Archives For March 2018

I remember vividly the first time I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was silent (unusual for me) and in awe. Everywhere I looked, I saw plant labels, and looking at them provided me some kind of familiarity—like when you meet someone new, you want to know their name, what they do, what they like, right? Well, the same with plants.

One important aspect of visiting a botanic garden is acknowledging its plant collection. Botanic gardens are living museums, and when you go to a museum, you want to know what is in front of you. A display plant’s name on the label is the first interaction between you, the individual, and the environment. It’s important to recognize how vital it is to label our plant collection.

Here at the Garden, we use the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). Only scientific names—written in Latin—are universal worldwide. The scientific name of a plant usually consists of its generic name and its specific epithet, which forms the name of the species. There are no regulations for common names, but scientific names are constantly reviewed and occasionally, we have to replace labels where a plant’s Latin name changes when it is reclassified.  

PHOTO: Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

PHOTO: The plant label room, with bundles of labels stored in buckets in front of card catalogs.

Not everything is glamorous: the cluttered label room

My volunteers and I are responsible for providing display plant labels to the horticulture staff and exhibitions department. People ask me, “Are you bored in wintertime, since there is nothing for you to do?” Uh, what? That may be the busiest season for the labeling team.

We start checking label requests lists, which had been coming in since the previous December, pull labels out of the drawers, assess the accuracy of labels with no name changes, check their appearance, and assemble and process label orders. These processes take four months. In the next few weeks, as the Garden prepares to bloom, we are prepared to deliver 3,400 display labels for spring and summer annuals—plus, the labels for our permanent collection.

Our label room stores more than 45,000 plant labels. We have card catalog cabinets (remember those from libraries before we went digital?) and now even shoeboxes that hold our labels. The labeling team collects, maintains, disassembles, recycles, and discards labels. The Garden has produced close to 10,000 labels a year.

How do we print our labels?

PHOTO: Sample of a display label in the Chicago Botanic Garden.

This is our standard label, 2” x 4”, printed with a metalphoto process (photosensitive anodized aluminum); using silver letters with black finish.

Our labels are printed on photosensitive anodized aluminum, a process called metalphoto finish. It withstands the temperature variations in our climate, and also doesn’t rust or fade. This keeps all the labels in our collection looking standardized, so they are not a distraction in the garden beds, but a helpful hint.

Other botanic gardens use different methods for displaying plant information, based on their individual climate and labeling needs. It’s always fun to see how someone else solves a problem when I am out travelling:

Planter in downtown Quebec with a plant label in it.

A label from downtown, Quebec, Canada. I do not speak French, and before I get nervous, I see the scientific name with relief.

A plant label in Montreal Botanic Garden is a QR code; you must scan the code to see the information.

A label from the Alpine Garden, Montreal Botanic Garden, displays only a QR code; you need access to the internet to scan the code and download the plant information.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

This label is mounted on a post at Royal Kew Gardens, London, England.

This label is mounted on a post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England. They speak English here, but the common name of the plant could have varied. Still, as long as I see the scientific name, I know what I see.

This is a big display/interpretive label at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo; about 12 inches by 18 inches.

Labeling at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan. I’m not fluent in Japanese, but I can read the Latin names. This is a big display/interpretive label, about 12 inches by 18 inches.

This label is made to withstand the constant humidity of Costa Rica.

A label in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica. I speak Spanish, but the common name would vary from region to region, so I stick to the scientific name. This label is big and sturdy, around 7 to 8 inches across, and is made to withstand the constant humidity.

Next time you visit the Garden, check out the Linnaeus statue in the Heritage Garden and see the decoding of a plant name.

Our visitors come for different reasons. Some look for comfort, solitude, peace of mind. Others come for education, research, experience, horticulture, and design. Most of them have this in common: they will want to know what they are looking at. And as diverse as our audience is, they will look for the scientific name that is universal. If you visit any botanic garden in the world, the display plant label will remain the same, no matter the country. It may vary in design or style, but at the end, we all speak “plant language.”


