Archives For Amy Spungen

Plants of Concern volunteers come from many backgrounds, but all share a common denominator: not surprisingly, they are concerned about plants.

PHOTO: The beautiful Cypripedium candidum, one of the many rare plants Plants of Concern monitors.

The beautiful Cypripedium candidum, one of the many rare plants Plants of Concern monitors

So concerned are these citizen scientists, in fact, that they are willing to traipse all over our region of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana to monitor hundreds of rare, threatened, and endangered species in a variety of habitats. Their findings help plant scientists understand and work to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as encroaching urbanization and invasive species.

Here are profiles of three Plants of Concern volunteers, in their own words. We hope these stories inspire you to consider joining their ranks. Another Plants of Concern volunteer recently blogged about her experience as a newbie with relatively little plant-related expertise, and you can find that post here.

Kathy Garness

PHOTO: Kathleen GarnessBachelor’s degree from DePaul University in visual arts; master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University. Worked for many years as a director of religious education in the Episcopal church, in the commercial art field for more than a decade, and now as administrator and a lead teacher in a nature-based preschool. Earned a botanical art certificate from the Morton Arboretum. Helped develop the Field Museum’s Common Plant Families of the of the Chicago Region field guide.

I started volunteering with Plants of Concern in 2002. I learned about POC after a chance meeting at the REI store in Oakbrook with Audubon representative and Northeastern Illinois University professor Steve Frankel. Steve told me about POC, and that meeting changed my life in a huge way.

I monitor 25 species at nine different sites, including Grainger Woods in Lake County; Theodore Stone in Cook County; several high-quality prairies in Cook, DuPage, and McHenry Counties; and Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. POC assigned them to me because of my interest in and ability to ID many species of native orchids (there are more than 40 just in the Chicago region). But I monitor other plants besides orchids.

PHOTO: Kathy Garness leads a tour at Illinois Beach State Park.

Kathy Garness leads a tour at Illinois Beach State Park. Photo by Michael Rzepka, Forest Preserve District of Will County

Volunteering for POC differs from most other volunteering positions I’ve held [at the Art Institute and the Field Museum] because there is a lot of independence, and also much more technical training. This citizen science is vital to the sites’ ecologists—most agencies don’t have enough funding to pay staff to collect the valuable, detailed information we do. Volunteers also are highly accountable, and you need to be really sure about your species. That knowledge comes over years of participation, but even if someone just participates once, and goes out with a more experienced monitor, the information collected helps fill gaps in our understanding of our natural areas. And it’s way more fun than playing Pokémon, once you get the hang of it!

My advice for prospective volunteers is to go out first with more experienced monitors. Learn from them—they are better than a digital (or even paper) field guide. Clean your boots off carefully beforehand; don’t track any weed seeds into a high-quality remnant. Observe more than just the monitored plants—look for butterflies, listen for birds, notice the dragonflies and frog calls. Tread lightly and watch your step. Bring extra water and a snack. Use bug spray. Learn what poison ivy is but don’t be afraid of it—just don’t get it on your skin! No matter how hot it is, I wear long trousers, long sleeves, a broad-brimmed hat, and thin leather gloves. Never, ever, go out in the woods alone. Let people know where you are going and when you plan to return. Watch the weather signs. Keep your cell phone charged and with you at all times.

Above all, enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience!

Fay Liu 

Bachelor’s degree in agriculture technology/animal sciences from Utah State University; master’s degree in food science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Trained as a food-science researcher focusing on meat quality. Researched pork quality for a commercial pig farm/processing plant and a pig genetic company.

PHOTO: Fay Liu on a foray for Plants of Concern.

Fay Liu enjoys a foray. Photo by Plants of Concern

I have been volunteering with Plants of Concern since 2012. I am interested in nature and enjoying the outdoors, and this is a fantastic program for me. My family always spent time hiking and fishing on weekends. I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, where we had easy access to mountains and the ocean—unlike in the Midwest. We also had a container garden on top of our four-story building, and I helped to take care of the plants.

For POC I primarily volunteer at Openlands, which is about 20 minutes from my house. However, I have also volunteered farther away, south to Will County, east to the city of Chicago, and north to Zion.

