Imagine a winter landscape: White birches reflect the December sun. Snow drifts around the bare trunks. A glaze of ice gives a silvery cast to evergreens. Such a scene was the inspiration for the topiary trees designed by the horticulture staff for this year’s Wonderland Express.

PHOTO: Finished topiary tree.

Tillandsia ‘Black Beauty’, Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’ and ‘Ruby’, and the spoon-shaped succulent leaves of Cotyledon ‘Orbit’ make up this 3-foot topiary.

The popular holiday event, with its indoor model train display and miniature replicas of Chicago-area landmarks, offers something for visitors of all ages and interests. The topiary room in Joutras Gallery recreates a winter scene from plants you don’t typically see in holiday arrangements. Drifts of white poinsettias resemble an undulating snowfall, and the frosty evergreens are constructed from hundreds of diverse air plants and succulents. The result is an unusual horticultural presentation that feels both wintry and alive.

The display may also give visitors ideas for incorporating different types of plants into their home holiday décor. Hens and chicks, Tillandsia, aloe, mother-in-law tongue, and agave can all be incorporated into beautiful arrangements to last all winter. Construction of a basic topiary tree is relatively simple, and gardeners looking for an indoor project might consider creating a tabletop topiary for their home.

Here’s how we did it:

Liz Rex stuffing the topiary tree frame

Bags of styrofoam peanuts fill the tree frame, covered by a layer of sphagnum moss. You’ll want gloves for the moss—it can be pointy, and a skin irritant.

  1. Stuff it! We started by stuffing cone-shaped frames with bags of styrofoam peanuts. The bags have some give and are relatively lightweight, yet help anchor the plants used to cover the frame. The topiary forest in the Joutras Gallery has a central tree standing 8 feet tall, surrounded by six smaller trees. For the biggest trees we used Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’, Sansevieria parva, Cryptanthus fosterianus ‘Elaine’, and Euphorbia stenoclada. A tabletop tree for the home could stand 12 to18 inches tall, and be composed of more delicate air plants (Tillandsia).
  2. It’s a wrap! We took fishing line and wound it around the frame to create a grid for extra support.
  3. Gather moss. Next, we covered the frame with handfuls of sphagnum moss. The moss medium holds moisture needed to keep the plants healthy and happy. If you’re trying this at home, it’s a good idea to wear plastic gloves when handling the moss. You can also use floral oasis foam cut to shape as an alternative to the frame and moss.
  4. Insert plants. We used floral wire and sod staples to poke plants through the moss and into the Styrofoam. For smaller plants, such as the Tillandsia, wrap the wire in an inconspicuous place at the base of the plant, and twist the ends into a pick. Larger plants are held in place with the staples inserted at an angle and hidden by the foliage. Start at either the top or the bottom and work in one direction. Plants should be touching, but not completely overlapping. Place a few plants, step back and look at your work. Your eye will tell you if the plants are too sparse, overcrowded or just right. Spanish moss can help fill in any remaining gaps.
  5. Have fun! Topiary trees allow you to be creative with live plants, and make something really special for your home. The arrangements can last for months if you spritz them with water, and protect them from light and temperature extremes.
    Topiary tree detail

    The jagged white and green stripes of Aloe ‘Delta lights’ contrast with thin-leaved Agave gemniflora and a purple-edged Agave ‘Blue Glow’.

Looking for great combinations to try at home? Here’s what we used:

The 3-foot trees:

  • Tillandsia juncea
  • Garland Tillandsia abdita
  • Cotyledon ‘Orbit’
  • Cryptanthus ‘Ruby’
  • Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’
  • Tillandsia ‘Black Beauty’

The 4-foot trees:

  • Tillandsia harrisii
  • Tillandsia juncea
  • Cryptanthus ‘Pink Starlight’
  • Sempervivum ‘Purple Beauty’
  • Sempervivum tectorum ‘Pilioseum’
  • Agave ‘Rasta Man’
  • Tillandsia bergeri
  • Kalanchoe tomentosa

The 6-foot trees:

