Archives For Sophia Siskel

On March 3, we inaugurate World Wildlife Day, designated by the United Nations to raise awareness of wild animals and plants—from ivory to ebony—worldwide. This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the intrinsic value of all living things and remember that the well-being of humans is inextricably tied to the well-being of nature.

PHOTO: Two baby elephants playing on the savannah.

Elephants in the wild. Photo by Jonathan D. Sherman.

Botanic gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta protect live plants and animals and play an important role in conserving wildlife and wild places throughout our local communities, nationally, and worldwide. More than 200 million Americans each year visit gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta. This is more than all who attend NFL, NBA, and major league baseball games combined.1 From dolphins to snow leopards, kookaburras to monarchs, oaks to asters to mosses, the living collections visitors enjoy along our paths and through our windows engage and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Our institutions provide protection to many thousands of rare and endangered species, some of which now exist only in our care.  Our conservation biologists conduct important research and create practical, effective solutions to preserve wildlife and biodiversity throughout the world.  Our intensive preK through Ph.D. education and training programs for students of all backgrounds and abilities enable the next generation of scientists, teachers, and innovators to continue our work.

PHOTO: Closeup of wetlands flower, "shooting star."

Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star)

Garden, zoo, aquarium, and arboretum leaders also serve as leading international resources for biodiversity conservation policy, leading conservation commissions such as those facilitated by the United Nations, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the U.S. State Department, and Department of Interior. Together, and with other nongovernmental partners as well, we strive to implement the tenets of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, build and deliver comprehensive curriculum and education in science and climate change, and implement robust wildlife conservation programs.

March 3 was chosen as the day to inaugurate World Wildlife Day because it is the anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While CITES has not become a household acronym, 179 countries have signed on to this intergovernmental agreement to help ensure that what we buy—whether it be food, leather, musical instruments, timber, medicine, jewelry, or a vacation memento—has not cost a protected or endangered species its life.  More than 35,000 species of plants and animals are protected by CITES, and these species’ continuing survival, along with the habitats where they live, are critical to the web of life on which all life—our life—depends.

PHOTO: Closeup of an orb weaver spider.

An orb weaver spider ties off a corner of its web.

We, as leaders of the living collections organizations in Chicago, urge you to celebrate World Wildlife Day with us and to join our personal and institutional efforts to promote the importance of conserving plants and animals, and the healthy habitats on which all wildlife—and we—depend. By protecting wildlife, we can ensure that the diversity of life on our planet will endure. We also ensure that the pleasures and basic needs we derive from wildlife continue in the future. These include everything from food and shelter to clean air, water, protection from the effects of floods, droughts, and pollution, as well as the joy of the living world around us.

Please visit your local garden, zoo, aquarium, or arboretum to find out more about what we are doing to preserve wildlife and get involved. Show your support for World Wildlife Day by following @WildlifeDay on Twitter and “liking” the Facebook page.

Sophia Shaw Siskel
President and CEO, Chicago Botanic Garden

Ted Beattie, President and CEO, Shedd Aquarium
Kevin Bell, President and CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo
Gerard T. Donnelly, Ph.D, President and CEO, Morton Arboretum
Stuart D. Strahl, Ph.D, President and CEO, Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo)

[1] Association of Zoos and Aquariums

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

I’ve just touched down at home after five days in New Zealand at the 5th Global Botanic Gardens Congress; 329 delegates from botanic gardens and arboreta from 45 countries gathered together in Dunedin, New Zealand, to learn how to strengthen our horticulture displays and plant collections, education and visitor programs, and plant conservation science. Our Chicago Botanic Garden motto is “Save the Plants, Save the Planet,” and what an amazing experience it is to spend time with people—mostly brilliant plant scientists—who share this passion and mission, and who will travel from every corner of the globe to help realize it.

Here are two particularly good slides that show some of the big-picture goals presented by Peter Wyse Jackson, Ph.D., president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and chairman of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC).

Drivers of Biodiversity Loss by Peter Wyse Jackson.

Drivers of biodiversity loss by Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson

Grand challenges for botanic gardens by Peter Wyse Jackson.

Grand challenges for botanic gardens by Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson

I had the honor of representing our garden in Chicago four times throughout the Congress, organized by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI).  I presented at a symposium with colleagues from England, Austria, and Jordan about botanic gardens’ role in social change; chaired a panel of compelling speakers from Jordan, Mexico, Australia, and the U.S. who shared examples of how to engage communities in conservation; was challenged by the audience at an open forum with Stephen Blackmore, Ph.D. (Edinburgh), Dr. Tim Entwistle, Ph.D. (Melbourne), and Jack Hobbs (Auckland); and delivered a plenary address. If you want to see the range of topics and gardens represented, take a look at the BGCI Congress site; the Twitter comments #BGCI2013 also give highlights.

