Archives For Julianne Beck

Powering Up the Prairie

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  July 26, 2017 — Leave a comment

Home gardeners can sympathize: not every seed that is planted grows.

This truth extends to restored prairies that are grown from seed mixes, according to Rebecca Barak, Ph.D., who completed research this year examining the success of individual species within seed mixes, and their combined potential to power up to the diversity level found in remnant prairies. 

A healthy, diverse prairie

A healthy, diverse prairie

Urban and agricultural development has left us with less than one-tenth of one percent of prairieland, which is vital part of our ecosystem. Today, the prairie can be found only in small patches, and scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden study prairie plants and their chance for survival amid changing climates and landscapes. For Dr. Barak, a key question is what restored plant communities will look like. 

Restored prairies can and do grow in all kinds of places, according to Barak, who conducted fieldwork at dozens of sites within an hour or two of Chicago. From a small playfield behind a nature center to the grounds of a temple to a large swath of acreage in the suburbs, she and her team visited each restored prairie site to compare the plant communities to the mix of seeds that were planted there initially. 

“I studied that on the ground—how do prairies differ, how do seed mixes become prairies, and how can we tweak those seed mixes to improve diversity outcomes for restored prairies,” explained Barak, who recently earned her doctoral degree from the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University and is now a post-doctoral researcher in a joint appointment between the Garden and Michigan State University.

To conduct her fieldwork, she outlined a 50-meter-long transect in each study prairie, and marked off a large circle every 5 meters along the way. Within the circle, she and her collaborators counted all the plant species they could find. They compared those notes to a walk-through of each site months later as bloom cycles changed.

A native of the Chicago suburbs, Barak made unofficial discoveries that warmed her prairie-loving heart.

Dr. Becky Barak

“I’ve lived here almost all my life and there were all these preserves that I didn’t know about,” she said. Small corners of the city were transformed into lush green spaces, such as the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. Suburban sites such as Orland Grassland were larger and more delightful each season than she anticipated.

After summer months spent documenting and counting, she compared the list of existing plants to the list of seeds that were planted from the original seed mix. She found that less than 50 percent of the species diversity survived from seed to plant. “A lot of species are lost along the way,” she noted.

The plant mix within the restored prairies was then compared to historical data from 41 remnant prairies across Illinois—sites that had never been altered for other purposes. In addition to her findings about the success rate of seeds planted in restored prairies, “I found that species in restored prairies are more closely related to one another than species in remnant prairies,” said Barak.

The David H. Smith Conservation Fellow is not only tuned in to the number of species found in each prairie, but also to how well they represent a variety of evolutionary threads. “We think about how spread out plants in the prairie are across the evolutionary tree of life. Maybe, if you are getting more branches on the tree, your community will function better, or differently,” she noted.

“When we look at remnant and restored prairies, we find that there are differences in biodiversity and there are opportunities to increase diversity of restored prairies. In order to do that we have to think about the seed mixes that are being used,” she added.

In doing so, Barak anticipates that a higher level of diversity will support more functions like serving as habitat for pollinators.

Her detailed findings will be published this August in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia)

Spiderwort (Tradescantia)

In addition to the benefits of prairies—such as storing rainwater and carbon dioxide—they also provide opportunities we can all enjoy each time we visit, said the scientist and former teacher. “I think it’s about more than that [the ecological benefits]—it’s about teaching people our natural heritage, thinking about habitats that are unique and special to our area, getting people to notice biodiversity, and recognizing that it can even happen in the city or suburbs.” 


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On a walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, you are likely to encounter dozens of woody plants—short, tall, flowering, or simply lending structural beauty to a landscape. It’s OK to have a favorite. Phillip Douglas, the Garden’s new curator of woody plants, is not shy about listing his top picks.

Spending his first summer in Glencoe, Douglas is especially taken with the variety of oaks at the Garden. The horticulturist points out the deep purple leaves on the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’) in the meadow east of the English Walled Garden, and the cutleaf emperor oak (Quercus dentata var. pinnatifida) growing near the road south of the Regenstein Learning Campus.

