Archives For May 2018

Time to Take Your Urban Houseplants Outside

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  May 27, 2018 — 4 Comments

Hey, Chicago. It finally feels better outside. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief with me. Sigh. We made it.

Now that it’s officially patio season, it’s time to get out and enjoy the sun. Which has me wondering…should my houseplants join me outside? Can they?

Spider plant

The spider plant catching some rays.

The process of moving indoor plants outside, called “hardening off,” typically happens around when nighttime temperatures stay above 42 degrees Fahrenheit. By now, pots are popping up all along back wooden porches across the city. But if you have little to no outdoor space—like me—it can be a challenge to give your houseplants a much needed breath of fresh air.

I turned to Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who lives in Chicago. She has an open lot next to her apartment, but also has some restrictions like me. Her lot gets 100 percent shade, so she can’t even grow vegetables. My apartment has an eastern exposure back stairwell, with mostly shade and some indirect morning light. 

Here’s what she says about putting my plants outside:

  • Be careful about sunburn. Sunburn isn’t a concern just for us humans. Plants can get scorched, too. Don’t put them in blazing sunlight. Porches with shade are prime locations for orchids and birds of paradise plants.
  • The outdoors makes your plants happy. A lot of plants really enjoy the strong swing in temperature that only the outdoors can provide, said Sherwood. If you have the space for it, and moderate sunlight, your indoor houseplants would love to feel the extended daylight.
  • Keep a watchful eye. You’ll need to water outdoor plants more often, said Sherwood. Plants dry out much quicker in the sun, so check them daily. Also be aware of the weather forecast; if it’s predicting wind and rain, you may want to bring your plant babies back inside until it blows over.

Of my plant collection, Sherwood said my spider plant would probably do best outside. She also recommended elephant ears as a new outdoor option. I don’t have room in my apartment for a large plant, but I’ll keep that idea in my back pocket.

I’m going to bring my spider plant outside and see how it fares over the next few weeks. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start a vegetable container. Stay tuned!

Plant Family Check-ups

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)

I’m not sure whether it’s OK, because the tips of its leaves are a little brown and soggy. I don’t think it’s dead, though. I think. I hope.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Seems to be doing all right, but I’m a little disappointed by its lack of movement. I bought the prayer plant partly because I wanted to see its leaves bend up and down. From what I can tell, it doesn’t move. It’s still pretty, though!

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Honestly, I forget it’s there half the time. Which is great! It’s my lowest maintenance plant, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

New growth! I spotted a few red blooms shooting up from the soil, and it’s made me so happy. This is my favorite plant. Shhh…don’t tell the others.

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

This one is the most worrisome of the crew. It hasn’t lost any more leaves, but it still doesn’t seem too happy. I moved it out of direct sunlight, and have been resisting watering it, but the leaves still feel a little soft and squishy. Keeping an eye on this one.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Loving its new home outside!


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Artist Penelope Gottlieb works in vibrant colors and on large canvases, some as large as 16 feet wide. But as the name of her exhibition, Against Forgetting, at the Chicago Botanic Garden reveals, visitors need to take a close, reflective look. Her paintings address real challenges—extinction, invasive species, and vanishing plants—within the plant world.

A montage of the Extinct Botanicals prints draws visitors in to the exhibition.

A montage of the Extinct Botanicals prints draws visitors in to the exhibition.

“I am not a scientist, I am not a botanist, and I’m not attempting to be a naturalist. These are my fantasies of plants, an artist’s interpretation of nature,” said Gottlieb from her studio in Santa Barbara. “My goal is to paint plants that are disappearing and those that have been confirmed as extinct. I didn’t just want to paint pretty pictures. I wanted to find something that I felt was important.”

Her interpretation of Viola cryana will be there, a plant last seen in France 90 years ago. So will Thismia americana, which hasn’t been seen for more than a century since it was found in a wet prairie along South Torrence Avenue in Chicago.

Against Forgetting, a collection of about 30 works by Gottlieb, will be on display through August 12 in Joutras Gallery. 

Gabriel Hutchison, the Garden’s exhibitions and programs production manager, recalled how Gottlieb’s art stood out from a stack of exhibition submissions. “Bold colors and very frantic movement within the paintings really kept my attention and I found myself looking at the paintings longer than I would most printed pieces,” he said. “If someone is doing atypical botanical illustrations, they’re either going to go kind of abstract or cartooning. But this isn’t the case with Penelope’s work. There’s a lot of combining colors to create this very expressive palette.”

