Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. Each week this spring, we’ll publish some of the results.

These brief explanations cover the topics of seed dormancy and germination, the role of fire in maintaining prairies, the evolution of roots, the Janzen-Connell model of tropical forest diversity, and more. Join us the next several weeks to see how our students met this challenge, and learn a bit of plant science too.


PHOTO: Alexandra Seglias at work in the field.Alexandra Seglias is a second-year master’s student in the Plant Biology and Conservation program at Northwestern University/The Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on the relationship between climate and dormancy and germination of Colorado Plateau native forb species. She hopes that the results of her research will help inform seed sourcing decisions in restoration projects.


PHOTO: A tiny oak sprouting from an acorn.

A tiny oak emerges from an acorn. Photo by Amphis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Dormancy and Germination

The seed is an essential life stage of a plant. Without seeds, flowers and trees would not exist. However, a seed doesn’t always live a nice, cozy life in the soil, and go on to produce a mature, healthy plant. Similar to Goldilocks, the conditions for growth of a seed should be “just right.” The charismatic acorn is just one type of seed, but it can be used here as an example. Mature acorns fall from the branches of a majestic oak and land on the ground below the mother tree. A thrifty squirrel may harvest one of these acorns and stash it away for safekeeping to eat as a snack at a later time. The squirrel, scatterbrained as he is, forgets many of his secret hiding places for his nuts, and the acorn has a chance at life. But it’s not quite smooth sailing from here for that little acorn.

Imagine trying to be your most productive in extreme drought, or during a blizzard. It would be impossible! Just as we have trouble in such inhospitable conditions, a seed also finds difficulty in remaining active, and as a result, it essentially goes into hibernation until conditions for growth are more suitable. Think of a bear going into hibernation as a way to explore seed dormancy. The acorn cozies up in the soil similar to the way a bear crawls into her den in the snowy winter and goes to sleep until spring comes along. As the snow melts, the bear stretches out her sore limbs and makes her way out into the bright world. The acorn feels just as good when that warmer weather comes about, and it too stretches. But rather than limbs, it stretches its fragile root out into the soil and begins the process of germination. This process allows the seed to develop into a tiny seedling — and perhaps eventually grow into a beautiful, magnificent oak tree.

Our scientists are studying seed germination in a changing climate. Learn how you can help efforts to help match plants to a changing ecosystem with the National Seed Strategy


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Are you feeling winter blue? Do you feel trapped in cold and ice? Has your mood gone south, leaving you wishing that you could, too?

What, with the world’s best antidepressant right out your front door?

The magic elixir is a winter walk. And the Chicago Botanic Garden awaits with a prescription-strength dose—miles of trails through the Garden, almost all of them kept clear of snow and ice, with a number of mapped-out walks ranging from 1 to 2.3 miles.

PHOTO: Spider Island in winter.

A hidden gem, the path along Spider Island is just the place for a peaceful winter walk.

I love a brisk walk any time, anywhere. But never is it as urgently necessary for my mental health as in winter.

A winter walk is the cure for cabin fever. And more than that, it’s the way to reshape the way you think about winter.

PHOTO: Birches in winter.

Elegant in winter, birches line the Sensory Garden path.

Winter doesn’t have to be a sentence to months of suffering. Once you start walking in it, you see it as a time for a brisk spins through snow-frosted landscapes; an opportunity to see trees in their dramatically revealed architecture; a chance at that perfect winter moment when a bright sun in a blue sky makes a new snowfall glitter like diamonds.

The Garden’s winter regulars need no convincing.

“I love the freshly fallen snow,” said Paul Wagner, who was here on a recent blue-sky day when snow frosted the hills and chunks of ice floated in the Garden’s waters.

He regularly drives 40 minutes from his Northbrook home to walk a 4½-mile circuit here.

“The Garden is really pretty. And it’s certainly less crowded,” he said. “It’s just peaceful. I listen to music…you’re deep in thought—and at the end of it, you’re just so relaxed you wonder where the time went.”

Cookie Harms, of Wilmette, treasures the quiet and solitude. She also admires the birds, untroubled by winter and more visible in leafless trees. “I still see something different every time I come here,” she said.

And as a self-described “summer girl,” she considers walking in winter an essential survival tool.

“It really lifts the blues,” she said. “It’s definitely a drug.”

PHOTO: Linden Allee in winter.

The Linden Allée, newly plowed after a fresh blanket of snow

But is it a hard drug to take? Isn’t walking in winter cold?

