Have you ever noticed the first crocuses poking out of the snow or the brilliant, changing colors of fall leaves? If so, we need your help with the critical work of studying how plants are affected by a changing climate.
Budburst, a project adopted by the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2017, brings together citizens, research scientists, educators, and horticulturists to study “phenology,” or the life-cycle events of plants. Wildflower phenology events, for example, are fairly simple: first flower, full flower, first fruit, and full fruiting. Deciduous trees, on the other hand, are more complex, with stages from first buds to leaf drop.
Budburst builds on the basic human drive to notice this kind of changing nature around us and record the information to a database for scientists to review. As director of Budburst, I’m excited to hear about your observations on Fall into Phenology, a study on the autumnal changes you see in plants, or the Nativars Research Project, which looks at how bees, butterflies, and other pollinators react to cultivated varieties of native plants.
Budburst’s Fall into Phenology is not limited to just leaf color and seed; it is about observing plants in the fall. This will be my second autumn with Budburst and the Garden, and I’m looking forward to watching some my favorite plants go through their life-cycle changes. I’ll be keeping an eye on the sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) underneath my window at the Regenstein Learning Campus, for instance. I can’t wait to see the beautiful shades of yellow or orange or…well, you just never know.
The late February weather in Chicago has been a glorious time to be outside and work in the garden. But the unseasonably warm weather has also raised questions about the long-term effect on plants and what garden tasks are appropriate.
It is best to hold off on doing any detailed clean up of garden beds as the mulch and leaves in the beds will provide some protection to any early growing perennials when the weather eventually turns cold again. Raking leaves off the lawn and cutting back perennials are all fine to do now providing your garden soil is not too wet.
Early flowering bulbs like snowdrops that are in flower here at the Chicago Botanic Garden are very tolerant of the cold. Daffodil and tulip foliage is coming up; these might end up being damaged by a spell of cold weather, but this should not affect the spring flowers. You do not need to take any special maintenance steps to protect these plants.
If you have some perennials that are growing in a warm area of the garden with more pronounced growth, they might benefit from a light layer of mulch. For the most part, though, there is nothing special for most gardeners to do in their perennial beds.
This is great weather to prune but proceed with care. Spring flowering shrubs like viburnums, lilacs, and forsythia set their flower buds last year so pruning done at this time of year will remove flower buds and reduce the number of spring flowers. You can still prune—just be aware of the flower buds as you are pruning. Forsythia flowers along the stems while viburnums will have a flower bud at the ends of the stem.
The dormant season, and in particular late winter, is the best time of year to complete rejuvenation pruning, which is the aggressive pruning of overgrown shrubs to bring them back into scale with the garden. Shrubs like hydrangea (except oak leaf hydrangea), potentilla, and spirea that flower on new wood respond well to pruning now too. For instance, I cut my Annabelle hydrangea back to the ground each spring.
Any plants installed last summer or fall should have been mulched when they were planted. If they were not, then mulch them now to help mitigate the temperature swings in the soil and prevent frost heaving of any plants in spring. The freezing and thawing of the soil can push recently installed small plants such as 1-gallon perennials or ground covers that were grown in containers out of the soil as the weather transitions to spring.
If we receive a good covering of snow, the snow itself will not harm plants unless it builds up on them and breaks branches. It is a good idea to brush plants off during a storm if you observe them getting weighted down. Later snowstorms are more likely to come in wet and heavy. Leave the plants alone if the snow has frozen on them to avoid breaking branches during the removal process.
Enjoy the warm weather and the early blooms, both at the Chicago Botanic Garden and in your own backyard.
When you lift a rock in your garden and glimpse earthworms and tiny insects hustling for cover, you’ve just encountered the celebrities of soil. We all know them on sight. The leggy, the skinny, the pale…the surprisingly fast.
Behind this fleeting moment are what may be considered the producers, editors, and set designers of the mysterious and complex world of soil—fungi. They often go unrecognized, simply because most of us can’t see them.
Fortunately, new technologies are helping experts, like Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Louise Egerton-Warburton, Ph.D., get a better look at fungi than ever before, and discover vital information.
