Archives For Julianne Beck

Clicking Through Time

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

In 1860s New Hampshire, botanical artist Ellen Robbins perched before her canvas, creating wildly popular watercolors of fall leaves. Books of her paintings sold well, landing in the hands of high society members such as fellow artist Gertrude Graves, a cousin of poet Emily Dickinson. Graves presented her copy of one such volume, Autumnal Leaves, to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1923, where it remained until being acquired by the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2002. Today, the historic, storied volume is accessible to us all via a visually crisp, easily navigated online library.

ILLUSTRATION: autumnal leaves.

Selection from Autumnal Leaves by Ellen Robbins

Autumnal Leaves is one of the historic books, postcards, and similar materials digitized and conserved by the Garden in recent years and now accessible via the Internet.

“It just opens up the opportunities for more people to see the wonderful pieces that we have,” said Leora Siegel, director of the Garden’s Lenhardt Library, which was established by the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society in 1951.

The Lenhardt Library’s impressive collection includes materials dating from 1483 to 1917, which are now available online to an expanded audience.

“In this age of e-books, these primary resources are something different. They are something really important to our civilization and culture,” said Siegel, who is delighted to help the public, scientists, historians, and artists from around the world access the remarkable materials.

PHOTO: Leora Siegel.

Leora Siegel directs the Garden libraries.

Publications originating in North America are predominant in the collection. Western European books that once resided in the private family libraries of dukes and earls are also included. In some cases, bookplates were traced back to their original owners.

“They were in private libraries and only the family could read them, and now they are on the web and anyone can get to them,” remarked Siegel. The international component of the digitized collection also includes ikebana illustrations from Japan.

These materials were part of a collection of some 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic periodical titles collected by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston before being purchased by the Garden in 2002. Since that time, grants including a $172,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2011, allowed the Garden to digitize 45 of the books that have traveled time and distance to reach us today.

What did South America’s tropical vegetation look like to illustrator Baron Alexander von Humboldt in the 1850s? How was the Horticultural Building portrayed in Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition?

The answers can be found in the preserved volumes and vintage postcards accessible via the Illinois Digital Archives and the Garden’s new digitized illustrations website, launched in September.

Front of advertising card showing the Horticultural Building at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, with inset of company logo.

Front of advertising card showing the Horticultural Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with inset of company logo.

Front of postcard showing a rowboat on a lake in front of the Horticultural Building at the World's Fair grounds in Chicago, 1934.

Front of postcard showing a rowboat on a lake in front of the Horticultural Building at the World’s Fair grounds in Chicago, 1934.

The new site houses illustrations from a significant number of titles and interpretive notes, and it is continuously updated with material. From books on grafting plants to postcards from flower shows, there is much to discover with cultural and scientific relevance.

ILLUSTRATION: Selection from Water-color Sketched of Plants of North America 1888 to 1910.

Selection from Water-color Sketches of Plants of North America 1888 to 1910 by Helen Sharp, Volume 08

“The botanical illustrations come close to our herbarium specimens in many cases because you really see the roots and the life cycle of the plant,” noted Siegel.

The majority of materials were digitized offsite by the premier art conservation center in the United States, the Northeast Document Conservation Center. When the processed files arrive at the Garden, metadata is added by Garden librarian Christine Schmidt. She then adds the files to a software program that allows them to be accessed through either website. A volunteer photographer also contributes to the files. In the most recent set of 45 digitized volumes, 18 are currently being processed and prepared for the site.

While the rare books are still available by appointment to those who can make it into the library, many of the books are delicate and will benefit from an increased percentage of online viewing into the future.

ILLUSTRATION: Bookplate from "Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America"

Selection from Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America: a series of views illustrating the primeval forests on the river Magdalena, and in the Andes of New Grenada

Allowing access to these materials online has yielded many rewards for those who made it possible, from contributing to research around the world to the reproduction of selected images in new book publications, which is done with special permission from the Lenhardt Library.