  • Aloe ‘Delta lights’
  • Agave ‘Blue Glow’
  • Agave gemniflora
  • The starburst on top is Euphorbia stenoclada
  • Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’
  • Agave gemniflora
  • Agave ‘Blue Glow’
  • Aloe ‘Delta Lights’
  • Kalanchoe tomentosa
  • Agave ‘Rasta Man’
  • Haworthia fusciata
  • Sempervivum ‘Purple Beauty’
  • Several different kinds of Tillandsia 

The 8-foot tree:

  • Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Moonshine’
  • Sansevieria parva
  • Cryptanthus fosterianus ‘Elaine’
  • Euphorbia stenoclada

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Despite all of the electronics and gadgets that surround us and demand our attention, a book is still one of the most thoughtful and personal presents to give and to receive at the holidays.

Here’s a quick quiz; fill in the blanks:

  1. This holiday, I just want to relax on the sofa with a good _____.
  2. My kids ask me to read that _____ to them every night.
  3. Our ____ club is meeting next Tuesday evening for some holiday cheer.

Does this sound familiar to you? It did to us! So we turned to our book experts—the staff at our Lenhardt Library—to ask for their recommendations for holiday gift books.

Librarian Leora Siegel with book stack

Librarian Leora Siegel chills out with some good friends.

Their well-rounded, garden-oriented list covers botany, horticulture, landscape, cooking, arts, crafts, trees, birds, and vegetables—with occasional commentary from the librarians themselves. All selections are part of the Lenhardt Library collection—which means free check-out for members. (Another great reason to become a Chicago Botanic Garden member—click here to join.)

Eight selections are available to purchase at our Garden Shop, too. Shop online, visit the shop before/after your Wonderland Express visit, or come by to browse during holiday hours.

Of course, you can order from our Amazon Smile link; 5 percent of the profits go to support the Garden! https://smile.amazon.com/ch/36-2225482

We even included our library call numbers so you can find these books easily—and browse 125,000 other volumes—when you come to the library. We look forward to seeing you!

A Potted History of Vegetables by Lorraine Harrison

A Potted History of Vegetables by Lorraine Harrison

Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2011.
SB320.5.H27 2011

Compact, lovely to look at, and full of useful information, this is a beautifully illustrated and handy book that includes vegetable history, how-to’s, etc. This tucks nicely into a Christmas stocking, too. 

—Ann Anderson, library technical services manager


Bonsai A Patient Art

Bonsai: A Patient Art: The Bonsai Collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden by Susumu Nakamura, consulting curator; Ivan Watters, curator; Terry Ann R. Neff, editor; Tim Priest, photographer

Garden logo. Purchase online from the Garden Shop

Glencoe, IL: Chicago Botanic Garden in association with Yale University Press, 2012.
SB433.5.C55 2012

This book captures our Bonsai Collection. It has stunning photographs, paired with copy that brings the world of bonsai to life.


Cooking with Flowers by Miche Bacher

Cooking with Flowers: Sweet and Savory Recipes with Rose Petals, Lilacs, Lavender, and Other Edible Flowers by Miche Bacher; photography by Miana Jun

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2013.
TX814.5.F5B33 2013

This book features common, everyday (and edible!) flowers used in fabulous ways—I’ve given this book to gardeners and to people who love to cook. The illustrations are lovely. The dandelion chapter first captured my interest (what could be easier to acquire?)…and then there was the lilac sorbet…

—Donna Herendeen, science librarian


Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for Every Location

Encyclopedia of Garden Plants for Every Location 
editors Jenny Hendy, Annelise Evans

New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2014.
SB407.E53 2014

Destined to be dog-eared and brand new on the shelf, this book is an info book that gardeners of every type and experience level can trust for facts and advice.

—Leora Siegel, library director


Floral Journey Native North American Beadwork by Lois S. Dubin

Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork by Lois S. Dubin

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Los Angeles, CA: Autry National Center of the American West, 2014.
E98.B46D83 2014

This book features native American history, encoded in beadwork. Gift this book to history buffs, fashion fanatics, and craft-devoted friends, all sure to be gobsmacked by the sheer audacity and intricacy of it all. Read our full review here


Ginkgo the Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot by Peter Crane

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
QK494.5.G48C73 2013 

Were you one of the lucky attendees at Peter Crane’s lecture at the Garden in 2013? In his beautifully written and realized book, the former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, goes beyond botany and horticulture to cover the art, history, and culture of one of the planet’s most ancient trees. Read our full review here.


