Archives For September 2018

Brushing Up on Broomcorn

Erica Masini —  September 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

Take a peek in your closet, and you might find a long wooden broom for sweeping up dust or offering rides to witches and wizards. For broom maker John Spannagel of Hidalgo, Illinois, brooms are more than just a pantry item. They’re a labor of love, made with a special ingredient: broomcorn.

Broom Corn Plants Growing at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Broomcorn is a type of ornamental grass used to make specialty brooms, a passion Spannagel discovered nearly three years ago. The retired construction worker makes roughly 50 brooms a year and tours at local farm shows. As part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Harvest Weekend, September 29 to 30, Spannagel will bring his broom-making machines to the Garden to demonstrate broomcorn broom-making.

We caught up with Spannagel to learn a little about his craft:

What is broomcorn? (Spoiler: It’s not corn)

Broomcorn (Sorghum vulgare var. technicum) is an annual ornamental grass. It has no “ears” or “cobs,” and it can grow anywhere from 12 to 14 feet tall. Broomcorn seeds are planted in the early spring, and stalks are harvested in mid- to late August. The long woody stalks have tassels of flowers and seeds at the tips, which are removed during broom-making. You can find broomcorn growing in the Garden’s Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

BroomcornWhere does broomcorn come from?

Broomcorn originated in central Africa, where it eventually spread to the Mediterranean. Benjamin Franklin is credited with first bringing broomcorn to the United States in the 1700s, says Spannagel. Commercial production of broomcorn flourished in Illinois, one of the leading producers of broomcorn in the 1860s. Nearly a century later, commercial broomcorn production slowed to a halt due to low demand and labor-intensive harvesting methods.

How do you make brooms with broomcorn?

Broomcorn broom-making is a lengthy process that starts with planting broomcorn seeds in the spring. When broomcorn is harvested, the stalks are run through a threshing machine to remove their seeds. The stalks are then laid on a broomcorn crib to dry for a few weeks. Once the stalks are dried, Spannagel uses broom-making equipment, including an antique kick-winder machine to wind straw around a broom stick; straw cutter; and broom press.

How much broomcorn is used to make a broom?

Spannagel orders his broomcorn from a supplier, and uses seven bundles of straw to make a broom. It takes about 45 minutes to make each broom. “Each of my brooms is a little different, and that’s okay,” says Spannagel.

So, what do you do with a broomcorn broom?

Most of the people who buy Spannagel’s brooms use them to sweep, but many others use them as decorations. Spannagel says as long as you take care of your broomcorn broom, it should last up to 15 years. Be sure to store them upside down or hang them so that that the bristles don’t bend. And always keep them dry; if the broom gets wet, let them air dry.

Broomcorn at Harvest Weekend

Hear more and see Spannagel’s broom-making in action at Harvest Weekend, September 29 to 30, at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

This is the story of a road trip I took with some corpse flowers, the rock stars of the plant world. One of the hallmarks of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant collection is the more than 70 species of Amorphophallus. In particular, Amorphophallus titanum, also called the titan arum or corpse flower, has gained attention because of its very large flower and pungent fragrance at bloom time—a hybrid of week-old gym socks and a rotting mouse that you just can’t seem to find in your kitchen.

The Garden began collecting titan arums, or corpse flowers, in 2003. There’s a worldwide conservation effort to preserve the species, as it is considered “vulnerable”—unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve, the species is likely to become endangered.

Our titan arums began blooming about three years ago. The first one, Spike, failed to bloom, but shortly after, in September 2015, Alice the Amorphophallus bloomed in all of its stinky glory. At one point, we had two, Java and Sumatra, in their bloom cycle at the same time.

Titan Twins Java and Sumatra

Titan Twins Java and Sumatra

Over time, our family of titans has grown. Many of the Garden’s corpse flowers share the same lineage, and the Garden decided to share some of our titan wealth with other botanical institutions. It is important to build genetic diversity in our collection and at other botanical institutions and to understand more about these plants through genetic assessment work being conducted by Garden scientists.

All aboard the Titan Express!

All aboard the Titan Express!

I volunteered to captain the Titan Express, which would deliver the titan arums to their new homes: “Pat” to the New York Botanical Garden, “Sprout,” which bloomed in April 2016 at the Garden, to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, and “Kris” to Chanticleer Garden in Pennsylvania.

We departed the Garden on August 17. All aboard the Titan Express!

My plan was to make it to the New York Botanical Garden by 2 p.m. the next day. Of course, I had several hundreds of miles and the George Washington Bridge to deal with. Even though I left Ohio at 4 a.m., I arrived at NYBG two hours late. Marc Hachadourian, director of the Nolen Greenhouses and curator of the Orchid Collection, graciously met me on a Saturday and more graciously waited two additional hours for my arrival.

