Archives For Education

The Chicago Botanic Garden offers classes for every age, interest, and skill level with instruction by experts in their fields.

Drop by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library to see rare book illustrations of hand-colored orchids in Asia that give a new perspective to Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show. 

Of all the rare orchid books in the library’s collection, it’s a challenge to select illustrations for an exhibition to complement the Garden’s annual Orchid Show. Since the Orchid Show is so colorful, featuring 10,000 orchids in bloom, we usually try to showcase things that really pop. And although there are some extraordinarily colored illustrations in the library’s free rare books exhibition Asian Orchids Illustrated, I wanted to focus on the scientific and historical aspects of the works.

Displayed in the first case of Asian Orchids Illustrated is a rare 1874 volume of Japanese physician Yokusai Iinuma’s botanical encyclopedic compendium, Shintei Somoku Zusetsu. It features a partially hand-colored illustration of the orchid Cypripedium japonicum, which can be found in China, Japan, and Korea. The plant has been used in China to treat malaria, snake bites, and lower back pain.

Also featured are three oversized tomes of the Annals of the Royal Botanical Garden, Calcutta, featuring partially hand-colored orchid plates by Indian artists and lithographers. The orchids featured in this case are Dendrobium densiflorum; the leaves are ground into a paste and used for bone-setting in India, and Goodyera biflora, which is used for tuberculosis, as an anti-inflammatory, and for snake bites.

Dendrobium densiflorum

Dendrobium densiflorum

Goodyera biflora

Goodyera biflora

And finally, the third case contains six different volumes showcasing the interesting history of the Rothschild slipper orchid, often claimed to be one of the most expensive and sought-after orchids of our time. This poor orchid has been through the proverbial ringer, so to speak. Not only has it had its name changed without being consulted, from Cypripedium Rothschildiana to Paphiopedilum Rothschildianum, but it has been often mistaken for other species of orchids, has been misrepresented by collectors, and has had its bloom time genetically modified. Lastly, but most importantly, it has been to the brink of extinction. On display at the Orchid Show is a hybrid Paphiopedilum that’s related to the Rothschild’s slipper orchid.

On Sunday, February 25, and Tuesday, February 27, the Lenhardt Library hosts  a free talk at 2 p.m. about these extraordinary books that contain orchidaceous history on their beautifully illustrated and typeset pages. After the talk, you will be invited to view a few more “orchid-delectables” in the library’s Rare Book Room.    


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

There’s a chill in the air. Flurries are flying past the windows. And your child is whining. Winter is coming and parents will need a cure for their children’s encroaching cabin fever. Little Diggers is the answer.

This four-class series gives 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds a chance to meet once a month and explore nature with caregivers in all seasons—yes, even in winter. The colder months in particular are the best time to encourage children to play in nature, said Mila Love, who coordinates the program.

“We really want to get outside and teach kids that it’s OK to be outside in all types of weather,” she said. “This isn’t a passive, sitting around and listening kind of hour.”

Outdoor play is a part of every Little Diggers class.

Outdoor play is a part of every Little Diggers class.

The benefits of nature play are many. Research has shown that children who play outdoors build confidence and creativity, and have lower stress levels, among other benefits. Nature play doesn’t need to stop when the holiday decorations come out. Increase the benefits by playing outdoors year-round.

Spending time outdoors is fun for everyone.

Spending time outdoors is fun for everyone.

So, what does a typical Little Diggers class look like?

  1. Kids and caregivers greet the instructor and check out the activity stations set up for the class theme of the day. Winter themes will be nocturnal animals (January), life in the pond (February), weather (March), and spring (April). They’ll get the chance to try out the different stations, and maybe create some art or build structures. Kids are free to decide what interests them.
  2. Circle time! Kids gather to talk about the month’s theme and read a book about it, then participate in an active, hands-on experience.
  3. Free play time gives Little Diggers participants a chance to check out the activity stations again or pot up a plant to take home. Winter Little Diggers take-home plants will be purple basil (January), nasturtium (February), lamb’s ear (March), and pansies (April).
  4. Next, the group goes outside. There are several locations at the new Regenstein Learning Campuswhere Little Diggers participants explore nature. Snow digging might take place in the outdoor classroom space. Planting activities take place in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, while Kleinman Family Cove is where you can get a close-up look at aquatic plants and animals.
  5. Wrapping up the hour, kids come back to the classroom to pick-up their plants and projects, and say their goodbyes.

The only time the class stays indoors is when it’s too dangerous to be outdoors (if, for example, the temperature dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit). But that’s rare, so winter Little Diggers participants should dress warmly enough to be outdoors for an extended amount of time.

Instructor Mila Love leads a class of Little Diggers in the Regenstein Learning Center.

Instructor Mila Love leads a class of Little Diggers in the Regenstein Learning Center.

Little Diggers make clay veggies

Little Diggers make clay veggies

Love said she recommends Little Diggers as a first social group experience for toddlers. Because the adults stay with the children, it’s a great way for them to participate in a classroom-like setting before preschool or kindergarten starts, without being too far from their caregivers. Parents can benefit as well from meeting other parents, she said.

At home, children can care for the plants they potted in class. Instructors will often pass on instructions to recreate some of the fun. That herb-scented play dough they loved at Little Diggers can easily be made at home.

In winter, it’s common to want to stay inside because it’s cold. Having a nature-focused program like Little Diggers to look forward to, kids will want to get out and play, no matter what the weather is like.

The winter doldrums won’t stand a chance.

Online registration for Winter Little Diggers is now open. Members receive a discount. Have an older child? Sign up for one of our upcoming Weekend Family Classes, like Joyful Gingerbread of Loco for Cocoa.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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