Archives For Julianne Beck

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

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