Titan Road Trip - Marc_Hachadourian

Marc Hachadourian, director of the Nolen Greenhouses and curator of the Orchid Collection.

Titan Road Trip - Wawa Gas Station

The iconic Wawa convenience store—its coffee rivals Starbucks.

With Pat safe and sound, I headed to the New Jersey Turnpike. As much as Philadelphia and Pennsylvania are identified by the Phillies, Eagles, cheesesteaks, and the Liberty Bell, the iconic Wawa convenience store dots the landscape and its coffee rivals Starbucks.

Titan Road Trip - Deleware

Welcome to Delaware

Since I was back in my old “stomping grounds,” I tried to add in visits to see friends, family, and colleagues, as well as take care of some additional botanical business. I conducted a national collections review for the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens in Newark, Delaware.

Feeling weak after a long day of critical thinking about Styrax and Baptisia (two collections under consideration for a national status), I retreated to the regionally famous University of Delaware Creamery for some toffee-flavored sustenance.

Titan No. 2, Sprout, was destined just north of the Delaware border to the Longwood Gardens.

After Longwood, I headed to the beautiful Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Intern Jack McCoy and grounds manager Jeff Lynch stand among some younger titans they received from the Chicago Botanic Garden a couple years ago.

Titan Road Trip - Chanticleer Garden

Andrew Bunting delivers Sprout to the Longwood Gardens.

While in the area, I had a chance to visit Doe Run, which was the famed garden of plantsman, Sir John Thouron, and which is now owned by the owner of Urban Outfitters, Richard Hayne. The estate sits in beautiful Chester County, which is rolling countryside with many equestrian-related activities. While Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, create a significant megalopolis, there remains a reasonable amount of farmland and a very pastoral countryside.

Titan Road Trip - Doe Run

Chester County

Farmland in Pennsylvania

Farmland in Pennsylvania

Titan Road Trip - Andrews House

Bunting’s house, in Swarthmore

Wrapping up the few days on the Titan Express on the East Coast, I had to stop by the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, where I worked for 27 years. And while in Swarthmore, I headed to my house, Belvidere, which I still own, but is rented to a horticulturist at the Scott Arboretum, Josh Coceano.

After several long days of titan tribulations and adventures, a stop at a Delaware drinking hole was in the cards.

I made one last stop to see my mom in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. She is an avid gardener and could appreciate my stories of Andrew’s Excellent Amorphophallus Adventure.

Titan Road Trip - Andrews Mom

Bunting’s mom in Haddon Heights, New Jersey

More than 1,000 miles later, the Titan Express made its last stop.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Dragonflies capture summer

Carol Freeman —  September 13, 2018 — 1 Comment

Summer won’t be over for a while in my book—not as long as there are dragonflies around. I think I’ve seen more dragonflies this year at the Chicago Botanic Garden than I have in the past ten years combined. The quick, strong fliers seem to be everywhere. 

Female Eastern Pondhawk

Eastern pondhawk dragonfly, female. Most dragonflies have very different-looking males and females. This one was in the Native Plant Garden. Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Some of the dragonflies migrate south toward the Gulf Coast through September and maybe beyond. With the help of citizen observers, scientists are studying the migration patterns of this fascinating insect, which has a near 360-degree field of vision that helps it avoid predators.

The most abundant dragonfly I’ve seen this year is the Eastern pondhawk, with blue dasher dragonflies coming in a close second. I’m also seeing quite a few damselflies, which are generally smaller and more thin-bodied than dragonflies and tend to hold their wings above their bodies. (See my blogpost Damselflies 101 for more information.)

Female Blue Dasher Dragonfly

Blue dasher dragonfly, female. She looks very different from her male counterpart. Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Male Blue Dasher

Blue dasher dragonfly, male. Hanging out on the waterlilies. Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Dragonflies and damselflies, both in the order Odonata, can spend several years as aquatic nymphs before they emerge into the beautiful winged insects we see on land, which is why you will often see them around water. They are fierce hunters in both stages. They don’t bite or sting humans, though.

Green Darner

The common green darner dragonfly is one of the first dragonflies to emerge in the spring, and one of the species that can be found migrating in huge swarms in the fall. Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Dragonflies can be found here from March through the first hard freeze in the fall. Right now, you might even be lucky to find yourself in the middle of a migrating swarm of green darners, black saddlebags, or wandering gliders as they head south. About 90 different odonates can be found in the Chicago area. Each one is a delight to behold.

