While working out in the woods this winter, a small lump on the branch of a young elm tree caught my attention. At first I thought it might be a gall, or an injury that had healed-over. On closer inspection, the lump turned out to be a ruby-throated hummingbird nest from last summer. 

Although I see hummingbirds regularly at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I rarely encounter one of their nests. Hummingbirds themselves are amazing, but their nests are truly a marvel of avian architecture. Not much larger in diameter than a quarter, they are just large enough to hold the one to three navy bean-sized eggs of the hummer. For the pint-sized bird to be able to keep the tiny eggs warm during incubation requires that the nest be not much larger than her body. 

PHOTO: Hummingbird nest and quarter (for scale).

Not much larger than a quarter, the ruby-throated hummingbird nest is an engineering marvel.

This is all well and good until the eggs hatch. Growing young hummingbirds can double or triple the amount of room necessary to hold the family. One of the ways the hummingbirds get around this need for flexibility is that they construct the nest of soft plant fibers and then wrap the whole thing with spiderweb silk. This creates an elastic nest that has the ability to expand as the contents of the nest increases. Can you imagine yourself going out and plucking a strand of sticky silk from a spider web with your fingers and then trying to use it to build something out of lightweight fuzzy plant fibers? I imagine you might find yourself wrapped up in a ball like some sort of oversized grotesque moth cocoon. The silk also helps to anchor the nest to the top surface of a horizontal branch.

PHOTO: Spiderweb silk is used by hummingbirds as a nest liner.

Spiderweb silk: the expandable nest liner preferred by hummingbirds.

Keeping the nest just the right size as the need arises helps to keep the growing youngsters warm and secure. In the western states where several species of hummingbirds nest, often at higher elevations, it is not only important to keep the nestlings warm, but also the incubating female, especially at night. Therefore, it is often the case that hummingbirds in these colder situations will locate their nests on a limb with an overhanging branch acting as a sort of roof to help block the nest from the night sky. 

Although this measure helps reduce heat loss, it is often the case that nesting females will go into a state of torpor (reduced physiological activity to lower body temperature) in order to conserve energy on particularly cold nights. This is a principle of physics in which the larger the difference in temperature between objects, the faster the heat flows from the warmer one to the cooler one. Therefore, a hummingbird with a lower body temperature will lose heat more slowly than the one with a warmer body. As I stated earlier, hummingbirds are amazing!

PHOTO: Parmelia sulcata, a common lichen, is used to help disguise the hummingbird's nest.

Parmelia sulcata, a common lichen, is used to help disguise the hummingbird’s nest.

Part of the reason—besides size—I had not noticed the nest earlier is that the birds do a fantastic job of camouflaging it. This also relates to the spiderweb silk. Some or all of the silk used is sticky. Upon completion of nest construction, the birds collect bits of lichen and attach them to the sticky strands on the outside of the nest. Interestingly, the birds seem to always use the same species of lichen, one that goes by the name of Parmelia sulcata

Parmelia sulcata is a light greenish-gray lichen with a leafy (foliose) appearance. One of our more common lichens, it is often seen on the upper branches of trees, and was particularly abundant on the ash trees that died from emerald ash borer. I don’t know if the birds chose this species of lichen in particular or, being common, it is just found most often. It is also interesting that the birds seem to apply the lichens to the nest in an upright position, with the top facing outward, so they look like they could be growing on the nest.

Come birding at the Garden! Take a birding class; join a group, and check your finds against our bird list.

Although this process is fascinating, it is not restricted to hummingbirds. One of the other breeding birds at the Garden utilizes a very similar nest construction technique to hold its three to five small eggs. The blue-gray gnatcatcher, another tiny bird (that somewhat resembles a miniature catbird in appearance and sound), also constructs a nest out of soft plant fibers, including spiderwebs, and applies lichen to the outside of its nest. A nest of this species, a little larger than that of a hummingbird, was found on a branch of one of the locust trees growing in a Garden parking lot.

PHOTO: A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

PHOTO: A blue-gray gnatcatcher at the Garden; females look similar, but are less blue.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher at the Garden; females look similar, but are less blue.

If you’re lucky, you might find the nest of one of these birds during the nesting season, but if not, keep an eye out for little bumps, lumps, and knobs on bare branches in winter. You might get lucky.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View our list of upcoming events for free events near you.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Timothy Whealon, featured lecturers at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Antiques, Garden & Design Show, are two celebrated interior designers with their own sensibilities and styles.

Bullard, who has designed for celebrities like Tommy Hilfiger and Cher, likes to create sophisticated and eclectic interiors. Whealon, who studied English literature and art history and trained at Sotheby’s, focuses on fine and decorative arts and mixes classic and modern styles seamlessly.

