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.

The Long Road Home

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  December 11, 2014 — 1 Comment

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) is gaining ground in its native Oregon for the first time in more than 80 years. Recent reintroductions have seen the charismatic species flourish on its historic prairie landscape. To keep the momentum going, scientists are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the new populations are robust enough to endure.

“Genetic variability will be key to the reintroduction success of golden paintbrush,” explained Adrienne Basey, graduate student in the plant biology and conservation program of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University.

PHOTO: Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta).

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) growing in propagation beds in Oregon. Photo by Tom Kaye

Basey, who previously managed a native plant nursery, is now studying the genetic diversity of golden paintbrush plants before, during, and after they are grown in a nursery prior to reintroduction to the wild.

“My work is looking at the DNA, or genetics, of the wild, nursery, and reintroduction populations to see if there is any change through that process,” she said. If there is a change, she will develop recommendations for adjusting the selection and growing process to better preserve diversity. “My goal is to give both researchers and practitioners more information to work with,” she noted.

Building for the Future

The research is unique in the relatively young field of restoration science, according to Basey’s co-advisor and molecular ecologist at the Garden, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “Adrienne’s study is awesome because of the fact that it has data and the samples to back it up; it is early on in this game of reintroductions and restorations, and potentially could have a lot of impact, not just for that species but what we tell nurseries in the future,” he said.

PHOTO: Adrienne Basey with herbarium specimens.

Basey works with herbarium specimens

Basey is working with data collected over the past decade by research scientists at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Oregon, and University of Washington herbarium specimens from Washington and Oregon dating as far back as the 1890s, and data she has collected from existing plants during field work. “It’s a perfect partnership,” said Dr. Fant, who noted that the Garden is guiding the molecular aspect of the study while colleagues in Washington and Oregon are providing a large portion of the data and samples.

The availability of all of this information on a single species that is undergoing restoration is very rare, explained Fant. “It’s a very unique scenario that she has there, so we can look at how diversity changes as we go from step to step and hopefully identify any potential issues and where they are occurring in the process.”

The study itself will likely serve as a research model for other species in the future. “There isn’t much research out there to help propagators understand when and where genetic diversity may be lost during the production process,” said Basey’s co-advisor and conservation scientist at the Garden, Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.

Last year, Basey, Fant, and Kramer worked together to write a paper outlining ten rules to maximize and maintain genetic diversity in nursery settings. “My goal is to support reintroduction efforts by informing nursery practices and demonstrate to nurseries on a broader scale how their practices can influence genetic diversity through a single case study,” said Basey.

A Green Light Ahead

Her preliminary research is focused on four golden paintbrush populations. Early evaluations show clear distinctions between a few of them, which is good news. Basey will next compare those genetic patterns to those of plants in reintroduction sites.

According to Fant, earlier studies by other researchers have shown that many restoration efforts for threatened species suffer from low levels of genetic diversity prior to reintroduction, due to a number of causes ranging from a small population size at the outset to issues in propagation. It is critical to work around those issues, he explained, as the more genetic diversity maintained in a population, the better equipped it is to survive environmental changes from drought to temperature shifts.

Basey will also compare the current level of diversity of golden paintbrush to that of its historic populations, to get a better sense of what the base level should be for reintroduction success. She plans to wrap up her lab work well before her summer 2015 graduation date.

PHOTO: A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

A golden paintbrush is visited by its primary pollinator, a bumblebee.

For now, she is pleased with the level of diversity she sees in the current population. “I think the fact that it has a high genetic diversity means that these reintroductions could be successful,” she said. “But if we are creating a bottleneck, we need to know that so we can mitigate it as quickly as possible.” (A bottleneck is an event that eliminates a large portion of genetic variability in a population.)

Fant is enthusiastic about the timing of the study as the field of restoration is taking off. “We can jump in early as programs are being started,” he noted. “If we all learn together, I think it really does ensure that everyone gets what they need in the end.”

For Basey, it’s about building a bridge between the theoretical and the applied aspects of restoration. “My interest isn’t so much in this single species but more in the communication of science to practitioners. I like to bridge the line between research and the people who are using research,” she said.

Basey, like the golden paintbrush, is looking toward a bright future.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I’m a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have an incredible job that allows me to work with many wonderful graduate students and a team of researchers to study ways to restore natural areas in the Colorado Plateau.

