit.

Here I am, working on my next astro-botany experiment, for myself, for teachers, and for science!

Besides satisfying my personal curiosity, these experiments are paving the way for some science lessons we are writing for teachers and students.

If you are a teacher interested in learning more about how to teach NGSS-aligned life science lessons using Martian soil, sign up for our workshop, STEM: Growing Plants in Martian Soil on Saturday, December 2, 2017. And watch for other Martian soil training opportunities in the future. 

We may never need to grow crops in Martian soil. But as we investigate the challenges of colonizing another planet, we can learn more about what plants need to thrive and also develop a genuine appreciation for how amazing our Earth soil is.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bim Willow, who has taught classes in willow work at the Chicago Botanic Garden for more than a decade, never tires of showing students how to tap into their creativity.

“That twinkle in the eyes of the students after they finish a project and look at it and they’re dancing, they’re giggling, and they say ‘I can’t believe I made it.’ Then they come back the next year and say, ‘You know, I’ve showed off my piece to people and everybody who has seen my piece says: I can’t believe you made that! But now I do believe it.’

That realization, says Willow, about going from ‘I can’t believe I can do this’ to ‘I now believe I can,’ is a big reason he’ll teach four Willow Workshops—Holiday Tree, Garden Bench, Rustic Reindeer, and Rocking Chair—November 11 at the Garden.

A chair workshop participant begins to attach the bent willow forming the seat and back to her chair frame.

A chair workshop participant begins to attach the bent willow forming the seat and back to her chair frame.

A happy Bim WIllow student works on her rustic shelf from an earlier workshop.

A happy Bim WIllow student works on her rustic shelf from an earlier workshop.

Students, he says, need not be masters of hammers and nails. “It’s really easy to learn how to nail, but it’s a lot harder to unlearn how to do it the wrong way—like so many other things in life.”

And while he teaches techniques, Willow also encourages individual creativity. “Students learn the technique of how to make something structurally sound,” he told us in a phone chat. “That’s functional. But the aesthetic part is now in their ballpark.”

“That’s where you get to use your imagination and take these sticks and create something beautiful out of it,” he says. “Imagination is all in our head. And my class is about taking it out and playing with it.”

Bim Willow supervises construction on a rustic chair frame.

Bim Willow supervises construction of a rustic chair frame.

Bim’s fascination with willow prompted a name tweak for this artist born Lawrence Schackow 65 years ago. Willow, who lives in southwestern Michigan, built his first willow chair in 1972 and started Willow Works, Inc., in 1985.

“Willow is one of those renewable resources. And for the style of furniture I build, willow is the best wood because of its flexible nature. But mostly because it’s free.

“For for the benches, we’re mostly going to be using sassafras, which is free wood. It’s durable,” he says. “And willow will be just for the trimming. I use willow that grows in the ditches that people are trying to get rid of because it clogs up the ditches. It’s not like a weeping willow tree.  …The willow that I use is a resource that people are trying to get rid of.”

“Basically, the class is about taking anything that people are trying to get rid of and turning it into something that people want.”

Willow calls himself “an author, artist, poet, and fool” on his Facebook page—a nod to his early work as a mime and clown. But he has several books to his credit, including furniture-making books, children’s books, and more in the works, like a collection of his one-liners he calls Bimisms.

“We are taught at an early age to stop being creative and start becoming productive,” he says. “And I’m here to reverse that.”

It’s about taking people back to a time when creativity was something they did instead of bought. And each one of us has that creative side.

If you think about a machine, he said, “I’m more of a social lubricant than a cog or a gear. So I slide in and out of the machine with creativity and show people that (creativity) can help take some of the friction out. But it’s also about people finding that within themselves.”


Guest blogger Judith Hevrdejs-King is a freelance writer.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

During the Age of Botanical Exploration, there were no journals, workbooks, or even articles on newly discovered plants. As more and more tropical and foreign plants were brought back to Europe, there was an explosive interest in these plants, but no documentation on the growing culture or uses had been provided.

That is, not until (Curtis’s) The Botanical Magazine began publication in 1787. This exciting new publication contained three to four scientifically accurate hand-colored engravings and descriptions of each plant, including information about cultivation and growth habit.

Library Talk on Sunday, November 5, at 2 p.m.

Mrs. Hodgson’s Rhododendron (Rhododendron hogsonii)

ILLUSTRATION: Rhododendron hogsonii.

Discovered in Bhotan, Eastern Himalayas, 1832.
1866, Vol. 92, Plate 5552
Artist: Walter Hood Fitch (1817–72)

Curtis’s ran without competition until 1815, when one of the chief illustrators, Sydenham Edwards, left the magazine and began the Botanical Register in 1815, paving  the way for even more, although short-lived, botanical journals.

But Curtis’s Botanical Magazine holds the claim as the longest running botanical magazine. The Chicago Botanic Garden is celebrating that accomplishment with an exhibition, Curtis’s: The Longest Running Botanical Magazine, through January 21, 2018, in the Lenhardt Library. A free talk will take place at 2 p.m. November 5 in the Lenhardt Library. There will be an opportunity to view the first volume of The Botanical Magazine from 1787, as well as other volumes of Curtis that are not included in the exhibition.

About once every quarter, I receive a call from my colleague Christine Schmid, who is the Library Technical Services Librarian who manages serial subscription renewals here at the Lenhardt Library. That call always begins, with “Hi, Stace, Curtis is here.” I gleefully unearth myself from six tons of paper and reference questions and go and take a look. Each time, I am amazed at the production quality and the longevity of a journal that features plant portraits reproduced from watercolor originals by leading international botanical artists, highly defined photographs, and detailed articles that combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation, and economic uses of the plants described.

The Moutan, or Chinese Tree Peony (Paeonia Moutan)

ILLUSTRATION: Paeonia moutan

1809, Vol. 29 Plate 1154
Artist: Sydenham Edwards (1769–1819)

The Botanical Magazine, as it was called on its London debut in 1787, was published by William Curtis in response to a public demand for more information on all the new plants reaching the British Isles from ongoing botanical explorations. Curtis, the former apothecary demonstrator at the Chelsea Physic Garden and creator of the Flora Londinensis, earned his “bread and butter” as he referred to it, with the publication of the magazine. The magazine popularized and encouraged the cultivation of these newly discovered plants and influenced generations of gardeners and nurserymen on the way in which the plants could be maintained or propagated. 

The magazine was not only filled with the most scientifically accurate text on the plants, but each plant was also scientifically illustrated by master botanical illustrators. Featured in the exhibition are hand-colored engraving by Sydenham Edwards (1769–1819), Walter Hood Fitch (1817–72), John Nugent Fitch (1840–1927), and the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865).

In addition to the exhibition and free Library Talk, the Lenhardt Library has a full run of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Issues are available for consultation upon request only. The magazine is now published for the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org