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The Martian: Many of us watched and loved the movie. Some of us read the book. A few of us got inspired to use the story to teach plant science to students.

PHOTO: Book cover art for The Martian: a novel

If you are a science enthusiast, I highly recommend reading the book.

The Martian by Andy Weir tells the fictional story of NASA astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, who becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to figure out how stay alive until the next NASA mission returns to rescue him. He plants six potatoes and successfully propagates a crop of potatoes in Martian dirt fertilized with human poop.

The story got me wondering if we could replicate Martian soil with local ingredients and use it for plant experiments. So I contacted the Garden’s soil scientist, Louise Egerton-Warburton, and asked her if this was possible. She responded with a recipe:

  • Mix two parts crushed volcano rock, two parts basalt dust, one part sand, plus 0.2 parts feldspar
  • Autoclave (heat to very high temperature) three times to kill microbes
  • Experiment away!

You know you work in a great place when you can ask a colleague for directions for making Martian soil and you get an immediate, enthusiastic response with suggestions for how to use it. I acquired the materials and cooked up a batch.

PHOTO: a box of basalt, a cup of sand, a bag of feldspar, and a glass beaker containing the Martian soil mixture

I keep the ingredients for Martian soil in my office, in case Mark Watney drops by. Because you just never know. Matt Damon and Andy Weir are also welcome, but I hear they have both moved on to other projects.

One important thing I must mention: technically speaking, this mixture is not truly “soil.” Soil is the upper layer of material on the Earth that serves as an ideal medium for growing plants. It contains inorganic minerals from weathered and broken rocks combined with organic material from the decomposed remains of dead plants and animals. Real soil hosts microscopic bacteria and fungus that facilitate a cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem and convert minerals to a form plants can absorb and use. Soil also supports many little macroscopic critters, like worms and mites, that increase the porosity and affect other properties of the mixture.

The substance we would find on the surface of Mars is called regolith, which is mineral particles that result from weathering of rocks. Since my mixture is an approximation of what might be found on Mars, but made from Earth-sourced ingredients, it should actually be called simulated Martian regolith. But that’s a mouthful, so from here on I’m going to call it Martian soil and ask you, dear readers, to accept the inaccuracy for the sake of simplicity. OK?

I took my Martian soil and set out to answer my first question: what happens if we try to plant seeds in this stuff? Put another way, is it possible to grow plants in Martian soil without adding anything? To answer this question, I took a polystyrene egg carton and planted marjoram seeds (because I had some laying around) in my Martian soil and in some Earth potting soil for comparison.

PHOTO: an 18 egg egg carton that has the 9 cells on the left planted with Martian soil and the nine cells on the right planted in earth potting soil; marjoram has sprouted in all 18 cells.

It was overcast outside when I took this picture in the greenhouse—you’ll have to look closely to see that the marjoram seeds sprouted in both Martian and Earth soils. So far, so good.

The Martian soil is completely different from the potting soil in appearance and texture, and it responds differently when watered. Shortly after the seeds germinated in all of the cells, the Mars side went south. It didn’t hold water very well; it dried out and became hard, almost like concrete. It was no surprise that all of the seedlings on the Mars side died soon after germination. Plants on the Earth side continued to grow and thrive.

PHOTO: The same 18 cell egg carton now has nine Martian soil cells with no plants and nine cells with healthy marjoram growing in Earth potting soil.

It is clear from this test that the Martian soil needs to be amended to grow plants. We were told this in The Martian, but now I know it from personal experience. We can use our observations to understand why Martian soil is not a good medium for plants. That’s real science learning!

In the book, Watney used a bucket of Earth soil and human waste to amend the Martian soil for his potato crop. The book and the movie differ on this part—likely because the process required to make Martian soil suitable for growing potatoes was long and tedious. It wouldn’t make for riveting cinema. Instead of cultivating the soil over time, movie-Watney planted a spoonful of rehydrated human poop next to each piece of potato. 

