Archives For Barbara Brotman

So you think you’re an ace tree identifier. Those big scalloped leaves are from oak trees, the three-fingered hand shapes are maple leaves, those little oval leaves marching in a double line along a stem are from an ash—boo yah!

OK, now do it without any leaves.

And yes, you can…with a little help from Jim Jabcon, assistant ecologist for natural areas. The other day Jabcon, walked me through the McDonald Woods and began my education.

PHOTO: Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) bark.

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

Jim Jabcon is giving a class on Identifying Trees and Shrubs in Winter on December 10. Sign up today!

First, he corrected my misinformation. I always thought the trick was looking at the tree’s habit—its size and shape. But no—especially not in a natural woodland like this. A tree’s habit depends on where it is growing—how crowded it is by other trees and what it has to do to catch some sunlight.

“Any tree will change its habit depending on what is given to it,” he said as we walked into the woods. “You can probably get 100 trees in a row, but it’s like a fingerprint. They all have different spaces, different light; they’re all going to be different.”

Still, there are some distinctive shapes. Does the tree have thick branches, even at its top with a fearsome, gnarly look worthy of a horror movie? Jabcon nodded at a towering behemoth that could have played a role in The Exorcist: it was an oak.

But let’s start with a major clue: bark.

Jabcon cast a practiced eye—an artist’s eye, in fact, for his degree is in fine art—over the trees. He pointed out a tall tree whose trunk was covered in thick, rough bark.

That bark is the giveaway. The tree was an oak; the tough bark is its secret to surviving fires.

PHOTO: Black walnut (Juglans nigra) bark.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra)

Nearby, another tree boasted thick bark with a rugged geometry, forming blocky rectangles running vertically up the tree in a kind of forest version of cubism.

“This is your black walnut,” Jabcon said. “It’s got a really good knobby bark.”

It also had another tree, a small sapling, growing in a crook about 5 feet up. Jabcon pulled it out and showed how its slender reddish branches were covered with a white chalky material that scraped off easily. “This is your box elder, in the maple family,” he said.

And further along the trail was a tree that won my heart because it looked like another part of a human body.

Its smooth, gray trunk was wrapped in bark with the sinewy look of muscle.

That was because the tree was a muscle wood—the common name for an American hornbeam, bestowed because of the signature appearance of its bark.

PHOTO: American hornbeam or muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana) bark.

American hornbeam or muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana)

Walking on, we stopped at another tree with its own distinctive bark, which looks like big hunks of bark pasted onto the trunk and separated by deep grooves. That “warty” bark, as Jabcon put it, identified it as hackberry. (Celtis occidentalis)

Blogger Kathy J. gives you a Tree 101 on hackberry in her post This Bark is Rough.

Still, bark isn’t the only clue. Jabcon pulled a slender branch close and examined the leaf buds running along its length.

They were in neat pairs, each bud opposite another. “Very few trees have opposite leaf buds,” he said. “Ashes. Maples. So if you’ve got opposite buds you can narrow it down.”

To make the final ID, he examined the terminal bud—the bud at the very end of the branch. It consisted of a cluster of three tiny points, making the branch look almost like a miniature deer hoof. That distinctive shape settled it: this was a white ash.

And so it went as we wandered through the woodland.

We looked at leaf buds, like the sulphur yellow leaf ones (“I love how cool they are,” Jabcon said) on a bitter nut, one of his favorite trees.

We looked at terminal buds, like the super-long ones that look like a goose’s bill and mark it as a nannyberry, a kind of viburnum.

PHOTO: Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) bark.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)

We looked at bark, like the one hanging in huge strips off a tree. It was a shagbark hickory. This tree’s bark has peeled off in such big pieces that bats have hibernated beneath them.

And if all else fails, there is another clue still there in winter, though soon it could be hidden under snow.

“It’s OK to cheat and look at leaves on the ground,” Jabcon said cheerfully, picking up a few oak leaves to prove the point. “They’re still there.”


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Autumn Scents

Barbara Brotman —  October 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

“What’s that smell?”

It’s what I’ve been asking myself in recent weeks. Not in a bad way; it’s an entrancing scent that’s been wafting through the air, at the Garden and in gardens I walk by in my neighborhood—but one I couldn’t quite place. I’ve been walking around, nose in the air, happy but perplexed.

Every spring we marvel at the sweet smells in the air. But perfumed breezes in autumn? And what an unusual perfume. Cilantro? With a hint of honey? What could it be?

“You’re smelling something that’s reminiscent of coriander, maybe cilantro?” said Jacob Burns, the Garden’s curator of herbaceous perennial plants.  “You’re probably smelling Sporobolus heterolepis. Prairie dropseed.”

