The Critical Search for a Plant

Chicago Botanic Garden provides rare plant for toxin testing

Boyce Tankersley —  November 13, 2015 — 5 Comments

The clock was ticking—a little girl was seriously ill—when I got the call for help. A Denver hospital needed living tissue from Thujopsis dolabrata or any of its cultivars within 24 hours to determine if the plant was the cause of the girl’s life-threatening allergic reaction.

Don’t call us first! Call the U.S. Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222. If you need help identifying a plant to determine if it’s poisonous—and it’s not an emergency—try our Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972. Please bring in a live plant sample for an accurate identification.

The girl had been flown in from Japan to be treated at the hospital, National Jewish Health. After I got the call, I looked into the hospital, which is known worldwide for treating patients with respiratory, immune, and related disorders. In the girl’s case, the doctors apparently had a list of potential allergens they were testing, including Thujopsis, a rare evergreen shrub that is native to Japan.

A hospital official began the search for the plant with a colleague of mine at the Denver Botanic Gardens. My colleague met the girl’s grandmother, who showed her a picture of the patient’s red and inflamed face. When my colleague couldn’t help, she checked around and found via the Chicago Botanic Garden’s free smartphone app, GardenGuide, that we have the plant, commonly known as hiba arborvitae.

While the call came out of the blue—in my 17 years at the Garden, I’ve never fielded such a request—this type of emergency was not new to me. I used to be in charge of landscaping at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and occasionally supplied plant samples from the campus gardens to the Texas Poison Control Center. Now, as the Garden’s director of living plant documentation, the response just kicked in.

It’s always a good idea to be aware of toxins in your home. The ASPCA keeps a list of houseplants that are toxic to pets; for a list of commonly available houseplants toxic to humans, check out this most common poisonous houseplants fact sheet from the New York Botanical Garden.

PHOTO: Thujopsis dolabrata 'Variegata'.

Thujopsis dolabrata ‘Variegata’

In the Garden’s production nursery, I snipped a branch from two different cultivars of Thujopsis. Within three hours of receiving the request, I had dropped the samples off at FedEx on the way home.

As it turned out, Thujopsis did appear to be the culprit, and the hospital is continuing to test the girl’s blood samples with extracts from the Thujopsis to determine what constituents are causing the allergic reaction (the same constituents can be found in related species, so the search to identify other potential sources is prudent). Meanwhile, the girl responded quickly to emergency treatment, was stabilized, and returned to Japan.

While public gardens and other outdoor spaces are often recognized for their mental health benefits, this incident reminded me of the fact that botanic gardens have made important contributions to the physical well-being of people in need.

For more than 450 years, botanic gardens have collected and housed plants from throughout the world for the public good, from medicinal plants in the sixteenth century to food crops used to expand and improve people’s diets (like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn introduced to Europe from the New World, and global economic plants like tea and cocoa). I’m proud to be a part of this history. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Anyone who reads the volumes of research can easily see all the reasons why a nature preschool is not just a real preschool, but should be a standard for all preschool environments to aspire to attain.

Here are my top five reasons why a nature preschool should be the choice of all parents when deciding on their child’s first preschool experience.

Growing and planting teaches a valuable lesson in change over time, and sticking with a project to see results that may take a while to be revealed.

Growing and planting teaches a valuable lesson in change over time, and sticking with a project to see results that may take a while to be revealed.

No. 1: Children in nature preschools learn by doing and with hands-on activities.

You must be hands-on when you learn in nature. You cannot be a passive learner; you must engage. Most nature preschools do not put a heavy emphasis on early academics. Instead, they opt for a balanced curriculum that seeks to develop the “whole child”—i.e., cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and creative development.

According to Ken Finch, president and founder of Green Hearts (a conservation organization dedicated to restoring and strengthening the bonds between children and nature), “Nature preschool students truly learn how to learn…developing the curiosity and joy that should pervade all education, while practicing key social skills such as sharing, waiting one’s turn, and following simple directions.”

These are all principles that the National Association for the Education of Young Children endorses and embraces.

No. 2: Time learning in nature supports creativity and problem solving.

Many children spend time in preschool working on one-answer solutions. Their work is very cut and dry, limiting the amount of critical thinking or creativity needed for the answer. Play in nature allows children to try several solutions to a problem. Nature is unpredictable, and often, answers might not be what we would like, but we learn from this too. A great example is “Spike”, the titan arum that did not bloom here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Was the anticipation and all the new knowledge that so many people learned while waiting a waste of time? Of course not! Spike went back to the greenhouses and is being studied. Our horticulturists have gained even greater knowledge of titan arum cultivation for Spike’s failure to bloom.

