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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 my.chicagobotanic.org

A Paranormal Perennial

Jacob Burns —  October 20, 2015 — 4 Comments

I appreciate any cultivar name that invokes thoughts of my favorite holiday: Halloween.

It is fun to stumble upon some Gaillardia ‘Goblin’, Hemerocallis ‘Bela Lugosi’, or Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’ and suddenly wonder, “What should my costume be this year?” One perennial in particular has a designation so dark, it can conjure up a gruesome ghost story: 

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’
Side-flowering aster

PHOTO: Symphyotrichum lateriflorum 'Lady in Black' with frost.

A late-fall frost, not ghostly images, sets off Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’. Image courtesy Northcreek Nursery

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ was one of only seven asters to receive a five-star rating of excellence by Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The straight species, S. lateriflorum, was also among the seven, so you can see that this is one of the best asters for your garden.

The foliage of ‘Lady in Black’ is an almost black-purple color, enhanced in autumn by numerous sprays of teeny white daisies with pinkish-purple centers. A location in full sun or partial sun will produce the darkest foliage.

Side-flowered asters can grow three feet tall, and a striking effect is to plant it in front of Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) or any other shrub with amazing fall color.

“Lady in Black” also happens to be the popular name for a mournful soul who haunts Fort Warren, located on George’s Island in Boston Harbor.

The myth goes like this:

In 1862, Mrs. Melanie Lanier of South Carolina tried to rescue her husband, who had become imprisoned at the fort during the Civil War. On a stormy night in January, she rowed across the freezing water with nothing more than a pickax and an old pistol. She chopped off her hair and disguised herself in men’s clothing. She snuck her way to the prison cells and signaled to her husband by whistling a Southern refrain. He signaled back, and quickly she found a way to squeeze through the bars of his cell window.

Worried about seeing the Lady in Black?

PHOTO: Victorian Lady in Black wearing mourning jewelry and clothing.

Pick your superstition: In Victorian times, seeing an owl during the day, finding a single snowdrop flower in your garden or witnessing a sparrow land on a piano all foretold imminent death.

After weeks of tunneling underground with the pickax, they were discovered. Mrs. Lanier shocked the guards and tried to shoot a Union officer with her pistol. However, the antiquated weapon backfired, and some shrapnel ended up killing her husband. She was captured, tried, and hung a month later.

Just before her death, she was given a black robe, the closest thing to a dress they could find. Visitors to George’s Island now claim to see a woman in this same black robe. The Lady in Black has been known to appear in photos, and her moans have even scared away fishermen.

Not spooked? These creepy (or dangerous) plants might do the trick!

YIKES!

While I’m fairly certain that the Dutch breeders who named Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ were not familiar with this particular ghost story, you can’t help but wonder if they were not aware of some other spirit dressed in dark garb, drifting or moaning down the paths of their garden.

So the next time you notice an eerie cultivar name like Geranium phaeum ‘Stillingfleet Ghost’, Hemerocallis ‘Snowy Apparition‘ or Eupatorium dubium ‘Phantom’, try not to get shivers down your spine.

PHOTO: "The Fly" Halloween costume.

The author as pollinator and (much) larger-than-life pest

Get your costumes on and discover more spooky fun in the Garden at HallowFest and the Spooky Pooch Parade! Corpse flower costumes, anyone?


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Each fall, we sing the praises of fall allium and autumn crocus blooms. This year, however, a special mention must be made for the glorious gladiolus! Especially the delicate, 4-inch salmon pink flowers of the salmon gladiolus (Gladiolus oppositiflorus spp. salmoneus).

Hailing from the summer rainfall areas of the cold, higher elevations of the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, this beautiful wild species has proven amazingly hardy in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Graham Bulb Garden over the last five years—including a couple of winters with record-setting cold temperatures!

PHOTO: Gladiolus oppositiflorus ssp. salmoneus.

Gladiolus oppositiflorus ssp. salmoneus produces elegant, upright flower stalks that do not require staking!

Two characteristics of its native habitat nominated the gladiolus for trial at the Garden: first, it is a winter-growing bulb in South Africa, which translates to summer growth in North America. Second, this plant thrives in moist soils in grassy areas—it was perfect for the site we chose in the Bulb Garden.

