When Science First student Divine isn’t at the Chicago Botanic Garden, she’s in her backyard, trying to use her iffy, only-works-when-it-wants-to telescope and peering into the future. Someday, she wants to be an astrophysicist and help put people into space.
As part of Science First each summer, about 40 students from Chicago Public Schools travel to the Garden by school bus from designated stops all around the city to spend up to four weeks being immersed in a free, nature-based science enrichment program. Science First inspires students in grades 8 to 10 who come from backgrounds underrepresented in science to pursue careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math.
Divine, who is from the Chicago neighborhood of Ashburn, will be a freshman at Lindblom Math and Science Academy next year. Another participant, Alexis, who is from Little Village, begins his freshman year at Northside College Preparatory High School in the fall. Both students have a strong interest in science and were first-time Science First participants this summer.
Divine’s church youth group leader recommended that she apply to the program, which seemed a perfect fit—her interest in science is rooted in the books she read as a child. Divine has always loved reading and would sometimes get in trouble for it. The books she doesn’t want to put down even today are cosmos-related or anything about planets, stars, and galaxies. She wants to learn about how the world works on earth before learning about what’s in space.
“I like the world around me and seeing how things grow,” Divine said. “I like space a lot, but I want to know how it works down here before I learn about what’s up there.”
Alexis’s interest in science also started at an early age. He likes the rigors of science—following steps to get the results that show you what may or may not be the problem.
Last year, Alexis’s passion for procedures was ignited in his eighth-grade chemistry class, where he enjoyed doing experiments with different types of elements. These days, though, he is mostly interested in engineering.
“Before chemistry, I was interested in mechanical engineering, mostly robotics,” he said. “I feel like they can probably help us in the future, such as helping us care for our own environment.”
Alexis imagines combining a career in mechanical engineering with his interest in the natural sciences when, hopefully, robotics can someday be used to help remove or control invasive species in certain ecosystems.
This summer at the Garden, Divine and Alexis learned about issues including invasive species and climate change, and considered issues such as overpopulation and lack of food. In the process, they learned about scientific inquiry and research—tools to take away, no matter what path they choose.
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library has a wonderful rare book collection, and soon it will be able to share some of those rare gems with the world.
Selections from The Language of Flowers collections are being digitized and conserved with a new grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and those selections will be uploaded to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. This work will add to the body of knowledge on the subject of language of flowers, at the intersection of art, botany, and poetry.
Also being digitized is Garden Talk, the Chicago Horticultural Society’s membership magazine that was published from 1945, 1953-2007. Chicago’s gardening trends and fads, techniques, and ecological strategies were all fodder for editorial content. Once digitized, the columns will be available at the Illinois Digital Archives with new grant funding from the Illinois State Library.
Note: Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations on this web page do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
If you happened to walk around the Heritage Garden in late June, the unusual blue color of the Moroccan mountain eryngo (pronounced eh-RING-go), Eryngium variifolium, probably caught your eye, and its peculiar perfume tickled your nose. It was also swarming with flying insects.
The odor was not lovely and sweet. I would describe it as similar to musty, molding fruit—not unpleasant, but certainly not a fragrance you would wear. It only lasted a few days, during which time it hosted an amazing number and variety of insects. I attempted to photograph and identify as many of them as I could. This was a lot harder than I expected, because the insects were in constant motion and most of them were small. I didn’t always capture the key features needed to identify them at the species level. In spite of this, you’ll see that that the variety was astounding. Let me introduce you to what I found at the Chicago Botanic Garden recently.
1. Carpenter bee
2. Mason bee
Carpenter bees and Mason bees are native to our region. Honeybees are not native to the United States. I saw honeybees in the Heritage Garden, but they were not interested in this flower. Honeybees tend to go for sweeter-smelling flowers.
3. Red admiral butterfly
4. Azure butterfly
A monarch butterfly also flew overhead while I was taking pictures, but it didn’t stop by. Again, the scent of this flower isn’t attractive to all pollinators.
5. Squash vine borer (moth)
The squash vine borer larva can be a nuisance in a vegetable garden, but it is a beautiful and beneficial pollinator as an adult moth. Sometimes we have to resist the urge to judge our fellow creature as being good or bad.