They both strolled the exhibitor booths at the Show’s preview party to choose pieces that caught their eye, and would feel right at home among their personal aesthetic. See these picks and more at the Antiques, Garden & Design Show, through Sunday, April 17, and stroll through the Garden grounds to enjoy the spring blooms.

Martyn Lawrence Bullard’s Picks:
(Click on an image for information about the item and vendor.)

Timothy Whealon’s Picks:
(Click on an image for information about the item and vendor.)


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In the summer of 2002, a large, multidisciplinary group of professors, healthcare providers, and design professionals gathered at the Chicago Botanic Garden to help form the curriculum of a new, original certificate program.

The goal of the Healthcare Garden Design Certificate Program was, and remains, to provide a useful, up-to-date, and engaging professional development opportunity in healthcare garden design that reflects the multidisciplinary nature of this emerging field, and allows participants the opportunity to focus their learning on topics of particular relevance to each person.

PHOTO: 2015 Healthcare Garden Design class.

The 2015 Healthcare Garden Design class
Photo by Carissa Ilg

PHOTO: Participants rest in the shade of a garden during a site visit as part of the Healthcare Garden Design course.

Gwenn Fried, a program instructor, having a conversation with 2015 program participant during a site visit to a healing garden as part of the Healthcare Garden Design Certificate course. Photo by Carissa Ilg

From the start, evidence-based design has been the core of this program, with a focus on using research results to design garden facilities that allow for and make possible specific health and wellness outcomes, while encouraging the design team’s creativity and the application of professional insight.

What you can expect to learn from attending this course:

  • Learn from key industry leaders why healthcare gardens constitute an essential component of customer-centered environments of care. Learn how these gardens positively impact patient health outcomes, stress reduction, and satisfaction, as well as employee retention, marketing activities, philanthropy, accreditation, and the bottom line.
  • Gain a more thorough understanding of how evidence-based design is fueling growth in healthcare gardens and restorative environments, and how research informs the design process.
  • Define best practices in this emerging field through collaboration with colleagues from a variety of professions.
  • Discover how healthcare gardens can lead to increased levels of outside funding and contribute to successful marketing activities.
  • Learn about the full range of benefits that therapeutic gardens make possible when used by health professionals including doctors, nurses, and horticultural, art, music, physical, occupational, and recreation therapists.
  • Engage in case studies, multidisciplinary group projects, field trips, and other learning activities that focus on the unique characteristics of healthcare gardens and their design for specific populations and facilities.
PHOTO: Splitting into teams, each group designs their own Healthcare Garden Design project to present at the end of the program.

Splitting into teams, each group designs their own healthcare garden design project to present at the end of the program. Photo by Carissa Ilg

PHOTO: Another team sketches out their Healthcare Garden Design.

Another team sketches out their healthcare garden design. Photo by Mark Epstein

The Healthcare Garden Design (HGD) program at Chicago Botanic Garden was one of the most information-packed programs I have ever attended. Every speaker was at the top of their field and imparted practical, useful information that I was able to take back to my special-needs school to use. I loved that the speakers had diverse backgrounds—which gave a well-rounded view of what healthcare gardens should entail. Because of what we learned at the HGD program, we were able to design a wheelchair-accessible therapy garden that meets the needs of all our students. The program gave us insight to avoid problems, add security and safety, and create a useful, beautiful garden for students with very complex needs. I can’t say enough about how valuable the HGD program was for my professional career as a special-needs educator with an extreme interest in horticulture therapy.
—Janel Rowe, Bright Horizons Center School, Bright Garden Project co-chair

Each cohort is composed of up to 24 professionals and students from throughout the United States and abroad.

Past participants include:

  • Healthcare executives, administrators, and facility managers
  • Landscape architects, architects, and garden and interior designers
  • Nurses, doctors, horticultural and other adjunctive therapists, and other medical professionals
  • Graduate students in degree programs in these fields

Upon completion of this program, the participant’s ability to design and promote healthcare gardens will be markedly improved. Someone who has completed the program will be capable of applying their knowledge, skills, and insight to the design of healthcare gardens for any population or facility.

What you won’t find in the marketing material—the exclusive intangibles of this course—is the experience of immersive learning from the broad range of distinguished instructors, in a spectacular setting. The Chicago Botanic Garden itself is a masterpiece of great design, and the classroom feels like an illustrious museum. The curriculum and instructors provide personalized and customized learning. Participants have created enduring friendships and professional relationships in this course.

There is no other course like this one; the Healthcare Garden Design certificate program provides a unique and extraordinary experience.

PHOTO: Final 2015 Healthcare Garden Design group presentations.

Final 2015 Healthcare Garden Design group presentations
Photo by Carissa Ilg.