“People are really blown away,” according to Siegel. Garden exhibitions have benefited from the collection as well, such as the winter Orchid Show exhibition, which was enhanced by complimentary full-text access to some of the rare books from the online portal.

Next, Siegel hopes to digitize the Garden’s collection of an estimated 20,000 pages of manuscripts of scientists’ field notes.

“We have some unique one-of-a-kind manuscripts that no one else has,” she said. “This is just the start.”

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Home on the Prairie

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  September 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

A delicate prairie bush clover extends its pink flowers toward the sun, like an early settler attempting to plant a flag on a piece of land to call home. Competition for space is intense where the native herb stands on one of the state’s last remaining prairie landscapes, Nachusa Grasslands, located in north-central Illinois.

The species’ juvenile plants must establish themselves rapidly to avoid being overtaken by dominant native grasses, such as little bluestem. Even if the wispy young herbs live to maturity, they may still struggle to survive the often deadly wake of litter the grass leaves behind.

PHOTO: A view of Nachusa Grasslands taken from Dr. Vitt’s field site.

A view of Nachusa Grasslands taken from Dr. Vitt’s field site. Photo by Pati Vitt.

Chicago Botanic Garden conservation scientist Pati Vitt, Ph.D., has been studying the rivalry between the prairie bush clover and grass species at Nachusa over the past 14 years. Also the curator of the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank, she has seen the herb species’ population rise and fall.

PHOTO: A tiny, spindly stalk of prairie bush clover in spring.

Prairie bush clover ( Lespedeza leptostachya) grows at Nachusa Grasslands.

In Illinois, Nachusa Grasslands is one of the few remaining places where prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) can still be found. The issues it faces there are not unusual to the species.

“It is a unique component of this very small subset of North American grasslands that exist nowhere else,” said Dr. Vitt. “Its presence is an indicator of high-quality, well-managed gravel hill prairie. It serves to increase the biodiversity of those types of habitats.”

After years of working to define the ideal environment for the prairie bush clover and getting to know its adversaries, she feels it is time to bring in the big guys.

Bison, 2,000-pound behemoths that are naturally adapted to Midwest weather and vegetation, will soon be arriving to help save the tiny plant. The rust-colored creatures, standing up to 6½ feet tall at the shoulder, are rather particular grazers, explained Vitt. Unlike cows, which graze broadly and without much discretion, bison selectively eat grass. That makes them the perfect friend of the prairie bush clover, which, Vitt has documented, needs a little more room to grow on the limited rocky portion of the 3,000-acre prairie it calls home.

Vitt spent much of her summer at Nachusa, a preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy in Illinois. She was hustling to document the status of prairie bush clover populations there before the arrival of a herd of bison in the fall of 2015.

Little bluestem ( Schizachyrium scoparium ) is a native grass.

Each morning of research she and her team, which included an REU intern, fellow Garden scientist Kay Havens, Ph.D., and additional technicians, were out in the field at daybreak. They worked in teams of two to count and identify all of the plants associated with Lespedeza leptostachya in six plots where it grows. They also took soil samples and did nutrient analysis to measure elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Lastly, they documented the slope of the land on which the prairie bush clover plants grew, and the aspect—the incline and direction at which they faced the sun. The team spent evenings at their temporary residence inspecting more challenging plants under a microscope to confirm the species identification. All of the data they gathered was recorded into GPS units and later downloaded into a database.

What did they find? Prairie bush clover performs best in soil that has 75 percent versus 82 to 89 percent sand, though all populations grow on soil with low organic matter. It suffers where levels of grass, and especially the litter the grass produces when it dies back each year, are high.

These findings support her research from previous years. Vitt studied the before-and-after status of the species during a one-year trial run with a cow as a grazer. She also investigated the impact of fire as a management tool.