“One of the problems we have with soil science is that you can’t see into it so you really depend on a lot of techniques and methods to work out what’s happening,” explained Dr. Egerton-Warburton, associate conservation scientist in soil and microbial ecology.
In the last year, she has used high-throughput sequencing (also termed Next Generation Sequencing) to identify more than 120 species of mycorrhizal fungi in a single plant community. In contrast, previous reports suggested there were, at most, about 55 mycorrhizal species in a plant community. These tiny heroes are microscopic organisms that attach themselves to plant roots, for example, to carry out critical functions that support all life on earth. They are essential for the well-being of more than 85 percent of all plants, including those in your garden.
Mycorrhizal fungi are fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with roots of a vascular plant; from the Greek for “fungus” and “root.”
If climate change results in more intense rainfall and drought—as is predicted by climate change scientists—mycorrhizal fungi will also play an important role in processing varied levels of water in the soil.
Egerton-Warburton has just returned from November field work in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, where she has been testing the responses of mycorrhizal fungi to changes in rainfall and soil moisture, especially to drought. Will fungi be able to keep pace? Will they be able to survive? What does that mean for other plant life? “Fungi are really good indicators of any environmental problems. So they are more likely to show the effects of any environmental stress before the plants will,” she said.
Each type of fungi also has a specific role, according to Egerton-Warburton, with some specialized to take up nutrients from the soil, while others cooperate to complete a function, such as fully decomposing a leaf. A lot of fungi are needed to keep the system working. “You get 110 yards of fungal material in every teaspoon of soil,” she explained.
Aside from breaking down deceased plant material, fungi play a key role in many plant-soil interactions and the redistribution of resources in an ecosystem. They filter water that runs into the ground, cleaning it before it hits the bottom aquifers and drains out into rivers. Also, in the top few inches of soil, many fungi are respiring, along with their earthworm and other living counterparts, helping to filter gases and air that move through the system. Of growing interest, is also the fact that fungi could have a major role in soil carbon sequestration.
Soil carbon sequestration is the process of transferring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil in a form that is not immediately reemitted.
For the past four years, Egerton-Warburton and colleagues at Northwestern University have been working to better understand the flow of carbon through fungal communities that results in long-term soil carbon sequestration. Soil’s capacity to store carbon is a reason for hope and a potential way to mitigate climate change. According to Egerton-Warburton, soil is known to hold three times more carbon than plants and trees above ground. “Maybe there are other ways we can manage the systems and enhance that capacity in the soil,” she said.
The study has required a lot of ‘getting to know you’, as the researchers first sought to identify each type of fungi involved in the process of carbon sequestration. As plant parts above ground are faced with absorbing and converting larger and larger amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere into sugars, and sending it down into their roots, the more beneficial it will be to have a healthy suite of fungi waiting to receive it, use it, and move it along for future long-term storage.
Part of this equation has been to understand which fungi benefit from the increasing supply of sugar. Previous work by Egerton-Warburton has shown that mycorrhizal fungi respond to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide by producing large quantities of hyphae, a fine root-like structure, in the soil. This is because increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide allow a plant to produce more sugars during photosynthesis, and these sugars are shunted below ground for use by roots and their mycorrhizal fungi. At the other end of the equation are saprophytic and decomposer fungi, waiting to break down the new hyphae.
Recent work in the Dixon Prairie has used the high throughput sequencing and chemical fingerprinting to identify the fungi involved in this decomposition phase. Once that is resolved, they will be able to better understand how the fungi interact and balance the cycle carbon through specific pathways of activity.
The more the merrier, when it comes to fungi, and when it comes to people who are willing to help them endure, said Egerton-Warburton. The scientist often works with students who are interested in careers in the field, but encourages additional people to consider this critical line of work. “There’s a real need for soil ecologists in the country,” she said.
The good news is that the future story of fungi is one we can all help to script. Gardeners, she advised, can pay attention to the type of mulch they use in their garden, and plant lots of native species that will naturally enrich the function of that wonderful world that holds us up.
I am often asked, “What can kids do to help the Earth?”
