Archives For March 2018

Meditative, artful, and transporting. In a way, the experience of seeing Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show is much like ikebana, the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging. On display now through March 25, this new feature of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show invites you to pause and reflect on this historic art form.


Ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging.

The practice of ikebana (ee-kay-bah-nah), also called kado (or, the “way of flowers”), dates back approximately 600 years. Originally, men and women arranged flowers as Buddhist offerings for altars at temples. Since then, ikebana has established itself as an art form beyond religious ritual, and is often seen displayed in people’s homes. 

Though it is now a secular practice, ikebana carries deep philosophical meaning. When arranging flowers in the ikebana style, the arranger is invited to remain silent. The silence creates a meditative space for the artist to connect with and appreciate nature more closely. For ikebana floral designer and Garden volunteer Shelley Galloway, the connection between nature and person is key.

Orchid ikebana display

Ikebana with Phalaenopsis orchids and ferns

“Love of nature, the desire to convey the inner essence of the plant material, and the ability to give a personal interpretation reflecting the artist’s own view of the world are all important components of ikebana,” said Galloway.

Although ikebana designs can be created with all kinds of flowers, the designs on display at this year’s Orchid Show feature the main event: orchids. 

“Unusual orchid varieties were most attractive to my eye for use in the ikebana arrangements,” said Galloway. “The Garden provided us with some very tiny colorful orchid plants whose arching stem structure gave me the shape I wanted to echo.”

The art of ikebana is more than simply putting pretty flowers in a vase. Ikebana is known for its distinct asymmetrical style and the use of empty space. Attention to harmony and balance is key, as in many other traditional Japanese art forms. Ikebana is also customarily taught by a teacher, who instructs you how to insert flowers into a base or container.


Harmony and asymmetry are hallmarks of the ikebana style.

At the Orchid Show, artists from three schools, or styles, of ikebana created the compositions on display. The arrangements reflect balance and the beauty of nature, as interpreted by the schools of Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu.

  • Ikenobo —The oldest school of ikebana, Ikenobo is based in Kyoto, Japan. It features classic and contemporary styles, and observes the belief that flowers reflect the passing of time.
  • Ohara —The Ohara school of ikebana focuses on the natural world. It emphasizes seasonal changes, and invites its students to observe nature and the growth processes of plant materials.
  • Sogetsu —The Sogetsu school considers ikebana a practice accessible to people of all cultures—not only Japanese. It aims to spread appreciation of the art form all over the world.

The Chicago Botanic Garden celebrates this timeless art form at three ikebana shows annually. The first show is happening now at the Orchid Show, through March 25. The Ikenobo Ikebana Chicago Chapter Show will be held August 25 to 26, 2018. The Sogetsu School of Illinois Ikebana Sogetsu Exhibition will be held September 8 to 9, 2018.

Orchid Show entry display

See Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; join us for our final Orchids After Hours on March 15 and 22, from 4 to 8 p.m.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Just below the summit, we scrambled past enormous boulders to an unhappy sight—a small group of beautiful aspens in big trouble.

As curator of woody plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I’m interested in what’s happening to quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) because the trees have become increasingly threatened by geologic disturbance and climate change. The Garden is part of a research group that’s working to collect root pieces and other genetic material from the aspens in the Chisos Mountains of west Texas; the material will allow us to raise the trees in cultivation and then plant new ones in the wild. The quaking aspens project is just one part of a broader Garden goal to protect species and promote biodiversity.

As part of the initiative, I met with Adam Black, director of horticulture at the famed Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead, Texas. Adam is a plant geek at heart and knows the Chisos Mountains intimately from 20-plus years of exploring there. He put together the collaboration between the Chicago Botanic Garden, Peckerwood Garden, the National Park Service, and the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

Quaking aspen growing out of the boulder field below Emory Peak, Big Bend National Park (white trunks visible in foreground)

Quaking aspen growing out of the boulder field below Emory Peak, Big Bend National Park (white trunks visible in foreground)

In mid-February, Adam and I began the long, steep trek toward Emory Peak, in Big Bend National Park, gaining about 1,800 feet of elevation in 4 miles. Passing through Laguna Meadows, I first glimpsed the stunning white bark of the aspens growing out of enormous boulders above us. Adam and I dropped our packs and scrambled across the boulder field, photographing the terrain and aspens as went.

The chalk-white bark of these quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) contrasts with the Mexican pinon pine (Pinus cembroides) growing amongst the boulder field.

The chalk-white bark of these quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) contrasts with the Mexican pinyon pines (Pinus cembroides) growing in the boulder field.

When we reached the trees, it quickly became clear that this grove of aspens was unlike any other I had seen before. Aspens usually grow in enormous clonal groves, which means that the trees are essentially a single plant, connected by one elaborate root system. The grove below Emory Peak includes only 40 trees or so, in poor health. Jason Smith, Ph.D., forest pathologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, believes that the trees are under stress from the radiant heat of the rocks in which they are growing. When the trees grow to about 25 feet high, they get a canker disease—a fungal infection—and quickly die. 

Adam and I collected root pieces and shoots from six separate trees in the grove, all good genetic material that will allow us to cultivate the plants. Reaching the roots was no easy task. The aspens are growing in the remains of what appears to be a major rock collapse from an igneous intrusion, or rock formed from intense heat that has crystalized into molten magna. While most aspen colonies spread upward from roots in less than 18 inches of soil, these trees grow through several feet of stacked boulders. As we moved from tree to tree, I struggled to keep my footing on the shaky boulders and tried not to cause a rock slide down the mountain.