While movie-Watney’s actions remind us of stories about the Pilgrims teaching the indigenous people to place a piece of fish next to each kernel of corn to improve the crop yield, there are some problems with applying this method to our Martian soil. The Martian soil would still lack sufficient organic materials and therefore not be able to hold water (as I demonstrated with my marjoram seed experiment). There would be an insufficient population of microbes to break down the human waste. Furthermore, the fecal matter might be so concentrated in nutrients that it could actually be toxic to the potato plants. I don’t believe it would actually work.

This compelled me to do some myth busting for my next experiment: since “humanure” would be unsafe—and gross!—I used worm poop, or vemicompost, which I have in plentiful supply from worm bins in our Learning Center nature laboratory. Also, I discovered that you can order “Martian Regolith Simulant” from a company online (who knew?). Although it’s expensive, it saved me the effort of crushing rocks, so I’m using it from now on.

This time I planted russet potato pieces and some sweet potatoes that had sprouted in my pantry at home (oops!) in azalea pots. I set up three conditions: Martian soil, Martian soil plus vermicompost, and Earth potting soil for comparison. 

 

PHOTO: Three 10-inch pots with potatoes planted in each of the soil conditions: Martian soil, potting soil, and mixture of Martian soil with vermicompost

In spite of my doubts, I’m actually hoping that the potatoes in Martian soil plus vermicompost out-perform the potatoes in plain Martian soil, because bringing worms on a space voyage could prove to be a good solution for future colonists on Mars! But we’ll have to wait and see.

Underlying these experiments (and few other I have tried) is a basic investigation of what plants need to survive. By testing to find the right combination of Martian soil and amendments, and limiting solutions to those that could be transported by a spaceship to another planet, we are using engineering practices because we are trying to solve a problem. This is real-world science and engineering that students could do in the classroom. 

PHOTO: Kathy J. sitting in her office wearing a space suit.

Here I am, working on my next astro-botany experiment, for myself, for teachers, and for science!

Besides satisfying my personal curiosity, these experiments are paving the way for some science lessons we are writing for teachers and students.

If you are a teacher interested in learning more about how to teach NGSS-aligned life science lessons using Martian soil, sign up for our workshop, STEM: Growing Plants in Martian Soil on Saturday, December 2, 2017. And watch for other Martian soil training opportunities in the future. 

We may never need to grow crops in Martian soil. But as we investigate the challenges of colonizing another planet, we can learn more about what plants need to thrive and also develop a genuine appreciation for how amazing our Earth soil is.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bim Willow, who has taught classes in willow work at the Chicago Botanic Garden for more than a decade, never tires of showing students how to tap into their creativity.

“That twinkle in the eyes of the students after they finish a project and look at it and they’re dancing, they’re giggling, and they say ‘I can’t believe I made it.’ Then they come back the next year and say, ‘You know, I’ve showed off my piece to people and everybody who has seen my piece says: I can’t believe you made that! But now I do believe it.’

That realization, says Willow, about going from ‘I can’t believe I can do this’ to ‘I now believe I can,’ is a big reason he’ll teach four Willow Workshops—Holiday Tree, Garden Bench, Rustic Reindeer, and Rocking Chair—November 11 at the Garden.

A chair workshop participant begins to attach the bent willow forming the seat and back to her chair frame.

A chair workshop participant begins to attach the bent willow forming the seat and back to her chair frame.

A happy Bim WIllow student works on her rustic shelf from an earlier workshop.

A happy Bim WIllow student works on her rustic shelf from an earlier workshop.

Students, he says, need not be masters of hammers and nails. “It’s really easy to learn how to nail, but it’s a lot harder to unlearn how to do it the wrong way—like so many other things in life.”

And while he teaches techniques, Willow also encourages individual creativity. “Students learn the technique of how to make something structurally sound,” he told us in a phone chat. “That’s functional. But the aesthetic part is now in their ballpark.”