Plants of Concern involves many aspects of science: identifying target plants and knowing the plants surrounding them, locating target populations, and using statistical methods to measure populations. For me, the most fun thing is learning new things each time I come out to the field. Maybe it’s a new plant that I have never seen before, or a new hiking route. The most frustrating times are when it’s hard to find the target plant because the population is low.

The advice I have for prospective volunteers is to keep your curiosity alive!

Karen Lustig

Bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; master’s degree in botany from the University of Minnesota. Has taught botany at Harper College since 1987.

PHOTO: Karen Lustig on the prowl for Plants of Concern.

Karen Lustig on the prowl for Plants of Concern

I have been interested in plants since I can remember. My father loved to hike, and my mother was a gardener. Instead of moving furniture around, my mother moved plants. We spent a lot of time outside.

I have volunteered with Plants of Concern since its beginning. I monitored white-fringed prairie orchids with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and many other plants with the Nature Conservancy even before then. I knew people (still do) at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I heard about the program from them, so it was sort of a transfer. I remember that when POC started, we worked in forest preserves. I understood why there was a desire to work in protected lands, but I said we needed to include other properties. And the program expanded beyond the preserves!

I actively monitor for POC at Illinois Beach State Park (IBSP) and also help out at Openlands when I have time. The forays are great fun. That’s my favorite thing: getting out there and being with other people and learning about new plants. At IBSP, visitors are expected to stay on the trail. Of course, most plants don’t grow right on it, but you can usually spot them. Once I was looking around for plants and saw this guy sort of thrashing around in the cattails. I reported him since he looked so bizarre out there, and it turns out he was a skipper [butterfly] expert taking samples for the Karner blue butterfly project. I met him later…a really nice guy, it turns out!

What makes Plants of Concern special is that it is so well run. The staff is quick on feedback and offers lots of help. The training programs are excellent. I’ve heard some terrific speakers, too. Other organizations sometimes don’t seem to have quite the staff or funding for their programs, which can make volunteering challenging. If I had to identify the biggest challenge as a POC volunteer, it would be the paperwork. With POC you can do the entry online, which helps. But filling out forms remains my least favorite thing to do…I just filled out a form [in August] for data collecting I did in May.

My advice to new Plants of Concern volunteers is to go to the workshops—even if you think you know the stuff. It’s amazing what you can learn. And when you first go out, it can be hard just to find the plants, even using a GPS, much less to know what to do when you find them. So go with experienced people!

Students at Harper College have volunteer workdays, and when mine return to the classroom after volunteering with POC groups, they always talk about how knowledgeable and interesting the volunteers are—and these are college environmental science students. It’s great that people can get together and share not just their knowledge but their enthusiasm through Plants of Concern.

poc-monitoring-flagsJoin the ranks of the dedicated people of Plants of Concern: volunteer today.

Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Last year, with great anticipation, I became a plant sleuth. Tired of my relative ignorance of plants, I wanted to learn more about them and become more productive while being outdoors, which I am—a lot. So I joined Plants of Concern as a volunteer.

Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Plants of Concern (POC) was launched in 2001 by the Garden and Audubon–Chicago Region, supported by Chicago Wilderness funding. The program brings together trained volunteers, public and private land managers, and scientists, with the support of federal, state, and local agencies. For more than 15 years, the POC volunteers—a generally mild-mannered but formidable force of citizen scientists—have monitored rare, threatened, and endangered plant populations in our region to assess long-term trends. 

PHOTO: On this foray with Plants of Concern, we marked endangered plants with flags.

On this foray with Plants of Concern, we flagged and counted targeted plants.

Broadly speaking, the data we plant detectives collect provides valuable information. Land managers and owners can use it to thoughtfully and effectively manage land, protecting ecosystems that have helped to support us humans. Scientists and students can use the data to help them understand rare-species ecology, population genetics, and restoration dynamics. The implications are significant, with climate change an important factor to consider in altered or shifting plant populations.

I quickly discovered that many POC volunteers are way more plant savvy than I am. Fortunately for me, the organization welcomes people of all knowledge levels. Our goal is to gather information about specific plant populations, ultimately to protect them against the forces of invasive plant species and encroaching urbanization. And our work is paying off. Some POC-monitored plant populations are expanding—reflected in the removal of those species from state lists of threatened and endangered species.