With GPS data and root sections in hand, Adam and I climbed up to the mountain’s East Rim, where we were rewarded with stunning views of the Chisos Mountains, canyons carved out by the Rio Grande River and Maderas Del Carmen Reserve in northern Mexico. The next morning, camping on the mountain rim, watching the sunrise cascading across the United States-Mexico border, I forgot about the 8-mile descent ahead of me until it was time to pack up and go. During the hike down, Adam and I stopped by the second group of quaking aspens that we’re studying; a month earlier, Adam and Dr. Smith had collected root pieces from the trees for propagation.

Sunlight fading over Sierra Del Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico

Sunlight fading over Sierra Del Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico

After the team cultivates new plants from the genetic material we collected, the trees will be distributed to botanic gardens and arboreta across the country and added to the institutions’ conservation collections. The team is also doing genetic testing on the Chisos Mountains trees to determine how they relate to other aspen populations.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The SciFi Rant

Boyce Tankersley —  March 2, 2018 — 6 Comments

I have been a fan of science fiction since the early days of Star Trek on TV (Yep, I am that old). I think it is one of my strengths, as a scientist, that I have the ability to visualize “out of bounds” solutions. I like to think this open-mindedness has contributed to my successes.

I discovered a love of growing plants and archaeology as a young child on a ranch in West Texas, surrounded by miles of vegetation and peppered with intriguing traces of the people that had lived on the land before I got there.

Coming from a family of modest means, I realized that I did not have the luxury of “discovering myself” at college, and so at 16, I made a short list of possible careers with their pros and cons: growing plants and studying ancient civilizations. Neither career path was going to result in wealth, but that was not a major goal in my life’s plan. (Yes, I have on several occasions wished for time travel to reevaluate the advantages of wealth.) A strong contender was archaeology, but one of the cons was that if I were out of a job, I would not have the skills to grow food to feed my family. Don’t you just love spreadsheets? So growing plants was to be my career—and if I were unemployed, at least I would have the skills needed to grow food for my family.

I soon learned that within the whole plant science field were a number of specializations, not just “growing things”: horticulture, botany, plant taxonomy, plant physiology, plant genetics, agronomy, and plant pathology. Yikes, another decision!  Like any good budding scientist, I knew research was in order:

  • Horticulture is the art and science of growing plants.
  • Botany is the scientific study of plants, including their physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance.
  • Plant Taxonomy is the science that finds, identifies, describes, classifies, and names plants.
  • Plant Physiology is a sub-discipline of botany concerned with the functioning—or physiology—of plants.
  • Plant Genetics deals with heredity in plants, specifically mechanisms of hereditary transmission and variation of inherited characteristics.
  • Agronomy is a branch of agriculture dealing with field-crop production and soil management.
  • Plant Pathology is defined as the study of the organisms and environmental conditions that cause disease in plants, the mechanisms by which this occurs, the interactions between these causal agents and the plant (effects on plant growth, yield and quality), and the methods of managing or controlling plant disease.

Horticulture was the name of the discipline I wanted to specialize in, and that, as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “was the rest of the story.”

So where does the rant about SciFi fit in?

Siting on the couch with my son and watching E.T. the Extra-terrestrial for the umpteenth time, I was dismayed to learn in the director’s cut that the original title had been The Botanist. Now everyone in plant sciences knows that botanists are great folks to share a beer with, but they are lousy at growing plants. If they could grow plants ,they would be horticulturists, not botanists. But I let this one slide, Steven Spielberg is a great guy, and everyone deserves a break sometimes. Besides, in an alien culture, perhaps the two are more closely aligned. (Another example of out-of-the-box thinking!) 

Fast forward to The Martian, a real thriller that pushed all of the right buttons in my SciFi loving psyche…except that they described the survivor as a botanist. No self-respecting botanist would know enough about growing plants and their requirements to pull off that feat. Nope, another missed opportunity. Obviously a horticulturist; a botanist would have studied the tubers as they dried up and died. The horticulture field just lost another opportunity to attract the first generation to grow plants on another planet!

ET: A tiny botanist, or maybe something a little more cross-disciplinary? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal

ET: A tiny botanist, or maybe something a little more cross-disciplinary? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal

Mark Watney may be a biologist, but here he's a horticulturist. Photo via

Mark Watney may be a botanist, but here he’s a horticulturist. Photo via

The stomach flu earlier this year was a really unpleasant experience, but while channel surfing Netflix last weekend, I came across a SciFi series called The Expanse. Yep, that was me for four days straight—watching a total of 26 episodes—knowing that I was out of it enough to be able to come back in a time of health and catch some details my fevered brain didn’t absorb. (Yes, Netflix was concerned and periodically offered me alternatives, but I was hooked.)

About halfway through the second season, the action shifts to a food production facility featuring solar collectors, greenhouses, and plants grown in hydroponic solution. Vital to survival of our species in space, plants cleanse the air and provide nutrition for space-based operations—NASA has been working on it for at least 40 years. Great scenes, great actor, actually got the technical terminology right…and then they referred to him as a botanist!

My wife, son, and our new puppy came rushing to my bedside—such a cry of anguish they had never heard. They reassured neighbors at the door that everything really was “all right.” Ugh!

A FluorPen is used to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants.

John “JC” Carver, a payload integration engineer with NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Test and Operations Support Contract, uses a FluorPen to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants inside the growth chamber of the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) Flight Unit No. 1. Half the plants were then harvested.

Dear SciFi movie writers, directors, etc.: In space, plant scientists probably wear many hats, but please note: horticulturists grow plants; botanists study them.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and