Welcome to a signature scent of late summer and early fall: the scent of prairie dropseed, a native grass.

PHOTO: A single panicle of prairie dropseed.

A single panicle of prairie dropseed

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Never mind the sweet scents of spring; this season’s plant aroma is in a class of its own. And it’s almost indescribable. I thought of cilantro partly because of the scent, but also because I couldn’t quite place it or compare it to anything else—like cilantro.

“Some people think it smells like buttered popcorn,” said Garden horticulturist Liz Rex, who cares for the Native Plant Garden.

The scent comes from the flowers, feathery panicles that bloom in late summer. I’ve smelled it walking by gardens where people have planted a few native prairie species.

Rex has been surrounded by it in places where it is planted en masse.

“The first year I was in the Native Plant Garden, it was almost overwhelming,” she said. “But now I really enjoy it and look forward to it.”

You can smell it in various spots in the Garden, Rex said—the Native Plant Garden, the restored prairie, the Kleinman Family Cove near the new Regenstein Learning Campus, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden; and the rainwater glen outside the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center.

You can smell it in remnant prairies, said Joan O’Shaughnessy, prairie and river ecologist at the Garden—and if you do, that means the prairie is of high quality.

But you can also smell it in ordinary gardens. Native species are increasingly popular in front and back yards, and prairie dropseed (it gets its common name because of the way its mature seeds drop to the ground in autumn) is a Chicago-area superstar.

“It’s a wonderful garden plant because its growth form is low, which people like; it has this fountain-like look to the vegetation; and you can keep it over winter for appeal,” O’Shaughnessy said.

It can grow in both wettish and dry soil. Like many native plants of this region, it can tolerate drought. It can grow in that bane of the Chicago gardener’s existence, heavy clay soil. “It’s just a great plant,” she said.

It isn’t the only source of fall fragrance in the Garden. There is also the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum).

PHOTO: In early fall, the gold outline of katsura tree leaves is particularly visible as they begin to change color.

In early fall, the gold outline of katsura tree leaves is particularly visible as they begin to change color.

PHOTO: The late fall foliage of the katsura tree.

The late fall foliage of the katsura tree
Photo by Amy Campion

“The leaves turn a really pretty fall yellow, and once they drop, they release a sugary aroma that smells like cotton candy,” Burns said. “Some liken it to caramel or even brown sugar.”

You can find a katsura on Evening Island by the trellis bridge, he said, and also in the Krasberg Rose Garden.

So while fall’s colors are rightfully beloved, it turns out that the season appeals to another sense, too. Go ahead and enjoy looking at the annual show of autumn colors—but don’t forget the autumn scents.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It always starts with the place. The garden, the park, the stairwell, the commuter train station—wherever the artwork will be sited, Michael Szabo starts out by spending time in it. Szabo, a maker of sculpture, waterworks, and tabletop vessels, is one of the artists who will be featured in the American Craft Exposition (ACE), held at the Chicago Botanic Garden this weekend, September 23 through 25.

Buy your ACE three-day pass today to see the show all weekend long. 
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Friday & Saturday
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday
$13 member/$15 nonmember

At this juried exposition and sale of fine crafts, visitors can see and buy one-of-a-kind works in metal, ceramics, fiber, jewelry, glass, leather, and other media. The show, which features some of the top crafts artists in the country, will help support pharmacogenomics at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

Attending the show is a chance not just to see and buy art, but to talk to the artists about their creative process. Szabo’s begins with the site.

“I’ll come and look at a space, and it’s the space that really inspires the concept and the work, as well as the goals of the project,” he said from his studio in San Francisco.

PHOTO: Michael Szabo begins work on a piece in his San Francisco studio.

Michael Szabo begins work on a piece in his San Francisco studio.

He considers the landscape, the architecture, the feeling. He thinks about the spot’s history, its place in people’s daily lives, its meaning to a community. Then he puts his hands to work.

He builds a small model, experimenting with various materials and exploring how they move and behave. Ideas begin to take shape.

“The way the material acts is the starting point for defining the form,” he said. “I’m not trying to force anything to do anything it doesn’t naturally want to do.”

Take water. Szabo has learned by experience that you can’t force water to do anything.

“I’ve come up with a lot of my concepts about water by observing it, seeing how it falls, and trying to build the piece kind of around that,” he said. “I’ll design the sculpture around the water rather than the other way around. Water does what it wants.”

But metal?

“Metal is a very forgiving and versatile material,” he said. “You get some beautiful curves out of it.”

As he builds the model, the exploration and creativity flow.

PHOTO: For larger, sited works, Michael Szabo visits the site to make sure the piece will integrate into its surroundings when complete.

