Archives For conservation science

Rooting for Native Plants

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

Competition is heating up in the western United States. Invasive and native plants are racing to claim available land and resources. Alicia Foxx, who studies the interplay of roots of native and invasive plants, is glued to the action. The results of this contest, says the plant biology and conservation doctoral student at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, could be difficult to reverse.  

Cheatgrass, which is an aggressive, invasive plant with a dense root system, is in the lead and spreading quickly across the west. Native plants are falling in its wake—especially when it comes to their delicate seedlings that lead to new generations.

Foxx is one of the scientists working to give native plants a leg (or root) up. She hypothesizes that a carefully assembled team of native plant seedlings with just the right root traits may be able to work together to outpace their competition.

PHOTO: Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in Southeastern Utah.

Alicia Foxx (left) participates in seed collection in southeastern Utah.

“We often evaluate plants for the way they look above ground, but I think we have to look below ground as well,” she said. Foxx’s master thesis focused on a native grass known as squirreltail, and her hypothesis addressed the idea that the more robust the root system was in a native grass, the better it was at competing with cheatgrass. Now, “I’m looking more at how native plants behave in a community, as opposed to evaluating them one by one… How they interact with one another and how that might influence their performance or establishment in the Colorado plateau.”

In the desert climate, human-related disturbances such as mining, gas exploration, livestock trampling, or unnaturally frequent fires have killed off native plants and left barren patches of land behind that are susceptible to the arrival of cheatgrass.

PHOTO: Seedlings in the growth chamber.

Seedlings in the growth chamber

“Some of our activities are exacerbating the conditions [that are favorable for invasive plants]. We need to make sure that we have forage for the wildlife and the plants themselves, because they are important to us for different reasons, including the prevention of mudslides,” she said. “We are definitely confronted with a changing climate and it would be really difficult for us to reverse any damage we have caused, so we’re trying to shift the plant community so it can be here in 50 years.”

Garden conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. advises Foxx, and her mentorship has allowed Foxx to see how science theories created in a laboratory become real-life solutions in the field. “I think I’m very fortunate to work with Andrea, who works very closely with the Bureau of Land Management…it’s really nice to see that this gets replicated out in the world,” said Foxx. Seeds from their joint collecting trip in 2012 have been added to the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Alicia Foxx loves to walk through the English Walled Garden when she steps away from her work.

In a way, Foxx is also learning from the invasive plants themselves. To develop her hypothesis, she considered the qualities of the invasive plants; those that succeeded had roots that are highly competitive for resources. After securing seeds from multiple sources, she is now working in the Garden’s greenhouse and the Population Biology Laboratory to grow native plants that may be up to the challenge. She is growing the seedlings in three different categories: a single plant, a group of the same species together, and a group of species that look different (such as a grass and a wildflower). In total, there will be 600 tubes holding plants. She will then evaluate their ability to establish themselves in a location and to survive over time.

PHOTO: Seedlings: on the right is a sunflower (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii).

On the right: a sunflower seedling (Helianthus annuus) next to a native grass (Pascopyrum smithii)

There has been very little research on plant roots, but Foxx said the traits of roots, such as how fibrous they are, their length, or the number of hair-like branches they form, tell us a lot about how they function.

“I’m hoping that looking at some of these root traits and looking at how these plants interact with one another will reveal something new or solidify some of the theories,” said Foxx.

She aims to have what she learns about the ecology of roots benefit restorations in the western United States. It is possible that her findings will shape thoughts in other regions as well, such as the prairies of the Midwest. Future research using the seeds Foxx collected could contribute to the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, of which the Garden is a key resource for research and seeds for future restoration needs.

The Chicago native has come a long way since she first discovered her love of botany during high school. After completing her research and her Ph.D., she hopes to nurture future scientists and citizen scientists through her ongoing work, and help them make the connections that can lead to a love of plants.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Expedition to Door County

Pati Vitt —  September 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

Last June, I headed up to Door County, Wisconsin, with Kay Havens, our director of plant science and conservation,  for a 31-day trip to undertake our annual fieldwork. “A month at the beach!” you say, thinking it such a treat! Well, yes and no.