“That’s where you get to use your imagination and take these sticks and create something beautiful out of it,” he says. “Imagination is all in our head. And my class is about taking it out and playing with it.”

Bim Willow supervises construction on a rustic chair frame.

Bim Willow supervises construction of a rustic chair frame.

Bim’s fascination with willow prompted a name tweak for this artist born Lawrence Schackow 65 years ago. Willow, who lives in southwestern Michigan, built his first willow chair in 1972 and started Willow Works, Inc., in 1985.

“Willow is one of those renewable resources. And for the style of furniture I build, willow is the best wood because of its flexible nature. But mostly because it’s free.

“For for the benches, we’re mostly going to be using sassafras, which is free wood. It’s durable,” he says. “And willow will be just for the trimming. I use willow that grows in the ditches that people are trying to get rid of because it clogs up the ditches. It’s not like a weeping willow tree.  …The willow that I use is a resource that people are trying to get rid of.”

“Basically, the class is about taking anything that people are trying to get rid of and turning it into something that people want.”

Willow calls himself “an author, artist, poet, and fool” on his Facebook page—a nod to his early work as a mime and clown. But he has several books to his credit, including furniture-making books, children’s books, and more in the works, like a collection of his one-liners he calls Bimisms.

“We are taught at an early age to stop being creative and start becoming productive,” he says. “And I’m here to reverse that.”

It’s about taking people back to a time when creativity was something they did instead of bought. And each one of us has that creative side.

If you think about a machine, he said, “I’m more of a social lubricant than a cog or a gear. So I slide in and out of the machine with creativity and show people that (creativity) can help take some of the friction out. But it’s also about people finding that within themselves.”


Guest blogger Judith Hevrdejs-King is a freelance writer.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

During the Age of Botanical Exploration, there were no journals, workbooks, or even articles on newly discovered plants. As more and more tropical and foreign plants were brought back to Europe, there was an explosive interest in these plants, but no documentation on the growing culture or uses had been provided.

That is, not until (Curtis’s) The Botanical Magazine began publication in 1787. This exciting new publication contained three to four scientifically accurate hand-colored engravings and descriptions of each plant, including information about cultivation and growth habit.

Library Talk on Sunday, November 5, at 2 p.m.

Mrs. Hodgson’s Rhododendron (Rhododendron hogsonii)

ILLUSTRATION: Rhododendron hogsonii.

Discovered in Bhotan, Eastern Himalayas, 1832.
1866, Vol. 92, Plate 5552
Artist: Walter Hood Fitch (1817–72)

Curtis’s ran without competition until 1815, when one of the chief illustrators, Sydenham Edwards, left the magazine and began the Botanical Register in 1815, paving  the way for even more, although short-lived, botanical journals.

But Curtis’s Botanical Magazine holds the claim as the longest running botanical magazine. The Chicago Botanic Garden is celebrating that accomplishment with an exhibition, Curtis’s: The Longest Running Botanical Magazine, through January 21, 2018, in the Lenhardt Library. A free talk will take place at 2 p.m. November 5 in the Lenhardt Library. There will be an opportunity to view the first volume of The Botanical Magazine from 1787, as well as other volumes of Curtis that are not included in the exhibition.

About once every quarter, I receive a call from my colleague Christine Schmid, who is the Library Technical Services Librarian who manages serial subscription renewals here at the Lenhardt Library. That call always begins, with “Hi, Stace, Curtis is here.” I gleefully unearth myself from six tons of paper and reference questions and go and take a look. Each time, I am amazed at the production quality and the longevity of a journal that features plant portraits reproduced from watercolor originals by leading international botanical artists, highly defined photographs, and detailed articles that combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation, and economic uses of the plants described.