6. Syrphid flies (hoverflies or flower flies)
When we think of flies, we tend to think of those annoying houseflies or other pests, but there are other kinds of flies. The Syrphidae family, also known as hoverflies or flower flies, feed on pollen and therefore serve as important pollinators for many plants. I found three species of syrphid flies on the eryngo.
7. Another kind of syrphid fly
8. Mystery fly, possibly another syrphid
9. Green bottle fly
Houseflies fall into the family of flies known scientifically as Calliphoridae, also called the blowfly family, and they were also represented on our eryngo plant.
10. Cluster fly
11. Tiger fly (I think)
Tiger flies prey on carpenter bees, which were feeding on the eryngo flowers, so seeing this predator around the eryngo makes sense.
12. Vespid wasp
The wasps I observed were far too busy collecting nectar and pollen to notice me. I had no concerns about being stung.
13. Black garden ant
I watched a few ants appear very determined as they walked up the stems of the eryngo, dipped their heads into the flower centers, and went back down the stem as swiftly as they arrived.
Where there are a lot of flying insects, there are going to be some predators. There were damselflies hovering over the blossoms, feeding on the flies, not the flower.
15. Assassin bug
Assassin bugs fall into the category of insects known as “true bugs.” I saw few assassin bugs lurking around the eryngo flowers.
16. A spider web
Like the damselfly and assassin bug, this spider is hanging out somewhere under the flowers to prey on the flies, bees, and other insects that happen into its web.
In total, I found two kinds of bees, two butterflies, one moth, six flies, one wasp, one ant, one damselfly, one assassin bug, and one spider—sixteen different bugs on this one bright, smelly plant!
The take-away from my experience is that scent is a really successful strategy for attracting pollinators. Like the titan arum, the Moroccan mountain eryngo produced a super potent blast of odor for a brief period time and then moved on to the next phase in its life cycle, which suggests that it requires a lot of a plant’s energy reserves, and may not be sustainable for a long time. This strategy works well as long as the timing of the bloom coincides with the pollinators’ need to feed and ability to get to the flowers.
I find this phenomenon fascinating. If you share my passion for plants and their relationships with insects, check out Budburst at budburst.org and find out how you can help scientists who need your observations to contribute data to their research.
There are things I look forward to seeing every season.
In spring, I watch for “mighty plants” that emerge from the ground with enough force to heave the soil above ground. These botanical weightlifters—the bulbs, grasses, and other emergent plants—pushing up soil that was compressed by a blanket of snow never fail to impress me. I am in awe of the strength of plants.
Seeing bulbs coming up all around me inspires lots of questions. I want to understand how this is possible and I want to test their strength. So I spent a few weeks playing around with this phenomenon in the Learning Center’s Boeing Nature Laboratory.
To begin, I wanted to demonstrate that seeds will lift soil in a pot. I soaked bunch of wheat seeds overnight and planted them in a pot. I covered them with a generous amount of potting soil (about a 1/2-inch layer) and I tamped the soil down gently so that it would be compressed—like the topsoil might be after a winter of snow cover. Three days later, I had results! I sprayed the soil disk to give it a little adhesion, so I could see how long it would hold together as the grass lifted it up.
That was so much fun, I tried the same thing with a bunch of bean seeds.
This demonstration was pretty easy and impressive. It is a simple activity to illustrate how plants and other living things change their environment to suit their needs (which is a disciplinary core idea in Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten). I recommend doing it in the classroom or at home, just for fun.
This is just the beginning. I will be sharing the results in a future blog post. But before I do, I would like to make a few points about the nature of science and how scientists work.
Science is a collection of established facts and ideas about the world, gathered over hundreds of years. It is also the process by which these facts are learned. Science is both “knowing” and “doing.”
Discoveries start when you watch nature and ask questions, as I did in watching spring bulbs come up. Before beginning an experiment, scientists play. They mess around with materials and concoct crazy ideas. They are constantly asking, “I wonder what will happen if I do ___ ?” That is when discoveries actually happen.
Scientists do formal experiments with purpose, hypothesis, procedures, results, and conclusions after they think they have made a discovery. They use the experiment to test their discovery and provide convincing evidence to support it. In some cases, the experiment disproves a fact or idea, which is a different kind of new understanding about the world.