“The more [grass] litter there is, the fewer seeds the [prairie bush clover] plants produce, which is both a function of size and probably nutrient status,” she explained. “Litter may not only serve to suppress the growth of the plant, but because it is carbon heavy it may actually decrease the available nitrogen in the soil.” One of the benefits of prairie bush clover, she theorizes, is that the healthy plants add nitrogen to the soil. That is an asset for surrounding plants.

A research plot where little bluestem is growing over smaller prairie bush clover plants. Photo by Pati Vitt.

A research plot where little bluestem is growing over smaller prairie bush clover plants. Photo by Pati Vitt.

When alternated with fire, grazing is a natural and effective management tool, noted Vitt. Fire, she explained, decreases the biomass of grass above soil, resulting in less grass litter. At the same time, it encourages new growth by stimulating meristems in the roots below the soil—areas where new cells are produced. After fire, said Vitt, clumps of grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) tend to be larger. However, when they are also grazed, those clumps are less dense, and therefore less discouraging to growth of the prairie bush clover.

Vitt has collected seeds on other prairies in the Midwest where bison have been present. “I’ve seen firsthand how bison graze, and I’ve seen the results of bison grazing versus cattle grazing,” she said. “When they [the Conservancy] decided that they were going to release the bison, for me that was very exciting. It’s kind of an affirmation of the work that I’ve done there, and that’s really great. I can see the benefits of the management and I have every reason to conclude that it’s going to increase the population viability of Lespedeza leptostachya.”

Bison will soon graze the vast prairie. Photo by Pati Vitt.

Bison will soon graze the vast prairie. Photo by Pati Vitt.

Vitt is back at the Garden now, sorting through the data she collected this summer and writing about her findings. These data are essential, she said, because she will be back to check on the prairie bush clover after the bison have settled in. She is also planning for future experiments, such as building habitat models for prairie bush clover using remote sensed data.

For a little plant that exists in only four states and is federally threatened, a hero can come in many forms.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The secret is out; visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden have unprecedented access to plant information, guides, and tours through a groundbreaking smartphone app, called GardenGuide, launched last year. Garden staff and volunteers used their skills and savvy to squeeze interactive maps, audio guides, points of interest, and botanic details on more than 10,000 plants into an application that sits in the palm of your hand. How did they do it, and what keeps the wheels turning?

Dorothy Peck, volunteer team leader at work.

Dorothy Peck, volunteer and team leader, at work

The ability to access this information in real time during a Garden visit is what makes the app so special, according to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation. He said that people “look down at the app, they see what they need to see, and then they are back to experiencing the Garden, just as we had hoped.” In addition, photos and plant information are frequently being added, so there is always something new to discover.  

Before new data and photos were added to the plant collections database, Tankersley and his team upgraded their long-time plant collection’s database to include 37 new information fields that would work well with the app, from soil type to bloom time to sun requirements. Many of the fields were added as check boxes, to make them easier to sort through with the app. It was then that he recruited another 80 volunteers to help gather and enter all of that new information.

As the project progressed, a new team of highly specialized volunteers came together to help build the data that is shared via the app. A group of 20 volunteer photographers captured digital images to accompany each species listed, under the direction of their team leader, Dorothy Peck. A group of 12 volunteers, led by team leader Glenn Kohlmeyer, scanned plant information slides researched by Richard Hawke, the Garden’s plant evaluation manager. Under Tankerley’s watchful eye, another 20 volunteers researched and input key facts about the plants. Perhaps furthest under the radar, was the smallest group of volunteers who handled the intricacies of GIS mapping with guidance from Veronica Harry-Jackson, a Garden GIS specialist. “We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated staff and volunteers,” said Tankersley.

“It was a Garden-wide project which was fantastic,”
said Van Deraa

The process to create the app began more than two years ago, when project manager Cheri Van Deraa, the Garden’s director of online marketing, assembled a team including representatives from different areas within the Garden. She led the initial step of researching similar products on the market and incorporating possible features. The list began with the Garden’s plant collections, and grew from there. The planning team considered a growing list of needs that visitors have when they come to the Garden, and included functions to address them. “The visitor needs we documented over time are now being met in this app,” said Tankersley.