PHOTO: Group shot standing in front of ocean.

Kayri Havens-Young, Greg Mueller, and Sophia Siskel at Larnachs Castle, Otago, New Zealand

My Chicago Botanic Garden colleagues Greg Mueller, Ph.D., and Kayri Havens-Young, Ph.D., also attended and presented their work (and we had a lot of fun, too).

Being relatively new to the field of plant conservation, I set as one of my Congress goals the memorization of international conservation acronyms. To effectively make our way in any land we need to learn to speak the language!

PHOTO: Powerpoint slide

This is a PowerPoint slide of inside-baseball acronyms from one of the presentations.

So now, after writing down and decoding (i.e., asking the nice person next to me for help or drawing on the seemingly endless patience of my colleague Greg Mueller), the acronyms I heard, I am now semifluent (in that college French kind of way). Below, I offer a plant-conservation-centered sample of what I’ve learned—hopefully this primer will be helpful as you get involved in plant conservation. If you catch a mistake, please let me know!

A superb, professional explanation of UN environmental conventions, and how botanic gardens can support international goals (and more acronyms), may be found in the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation, 2nd edition.

CBD Convention on Biological Diversity
COP Conference of the Parties
SPB Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its 20 Aichi Targets, adopted by the COP to the CBD in Nagoya, Japan, 2010
GSPC Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, adopted by CBD at COP 2002
GPPC Global Partnership for Plant Conservation
CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
SBSTTA Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice
ABS Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing Procedures
GBO Global Biodiversity Outlook
NBSAPS National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans
NFP National Focal Point
UNCED United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio, 1992)
UNFCCC United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Rio, 1992, updated and strengthened by Kyoto Protocol, 2005)
MDG Millennium Development Goals (2000)
UNEP United Nations Environmental Programme
FAO Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
REDD Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries
REDD+ A Climate Change Mitigation Solution Related to REDD
IPBES Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
IUCN International Union for Conservation of Nature
SSC IUCN Species Survival Commission
TEEB The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity
GBIF Global Biodiversity Information Facility
GTI Global Taxonomic Initiative
ISPN International Sentinel Plant Network
IPEN International Plant Exchange Network
EOL Encyclopedia of Life
TDWG Taxonomic Database Working Group (Pronounced “tadwig”— this one is my favorite because even after the group changed its name to Biodiversity Information Standards, it kept TDWG as its acronym! Keeping us on our toes.)
MSBP Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
SOS Seeds of Success and also Save our Species (through IUCN)
CWR Crop Wild Relatives
GCDT Global Crop Diversity Trust
ENSCONET European Seed Conservation Network
NGO Non-Governmental Organization
APGA American Public Gardens Association
AZA Association of Zoos & Aquariums
BGCI Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BSA Botanical Society of America
ERA Ecological Restoration Alliance
GCA Garden Clubs of America
CPC Center for Plant Conservation
NSCA Natural Science Collections Alliance
PCA Plant Conservation Alliance
MIPN Midwest Invasive Plant Network
NIPP Northeastern Illinois Invasive Plant Partnerships
BLM Bureau of Land Management
NSF National Science Foundation
USFWS U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
LCC Landscape Conservation Cooperative
USDA NIFA United States Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture
PHOTO: Peony bush.

Peonies at Larnachs Castle, New Zealand—October!

PHOTO: Wild echium.

Echium along roadside in New Zealand

PHOTO: Rhododendron shrub.

Rhododendrons at Dunedin Botanic Garden, New Zealand

Chicago experienced its first autumn frost while we were away, but spring in the southern hemisphere was in full bloom. Enjoying the remarkable flowers and landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand only intensified our passion for plants and the joy of gardens and nature.

Thank you BGCI, colleagues, the Dunedin Botanic Garden (and Shane the amazing bus #3 driver) for your leadership, friendship, and hospitality. Until Geneva 2017!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

“Should we try to roll its tongue out?”

(Or, My Summer Vacation in New Mexico)

Sophia Siskel —  September 9, 2013 — 1 Comment
PHOTO: Sophia Siskel holds a hawkmoth caught at night while researchers look on.

Holding a toad-sized hawkmoth lured in by our sheet and black light.

O.K., I did know what a proboscis was before my trip to New Mexico last month. But learning how to uncoil a hawkmoth’s 3-inch nectar-sucking hollow tongue while trying to calm the toad-sized insect in my hand was the biology lesson of a lifetime. 

Thanks to Chicago Botanic Garden scientists Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., and Wes Glisson (who recently earned his master’s degree in plant conservation biology from the Garden/Northwestern University graduate program), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) New Mexico state botanist Mike Howard, I learned about hawkmoths, the plants they pollinate, and how to collect plant cuttings for scientific study. 

