Archives For Plant Science & Conservation

Conserving plants is one of the most significant challenges of our time—and a major focus at the Chicago Botanic Garden. From studying soil to banking seeds, from restoring habitats and protecting endangered plant species to developing new ones, Garden scientists are fighting plant extinction, pollution, and climate change through diverse and exciting research.

Studying Fungi Amid the Ghost Orchids

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  January 24, 2017 — 1 Comment

Just like magic, a ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) appears overhead in a Florida swamp. Its pale roots extend like gloved fingers across the bark of a pond apple tree (Annona glabra), while its graceful flower reflects onto the shadowed water below.

Epiphytic ghost orchid roots cling to pond apple tree. Photo @ Lynnaun Johnson

Epiphytic ghost orchid roots cling to a pond apple tree. Photo @ Lynnaun Johnson

Doctoral student Lynnaun Johnson wades over for a closer look. Habitat is shrinking for this reclusive orchid, and he is using a unique approach to better understand the species’ uncommon lifestyle.

During March 2016 fieldwork in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Johnson went deeper every day—even when it meant paddling his canoe within 10 feet of a sunstruck alligator to reach the widely dispersed plants. Each time he located an orchid, he looked past the plant and took a sample from the bark of its host tree.

“What I’m interested in primarily is identifying the fungi within the habitat of these particular orchids,” said Johnson. “If you are going to place a ghost orchid out in nature and it can’t acquire nutrients or it doesn’t form the right associations with mycorrhizal fungi, it’s not going to survive,” he explained. “If these trees have a particular suite of fungi, that might be something that we need to consider in terms of a healthy population.”

Species within the orchid family are generally known to depend on fungi to help them through key stages of life, such as growing from a seed into a seedling. But there are differences in how those partnerships work. When an orchid lives in soil, the fungi help move water and nutrients to and from the roots. But when the orchid lives on a tree, scientists are less certain of what occurs.

Lynnaun Johnson wades toward a ghost orchid.

Lynnaun Johnson wades toward a ghost orchid.

Until recently, they believed that orchids growing on trees were less likely to depend on fungi long term. This belief was encouraged by the discovery that the prominent roots of plants like the ghost orchid actually conduct photosynthesis—a process in which sunlight becomes sugar. That process is managed by leaves in many other orchid species. If the roots are so full of nutrients, do they really need any help from fungi?

A ghost orchid grows in the wild. Photo © Rebecca Weil.

A ghost orchid grows in the wild. Photo © Rebecca Weil.

They sure do, said Johnson and his collaborators, who examined the roots of another tree-bound orchid species, the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia). Using modern technology called high-throughput sequencing that can produce more detailed results than ever before, they found that epiphytic orchids—those that grow on trees—also rely on fungi to carry out essential functions. “We know the importance of photosynthesis, but that doesn’t mean if a plant is photosynthesizing it’s healthy. It means it will continue to rely on fungi to grow and develop,” said Johnson. He recently documented the presence of fungi in the roots of ghost orchid root samples from his field work.

Back in the field, Johnson wondered if the type of fungi present on certain tree species is what led the ghost orchids to select them as their home over other trees. In the Florida refuge, the orchids are found only on pond apple and pop ash trees (Fraxinus caroliniana). So during his fieldwork, he sampled both types of trees, some with and some without orchids. As a point of comparison, he also sampled the bark of bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum). He plans to conduct more fieldwork this spring before examining the bark for fungi.

The number of ghost orchids in Florida has dwindled as more and more swamps have been drained to build new housing complexes to accommodate a growing population. There have also been times when the trees in the swamps were logged.

Lynnaun Johnson samples bark.

Lynnaun Johnson samples bark.

Johnson will later examine the roots of other orchid species that neighbor the ghost orchids on trees. This will further clarify the importance of fungi to the ghost orchid, which he suspects relies on the fungi more than neighboring orchid species. He also has his eye on a population of orchids growing naturally in Cuba on a larger number of trees that he hopes to study as well.

Johnson aims to help people understand that there is more than a one-to-one relationship in nature, and that multiple partnerships contribute to the health of each species and system. For example, “if we understand the significance of host trees, then we can preserve both the host trees and epiphytic orchids at the same time,” he said.