How Trees Die: The Past, Present, and Future of our Forests by Jeff Gillman

How Trees Die: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Forests by Jeff Gillman

Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2009
SD373.G55 2009

A thoughtful gift option for a deep thinker, this book impressed me both with the writing and its illumination of an often-overlooked fact: trees can live extraordinarily long lives. It’s a comfortably sized book for reading, too.

—Donna Herendeen, science librarian


Living Wreaths by Natalie Bernhisel Robinson

Living Wreaths: 20 Beautiful Projects for Gifts and Décor by Natalie Bernhisel Robinson; photographs by Susan Barnson Hayward

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2014.
SB449.5.W74R63 2014

The cover is so stunning that it compels you to open this new-on-the-shelves book, which is filled with step-by-step instructions for designs both simple and extravagant. Or buy the book for yourself, then gift your friends with your own handmade versions.

—Ann Anderson, library technical services manager


Orchids by Fabio Petroni and Anna Maria Botticelli

Orchids
photographs by Fabio Petroni; text by Anna Maria Botticelli; translation, John Venerella

Garden logo. Purchase online from the Garden Shop

Novara, Italy: White Star Publishers, 2013.
Ovrz SB409.P48 2013

We admit it: we’re partial to orchids (The Orchid Show opens at the Garden on Valentine’s Day, 2015). We’re also partial to this coffee table-sized book as a great gift, filled with stunningly detailed and thoughtful photography of the world’s most beautiful flowers. 

—Stacy Stoldt, library public services manager


Peterson Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson

Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008.
QL681.P455 2008

Birds and plants go together. As a gardener, bird watcher and traveler, I’ve always wanted one ID book for the United States, not just the east or west. Slightly larger than the typical Peterson guide, this edition fits the bill.

—Donna Herendeen, science librarian


Plantiful by Kristin Green

Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-sow, and Overwinter by Kristin Green

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2014.
SB453.G794 2014

What a great idea for a gardening book: focus on the plants that do the work themselves. “It spreads” was once anathema to a gardener, but this book takes a surprising and creative new approach to 150 “free” and garden-worthy plants.

—Christine Schmid, library technical assistant


Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World by Jennifer Potter

Seven Flowers and How They Shaped our World by Jennifer Potter

New York, NY: Overlook Press, 2014.
SB404.5.P68 2014

Lotus, lily, sunflower, poppy, rose, tulip, orchid…author Jennifer Potter traces the powerful effects that seven simple but seductive flowers have had on history, civilization, and culture. Tulipmania? Orchid fever? The War of the Roses? All is revealed and explained in this compelling, lushly illustrated book.

—Leora Siegel, library director


The Big, Bad Book of Botany by Michael Largo

The Big, Bad Book of Botany by Michael Largo; illustrations by Margie Bauer

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

New York, NY: William Morrow, 2014.
QK7.L25 2014

The cover alone is enough to propel you into this endlessly fascinating, fun, fact-filled, A-to-Z book. A great gift for anyone (any age!) who loves to cite a good fact, tell a shocking story, or learn about the natural world in unexpected ways.

—Leora Siegel, library director


Vauxhall Gardens A History by David Coke and Alan Borg

Vauxhall Gardens: A History by David Coke and Alan Borg

New Haven, CT: published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2011.
DA689.G3C65 2011

Similar to entertainment parks like Chicago’s Millennium Park or Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens, Vauxhall Gardens is mentioned everywhere in literature, but no longer exists. What was it like? Comprehensive and scholarly, this book explores the details—the history of social life, public gardens, culture—in a large format that does justice to the numerous period illustrations and maps.

—Stacy Stoldt, library public services manager


Especially for Kids

A Flower in the Snow by Tracey Corderoy.