Based upon its initial success in our plant trial program, other gladiolus (also currently in full flower) were added to the trials. We’ve also discovered that these wild species thrive and multiply in well-drained soils (but do not tolerate flooded soils). The beautiful, red-flowered Gladiolus saundersii is also native to the Drakensbergs, but from a higher, colder, and snowier habitat. And a third selection is probably a close relative of Gladiolus dalenii var. primulinus. Discovered in an old, abandoned farmstead in North Carolina, and sold under the name ‘Carolina Primrose’, this gladiolus generally blooms in July and early August (although it is still blooming now). All have come through the record-breaking cold of the last couple of winters. 

Gladiolus is the largest genus in the Iridaceae (iris plant family) with 255 species worldwide; 166 of them in southern Africa. The genus was given its name by Pliny the Elder, in reference to the size and shape of the leaves, which are similar in shape and size to a short sword favored by Roman-era gladiators: the gladius.

It’s not easy to find commercial sources for these bulbs, but it’s well worth the effort to obtain an elegant, refined, fall-flowering, and hardy gladiolus.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

September Shorties

Jacob Burns —  September 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

Fall bloomers are already stealing the show and, while they are colorful, it is largely due to their size.

By the time many of these perennials bloom, they are so tall that they often need to be staked. Not to mention, some end up having unsightly “legs” from shedding lower leaves. Ironweed, monkshood, and sneezeweed are all guilty of this unsightly phenomenon. Fortunately, there is a compact substitute for each of these bulky favorites. So, if you want to give your yard more color in autumn but don’t want it confined to the back of the border, try planting these “shorties” up front.

PHOTO: Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry'

Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’

Little Henry sweet coneflower
Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 3 feet tall and 24 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Little Henry sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’)  is the petite progeny of Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’. While 3 feet isn’t necessarily short for a perennial, it is definitely an improvement over its 5- to 6-foot-tall daddy. And like Henry Eilers sweet coneflower, each petal is rolled to create a quilled appearance around an obvious chocolate cone. Flowering can begin well before September, but the unique shape and yellow hue really stand out in the fall landscape. (The leaves are said to smell of vanilla, but if you’re like me, ragweed season will make it difficult to notice.) Don’t be afraid to stick these beauties in a vase.

PHOTO: Helenium autumnale 'Short and Sassy'

Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’

Short and Sassy sneezeweed
Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’

Zones: 3 to 8
Size: 18 inches tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; moist to wet soil

With Short and Sassy sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’), the cultivar name says it all: the plant is 2 feet tall with an assertive orange-yellow color. In the past, all sneezeweeds grew 5 feet tall and would push out flowers from the beginning of August until October. ‘Short and Sassy’, however, has a much longer bloom time. Since it doesn’t have to grow as big, this cultivar begins flowering in midsummer and doesn’t quit until it has fought its way through multiple frosts. Heleniums are plants perfect for rain gardens or any moist, sunny spot. Butterflies find them irresistible, too.

PHOTO: Aconitum fischeri

Aconitum fischeri

Fischer’s monkshood
Aconitum fischeri

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 2 feet tall and 18 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, rich, well-drained soil

Under favorable conditions, an autumn-flowering monkshood can reach 4 to 5 feet tall—not exactly a plant you can showcase next to a path. Nevertheless, Fischer’s monkshood (Aconitum fischeri) is a lesser-known species that is beginning to find its way into the market. The 2-foot-tall plants sport the same size flowers as the commonly seen Aconitum carmichaelii and its hybrids. The showy blue flowers are perfect for adding fall color to a woodland garden, but are just as nice in a sunny border. Monkshoods are poisonous, so hide the children!

PHOTO: Vernonia lettermanii 'Iron Butterfly'

Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

Iron Butterfly Ironweed
Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

The reddish-purple color found in ironweed flowers is one of kind. The problem with these natives is that most of them get gigantic, usually around 8 feet tall. Fortunately, you can enjoy that stunning hue on a much more compact plant. Vernonia lettermanii is a 2- to 3-foot-tall species that naturally occurs in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Allan Armitage, Ph.D., selected the best form of this species from his trials and called it ‘Iron Butterfly’. The foliage and form are similar to Amsonia hubrichtii, but without the fall color. This shorty is tolerant of droughty soils or brief flooding, but it requires lots of sun. It’s also a butterfly magnet!