Stephen Kellert, social ecologist and senior research scholar at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies states, “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”

Children engaging with nature experience similar failures, and learn from them. They try new ways to solve problems, and find out more about why their solutions did not work for the next time. Nature allows for children to discover how to adapt.

No. 3: Time spent in nature helps reduce symptoms of ADHD.

PHOTO: Infographic of health benefits of children being active in nature.

This infographic created by the National Environmental Education Foundation is also a quick scan of facts about why being active in nature makes kids healthier. Click here to download or view larger.

Researchers Dr. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor of the University of Illinois’ Landscape and Human Health Laboratory have dedicated themselves to studying the relationship between physical environment and wellness. They have done a number of studies in particular related to ADHD and time in nature. These studies have shown children with ADHD have improved concentration after time spent in nature. I have witnessed firsthand how children respond inside the classroom after spending time outside in nature. They really are ready to listen, concentrate, and settle into tasks either on their own or with others. Think about how you feel after you return from a walk or time outside in your garden—don’t you feel stress-free?

There are many other health benefits related to nature preschool. A good report to find out about more of them is Health Benefits to Children from Contact with the Outdoors and Nature

No. 4: Children who attend a nature preschool are better observers.

“Nature literacy awakens habits of perception (sensory awareness) and cultivates a rich vocabulary of search images (knowledge of place). Through these, our students connect to the natural world in a meaningful way.”—Fostering Outdoor Observation Skills, A Project of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ North American Conservation Education Strategy 2011.

Children must take the time to listen for birds, look for small clues that animals might have come down a trail, and notice the differences between leaves on two different plants or trees. Observation in nature is not just about knowing the names for plants or creatures, but being able to recognize them when out on a hike.

Allowing time to examine the outdoors in detail makes children better overall observers, and better able to focus in class.

Allowing time to examine the outdoors in detail makes children better overall observers, and better able to focus in class.

No. 5: Nature Preschool fosters an appreciation of the world around children.

When a child engages in an activity of any kind, an appreciation develops. Think of children exposed to various genres of music; they become better attuned to musical nuances. It is the same for children who spend time on a regular basis in nature. They see the beauty, explore the changes, and learn to enjoy their time outside. This appreciation is carried over to adulthood.

“Research on human development and learning has long established that the early childhood years are a crucial period in the formation of lasting adult values. Could we do any better than to ensure that one of those values is a deep love for the outdoors?”

“Children enrolled in a nature-focused preschool for even a single year, will probably get more direct contact with the outdoors than they will have in all their subsequent years of K-12 schooling.”Nature-Focused Preschools: Putting the Heart First in Environmental Education by Ken Finch

It is the frequency of explorations in nature that are probably the greatest benefit of a nature preschool.

It is the frequency of explorations in nature that are probably the greatest benefit of a nature preschool.

In her article, “The Wonders of Nature: Honoring Children’s Way of Knowing,” Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., notes, “Early experiences with the natural world have also been positively linked with the sense of wonder. This way of knowing, if recognized and honored, can serve as a lifelong source of joy and enrichment, as well as an impetus, or motivation, for further learning.

Sadly, the ability to experience the world…as a source of wonder tends to diminish over time. This seems to be especially true in Western cultures, where for the sake of objective understandings; children are encouraged to focus their learning on cognitive models, rather than on first-hand investigations of the natural environment.”

Further reading and resources:

As a parent, can you choose a learning outcome for your child that is more important than that “sense of wonder?” Even for an adult, wonder is so important in order to be a lifelong learner.

As you make the choice of a preschool for your child, I hope that you will take some time to read a bit more on nature preschool values. Are these indoor/outdoor classrooms just the latest new kid on the block, or is there more to this trend? Which ways do you find best for children to learn?

Online registration for the Garden’s 2016 Nature Preschool program begins December 7, 2015. Save the date: Open Houses for the program will be held January 14 and April 7. Click here for more information on the program.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Fall is family photo time, as the holidays near and thoughts turn to cards, gifts, and updates. The Chicago Botanic Garden makes a beautiful background! 

 PHOTO: Crescent Garden.