Orchids may become a lifelong pursuit for Johnson, who moved to Illinois from his childhood home on the island of St. Lucia to pursue his studies. He hopes to specialize in the study of fungi as it relates to plants and the conservation of wild lands and waters.

Read more about orchid research at the Garden, and be sure to visit the Orchid Show, open February 11 through March 26, 2016.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Rooting for Native Plants

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

Competition is heating up in the western United States. Invasive and native plants are racing to claim available land and resources. Alicia Foxx, who studies the interplay of roots of native and invasive plants, is glued to the action. The results of this contest, says the plant biology and conservation doctoral student at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, could be difficult to reverse.  

Cheatgrass, which is an aggressive, invasive plant with a dense root system, is in the lead and spreading quickly across the west. Native plants are falling in its wake—especially when it comes to their delicate seedlings that lead to new generations.

Foxx is one of the scientists working to give native plants a leg (or root) up. She hypothesizes that a carefully assembled team of native plant seedlings with just the right root traits may be able to work together to outpace their competition.

PHOTO: Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in Southeastern Utah.

Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in southeastern Utah.

“We often evaluate plants for the way they look above ground, but I think we have to look below ground as well,” she said. Foxx’s master thesis focused on a native grass known as squirreltail, and her hypothesis addressed the idea that the more robust the root system was in a native grass, the better it was at competing with cheatgrass. Now, “I’m looking more at how native plants behave in a community, as opposed to evaluating them one by one… How they interact with one another and how that might influence their performance or establishment in the Colorado plateau.”

In the desert climate, human-related disturbances such as mining, gas exploration, livestock trampling, or unnaturally frequent fires have killed off native plants and left barren patches of land behind that are susceptible to the arrival of cheatgrass.

PHOTO: Seedlings in the growth chamber.

Seedlings in the growth chamber

“Some of our activities are exacerbating the conditions [that are favorable for invasive plants]. We need to make sure that we have forage for the wildlife and the plants themselves, because they are important to us for different reasons, including the prevention of mudslides,” she said. “We are definitely confronted with a changing climate and it would be really difficult for us to reverse any damage we have caused, so we’re trying to shift the plant community so it can be here in 50 years.”

Garden conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. advises Foxx, and her mentorship has allowed Foxx to see how science theories created in a laboratory become real-life solutions in the field. “I think I’m very fortunate to work with Andrea, who works very closely with the Bureau of Land Management…it’s really nice to see that this gets replicated out in the world,” said Foxx. Seeds from their joint collecting trip in 2012 have been added to the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Alicia Foxx loves to walk through the English Walled Garden when she steps away from her work.

In a way, Foxx is also learning from the invasive plants themselves. To develop her hypothesis, she considered the qualities of the invasive plants; those that succeeded had roots that are highly competitive for resources. After securing seeds from multiple sources, she is now working in the Garden’s greenhouse and the Population Biology Laboratory to grow native plants that may be up to the challenge. She is growing the seedlings in three different categories: a single plant, a group of the same species together, and a group of species that look different (such as a grass and a wildflower). In total, there will be 600 tubes holding plants. She will then evaluate their ability to establish themselves in a location and to survive over time.

PHOTO: Seedlings: on the right is a sunflower (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii).

On the right: a sunflower seedling (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii)

There has been very little research on plant roots, but Foxx said the traits of roots, such as how fibrous they are, their length, or the number of hair-like branches they form, tell us a lot about how they function.

“I’m hoping that looking at some of these root traits and looking at how these plants interact with one another will reveal something new or solidify some of the theories,” said Foxx.

She aims to have what she learns about the ecology of roots benefit restorations in the western United States. It is possible that her findings will shape thoughts in other regions as well, such as the prairies of the Midwest. Future research using the seeds Foxx collected could contribute to the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, of which the Garden is a key resource for research and seeds for future restoration needs.

The Chicago native has come a long way since she first discovered her love of botany during high school. After completing her research and her Ph.D., she hopes to nurture future scientists and citizen scientists through her ongoing work, and help them make the connections that can lead to a love of plants.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Botanic gardens are looking at the ways that zoos are trying to save threatened and exceptional species—including whooping cranes, black-footed ferrets, and giants pandas—to see if their approach could be adapted and used to help save rare plant species.  