Wagner was wearing a sweatshirt over a base layer. The air temperature was 25 degrees Fahrenheit. He was perfectly comfortable. Walking fast is like being surrounded by a bubble of heat.

Harms was downright toasty, but that might be because she was basking in the sun in the Garden View Café before setting out on her walk.

Still, she was certain she would still be warm outside. “Fleece base layers,” she said, pointing to her leggings.

I would add: Hat. Wind-blocking scarf or neck gaiter. Chemical hand-warmers. Mittens.

Add a route through trees and hills, whether at the Garden or your local forest preserve—and out you go!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A Search for Rare Oak Species Yields Results

Plant Collecting Collaborative visits Southeastern United States

Andrew Bunting —  January 21, 2016 — 2 Comments

On October 25 last year, I met Matt Lobdell, curator at the Morton Arboretum, in Orange Beach, Alabama, to begin a ten-day plant expedition trip to Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. 

Matt Lobdell had received a grant from the American Public Gardens Association and the U.S. Forest Service in the spring to collect seed of Quercus oglethorpensis from as many genetic populations as possible, so that the breadth of this species could be preserved in ex-situ collections in botanic gardens and arboreta. This expedition was an opportunity to collect this species and other important oak species, as well as other species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that could be added to our collections.

We were targeting the collection of four oaks with conservation status: Oglethorpe oak (Quercus oglethorpensis), Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana), Boynton sand post oak (Quercus boyntonii), and Arkansas oak (Quercus arkansana). All four of these oaks are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which identifies plants that have important conservation status. (Quercus georgiana and Q. oglethorpensis are listed as endangered.)

PHOTO: Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Any successful plant expedition is the result of a very collaborative effort. Because we are often looking for hard-to-find species, we rely on local experts. For different parts of the trip we had guidance from Mike Gibson of Huntsville Botanical Garden; John Jensen and Tom Patrick at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Brian Keener at the University of Western Alabama, assisted by Wayne K. Webb at Superior Trees; Fred Spicer, CEO of Birmingham Botanical Gardens; and Patrick Thompson of Davis Arboretum at Auburn University.

We were also joined by other institutions that helped with both the collection of seed and the associated data, but also helped with the collecting of two herbarium vouchers for each collection (pressed specimens), which are now housed in the herbaria at the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden respectively. Assistance was provided by Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum; Amy Highland and Cat Meholic of Mt. Cuba Center; Ethan Kauffman of Moore Farms Botanical Garden; and Greg Paige from Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum.

Our expedition begins

On October 26, we collected at Gulf State Park in pelting rain and very high winds that resulted from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, which had made landfall near Puerto Vallarta days earlier. Nevertheless, we found several small, windswept oaks in this sandy habitat, including Q. myrtifolia, Q. minima, Q. geminata, and Q. chapmanii.

PHOTO: Talladega National Forest

Talladega National Forest

The next day, we moved north to the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama. In addition to collecting more oaks, we made collections of the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Euonymus americanus, and the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). We also saw fantastic specimens of the big-leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but we were too late to find any viable seed.

PHOTO: Quercus boyntonii

Quercus boyntonii

Fred Spicer, CEO of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, joined us the next day, October 28, to take us to several populations of Q. boyntonii, where we were able to make collections for six different populations. He also took us to Moss Rock Preserve in Jefferson County, where we made collections of the Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana). We also made a collection of the Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera).

On October 30, we spent the day in Sumter County, Alabama, with Brian Keener, where we encountered Quercus arkansana, Dalea purpurea, Viburnum rufidulum, and Liatris aspera.

On October 31, we botanized in Blount County, Alabama, at Swann Bridge. Below the bridge was a small river, where we saw an array of interesting plants including the yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima); hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana); a small St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum); and a native stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron), in which we were able to find a few seeds. From there we continued on to the Bibb County Glades and collected Silphium glutinosum and Hypericum densiflorum.

PHOTO: Bibb County Glades

Bibb County Glades

PHOTO: Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

On the following day, we made another collection of Quercus boyntonii in St. Clair Country and then headed to the Little River Canyon in Cherokee County. This was a rich area filled with native vegetation of many popular plants including the maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), with its wine-red fall color; both the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), and the Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Interestingly, many of these Alabama natives are perfectly hardy in the Chicago area.

Toward the end of the trip, we headed into Jasper County, Georgia, and met up with John Jensen and Tom Patrick of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who helped us find populations of Quercus oglethorpensis. In Taylor County, we collected several oaks, including Q. margarettae, Q. incana, and Q. laevis.

