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.

Do you ever feel like trying to understand plant science research can be as daunting as deciphering a passage written in a foreign language?

As a budding plant scientist in the joint Chicago Botanic Garden/Northwestern University Ph.D. program, I find it exciting to pick through dense scientific text. Uncovering the meaning of a new acronym and learning new vocabulary can be thrilling, especially when decoding something new.

PHOTO: Kelly Ksiazek speaking in Sydney, Australia.

This past fall I spoke to a group of green infrastructure professionals in Sydney about the importance of urban biodiversity.

But the commonly used styles in scientific writing and presentation packed with language used to convey big topics in small spaces can be really off-putting to an audience of non-scientists. Many of us can conjure up a memory of a professor or teacher who seemed to like their subject matter but couldn’t convey the material in an interesting way. All of a sudden, science became boring.

Rather than struggling to learn this “foreign language,” many folks stop paying attention. Lack of scientific literacy, especially as it applies to plants, is a pity. Plants are all around us! They are so valuable to the entire planet. The very applicable field of botany shouldn’t be something that’s only discussed and understood in laboratories or scientific conferences—it should be for everyone.

This idea inspires me to try and bring my current botany research to a wide variety of people.

PHOTO: Ksiazek takes her presentation on the road to Pittsburgh.

I’ve had the chance to speak with many visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden about my research, and typically bring some of my research supplies, as seen here from a trip to Pittsburgh.

PHOTO: Growing UP in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Writing and publishing a children’s book helps bring my research findings to kids all over the world.

For example, I recently realized that there are very few resources available to teach young students about the habitat where I currently collect most of my data: green roofs. While some of the methods I use for data collection and analysis can be quite complex, the motivations behind my work and some of the findings can be broken down into some basic ideas, applicable to students of all ages. So a fellow botanist and I wrote and produced Growing Up in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Our children’s activity book teaches youngsters about some of our research findings. The book follows a pair of native bumblebees through a city, where they guide the reader through engaging activities about the structure, environmental benefits, and motivations for building green roofs. At the end, readers even have the opportunity to ask their own research question and carry out a green roof research project of their own.

Interested in your own copy of our book? More information and a free digital download of the book are available at greeningupthecity.com.

PHOTO: Ksiazek presents her work to a girls' middle school.

Talking to 100-plus middle school girls about why it’s cool to be a botanist was a great experience!

The activity book is just one example of ways that plant scientists can engage with a broader audience and make their research findings more accessible. Some of the other activities that my colleagues here at the Chicago Botanic Garden and I have participated in include mentoring undergraduate and high school students, speaking to community organizations, creating lessons for schools and school groups, volunteering for summer programs, and maintaining a presence on the Internet through online mentoring, blogging, websites, and Twitter.

PHOTO: Ksiazek and an undergraduate student identify green roof plants.

Teaching undergraduate students how to identify plants on green roofs is one way of passing on my research knowledge.

PHOTO: Ksiazek discusses her research with a visitor to the PCSC.

My experiments on the green roof at the Plant Science Center are visible to everyone. Come take a look!

Here at the Garden, we scientists also have a unique variety of opportunities to share our science with the thousands of visitors who come to the beautiful Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. If you’ve never been to the Plant Science Center, you should definitely stop by the next time you’re at the Garden. You can see inside the laboratories where the other scientists and I collect some of our data. There are also a lot of interactive displays that aim to demystify plant science research and decode some of the “foreign language” that science speak can be. For a really interactive experience, come visit us on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 6, and talk to scientists directly. Bring your kids, bring your neighbors, and ask a botanist all those burning plant questions you have! We promise to only speak as much “science” as you want.

For more information about my research and science communication efforts, please visit my research blog, Kelly Ksiazek’s Botany in Action, and follow me on Twitter @GreenCityGal.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When you dream of saving plants for a living, you don’t expect to wait for tribal elders to rule on whether you can get started…or to sleep in the sage-scented high desert on your first camping trip ever…or to walk through the woods to spray your hand-raised seedlings with a deer repellent that smells likes rotten eggs and garlic.

But when you are driven by a passion for plants, you do whatever it takes to move forward, said three alumni of a graduate program offered by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University. The two institutions combined their resources in 2005 to offer a unique program in plant biology and conservation; the program marks its tenth anniversary this year.