Eastern Amberwing

Eastern amberwing dragonfly, male. This is one of the smallest dragonflies in our area, at just more than 1 inch long. Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Widow Skimmer

Widow skimmer dragonfly, male. This is one of the larger, flashier dragonflies, and it is easy to identify. Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Eastern Forktail Damselfly

Eastern forktail damselfly, female. This is the most common damselfly in our area, and it can be found in the Dixon Prairie. Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Dragonflies are territorial and will often chase off other dragonflies, only to return to their favorite perch. A favorite place to find them at the Garden is around the waterlilies and lotus blossoms, but you can spot them throughout the 385-acre grounds. Drop by and keep an eye out for the dragonflies near the late-summer blooms. 

Skimming Bluet Damselfly

Skimming bluet damselfly, female. This is a small, delicate damselfly found in the Dixon Prairie.
Photo ©Carol Freeman.

Slender Bluet Damselflies

Slender bluet damselflies, getting ready to lay some eggs. I found this pair along the shoreline next to parking lot 5.
Photo ©Carol Freeman.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Are your summer container gardens in need of a fall makeover? Good news! There are many fall-flavored plants that will provide you with texture, form, and long-lasting colors in both flowers and foliage.

I love the combination of purple or blue asters (Symphyotrichum) with ornamental kale as the colors play off each other nicely for a long-lasting fall container. Using other lesser-known plants, such as some of the fall-blooming Salvias or sage can add height and lend to very interesting combinations in your container gardens. Try using cold-hardy vegetables and adding herbs to create interest and texture to any combination. I like using Swiss chard, broccoli, Asian greens, parsley, and onions (Allium) for interesting and colorful effects.

Fall Containers

Here are a few tips for planning your fall containers:

  1. To achieve a fuller effect, use more plants than you would in the spring or summer. As the days begin to get shorter and the nights get cooler, plant growth is slowing down or ceasing. By planting a fuller container, you will see immediate results that can last for the remainder of the fall season.
  2. Try to plant by early September to give your plants a chance to kick in with some growth before the cooler temperatures and shorter days slow things down. Remember, many plants available for fall container gardens can take temperatures in the 20s Fahrenheit without being damaged, while many plants actually begin to show better foliage colors with cooler temperatures. These include ornamental kale and cabbage, Heuchera, and many ornamental grasses as well.
  3. Select plants that have a variety of tones that contrast and set off each other. Think about using colorful cultivars of Heuchera for their many foliage colors, and colorful grasses or grass-like plants, such as Pennisetum, Carex, Juncus, or the black foliage of Ophiopogon. See the list below of other fall plants to consider for your containers.
  4. Remember, a pot of mums looks fresh for three to four weeks at most, and then the show is over. Showy foliage from grasses or kale and cabbage will carry the display much longer.
  5. The fall foliage on evergreen succulents (Sempervivum ‘Hens and chicks’), and many of the stonecrop (Sedum) cultivars changes and develops more dramatic color once the temperatures stay cool.
  6. If you must have flower power, consider long- and late-blooming Salvia, Cuphea, or fall pansies or violas.
  7. When nighttime temperatures drop below freezing, have light blankets, large pots, or even an empty trash barrel handy to cover your container and protect the plantings from frost.
  8. As November passes, the time will come to disassemble your planter. Carefully place your hardy plants in a nursery bed or empty space in your vegetable garden plot to hold them over until next spring, when you can plant them in a permanent home to enjoy for another season.

 

Here are a few fall plants and items that can be added to your fall container gardens:

Brassica varieties - ornamental cabbage

Annuals:

  • Calibrachoa varieties
  • Capsicum, ornamental peppers
  • Dianthus cultivars, ‘Sweet William’ and other Pinks
  • Brassica varieties, ornamental kale and cabbage
  • Tagetes, marigolds
  • Pansies and violas
  • Helianthus, sunflowers
  • Plectranthus
  • Salvia, sages

Chrysanthemums

Perennials, trees, shrubs:

  • Anemone hybrids
  • Aster cultivars
  • Chrysanthemum, hardy fall mums
  • Helianthus and Helianthoides, perennial sunflowers
  • Rudbeckia, black-eyed-Susan
  • Boltonia
  • Sedum and Sempervivum, and other succulents
  • Fall foliage color with trees and shrubs; maples, cornus, viburnum, spirea, and others

Ornamental grasses

Ornamental grasses:

  • Miscanthus cultivars
  • Panicum cultivars
  • Pennisetum cultivars, including ornamental millet
  • Muhlenbergia, Muhly grass
  • Stipa tenuissima, Mexican feather grass
  • Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem

Pumpkins

Other fall items:

  • Pumpkins
  • Gourds and squash
  • Corn stalks
  • Straw
  • Branches
  • Fall decorative items; scarecrows, Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org