If you’ve ever visited national parks like the Grand Canyon or Arches, you’ve experienced at least some of what the Colorado Plateau (also known as the Four Corners region) has to offer. It includes more than 80 million acres across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—and the largest concentration of national parks in the country.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer in the Colorado plateau.

Our research team heads out across a recently-burned area in search of data.

Although beautiful, the Colorado Plateau’s natural areas are facing many threats, including wildfires, a changing climate, and destructive invasive species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens). Working with many partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, we are studying which native plants may be best able to handle these growing threats (we refer to them as “native winners”). The ultimate goal is to help make restoration of these plants and habitats as effective as possible in order to maintain healthy natural areas that support wildlife and pollinators, and help keep our air and water clean.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer at Rio Mesa.

Another beautiful day at Rio Mesa

This is no small task. The invasive species that the native plants are up against are very impressive. For example, Russian knapweed is allelopathic (prevents other plants from growing nearby), and it has roots that can grow more than 20 feet deep, seeking the water table. Fortunately, some native species are also able to grow in these conditions, and some even appear to be evolving and adapting to be better competitors.

Three Northwestern University graduate students are working with me. Master’s student Nora Talkington is testing how different populations of a native grass are able to compete with Russian knapweed, while doctoral student Alicia Foxx is researching how different root structures of native plants help them compete with invasive species. Master’s student Maggie Eshleman is studying six native wildflower species including the smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia), which has tiny, fiery orange flowers. These wildflowers are likely “native winners” and are strong candidates for increased use when restoring habitat in the Colorado Plateau.

A rainbow of wildflowers for restoration:

  • Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens): This purple-flowered plant is good for pollinators, one of the few plants that flowers late in the season, and on top of that, is really good at growing in sites that need to be restored.
  • Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica): This cute little annual plant is often the only thing we find flowering and producing seeds during extreme drought years. It is very impressive!
  • Bee plant (Cleome lutea): This annual plant has gorgeous yellow flowers. It’s good at growing in disturbed areas and, as its name indicates, is a great forage plant for bees.
PHOTO: Cleome lutea.

Bee plant (Cleome lutea) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Sphaeralcea parvifolia.

Smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Machaeranthera canescens.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens or Dieteria canascens) by Maggie Eshleman

PHOTO: Plantago patagonica.

Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica) by Andrea Kramer

This summer was a busy one. My students and I spent many weeks in the Colorado Plateau working with collaborators to collect seeds (as part of Seeds of Success collectors—a national native seed collection program). These seeds are now being used for studies in the Garden’s research greenhouses and growth chambers, and at study plots in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. In the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, we are also using incubators to create spring- and summer-like conditions that will help us understand when and why seeds of certain species are able to germinate and grow. This is an important aspect of ultimately being able to restore species in a degraded habitat.

PHOTO: La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May.

La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May

How cool is it to be able to take research that’s been done on a small scale and actually apply it to the real world? I feel so lucky to be able to do this work, and being here at the Chicago Botanic Garden has allowed me to build long-term partnerships that investigate the application of research, rather than just focusing on publishing it. Stay tuned for updates on how these native winners perform.


This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s like having a time machine—supercomputers and gene sequencing allow scientists to study early events in plant evolution. 

One of our conservation scientists, Norman Wickett, Ph.D., is co-leader of a global initiative involving some 40 researchers on four continents. The team has spent the past five years analyzing 852 genes from 103 types of land plants to tease out early events in plant evolution. The results, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, expand our knowledge of relationships among the earliest plants on land.

An Infographic About Plant Evolution

Want to print out this infographic? Download a print version here.


Illustration by Maria Ciaccio
©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

There’s less mystery in the natural history of aquatic green algae and its relationship to land plants, thanks to research co-led by Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Norm Wickett, Ph.D., published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and GigaScience.

The study examined how major forms of land plants are related to each other and to aquatic green algae, casting some uncertainty on prior theories while developing tools to make use of advanced DNA sequencing technologies in biodiversity research.

“We have known for quite some time that all plants on land share a common ancestor with green algae, but there has been some debate as to what form of algae is the closest relative, and how some of the major groups of land plants are related to each other,” explained Dr. Wickett, conservation scientist in genomics and bioinformatics.