No. 1: Crescent Garden
Works great for: groups large and small. Chrysanthemums and Japanese maples in shades of burgundy and wine.

PHOTO: English Oak Meadow.

No. 2: English Oak Meadow
Works great for: families. As our silhouette “family” shows, position the group on the path, then stand on the grassy area to take the shot. It’s a good vertical backdrop for larger groups.

PHOTO: Home Landscape Garden.

No. 3: Farwell Landscape Garden
Works great for: couples, kids. The “arm” of a copper beech creates a creative arch for framing. 

PHOTO: English Walled Garden.

No. 4: English Walled Garden
Works great for: tight-knit clusters. The perfect blue, the perfect bench, always a perfect picture.

PHOTO: Puryear Point.

No. 5: Puryear Point
Works great for: close-ups. Want the grand vista in the background? Head up to the hill between the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden and the Arch Bridge, where two Martin Puryear sculptures offer not only a nice place to relax, but also a grand vista of the Japanese islands.

PHOTO: Arch Bridge.

No. 6: Arch Bridge
Works great for: group selfies. Try this at sunset, as golden light illuminates the bridge.

PHOTO: Lakeside Terrace.

No. 7: Lakeside Terrace
Works great for: formal photos. Beautifully designed water-level terrace has seating, water, and a view of Evening Island.

PHOTO: Circle Garden.

No. 8: Circle Garden
Works great for: short-distance walkers. Just a few steps outside the Regenstein Center, the Circle Garden’s beautifully designed beds and “secret garden” benches are ideal for grandparents and little ones.

PHOTO: Outer Road.

No. 9: Outer Road
Works great for: getting away from the crowd. On the outer road, between the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden and Dixon Prairie, rows of trees make a nice background with a view to the grasses beyond.

PHOTO: Evening Island.

No. 10: Evening Island
Works great for: everyone. Evening Island has broad paths, drifting grasses, big sky, a grand lawn, and a handy wall for perching at the Nautilus.

Note: With the turn of the season, backgrounds are changing every day! Use these as guidelines for your photos, and let us know your favorite backgrounds! 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Conifornia Dreaming

Tom Weaver —  November 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

In early September, I had the privilege of attending the annual meeting of the American Conifer Society in Sonoma County, California. My first (and wildly inaccurate) thought was, “What could we possibly see aside from redwoods? There aren’t any conifers that thrive in that area.” Well I couldn’t have been more wrong, as the next two days showed me.

PHOTO: Tour at the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the early days of colonial settlement, the hills surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge were covered with forests of lush coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens).

Our first day included stops at one private garden, Hog Hill; a trip to an old growth redwood forest; and a very informative demonstration by the Aesthetic Pruning Association. Hog Hill is notable for having a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) that is likely one of the very first grown from seed after being rediscovered in China in 1941. The rest of the garden featured a wide array of South African and Mediterranean plants that were well suited to the semiarid climate.


Redwoods in Armstrong Woods

The part of the trip I was looking forward to most was next. After waiting my entire life to see them, I was finally getting to see coast redwoods in their home. While I’ll never be able to grow them here in the Chicago area, it was still inspiring to see such majestic trees in person. Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve was owned by a lumberman in the 1880s who recognized the area’s beauty and set aside this tract of land as a public park. While it doesn’t contain the largest trees in California, it still is home to an outstanding number of trees. Nothing reminds you of how big the world is like standing next to a plant more than 300 feet tall! We also had a chance to take a guided walk with docents from the park, where we learned that the vast majority of wildlife resides way up in the canopy, which explains why the forest floor was so eerily silent. 

After touring the redwoods, we traveled to Circle Oak Ranch, an equine center that also features an amazing collection of dwarf conifers. Unfortunately, my camera’s battery was dead by this point, so I don’t have any photos to share. We were treated to a tour of the gardens followed by an outstanding pruning demonstration by the Aesthetic Pruning Association. Several volunteers were stationed throughout the gardens giving demonstrations on how to properly prune various growth forms of dwarf conifers. This garden was also a highlight, because it was located in an area that experiences colder temperatures and heavy clay soil, and therefore featured numerous plants that would also thrive in our midwestern climate.  