We are (mostly) unfazed

Yes, we POC volunteers are a hardy lot. Stinking hot, humid days on the sand dunes near Lake Michigan or the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie? We drink some water and slap on sunscreen. Steep ravines with loose soil and little to hang onto? Bring it on! An obstacle course of spider webs? No prob—well actually, those are a real drag. Last time I wiped a web from my sweaty face I muttered, “There ought to be a word for the sounds people make when this happens.” (Oh, right, there is: swearing!) But webs slow us down for just a few seconds before we resume the business at hand.

PHOTO: Amy Spungen out in the field, volunteering for Plants of Concern.

Author’s note: Some projects are a little more involved than others. This was one of those.

That business is hunting down and noting targeted plants, and continuing to monitor them over time. Our tools are notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment. In northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, we volunteers, along with Garden scientists and staff from partner agencies, have monitored 288 species across 1,170 plant populations at more than 300 sites, from moist flatwoods to dry gravel prairies to lakefront beaches and sand savannahs. Collectively, since Plants of Concern began, we have contributed 23,000 hours of our time in both the field and office.

“Northeastern Illinois is incredibly biodiverse, and some people are surprised to learn that,” says Rachel Goad, who became manager of the program in 2014, after earning a master’s degree in plant biology from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. “There are so many interesting plant communities and lots of really neat plants. For people who want to learn more about them and contribute to their conservation, Plants of Concern is a great way to do that. We rely on interested and passionate volunteers—we would not at all be able to cover the area of the Chicago Wilderness region without them.”

From the minute I met up with a POC group during my first foray last October at Illinois Beach State Park, I was hooked. Though I often feel like a dunderhead as I bumble around hunting for my assigned plants, wondering why so many plants look so much like other plants, I love it. One reason is the other, more experienced volunteers and staff leaders, who generously help me as I ask question after question after question.

PHOTO: Plants of Concern foray leader Jason Miller: a man of ultimate patience.

Plants of Concern foray leader Jason Miller: a man of ultimate patience—with me.

Some of us volunteers are walking plant encyclopedias, while others (that would be me) have been known to call out, “Here’s a dwarf honeysuckle!” only to have foray leader Jason Miller, patience personified, respond gently, “Actually, that’s an ash seedling.”

            “Hey Jason,” I say a couple of weeks later, trying to look unconcerned. “Do you guys ever fire volunteers?”

            “Yes, but it’s rare,” he replies. “Of more than 800 volunteers over all the years, maybe five at most—and not recently—were dropped from the program.” He indicates that it’s more a mismatch of interests than a few flubbed newbie I.D.s that can lead to that very rare parting of ways. Miller also acknowledges that some plants are especially tricky, such as sedges (Carex spp.) and dwarf honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). “Some species are straightforward,” he says, “and others are harder to monitor.”

I’m not hopeless—I’m just growing

I decide to interpret my POC foibles as “opportunities for growth,” since slowly but surely, I am starting to catch on. The information sheets distributed as we gather before a foray are making more sense to me. I am getting better at noticing the tiny serrated edges of a leaf, or compound rather than simple umbels, or any number of other subtle ways plants may distinguish themselves from others.

That gradual but steady learning curve fits with what Goad describes as “the most critical characteristic we look for in volunteers: someone who really wants to learn.” She adds that diversity among POC volunteers strengthens the program as a whole, helping to build a “constituency for conservation” among people not traditionally associated with environmental activism.

PHOTO: Plants of Concern volunteers watch a presentation before heading out on foray.

Volunteers get a debriefing before heading out on a foray. Newbies go with experienced volunteers.

Goad and her staff, which includes research assistants Miller, Kimberly Elsenbroek, and Morgan Conley, work to match volunteers with something that fits their level of expertise. This “hyper-individualized” approach to training POC volunteers can limit the number of participants per year, currently about 150 (a year-end tally firms up that number). “We tend to fill up our new volunteer training workshops, which means that our staff is always working at capacity to get those folks up and running,” says Goad. “I encourage people to sign up early if they know they are interested.”