For larger, sited works, Michael Szabo visits the site to make sure the piece will integrate into its surroundings when complete.

“It’s almost like I’m using this solitary, really exploratory process of building a small structure by myself and seeing what the material wants to do, creating these curves based on the material, gravity, stress, and pressure,” he said.

Then Szabo and his assistants turn his model into a full-size artwork. They fabricate support structures and shining curves of steel, assemble them in the studio and make the model into large-scale art—a wall of rugged metal panels covered by sheets of falling water, a sculpture formed of intertwining tendrils of steel, another that arcs and curves like a huge, silvery snake.

Photo: Studio staff assist in welding a larger piece.

Studio staff assist in welding a larger piece.

PHOTO: Equipoise by Michael Szabo, Bronze, 14' x 11' x 9', 2015, Tysons Corner, VA

“Equipoise” by Michael Szabo, Bronze, 14′ x 11′ x 9′, 2015, Tysons Corner, Virginia

But his work isn’t all large-scale; he has never stopped making the small, sleek, steel vessels that marked his first explorations into making art with metal. He’ll be bringing some of his elegant tabletop sculptures to ACE, along with larger pieces and water features. And while visitors to the show will get to talk with outstanding artists about their work, the artists will also be able to talk to the public. It’s an interaction Szabo appreciates.

PHOTO: "Alight" by Michael Szabo, Bronze & Stone, 36" x 14" x 12", 2014

“Alight” by Michael Szabo, Bronze & Stone, 36″ x 14″ x 12″, 2014

“It’s a really great opportunity to show what I can do and talk to people about what I do,” he said. “I really like getting the feedback and reactions of people to my work. It helps me understand how it’s engaging people.”

He is deeply involved in his current project, a commission from the town of Wylie, Texas, to create sculptures marking the start and finish of a walking path. He plans to evoke both the site’s past as a Texas blackland prairie and its future as part of the bustling Dallas metroplex. He’ll be glad to talk to you about it.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A great blue heron watched as I glided past. Dragonflies tumbled and hovered just above the water, which was throwing reflections of sunlight onto the tree trunks along the shore. And the air was filled with a characteristic sound of kayaking in the Skokie Lagoons—the roar of traffic on the Edens Expressway.

But so what? The Edens does nothing to detract from this little Garden of Eden, where paddling a kayak through narrow waterways ringed with trees or across wind-swept open water is a magical way to spend part of a sunny day.

And, once a year, you can paddle at the Chicago Botanic Garden. On June 18 to 19, you can canoe the lakes of the Garden in the annual Father’s Day Canoe Adventure. Held in conjunction with Friends of the Chicago River, the hour-long paddles regularly sell out.

Still, there are plenty of other opportunities to get on the water. Canoe and kayak rentals are available from the Garden’s partner, the Forest Preserves of Cook County: Busse Lake in Elk Grove Village, Maple Lake and Tampier Lake in the Palos Preserves, and here at the Skokie Lagoons.

PHOTO: Kayaking the Skokie Lagoons.

Kayaking the Skokie Lagoons

At the Skokie Lagoons site, you rent your boat from Chicago River Canoe & Kayak, which operates a trailer on Tower Road, just south of the Garden. No experience necessary; kayaking is easy, and the staffers will give you a quick lesson and offer suggestions on a route.

You can paddle around the island in the middle of one of the lagoons, right across from the launch spot, which takes about 45 minutes. Or you can head under the Tower Road overpass and into the long system of lagoons to the north.

“A family of badgers has been seen there,” said Angela Williams, who helps run the Chicago River Canoe & Kayak rental station, as she picked out a paddle for me.

That was tempting, but the island looked plenty inviting. And John Hage, the outfitter’s manager here, said he recommends the island because the narrow waterways keep you closer to shorelines where you see birds.

Grab your camera and a paddle to #birdthepreserves from the water this summer.

PHOTO: A great blue heron fishes from the shoreline.

A great blue heron fishes from the shoreline

Williams assigned me a kayak—there are three kinds, with different levels of speed, maneuverability, and tippiness—and I lowered myself in and put my feet on the foot rests. She handed me the paddle, pushed me into the water, and I was off.

And immediately having a grand time. Gliding swiftly—you can go pretty fast with just a little effort—and skimming along only inches above the lagoon’s surface, you feel like some kind of water creature, as comfortable paddling as the Canada geese you see.

In fact, you can paddle faster than the geese. I came upon a line of Canada goslings following one parent at the front of the line and followed by another at the back. I caught up and glided alongside, so we were a double line paddling quietly beneath the overhanging trees, the little goslings’ heads bobbing. Even for one who despises the park-fouling birds, I thought it was sweet.