Over the past year, the Chicago Botanic Garden has been working with the Brookfield Zoo, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and other institutions to modify management tools developed for zoo living collections for botanic garden use.

Scientists and curators at botanic gardens and zoos both manage populations—of plants and animals, respectively—for conservation purposes. This type of conservation, outside the habitat of the plant or animal, is called “ex situ” (off site) conservation. There is a lot of similarity between the best practices for living collection management at zoos and botanic gardens, but to date, we have not often worked together to adapt tools developed for animals to plants and vice-versa.

This may be due, in part, to the fact that plant conservation relies heavily on seed banking. Storing seeds is an effective conservation method for most plant species, and avoids many of the problems associated with growing plants in the garden. (Living plants may be killed or injured by diseases and pests, may hybridize with other plants in the garden, and over several generations, may change genetically in ways that make them less suited for reintroduction.) However, many plant species are not well-suited for seed banking, either because their seeds are recalcitrant—they cannot be dried and frozen—or because some plants rarely produce seeds. Living collections offer an alternative conservation method for these “exceptional” species.

PHOTO: Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

In this recent paper in the American Journal of Botany, we describe an approach that botanic gardens could adopt to improve their management of rare plant species—based on the “studbook” approach zoos use for animals. We hope to test this approach in two rare plants next year: Quercus oglethorpensis (Ogelthorpe oak—found only in the southeastern United States), and Brighamia insignis (Ālula—found only on Kauai in Hawaii).

PHOTO: Quercus oglethorpensis.

Quercus oglethorpensis
Photo ©2015, Virginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation

PHOTO: Brighamia insignis.

Brighamia insignis

It is clear that zoos and botanic gardens have much to learn from each other, and we hope to work more with our zoo counterparts in the future.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Plants of Concern volunteers come from many backgrounds, but all share a common denominator: not surprisingly, they are concerned about plants.

PHOTO: The beautiful Cypripedium candidum, one of the many rare plants Plants of Concern monitors.

The beautiful Cypripedium candidum, one of the many rare plants Plants of Concern monitors

So concerned are these citizen scientists, in fact, that they are willing to traipse all over our region of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana to monitor hundreds of rare, threatened, and endangered species in a variety of habitats. Their findings help plant scientists understand and work to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as encroaching urbanization and invasive species.

Here are profiles of three Plants of Concern volunteers, in their own words. We hope these stories inspire you to consider joining their ranks. Another Plants of Concern volunteer recently blogged about her experience as a newbie with relatively little plant-related expertise, and you can find that post here.

Kathy Garness

PHOTO: Kathleen GarnessBachelor’s degree from DePaul University in visual arts; master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University. Worked for many years as a director of religious education in the Episcopal church, in the commercial art field for more than a decade, and now as administrator and a lead teacher in a nature-based preschool. Earned a botanical art certificate from the Morton Arboretum. Helped develop the Field Museum’s Common Plant Families of the of the Chicago Region field guide.

I started volunteering with Plants of Concern in 2002. I learned about POC after a chance meeting at the REI store in Oakbrook with Audubon representative and Northeastern Illinois University professor Steve Frankel. Steve told me about POC, and that meeting changed my life in a huge way.

I monitor 25 species at nine different sites, including Grainger Woods in Lake County; Theodore Stone in Cook County; several high-quality prairies in Cook, DuPage, and McHenry Counties; and Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. POC assigned them to me because of my interest in and ability to ID many species of native orchids (there are more than 40 just in the Chicago region). But I monitor other plants besides orchids.

PHOTO: Kathy Garness leads a tour at Illinois Beach State Park.

Kathy Garness leads a tour at Illinois Beach State Park. Photo by Michael Rzepka, Forest Preserve District of Will County

Volunteering for POC differs from most other volunteering positions I’ve held [at the Art Institute and the Field Museum] because there is a lot of independence, and also much more technical training. This citizen science is vital to the sites’ ecologists—most agencies don’t have enough funding to pay staff to collect the valuable, detailed information we do. Volunteers also are highly accountable, and you need to be really sure about your species. That knowledge comes over years of participation, but even if someone just participates once, and goes out with a more experienced monitor, the information collected helps fill gaps in our understanding of our natural areas. And it’s way more fun than playing Pokémon, once you get the hang of it!