There is a standard litany of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” suggestions that almost everyone can tell you: recycle your garbage, turn the lights off when you leave a room, turn the water off while brushing your teeth, and so forth.
We’ve been saying these same things for decades. And while they’re great ideas, they’re things we should all be doing. It’s time to give kids a chance to do something bigger. During Climate Week this year, I am offering a different suggestion: Watch dandelions grow and participate in Project BudBurst.
Project BudBurst is a citizen science program in which ordinary people (including kids 10 years old and up) contribute information about plant bloom times to a national database online. The extensive list of plants that kids can watch includes the common dandelion, which any 10-year-old can find and watch over time.
Why is this an important action project?
Scientists are monitoring plants as a way to detect and measure changes in the climate. Recording bloom times of dandelions and other plants over time across the country enables them to compare how plants are growing in different places at different times and in different years. These scientists can’t be everywhere watching every plant all the time, so your observations may be critical in helping them understand the effects of climate change on plants.
What to Do:
1. Open the Project Budburst website at budburst.org and register as a member. It’s free and easy. Click around the website and read the information that interests you.
2. Go to the “Observing Plants” tab and print a Wildflower Regular Report form. Use this form to gather and record information about your dandelion.
3. Find a dandelion in your neighborhood, preferably one growing in a protected area, not likely to be mowed down or treated with weed killers, because you will want to watch this plant all year. It’s also best if you can learn to recognize it without any flowers, and that you start with a plant that has not bloomed yet.
4. Fill in the Wildflower Regular Report with information about the dandelion and its habitat.
Common Plant Name: Common dandelion
Scientific Name: Taraxacum officinale
Site Name: Give the area a name like “Green Family Backyard” or “Smart Elementary School Playground”
Latitude and Longitude: Use a GPS device to find the exact location of your dandelion. (Smartphones have free apps that can do this. Ask an adult for help if you need it.) Record the letters, numbers, and symbols exactly as shown on the GPS device. This is important because it will enable the website database to put your plant on a national map.
Answer the questions about the area around your plant. If you don’t understand a question, ask an adult to help you.
5. Now you’re ready to watch your dandelion. Visit it every day that you can. On the right side of the form, record information as you observe it.
In the “First Flower” box, write the date you see the very first, fully open yellow flower on your dandelion.
As the plant grows more flowers, record the date when it has three or more fully open flowers.
Where it says “First Ripe Fruit,” it means the first time a fluffy, white ball of seeds is open. Resist the temptation to pick it and blow it. Remember, you are doing science for the planet now!
For “Full Fruiting” record the date when there are three seedheads on this plant. It’s all right if the seeds have blown away. It may have new flowers at the same time.
In the space at the bottom, you can write comments about things you notice. For example, you may see an insect on the flower, or notice how many days the puffball of seeds lasts. This is optional.
Keep watching, and record the date that the plant looks like it is all finished for the year—no more flowers or puffballs, and the leaves look dead.
When your plant has completed its life cycle, or it is covered in snow, log onto the BudBurst website and follow directions to add your information to the database.
Other Plants to Watch
You don’t have to watch dandelions. You can watch any of the other plants on the list, such as sunflower (Helianthus annuus) or Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). You can also watch a tree or grass—but you will need to use a different form to record the information. Apple (Malus pumila), red maple (Acer rubrum), and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) trees are easy to identify and interesting to watch. If you are an over-achiever, you can observe the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) bloom times and do citizen science research for monarchs at the same time! (The USDA Forest Service website provides information about that; click here for more information.)
For the past two springs, educators at the Chicago Botanic Garden have taught the fifth graders at Highcrest Middle School in nearby Wilmette how to do Project BudBurst in their school’s Prairie Garden. The students are now watching spiderwort, red columbine, yellow coneflower, and other native plants grow at their school. Some of these prairie plants may be more difficult to identify, but they provide even more valuable information about climate.
So while you are spending less time in the shower and you’re riding your bike instead of asking mom for a ride to your friend’s house, go watch some plants and help save the planet even more!
Standing guard along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the ravines are a naturally engineered filtration system from land to water.