PHOTO: Tracy Misiewicz climbs into the canopy of a tropical rainforest to collect data on pollination.

Tracy Misiewicz climbs into the canopy of a tropical rainforest to collect data on pollination.

Students take courses at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University and work with researchers and faculty from both institutions. Alumni of the graduate program—which includes a doctoral track—are working for nonprofits and agencies including the Field Museum, the Morton Arboretum, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and participating in research projects in places including India, China, and Malaysia.

Here are the stories of these three graduates from the master’s program: 

Tracy Misiewicz

PHOTO: Masters graduate Tracy Misiewicz in the field.

Program graduate Tracy Misiewicz in the field.

Tracy Misiewicz’s research project was on hold, while the village elders poured fermented rice wine into the ground. During the ceremony, in the western mountains of Cameroon, the elders chanted in Bakossi, a Bantu language, asking their ancestors if Misiewicz—a native of Maryland who decided to become a scientist in the seventh grade—could enter the rainforest. Then the elders threw down a handful of cacao nuts to see if they would land in a certain order. They did; the ancestor had granted permission.

And that, recalled Misiewicz with a delighted laugh, is how she began her fieldwork in Cameroon. With her sister as a research assistant and their Ngomboku neighbor—a basket weaver—as a guide, Misiewicz trudged through the forest to look for Dorstenia, the second largest genus in the moraceae (mulberry) family. Dorstenia species—some of which are considered threatened or are already extinct—are used by indigenous people for medicinal purposes and show promise in their use in modern medicine. As part of her master’s thesis, Misiewicz looked at the family tree and evolutionary history of some species within the genus.

In Cameroon, Misiewicz and her sister learned how to cook local dishes and dance to local music. “You really get to know the people and the culture,” said Misiewicz. “When we left, we were crying, and the ladies in the village were crying.”

For her master’s research at the Garden, Misiewicz worked with adviser and Garden scientist Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., and Garden conservation scientist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “They are two of the smartest and nicest and most supportive mentors I could have had,” said Misiewicz, who went on to get her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. “They made science fun. They made me understand that when your experiment didn’t work out or things are going wrong, it’s OK. I learned to overcome and move forward and still love science…at Berkeley, my experience was wonderful, but there were times where I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m not having fun. Nothing is working.’ Always, I would think back to my experience at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and think, ‘I love science.’”

Misiewicz now works as a science project specialist for the Organic Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that focuses on research and education projects related to organic food and farming. The job is a good fit—she loves policy, science, and thinking through problems. “I think science is sort of like cooking in that you can follow a ‘recipe’ and learn to extract DNA,” Misiewicz said. “That’s not the hard part. It’s the thinking critically and creatively and problem solving, and understanding what’s going on. That’s what I really took away from the Garden…I learned how to think.”

Alicia Foxx

PHOTO: Masters program graduate Alicia Foxx with Northwestern University Provost Daniel Linzer, and Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw.

Program graduate Alicia Foxx with Northwestern University Provost Daniel Linzer, and Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw.

Alicia Foxx hit the ground running when she started her master’s degree program, under the supervision of Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., a conservation scientist at the Garden. “The second time I met her,” recalled Foxx, “we were getting on a plane” to work on a research project in the Southwest.

The two of them drove and camped in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, which covers parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, including the Grand Canyon. Foxx, a native of Chicago, had never slept outside or seen mountains before. And she had never seen the way that invasive species could choke out native plants, including bunch grasses and wildflowers.

“On paper, it was a very interesting subject,” Foxx said. “You’ve got invasive plants that are taking over the West. But I think seeing how there were pretty much one or two [native plants left] in a very large landscape and how we’re losing the plant diversity that we really need to gain back was very different than just learning about it. It made me think, ‘This work is really important.’”

Originally, as an undergraduate at Elmhurst College, Foxx had planned to become a veterinarian—until she worked with her advisor, a botanist, on an invasive species project. “I just loved it,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is really interesting, and plants are really cool.’” One day, while looking up a list of invasive plants on the Garden’s website, something else caught her eye. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a graduate program there?’ So I clicked on the link.”