Over the past four years, he has collaborated with an international team of researchers on the study that gathered an enormous amount of genetic data on 103 plants and developed the computer-based tools needed to process all of that information.

The study is the first piece of the One Thousand Plants (1KP) research partnership initiated by researchers at the University of Alberta and BGI-Shenzhen, with funding provided by many organizations including the iPlant Collaborative at the University of Arizona (through the National Science Foundation), the Texas Advanced Computing Center, Compute-Calcul Canada, and the China National GeneBank. The results released this week were based on an examination of a strategically selected group of the more than 1,000 plants in the initiative.

Researchers dove into the genetic data at a fine level of detail, looking deeply at each plant’s transcriptome (the type of data generated for this study), which represents those pieces of DNA that are responsible for essential biological functions at the cellular level. In all, they selected 852 genes to identify patterns that reflect how species are related.

The study is consistent with ideas and motivations that parallel research Wickett is pursuing in work funded by the National Science Foundation program called “Assembling the Tree of Life.” Both studies seek to better understand how the earliest land plants that first appeared more than 460 million years ago evolved from green algae to yield the diversity of plants we know today.

DIAGRAM: Land plant tree of life.

The “land plant tree of life”

Understanding those lineages, Wickett explained, allows scientists to make better-informed decisions in their research pursuits, and illuminates historical environmental conditions that may have impacted evolution. “Knowing that set of relationships offers a foundation for all evolutionary studies about land plants,” he said.

Using Bioinformatics to Better Understand Our World

Wickett’s expertise in a field of science called bioinformatics allowed him to serve as one of the leaders in the data analysis process, which relied on a set of tools developed by the research team. Using those tools, Wickett helped develop the workflow for a large part of the 1KP study. “The tools we have developed through this project are able to scale up to bigger data sets,” he said. This is significant because “the more data you have, the more power you have to correctly identify those close relatives or relationships.”

By working with a large amount of data, explained Wickett, the team was able to resolve patterns that were previously unsupported. Until recently, the scientific community has largely believed that land plants are more closely related one of two different lineages of algae—the order Charales or the order Coleochaetales, which share complex structures and life cycle characteristics with land plants. However, the study reinforced, with strong statistical support, recent work that has shown that land plants are actually more closely related to a much less complex group of freshwater algae classified as Zygnematophyceae.

A Simpler Ancestor

It may mean that the ancestor of all land plants was an alga with a relatively simple growth form, like the Zygnematophycean algae, according to Wickett. More than 500 million years ago, that ancestral species split into two new species; one became a more complex version that colonized the land, and the other continued on to become the Zygnematophyceae we know today. The unique direction of both species was likely influenced by environmental conditions at the time, and this study may suggest that evolution could have reduced complexity in the ancient group that formed what we now recognize as Zygnematophyceae.

“Our new paper suggests that the order of events of early land plant evolution may have been different than what we thought previously,” said Wickett. “That order of events informs how scientists interpret when and how certain characteristics or processes, like desiccation tolerance, came to be; our results may lead to subtle differences in how scientists group mosses, liverworts, and hornworts, the lineage of plants (bryophytes) that descended from the earliest land plants.”

Wickett can’t help but feel encouraged by the wave of enthusiasm around the release of the publication. “When you get involved in these kinds of projects, it never seems as big as it is—you just get used to the scale. It’s been really great to get the public reaction and to see that people are really excited about it,” he said.

PHOTO: Norman Wickett, Ph.D.

Norman Wickett, Ph.D.

Where We Go from Here

Wickett will convene with the research team in January in San Diego to discuss next steps for 1KP, which will lead to the analysis of some 1,300 species. The team will likely break into subgroups to focus on sets of plants that share characteristics such as whether they produce flowers or cones, or have a high level of drought tolerance.