Another challenge for managing the volunteer program, Goad adds, is that “any time you have a whole bunch of different people collecting and sending in data, there has to be a really good process for checking it and cleaning it and making it useful.” Over the years, the program has improved its volunteer training and data processing so that errors are minimized.

Get ready, get set—learn!

Miller was majoring in environmental studies at McKendree University when he came to POC in 2013 as an intern. Now, among other things, he’s in charge of volunteers at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Like Goad, he says the main requirement in a volunteer is a willingness to learn. “We want someone who is interested in plants and their habitats,” he said. “If so, whenever you can help us out, great! We realize you’re giving your time to do this.”

Goad hopes to expand POC into other parts of Illinois over the next decade. “There are populations across the state that should be visited more regularly,” she says. “We do a lot with the resources we have, but it would be great to expand, and to do so, we need to continue to be creative about funding.” With partners that include forest preserve districts, county conservation districts, many land trusts, and nonprofit agencies that own land—and with its knowledge about challenged plant populations—POC is uniquely positioned to help facilitate collaboration.

PHOTO: Plants of Concern volunteers.

The world’s best volunteer group

Whatever the time frame, wherever Plants of Concern volunteers are found, the hunt is on. Some days are glorious for us plant sleuths, such as my first foray last fall. We hiked over the dunes, Lake Michigan sparkling beside us, the cloudless sky brilliant blue. A light breeze kept us cool as we spread out, flagging the targeted plant—the endangered dune willow (Salix syrticola)—which was readily apparent and accessible. Then there are days like one this past June, when the sun beat down over a hazy Lake Michigan, humidity and temperatures soared, and my assignment was a steep, prolonged scramble over ravines to find and flag my elusive target, the common juniper (Juniperus communis). By the end of it I was, to coin a phrase, literally a hot mess—but a happy and triumphant one, for I had indeed been able to plant a few flags.

PHOTO: planting flags on a foray to monitor slipper orchids.Perhaps it’s time for you to sleuth around and plant a few flags, too! Visit Plants of Concern and find out how to join.

Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

No Day at the Beach: Summer Meant Research for REU Participants

Field research + skilled mentorship = next generation of plant scientists

Amy Spungen —  September 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

On a recent day in Chicago, with the sun beating down and temperatures climbing into the 90s, many college students idling through their last week at home headed for the beach. Lounging about was not on the agenda for the undergraduates gathered at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, on August 14, however. Instead, they stepped into the cool interior of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to present their summer research findings.

Thirty college students were at the end of their ten-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, and 22 of them were scheduled to talk about it. Far removed from beach banter, they spoke the language of population genetics, plant diversity, arthropods and fungal pathogens, and the floral preference of bees, among many other topics.

Funded primarily through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, with additional funding from Northwestern University and others, the REU program is held each summer, and hundreds of hopeful candidates from colleges and universities throughout the United States apply to the program. Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the past ten years, the program enables a motivated group of undergraduates to explore a diverse array of topics related to plant biology and conservation. NSF-funded participants receive a stipend of $5,000, plus an additional subsistence and travel allowance.

Though the stipend is much appreciated, the main benefit of the REU program is professional: these young scientists perform detailed research out in the field and within sophisticated laboratories, under the skilled mentorship of senior scientists and doctoral and master’s students. At the Garden, participants have access to the nine laboratories of the Plant Science Center. Some REU participants use these labs while they serve as research mentors for teens participating in the Garden’s College First program. (College First brings talented Chicago Public Schools students who are African American or Latino—both underrepresented demographics in the professional science field—to the Garden in summer for a range of learning opportunities that introduce them to professional and academic options.)

PHOTO: Jannice Newson.

Jannice Newson

“The REU program was really interesting—I learned so much,” said Jannice Newson, now a sophomore majoring in environmental science at the University of Missouri. She stood before her poster in the Plant Science Center before presentations began. When prompted, Newson, who evaluated 242 species of shoreline plants over the summer, described a typical day in the program; by the time she patiently finished laying out the daily process, the magnitude of her accomplishment was clear.