Foxx was accepted into the Garden’s master’s program and, in June 2012, made the weeklong trip with Dr. Kramer to the Colorado Plateau. With a team of researchers, they gathered the seeds of promising native plants—those tough enough to thrive in harsh conditions—as part of the national Seeds of Success collection program.

For her master’s thesis, Foxx studied native species that may be able to compete with cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an invasive species in the Plateau. Now, she is a doctoral candidate in the plant biology and conservation program. “I am so excited about working at the Garden for another five or six years,” she said. On some days, especially in the summer, she gets to the Garden an hour early to visit favorite spots, including the English Walled Garden.

Someday, Foxx hopes to have a role similar to Kramer’s, as both a researcher and an advisor. “Andrea is a very intelligent researcher who thinks of rather elegant research questions,” Foxx said. “On the advising side, she is very kind, understanding, and patient, and this has helped me to grow as a scientist.”

Byron Tsang

PHOTO: Masters graduate Byron Tsang working in the field.

Program graduate Byron Tsang working in the field.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Byron Tsang—now a project manager and ecologist with the Chicago Park District—was a chemistry and biology major. Tsang, who grew up in Atlanta, thought he might go into some sort of disease research, specializing in immunology and diagnostics. But something else tugged at him.

With a passing interest in ecology, Tsang took some field ecology classes and volunteered to work on the North Branch Restoration Project. (The organization helps protect and restore native Illinois ecosystems along the North Branch of the Chicago River.) And on vacation in New Zealand, he happened to learn about a challenging ecological problem—a common weed was taking over pastureland needed for sheep. When he finished his undergraduate studies and decided to pursue a master’s degree, Tsang had settled on a new field: plant biology. “I thought, ‘Hey, I could actually do this for a living,’” Tsang recalled.

Tsang wasn’t sure what his master’s thesis would be about, but he knew that he wanted to focus on a local problem. “I ended up falling in love with midwestern ecology,” he said. His adviser, associate conservation scientist Daniel Larkin, Ph.D., steered him to the Garden’s Jim Steffen, a senior ecologist. Steffen, who is leading restoration efforts in the Garden’s McDonald Woods, mentioned an intriguing question: why had two native wildflowers—pointed-leaf tick trefoil and violet lespedeza—failed to take off in the Woods? (The two legume species had been able to grow in other area oak woodlands; both are indicator species that appear in healthy woodlands.) Tsang took on the question as his master’s thesis; as part of his research, he sprayed young seedlings in the woods with a smelly deer repellent.

Tsang’s connection to the Garden has continued in his work for the Park District’s Department of Natural Resources. When he heard about a Garden project to evaluate urban nature pockets—as part of its Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program—he realized that the Park District had a similar goal. This summer, he hopes to work with an REU intern in the Park District’s natural areas.

“My experience studying at the Garden really set the stage for my career as an ecologist,” Tsang said. “I learned a great deal about the intricate and often delicate ecological relationships that tie Chicago’s natural areas together, but equally important, I built invaluable personal relationships with academics, scientists, and restoration specialists in the Chicago area, all of whom I consider my colleagues and co-conspirators in my ongoing work at the Park District.”


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Unfolding the Mysteries of the Ravines

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  March 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

Standing guard along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the ravines are a naturally engineered filtration system from land to water.

Curving up from the flat lands of Illinois and arching alongside the coast into Wisconsin, their hills and valleys are filled with an abundance of foliage, plants, and animal life unlike any other ecosystem in the Chicago Wilderness region. Among other benefits, they help to filter rainwater. Rare plants, migratory birds, remnant woodlands, and fish are a part of this shadowed world that has long been entrenched in mystery for local residents and scientists alike.

As urbanization, erosion, increasingly intense weather events, and invasive plants begin to peel away at the perimeter of the ravines, it has become increasingly urgent for us to unwrap those mysteries and help protect the system that has long protected us.

New volunteers are welcome to dig in this spring and summer. Register to begin by attending a new volunteer workshop.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

“The ravines are one of Illinois’s last natural drainage systems to the lake,” said Rachel Goad, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. “They are delicate landscapes. It can be challenging to get in to them. It can be challenging to move around on the steep slopes.” Those challenges have not deterred Goad and a team of citizen scientists from digging in to look for solutions.

