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Rooting for Native Plants

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

Competition is heating up in the western United States. Invasive and native plants are racing to claim available land and resources. Alicia Foxx, who studies the interplay of roots of native and invasive plants, is glued to the action. The results of this contest, says the plant biology and conservation doctoral student at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, could be difficult to reverse.  

Cheatgrass, which is an aggressive, invasive plant with a dense root system, is in the lead and spreading quickly across the west. Native plants are falling in its wake—especially when it comes to their delicate seedlings that lead to new generations.

Foxx is one of the scientists working to give native plants a leg (or root) up. She hypothesizes that a carefully assembled team of native plant seedlings with just the right root traits may be able to work together to outpace their competition.

PHOTO: Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in Southeastern Utah.

Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in southeastern Utah.

“We often evaluate plants for the way they look above ground, but I think we have to look below ground as well,” she said. Foxx’s master thesis focused on a native grass known as squirreltail, and her hypothesis addressed the idea that the more robust the root system was in a native grass, the better it was at competing with cheatgrass. Now, “I’m looking more at how native plants behave in a community, as opposed to evaluating them one by one… How they interact with one another and how that might influence their performance or establishment in the Colorado plateau.”

In the desert climate, human-related disturbances such as mining, gas exploration, livestock trampling, or unnaturally frequent fires have killed off native plants and left barren patches of land behind that are susceptible to the arrival of cheatgrass.

PHOTO: Seedlings in the growth chamber.

Seedlings in the growth chamber

“Some of our activities are exacerbating the conditions [that are favorable for invasive plants]. We need to make sure that we have forage for the wildlife and the plants themselves, because they are important to us for different reasons, including the prevention of mudslides,” she said. “We are definitely confronted with a changing climate and it would be really difficult for us to reverse any damage we have caused, so we’re trying to shift the plant community so it can be here in 50 years.”

Garden conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. advises Foxx, and her mentorship has allowed Foxx to see how science theories created in a laboratory become real-life solutions in the field. “I think I’m very fortunate to work with Andrea, who works very closely with the Bureau of Land Management…it’s really nice to see that this gets replicated out in the world,” said Foxx. Seeds from their joint collecting trip in 2012 have been added to the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Alicia Foxx loves to walk through the English Walled Garden when she steps away from her work.

In a way, Foxx is also learning from the invasive plants themselves. To develop her hypothesis, she considered the qualities of the invasive plants; those that succeeded had roots that are highly competitive for resources. After securing seeds from multiple sources, she is now working in the Garden’s greenhouse and the Population Biology Laboratory to grow native plants that may be up to the challenge. She is growing the seedlings in three different categories: a single plant, a group of the same species together, and a group of species that look different (such as a grass and a wildflower). In total, there will be 600 tubes holding plants. She will then evaluate their ability to establish themselves in a location and to survive over time.

PHOTO: Seedlings: on the right is a sunflower (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii).

On the right: a sunflower seedling (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii)

There has been very little research on plant roots, but Foxx said the traits of roots, such as how fibrous they are, their length, or the number of hair-like branches they form, tell us a lot about how they function.

“I’m hoping that looking at some of these root traits and looking at how these plants interact with one another will reveal something new or solidify some of the theories,” said Foxx.

She aims to have what she learns about the ecology of roots benefit restorations in the western United States. It is possible that her findings will shape thoughts in other regions as well, such as the prairies of the Midwest. Future research using the seeds Foxx collected could contribute to the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, of which the Garden is a key resource for research and seeds for future restoration needs.

The Chicago native has come a long way since she first discovered her love of botany during high school. After completing her research and her Ph.D., she hopes to nurture future scientists and citizen scientists through her ongoing work, and help them make the connections that can lead to a love of plants.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Under a grey fall sky, the English Walled Garden was blooming with color, activity, and life. Rain-glazed flowers drew tiny hummingbirds, and fountains sang. It was a special day. John Brookes, the English landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens was there for a visit, something that has happened only once every few years since the beloved site was dedicated in the summer of 1991.

PHOTO: Clematis bloom through a wall in May in the English Walled Garden.

Clematis blooms through a wall in May in the English Walled Garden.

Although the garden has grown and changed since that time, it has remained true to the original concept Brookes created. “There’s an intimacy about it that I think people like,” said Brookes, who strolled the space with a small team of Garden staff members. “I don’t think there’s another area that has this range of plant material in it,” he added.