We finished the expedition in Sumter National Forest in McCormick County, South Carolina. This was the final collecting site for Q. oglethorpensis, which was cohabiting with Baptisia bracteata and Q. durandii.

PHOTO: Little River Canyon

Little River Canyon

PHOTO: Quercus ogelthorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

Quercus oglethorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

An expedition’s rewards

In total, we made 92 collections of seed and herbarium vouchers. The seed is being grown at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Most likely, plants will not be ready for distribution until 2017 and most likely would not be planted into the Garden’s collections until 2018 at the earliest.

In spring 2016, Northwestern University graduate student Jordan Wood will retrace some of our steps in search of leaf samples of Q. oglethorpensis so he can study the DNA and fully understand the genetic breadth of this species throughout its native range from Louisiana to South Carolina.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Escape to a warmer climate and enjoy a mini-vacation from Chicago winters in the Greenhouses at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, showed us some of the more unusual plants we will find flowering—or fruiting—in the Greenhouses in January.

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

Discover amazing aloes and euphorbias in the Arid Greenhouse:

  • We have 43 different species of aloes, including: dwala aloe (Aloe chabaudii), hidden foot aloe (Aloe cryptopoda), and bitter aloe (Aloe ferox). The long tubular flowers of aloes are adapted for pollination by sunbirds, the African equivalent of our hummingbirds. The sap of aloe vera is used widely in cosmetics and to treat burns.
  • Our 35 different species of euphorbias are also spectacular during this time period. Look for geographic forms and cultivars of Euphorbia milii as well as the spectacular Masai spurge (Euphorbia neococcinea). Did you know that poinsettias are also in the genus Euphorbia?
  • About to flower for only the second time in 30 years is turquoise puya (Puya alpestris), a bromeliad native to the high, dry deserts of Chile whose turquoise flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds.

PHOTO: Bitter aloe (Aloe ferox).

Bitter aloe (Aloe ferox)

PHOTO: Crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii).

Crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii)

PHOTO: Turquoise puya (Puya alpestris).

Turquoise puya (Puya alpestris)

The Semitropical Greenhouse is where you will find the following:

  • Paper flower—What appears to be the “flowers” of Bougainvillea ‘Barbara Karst’ and ‘Singapore White’ are actually colorful bracts surrounding the small, white flowers.
  • Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)—Pomegranates are native to the Middle East and are part of the Biblical Plants collection in the Semitropical Greenhouse.
  • Calamondin orange (× Citrofortunella mitis)—This decorative, small orange is too bitter to be eaten.
  • Ponderosa lemon (Citrus × ponderosa)—Ponderosa lemons are the largest in the world.
PHOTO: Bougainvillea × buttiana 'Barbara Karst'.

Paper flower (Bougainvillea × buttiana ‘Barbara Karst’)

PHOTO: Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum 'Nana').

Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)

PHOTO: Calamondin orange (x Citrofortunella microcarpa).

Calamondin orange (× Citrofortunella microcarpa)

PHOTO: Ponderosa lemon (Citrus x ponderosa).

Ponderosa lemon (Citrus × ponderosa)

Don’t miss these highlights in the Tropical Greenhouse:

  • “Alice” the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) with her magnificent orange fruiting spike. (The fruiting stage does not produce an odor.) The fruits will mature over the next two months to a deep red. In the wilds of Sumatra, ripe fruits are eaten by the rhinocerous hornbill, which spread the seeds.
  • The vining Vanilla planifolia var. variegata is a variegated form of the Central American orchid that produces vanilla beans
  • Cacao (Theobroma cacao)—the pods from this plant are used to make chocolate.  
  • Nodding clerodendrum (Clerodendrum nutans) is among the first of this genus of winter-flowering shrubs and vines to be covered in showy flowers.
  • The elegant white Angraecum Memoria Mark Aldridge orchids with their long nectar tubes signal the start of orchid flowering season.
PHOTO: Vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia).

Vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia)

PHOTO: Cocoa pod (Theobroma cacao).

Cocoa pod (Theobroma cacao)

PHOTO: Nodding clerodendrum (Clerodendrum nutans).

Nodding clerodendrum (Clerodendrum nutans)

PHOTO: Angraecum Memoria Mark Aldridge.