For 15 years, the many contributors to Plants of Concern have been collecting data in the ravines, with a particular focus on the rare plant species that can be found there. The data, now quite valuable due to its longevity, is a treasure chest for land managers and others who are trying to better understand the system and how to save it.

Goad and her team are now in the final stages of testing a vegetation assessment connected to a virtual field guide for the ravines. She hopes it will be completed by the end of this year. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for ravine restoration and management long term. The plant-focused sampling method, called a rapid assessment, is the third piece of a larger ravine-management toolkit that includes a way to evaluate erosion and stream invertebrates considered to be indicator species. The toolkit has been assembled by Plants of Concern and partner organizations in recent years.

“The idea is that a land manager or landowner could pull these tools off of the Internet—there would be data sheets and an explanation for how to use them, and these resources would provide a practical, tangible way for people to better understand the ravines,” explained Goad. She and her volunteers will test the protocol this summer, as they meander through the ravines with their notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment in hand. What they learn could benefit managers trying to determine whether to focus on vegetation management or restoring the stability of a ravine, for example. The toolkit, according to Goad, “is complementary to restoration and understanding these plant communities.”

The data, however, is only one piece of the solution. Goad believes the connections people make when monitoring the ravines are what will impress upon them the significance and urgency of the issue. Her goals are to create connections between people and their local natural communities, and to engage a more diverse representation of volunteers in the program.

“What Plants of Concern is doing is engaging local citizens, introducing them to ravines, and getting them interested in what’s happening in these mysterious V-shaped valleys around them,” said Goad.

In all, Plants of Concern monitors 288 species across 1170 populations in 15 counties, covering 13 habitat types.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Goad hopes that by growing connections between these ravines and those who live nearby, she can increase the chances that this system will continue to protect rare plant species and one of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. As a recent recipient of a Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship, administered by Audubon, Goad is intent on better understanding how to build such connections.

“We are working to make connections between monitoring and stewardship,” she said. “Monitoring can be a transformative experience.” Once a volunteer is in the field, navigating the terrain and gaining familiarity, they learn to see existing threats, such as encroachment by invasive species. Documenting these threats is important, but can feel disempowering if they’re not being addressed. Goad wants to show volunteers that there is something that can be done about the problems they encounter, and build a proactive understanding of conservation. “I believe in citizen science, which is the idea that anybody can do science and get involved in research,” she said.

Goad stepped in as manager of Plants of Concern just last year, after earning her master’s degree. It was like returning home in some ways, as she had previously helped to manage natural areas at the Garden.

In part because of that initial experience, “I knew I wanted to work in plant conservation,” she said. “It felt pretty perfect to get to come back and work with Plants of Concern. It’s an amazing experience to live in Chicago and to be able to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas in the region.”

Early spring ephemerals in bloom on a ravine bluff.

Early spring ephemerals bloom on a ravine bluff.

Plants of Concern has been a mainstay at the Garden for 15 years, dispatching committed volunteers to the ravines and other key locations across the Chicago Wilderness region to monitor and collect data on endangered, threatened, and rare species. The mounting data collected by the program is often used as baseline information for shifting or struggling species, and is shared with land managers. Through special projects, such as with one of the Garden’s recent REU interns, they have also contributed to habitat suitability modeling for rare species.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Mapping the Future of the Wild West

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  March 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Silvery-green sagebrush cascades over the canyons of the Great Plains and Great Basin in numbers that would strike envy into the hearts of most rare and endangered plants. The abundant species keeps the wheels turning in a system where struggling plant and animal species rely on it for life-sustaining benefits.

As the climate changes and brings new rainfall levels and other environmental conditions, will this important species transition to new locations? What are the potential consequences for its current neighbors? These questions concern Shannon Still, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: Dr. Shannon Still looks over the area of his research.

Dr. Still looks over the area of his research.

“Sagebrush is a very big part of the ecosystem in the West, and we need to see what is going to happen,” said Dr. Still. “It’s a workhorse species that is important for pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, and mice that live around it, and it helps to stabilize soils.”

Still made several trips into states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada in 2014 to investigate the likelihood of such a transformation and to help prepare land managers for the potential results. “When a climate changes, species often shift their location within it,” he explained. When that species has already become an integral part in the lives of its neighbors, it can mean a ripple of changes across the entire system.