English oak (Quercus robur 'Purpurascens')

The deep purple leaves of the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’)

He favors the narrow, upright Regal Prince oak (Quercus × warei ‘Long’)—in the rainwater glen on the southeast corner of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center—for smaller landscapes. He describes Regal Prince as a hybrid oak that is columnar in shape. Along with a similar hybrid, Kindred Spirit (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’), it is readily available in nurseries. “The big push in the industry now is hybrid oaks that are fastigiate (column-like) trees,” he explained. “If someone would like an upright oak in a home landscape, either is a good option to consider.”

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus x warei 'Nadler')

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’). Photo by Joshnadler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Douglas credits his fascination with the oak species as his entry point into the field of horticulture. During an internship at the Boone County Arboretum in Kentucky, “I started getting interested in oaks, started collecting oaks for my house, and the obsession grew from there,” he said. The outdoors has always been a part of his life, from growing up in Kentucky close to water and woods, to his years as a Marine. His transition into horticulture felt natural, he said.

Douglas is eager to share his knowledge with Garden visitors and to help build the woody plants collection.

“Woody plants fulfill such a role for us and for the environment,” he said. “They provide so much for us, and they really fulfill an important niche in our landscapes.” The benefits of such plants include providing shade, reducing storm water runoff, and providing habitat for animals and insects.

“Oak is an incredibly enormous, diverse genus,” Douglas said. “There are about 500 species that grow all over the world. You can have anything from a very small shrub to large trees that can be thousands of years old.”

Among his first projects are the development of the oak and willow collections, and a review of all such plants already on-site.

Douglas will also be helping to organize trips to collect plants in the wild with Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Garden and director of plant collections. Collecting trips are planned for the summer and then fall to domestic and international locations with similar growing climates to Chicago.

“Both his passion and previous collecting experiences will be immediately useful in two collecting trips Phil is helping coordinate to Kentucky and Tennessee and Azerbaijan,” said Bunting, who was delighted to welcome Douglas to his team in April. “Phil Douglas has been a wonderful addition to the collections teams at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  He brings extensive woody plant knowledge to the Garden, especially with the genera Magnolia, Quercus, and Populus.”

The Chicago Botanic Garden's new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

The Garden’s new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

Back in his office in the Horticulture Building, Douglas is surrounded by plans for the near future. On the desk sit outlines for wild-collecting trips. Just outside of his window, construction continues on a new garden. His first months in Glencoe have been both overwhelming and energizing. “I like the variety of the things that I get to do, and I’m excited to help develop the collections and to add to the Garden,” he said.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What is old is new again.

The dinosaur of the plant kingdom, a Wollemia pine tree (Wollemia nobilis), has surprised horticulturists at the Chicago Botanic Garden with a burst of promising male and female cones this winter.

In Glencoe, the sole tree spends its winters in the carefully controlled environment of the production greenhouse. In the wild, its relatives are clinging to life on remote sandstone gorges in the Blue Mountains of Australia.

“It is probably the most watched plant in the Garden right now,” said Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation. Little is known about the prehistoric species that is part of a genus dating back 65 million years. The Garden’s specimen is a youthful 8 years old, and is just beginning to show off its unusual characteristics.

“In this case, there is such little information in the literature,” noted Tankersley, who was amazed to see both male and female cones emerging from the tree’s branches earlier this year. “We don’t know enough about this plant to know if it is going to set seed…but at least it is producing cones, which will allow us to try some experiments,” he said. The tree has grown male cones in recent years, but this is the first year it has produced any female cones.

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis female cone.

Wollemia nobilis female cone

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis male cone.

Wollemia nobilis male cone

Scientists do know that the species that has managed to survive the test of time possesses some unusual adaptations. It can generate new seedlings by dropping specific branches that take root, or it can exchange pollen from male to female cones to generate seed.  

At the Garden, scientists plan to pollinate the tree when the time is right. They will use pollen from the tree itself, and if available, pollen from a tree at another botanic garden. They will also reserve pollen for a potential future exchange.

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis in the Heritage Garden in summer.

Find Wollemia nobilis in the Heritage Garden in the summer months.

Trees in the wild population are believed to be closely related to one another. As a result, any seeds they produce have a low level of viability. Only 6 percent or fewer go on to become healthy, mature trees. The species is listed as critically endangered. The urgency to save the pines is accelerated by changes in climate. Their mountain home is experiencing increasingly hotter and drier weather than ever before.