A Flower in the Snow by Tracey Corderoy

London: Egmont, 2012.
PZ7.C815354Flo 2012

A little child…a big bear…a golden flower…and the power of friendship. A book that never grows tired of being read aloud over and over again, it’s a fine gift/addition to your child’s/friend’s library.

—Christine Schmid, library technical assistant


Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Eric Shabazz Larkin

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Bellevue, WA: Readers To Eaters, 2013.
S494.5.U72M325 2013

Kids need to know the true story of Will Allen, former basketball star, who creates gardens in abandoned urban sites to bring good food to every table. This book is inspiring and motivating (and he can hold a cabbage in one hand!).

—Ann Anderson, library technical services manager


The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Garden logo. Available on-site at the Garden Shop

New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964.
PZ7.S39

This is a  beloved classic, now teaching another generation about the nature of giving. Your child or young friend doesn’t know it yet, but this heartfelt and tender story, illustrated so beautifully by the author, will become a staple on the nightly story request list.

—Christine Schmid, library technical assistant


Theres a Hair in my Dirt! A Worm's Story by Gary Larson

There’s a Hair in my Dirt! A Worm’s Story by Gary Larson

New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1998.
PS3562.A75225T47 1999

Like so many fairy tales and fireside stories before it, this witty, funny tale also has a darker twist, fittingly revealed in the final panel. Adult fans of Gary Larson’s The Far Side might enjoy this book as much as the perceptive kids you’ll gift with it. It always makes me laugh…and scream.

—Stacy Stoldt, library public services manager


Want more inspiration? Check out the library section on our website for hundreds more book reviews. Happy Giving!


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Thanks…for Giving

In honor of our volunteers

Karen Z. —  November 26, 2014 — 1 Comment

There are in the neighborhood of 1,400 volunteers working, helping, contributing, and giving their time and energies to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This fact about the Garden amazes me every time I hear it.

Isn’t that astounding?

I began at the Garden as a volunteer, too, so this Thanksgiving, I wanted to talk to a few others to find out when, where, how, and why they volunteer.

Suffice to say that I met some awesome people. It’s a pleasure to tell their stories—and to honor them in this season of giving thanks.

Volunteers Can Connect

Five years ago, Jack Kreitinger bought his first ticket to Wonderland Express—and promptly fell in love with the show. An architect by trade, “I wanted to build those little houses out of bark,” he laughs. Instead, he attended that year’s Volunteer Fair and signed up to become a guide for the walking tour program. (Mark your calendar: our next Volunteer Fair is Sunday and Monday, March 1 and 2, from 1 to  3 p.m. in the Regenstein Center.)

Jack’s Favorite Getaway

PHOTO: Jack Kreitinger giving a walking tour.

Here, Jack gives a walking tour; he knows all the best spots in the Garden. He loves the viewing area at the top of the hill in the Sensory Garden, “where you can look through the tops of the trees down at the water. Someday I hope to buy a tree and donate it to be planted as part of that view.”

For Jack, volunteering is about making connections with other people. “Gardeners are the coolest people on earth,” he says. “I’ve met such interesting people from all over the world and, as a tour guide, I can convey how much I love the Garden and why they should love it, too.” Jack’s natural communication and leadership skills have transformed the Walking Tour Guides team as well: he’s a volunteer team leader.

A committed time slot works well for Jack: Thursday mornings find him leading a 45-minute tour from the Crescent Garden through the Heritage Garden, Bonsai Collection, Circle Garden, Buehler Enabling Garden, English Walled Garden, and Krasberg Rose Garden; a second tour lasts a little longer since it’s open-ended.

“It grounds me in nature,” Jack explains, “since I get to see the changes in the gardens week by week, spring through fall.” Between his regular schedule, VIP tours, and special events (he takes special request tours!), Jack estimates that he’s hosted 1,500 people on tour in his five years as a volunteer.

“I get more out of it than I give,” he says. We respectfully and thankfully disagree.

Volunteers Can Specialize

Eight years ago, Ann Stevens took her first course in beekeeping. Seven years ago, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden purchased eight new beehives and needed a beekeeper. It was a perfect match.