John Moore

John Moore, volunteer photographer

Veronica Harry Jackson

Veronica Harry-Jackson with GIS equipment

“We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated volunteers.”

“The basis of the app was the plant collections database, but we realized that people like to find other things at the Garden, so we created a new second database for the app. It has points of interest at the Garden, like water fountains, classrooms, sculpture, the location of the Japanese Garden, and more,” said Van Deraa. Once the two databases were polished, they were worked into the architecture and mapping system for the app software.

The GIS, or interactive mapping function, was also a critical component. Both Tankersley and Van Deraa saw tremendous value in offering the ability for a user to go from their Garden location to their desired destination. “We have a large campus and much to see,” said Van Deraa, who uses the app herself. “I just get a thrill every time I want to find a plant,” she said. “There was an iris I wanted to see in the spring, I dialed it in, and I could just walk right up to it. That was so cool.”

Crested iris on the GardenGuide

For those who are not sure what to look for, there is a feature called What’s in Bloom Highlights. The feature highlights plants in bloom twice each week, with a map that shows the visitor how to walk to them.

Additional functions that were built in include audio tours, walking tours, and Van Deraa’s, favorite—maps leading to ‘secret spots’ such as the quiet bench atop the Waterfall Garden where birds visit early in the morning. “The GardenGuide app was designed to deepen the visitor experience with the Garden,” said Van Deraa. 

Gabriela Rocha and Sil Argentin

Gabriela Rocha and volunteer Sil Argentin

GardenGuide has been in use for nearly a year now, and updates are ongoing. In 2014, the app was awarded a Gold Trumpet by the Publicity Club of Chicago for distinguished achievement. Not resting on her laurels, though, Van Deraa has been focused on updating the software necessary to work with a new Android operating system, KitKat, which is now complete. The next version of the GardenGuide 2.0 is in the works.

Volunteers continue to take and add new photos, and research and input new pieces of information. “Because the Garden is constantly adding new plants to the collection, we are always adding new plants to the app,” said Tankersley. “In the long term, in effect this becomes a digital encyclopedia of plants.” Tankersley hopes to eventually add data on another 46,000 plants that have previously lived at the Garden and may one day return.

Users of the GardenGuide app can be assured that the information in the app has been updated with care by a remarkable team of volunteers and professionals working together.

It’s all there, in the palm of your hand, just waiting to be tapped.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grant #MA-04-11-0101-11).


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Turning the Pages

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  July 8, 2014 — 1 Comment

Historical depth and futuristic innovation meet in the Lenhardt Library and Lenhardt Plant Science Library.

PHOTO: Rare book exhibitions are displayed at the entrance to the library.

Rare book exhibitions are displayed at the entrance to the Lenhardt Library.

Led by director Leora Siegel, the comprehensive library facility houses rare books dating back to the 1400s. The library also serves as a portal to a nearly unlimited amount of scientific information in the digital realm. It’s a resource for staff researchers, students, interns, and citizen scientists alike. Beneath the quiet of the library shelves, there is an ever-present forward movement. “Everything that we do here is about providing information to anyone who needs it,” said Siegel. “Our scientists who are out there in the forefront and publishing have the library behind them to get needed information.”

The library was recently named one of the newest contributors to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, an open-access, digitized collaboration of leading garden and scientific libraries nationwide. The move allows the Chicago Botanic Garden to share digitized materials unique to its collection with the broader research community. Together with other contributing institutions, the Garden is “trying to make biodiversity literature available for everyone around the world, especially in places where they do not have physical libraries,” explained Siegel.

PHOTO: A view into the research and storage shelves at the Plant Conservation Science Center.