Our next program begins May 11, 2016. Register for the Healthcare Garden Design certificate program today.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Be the first to grow these ten new plants—including Lunar Eclipse false indigo—just patented via the Chicagoland Grows, Inc. plant introduction program and on sale for the first time.

Purchase these new Baptisia and more online at Sooner Plant Farm and Bluestone Perennials.

Look for them at Chicago-area garden centers, said Jim Ault, Ph.D., who manages the program for the Chicago Botanic Garden. He’s proud of all of them, but two are special, said Ault, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Director of Ornamental Plant Research: Baptisia ‘Lunar Eclipse’, for its flowers that change from creamy white to deep violet as the plant ages, and Baptisia ‘Sunny Morning’, for its profusion of yellow flowers on dark charcoal stems.

PHOTO: Blue Mound false indigo.

Blue Mound false indigo
Baptisia australis ‘Blue Mound’

PHOTO: Lavender Rose false indigo.

Lavender Rose false indigo
Baptisia ‘Lavender Rose’

PHOTO: Lunar Eclipse false indigo.

Lunar Eclipse false indigo
Baptisia ‘Lunar Eclipse’

PHOTO: Mojito false indigo.

Mojito false indigo
Baptisia ‘Mojito’

PHOTO: Royal Purple false indigo.

Royal Purple false indigo
Baptisia ‘Royal Purple’

PHOTO: Sunny Morning false indigo.

Sunny Morning false indigo
Baptisia ‘Sunny Morning’

PHOTO: Sandstorm false indigo.

Sandstorm false indigo
Baptisia ‘Sandstorm’

PHOTO: Tough Love spiderwort.

Tough Love spiderwort
Tradescantia ‘Tough Love’

PHOTO: Pink Profusion phlox.

Pink Profusion phlox
Phlox × procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’

PHOTO: Violet Pinwheels phlox.

Violet Pinwheels phlox
Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’

Read more about these cultivars on the Chicagoland Grows website.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Do-It-Yourself Seed Balls

Karen Z. —  April 10, 2016 — 2 Comments

Spring is seed season—and a good time to think about gifting seeds to gardeners, friends, and green-thumbed moms (think Mother’s Day, May 8).

Musing about how to share some of the seeds that she gathered at February’s Seed Swap, horticulturist Nancy Clifton got interested in the guerrilla gardening-inspired idea of “seed balls” (or seed bombs, as they’re sometimes called). While the guerrilla gardening movement leans toward stealth seeding, Nancy thinks seed balls make an ideal gift item—they’re easy to make, easy to “plant,” and an easy way to teach kids about germination.

PHOTO: Seed balls made with different recipes.

Clay powder gives seed balls a reddish color and even texture; using clay chips makes a slightly chunkier, greenish seed ball. Both work equally well.

Here’s the easy seed ball recipe:

  • 1 cup powdered clay or potter’s clay (can be purchased online)
  • ½ cup dried compost (the finer, the better—Nancy used a pre-bagged compost mix)
  • 2 tablespoons desired seeds (see seed choice section below)
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper (to deter critters from eating the sprouts)
  • Water

Mix the dry ingredients; then add ½ cup water. Stir, then begin to judge the consistency. Wearing gardening or plastic gloves, roll a teaspoon-sized ball in your hands (size can vary). Think “mud pie”—the ball should hold together when you squeeze it, without crumbling or dripping water.

Roll all of the mixture into balls; then let the balls dry on newspaper or waxed paper for two or three days. Don’t worry about smoothness—rustic-looking seed balls are as interesting as marble-smooth. The color will change to dark red/terra cotta as the balls dry. This recipe yields about 24 seed balls.

About Your Seed Choice

  • Less is more. You only want a few seeds to sprout from each seed ball. Too many seeds mean too many sprouts, resulting in too much competition for nutrients and water.
  • All sun. All shade. All herbs. All spring. Choose seeds with similar needs to maximize success in their container or garden spot. Nancy’s variations:
    • All summer annuals
    • All lettuces
    • All cool-season herbs
  • Use organic, non-treated seeds from your own garden or from trusted sources.
  • Choose native species for flowers and perennials that will grow successfully in our USDA Zone 5 region. Be responsible: do not use seeds from invasive species.

PHOTO: Nancy handles finished seed balls using plastic gloves.

Wear plastic or latex gloves when making seed balls. The mixture tends to be very sticky, and clay can dry out your hands very easily.

Seed balls can be set into a container of potting soil (sink it down just a bit into the soil), or placed, randomly or intentionally, on bare soil in the garden. A rainy day is the perfect day to “plant” seed balls—rain helps to break down the clay and compost, giving seeds a good dose of food and water to get started growing.

Throw one in your garden. Fill an empty space. Gift a brown- or green-thumbed friend. And happy spring, everyone!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org