Ann’s Favorite View

PHOTO: Volunteer beekeeper Anne Stevens.

Ann loves seeing the beehives nestled into the apple trees from across the water at the Esplanade. “It reminds me of the big picture: what the bees do for us, how they teach us about community, about working hard to benefit each other, all in an organized and logical way.”

Six years of volunteer beekeeping later, Ann does the math:

  • 50,000 bees at the end of each summer
  • x eight beehives
  • x six years
  • = 2,400,000 bees

That’s a lot of beekeeping. And Ann’s work is a great example of the specialized roles of some volunteers at the Garden.

“I love the freedom of it,” Ann says. “It’s a job I can go to when the weather’s right for the bees. I love the seasonality of it: starting new hives, getting them settled, working through the seasons.”

Ann speaks eloquently about working with bees. “I learn new things from them every year. Even if hives are side by side, the results in each are different. You have to adjust, nurture, and give them your best, but you can’t control it all. There are things that are bigger than us, and I get to experience that through the bees.”

Like every volunteer that I had the pleasure of interviewing, Ann also spoke glowingly about the visitors she interacts with at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “It’s so beautiful to see so many different people: different ages, different languages being spoken, young couples, families teaching kids to be respectful of the garden. There’s an international feeling at the Garden, and I get to be part of that. I’m so grateful.”

We’re grateful, too, Ann.

Volunteers Can Contribute

First things first: Eileen Sirkin already had a Ph.D. in microbiology and a long-time family membership at the Garden before she became a volunteer.

Eileen’s Favorite Place

PHOTO: Volunteer Eileen Sirkin.

“The Butterflies & Blooms house in peak season is the happiest place at the Garden,” Eileen says with a smile. “The butterflies are all flying, and people come dressed in butterfly T-shirts and butterfly jewelry…some stay for hours, and some come back week after week. They all sigh with happiness.”

Ten years ago, she was ready to volunteer and to return to the field of science. Initially, she volunteered as a Plants of Concern citizen scientist (check it out here). When Dr. Jeremie Fant arrived at the Garden as a conservation scientist, she became a volunteer technician in the Molecular Ecology Lab—and has been there ever since.

“It’s like CSI for plants,” Eileen explains when asked about her lab work. Her assignments are wildly interesting (like most science!): her early work with Dr. Fant involved the selection of seagrass species to repopulate a section of Chicago’s Rainbow Beach; her current project involves the Jerusalem Botanic Garden and examines the DNA of Iris vartanii, a rare native that grows only in Israel.

Coworkers and volunteers are important to Eileen. “These are down-to-earth types of people, who love the natural world,” Eileen says. “There’s a lot of fellowship here.”

Also important is the sense of giving back and contributing to a larger cause. “The Garden saw something in me and gave me the opportunity to reactivate what was dormant—I’m grateful for the chance to return to science,” Eileen says at the end of our conversation. “I can’t leave this place. I love it.”

We’re so grateful for your contribution, Eileen.

Volunteers Can Influence

Carmen’s Favorite Spot

Photo: Volunteer Carmen Reyes.

Carmen’s favorite? No contest: the “pepper pots” or viewing areas in the English Walled Garden, taking in the view across the water.

After 40 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools—teaching Spanish to kids little and big—Carmen Reyes had earned her retirement.

But after just six months, she missed the kids. And she missed teaching. So she turned to the Garden—a place that she already knew well from many summer visits—and she signed up as a greeter. When Judy Cashen, the ever-alert director, volunteer administration and engagement, asked her to help out in the education area, she jumped at the chance.

As an assistant for the school field trip programs, Carmen sets up for the classes that arrive, assists the team leaders, and does some presentations herself (her engaging approach to the subject of companion plants is always popular).

Carmen especially likes working with kids grades K through 8. “They’re wide-eyed, and they want more information,” she says. “Any bit of information that you offer is new to them.” Her bilingual skills are constantly in demand, and she often finds herself welcoming kids on field trips from her former employer, the Chicago Public Schools.

