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Learn more about the plants and gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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. 

PHOTO: Daffodil leaves have pushed through the mulch, lifting it off the ground.

Daffodil leaves erupted from the ground in March and lifted the mulch in the beds around the Regenstein Learning Campus.

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.

PHOTO: A few days after planting the soaked wheat seeds, they are already sprouting and pushing up the soil.

Day 3 after planting the seeds: They are pushing up the compressed layer of soil.

PHOTO: The wheat leaves have grown to an inch over the pot and are holding up a disk of soil.

Day 4: The leaves have pushed the soil up a little more.

PHOTO: The wheat is 2-3 inches above the pot and still suspending the disk of soil.

Day 5: The soil is light and there are a lot of wheat plants, so they continue to lift the soil.

PHOTO: The grass is now 4-5 inches tall and the disk of soil is on top, but leaning to the side, about to fall off.

Day 6: “Get off me, Soil! – Umph!”

PHOTO: The disk of soil that was lifted by the grass has fallen to the side of the pot.

Day 7: Phew!

That was so much fun, I tried the same thing with a bunch of bean seeds.

PHOTO: the top of the soil is rising about a half inch out of the pot.

Bean sprouts pushing…

PHOTO: the sprouting beans can be seen pushing up the top of the soil, now 1-2 inches over the top of the pot.

…pushing…

PHOTO: a dozen bean plants are growing out of the pot and pushing the top soil disk to the side.

…and bursting from inside the pot.

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. 

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

PHOTO: a 6 inch square pot is topped with a round plastic lid and a coconut.

Will the mighty beans sprouting under this menacing coconut have the power to lift it off the top edge of a pot? Stay tuned…

I invite you on my journey.
(To be continued.)


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I remember vividly the first time I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was silent (unusual for me) and in awe. Everywhere I looked, I saw plant labels, and looking at them provided me some kind of familiarity—like when you meet someone new, you want to know their name, what they do, what they like, right? Well, the same with plants.

One important aspect of visiting a botanic garden is acknowledging its plant collection. Botanic gardens are living museums, and when you go to a museum, you want to know what is in front of you. A display plant’s name on the label is the first interaction between you, the individual, and the environment. It’s important to recognize how vital it is to label our plant collection.

Here at the Garden, we use the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). Only scientific names—written in Latin—are universal worldwide. The scientific name of a plant usually consists of its generic name and its specific epithet, which forms the name of the species. There are no regulations for common names, but scientific names are constantly reviewed and occasionally, we have to replace labels where a plant’s Latin name changes when it is reclassified.  

PHOTO: Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

PHOTO: The plant label room, with bundles of labels stored in buckets in front of card catalogs.

Not everything is glamorous: the cluttered label room

My volunteers and I are responsible for providing display plant labels to the horticulture staff and exhibitions department. People ask me, “Are you bored in wintertime, since there is nothing for you to do?” Uh, what? That may be the busiest season for the labeling team.

We start checking label requests lists, which had been coming in since the previous December, pull labels out of the drawers, assess the accuracy of labels with no name changes, check their appearance, and assemble and process label orders. These processes take four months. In the next few weeks, as the Garden prepares to bloom, we are prepared to deliver 3,400 display labels for spring and summer annuals—plus, the labels for our permanent collection.

Our label room stores more than 45,000 plant labels. We have card catalog cabinets (remember those from libraries before we went digital?) and now even shoeboxes that hold our labels. The labeling team collects, maintains, disassembles, recycles, and discards labels. The Garden has produced close to 10,000 labels a year.

How do we print our labels?

PHOTO: Sample of a display label in the Chicago Botanic Garden.

This is our standard label, 2” x 4”, printed with a metalphoto process (photosensitive anodized aluminum); using silver letters with black finish.

Our labels are printed on photosensitive anodized aluminum, a process called metalphoto finish. It withstands the temperature variations in our climate, and also doesn’t rust or fade. This keeps all the labels in our collection looking standardized, so they are not a distraction in the garden beds, but a helpful hint.

Other botanic gardens use different methods for displaying plant information, based on their individual climate and labeling needs. It’s always fun to see how someone else solves a problem when I am out travelling:

Planter in downtown Quebec with a plant label in it.

A label from downtown, Quebec, Canada. I do not speak French, and before I get nervous, I see the scientific name with relief.

A plant label in Montreal Botanic Garden is a QR code; you must scan the code to see the information.

A label from the Alpine Garden, Montreal Botanic Garden, displays only a QR code; you need access to the internet to scan the code and download the plant information.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

This label is mounted on a post at Royal Kew Gardens, London, England.

This label is mounted on a post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England. They speak English here, but the common name of the plant could have varied. Still, as long as I see the scientific name, I know what I see.

This is a big display/interpretive label at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo; about 12 inches by 18 inches.

Labeling at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan. I’m not fluent in Japanese, but I can read the Latin names. This is a big display/interpretive label, about 12 inches by 18 inches.

This label is made to withstand the constant humidity of Costa Rica.