Research-specific collections reside in the Plant Science Center.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library collection is a resource long accessed by Garden scientists, in addition to a multitude of books, digitized journals, and databases available through the Lenhardt Library and Lenhardt Plant Science Library. The comprehensive resources allow scientists to dig deeply into subject matter; for example, accessing journal articles from the early days of a publication to the most recent edition. This is critical to their work, according to Siegel, who explained that current research must always reference early work on related material, and build upon subsequent research leading to current theories.

The library facility, which was founded by the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society in 1951, predates the physical structure in which it now sits, the Regenstein Center. The Lenhardt Plant Science Library is a research-specific facility in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. It is not open to the public, but is used by Garden scientists. 

One of Siegel’s favorite science books is Seeds: Ecology, Biogeography, and Evolution of Dormancy and Germination, which is housed in the Lenhardt Plant Science Library.

PHOTO: Leora Siegel.

Leora Siegel directs the Garden’s libraries.

Siegel has been managing this tremendous resource for more than ten years. To her, it was a natural path from her childhood in New York where her love of plants began. She went on to pursue advanced degrees in biology and library science. “My worlds align in working here,” she reflected. “This is a great institution.”

Perhaps one of her favorite elements is the Rare Book Collection, which can be seen during special tours. “It’s just magical to touch a book from 1483,” she noted. “Sharing it with someone is just a pleasure.” The Rare Book Collection includes original materials published by Carolus Linnaeaus, who changed the way we understand the natural world, and who established binomial nomenclature. A bronze statue of Linnaeus anchors the Heritage Garden near the Regenstein Center.

In summer, Siegel often passes by the statue on her way to her favorite display garden—Evening Island. On cooler days, she enriches her day with a walk through the Greenhouses.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Pioneering Woodland Restoration

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  May 10, 2014 — 1 Comment

Tranquil, peaceful, and serene are words often associated with the McDonald Woods, which wrap around the northeastern edge of the Chicago Botanic Garden. But to Jim Steffen, senior ecologist at the Garden, the oak woodland is a bustling center for natural processes and species, and may hold answers to unsolved scientific questions.

PHOTO: Multi-flowered milkweed blooms.

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) blooms in the McDonald Woods.

“Nothing out there exists by itself. It’s all a network,” said Steffen. Since he arrived at the Garden 25 years ago, he has used his powers of observation to document, study, and breathe life into the systems that sustain a healthy woodland.

In the late 1800s, most area native oaks were cleared for settlement, leaving behind a fragmented and altered landscape. Invasive plants, including buckthorn and nonnative critters, such as all of our present-day earthworms, moved in. The climate began to change. While many may have thrown up their hands and walked away from this complex puzzle, Steffen saw a treasure.

Taking Flight

At age 15, he began to explore the natural world in earnest and to grow the insight that guides him today. After taking a course in his community, he was federally licensed to band birds for research, a pursuit he followed for another 40 years. As he searched for hawks, owls, and other birds of prey, Steffen couldn’t help but notice the activity beneath his feet. Among the fallen leaves were scuttling rodents, insects, and blooming plants. He realized their presence was integral to the entire community of life in the woods.

PHOTO: A clump of blooming sedge grass.

Carex bromoides is one of many sedge plants essential to the woodland ecosystem.

“I started getting more into how those things are related rather than just narrowly focusing on the birds or the plants,” he said.

Steffen developed a broad ecological background as he pursued his education and worked toward a career in conservation science. He was hired to manage 11 acres of woods alongside a nature trail at the Garden. Now, that management responsibility includes more than 100 acres.

Master Plan

Although he does not expect to recreate the exact natural community of the past, Steffen does aim to grow an oak woodland of today. “My goal is to increase the native species diversity and improve the ecological functioning that is going on in the Woods,” he said.

Early in his career, he successfully advocated to expand the managed area to include adjacent acres. His management activities and detailed inventory work has grown the number of species there from 223 to 405. Of those species, 345 are native to the region.