Curving up from the flat lands of Illinois and arching alongside the coast into Wisconsin, their hills and valleys are filled with an abundance of foliage, plants, and animal life unlike any other ecosystem in the Chicago Wilderness region. Among other benefits, they help to filter rainwater. Rare plants, migratory birds, remnant woodlands, and fish are a part of this shadowed world that has long been entrenched in mystery for local residents and scientists alike.
As urbanization, erosion, increasingly intense weather events, and invasive plants begin to peel away at the perimeter of the ravines, it has become increasingly urgent for us to unwrap those mysteries and help protect the system that has long protected us.
New volunteers are welcome to dig in this spring and summer. Register to begin by attending a new volunteer workshop.
“The ravines are one of Illinois’s last natural drainage systems to the lake,” said Rachel Goad, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. “They are delicate landscapes. It can be challenging to get in to them. It can be challenging to move around on the steep slopes.” Those challenges have not deterred Goad and a team of citizen scientists from digging in to look for solutions.
For 15 years, the many contributors to Plants of Concern have been collecting data in the ravines, with a particular focus on the rare plant species that can be found there. The data, now quite valuable due to its longevity, is a treasure chest for land managers and others who are trying to better understand the system and how to save it.
Goad and her team are now in the final stages of testing a vegetation assessment connected to a virtual field guide for the ravines. She hopes it will be completed by the end of this year. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for ravine restoration and management long term. The plant-focused sampling method, called a rapid assessment, is the third piece of a larger ravine-management toolkit that includes a way to evaluate erosion and stream invertebrates considered to be indicator species. The toolkit has been assembled by Plants of Concern and partner organizations in recent years.
“The idea is that a land manager or landowner could pull these tools off of the Internet—there would be data sheets and an explanation for how to use them, and these resources would provide a practical, tangible way for people to better understand the ravines,” explained Goad. She and her volunteers will test the protocol this summer, as they meander through the ravines with their notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment in hand. What they learn could benefit managers trying to determine whether to focus on vegetation management or restoring the stability of a ravine, for example. The toolkit, according to Goad, “is complementary to restoration and understanding these plant communities.”
The data, however, is only one piece of the solution. Goad believes the connections people make when monitoring the ravines are what will impress upon them the significance and urgency of the issue. Her goals are to create connections between people and their local natural communities, and to engage a more diverse representation of volunteers in the program.
“What Plants of Concern is doing is engaging local citizens, introducing them to ravines, and getting them interested in what’s happening in these mysterious V-shaped valleys around them,” said Goad.
In all, Plants of Concern monitors 288 species across 1170 populations in 15 counties, covering 13 habitat types.
Goad hopes that by growing connections between these ravines and those who live nearby, she can increase the chances that this system will continue to protect rare plant species and one of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. As a recent recipient of a Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship, administered by Audubon, Goad is intent on better understanding how to build such connections.
“We are working to make connections between monitoring and stewardship,” she said. “Monitoring can be a transformative experience.” Once a volunteer is in the field, navigating the terrain and gaining familiarity, they learn to see existing threats, such as encroachment by invasive species. Documenting these threats is important, but can feel disempowering if they’re not being addressed. Goad wants to show volunteers that there is something that can be done about the problems they encounter, and build a proactive understanding of conservation. “I believe in citizen science, which is the idea that anybody can do science and get involved in research,” she said.
Goad stepped in as manager of Plants of Concern just last year, after earning her master’s degree. It was like returning home in some ways, as she had previously helped to manage natural areas at the Garden.
In part because of that initial experience, “I knew I wanted to work in plant conservation,” she said. “It felt pretty perfect to get to come back and work with Plants of Concern. It’s an amazing experience to live in Chicago and to be able to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas in the region.”
Plants of Concern has been a mainstay at the Garden for 15 years, dispatching committed volunteers to the ravines and other key locations across the Chicago Wilderness region to monitor and collect data on endangered, threatened, and rare species. The mounting data collected by the program is often used as baseline information for shifting or struggling species, and is shared with land managers. Through special projects, such as with one of the Garden’s recent REU interns, they have also contributed to habitat suitability modeling for rare species.