Archives For Andrea Kramer

I’m a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have an incredible job that allows me to work with many wonderful graduate students and a team of researchers to study ways to restore natural areas in the Colorado Plateau.

If you’ve ever visited national parks like the Grand Canyon or Arches, you’ve experienced at least some of what the Colorado Plateau (also known as the Four Corners region) has to offer. It includes more than 80 million acres across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—and the largest concentration of national parks in the country.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer in the Colorado plateau.

Our research team heads out across a recently-burned area in search of data.

Although beautiful, the Colorado Plateau’s natural areas are facing many threats, including wildfires, a changing climate, and destructive invasive species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens). Working with many partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, we are studying which native plants may be best able to handle these growing threats (we refer to them as “native winners”). The ultimate goal is to help make restoration of these plants and habitats as effective as possible in order to maintain healthy natural areas that support wildlife and pollinators, and help keep our air and water clean.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer at Rio Mesa.

Another beautiful day at Rio Mesa

This is no small task. The invasive species that the native plants are up against are very impressive. For example, Russian knapweed is allelopathic (prevents other plants from growing nearby), and it has roots that can grow more than 20 feet deep, seeking the water table. Fortunately, some native species are also able to grow in these conditions, and some even appear to be evolving and adapting to be better competitors.

Three Northwestern University graduate students are working with me. Master’s student Nora Talkington is testing how different populations of a native grass are able to compete with Russian knapweed, while doctoral student Alicia Foxx is researching how different root structures of native plants help them compete with invasive species. Master’s student Maggie Eshleman is studying six native wildflower species including the smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia), which has tiny, fiery orange flowers. These wildflowers are likely “native winners” and are strong candidates for increased use when restoring habitat in the Colorado Plateau.

A rainbow of wildflowers for restoration:

  • Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens): This purple-flowered plant is good for pollinators, one of the few plants that flowers late in the season, and on top of that, is really good at growing in sites that need to be restored.
  • Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica): This cute little annual plant is often the only thing we find flowering and producing seeds during extreme drought years. It is very impressive!
  • Bee plant (Cleome lutea): This annual plant has gorgeous yellow flowers. It’s good at growing in disturbed areas and, as its name indicates, is a great forage plant for bees.
PHOTO: Cleome lutea.

Bee plant (Cleome lutea) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Sphaeralcea parvifolia.

Smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Machaeranthera canescens.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens or Dieteria canascens) by Maggie Eshleman

PHOTO: Plantago patagonica.

Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica) by Andrea Kramer

This summer was a busy one. My students and I spent many weeks in the Colorado Plateau working with collaborators to collect seeds (as part of Seeds of Success collectors—a national native seed collection program). These seeds are now being used for studies in the Garden’s research greenhouses and growth chambers, and at study plots in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. In the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, we are also using incubators to create spring- and summer-like conditions that will help us understand when and why seeds of certain species are able to germinate and grow. This is an important aspect of ultimately being able to restore species in a degraded habitat.

PHOTO: La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May.

La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May

How cool is it to be able to take research that’s been done on a small scale and actually apply it to the real world? I feel so lucky to be able to do this work, and being here at the Chicago Botanic Garden has allowed me to build long-term partnerships that investigate the application of research, rather than just focusing on publishing it. Stay tuned for updates on how these native winners perform.


This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Simulating Summer in the Plant Science Center

Getting seeds to reveal their secrets

Andrea Kramer —  February 25, 2013 — Leave a comment
Seeds of potential native winners from the Colorado Plateau.

Seeds of native species from the Colorado Plateau.

These seeds may not look like much right now, but the story they tell is full of adventure and promise. This week we are simulating summer in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to get them to reveal some of their secrets.

My research takes me to the Colorado Plateau (you may know it as the “four corners” region), which is one of the most starkly beautiful places in the United States. I work with many Garden scientists, graduate students, and public land management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to carry out research that helps make native plant restoration and management on public lands throughout the Colorado Plateau as efficient and effective as possible. We are particularly focused on understanding how to help native plants cope with encroaching invasive species, changing land use, and shifting climates.

So these seeds come from a gorgeous place. But more importantly, they were produced by some pretty impressive native plants that were tough enough to not only survive last year’s crazy weather, but to also flower and produce seeds in some pretty harsh sites. Like Chicago, the Colorado Plateau experienced one of the hottest, driest summers it has seen in a long time. Most of the plants in the Colorado Plateau sat out the flowering season last year — they conserved their resources for a better year. We are interested in the plants that braved really bad conditions to produce seeds, because we think they will be especially useful when restoring habitat that has been badly damaged by wildfire or invasive species. We call these plants native winners.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Unfortunately, very little is known about what makes these native winners tick. Our research is helping to uncover some of their secrets. Alicia Foxx (a student in our joint graduate program with Northwestern University) and I have just set up an experiment that will reveal the specific seed germination requirements for these native winners. We are using incubators that allow us create spring- and summer-like conditions that will tell us when and why seeds of these species are able to germinate and grow. Knowing this information is just a first step in our research that will help us improve the outcome of restoration practices.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org