Perhaps her passion was nurtured by her lush backyard garden in California or the work with her father in the family’s Hollywood Hills garden. “I have fond memories of our time together,” said Gottlieb, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art and pursued a career as an illustrator, then as a title designer for motion pictures before embracing painting and extinct plants in the ’90s.

Gottlieb works on one of the Extinct Botanicals canvases in her studio.

Gottlieb works on one of the Extinct Botanicals canvases in her studio.

Her work was “kind of a metaphor for some loss in my life,” she said. “When something’s gone forever, you kind of attempt to remember it…You might have trouble remembering the face of someone you love who has passed. I was thinking about loss and for some reason I started thinking about botanical loss.” 

Her curiosity led her to find out which plants became extinct and why that happened. “The more I found out, the more I became engaged and decided I would create this body of work that really focused on plant extinction,” she said. “I would be eulogizing and tracking contemporary extinctions as they became confirmed. So each of my paintings represents a lost species.”

Gottlieb wanted to move beyond traditional botanic renderings. “Those were very lovely and calm. And I felt like everything was chaotic and frightening and that nature was under attack,” she added. “I needed to convey a kind of struggle.” The result was her first series, the bold, colorful Extinct Botanicals.

Thrift shop botanical art prints by John James Audubon served as inspiration for her next series, Invasive Species. Gottlieb used reproductions of Audubon bird prints and incorporated her view of nature through plants. She designed what she wanted to paint on tissue over the pieces before actually painting on the print. “I really do like a lot of narrative in these paintings. I have a reason for all the different objects I put in,” added Gottlieb.

The vulnerability of orchids, from loss of habitat to poachers, prompted the Vanishing Species series, and an artistic challenge: How would the orchid series differ from her other works? She used a technique that makes the paintings highly reflective, not unlike mirrors. “When you stand in front of them, you see your own reflection in the surface,” she said. “It kind of makes you feel like maybe the plant and you are in the same piece, the same picture, and it illustrates that we’re all in this together.”

Helianthus divaricatus print from the Invasive Species series by Penelope Gottlieb

Helianthus divaricatus from the Invasive Species series

A group of four orchids from the Vanishing Species series by Penelope Gottlieb

A group of four orchids from the Vanishing Species series

For Hutchison, the connection to the natural world in Gottlieb works is crucial. “Her exhibition does present botanicals topically and with a somewhat urgent call to concern, but the rendering, colors, and size of her works make for a powerful experience,” he said.

The 30 works on display in Against Forgetting are vibrant reminders of our changing world. “I would really love it if the paintings left people with kind of a new thought or a question or something to think about when we contemplate what‘s happening to the world, to the state of nature,” she said.


This post by Judy Hevrdejs originally appeared in Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Can’t make the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? Visit the Helen and Richard Thomas English Walled Garden instead.

If you’re in Chicago this weekend, that means—like most of us—you didn’t get an invite to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a graduate of Northwestern University. Get in the spirit of the occasion anyway by visiting the English Walled Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This garden has enough connections to the British royal family to satisfy your royal appetite, and you won’t have to be up at 5 a.m. to start watching the wedding and feel part of the experience.

Here are just some of the connections to British royalty that can be found in the English Walled Garden:

The garden was dedicated by a member of the British Royal Family. The English Walled Garden was dedicated in 1991 by none other than Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, who was Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister. The occasion was fit for royalty, with a performance from a bagpiper, and an official dedication by the princess, who sported a lovely royal blue coat. You can find a plaque commemorating the dedication just outside the entrance to the garden.

Princess Margaret visits the opening of the English Walled Garden in 1991.

Princess Margaret visits the opening of the English Walled Garden in 1991. Designed by John Brookes, the English Walled Garden contains six “rooms” that demonstrate traditional English gardening styles: Vista Garden, Cottage Garden, Pergola Garden, Daisy Garden, Courtyard Garden, and Checkerboard Garden.

A legendary designer created this garden. When the English Walled Garden was just an idea, the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Botanic Garden looked to legendary garden designer John Brookes for his vision. Known more for being a modernist, Brookes agreed to design our English Walled Garden in a more traditional style. In 2004, he was made a Member of the British Empire, an order of chivalry bestowed by the Queen for outstanding contributions to society. Brookes died in March 2018, but leaves behind a footprint that includes, along with the English Walled Garden here, many gardens on private estates and in town squares around the world. A quote from his last published book describes his legacy: “I have sired no heir, but I have given birth to perhaps a thousand gardens.”