“From a scientific perspective, I’m so proud of how Jannice developed her research skills over the course of the summer,” said her mentor, Bob Kirschner, director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board Curator of Aquatics at the Garden. “Her commitment to the environment—and her now-refined desire to prepare for a career in the applied aquatic sciences—bring a huge smile to my face!“

The Science Career Continuum and near-peer mentoring

As hard as the work was, the experience invigorated Newson. “I would love to come back and do more of this work,” she said. “It was such a great group of people!” She previously participated in  College First and is an example of how students can move along the Garden’s Science Career Continuum. The continuum allows the Garden to connect its own programs for middle- and high-school students (Science First and College First, respectively) with those offering internships and mentoring for college and graduate students.

Jazmine Hernandez, now a sophomore majoring in health sciences at DePaul University, was both a Science First and College First participant. She hopes to go beyond the walls of the Plant Science Center and explain her population genetics research at a conference this fall.

PHOTO: Jazmine Hernandez.

Jazmine Hernandez

“I am so grateful to have been accepted into the REU program,” she said. “I heard about it through the Garden’s peer mentoring program, and then my College First advisor e-mailed me to suggest I apply.” She smiled and threw her arms wide. “Science First prepared me for high school; College First prepared me for college; REU is preparing me for life!”

“The near-peer mentoring that the REU program makes possible is incredibly important,” said Anya Maziak, the Garden’s director of foundation and government relations, who helps secure funding for the continuum and was reviewing the posters. “High-school students are mentored by undergraduate students who are mentored by graduate students and so on, offering all participants relatable models who encourage and support them as they pursue plant science careers.”

Hernandez noted that her REU mentor, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.—a Garden conservation scientist and manager of both the molecular ecology lab and the REU program—covered much more than research throughout the summer, such as ethics, publishing papers, and preparing a resumé. “It’s just a great experience,” she said. “When I returned to the Garden for the REU program, all I could think was, I am home! I love it here.” Hernandez, whose poster was titled “Population Genetics during a Manrove Range Expansion,” plans to become a plant pathologist.

Winners among winners

A team of three Garden experts—Andrew Bunting, assistant director and director of plant collections; Greg Mueller, Ph.D., Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science; and Eileen Prendergast, director of education—evaluated the posters and selected several for special honors. Taran Lichtenberger’s poster, “Functional trait diversity in prairie plant species,” was deemed Best Poster. Best Presentation went to Lisa Cheung, who elaborated on her poster, “Molecular markers distinguish hybridization patterns in Castilleja.” Evan Levy, whose poster was titled “Floral preference of bees in a Montane Meadow in Flagstaff, Arizona,” won the title of Best Overall.

Official honors aside, it was clear through the detailed research posters, the enthusiastic and articulate presenters, and the beaming faces of family, friends, and mentors that every REU participant was a winner.

“As a first-time judge, I was extremely impressed with the posters,” said Prendergast. “Every one of the students and mentors should be really proud of their work this summer.” (See summaries of each poster here.) Prendergast raises a good point in citing the mentors as well as their students, because it takes time, energy, and patience to work with even the most highly motivated and intelligent students—and there are no slackers in the REU program. “Mentoring REU students does take some time out of Garden scientists’ rather hectic summer schedules,” said Kirschner, “but the rewards to both the Garden and the student are just incredible.”

“Days like this remind me of why I’m here,” said Dr. Fant, who has managed the REU program for the past four years. He nodded toward the clusters of presenters and excited visitors. “It can be challenging to manage the program, but every year, seeing what these students have accomplished reassures me that among the next generation of scientists, there are many talented enough to take our place.”

The number of REU applicants rises yearly, and Fant expects the number accepted into the program to increase to as many as 40. (That’s about as much as the Plant Science Center and staff can accommodate.)

It’s not hard to see the attraction. As Dr. Mueller said, “The REU program provides a potentially life-changing experience by giving these undergraduate students research that can help them figure out what they can do with the rest of their lives. They work hard, and they have a good time.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Journey to the Fine Art of Fiber

Quilting my way to showtime

Amy Spungen —  November 1, 2014 — 12 Comments

Each year at the Chicago Botanic Garden, fall is heralded by more than brilliant leaf color and crisp temperatures. It’s around this time that thousands of visitors flow into the Regenstein Center for the Fine Art of Fiber, visions of gorgeous quilts and exquisite woven and knitted items dancing in their heads.