The Moutan, or Chinese Tree Peony (Paeonia Moutan)

ILLUSTRATION: Paeonia moutan

1809, Vol. 29 Plate 1154
Artist: Sydenham Edwards (1769–1819)

The Botanical Magazine, as it was called on its London debut in 1787, was published by William Curtis in response to a public demand for more information on all the new plants reaching the British Isles from ongoing botanical explorations. Curtis, the former apothecary demonstrator at the Chelsea Physic Garden and creator of the Flora Londinensis, earned his “bread and butter” as he referred to it, with the publication of the magazine. The magazine popularized and encouraged the cultivation of these newly discovered plants and influenced generations of gardeners and nurserymen on the way in which the plants could be maintained or propagated. 

The magazine was not only filled with the most scientifically accurate text on the plants, but each plant was also scientifically illustrated by master botanical illustrators. Featured in the exhibition are hand-colored engraving by Sydenham Edwards (1769–1819), Walter Hood Fitch (1817–72), John Nugent Fitch (1840–1927), and the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865).

In addition to the exhibition and free Library Talk, the Lenhardt Library has a full run of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Issues are available for consultation upon request only. The magazine is now published for the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tiny hands, belonging to a class of third graders, carefully fold rulers into squares and rest them on a grassy meadow near the Dixon Prairie. Inside these 2-by-2-foot quadrants is a fantastical world to discover: the height of different species of plants, the temperature of the soil, the wind and the sun, and the climate of the lawn.

The children have a mission on this blustery October morning, an adventure in the far reaches of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where a yellow school bus opens its doors to a field trip inside the life of a Garden scientist.

A young boy studies tallgrass on the prairie during a guided field trip at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Learning about ecosystems outside the classroom creates valuable experiences and future scientists.

Prairie Pondering is just one of the Garden’s guided field trips, where students from Chicago area schools can experience the day-to-day work of a Garden ecologist. Trained Garden volunteers engage students in guided field trips from September to June. They use the same tools as horticultural scientists, take samples in the field, and ask questions that Garden experts examine on a daily basis. The goal of the field trips is to create real-life opportunities for students to have fun with science outside of their classroom walls, said Drew Wehrle, the Garden’s coordinator of student field trips.

To get their hands dirty, so to speak.

A teacher and group of students study the ecosystem in the 2ft-square area they have blocked off.

Evaluating the ecosystem of a particular quadrant helps scientists of all age focus their study.

“What are the biotic—or living—things affecting the prairie?” asked a Garden volunteer during Prairie Pondering. Students scribble answers in their notebooks: sun, wind.

“What does the soil look and smell like?” More answers: dry, smells bad.

“What is the temperature of the soil? Why do you think it’s different from the temperature in the air?”

One girl watches her thermometer fluctuate from 77 to 76 degrees. “The temperature is changing!” And so begins an early, hard lesson about Chicago weather.

As the group moves on to the prairie, the children are asked to consider the many different plants they’ve found. One girl counts 100, another 200. One boy points out a milkweed plant that reminds him of the game Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare.

“The point of the field trips is less about botanical expertise and more about asking the kids to consider why they think a plant looks or behaves the way it does,” Wehrle said.

Two girls compare answers as they walk through the prairie on a field trip.

Sharing time together outside is part of the fun of guided field trips.

A boy on a field trip runs through the prairie.

Field trips are a great opportunity for outdoor fun, too.

Each of the guided field trips is crafted to fulfill age-appropriate state Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so students get to explore while also engaging with ideas that complement what they’re already learning in the classroom. Guided field trips include a range of botanical and nature topics, including The Wonders of Worms and Soil, Lake Investigations, Water Bugs, and Tree Detectives. Field trips are offered for third grade through high school students, and can be guided or self-directed. Self-guided field trips allow groups of all ages to explore while their teachers direct them on independent activities.

For more information about field trips, or to sign up, visit www.chicagobotanic.org/fieldtrips.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Flora Brasil

Lenhardt Library celebrates Brazil in the Garden with a “Flora Brasil” special collections exhibition

Leora Siegel —  July 7, 2017 — Leave a comment

Brazil’s native flora has amazing diversity with differing biomes, including tropical rainforest, subtropical forest, tropical savanna, mangrove forest, tropical dry forest, wetland, and savanna.