English Walled Garden (at Chicago Botanic Garden) in May

The English Walled Garden in May

The garden is divided into six “rooms,” and one was made as a nod to the working class. The least formal of the six different spaces in the English Walled Garden is the Cottage Garden room. It’s modeled after the type of garden a rural homeowner would create, and serves to be more functional than ornamental. You’ll see fruits, vegetables, and herbs growing together, filling every space possible. If you’re someone who’s not altogether fond of the concept of royalty, the Cottage Garden is a place to visit and ruminate on how the common folk get by.

Charles and Diana are there—but not together. The garden features two varieties of clematis with familiar royal names. Clematis ‘Prince Charles’ and Clematis ‘Princess Diana’ are both located in the same garden bed, but planted at opposite ends. You can find them next to the ramp exit leading to the adjacent Dwarf Conifer Garden.

Clematis 'Prince Charles'

Clematis ‘Prince Charles’

Clematis 'Princess Diana'

Clematis ‘Princess Diana’

The floral emblem of Scotland is there, but England’s is not. Planted as an annual this year along the west perennial border of the garden is Onopordum acanthium, more commonly known as Scotch thistle. The flower is so named because it’s similar to the thistle used as the national emblem of Scotland (which is technically Cirsium vulgare). If you’re looking for the national emblem of England, that would be the Tudor rose, a combination of the red and white roses of the Houses of Lancaster and York. But you’ll have to go outside the English Walled Garden to get a good view of roses. Peek through the terra-cotta tiles next to the Linden Allée or venture to the Krasberg Rose Garden next door. There’s a variety of rose named for Prince Harry’s grandmother and Meghan Markle’s future grandmother-in-law: Rosa ‘Queen Elizabeth’.

Guardian by Simon Verity

Guardian by Simon Verity

The Guardian has royal connections. If you enter the English Walled Garden from the main entrance on the west side, you can’t miss the Guardian. The sculpture was carved by Simon Verity, an English sculptor who has created pieces that stand in many English gardens, including one owned by Prince Harry’s father Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, as well as Elton John (who is definitely music royalty). Constructed of semiprecious stones and minerals, the sculpture represents air, earth, fire and water, the ancient elements of earth.

Delphinium elatum 'Royal Aspirations'

Delphinium elatum ‘Royal Aspirations’

Surround yourself in purple and feel like royalty. Now that spring has arrived (finally), there are plenty of blooms to be found in the traditional color of royalty. Blues and purples were a key part of Brookes’ design for the garden. You can find that color family prominently in the Pergola Garden room. Another can’t miss purple flower in the English Walled Garden is delphinium, a stately and regal bloom newly planted in two urns close to the Linden Allée.

Say hello to the lion. The lion has long been the symbol of England. The Barbary lion is the country’s national animal and also adorns a number of national symbols, from the coat of arms of the royal family to the England national football team’s logo. Naturally, there’s a lion in the English Walled Garden as well. Named Cuddly Lion, the sculpture was donated by Brookes and is located at the entrance.

Wander away from the English Walled Garden to find the plants and flowers of the royal wedding. While the English Walled Garden is full of botanical references and nods to English history and culture, you’ll have to trek to the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden to find plants and flowers that are part of Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding celebration. Traditionally, lemon myrtle from Queen Victoria’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight has been featured in the bride’s bouquet of royal weddings since Victoria’s daughter (also named Victoria) was married in 1858. The flowering plant is expected to make an appearance in Meghan’s bouquet. There’s lemon myrtle located inside the greenhouse, at the center of the garden. One tradition Prince Harry and Meghan are not following is with their choice of cake. Instead of the traditional fruit cake, their wedding will instead have a cake made of lemon and elderflower. Cross the bridge to the Fruit & Vegetable Garden and veer left. You’ll find several elder trees (Sambucus nigra) along the shoreline. Looking for a reason to head back to the English Walled Garden? Finish up your homage trip in honor of the royal wedding by seeking out lemon thyme, planted in several different spots in the English Walled Garden. Take a sniff and, with the right bit of imagination, it’ll be like you’re in London with the royals after all.

Cuddly Lion sculputure outside the English Walled Garden

Cuddly Lion is a favorite of young visitors to the English Walled Garden.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Link Between Plants and Animals

Hosted by: Jeremie Fant, Garden scientist and plant genetics guru

Erica Masini —  May 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

How do you bring an endangered plant species back from the brink of extinction? The answer might be found in zoo animals.

That’s the inspiration for Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Jeremie Fant’s latest research. Fant, a molecular ecologist and plant genetics guru, is working with other botanic gardens around the world to develop conservation and reintroduction plans modeled after the ones used by zoos to protect endangered animal species.