Liberated Stars by Amy Spungen 2013

This is the quilt I entered in last year’s Fine Art of Fiber show.

For three days in November, Illinois Quilters, Inc., the North Suburban NeedleArts Guild, and the Weavers Guild of the North Shore offer one of the most anticipated needle art shows in the Midwest. The combined show and sale is an outgrowth of similar events dating back to 1981. 

I used to be among those who meandered around the show, dazzled by the patterns and colors and textures, wondering what on earth it took to make one of those spectacular pieces on display.

Eventually, I found out.

Before I began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I became a quilter. In the early 1990s, my daughter Hannah (now 24) was toddling around the house, and baby Naomi was more or less velcroed to my body. In the evenings I was going to school, one class at a time, but I needed to do something fun. Something creative. Something inside, given Chicago’s long, long winters and the need to be within hearing distance of my children as I temporarily ignored them.

One day, I drove past a quilt shop and saw a sign for quilting classes in its window. Impulsively I pulled over, went inside, and signed up. You know what’s said about addiction, how people who are susceptible become instant slaves to an expensive habit upon exposure? That would be me. Fabric. Give me more fabric! And make it batik!

PHOTO: Amy Spungen with her quilt, "Fanfare"

Posing with another Fine Art of Fiber quilt. I gave this one to my friend Jeannie in South Carolina.

I started  making quilts, and my first efforts were generally awful. Family members were too polite to protest when I inflicted these early quilts upon them. Little by little, however, I improved. And I loved the process, even if the inevitable mistakes of learning prompted a few curses—O.K., many curses—on some occasions. There is something both challenging and relaxing about quilting: finding a pattern that sparks the imagination; choosing the right colors and fabrics, an art in itself; marking, cutting, and piecing—stitching—together the top; pinning it to the middle batting (think “stuffing”) and the cotton backing; and then sewing, sewing, sewing the “sandwich” into a completed quilt. (You find “sandwich” an odd term? I am now intimately familiar with “feed dogs,” “throat plates,” and “Wonder­-Under” as well.*) 

PHOTO: Hannah and Naomi show off the latest quilting projects.

Hannah and Naomi show off a pair of quilted pieces. It’s been fun to see my children grow up in quilt photos.

I joined Illinois Quilters, Inc., which is when I found out about the Fine Art of Fiber. Members are encouraged to display pieces in the show. It took years, but finally, in 2001, I felt I was ready for showtime. By then I had another child, Oren (below, wrapped in the quilt I displayed in that show). This year Oren left for college, and I have now replaced his ping-pong area in the basement with a new, expanded quilting studio. Won’t he be surprised!

Despite working full time and having what some might consider to be an excessive number of hobbies, I keep quilting. Sometimes I manage only one quilt a year. I am not discouraged at my snail’s pace of production, though: it’s all about enjoying the process. And when I see my quilts displayed alongside the “big boys” at the show, I am thrilled to have made the journey from that first quilting class to the Fine Art of Fiber.

PHOTO: Warm and snuggly in one of mom's quilts.

Oren, warm and snuggly in the first quilt I displayed at the Fine Art of Fiber.

This year’s Fine Art of Fiber is from Friday to Sunday, November 7 to 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There is also a public preview night on Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Click here for more details. I hope to see you there—perhaps you, too, will find inspiration!


*Feed dogs are metal ridges inside a sewing machine that help grip and move fabric; they are located beneath a hole in the throat plate, which is under the needle mechanism. Wonder-Under is fusible webbing that bonds two pieces of fabric together.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

“But wait! There’s more!”

Lenhardt Library Treasures Populate Exhibitions

Amy Spungen —  February 13, 2014 — 2 Comments

Stacy Stoldt is never not working on an exhibition.

Even when the Lenhardt Library’s public services manager is staffing the desk, answering reference questions, and locating articles for staff, the “million and one” details involved in putting together the library’s four annual rare book exhibitions are percolating in her brain.

PHOTO: Stacy Stoldt organizing bookshelves.