The Garden itself is a powerful draw. “You can’t beat the setting,” Carmen remarks. “And regardless of the time of year, there’s always something beautiful to see, something good for the soul. I’m thankful for the people who make it so beautiful and welcoming. It makes me feel like part of the family at the Garden.”

Thank you for investing in the next generation, Carmen.

Volunteers Have Fun

Carolyn’s Favorite Walk

Volunteers clean moss and lichen from birch trunks.

Carolyn and Ed Hazan take volunteering seriously…and have a lot of fun with it, too. Yes, they even scrubbed birch trees this year. Carolyn loves the woodland walk on the outside edge of the Sensory Garden. “But going for a walk isn’t always easy—every ten minutes, there’s someone to stop and talk to!”

Carolyn and Ed Hazan are the volunteer’s volunteer: they give of their time separately and together. Between the two of them, they’ve worked in nearly every garden, and the list of events that they’ve volunteered for reads like the year’s schedule at the Garden: Wonderland Express, the Orchid Show, World Environment Day, Kite Festival, Chef Series, and the Antiques & Garden Fair…and more

In 2001, when Ed decided that he wanted to learn how to grow vegetables, long-time volunteer Sam Darin suggested that he give volunteering a try. Both Ed and Carolyn began by volunteering two times per month—today they’re up to three or four days per week.

“It’s the people,” Carolyn says without hesitation when asked what drives them to volunteer. “We love it because we know everybody, and there’s always somebody new to talk to—you can never have too many friends!”

The photo of the couple says it all: they’re vibrant, intrepid, can-do people who have found their tribe at the Garden. And, yes, they’re washing the birch trees (every five years or so, the trees get a brightening scrub).

Thank you both for giving so much.

Three Cheers for Your Fellow Volunteers

Read about five award-winning volunteers in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing magazine (page 18). Ready to join us as a volunteer and make your mark at the Garden? Volunteering starts here.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Give Thanks with Pumpkin Fudge

Skip the pie—bring pumpkin fudge and get invited back next year!

Julie McCaffrey —  November 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

No Thanksgiving is complete without a pumpkin dish—and it doesn’t hurt to spice it up with a little something extra…

If you’re ready to start a new tradition (enough already with the pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin cookies), consider chef Michael Kingsley’s bourbon pumpkin-pecan fudge (available now at the Garden View Café). The bourbon gives the fudge a bit of a kick (and who doesn’t need a little jump-start during the holidays?).

The recipe is simple enough to get the whole family involved. Think butter…pumpkin…toasted pecans—what’s not to like? And what better way to celebrate the season than to spend time together, break fudge together, and give thanks that you’re able to do so?

Pull out your candy thermometer, 4-quart sauce pan, wooden spoon, measuring cups and spoons, 13-by-9-inch pan, aluminum foil, nonstick cooking spray, and seasonal cookie cutters (and get the camera ready—not that anyone is going to lick the spoon…). This is going to be delicious.

Bourbon Pumpkin-Pecan Fudge

PHOTO: Pumpkin fudge

1¾ cups sugar
1¼ cups brown sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup evaporated milk (5-ounce can)
½ cup canned pumpkin purée (no added sugar) 
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
2¼ cups white chocolate chips
7 ounces marshmallow fluff (any brand)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bourbon (optional, but worth it!)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Start by covering a 13-by-9-inch pan with aluminum foil. Spray the covered pan with cooking spray. Sprinkle the chopped pecans evenly over the bottom of the pan. (They do not have to completely cover it.) Set aside.

Combine the sugar, brown sugar, butter, evaporated milk, pumpkin purée, spices, and salt in a pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and continue to boil until the temperature reaches 236 degrees Fahrenheit on your candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

Working quickly, add the white chocolate chips, marshmallow fluff, bourbon, and vanilla to the pan. Be careful, as this may spatter and will be very hot! Fold ingredients in until completely incorporated. Pour the hot fudge mixture over the chopped pecans and quickly spread evenly; it will immediately start to set up as it cools.

Place the pan uncovered in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Your mouth is probably watering already, but unfortunately, it will take this long to set up completely.