Before entering the garden, Brookes paused to soak in the entrance plantings along the west wall, evaluating the shape, color, and size of each shrub, flower, and vine. The vibrant section had been replanted since his last visit, but he nodded as if in agreement as he swept his eyes over the arrangement.

He was next drawn to the perimeter of the garden that overlooks the Great Basin. The border of the space and the height and shape of trees and shrubs were his first priorities there and throughout his tour. Neatness was fundamental in his view, as he looked for carefully arranged edging such as boxwood bushes. However, in places such as the daisy garden, he encouraged the horticulturists to allow for wild messiness, and for tall, abundant blooms that create a relaxed feeling.

As he walked from one garden room to the next, he admired splashes of color and white flowers that brought a light touch to the many deep green plantings and shady areas. He looked over the shoulders of a cluster of art students who were painting their own vision of the space, and nodded with approval.

PHOTO: Sunlight shining through apples in spring bloom create dappled shade over foxglove in the English Walled Garden.

Sunlight shining through apples in spring bloom creates dappled shade over foxglove in the English Walled Garden.

PHOTO: The yellow blooms of Magnolia 'Elizabeth' are a beacon of spring in the English Walled Garden each year.

The yellow blooms of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ are a beacon of spring in the English Walled Garden each year.

PHOTO: Blooming through late fall, the morning glory vines captivate visitors to the English Walled Garden.

Blooming through late fall, the morning glory vines captivate visitors to the English Walled Garden.

PHOTO: Preparing to bloom, morning glory vine creeps up the wisteria arbors of the English Walled Garden in midsummer.

Preparing to bloom, morning glory vine creeps up the wisteria arbors of the English Walled Garden in midsummer.

Again and again, he paused, considered, discussed, and nodded, occasionally spotting a new addition to the garden, or the absence of a plant that had once lived there. Always, he was looking for brightness in the form of blue, yellow, and white flowers, silvery accents, and varied vines against red brick walls. Sitting beside a trickling fountain, he noted the importance of the many water features. “It brings it alive,” he said. Water “brings light down into the garden because you get a reflection. It’s the sound, really,” he added.

PHOTO: John Brookes, the landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens known as the English Walled Garden.

John Brookes, the landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens known as the English Walled Garden.

Returning to the perimeter of the garden, he stopped to take in the view from beneath an English oak that was planted by Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret in 1986, when ground was broken for the garden.

Brookes’ design was inspired by several gardens in England, including the gardens of Russell Page and the Great Dixter gardens.

Returning to the tour, Brookes and the team of Garden staff anticipated the arrival of mums and asters in the coming days. Like a proud parent, Brookes said that the garden has “just grown and matured,” since it was first planted. “It feels like a real garden more than a show garden.”

A brightly colored butterfly swept by as if to say “thank you,” while a photographer snapped a photo of a hummingbird and several women in wide-brimmed hats gathered on benches to chat. A vision come to life.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The National Parks provide dream vacations for us nature lovers, but did you know they also serve as vital locations for forward-thinking conservation research by Chicago Botanic Garden scientists?

From sand to sea, the parks are a celebration of America’s diversity of plants, animals, and fungi, according to the Garden’s Chief Scientist Greg Mueller, Ph.D., who has worked in several parks throughout his career.

“National Parks were usually selected because they are areas of important biodiversity,” Dr. Mueller explained, “and they’ve been appropriately managed and looked after for up to 100 years. Often times they are the best place to do our work.”

As we celebrate this centennial year, he and his colleagues share recent and favorite work experiences with the parks.

PHOTO: Dr. Greg Mueller in the field.

Dr. Greg Mueller working at Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas, in 2007.

Take a glimpse into the wilderness from their eyes.

This summer, Mueller made a routine visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to examine the impact of pollution and other human-caused disturbances on the sensitive mushroom species and communities associated with trees. “One of the foci of our whole research program (at the Garden) is looking at that juxtaposition of humans and nature and how that can coexist. The Dunes National Lakeshore is just a great place to do that,” he explained, as it is unusually close to roads and industry.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., adjunct conservation scientist, relied on her fieldwork in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study one of only two known populations of Lepidospartum burgessii, a rare gypsophile shrub, during a postdoctoral research appointment at the Garden. “We were able to work with park staff to study the species and make recommendations for management,” she said.

PHOTO: Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work.

Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work. Photo by Adrienne Basey.