Of the approximate 400,000 known plant species in the world, 55,000 are endemic to Brazil, and most of these are from the Amazon forest.

Brazilian bromeliads in the Crescent Garden

Bromeliads abound this summer throughout the Garden. There are more than 3,000 known species of bromeliads; 650 of these are native to Brazil. Many bromeliads have leaves that are spiraled and called a rosette. At the base of the rosette, the leaves may grow in an overlapping and tight form to become a place for water to collect.

Many of the foods we eat (like acai), industrial products we use (rubber tree and mahogany), medicines—even our houseplants in the Chicago region (orchids), depend on plants from this region. The unique flora of this area continues to be threatened by deforestation and urbanization, and plant species are at risk.

Books on display through October 15, 2017, in the Lenhardt Library’s Flora Brasil exhibition depict a plant exploration map, Brazilian aroid, and Brazilian bromeliads. An untitled original artwork by Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx on loan from Longwood Gardens complements our main Joutras Galley exhibition of Marx’s work.

Roberto Burle Marx, Untitled, 1991, Courtesy of Longwood Gardens

Roberto Burle Marx, Untitled, 1991, Courtesy of Longwood Gardens

The library exhibition opens with an eighteenth-century map of South America with “the coast of Brazil being corrected” bound into the third edition in English of Voyage to South America: Describing, at Large, the Spanish Cities, Towns, Provinces on That Extensive Continent by Don Antonio de Ulloa and Don George Juan, 1772. Ulloa and Juan explored the region, observing and describing the flora, fauna, geology, minerals, indigenous population, and politics they encountered.

Map of a voyage to South America by Ulloa and Juan, 1772

18th century map of South America with “the coast of Brazil being corrected” from Voyage to South America: Describing, at Large, the Spanish Cities, Towns, Provinces on That Extensive Continent by Ulloa and Juan, 1772; Click here to view larger image

ILLUSTRATION: Philodendron cannaefolium by Heinrich Schott

Philodendron cannaefolium ‘Burle Marx’, a 24” x 30” detailed chromolithograph that is both scientifically accurate and stunning from Aroideae Maximilianae by Heinrich Schott, 1879.

A Brazilian aroid Philodendron cannaefolium (today known as Philodendron ‘Burle Marx’) is the centerpiece with a 24-inch-by-30-inch detailed chromolithograph that is both scientifically accurate and stunning. This 1879 work, Aroideae Maximilianae by Heinrich Schott, features 42 plates with delicate colors and clean lines. Schott was an Austrian botanist who traveled in Brazil from 1817 to 1821. He specialized in Araceae and throughout his career, he named 587 new-to-science species of aroids; by comparison, Linnaeus named six aroid species. 

Come also learn about Margaret Mee, who was an exceptional botanical artist, plant explorer, and environmentalist. Four reproductions of Mee’s “Brazilian Bromeliads” are on view. These are from a limited edition set published in Brazil in 1992.

Mee traveled to Brazil often, and went on fifteen botanical expeditions, mainly into the Amazon region. On these expeditions, she discovered several new plant species, painted more than 400 gouache pieces, and kept travel diaries detailing her adventures. Her passion for Brazilian flora coincided with the large-scale commercialization of the Amazon rainforest. She became an outspoken environmentalist, calling attention to the dangerous destruction of the biodiverse region. 

ILLUSTRATION: A Brazillian bromeliad by Margaret Mee

Margaret Mee’s Nidularium innocentii from Brazilian Bromeliads, reproduction, limited edition set published in Brazil, 1992.

Noted Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx cultivated plants that Mee brought back from her expeditions and used them in his landscape designs. Known for his bright and bold color choices, Marx was inspired by Mee’s paintings. Like Mee, he was concerned about the environmental impacts of the commercialization of the Brazilian Amazonian region.

Learn more about Mee, Marx, and Brazilian flora at our free Library Talks on July 16, August 22, and September 12 at 2 p.m. in the Lenhardt Library.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org