I also had the opportunity to meet and work beside two remarkable interns, Kate Wilkins and Elisabeth Ward, from our Conservation Land Management Internship Program (and enjoy a few absolutely perfect hours of exquisite silence in the desert at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains on the New Mexico/Texas border). 

PHOTO: Panorama of the New Mexican desert.

The exquisite silence and panorama of the New Mexican desert.

I had been asking around the Garden’s scientific staff to see whose fieldwork would fit with my summer schedule. Krissa was planning a trip to southern New Mexico to film an episode of Chris Martine’s great video web series Plants are Cool, Too. Krissa’s episode, which will air in October, highlights her work on long-distance pollinator movement, focusing on Oenothera harringtonii, an evening primrose endemic to southeastern Colorado and other closely related Oenothera species. The flowers of Oenothera harringtonii and many other evening primroses open soon after sunset and are pollinated primarily by hawkmoths. These moths feed on the nectar of Oenothera flowers, which they locate by the strong fragrance produced by the flowers. We commonly think of floral scent for its role in attracting pollinators, but it may also be used as a cue by floral and seed predators.

By studying the shape, smell, and color of Oenothera flowers, Krissa and her colleagues hope to determine what it is that attracts pollinators to these flowers. She can also determine how the plants “reward” their pollinators by studying nectar—how much flowers produce and how much sugar the nectar contains. And lastly, by collecting pollen grains from pollinators, Krissa can determine which plant species the pollinators rely on most, which brings me to catching hawkmoths and collecting pollen from their tongues.

PHOTO: Krissa gently rolls out the proboscis to show us just how long it is!

Krissa gently rolls out the proboscis to show us just how long it is!

The first night of our trip, we set out to find some hawkmoths. After visiting a couple of sites in the Organ Mountains, we found them. Above is a photograph of Dr. Krissa Skogen, Elisabeth Ward, and me holding the toad-sized moths we attracted to a blacklit white sheet held up on a PVC armature. 

After sunset, the hawkmoth uses its long hollow tongue to extract the nectar from deep down within the narrow mouth of the flower. The moth’s nightly journey often covers a distance as far as 20 miles. Krissa gently rolled out the tongue to show us just how long it is!

The next day, we set out early to collect Lepidospartum quamum for our colleague Evelyn Williams, Ph.D. Evelyn, a post-doctoral researcher, has been working with Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., Kayri Havens, Ph.D., and Mike Howard on this plant since 2012 in an attempt to figure out why it is threatened with extinction in this area of New Mexico. The plant grows in a unique environment—the gypsum salt flat.

PHOTO: Tagged plant cuttings in a small bowl.

Lepidospartum quamum cuttings, tagged and ready to be sent for propagation in our greenhouses.

Evelyn’s previous collecting trip this spring needed to be supplemented with new cuttings. We worked all day to collect the cuttings, which we sent back to the Garden for propagation in our production greenhouses, as well as samples for genotyping in the Garden’s Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory.

This important work, which ultimately aids seed growers, restoration practitioners, and government agencies to select appropriate plant materials to restore diverse plant and animal communities, was funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant as part of the Native Plant Conservation Initiative.

It’s a fact that most people are more attracted to animals than plants—and therefore more inclined to know their names and fight for their survival. Just compare the following two photographs—the Lepidospartum quamum specimen we were studying, and this lizard that darted by and immediately commanded our attention (yes, even botanists and plant-lovers are drawn to a cute face).

PHOTO: A desiccated Lepidospartum quamum plant.

What grabs your attention more? This plant …

PHOTO: A cute lizard.

…or this cute lizard?

But all life depends on plants and the healthy habitats on which they depend. When we think of fighting to save wildlife, let’s remember that wildlife includes plants! I am hopeful that by working with collaborations from gardens, zoos, government agencies, and other land-trust and conservation organizations, we can integrate plants into wildlife action plans both in the U.S. and abroad. I particularly like how this report by NatureServe summarizes this issue.

We can all point to moments in our life—when we’ve experienced something new or met someone special—when our understanding of life changes. My two days with these five scientists—at all phases of their careers—was one of these experiences I will never forget.

PHOTO: The New Mexico research team.

Thank you, Krissa, Kate, Mike, Elisabeth, and Wes!

One last note: Hawkmoths are essential to ecosystems from Venezuela to here in Chicago. My son and I watched one this afternoon drink from the hostas on our street! Below is one we filmed in the English Oak Meadow of the Chicago Botanic Garden last week.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Earlier this summer I stood on the rooftop of the McCormick Place convention center along Chicago’s lakefront and looked around. In front of me were vast rectangular trays of a monoculture of low yellow sedum and bare soil.