Four undergraduate students in our REU program joined us to track literal life and death events in two plant populations on the dunes of Lake Michigan. The dunes can be more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than ambient temperatures, and we work in the interdunal swales, where no lovely breezes off the lake can reach us. It is often well over 95 degrees in the dunes, even if it’s a balmy 75 degrees in Sturgeon Bay. But, no matter—we are on a mission! On days with the hot sun both beating down and reflecting up from the sand, we observed, measured, and recorded the births, deaths, and reproductive successes of one of our favorite plants: the threatened pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). 

PHOTO: Pitcher's thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

We find every seedling we can, and place a flag next to it to help us keep track of the ones we’ve counted. We don’t want to miss a single one. Each seedling is a measure of successful reproduction for this monocarpic perennial. Monocarps—plants that only flower once before they die, are completely dependent upon producing as many successful offspring as they can, all in the quest to ensure that they just replace themselves. When all plants successfully replace themselves, a population is stable.

Just to replace yourself is a monumental undertaking for a plant that flowers once and then dies. Especially for pitcher’s thistle. The dunes are a harsh environment for a tiny baby plant. Many of them die—exposed to the heat, and without enough water to sustain them. We estimate that fewer than one in ten seeds germinate and survive each year, and in some years, only a small percent of those survive the winter to become a juvenile plant the next year. That means that each flowering plant must produce many seeds to replace itself. The good news? Generally, if a seedling survives to the juvenile stage, it has a much increased chance of survival to make it to the next stage—a vegetative plant—and the vast majority of those go on to reproduce at some point.

PHOTO: Kay Havens, ready to record data at Ship Canal Nature Preserve, owned by the Door County Land Trust.

Kay Havens is ready to record data at Ship Canal Nature Preserve, owned by the Door County Land Trust.

However, seed germination and seedling survivorship and growth depend upon two things: where you come from and where you live. To look at this, we took 100 seeds from each of our two study populations and grew them in “seed baskets” in our study garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. We also grew the same number in seed baskets at their respective home sites. Regardless of population, they germinated and grew very readily in our study garden. But there were very stark differences at our study sites in Door County: seed germination was 39% at one site, but only 9% at the other.

PHOTO: Pitcher’s thistle seedlings sprouted in one of our seed baskets at the Ship Canal Nature Preserve.

Pitcher’s thistle seedlings sprouted in one of our seed baskets at the Ship Canal Nature Preserve. The pair of yellow-green “leaves” opposite each other are actually cotyledons, or seed leaves, and are the first photosynthetic organs to emerge from the seed during germination.

PHOTO: These are Pitcher's thistle seedlings that have grown very large under the favorable conditions of the test garden on the south side of the Plant Science Center.

These are pitcher’s thistle seedlings that have grown very large under the favorable conditions of the test garden on the south side of the Plant Science Center. In just one growing season, they have grown as large as plants three to four years old that grow under natural conditions.

Why the difference? Well, our first site is definitely more hospitable! Even we are happier to work here. It’s not nearly as hot, and the dune structure is more flat, so the breeze off the lake makes things more pleasant—for plants and people alike! And it appears to this observer’s eye that there’s more water available close to the surface here. This year, there are two large patches in the dune that have been perpetually damp. In contrast, our second population is literally high and dry, making life hard for the little pitcher’s thistle seedlings. How does this affect the prospects of these two populations overall? Stay tuned! We’ll let you know when we have finished our analysis of the long-term trends at these two very different sites.

One plant, two places—offering a fascinating glimpse of a life of contrasts.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The National Parks provide dream vacations for us nature lovers, but did you know they also serve as vital locations for forward-thinking conservation research by Chicago Botanic Garden scientists?

From sand to sea, the parks are a celebration of America’s diversity of plants, animals, and fungi, according to the Garden’s Chief Scientist Greg Mueller, Ph.D., who has worked in several parks throughout his career.

“National Parks were usually selected because they are areas of important biodiversity,” Dr. Mueller explained, “and they’ve been appropriately managed and looked after for up to 100 years. Often times they are the best place to do our work.”