Stacy Stoldt awaits patrons in the Lenhardt Libary.

Stoldt has streamlined the process since she first began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2007, but it remains a lot of work to curate an exhibition. “There’s the research, the writing, the editing, the design, the approvals,” she said last month. “Here we are in January, and we’re in the design phase of our next exhibition, which opens in February, but back in November I was already meeting with someone about books for an exhibition that opens this May. There’s always a deadline looming.”

Stoldt loves her work, and one of her chief pleasures is deciding which literary treasures will be selected. It is a process involving research, more research, and finally, she says, just a bit more research. The excitement of finding the perfect volume has prompted Stoldt to burst into song (just ask cataloger Ann Anderson, a neighbor in the basement office who sometimes joins in).

The public services manager and her colleagues have many volumes from which to choose: in 2002, the Lenhardt Library acquired a magnificent collection of 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic journals from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston.

An Exhibition Takes Shape

PHOTO: A meeting with a dozen people gatherered around rare books.

Stoldt shows rare books to a group in the rare book reading room.

Before Stoldt begins hunting down books, there are meetings to decide Lenhardt Library exhibition topics for the year. That process begins with a brainstorming session including Stoldt, Lenhardt Library Director Leora Siegel, and Rare Books Curator Ed Valauskas. Sometimes the trio bases their topics on themes within the collection, such as the upcoming succulent show that features the work of A.P. de Candolle and botanical-rock-star-illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

Alternatively, they might collaborate with another botanical library on a theme, as happened when the Lenhardt Library team worked with the New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library on the recent exhibition Healing Plants: Illustrated Herbals. Other times, they select topics that complement events held at the Garden, such as Butterflies in Print: Lepidoptera Defined, which ran in conjunction with last summer’s Butterflies & Blooms.

Newest Exhibition Focuses on Orchids

PHOTO: An illustration of Masdevallia coccinea from an illustrated book panel.

The Lenhardt Library’s newest exhibition, Exotic Orchids: Orchestrated in Print, runs through Sunday, May 11. This image is from Xenia Orchidaceae: Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Orchideen, by Heinrich Gustave Reichenbach.

The newest Lenhardt Library exhibition complements the Orchid Show and is titled Exotic Orchids: Orchestrated in Print. Running through Sunday, May 11, it features such rare books as Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, published in 1862. Another item is Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with a beautiful color illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale, also known as Darwin’s orchid. “One doesn’t come alive without the other,” said Stoldt. “I’m always trying to put the connections together for people.”

For some exhibitions, Stoldt does it all—A to Z. For others, she receives the researched text, citations, and selected illustrations from Valauskas or Siegel and develops the material into an exhibition. Once the topics are established, research is completed, and explanatory text is written and edited, graphic designers enter the picture. Stoldt selects images from the featured books to use with the accompanying text, and then the designers work their magic. Along the way, Stoldt and Siegel review the progress. The result is an exhibition compelling not only for its content but for its elegant layout, which extends throughout the display cases that greet visitors as they enter the library.

Accompanying library talks are on Tuesday, February 18, and Sunday, March 9, at 2 p.m.

“For our new Exotic Orchids exhibition, we really wanted to show some bling!” said Stoldt. Within the Rare Book Collection, there was so much to choose from on orchids that she found the selection process daunting. Visitors to the exhibition will find the beauty and science of orchids well-represented, and discover items about orchid conservation and preservation as well.

Art Conservation Key to Documenting Plants

Stoldt noted that conserving the books and the artwork that document a plant’s existence is almost as important as preserving the actual plant. In cases two and three of Exotic Orchids, there are select illustrations from two orchid collections, Les Orchidées (1890) and Les Orchidées et les Plantes de Serre (1900–10), which the Lenhardt Library recently had conserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) through grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

How did the conservation process work? Professionally trained book and paper conservators removed the illustrations from their original acidic bindings; then the inks were tested, the surfaces were cleaned, and the illustrations were digitally photographed. Then the illustrations were placed in chemically stable folders and housed in custom-made boxes made from lignin-free archival boards. Conservation completed!

ILLUSTRATION: An unidentified Cypripedium, or slipper orchid.