“When we conserve plant species, it’s possible to preserve hundreds of individuals, and the genetic information they contain, by banking their seed or using cuttings to propagate them,” said Fant. “But when this is not possible, these plant collections are maintained by continually crossing with other plants to produce new seed. This is akin to animals in zoo collections. Zoos have used genetic information to develop ‘studbooks’ to decide what crosses are compatible so they maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.”

Fant’s work is based on zoological cases including black-footed ferrets in the 1980s. Zoologists created a breeding program that ultimately reintroduced the threatened species back into the wild. The zoologists used genetic information taken from the remaining black-footed ferrets, and bred a strong, biodiverse population that could keep the animals healthy and, more importantly, increase numbers, which is the aim of all good conservation programs.

Fant’s work centers on one plant in particular: the Brighamia insignis, or “Cabbage on a stick,” or as we’ve fondly named it, “Cabby.” This is Cabby’s story:

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

Plant Science and Conservation

To stay tuned on what Fant, and the rest of the Garden’s conservation scientists are doing, check out the latest news at chicagobotanic.org/research.


Illustrated by Maria Ciaccio
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Today is National Migratory Bird Day, set smack dab in the middle of May—the month to look for warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows, and some shorebirds, as they migrate through the Chicago area.

Most birders might agree that the highlight this time of year is warblers. It is for me—they are tiny jewels with wings. I feel totally blessed if I can see a few during migration.

Since these birds are so small, they usually wait for favorable winds to help them travel. Any night with southerly winds will have the birds moving; new birds arrive while others depart. Every year is different, so it pays to watch the weather report if you want to see these beauties while they are passing through. The good news is that there are a few warblers that actually nest in our area, so if you miss them during migration you can often find the nesting birds later in the summer.

Palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

A great place to look for warblers, like this palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), is in all the willow trees around the Garden.

Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina)

A less common warbler is this beautiful Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina).

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

I found this guy, you guessed it, in a pine tree. (He’s a pine warbler, Setophaga pinus.)

Yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia)

A yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) looks for insects. These golden birds actually nest at the Garden.

Knowing when they arrive is only half the challenge. Where they will land is the second part. I’ve been surprised on many occasions to find warblers in very public places. If there is a tree, some green, or water, you have a chance at spotting a warbler. If you see a tiny bird, quickly darting in and out of a tree, there is a good chance you have found a warbler. Oaks and willow trees are particular favorites.

The birds need a food supply along the way to fuel their journey. Most of them are insect eaters, and some supplement their diet with seeds and nectar from flowers. While the cold spring delayed the plants a bit, the insects come out as soon as it is above freezing and you can see the birds darting around eating as many as they can. If you want to attract warblers to your yard, plant native trees and shrubs in your yard and be sure to add a shallow water dish.

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Here you can see how this warbler got its name. The yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) is one of the most common warblers you will see here.

Orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)

A very understated orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata) keeps an eye on me.

Black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia)

Black-and-white warblers (Mniotilta varia) can be found hopping up and down the bark of trees looking for insects.

Migrating birds are one of nature’s greatest wonders. Different birds migrate at different times of the year, but all told, millions of birds make the trip north and south each year, navigating all sorts of hazards along the way. I am in awe of these tiny birds that travel so many miles. They are the elite athletes of the avian world.

The cooler than average spring did allow a few loons to stay longer than usual around the Garden. It was really fun seeing them stealthily appear from seemingly out of nowhere. A major rarity showed up for just one day, a white-faced ibis. I was lucky to be around to see it; a first for me, and I believe the Garden as well.

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi)

Wow, what a treat! I’ve never seen this bird before. White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) is a very rare visitor to the area.

The first wave of warblers arrived early in May and many from that group have moved on, although you can still see palm, yellow-rumped, black-and-white, and Nashville warblers at the Garden now. There should be several more waves before the month is over, as well as a few interesting sparrows and vireos. Warblers migrate at slightly different times. There are those that show up at the end of April and early May, those that you will see mid-month, and a few late ones that show up at the very end of the month. I like to go out every day in May, just in case a new wave of warblers has shown up, I hope you will too!

Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus)

The warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus)—not a warbler, but its song sounds like one.

Join me and #birdthepreserves this month. My top five migration places to visit in the spring are the Chicago Botanic Garden, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary (the magic hedge) in Chicago, The Grove in Glenview, LaBagh Woods in Chicago, and Ryerson Woods in Deerfield.


Photos ©2018 Carol Freeman Photography
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org