As we celebrate this centennial year, he and his colleagues share recent and favorite work experiences with the parks.

PHOTO: Dr. Greg Mueller in the field.

Dr. Greg Mueller working at Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas, in 2007.

Take a glimpse into the wilderness from their eyes.

This summer, Mueller made a routine visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to examine the impact of pollution and other human-caused disturbances on the sensitive mushroom species and communities associated with trees. “One of the foci of our whole research program (at the Garden) is looking at that juxtaposition of humans and nature and how that can coexist. The Dunes National Lakeshore is just a great place to do that,” he explained, as it is unusually close to roads and industry.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., adjunct conservation scientist, relied on her fieldwork in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study one of only two known populations of Lepidospartum burgessii, a rare gypsophile shrub, during a postdoctoral research appointment at the Garden. “We were able to work with park staff to study the species and make recommendations for management,” she said.

PHOTO: Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work.

Dr. Evelyn Williams in Guadalupe Mountains National Park during 2014 field work. Photo by Adrienne Basey.

As a Conservation Land Management intern, Coleman Minney surveyed for the federally endangered Ptilimnium nodosum at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park earlier this year. “The continued monitoring of this plant is important because its habitat is very susceptible to invasion from non-native plants,” explained Minney, who found the first natural population of the species on the main stem of the Potomac River in 20 years.

PHOTO: Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum).

Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum) grows on scour bars of rivers and streams. Photo by Coleman Minney.

According to conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., “In many cases, National Parks provide the best and most intact examples of native plant communities in the country, and by studying them we can learn more about how to restore damaged or destroyed plant communities to support the people and wildlife that depend upon them.”

The parks have been a critical site for her work throughout her career. Initially, “I relied on the parks as sites for fieldwork on how wildflowers adapt to their local environment.”

Today, she is evaluating the results of restoration at sites in the Colorado Plateau by looking at data provided by collaborators. Her data covers areas that include Grand Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Along with colleague Nora Talkington, a recent master’s degree graduate from the Garden’s program in plant biology and conservation who is now a botanist for the Navajo Nation, Dr. Kramer expects the results will inform future restoration work.

PHOTO: Dr. Andrea Kramer at Arches National Park.

Dr. Kramer collects material from Arches National Park as a part of her dissertation research in 2003.

At Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Natalie Balkam, a Conservation Land Management intern, has been hard at work collecting data on vegetation in the park and learning more about the intersection of people, science, and nature. “My time with the National Park Service has exposed me to the vastly interesting and complex mechanics of preserving and protecting a natural space,” she said. “And I get to work in one of the most beautiful places in the world—Alaska!”

PHOTO: The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska.

The view from survey work in Elodea, part of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park Preserve in Alaska. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The benefits of conducting research with the National Parks extend beyond the ability to gather high-quality information, said Mueller. Parks retain records of research underway by others and facilitate collaborations between scientists. They may also provide previous research records to enhance a specific project. Their connections to research are tight. But nothing is as important as their ability to connect people with nature, said Mueller. “That need for experiencing nature, experiencing wilderness is something that’s critical for humankind.”

For research and recreation, we look forward to the next 100 years.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A growing body of research tells us that children are better off when they have daily contact with nature.

Nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps children focus, increases physical activity, improves eyesight, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships. 

Chicago Botanic Garden scientists, educators, and horticulturists credit their personal growth and professional development to early doses of “Vitamin G” (a term used to describe the benefits of exposure to green environments). Their words and childhood pictures best capture the joyful effect of nature on their lives.

Deeply Rooted Educators

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Ph.D.

Jennifer at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, age 4

Jennifer, age 4, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

Vice president, education and community programs

“Even though I spent the early part of my childhood in Hyde Park, Chicago, I can’t remember a time when as a family, we didn’t take every opportunity to head out of the city to northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula, or northern Michigan for camping, canoeing, or hiking. Later, we moved to (almost) rural New York, where my sister, friends, and I became intimately familiar with the acres of woods, fields, and streams behind our house, disappearing for hours to explore our private, imagined world. As an adult, when I had the opportunity at the Chicago Botanic Garden to combine my expertise in learning science with my love of nature and share it with others, I thought, ‘This is the place for me.’”