A label in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica. I speak Spanish, but the common name would vary from region to region, so I stick to the scientific name. This label is big and sturdy, around 7 to 8 inches across, and is made to withstand the constant humidity.

Next time you visit the Garden, check out the Linnaeus statue in the Heritage Garden and see the decoding of a plant name.

Our visitors come for different reasons. Some look for comfort, solitude, peace of mind. Others come for education, research, experience, horticulture, and design. Most of them have this in common: they will want to know what they are looking at. And as diverse as our audience is, they will look for the scientific name that is universal. If you visit any botanic garden in the world, the display plant label will remain the same, no matter the country. It may vary in design or style, but at the end, we all speak “plant language.”


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

You’ve undoubtedly noticed a tall, vertical grass, planted en masse, swaying in the wind at the entrance to the mall, in your neighbor’s yard, or most likely, at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) has, for good reason, become a staple in perennial gardens.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ by Daryl Mitchell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This hybrid of two species native to Europe and Asia can thank German nurseryman Karl Foerster (1874–1970), for discovering the species in the 1930s along a railway in Germany. It is reported that he pulled the emergency brake on the train he was riding in order to collect the plant. The cultivar ‘Karl Foerster’ was named to honor him.

Karl Foerster, son of a painter and an astronomer, was well known for his unique and innovative plant selections at his nursery in Potsdam-Bornim, Germany. The nursery focused on breeding hardy perennials from all over the world. Foerster successfully bred approximately 370 crosses, with a particular interest in clumping grasses, Delphiniums, and Phlox. Originally propagated at Foerster’s nursery, Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldstrum’ is another perennial that remains popular today. Foerster’s nursery endured difficult times over the years yet managed to survive the Great Depression and World War II, during which he is said to have employed Jewish friends despite the risk. As a plant breeder and garden designer, Foerster helped to popularize the use of grasses in garden design and heavily influenced the “New German Garden Style” which focuses on low-maintenance gardening and four-season interest. Those concepts continue to be popular in garden design today. 

Two more modern-day revolutionaries in the field of landscape architecture are Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. Both were inspired and influenced by Karl Foerster. In his book Gardening with Nature, van Sweden remarks “Foerster’s great contribution was to make plants the most important element of the garden, especially perennials and grasses. He was highly sensitive to seasonal variations and promoted the garden as a place of learning.” With inspiration from the arts, travel, and the influence of other garden styles, Oehme and van Sweden pioneered the “New American Garden Style.”

Mimicking the American prairie, this dynamic gardening style blends both native and cultivated plants with a goal of low maintenance. One can easily see similarities to the “New German Style.” At the Chicago Botanic Garden, Evening Island was designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates landscape architecture firm and is representative of the “New American Garden Style.” Sweeps of perennials and grasses weave harmoniously through the landscape of Evening Island, softening the transition between the formal gardens of the main island and the native Dixon Prairie. With perhaps a nod to the past, Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is a favorite of Oehme and van Sweden and in my opinion one of the stars of the Evening Island plant palette.

View of the landscape design of Evening Island, designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

Sweeps of perennials and grasses weave harmoniously through the landscape of Evening Island.

View of the landscape design of Evening Island, designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

Sandy-colored Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is a cornerstone of the landscape design by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

The most notable characteristic of Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ are the 5-foot flower stems that tower over a shorter but dense clump of narrow leaves. Purple-tinged plumes of flowers emerge in late spring and as the seeds (which are sterile) mature, the flower stalk turns a sandy color by fall. The seed stems continue to act as a vertical accent through the winter months making it truly a four-season plant. While full sun and well-drained soil with adequate moisture are ideal, this plant can tolerate some shade and heavier clay soils. However, you will see fewer flowers and floppier foliage with more shade. Drifts of this clumping grass are reminiscent of a field of wheat dancing back and forth in the wind. Interrupting the sweeps of grass with a pop of color from another perennial such as Leichtlins’ lily (Lilium leichtlinii), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), or purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) will add an element of surprise to the garden. While planning your garden for this year, take a leaf out of Foerster’s book and give Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ a try! 

Sources:

Reimann, Dorothy. “Herr der blühenden Gärten.” Monumente, June 2005, https://www.monumente-online.de/de/ausgaben/2005/3/herr-der-bluehenden-gaerten.php?seite=1#.WldsJK6nGUl (accessed January 23, 2018).

Rettig, Larry. “Karl Foerster’s Lasting Imprint on the World of Horticulture,” Cubits.org (blog), April 26, 2010, http://cubits.org/articlesongardening/articles/view/325/.

Van Sweden, James. Gardening With Nature: How James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme Plant Slopes, Meadows, Outdoor Rooms & Garden Screens. Random House Gardening Series, 1997.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Welcome to winter, one of the best seasons for gardeners. You have time to plan, prune, and enjoy those houseplants that don’t get much love during the outdoor growing season. Make the most of your winter gardening with these dos and don’ts from Chicago Botanic Garden experts.