PHOTO: Anemone x hybrida 'Pretty Lady Susan'

Anemone × hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’

Pretty Lady Susan windflower
Anemone × hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 16 inches tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, rich, well-drained soil

While I would rather see pink in the spring, I do love the poppylike feel of windflowers. They are also known as Japanese anemones and are sometimes listed under the name Anemone hupehensis. The Pretty Lady Series features crosses that stay 16 inches tall, as opposed to unwieldy 3- to 4-foot-high plants. They also have the same 2-inch flowers you would find on other Japanese anemone hybrids. Pictured here is a dark pink variety called Pretty Lady Susan windflower (Anemone x hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’, but the series also includes a double-flowered, a bicolored, and a white-blooming form. Of course, I can’t wait to get my hands on Pretty Lady Maria windflower—the non-pink one.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Wired Nature

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  January 13, 2014 — 2 Comments

As winter winds disperse prairie seeds and fragrant pinecones tumble down, Bianca Rosenbaum is busy collecting. As much as she would love to forage through the seasonal natural materials outside of her office at the Chicago Botanic Garden, that’s not what she is after these days. Rather, she is gathering data.

PHOTO: Bianca Rosenbaum at her desk.

Rosenbaum manages data from her colorful office.

Seated at her desk in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, Rosenbaum taps away at her computer’s purple keyboard. The Garden’s conservation science information manager is busy finishing her masterpiece—a searchable collection of visual and numeric plant data. The new product is a one-stop-shop for information previously housed in three separate databases and accessible by few.  

Named the Science Collections database, the project centralizes the Garden’s data on seed collections, herbaria, and plant DNA. For the first time, the information is accessible online by anyone from international scientists to curious children.

“We saw this great opportunity to combine our databases and be able to cross reference collections,” she said. “It’s been very exciting. It’s one of my biggest, most challenging projects. It feels extremely rewarding.”

Since she began working at the Garden in 2002 as an expert in Microsoft Access, Rosenbaum has overseen the safekeeping of the data in all three of these areas as well as other Garden research collections. In just a few years, the way the information was stored and managed became outdated as technology progressed. She was thrilled with the opportunity to advance its management system.

When the Science Collections project began four years ago, one of her first tasks was to identify data used by all three databases and merge them into common tables to eliminate repetition and guarantee standardization. The result was a complicated set of linked tables that comprise the structure for the final product—called a relational database.

PHOTO: Collections database search results screen.

A search in the Science Collections database reveals merged information about each species.

She then merged all of the data on each species. Now, rather than going to different databases to find all of the herbarium, seed, and DNA information recorded about a plant, it can be found in one place. 

Rosenbaum then worked with the Garden conservation GIS lab manager, Emily Yates, to add a spatial component to the data by mapping plant locations, which are linked to each collection record. Lastly, she built a web page to serve as a portal from the database to the internet.

Data from the Garden’s Nancy Poole Rich Herbarium are mainly visual, with 17,000 images of pressed plants alongside notes about location and related details. Information from the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank includes high-resolution images of seeds from 2,600 species. The program also includes notes about whether the Garden houses material that may be accessed for DNA sampling for a given plant. The records include information on all classifications of regional plants, and some international. Only those labeled as threatened or endangered are not shown on a map.

PHOTO: Page from the herbarium with Liatris aspera sample and data.

Liatris aspera (Herbarium acc. 4439)

“This job has totally changed my outlook,” said Rosenbaum, who had no real interest in botany before coming to work at the Garden. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve been here and I’ve been able to combine both the tech world and the environment.”

As a child, she grew her love of technology with encouragement from her parents—an engineer and electronic assembler. She went on to study computer engineering in college, and gained work experience with coding and data management. As a Garden employee, she has coupled those computer skills with a new set of plant-related skills. She is now comfortable with plant names, discussing scientific processes, and even growing her own vegetable garden at home.

Although she spends much of her work day glued to her computer screen, Rosenbaum does find time to look out her window, or step outside to connect with her subject matter. “I think it’s very easy to not notice this world when you are in the tech world, or the business world,” she said. “Now I can connect the two and know what it is I am working on and see what I am working to protect and conserve.”

Rosenbaum often strolls the Waterfall Garden in warm months, but she especially looks forward to spending time in the peaceful Dixon Prairie.

The recently launched database is now open to exploration at www.sciencecollections.org. Check back in coming months for Rosenbaum’s forthcoming addition of advanced search options. 


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org