PHOTO: The woods in winter, showing both cleared, walkable woods and unpassable buckthorn-infested area.

Invasive buckthorn plants are interspersed among the trees on the right, while they have been removed on the left.

The leaf canopy of the second-growth woodland was nearly 100 percent sealed when he arrived. It is now more open, allowing sunlight to punctuate the ground—encouraging the reproduction of oak species and promoting the flowering and seed-set of the native grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. The rewards of his work? Less carbon being released from the soil, improved water retention and nutrient cycling, and a place to bolster native species of plants and animals.

PHOTO: Jim Steffen in full protective gear including helmet and goggles, up in a tree with a chainsaw.

Jim Steffen begins to remove an ash tree infested with the invasive emerald ash borer insect.

Each season brings new challenges. This winter, Steffen, his crew, and hired contractors carefully removed nearly 600 ash trees killed by emerald ash borers, cleared three acres of mature buckthorn, and conducted a six- to seven-acre controlled burn.

“It’s a difficult thing to do,” he said of oak woodland management. Steffen is grateful for each helping hand. “I’d say I’d be about ten years behind if it hadn’t been for my dedicated volunteers who help with the physically demanding work.”

Springing Into Action

This spring, Steffen and his team will begin to collect seed from more than 120 native plants they nurture in the Garden nursery and from dozens more in the woodland.

The process continues through November. It includes plants like the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), which was once common in Glencoe’s natural areas.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Native woodland plants are grown for seed in the Garden nursery.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Berries are collected for seeding.

Steffen also collects seed from external natural areas, bringing new genetic diversity into the Woods to strengthen existing plant populations. (This is an increasingly challenging task, as 50 percent of his collection sites has been lost.) Collected seeds are scattered in prepared areas of McDonald Woods, either in the spring or fall, or sometimes in the middle of winter on top of the snow.

Groundwork

“Everything you see growing, walking, or flying in the woodland is just 10 percent of the picture. In any native ecosystem, probably 90 percent of the diversity is at and below the soil surface,” he said. An entire network of plants and other living organisms exist and interact there, helping to sustain what grows above them. Oak trees and most other native plants rely on entrenched fungi, for example, to deliver nutrients and water or protect them from herbivores and disease.

PHOTO: Closeup of a tiny brown spider clinging to the back side of a leaf.

This tiny Pisaurina spider helps support the woodland ecosystem.

Microarthropods living in the leaf litter and soil, such as tiny springtails and mites, and larger organisms including spiders, also play important roles. Together with a volunteer, Steffen has dedicated 14 years of work to better understanding those interactions. They have found several species never found before in Illinois and some that even appear to be new to science. “We are still identifying some of the things we collected ten years ago,” Steffen said. And similar, rarely studied subcommunities exist higher up in the trees. “That’s another hint as to how complex the system is and how much we don’t know about it,” he added.

Some things are clear. A pioneer of oak woodland restoration, Steffen was among the first to notice that the natural layer of decomposing oak leaves and plant material was vanishing from the ground in the McDonald Woods and most other woodlands in the region. He attributes the effect to higher levels of nitrogen from the decomposing leaves of nonnative plants, and the presence of exotic, invasive earthworms. “Because so many organisms live in that layer and depend on it for survival, they are disappearing,” he cautioned.

But first, it is time to take in the rewards of winter. May is peak season for migrating birds in the Woods, including warblers and flycatchers. Sedges will bloom, along with spring ephemerals such as trillium.

PHOTO: A spare woods has dappled sunlight throughout.

The lush woodland landscape is healthy today.

Activity is everywhere, and it is a welcome sign of progress for Steffen. “It’s much healthier now than it was when I started,” he said. “All this diversity is able to function more easily now.”

The McDonald Woods are also an educational resource. Steffen will lead a rare off-trail hike there this year, and teach classes in bird watching and sedges through the Garden’s Adult Education programs.

Learn more about Jim Steffen and watch a video about his work.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org