As a Conservation Land Management intern, Coleman Minney surveyed for the federally endangered Ptilimnium nodosum at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park earlier this year. “The continued monitoring of this plant is important because its habitat is very susceptible to invasion from non-native plants,” explained Minney, who found the first natural population of the species on the main stem of the Potomac River in 20 years.

PHOTO: Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum).

Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum) grows on scour bars of rivers and streams. Photo by Coleman Minney.

According to conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., “In many cases, National Parks provide the best and most intact examples of native plant communities in the country, and by studying them we can learn more about how to restore damaged or destroyed plant communities to support the people and wildlife that depend upon them.”

The parks have been a critical site for her work throughout her career. Initially, “I relied on the parks as sites for fieldwork on how wildflowers adapt to their local environment.”

Today, she is evaluating the results of restoration at sites in the Colorado Plateau by looking at data provided by collaborators. Her data covers areas that include Grand Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Along with colleague Nora Talkington, a recent master’s degree graduate from the Garden’s program in plant biology and conservation who is now a botanist for the Navajo Nation, Dr. Kramer expects the results will inform future restoration work.

PHOTO: Dr. Andrea Kramer at Arches National Park.

Dr. Kramer collects material from Arches National Park as a part of her dissertation research in 2003.

At Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Natalie Balkam, a Conservation Land Management intern, has been hard at work collecting data on vegetation in the park and learning more about the intersection of people, science, and nature. “My time with the National Park Service has exposed me to the vastly interesting and complex mechanics of preserving and protecting a natural space,” she said. “And I get to work in one of the most beautiful places in the world—Alaska!”

PHOTO: The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska.

The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The benefits of conducting research with the National Parks extend beyond the ability to gather high-quality information, said Mueller. Parks retain records of research underway by others and facilitate collaborations between scientists. They may also provide previous research records to enhance a specific project. Their connections to research are tight. But nothing is as important as their ability to connect people with nature, said Mueller. “That need for experiencing nature, experiencing wilderness is something that’s critical for humankind.”

For research and recreation, we look forward to the next 100 years.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Reforestation from the Ground Up

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  August 3, 2016 — 1 Comment

Experts in reforestation are concerned with the reasons why some replanted sites struggle. They suspect the problem may be solved through soil science.

The health of a forest is rooted in soil and the diverse fungi living within it, according to researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Northwestern University, and collaborators at China’s Central South University of Forestry and Technology.

In densely populated places such as the Chicago area and Changsha, the capitol of the Hunan province, ongoing development and urban expansion frequently lead to the deforestation of native natural areas.

Collaborators tour a study site in China.

Research collaborators tour a study site in China.

“There has been a lot of deforestation in China and so there is interest in knowing how best to do reforestation, whether we’re using native plants or introduced plants in plantation settings,” explained Greg Mueller, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Garden. “Understanding who the players are both above ground and below ground helps us understand the health and sustainability of that above-ground plant community,” he added. “It’s analogous to restoration work being carried out here in the Midwest.” The climate, he explained, is similar in Changsha and Chicago.

A wide variety of fungi live in a symbiotic partnership with roots of trees everywhere. These fungi and trees are involved in a vital exchange of goods. The fungi deliver water and nutrients to the trees, and in return take sugars the trees produce during photosynthesis. Without this symbiotic relationship, the system would fail.

Not all tree species and fungi can team up for success, according to Dr. Mueller, who explained that it is essential for the partners to be correct if the tree is to survive. “The wrong fungi may actually be more pathogenic than beneficial,” he explained. Mueller is guiding research on this delicate soil-tree relationship as conducted by his doctoral student Chen Ning.

Ning is on leave from his position as a lecturer at Central South University of Forestry and Technology while he completes his studies with the Garden and Northwestern University. However, much of his work is taking place in China, where he has just completed the first phase of fieldwork.

After completing his master’s degree, Ning was keenly aware of the important role fungi play in the health of the natural world. He knew that he “wanted to ask some questions about the environment and how fungi influence the environment.” He added with a smile, “that’s why I chose to do some dirty work in the soil.”

IMG_2726

Chen Ning stands behind Dr. Greg Mueller and collaborating professors.

The bright scientist is using the latest technology available, next-generation sequencing, to examine the molecular composition of soil samples taken from locations where native or nonnative trees or both were replanted 30 or 40 years ago. Specifically, he is looking at the replanting of Mason pines, a native Chinese pine, and slash pine (Pinus ellitottii), a nonnative pine introduced to China from the tropical state of Florida.