Angraecum Memoria Mark Aldridge (A. sesquipedale × A. eburneum ssp. Superbum)

Please note: The Greenhouses and adjacent galleries will have limited access January 25 – February 7; from February 8 – 12, they will be closed in preparation for the Orchid Show, opening February 13, 2016. From February 13 – March 13, the Greenhouses will be open to Orchid Show ticketed visitors only. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The January issue of National Geographic features articles on two topics dear to me: American’s national parks (I just planned a Grand Canyon/Arches trip for June!), and the power of nature to improve mental health. The latter article cites scientific evidence that nature makes us happier, more productive, nicer to each other, and—critically—more forgiving of ourselves. Additional evidence of this has been published in recent issues of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Nature.

PHOTO: Potato harvest.

Gardening is therapy for the whole being.

Gardeners recognize this power: We find therapy digging in the earth, getting our hands dirty, and participating intimately in the miracles of life, as well as the floods, freezes, insects, diseases, and other gardening disasters that allow us to witness low-stakes death firsthand.

Gardeners know that even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with our harvest, she doesn’t let us down. Nature is generally consistent, and when it isn’t, it is surprisingly consistent in its inconsistency. We can trust in it to adapt and evolve, to persevere endlessly and, when we let it, to heal and support us. We have no choice but to respect and defer to nature’s ways, even when they don’t always act in our favor. I find this incredibly reassuring.

Last winter, I was paying particular attention to my own mental health and finding essential comfort in the Chicago Botanic Garden—its paths and purpose, my colleagues, and my friends.

PHOTO: Winter in Kane County.

All seasons provide moments for us to photograph and enjoy.

In early January, I listened closely to a National Public Radio interview with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, who spoke openly and confidently about his own personal mental health challenges. Inspired, I thought that I too could share some of my story, and had the opportunity to do so in the pages of Sibbaldia, the journal of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The essay can be read here, but I think it is important to share a bit with you:

“It’s a long row to hoe” were the first words that came into my mind one morning. The day before me felt too busy, too much. How was I going to get everything done while being a good mother and daughter, an attentive partner and friend, and an effective leader? How would I balance the pressure of meetings, phone calls, and ever-increasing e-mail traffic while ensuring that dinner was on the table and my sons’ homework was completed on time? Where would I find time to be kind to myself somewhere along the way? I know this challenge is familiar to many women, and it certainly was not the first time I had felt this way. Furthermore, I have wrestled with feelings of anxiety my whole life, and moments like this one have been with me since I was young.

But that morning, when the idiom “It’s a long row to hoe” started repeating in my mind with the persistence of a pop song, I smiled, exhaled, and experienced an epiphany of sorts. My problems suddenly felt reframed. Never before had I really thought about that phrase. I said out loud, “Wow, the noun is ‘row,’ not ‘road’! This phrase is about gardening and farming…Growing things!”

PHOTO: Summer woods.

Making time and finding a space to reflect in nature is essential.

While I may not yet hold the gift of perpetual tranquility, I do know how to garden. Yes, I have learned that hoeing some rows is harder than others, when rocks and weeds or puddles are in the way, but I am always certain I can get the job done. And the labor I expend while gardening even makes me feel rejuvenated—both mentally and physically. At that moment, I wondered if I thought of each day that lay ahead as a metaphorical row to hoe—and plant, water, weed, harvest, and then allow to rest—would life feel easier? And it does. Some seasons give me the most delicious tomatoes and delphiniums that stand up straight, even in Chicago. Other days I wake to a late freeze or spend hours picking off slugs. Knowing that I can handle the ups and downs of gardening, I felt better prepared to face my more typical day with renewed mental strength, tranquility, and courage.

I know I am not alone in believing that people live better, healthier lives when they create, care for, and enjoy gardens. Millions of people tend backyard or container gardens, or keep plants in their home or office window to enrich their life. Even in winter, there are many ways to enjoy gardens and nature. One thing I do is put on my boots and take a nature walk, simply enjoying the experience of being outside. Browse seed catalogues or gardening books, and plan your summer garden. If you take a vacation, visit the local botanic garden. Dream of the tropics at the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Take nature photos. You can even view lovely garden scenes or videos while you work out. Gardening, visiting gardens, and taking advantage of the science, education, and therapy programs offered by more than 1,000 botanic gardens, arboreta, and conservatories around the world are helping many individuals and communities to cope, mourn, and rejoice.

PHOTO: The renewal of spring in the Garden: peonies in bloom in the West Flower Walk.

The renewal of spring in the Garden: peonies in bloom in the West Flower Walk.

Gardens give us a bounty of gifts: beautiful flowers to share and enjoy, fresh vegetables for our tables. Their greatest gift of all may be intangible, but we are so grateful for their unique power to help us lead happier, healthier lives.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org