It’s All About That Brush

PHOTO: Wyoming big sagebrush, the focus of the study.

Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus of the study

Standing in a thicket of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis), the focus species of his study, Still reaches into a 3-foot tall plant with his Felco 8 pruners to take a sample. (He’ll later send this sample to his collaborator in Utah who will confirm the subspecies identification through a genetic test.)

Still plots the location of the plant with his GPS unit, which he also uses to track his route through the dusty wilderness in the Garden research vehicle. He snaps a few photos for visual reference and makes notes in his computer tablet before moving on to the next site.

There are millions of plants out there now, Still estimates. So, he strategically collects information from 150 key locations during multiple visits. He then returns to the Garden to add the new information to his database, which also holds data from herbaria records he collected earlier.

At his desk in the Garden, he inputs new data. He then uses a software workflow he built himself to compare a map of the plants with a map of how the climate will look in those locations in future years. He runs models that overlay one map on top of the other to see where climate shifts will occur in the current species range. This allows him to predict where Wyoming big sagebrush will continue to prosper, and where it may disappear due to a lack of rain, too much rain, or temperature shifts, for example.

Staking a Claim

Still is excited about the ability of the software to provide climate-related analysis on sagebrush and other species. In fact, it’s the second study he has run with the program in the last two years since it was developed, using specialized algorithms for each.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden research vehicle parked in the field.

Colorado Rockies in the background; research subjects all around

First, he developed the software workflow to better understand how more than 500 rare species in the same western region might fare in the future if their environmental conditions change as predicted, and to which changes they are most vulnerable. The study results are like a crystal ball for land managers, identifying which species are most urgently in need of their care. The three-year investigation will come to a close in late 2015.

Already, both studies have received attention, with publications in the January issue of Nature Areas Journal authored by Still and his collaborators.

Still’s initial findings reveal that the Wyoming big sagebrush species already appears to be shifting. An anticipated increase in precipitation in the Great Plains and a drier climate in the Great Basin may lead to a contraction of the species into a smaller range, he explained. “By 2050, models show that 39 percent of the current climate for Wyoming big sagebrush will be lost.”

Still hopes that by identifying locations where sagebrush may fail to thrive, land managers can immediately focus on restoring areas that will continue to be suitable for the species long term.

PHOTO: Sagebrush in the canyon.

Sagebrush population in the canyon

“We don’t expect sagebrush to go extinct,” said Still. “But we may lose plants in areas where we don’t want to lose them, or more rapidly than we hoped. That could lead to more erosion or the loss of suitable habitat.”

Always moving forward, Still is continuing to work with the data, now adding details about plant locations such as the slope of the land and the direction they face. With those details, he will run new models in the future.

The wild West once again finds itself at the forefront of exploration and change. If Still has any say in the matter, its mysteries and historic charm will endure.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

For this year’s Orchid Show, we’ve gathered stories about the most famous orchid of them all: the genus Vanilla. (Yes, vanilla is an orchid.) One unusual story comes from Ph.D. student Lynnaun Johnson, whose work in our doctoral program in Plant Biology and Conservation took him to Mexico, the native land of edible vanilla.

 

Last April, I ventured to Mexico as part of an international team investigating how cultivation practices influence the growth and health of the orchid Vanilla planifolia.

Vanilla planifolia produces the seedpods used to make vanilla, the spice used for flavoring desserts and beverages, and for providing wonderful aromas in candles, perfumes, and many other things. This collection trip would take me to vanilla’s native habitat of Mexico. All varieties of vanilla originated in Mexico, including those of Madagascar and Tahiti.

Vanilla cultivation

PHOTO: Vanilla planifolia bloom.

Tahitian vanilla is a hybrid of V. planifolia (shown) and V. odorata. Photo by H. Zell CC-BY-SA-3.0

While in Mexico, I visited three farms in the state of Veracruz and one in the state of Puebla. It was fascinating driving to these vanilla farms with my Mexican collaborators. It took us three days of traveling to complete our field collections. Each of the four farms had very different methods of growing V. planifolia. For instance, one of the farmers said he knew what his plants needed and thought growing his vanilla on concrete blocks was the best method. At another farm, the farmer brought decaying wood from a neighboring forest and used it as mulch for his vanilla plants that grew on living posts known as “tuteurs.” This was different from the other farmers who grew their vanilla on trees in the forest and wooden dead “tuteurs.”