I rounded the island, the highway hum fading enough that I could hear the plops of fishing lines being cast by guys fishing from kayaks. A deer wandered through the woods on the island. A great blue heron soared overhead, its shadow crossing over my kayak. And then, after flushing one last great blue heron along the shore, I crossed the water back to the launch.

Back at the trailer, Hage recommended the Maple Lake location too; Chicago River Canoe & Kayak rents the boats there and at the Busse Lake launch. And for those who would like to paddle but would like company, the outfitter is planning to organize monthly networking paddles.

PHOTO: Kayaks on the shoreline of Rosewood Beach in Highland Park.

Parking at Rosewood Beach in Highland Park for a quick breather during a paddle

Bring dry shorts to change into; in a kayak, the water drips off the paddle and into your lap as you paddle.

But go. The waterways are lovely to explore the preserves—and once a year, the Garden. Out here, it’s just you, the herons, and your swift path through the water, and you haven’t left Cook County. 


Photos by Amy Spungen and Bill Bishoff.
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

“Baltimore oriole,” my husband Chuck called out—and there it was, its orange coloring glowing so brightly in the morning sun that it seemed lit from within. The bird almost seemed to be posing for us, perching in full view on a nearby tree branch and bobbing its black head as it sang.

Al Stokie, our expert birding companion, recorded it in his notebook; it would become part of the weekly bird survey he supplies to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

We continued on our walk through a wonder of the natural world that anyone in the Chicago area can see for the price of a pair of binoculars: spring bird migration.

Every spring, small, colorful warblers fly through the Chicago area on their way from their winter homes in Central and South America to their nesting grounds in the northern United States, Canada, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. And every year, birders at the Garden and beyond delight in the sight.

“In May, you always go crazy,” said Stokie, who has become the official compiler of the Garden’s bird statistics.

Cape may warbler.

Cape May warbler

Blackburnian warbler.

Blackburnian warbler

But May isn’t just for experienced birders; the birds are so numerous and their breeding plumage so gorgeous that it’s a perfect time for anyone to explore bird-watching. The 385 acres of the Garden are an excellent place to start. “The Garden is a pretty well-known spot for birding,” said Jim Steffen, the senior ecologist who oversees the Garden’s bird-friendly practices and its cumulative bird list, which currently numbers 255 species.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

FPDCC Bird of the Month chart.

Learn about the bird of the month at birding events at your local forest preserves.

And this year, the Garden is partnering with the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s #birdthepreserves initiative. There are events at the preserves, and a different bird is featured each month. (In May, it’s the Baltimore oriole.) There’s even a good-natured competition to see which site can record the most bird species. 

Where to look for birds at the Garden? It depends.

“You bird the Garden at different times of the year in different places,” Stokie said. “May is warbler month, and warblers are found in the woods.” So he started us off in the McDonald Woods, in the Garden’s northeast corner. We walked along the wood-chipped path, and on boardwalks and bridges over streams and ephemeral ponds, watching for movement in the trees. It was a blustery morning. “Our problem today is going to be the wind,” Stokie said, and he was right. We saw blue-gray gnatcatchers, catbirds, ovenbirds, and that beautiful oriole. And when we got to a small forest pond, we saw a solitary sandpiper scurrying through the water on its stick-like legs.

Stokie saw far more than I did—he recorded 48 species—but we didn’t get the full-on spring migration blast of birds.

You might, though.

The peak of spring migration is typically May 10 – 20, and International Migratory Bird Day is May 14. Most of the warblers will still be moving through in the next few weeks, Steffen said, and there should be flycatchers, goldfinches, woodpeckers, and orioles. Around the Garden Lakes, he said, people can see wood ducks, mallards, night herons, green herons, and great blue herons.

Great blue heron.

Great blue heron

Ruby-crowned kinglet.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

It’s a grand sight. But along with the beauty, Steffen sees cause for concern due to climate change. Trees are leafing out earlier, before the warblers—cued by the lengthening of days—arrive. “The buds are already open, and the insects associated with them are gone,” Steffen said. “It’s messing up the synchronization.”

The best places to see birds at the Garden in spring, Stokie says, depend on the bird. Warblers and vireos will be in woodlands like the McDonald Woods and the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the Garden’s southeast corner. Sparrows will be in open areas like the Dixon Prairie; and shorebirds and late migrating ducks will be found in the wet areas just north of Dundee Road.

Hairy woodpecker.

Hairy woodpecker

Sign up for a bird walk with an expert. The Garden will have a spring migration walk on May 21. 

Or go to any forest preserve or park. Look for people with binoculars, and ask what they’re seeing. You’ll be off and birding.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org