My advice for prospective volunteers is to go out first with more experienced monitors. Learn from them—they are better than a digital (or even paper) field guide. Clean your boots off carefully beforehand; don’t track any weed seeds into a high-quality remnant. Observe more than just the monitored plants—look for butterflies, listen for birds, notice the dragonflies and frog calls. Tread lightly and watch your step. Bring extra water and a snack. Use bug spray. Learn what poison ivy is but don’t be afraid of it—just don’t get it on your skin! No matter how hot it is, I wear long trousers, long sleeves, a broad-brimmed hat, and thin leather gloves. Never, ever, go out in the woods alone. Let people know where you are going and when you plan to return. Watch the weather signs. Keep your cell phone charged and with you at all times.

Above all, enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience!

Fay Liu 

Bachelor’s degree in agriculture technology/animal sciences from Utah State University; master’s degree in food science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Trained as a food-science researcher focusing on meat quality. Researched pork quality for a commercial pig farm/processing plant and a pig genetic company.

PHOTO: Fay Liu on a foray for Plants of Concern.

Fay Liu enjoys a foray. Photo by Plants of Concern

I have been volunteering with Plants of Concern since 2012. I am interested in nature and enjoying the outdoors, and this is a fantastic program for me. My family always spent time hiking and fishing on weekends. I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, where we had easy access to mountains and the ocean—unlike in the Midwest. We also had a container garden on top of our four-story building, and I helped to take care of the plants.

For POC I primarily volunteer at Openlands, which is about 20 minutes from my house. However, I have also volunteered farther away, south to Will County, east to the city of Chicago, and north to Zion.

Plants of Concern involves many aspects of science: identifying target plants and knowing the plants surrounding them, locating target populations, and using statistical methods to measure populations. For me, the most fun thing is learning new things each time I come out to the field. Maybe it’s a new plant that I have never seen before, or a new hiking route. The most frustrating times are when it’s hard to find the target plant because the population is low.

The advice I have for prospective volunteers is to keep your curiosity alive!

Karen Lustig

Bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; master’s degree in botany from the University of Minnesota. Has taught botany at Harper College since 1987.

PHOTO: Karen Lustig on the prowl for Plants of Concern.

Karen Lustig on the prowl for Plants of Concern

I have been interested in plants since I can remember. My father loved to hike, and my mother was a gardener. Instead of moving furniture around, my mother moved plants. We spent a lot of time outside.

I have volunteered with Plants of Concern since its beginning. I monitored white-fringed prairie orchids with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and many other plants with the Nature Conservancy even before then. I knew people (still do) at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I heard about the program from them, so it was sort of a transfer. I remember that when POC started, we worked in forest preserves. I understood why there was a desire to work in protected lands, but I said we needed to include other properties. And the program expanded beyond the preserves!

I actively monitor for POC at Illinois Beach State Park (IBSP) and also help out at Openlands when I have time. The forays are great fun. That’s my favorite thing: getting out there and being with other people and learning about new plants. At IBSP, visitors are expected to stay on the trail. Of course, most plants don’t grow right on it, but you can usually spot them. Once I was looking around for plants and saw this guy sort of thrashing around in the cattails. I reported him since he looked so bizarre out there, and it turns out he was a skipper [butterfly] expert taking samples for the Karner blue butterfly project. I met him later…a really nice guy, it turns out!

What makes Plants of Concern special is that it is so well run. The staff is quick on feedback and offers lots of help. The training programs are excellent. I’ve heard some terrific speakers, too. Other organizations sometimes don’t seem to have quite the staff or funding for their programs, which can make volunteering challenging. If I had to identify the biggest challenge as a POC volunteer, it would be the paperwork. With POC you can do the entry online, which helps. But filling out forms remains my least favorite thing to do…I just filled out a form [in August] for data collecting I did in May.

My advice to new Plants of Concern volunteers is to go to the workshops—even if you think you know the stuff. It’s amazing what you can learn. And when you first go out, it can be hard just to find the plants, even using a GPS, much less to know what to do when you find them. So go with experienced people!