Ning recently completed his first review of those samples, finding large numbers of fungi in each. In addition, he found that the three different habitats have very different fungal communities.

Mueller and Ning visited the university and collaborators in Changsha in February. Mueller was able to visit the sites Ning sampled during the first phase of research and see the setup for the second phase of research in the greenhouses. The level of disturbance in the natural areas was extensive, a point of interest for Mueller who said, “that again makes it interesting to look at some ecological questions about disturbance and how that impacts these systems.” The team also had time to discuss the importance of considering fungi in related research initiatives.

PHOTO: Dr. Greg Mueller and Chinese collaborators.

Taking a break for a selfie and some sightseeing

Next up, Ning will examine his greenhouse plantings that use soils taken from his different field sites to determine if the fungi community changes in response to what type of tree is planted. When that is complete at the end of this summer, Ning will look at the enzyme activity in the soil to determine if fungi are functioning differently in the three different plantings (native forest, native tree in plantation, exotic tree in plantation). The study is on a fast track with a targeted completion date in late 2017 and is expected to add new understandings to the biology of plant-fungal relationships while generating important information on reforesting disturbed sites in south-central China.

After completing his Ph.D., Ning hopes to work as a professor to inspire students in China to pursue similar research. He also aspires to serve as a bridge between the United States and China for new research collaborations on topics such as climate change in order to help figure out the ‘big picture’ in the future.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

As an active leader in international research collaborations, the Chicago Botanic Garden is participating in an initiative to set the stage for new partnerships.

Patrick Herendeen, Ph.D., senior director, systematics and evolutionary biology at the Garden, served as co-coordinator of “A Workshop to Explore Enhancing Collaboration Between U.S. and Chinese Researchers in Systematic Biology,” held in late February at the South China Botanical Garden in Guangzhou, China.

Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Natural Science Foundation of China, the workshop brought systemicists from both countries together to explore research techniques and opportunities. (Systematics is the branch of biology that aims to understand the diversity of life and relationships among different groups of organisms, and spans subjects from plants and fungi to primates and viruses.)

Patrick Herendeen leads a discussion among systemisists from various fields

Patrick Herendeen leads a discussion among systemisists from various fields.

“People bring different expertise to a research project, and people with different areas of expertise ask different questions or think about things differently,” explained Dr. Herendeen.

Greg Mueller, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Garden, also attended and spoke at the workshop. “There is an ongoing and increased interest in collaboration,” he said. “Chinese science is very mature…and China would be a great international collaborator.” In his presentation, Dr. Mueller addressed his experiences with international collaborations and offered advice to attendees.

Collaboration is key to scientific research. Diverse questions require multifaceted solutions. Often these approaches are best identified and pursued by a team of individuals with unique specialties, who at times may just happen to be sitting on opposite coasts of an ocean.

More than 60 scientists—about half from the United States and half from China—participated in two days of lectures, panels, and small group discussions. Speakers included Garden postdoctoral researcher, Fabiany Herrera, Ph.D., who discussed data and collections. Dr. Hererra works with his academic adviser, Herendeen, on a research initiative with partners in Japan, China, and Mongolia, in which they are studying plant fossils from the Early Cretaceous period.

Also in attendance was Chen Ning, a Ph.D. student in the joint degree program at the Garden and Northwestern University. Under the guidance of his adviser, Mueller, Dr. Ning is studying fungal communities in native pine forests and exotic pine plantations in south-central China.

Garden researchers Fabiany Herrera, Patrick Herendeen, Greg Mueller, and Chen Ning

Garden researchers Fabiany Herrera, Patrick Herendeen, Greg Mueller, and Chen Ning in the field in China.

One of the greatest takeaways of the conference, according to Mueller and Herendeen, was the opportunity for attendees to learn about the many similarities between the education and research systems in both countries. “We had very good discussions and everyone was very open about talking about how research works and the kinds of motivations that people have in the United States and China,” said Herendeen. “I think one of the things that surprised people were the similarities of the two programs. The systems are similar enough that it is possible to figure out how to do those collaborations,” added Mueller.

Workshop attendees also had an opportunity to participate in field trips to rural areas of Guangdong Province including Dinghushan and Heishiding Nature Reserve. They visited high-quality forested areas to discuss restoration work, seed banking, and related topics.

The workshop “gave everyone a chance to meet a lot of new people and talk about possible collaborations, and there were a number of new or potential new collaborative pairings or groups that formed as a result,” said Herendeen, who looks forward to continued—and new—collaborations.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org