Quarryhill Botanical Garden

Quarryhill Botanical Garden

The following day was a trip to Quarryhill Botanical Garden. Quarryhill features a vast collection of temperate climate Asian plants. More than 90 percent of the plants were grown from wild collected seed in places ranging from Japan to India. The gardens date from the late 1980s, when the property owner at the time decided to convert the abandoned rock quarries on her property into a lush garden. Quarryhill included many unusual conifers in their collection, which made it a great opportunity to see plants I will likely never see again such as Pinus roxburghii and Cupressus chengiana.

However, I will admit that my favorite plant from the garden ended up being—of all things—a rose. Rosa roxburghii features very large (nearly golf-ball-sized) hips of vibrant yellow with small, reddish spines covering their surface. Sure, it might not be conifer-relevant but it never hurts to learn a new plant, right?

PHOTO: Rosa roxburghiii at Quarryhill Botanical Garden.

Rosa roxburghiii at Quarryhill Botanical Garden

PHOTO: Pinus roxburghii.

Pinus roxburghii

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis.

Wollemia nobilis

Our final stop on the trip was the San Francisco Botanical Garden (formerly Strybing Arboretum). Their 55 acres packed an incredible number of plants into one place. The conifer highlight of the garden was a very rare albino redwood. Unable to survive on their own, albino redwoods are mutations that lack chlorophyll, typically found growing at the base of an otherwise normal redwood tree. Other highlights included some magnificent specimens of conifers from the Southern Hemisphere including Araucaria and Wollemia nobilis, a tree that was only known from the fossil record until 1994, when a small grove was discovered near Sydney, Australia. We are fortunate to have a specimen of Wollemia on display in our Heritage Garden as well, but it was exciting to see a larger specimen such as this.

PHOTO: Albino redwood at San Francisco Botanical Garden.

Albino redwood at San Francisco Botanical Garden

In addition to seeing such an amazing array of plants in two days, this trip also gave me the opportunity to meet dozens of other professionals and hobbyists who share my love of conifers. The amazing thing about trips like this is seeing just how much there is in our world and how important it is to share ideas and see new things. If I had never taken this trip I would probably go on thinking that everything in northern California east of the coastal hills was a barren grassland, not an area teeming with native plants, and I never would have had a chance to meet so many interesting people, each with their own unique take on the world of conifers.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

There’s a tree 20 feet above the Chicago Botanic Garden

Celebrating the halfway mark of the Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus construction

Sophia Shaw —  October 30, 2015 — 4 Comments

Why is there a tree on the exposed beams of the under-construction Education Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus?

PHOTO: A construction worker "tops off" the site, as the team reaches the halfway point in the construction of the new campus.

A construction worker “tops off” the site, as the team reaches the halfway point in the construction of the new campus.

That tree is part of a more than 1,000-year-old tradition to recognize a very special moment in the construction of a building. The tree is hoisted up and placed on the beams by the project’s construction workers, in our case by those from Waukegan Steel, LLC, during a “topping out” or “topping off” ceremony.

The practice of placing a tree atop a building signals the end of the framing phase of construction, and it is a tradition that originated in eighth century Scandinavia. The tree used is often a pine, but it can be of any type; originally, sheathes of wheat were used. As the tree is raised, usually adorned by a flag, to the building’s final beam, the team celebrates with a toast or a meal. It’s a moment to acknowledge the workers’ skill and successful accomplishment, the safety of the worksite, and the transition to the next phase of the project. The tree also provides a blessing of sorts to those who will dwell, work, and play in the building in the future, and pays homage to the materials (originally wood) that make shelter possible.

PHOTO: Despite the blustery day, the construction team was excited to celebrate the success of the project so far.

Despite the blustery day, the construction team was excited to celebrate the success of the project so far.

We know that plants are critical to sustain life on Earth. Much of our food, clean air and water, clothing, medicine, and shelter derive from plants. And, in addition to needing plants to sustain life, we rely on plants to help us enrich our life and to celebrate its important milestones. We give plants and flowers as gifts—to court those we desire, to lift the spirits of friends or acquaintances who are sick—or to memorialize and honor those who have passed away. Guests coming to a friend’s house for dinner bring a fragrant hostess gift. In some places, a homecoming corsage is still part of coming of age.

Our Science and Education curriculum is made possible by you, our generous donors and sponsors.

So when I look up at the tree atop the beams of the Education Center on our soon-to-be Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus, not only do I celebrate this milestone of construction and the accomplishments of the steelworkers who are making this important project possible, I also think about how many wonderful ways plants enrich our lives.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and