Each of the plantations had different soil texture. At the last organic farm, the soil was compact and hard. At the farms that were in the forest, the soil appeared rich and softer. There is no way to quantify the terrestrial root growth, but I did note that the roots in the organic farms were longer and healthier, with some growing up to 4 or 5 feet when we dug the roots up from the soil.

PHOTO: A view of the Pantapec vanilla farm.

At the Pantapec farm in the state of Puebla, Mexico, vanilla is cultivated in a highly managed environment.

PHOTO: A view of the 1 de Mayo vanilla farm

By contrast, the vanilla grown at 1 de Mayo farm in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, is cultivated in a completely natural environment.

The benefits of fungi

PHOTO: Orchid tissue microscopy at 100x.

Research on rare and endangered orchids usually focuses on finding fungi to help in the germination of orchids. We know that orchids will only germinate in nature using fungi. In addition, fungi living inside of plant leaves can benefit the plants’ health by preventing pathogens from growing. Also, bacteria living within the plants and fungi can be beneficial in the same way as the endophytic fungi. (Photo: V. planifolia tissue microscopy at 100x)

My part of the research project is to collect root samples from V. planifolia from each of these different farms to study the fungi and bacteria inhabiting this orchid. Currently, not much is known about the microbes (fungi and bacteria) that reside in orchid roots. Some fungi and bacteria can cause diseases. For example, with the appearance of a fungal pathogen such as Fusarium oxysporum, Mexican farmers can lose 67 percent of their crops when the Fusarium causes the rotting of the Vanilla’s stem and roots. On the other hand, there are beneficial fungi that inhabit roots, known as mycorrhizal fungi. These beneficial symbiotic fungi acquire mineral nutrients for the Vanilla, and sometimes receive carbon from the orchid in exchange. Although 90 percent of plant species have mycorrhizal fungi, and while we have a good understanding of mycorrhizal fungi of some of these relationships, relatively little is known about the mycorrhizal fungi of orchids, including V. planifolia. The reason for this is that isolating and growing the fungi and bacteria associated with orchid roots can be difficult, and some have never been grown outside of their host.

At each farm, I wanted to sample five individual plants of V. planifolia. Additionally, because of the lifestyle of this orchid, I also wanted to sample the above-ground roots (epiphytic) and the below-ground (terrestrial) roots in the soil. Using either a scissors or a scalpel, I cut small root samples and placed them into Ziploc bags. The vanilla plants are very precious to the farmers, and so a few were initially uncomfortable with our cutting off pieces, but ultimately they were very accommodating.

Epiphytic or terrestrial?

PHOTO: The Vanilla orchid's epiphytic roots.

Typically, vanilla grows as a vine, with two types of roots: epiphytic roots (those that wrap around trees or other structures) and terrestrial (soil) roots. This is referred to as hemiepiphytic, because it starts in the ground and grows upward onto the tree’s bark. Many research papers suggest that epiphytic roots do not harbor many fungi, because these roots can photosynthesize, and do not need mutualistic fungus partners.

Back here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I am in the process of evaluating the microbial community that lives in the root samples I collected. We are using a new technique called high-throughput sequencing that will enable me to evaluate the entire fungal and bacterial community within the orchid’s roots by using their DNA as a way to fingerprint the individual species of microbes. We are not certain how many species of fungi and bacteria we will find, but we predict that this method will give us a good picture of the fungal and bacterial community in these roots and if these communities differ among the different farming techniques. These data will be used to better understand how epiphytic orchids utilize mycorrhizal fungi and refine the best conditions to grow vanilla and prevent diseases in the plants.

This research trip was a delight, not only because of the samples that I collected, but also because I could learn more about how vanilla is grown and used. The farmers showed us how they cure and prepare the vanilla by fermenting it in the sun and before drying it thoroughly. I also tasted homemade “vanilla moonshine,” generously offered by the farmer’s wife. When visiting Papantla, I learned about the Aztec myth that explained how forbidden love created the sacred vanilla orchid. And of course, I was elated because I usually spend the majority of my research time in the lab. And here I was in the tropics, after spending the previous months facing the bitter Chicago 2014 winter.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org