Eileen Prendergast

Eileen at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan, age 4

Eileen, age 4, at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan

Eileen Prendergast

Director of education

“The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”—Richard Louv, journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

“Some of my fondest memories of childhood include our summer vacations at Silver Lakes in southwestern Michigan. My brothers and cousins and I would spend all day, every day, playing in the sand and splashing in the water. We’d take the rowboat out to the ‘lily pads’ to see if we could catch any frogs—we were (disappointingly) never successful, though we did manage to get the rowboat stuck once for what seemed like an hour, but was probably just a few panicked minutes.

I have a particular fond memory of my close cousin Jean and I filling buckets with sand, mixing in just the right amount of water, and carefully making a batch of sand pancakes to cook on our folding chair stove. The simple pleasures derived from the freedom to play and explore outside throughout my childhood reinforces for me the importance of ensuring those same opportunities for play time in nature are available for my own children at home and the children participating in the programs at the Garden—making sure there are places to run, to hide, to dig, to splash, to have fun.”


Julia McMahon

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pensylvania

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Julia McMahon

Coordinator, family programs

“I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and ‘designing’ and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we ‘discovered’ a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.

“Preschool educators have long known that animals, plants, water, and other aspects of the natural world delight children and draw them in as learners.”—Natural Start Alliance

This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University, Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.”


Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro

Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River clean-up

Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River cleanup

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro

Manager, secondary education

“Here I am in my teens at a Chicago River cleanup in the woods, holding a toad. I was lucky enough to have attended a Chicago public high school that got me out in the forest preserves and into nature. The experiences are part of why I studied ecology, and also why I wanted to inspire other Chicago teens to do the same. Now, I recruit Chicago public high school students for Science First and College First.”


Deeply Rooted Conservation Scientists

Kayri Havens, Ph.D.

Kay on vacation in Maroon Bells, Colorado, age 7

Kay, age 7, on vacation at Maroon Bells in Colorado

Kayri Havens

Medard and Elizabeth Welch Senior Director, Ecology and Conservation

“My best childhood memories were all outdoors…playing in the garden, growing vegetables, picking up seashells, going bird-watching. That love of nature has stayed with me, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to have a career that allows me to continue to explore and study plants and the natural world.”


Pati Vitt, Ph.D.

Pati in Virginia, age 6

Pati, age 6, in Virginia

Patt Vitt

Susan and Roger Stone Curator, Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank

“There are very few pictures of me as a child, most of them posed…except this one. It is outside in an open field, where I and my siblings tramped around at will, falling in love with the outdoors.”


Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.

Andrea in her backyard in Nebraska, age 2

Andrea, age 2, in her backyard in Nebraska

Andrea Kramer

Conservation scientist, restoration ecology

“I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in the corn belt where, as you can imagine, trees were not very common. I spent a lot of quality time either climbing in or sitting under this particular tree when I was young. A few years after this photo was taken, a family of owls took up residence in it. I can’t imagine a childhood that didn’t involve nature play—climbing trees or sitting quietly with binoculars to watch owls interact with each other and the plants that they called home helped me see the world from a larger vantage point, and made me want to understand it by becoming a scientist.”


Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.

Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie Fant

Conservation scientist, molecular ecology lab manager

“Growing up in a part of Australia where the weather was often nice, it was easy to spend most of your time outside. I am not sure I can remember when I was not outside in flip-flops and board shorts. No matter what we were doing, there was always something to get me excited. Sometimes it was something as amazing as a dolphin swimming close to the beach or a kangaroo caught by surprise on our hikes. It was clear from a young age that the thing that got me so excited was the flora, and a botanist was born. The smell of the eucalyptus still sends memories flooding of hikes after rains, recalling the wonderful discovery of small patches of donkey orchids in winter.