After cooling the pan completely for 3 hours, remove the pan from the refrigerator, and turn it upside down on a cutting board. The fudge should pop right out. Peel off the aluminum foil and discard. Want to make your treats extra special? Use cookie cutters to cut your fudge into festive autumn shapes—or maybe dinosaurs if you’re that kind of person—and enjoy!

Note: If you have it in your spice rack, you can substitute 3½ teaspoons of “pumpkin pie spice” for the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Checking the Weather? So Are We

It's how you connect to the Garden every day.

Karen Z. —  November 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

It’s the humblest patch of green at the Chicago Botanic Garden, yet the information gathered there has national implications—and, though you may not realize it, it’s part of your daily prep for work, school, and play.

Although dealing with the weather is part of everyone’s job here, there is no meteorologist on staff at the Garden. Got questions about weather specifics or cooperative weather stations?

In a small, sunny, grassy, flat, fenced-in plot (there’s a reason for that), located on the outer road that encircles the Garden, stands an official National Weather Service Cooperative Station—a collection of instruments that measures the atmospheric conditions of the day. And every morning at 8 a.m., rain (or snow) or shine, a dedicated Garden staff member steps into the plot to read the instruments and record the results, then heads back indoors to transfer the information to the National Weather Service (NWS).

I got to tag along with Celeste VanderMey, Plant Records supervisor, on a recent fall morning for the daily readings.

PHOTO: Celeste at the weather station temperature booth.

Celeste VanderMey explains that its beehive appearance might deter curious critters from poking around inside the weather shelter.

Reading #1: Temperature

Though it looks vaguely like a beehive, the little white structure is a weather shelter that houses two temperature gauges. The maximum temperature thermometer’s mercury rises to the high temperature mark of each day, then stays at the setting until it’s read the next morning. To reset it, Celeste just gives it a spin and the mercury drops.

An alcohol thermometer records the low temperature of each day: pure alcohol molecules move closer together as the temperature drops, shifting a tiny bar that marks the number.

Why no digital thermometers? “Not considered as reliably accurate,” Celeste says.

PHOTO: The weather station rain gauge.

A long metal cylinder like a tiny rocket ship turns out to be a rain gauge. Celeste removes the lid and takes a reading.

Reading #2: Dew

Admittedly the least scientific of the daily measurements, dewfall is indicated as low, moderate, or heavy, simply by examining a surface: the top of the weather shelter or the grass itself.

Reading #3: Rain

The National Weather Service provided us with the rain canister, which can hold up to 10 inches of precipitation (not that we’ve ever had that amount—see records below). Inside is a plastic funnel that directs rainwater into a smaller brass tin. A measuring stick—like a car’s oil dipstick—is inserted, then pulled out and read for rain depth—one-tenth of an inch of rain equals one inch on the stick.

Reading #4: Soil Temperature

A soil thermometer is as handy for home gardeners as it is for us—especially in spring, when it tells gardeners if it’s warm enough to put seeds in the ground. We measure the high and low temperatures of both bare soil and soil under sod/grass (that’s why the plot is flat, sunny, and grassy). An interesting fact: no matter what the air temperature is in winter, the soil seldom drops below 26 degrees (it’s measured at a 4-inch depth). 

PHOTO: Weather station soil temperature gauge.

This gauge takes a reading of bare soil temperatures. Five feet away, another gauge measures the temperature under grass. It’s important information for farmers germinating seed.

Reading #5: Snowfall

It’s low tech, but it works: a white plastic board catches a winter day’s snowfall, which is measured with a yardstick to the tenth of an inch. Two or more inches of snow? Then a core sampling is taken down to the ground, and the core is brought indoors to melt for a water equivalency reading. As mentioned below, the NWS uses this information to predict flooding.

Reading #6: Evaporation

Next we moved to the 4-foot diameter evaporation pan. Its three readings tell forecasters how much water has been absorbed into the atmosphere at this location.

An instrument with an intriguing name, a six’s thermometer, measures both high and low daily temperature of the water in the pan. An anemometer (wind meter) tells how many miles worth of wind has passed this spot. And a hook gauge in a stilling well measures the amount of water lost to evaporation (or added by rain).