Cypripedium VIII. color plate

The Rare Book Collection

Stoldt recently brought out some rare volumes to demonstrate the variety within the Rare Book Collection. As noted on its web page, the collection reflects a relationship between people and the plant kingdom that has been documented since the earliest days of print, when botanists were not simply plant describers, but explorers.

Out came volume after volume, with Stoldt pointing out noteworthy details about each. Among them was the oldest book in the collection, Historia Plantarum, written by Theophrastus (d. 287 B.C.E.) and published in 1483 (it has some unusual marginalia). There was also an exquisite Japanese book on flower arranging, Nageire Kadensho: Saishokuzu Iri, published in 1684 and donated by longtime library volunteer Adele Klein. Stoldt continued her informal presentation with seemingly boundless enthusiasm, finishing with lush life-size images from The Orchid Album, published between 1882 and 1897.

More than once, Stoldt returned a book to the vault at the end of the show-and-tell only to call, “but wait! There’s more!” as she glimpsed another book she absolutely had to show. This librarian really, really loves her books. And she feels very protective of them.

Stoldt recalled the horror she felt once when she was installing an exhibition, with a rare book exposed nearby on a book “cradle”: “There was a sign that said ‘Exhibit installation in progress: please do not touch the rare books,’ but this person came in from the rain and loomed over it, dripping wet. I got her out of the way, but that was a close one.”

Cultivating Relationships

More often, visitors are sensitive to the delicate state of the Garden’s rare books. Some Garden members make a point of coming to each new exhibition and attending the free gallery talk. “One patron always calls from Wisconsin to find out about the next talk,” said Stoldt. “And once, a library regular who came to a talk told me how much she loved the book Brother Gardeners [about eighteenth-century gardeners who brought American plants to England]. I was able to show her some books by the book’s featured plantsmen, including Joseph Banks, John Bartram, and Phillip Miller, among others. It’s what I call an ‘on-demand rare-book viewing.’ She was thrilled. These are the kinds of things that lead to relationships with people.”

Devoted patrons feel that the library and its exhibitions enhance their lives; in turn, some are moved to enhance the Rare Book Collection. “We have our patrons, and then we have our patron saints,” said Stoldt. One patron who came to the 2009 exhibit on Kew Garden’s 250th anniversary enjoyed the accompanying talk by Ed Valauskas so much that she donated the 1777 edition of Cook’s Voyage, or A Voyage Towards the South Pole, by Captain James Cook, which had been in her family for family for decades. And longtime members John and Mary Helen Slater made it possible for the library to acquire 11 volumes of Warner’s Orchid Album.

Inspiring the Next Generation

Stoldt loves to see the excitement she feels about the Garden’s Rare Book Collection spreading to a new generation. She recalled a day when a grandfather brought his grandson to the library, and the child asked to see a rare book. “I asked him what he was interested in, and he said, ‘poisonous plants.’ First, I showed him Histoire des Plantes Vénéneuses et Suspectes de la France by Bulliard, a book on poisonous plants written in French from the eighteenth century, but what really spoke to him was a book with the ‘coolest illustrations!’ entitled Poisonous Plants, Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect, Engraved on Wood, 1927, by John Nash. This kid was just amazed. I love seeing young readers light up when they’ve found something intriguing for them in print. It’s heart-warming.”

ILLUSTRATION: Cattleya aclandiae.

Cattleya aclandiae from a rare book color plate

Although that particular drop-in visit and viewing request occurred on a busy weekend day, another library staff member was available to manage the circulation desk while Stoldt showed the books. “I can’t stress enough the importance of making an appointment for a viewing,” she said. “Besides kids, grandparents, and garden clubs, people from all over the world come to Lenhardt Library to see primary resources they can’t find elsewhere. We’ve had writers and scholars from England and the Netherlands, and even a Thai princess, come to see the Rare Book Collection. Everyone is welcome.”

Don’t be surprised if you come to see one specific book in the collection and end up seeing many more. It will be a visit you won’t forget!

Rare book viewings are by appointment only during the hours of 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, subject to availability. For an appointment, call (847) 835-8201.

Click here to purchase tickets to the Orchid Show online.

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