According to Tankersley, there is hope that more diversity may be found within the propagated plants, and that their offspring could lead to a stronger future for the species. However, scientists are only mildly optimistic. “In a world where there is so much that we can’t do anything about, it’s good to have something where you can participate in efforts to keep something from going extinct,” he said. “This plant is not gone; there’s something we might be able to do to help it out.” In addition, the plant may inform the research of paleobotanists who rarely have the opportunity to see a live plant with such historic roots to compare against the fossil record. “In a scientific way, we’ve been looking at the earth in a relatively short period of time,” added Tankersley. “When we find something like this that is very uncommon, everything about it is unknown…it’s sort of a miniature warehouse that we don’t want to lose because in the future, it may be more important than a mere botanical curiosity.”

The horticultural team also takes the cone production as validation that they are meeting the plant’s very particular growing requirements.

The Garden’s Wollemia pine spends its summers in the Australia bed of the Heritage Garden. Tankersley anticipates that it will be back on display this June.

As for the voyage of discovery with this extraordinary plant, he says, it is to be continued…


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Studying Fungi Amid the Ghost Orchids

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  January 24, 2017 — 1 Comment

Just like magic, a ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) appears overhead in a Florida swamp. Its pale roots extend like gloved fingers across the bark of a pond apple tree (Annona glabra), while its graceful flower reflects onto the shadowed water below.

Epiphytic ghost orchid roots cling to pond apple tree. Photo @ Lynnaun Johnson

Epiphytic ghost orchid roots cling to a pond apple tree. Photo @ Lynnaun Johnson

Doctoral student Lynnaun Johnson wades over for a closer look. Habitat is shrinking for this reclusive orchid, and he is using a unique approach to better understand the species’ uncommon lifestyle.

During March 2016 fieldwork in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Johnson went deeper every day—even when it meant paddling his canoe within 10 feet of a sunstruck alligator to reach the widely dispersed plants. Each time he located an orchid, he looked past the plant and took a sample from the bark of its host tree.

“What I’m interested in primarily is identifying the fungi within the habitat of these particular orchids,” said Johnson. “If you are going to place a ghost orchid out in nature and it can’t acquire nutrients or it doesn’t form the right associations with mycorrhizal fungi, it’s not going to survive,” he explained. “If these trees have a particular suite of fungi, that might be something that we need to consider in terms of a healthy population.”

Species within the orchid family are generally known to depend on fungi to help them through key stages of life, such as growing from a seed into a seedling. But there are differences in how those partnerships work. When an orchid lives in soil, the fungi help move water and nutrients to and from the roots. But when the orchid lives on a tree, scientists are less certain of what occurs.

Lynnaun Johnson wades toward a ghost orchid.

Lynnaun Johnson wades toward a ghost orchid.

Until recently, they believed that orchids growing on trees were less likely to depend on fungi long term. This belief was encouraged by the discovery that the prominent roots of plants like the ghost orchid actually conduct photosynthesis—a process in which sunlight becomes sugar. That process is managed by leaves in many other orchid species. If the roots are so full of nutrients, do they really need any help from fungi?

A ghost orchid grows in the wild. Photo © Rebecca Weil.

A ghost orchid grows in the wild. Photo © Rebecca Weil.

They sure do, said Johnson and his collaborators, who examined the roots of another tree-bound orchid species, the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia). Using modern technology called high-throughput sequencing that can produce more detailed results than ever before, they found that epiphytic orchids—those that grow on trees—also rely on fungi to carry out essential functions. “We know the importance of photosynthesis, but that doesn’t mean if a plant is photosynthesizing it’s healthy. It means it will continue to rely on fungi to grow and develop,” said Johnson. He recently documented the presence of fungi in the roots of ghost orchid root samples from his field work.

Back in the field, Johnson wondered if the type of fungi present on certain tree species is what led the ghost orchids to select them as their home over other trees. In the Florida refuge, the orchids are found only on pond apple and pop ash trees (Fraxinus caroliniana). So during his fieldwork, he sampled both types of trees, some with and some without orchids. As a point of comparison, he also sampled the bark of bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum). He plans to conduct more fieldwork this spring before examining the bark for fungi.