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When Watering Your Succulents is Overkill

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  March 27, 2018 — 5 Comments

When I was a kid, one of my chores was to water all of the houseplants. Each day, I filled up the plastic watering can and padded around the house, filling each pot until it was almost overflowing. I loved listening for the faint trickle of water as it soaked through the soil. I sensed the plants were thirsty, and I liked knowing I was giving them a much-needed drink.

Cut to my adult apartment, one week after I brought home my first plant family, and two of my babies look frazzled. When I first set them on the kitchen windowsill they were healthy and strong, but now they’re, well…you be the judge.

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (before)

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (after)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (before)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (after)

I think water is the culprit.

Aloes and succulents are deceivingly tricky houseplants to care for. The others in my home—the prayer plant, spider plant, zz plant, and flamingo flower—look fine, by the way. But these two prefer drier soil; daily watering would be their worst nightmare. I was a new plant-mom, though, and wanted to give them a nice warm welcome.

So when I first got home, I drenched them both with water.

Maybe not the best idea.

Within a week, the aloe’s beautiful coral flowers had shriveled up and fallen off. In a panic, I wrote to Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Wade Wheatley and asked if I’d overdone it with my watering. He suggested it may just be the end of the aloe’s bloom cycle (their flowers bloom from winter to spring), and that it is completely natural for the blooms to fall. Phew!

The succulent, on the other hand, doesn’t seem normal. The bottom half of the leaves have dropped (some even fell off with the slightest touch), and what’s left of the leaves seem to be wilting and smushy. I remembered Wheatley saying that if a succulent’s leaves are soggy, it could mean they’re overwatered.

For a thorough diagnosis, I turned to Kathie Hayden, manager of the Garden’s Plant Information Service, the help center for all things plant-related.

Hayden fields all kinds of questions from visitors about diagnosing and treating their plants. After looking at my plant photos, here’s what she said:

“The only thing that I notice about the aloe is that the flowering has finished and the stem has turned brown. You can safely prune back the stem.”

“Echeveria plants (a large genus of succulents) appreciate average warmth from spring to autumn but cooler temperatures in winter. Try to place the plant in a cooler location for the winter, if possible. Echeveria require regular watering from spring to fall so you should water when the soil begins to dry out. You don’t want to use the same amount of water in the winter. Watering the plant every one to two months should suffice. If you’ve been watering more frequently, this may be the reason for fewer leaves that are lighter in color. Let the soil dry out a little and hopefully the plant will begin to develop new growth. A south-facing window is good location to keep the plant, but you may want to provide some shade during the summer months. There is no need for additional humidity. It will also benefit from a little fresh air in the summer.”

The verdict? The succulent is probably overwatered. I’ll prune back my aloe, leave the succulent alone for a month, and move it to a shadier window.  

Remember, there are no hard and fast watering rules. But with a few simple guidelines, you can keep your plants alive and healthy. To sort out the facts, contact Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972 or plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org.

Watering Lessons 101

  • Not all plants are created equal. Some houseplants need constant moisture, and some survive on drought. Research the specific care instructions for your plant and give it the amount and frequency of water it needs.
  • Make sure your container has drainage holes. If it doesn’t, moisture can get trapped in the soil and prevent oxygen from reaching the roots, leading to root rot.
  • Soak the entire root ball. When watering, make sure you do so until it leaks out of the drainage holes. This ensures the entire root system has been watered. (Note: “Usually, plants that are root-bound have problems because water rolls off and down the sides of the pot and doesn’t penetrate the root ball. If roots have dried up, you are probably looking at dead roots,” said Hayden.)

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

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.

ikebana-orchid-show

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 Ikebana International Exhibition will be held June 23 to 24, 2018. 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 my.chicagobotanic.org

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 my.chicagobotanic.org

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 wallpaperscraft.com.

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

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 my.chicagobotanic.org