PHOTO: The roof of McCormick Place West planted with sedum

McCormick Place West planted with sedum

What I saw in my mind’s eye was bed after garden bed bursting with kale, collards, carrots, radishes, lettuces, peppers, beans, beets, tomatoes, and herbs. For in that space, as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s ongoing mission to promote sustainable gardening and to train Chicago residents for jobs in urban agriculture and green industries, we had just launched the largest farm-to-fork rooftop garden in the Midwest.

In partnership with SAVOR…Chicago, the food service provider for McCormick Place, the Garden has created a 20,000-square-foot rooftop enterprise that will likely yield about 4,000 pounds of produce this year—its first—and double or triple that amount in subsequent years. Already, we are well on our way to that first half-season harvest.

PHOTO: More of McCormick Place West, this time planted with vegetables

McCormick Place West planted with vegetables

Within this enormous rooftop garden we will expand our urban agriculture capabilities, create more hands-on training and job opportunities for our Windy City Harvest participants, and serve as a local source of fresh produce to this major international convention center. Later this summer, we expect the first of what will be many harvests in years to come—and many lives changed for the better.

The McCormick Place rooftop garden was designed and planted by Angela Mason, the Garden’s director of urban agriculture, and staff from our Windy City Harvest program, which offers the state’s first accredited urban agriculture certificate.

PHOTO: Stacey Kimmons, a crew member of Windy City Harvest, harvesting lettuce from the roof.

Stacey Kimmons, a crew member of Windy City Harvest

Over the past five years, Windy City Harvest has planted and maintained five acres of vegetable gardens at six Chicago locations. This newest rooftop garden, like the other sites, will become one of the program’s living laboratories, offering hands-on experience to Windy City Harvest students.

As I lingered on the rooftop that day, contemplating the garden-to-be in front of me amid the magnificent expanse of Chicago, I felt acutely my place as one of many people, within the Garden and well beyond, committed to the idea of making the world a better place, one step—or one garden bed—at a time.

Read more about the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture programs.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Welcome, Daffodils

A Spring Favorite for Centuries

Sophia Siskel —  April 16, 2013 — 1 Comment
PHOTO: Narcissus 'Mondragon'

Narcissus ‘Mondragon’

Is there any more welcome sight than daffodils blooming in the spring? Not to me! I’m thrilled by the sight of these flowers, their colors ranging from the most vivid yellows and oranges to muted pastels to pure white.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, daffodils so captivated the poet William Wordsworth that he wrote “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” a poem celebrating their ability to lift the spirit.

“…A host, of golden daffodils;
 Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
 Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…”

“…The waves beside them danced; but they
 Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
 A poet could not but be gay,
 In such a jocund company…”

Also enchanted by the flower, the prophet Mohammed reportedly said, “Let him who hath two loaves sell one, and buy the flower of narcissus: for bread is but food for the body, whereas narcissus is food for the soul.”

During the Victorian era, when flowers were selected carefully for their meanings, daffodils conveyed a number of messages, such as friendship, chivalry, and respect. Depending on the context, a daffodil could also signal unrequited love or misfortune. The last two interpretations stem (so to speak) from the plant’s genus name, Narcissus, with its connection to Greek mythology. Most people are familiar with the story of handsome Narcissus, who spurned the affections of the wood nymph Echo and thereby irritated Nemesis, the goddess of revenge; Nemesis doomed Narcissus to becoming so obsessed with his looks that he faded away, reborn as a flower that sprang up beside the pool where he gazed himself into oblivion.

Narcissus (c. 1599), by Caravaggio (1573–1610)

Narcissus (c. 1599), by Caravaggio (1573–1610)

PHOTO: Narcissus 'Dutch Master'

Narcissus ‘Dutch Master’

When Wordsworth came upon “A host, of golden daffodils” he marveled, “Ten thousand, saw I, at a glance.” Were the poet to time-travel forward to the twenty-first century and emerge here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, he would no doubt be amazed for many reasons, not the least of which would be the sight of more than 500,000 daffodils. There are 90,000 daffodils on the North Lake’s Bird Island alone, and thousands of others massed on Evening Island and within the Lakeside, Crescent, and Bulb Gardens, among other places. Daffodils are a bright and hopeful beacon of spring, and at the Garden, visitors of all ages, interests, abilities (and centuries) can enjoy 230 varieties of them in all of their forms: trumpet, large-cupped, small-cupped, double, triandus, clyclamineus, jonquilla, and tazetta.

PHOTO: The Daffodils on Bird Island

Thousands of Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ and other cultivars adorn Bird Island in spring.

Visit the Midwest Daffodil Society Show, April 27 – 28, for more eye-popping cultivars.

Wander the Garden’s beauty this spring, and keep your favorite Narcissus in your heart. Then, plan for fall and our annual Fall Bulb Festival. Next spring, your landscape will come alive with daffodils, and your heart—like Wordsworth’s—will fill with pleasure at their beauty.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and