PHOTO: An anemometer measures wind speed.

The anemometer attached to the evaporation pan measures the wind speed at an exact height. All weather station gear must meet siting requirements, so that data is measured consistently from station to station.

PHOTO: The hook gauge which usually rests in a container inside the evaporation pan.

The hook gauge rests in a standard-size stilling well inside the evaporation pan—the structure the anemometer is attached to in the previous photo.

Reading #7: River and Lake Levels

Finally, we took a short walk across the road to the south bridge, and the weir (dam) beneath, where the waters of the Garden Lakes meet the Skokie River. Along the banks on each side of the bridge are measurement markers that are read (bring the binoculars!) and recorded daily, although they’re for the Garden’s own record keeping rather than the NWS’s.

Why track the lake and river levels? Flooding is always a threat in our lake system, says Bob Kirschner, director of restoration ecology. “We look at the levels every day,” he explains, “and we can adjust the lake level in anticipation of excessively wet or dry weather forecasts.” All of the Garden’s property is irrigated with water drawn from our lakes. Water levels matter to the half-million lakeshore plants that line the lakes, too—all installed with our normal lake level (623.95 feet above mean sea level) in mind.

PHOTO: Fall in the Great Basin

Fall in the Great Basin

It takes just a few minutes’ time to record the morning’s numbers. Indoors, Celeste logs on to the NWS site and inputs the results, adding noteworthy conditions as needed: fog…haze…ice…thunderstorms.

Staff has been keeping records since 1982. That’s the year that then-Garden president Dr. Roy Mecklenburg, who was keenly interested in meteorology, arranged for the Garden to become a weather station. Stations existed at the time at Midway Airport and in Antioch, with none in between. A few notable numbers since then (again, note that all are since 1982, when our record keeping began):

  • January 2014 holds our record for the snowiest January with 28.7 inches (the 1967 snowfall was higher).
  • February 2014 holds the record for the coldest February: 26.6 degrees was the average high (usually 35.6 degrees).
  • 1993 holds the record for the shortest growing season (number of days between the last frost and first frost) at only 123 days. The average—163 days.
  • August 14, 1987, holds the record for the most rainfall in one day: 5.54 inches.

It’s fascinating to think that the Garden contributes daily to the national weather picture and that there’s always an eye on the weather here (thanks to Celeste, Veronica, Gabriella, Therese, and Lauren). Next time you check on the weather and hear a forecaster say, “and the Chicago Botanic Garden reported ‘x’ inches of rain yesterday,” you’ll know where the information came from: a humble patch of green.

A Bit of Weather Station History

Although it dates back to 1989, the preface of the official National Weather Service Observing Handbook (No. 2) is so wonderfully interesting that it’s blog-worthy on its own. Here’s the text, from page ii, with thanks to the unknown writer:

John Companius Holm’s weather records, taken without the benefit of instruments in 1644 and 1645, were the earliest known observations in the United States. Subsequently such famous personages as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin maintained weather records spanning many years.

The first extensive network of cooperative stations was set up in the 1890s as the result of an act of Congress in 1890 that established the Weather Bureau. Today, there are over 11,000 volunteer cooperative observers scattered over the 50 states, taking observations seven days a week throughout the year.

The above observers regularly and conscientiously contribute their time so that their observations can provide the vital information needed to define the climate in their areas. The records are also used constantly to answer questions and guide the actions of public agencies, agricultural and commercial organizations, and individuals. Their records also form a basis for preparedness for national and local emergencies, such as flooding.

PHOTO: apples.

Our most frequently asked question this summer at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden: why no apples?

Turns out the weather played a major role.

Last winter’s long, deep cold meant very few flower buds. Then, in spring, when pollinators should have been out to feast on apple flower nectar, the weather was chilly. Since bees don’t fly when it’s under 40 degrees Fahrenheit, little pollination took place. No pollination means no fruit.

Add to that a second factor: apples typically have a two-year boom-bust cycle for fruit bearing. After a bumper crop in 2013, we expected a smaller harvest this year—made even less by the weather conditions above.

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