Students at Harper College have volunteer workdays, and when mine return to the classroom after volunteering with POC groups, they always talk about how knowledgeable and interesting the volunteers are—and these are college environmental science students. It’s great that people can get together and share not just their knowledge but their enthusiasm through Plants of Concern.

poc-monitoring-flagsJoin the ranks of the dedicated people of Plants of Concern: volunteer today.


Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Expedition to Door County

Pati Vitt —  September 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

Last June, I headed up to Door County, Wisconsin, with Kay Havens, our director of plant science and conservation,  for a 31-day trip to undertake our annual fieldwork. “A month at the beach!” you say, thinking it such a treat! Well, yes and no.

Four undergraduate students in our REU program joined us to track literal life and death events in two plant populations on the dunes of Lake Michigan. The dunes can be more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than ambient temperatures, and we work in the interdunal swales, where no lovely breezes off the lake can reach us. It is often well over 95 degrees in the dunes, even if it’s a balmy 75 degrees in Sturgeon Bay. But, no matter—we are on a mission! On days with the hot sun both beating down and reflecting up from the sand, we observed, measured, and recorded the births, deaths, and reproductive successes of one of our favorite plants: the threatened pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). 

PHOTO: Pitcher's thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

We find every seedling we can, and place a flag next to it to help us keep track of the ones we’ve counted. We don’t want to miss a single one. Each seedling is a measure of successful reproduction for this monocarpic perennial. Monocarps—plants that only flower once before they die, are completely dependent upon producing as many successful offspring as they can, all in the quest to ensure that they just replace themselves. When all plants successfully replace themselves, a population is stable.

Just to replace yourself is a monumental undertaking for a plant that flowers once and then dies. Especially for pitcher’s thistle. The dunes are a harsh environment for a tiny baby plant. Many of them die—exposed to the heat, and without enough water to sustain them. We estimate that fewer than one in ten seeds germinate and survive each year, and in some years, only a small percent of those survive the winter to become a juvenile plant the next year. That means that each flowering plant must produce many seeds to replace itself. The good news? Generally, if a seedling survives to the juvenile stage, it has a much increased chance of survival to make it to the next stage—a vegetative plant—and the vast majority of those go on to reproduce at some point.

PHOTO: Kay Havens, ready to record data at Ship Canal Nature Preserve, owned by the Door County Land Trust.

Kay Havens is ready to record data at Ship Canal Nature Preserve, owned by the Door County Land Trust.

However, seed germination and seedling survivorship and growth depend upon two things: where you come from and where you live. To look at this, we took 100 seeds from each of our two study populations and grew them in “seed baskets” in our study garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. We also grew the same number in seed baskets at their respective home sites. Regardless of population, they germinated and grew very readily in our study garden. But there were very stark differences at our study sites in Door County: seed germination was 39% at one site, but only 9% at the other.

PHOTO: Pitcher’s thistle seedlings sprouted in one of our seed baskets at the Ship Canal Nature Preserve.

Pitcher’s thistle seedlings sprouted in one of our seed baskets at the Ship Canal Nature Preserve. The pair of yellow-green “leaves” opposite each other are actually cotyledons, or seed leaves, and are the first photosynthetic organs to emerge from the seed during germination.

PHOTO: These are Pitcher's thistle seedlings that have grown very large under the favorable conditions of the test garden on the south side of the Plant Science Center.

These are pitcher’s thistle seedlings that have grown very large under the favorable conditions of the test garden on the south side of the Plant Science Center. In just one growing season, they have grown as large as plants three to four years old that grow under natural conditions.

Why the difference? Well, our first site is definitely more hospitable! Even we are happier to work here. It’s not nearly as hot, and the dune structure is more flat, so the breeze off the lake makes things more pleasant—for plants and people alike! And it appears to this observer’s eye that there’s more water available close to the surface here. This year, there are two large patches in the dune that have been perpetually damp. In contrast, our second population is literally high and dry, making life hard for the little pitcher’s thistle seedlings. How does this affect the prospects of these two populations overall? Stay tuned! We’ll let you know when we have finished our analysis of the long-term trends at these two very different sites.

One plant, two places—offering a fascinating glimpse of a life of contrasts.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org