Ultimately, I combined this love of native flora with working in the garden. I would often spend afternoons walking through the Adelaide Botanic Garden for inspiration and to marvel at its collections. I went to university to study horticultural sciences and volunteered on weekends at the botanic gardens as an undergraduate. All of these interactions played an obvious role in my life’s trajectory as a scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.”


Deeply Rooted Horticulturists

Lisa Hilgenberg

Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa Hilgenberg

Horticulturist, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

“My mother was a teacher and felt that it was so important to incorporate learning play. Here’s what she had to say: ‘Lisa, there was probably no time in your early years that you were not connected to nature. Starting with the simple joy of playing outdoors, you watered flowers for grandma and dad, made daisy chains, raked and played in the leaves, built snowmen, ice skated, and sculpted sand castles at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis. You planted gardens, learned to fish at Deer Lake. You loved having collections of rocks and leaves (author’s note: yes, I majored in geology and my childhood rock collections are still in the basement). You showed a love of dogs, gerbils, fish, white mice, even squirrels (you fed them peanut butter crackers at the back door). You were bonded to nature as a young child and it continues to this day!’”


Heather Sherwood

Heather in a greenhouse in California, age 7

Heather, age 7, in a greenhouse in California

Heather Sherwood

Senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden and English Oak Meadow

“In my early childhood, I remember playing at my friend’s house. They had a very old forsythia bush, perfect for ‘house building,’ great tunnels, and hours of imaginative fun! When we were a bit older, the same best friend and I would meet down by the creek (between our two houses about a mile from each of us). We would spend hours walking in the creek bed, looking for crayfish, spiders, plants. (We brought skunkweed home to harass our siblings.) We would build forts with branches and grasses. When I was 12 years old, on a family vacation, we went to an enormous conservatory at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel. I walked into a breathtaking environment, and I knew. I knew I wanted to make people feel that same rush, excitement, wonder, as I did, and I was going to do it with plants. The rest, as they say, is history.”


Tom Weaver

Tom in Little Canada, Minnesota, age 7

Tom, age 7, in Little Canada, Minnesota

Tom Weaver

Horticulturist, Waterfall Garden and Dwarf Conifer Garden

“This picture (left) was the first time I had flowers of my own, and it was so exciting! Even to this day I still try to make sure I have at least one zinnia plant somewhere in my life, whether it’s in a garden I work in at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at home because I fell so in love with the flowers as a child.”


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org


PHOTO: Becky Barak.Becky Barak is a Ph.D. candidate in Plant Biology and Conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University. She studies plant biodiversity in restored prairies, and tweets about ecology, prairies, and her favorite plants at @BeckSamBar.


A dark, stinky plume of smoke rising from a nature preserve might be alarming. But fire is what makes a prairie a prairie.

A prairie is a type of natural habitat, like a forest, but forests are dominated by trees, and prairies by grasses. If you’re used to the neatly trimmed grass of a soccer field, you may not even recognize the grasses of the prairie. They can get so tall a person can get lost.

Prairies are maintained by fire; without it, they would turn into forests. Any chunky acorn or winged maple seed dropping into a prairie could grow into a giant tree, but they generally don’t because prairies are burned every few years. In fact, fossilized pollen and charcoal remains from ancient sediments show that fire, started by lightning and/or people, has maintained the prairies of Illinois for at least 10,000 years. Today, restoration managers (with back up from the local fire department), are the ones protecting the prairie by setting it aflame.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden ecologist Joah O'Shaughnessy monitors a prairie burn.

Garden ecologist Joan O’Shaughnessy monitors a spring burn of the Dixon Prairie.

PHOTO: New growth after a prairie burn.

New growth emerges a scant month after the prairie burn.

Prairie plants survive these periodic fires because they have incredibly deep roots. These roots send up new shoots after fire chars the old ones. Burning also promotes seed germination of some tough-seeded species, and helps keep weeds at bay by giving all plants a fresh start.

Read more about our conservation and restoration projects on the Chicago Botanic Garden website. Want to get involved in our local ecosystem conservation? Find your opportunity with Chicago Wilderness.


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. This is our third installment of their exploration.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org