I have to agree with Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of Living Plant Documentation, who recently wrote “The SciFi Rant.” Those of us who lean toward botany instead of horticulture are more interested in growing plants to yield ideas rather than meals. In my continuing investigation, I have two goals, and neither is to produce anything to eat.
First, I want to determine the strength of sprouting seeds and see how far I can push them. For example, how many bean sprouts will it take to lift a coconut? I want to find a standard way to measure seed strength.
Second, I want to establish a reliable method for experimenting with seed strength so teachers and students can replicate the procedure, modify it as needed, and use it for their own investigations without going through the awkward phase of figuring out the best way to do this.
In honor of Black History Month, I would like to call attention to a botanist who would have fit in very well at the Chicago Botanic Garden: George Washington Carver. He was a gardener, a soil scientist, an inventor, a genius, and a good guy.
You probably know Carver as the famous black scientist who invented dozens of products for peanuts. What’s most important about his story is why he devoted so much time and ingenuity to peanuts and how he did so much more than make a high protein sandwich spread and cooking oil.
I’m not a historian or biographer, so this story will omit details about Carver’s life—being born into slavery, studying agriculture in an era of racial discrimination, and becoming a botany professor at Tuskegee University. While these details are interesting and definitely worth learning, you can read about all that in other places. Instead, this snapshot is devoted to celebrating how one humble scientist used his botanical superpowers to solve a real-world problem. It is a story about successfully tackling agricultural sustainability and economic stability at the same time.
Carver grew up in the south and he knew the agricultural conditions very well. Soil in the southern states is fine and dry. Summers are long and hot. These are suitable conditions for growing cotton, a profitable cash crop. The problem is that cotton needs a lot of nitrogen. Several years of growing cotton on the same patch depletes the soil, making the crop yield less and less over time. In the late nineteenth century, commercial fertilizer was not available—and even if it had been, the poor people who worked the land couldn’t have afforded it. To make things worse, in 1892 a little pest called the boll weevil moved northward from Mexico and began invading and destroying cotton crops. The boll weevil population spread and plagued the south through the 1920s and ’30s, making the life of a cotton farmer even harder and less rewarding.
Carver knew this life because he had lived it, and he wanted to make it better. He worked to teach farmers about crop rotation. Legumes (like peanuts and soybeans) and sweet potatoes have the ability to convert nitrogen from the air to a form that plants can absorb from the soil. Planting what is called a “cover crop” of peanuts instead of cotton for a year restores the nitrogen in the soil so the cotton grows better the next year. As an added benefit, diversifying crops by growing peanuts and other plants that the weevils do not eat helps reduce their population so there are fewer to harm the cotton crops. Sounds like the answer to all of their problems, right? So of course, farmers changed their practices right away, and lived happily and sustainably ever after.
You see, at that time peanuts were only used as cheap feed for livestock, and nobody was buying a lot of them. A farmer could not earn as much money growing peanuts as he could from his dwindling crop of cotton, so changing crops was financially risky, even as the cotton was failing. Carver realized he had to solve the market problem or farmers were never going to plant cover crops. THAT is why he set out to invent more than 100 uses for peanuts from 1915 to 1923.
He didn’t stop there, He also worked to promote his inventions to businessmen and investors in order to create a demand for peanuts, because, as we all learned in high school economics, when the demand goes up so does the price. Then—and only then—did the sustainable practice of crop rotation take hold.
But wait, there’s more.
The increased demand for peanut products also led to an increase in peanuts imported from other countries. In 1921, Carver spoke to Congress to advocate for a tariff on foreign peanuts so American farmers would be protected from the competition. Though it was highly unusual for a black man to speak to Congress in those days, his appeal won over the legislators and tariffs were imposed.
George Washington Carver did not seek wealth or fame for his work. He found personal satisfaction in scientific discovery and using his talents to make the world a better place for farmers and everyone. I believe if he were alive today, he would have embraced the challenge of researching and teaching people about sustainable urban agriculture to improve the health, nutrition, and livelihood of low-income city dwellers just as he did for rural farmers 100 years ago, and I believe programs like our Windy City Harvest grow out of that same spirit and desire to help people make a better living for themselves.