The number of ghost orchids in Florida has dwindled as more and more swamps have been drained to build new housing complexes to accommodate a growing population. There have also been times when the trees in the swamps were logged.

Lynnaun Johnson samples bark.

Lynnaun Johnson samples bark.

Johnson will later examine the roots of other orchid species that neighbor the ghost orchids on trees. This will further clarify the importance of fungi to the ghost orchid, which he suspects relies on the fungi more than neighboring orchid species. He also has his eye on a population of orchids growing naturally in Cuba on a larger number of trees that he hopes to study as well.

Johnson aims to help people understand that there is more than a one-to-one relationship in nature, and that multiple partnerships contribute to the health of each species and system. For example, “if we understand the significance of host trees, then we can preserve both the host trees and epiphytic orchids at the same time,” he said.

Orchids may become a lifelong pursuit for Johnson, who moved to Illinois from his childhood home on the island of St. Lucia to pursue his studies. He hopes to specialize in the study of fungi as it relates to plants and the conservation of wild lands and waters.

Read more about orchid research at the Garden, and be sure to visit the Orchid Show, open February 11 through March 26, 2016.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

There are heirloom seeds from corn grown by Native Americans in Pennsylvania, and seeds from a marigold grown in the Andes for the spice of its leaves, along with some 4,500 other varieties in the collection of William Woys Weaver, Ph.D.

Hear William Woys Weaver in person at 1:30 p.m. on January 22. Register for his free lecture here.

PHOTO: William Woys Weaver

William Woys Weaver

Every heirloom plant seed grown for food has a story, according to Dr. Weaver. Where it came from, who it was grown by, and why it was grown all are pieces of that history. It has a past and a future. The food historian will share the story of these seeds, and of the collection his grandfather began in about 1932 that he now oversees, on Sunday, January 22, during Super Seed Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Weaver’s collection is housed in a seed room in a historic home in Pennsylvania. Built around 1805, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sits on a two-acre kitchen garden that Weaver and his collaborators task with growing and testing seeds from the collection. They employ an artisanal process, doing everything by hand. If the seeds look successful, they are moved on to a university or qualified farm to expand the process.

“People are beginning to realize these heirlooms, organically raised, are much more nutritionally rich than seeds grown commercially,” Weaver said. “We are right at the cusp of a lot of ideas.”

The Roughwood Seed Collection is now home to the largest privately held collection of its kind in the state. The collection is part of the Roughwood Seed Archive, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with a working board. Weaver and his team are making big plans to grow and customize their endeavor to better serve the demand from local chefs and the growing list of those who are tuned in to the origins of their food. “A collection like this is very important because this is a source of food locally and farmers can get seed from us. It has a value far beyond its monetary cost,” Weaver said.

PHOTO: Heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes—just one of the many heirlooms worth saving and sharing

Learn more with a class at our expanded Super Seed Weekend. Receive free parking with your paid class registration.

Start Your Own Kitchen Garden

Weaver encourages home kitchen gardeners to start small when growing heirloom seeds for food, and see where their talents are strongest. He suggests joining a seed exchange to gain access to a wide variety of options, but focusing on growing only what seems to do well and obtaining the rest of their produce from other growers.

Weaver hopes that people who participate in community gardens or seed exchanges enjoy the connectedness that comes with the process. “The seed exchanges and the seed networks help build a sense of community, so it’s very important from a social aspect, and also the heirlooms are good teaching tools for kids,” he said. It’s helpful to teach and learn about where our food comes from and what resources—including a grower’s time—go into each fruit or vegetable produced. When we understand those elements, Weaver said, we are more likely to appreciate each bite on our plate, and less likely to waste or toss edible food.

Weaver is eager to establish new systems and opportunities for the Roughwood Seed Collection in the very near future. The ambitious food advocate is also a professor and an author, with a new book on pickling that is due out in 2018, and a forthcoming update to his popular book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

Don’t miss the exciting conclusion of Super Seed Weekend. The Seed Swap begins at 3 p.m., right after Weaver’s 1:30 p.m. lecture, “Our Kitchen Garden for Culinary and Cultural Research: The Roughwood Seed Collection,” on Sunday, January 22.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org