With the publication of this research, a door to the past has been cast wide open, offering untold access to natural events spanning some 500 million years. After such significant discovery it’s hard to imagine that there could be more in the wings. But with the volume of data generated by the 1KP project, there are certainly exciting results yet to come.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Clicking Through Time

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

In 1860s New Hampshire, botanical artist Ellen Robbins perched before her canvas, creating wildly popular watercolors of fall leaves. Books of her paintings sold well, landing in the hands of high society members such as fellow artist Gertrude Graves, a cousin of poet Emily Dickinson. Graves presented her copy of one such volume, Autumnal Leaves, to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1923, where it remained until being acquired by the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2002. Today, the historic, storied volume is accessible to us all via a visually crisp, easily navigated online library.

ILLUSTRATION: autumnal leaves.

Selection from Autumnal Leaves by Ellen Robbins

Autumnal Leaves is one of the historic books, postcards, and similar materials digitized and conserved by the Garden in recent years and now accessible via the Internet.

“It just opens up the opportunities for more people to see the wonderful pieces that we have,” said Leora Siegel, director of the Garden’s Lenhardt Library, which was established by the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society in 1951.

The Lenhardt Library’s impressive collection includes materials dating from 1483 to 1917, which are now available online to an expanded audience.

“In this age of e-books, these primary resources are something different. They are something really important to our civilization and culture,” said Siegel, who is delighted to help the public, scientists, historians, and artists from around the world access the remarkable materials.

PHOTO: Leora Siegel.

Leora Siegel directs the Garden libraries.

Publications originating in North America are predominant in the collection. Western European books that once resided in the private family libraries of dukes and earls are also included. In some cases, bookplates were traced back to their original owners.

“They were in private libraries and only the family could read them, and now they are on the web and anyone can get to them,” remarked Siegel. The international component of the digitized collection also includes ikebana illustrations from Japan.

These materials were part of a collection of some 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic periodical titles collected by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston before being purchased by the Garden in 2002. Since that time, grants including a $172,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2011, allowed the Garden to digitize 45 of the books that have traveled time and distance to reach us today.

What did South America’s tropical vegetation look like to illustrator Baron Alexander von Humboldt in the 1850s? How was the Horticultural Building portrayed in Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition?

The answers can be found in the preserved volumes and vintage postcards accessible via the Illinois Digital Archives and the Garden’s new digitized illustrations website, launched in September.

Front of advertising card showing the Horticultural Building at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, with inset of company logo.

Front of advertising card showing the Horticultural Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with inset of company logo.

Front of postcard showing a rowboat on a lake in front of the Horticultural Building at the World's Fair grounds in Chicago, 1934.

Front of postcard showing a rowboat on a lake in front of the Horticultural Building at the World’s Fair grounds in Chicago, 1934.

The new site houses illustrations from a significant number of titles and interpretive notes, and it is continuously updated with material. From books on grafting plants to postcards from flower shows, there is much to discover with cultural and scientific relevance.

ILLUSTRATION: Selection from Water-color Sketched of Plants of North America 1888 to 1910.

Selection from Water-color Sketches of Plants of North America 1888 to 1910 by Helen Sharp, Volume 08

“The botanical illustrations come close to our herbarium specimens in many cases because you really see the roots and the life cycle of the plant,” noted Siegel.

The majority of materials were digitized offsite by the premier art conservation center in the United States, the Northeast Document Conservation Center. When the processed files arrive at the Garden, metadata is added by Garden librarian Christine Schmidt. She then adds the files to a software program that allows them to be accessed through either website. A volunteer photographer also contributes to the files. In the most recent set of 45 digitized volumes, 18 are currently being processed and prepared for the site.

While the rare books are still available by appointment to those who can make it into the library, many of the books are delicate and will benefit from an increased percentage of online viewing into the future.

ILLUSTRATION: Bookplate from "Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America"

Selection from Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America: a series of views illustrating the primeval forests on the river Magdalena, and in the Andes of New Grenada

Allowing access to these materials online has yielded many rewards for those who made it possible, from contributing to research around the world to the reproduction of selected images in new book publications, which is done with special permission from the Lenhardt Library.

“People are really blown away,” according to Siegel. Garden exhibitions have benefited from the collection as well, such as the winter Orchid Show exhibition, which was enhanced by complimentary full-text access to some of the rare books from the online portal.

Next, Siegel hopes to digitize the Garden’s collection of an estimated 20,000 pages of manuscripts of scientists’ field notes.

“We have some unique one-of-a-kind manuscripts that no one else has,” she said. “This is just the start.”

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org