DO prune your deciduous trees. From mid-November to mid-March, it’s much easier to prune because you’ll be able to better see a tree’s branching structure and there is less chance of transmitting diseases from one plant to another.

Winter is the perfect time to prune deciduous trees or remove nuisance buckthorn.

Winter is the perfect time to prune deciduous trees or remove nuisance buckthorn.

DON’T prune conifers. Needled evergreens can be pruned in late winter or early spring, before growth begins. Arborvitae should be pruned during spring and early summer.

DO water newly planted trees and shrubs that might be in the path of salt spray from salted roads during periods of winter thaw. Consider wrapping vulnerable trees to prevent damage from salt and extreme temperatures.

DON’T overwater houseplants. Because of shorter days and reduced humidity, most houseplants aren’t in an active growth phase, so they’ll require less water and fertilizer.

DO keep houseplants away from cold drafts, radiators, hot air vents, and cold windows. Plants growing in sunny east- or north-facing windows may benefit from being moved to a southern or western exposure for winter.

DON’T try to remove ice or snow that has frozen onto your outdoor plants. You might inadvertently damage them. Let it melt off on its own.

DO start to plan your garden for the new year. Order seeds and bulbs during the winter so you’ll be ready to plant in the spring. Need some help? Come to Super Seed Weekend on January 27 and 28 to talk to experts, attend a workshop, and find seeds and bulbs for your garden.

Ornithogalum 'Chesapeake Snowflake'

Ornithogalum ‘Chesapeake Snowflake’

Get more indoor and outdoor plant care tips with our monthly plant care checklists.

Plan for spring with a class in Front Yard Design, Backyard DesignGrowing Salads Indoors, or Small Space Food Gardens


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Why did five Midwestern horticulturists hike through the oak-hickory forests of the Missouri Ozarks? And why did we need a desiderata? The first question is easy—we were on the trail of specific wildflowers and woody plants to preserve and add to our collections.

Collections trip horticulturists Mike Jesiolowski, Tom Weaver, Josh Schultes, Kelly Norris, and Steve McNamara

Collections trip horticulturists Michael Jesiolowski, Tom Weaver, Josh Schultes, Kelly Norris, and Steve McNamara (left to right)

In a trip funded by the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), a consortium of public gardens, Tom Weaver (horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden) and I (senior horticulturist, Entrance Gardens) joined Kelly Norris (the trip leader) and Josh Schultes of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, along with Steve McNamara of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Before we left, our desiderata—or essential list of desirable plants we would target—was developed, based on what plants our gardens deemed important for conservation, to fill a gap in our collections, or add beauty to our display gardens. And of course, we had the proper state and federal permits in hand for seed collecting. The six areas that we explored were typically oak-hickory forests, which opened up to rocky-soiled glades and provided for plentiful opportunity for collecting wildflowers. With an eye for distinct plant material and genetic diversity, we roamed through the uneven Ozarks terrain, but we weren’t tied to our wish list—we also found a couple of surprises.

Glade opening at Roaring River State Park

Glade opening at Roaring River State Park

Since seed-grown plants are reproduced sexually through pollination, via wind or insects/animals, they are genetically variable. A variety of genes can give each plant the best chance to exhibit a specific phenotype, or physical appearance, and better adaptability to survive pests and diseases. Where seeds are collected could have significant implications on whether a plant can survive in a given environment or not. For instance, we collected seeds of Echinacea paradoxa (yellow coneflower) from its northern most growing region, in Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Missouri. Selecting seeds of Missouri provenance gives this wildflower a better chance of survival in our region, rather than if the seeds had been collected in Texas. Plants that have a different phenotype from what we commonly observe in northern Illinois were of special interest to us. Fruit from Diospyros virginiana (common persimmon) was collected on a 4-foot-tall tree in Mark Twain National Forest because it is unusual to see fruit on a tree of such short stature. In a similar fashion, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry), was collected from the Big Buffalo Creek Conservation Area, after we all remarked at the stunning ornamental quality of the fruit display.  

Yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)

Yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Josh Schultes examines some holly (Ilex decidua) for collection.

Josh Schultes examines possumhaw holly for collection.

In some cases, we came across desirable plants, but they had already dropped their seed for the year, or simply didn’t produce any due to drought-induced stress. With the aid of GPS, we marked these areas so future explorers to the Ozarks are aware of these plants for their potential collections. For example, Boyce Tankersley, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s director of living plant documentation, was a part of a team that collected in many of these same areas in 2005; their field data was helpful in our search.

Dotted blazingstar (Liatris punctata)

Dotted blazingstar (Liatris punctata)

Although the Ozarks region experienced a late-summer drought that negatively impacted seed production in some instances, we were still able to make 71 collections from October 12 to 16. Our seeds will be grown in our plant production greenhouses. Once they achieve a certain size, they will be distributed to PCC members and planted in the Garden. I am ecstatic to cross Liatris punctata (dotted blazingstar) off the desiderata for use in my gravel garden project in parking lot 1. The seeds we collected should be ready to plant in these beds in two years.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org