Archives For conservation

What if the next plant conservation project wasn’t down the street, or in the neighboring county, or far away in the wilderness? What if it was right above your head, on your roof? In our increasingly urban world, making use of rooftop space might help conserve some of our precious biodiversity in and around cities.

PHOTO: Ksiazek bending to examine blooming sedums on Chicago's City Hall green roof.

The green roof on Chicago’s City Hall supports an amazing diversity of hundreds of plant species.

Unfortunately, native prairie plants have lost most of their natural habitat. In fact, less than one-tenth of one percent of prairies remains in Illinois—pretty sad for a state whose motto is the “Prairie State.” As a Chicago native, I found this very alarming. I thought, “Is it possible to use spaces other than our local nature preserves to help prevent the extinction of some of these beautiful prairie plants?” With new legislation at the turn of the century that encouraged the construction of many green roofs in Chicago, it seemed like the perfect place to test a growing hypothesis I had: maybe some of the native prairie plants that were losing habitat elsewhere could thrive on green roofs.

This idea brought me to the graduate program in Plant Biology and Conservation, a joint degree program through Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Here, I am investigating the possibility that the engineered habitats of green roofs can be used to conserve native prairie plants and the pollinators that they support.

PHOTO: Ksiazek examines plants in a prairie, taking data.

Which plant are you? In 2012, I surveyed natural prairies to determine which species live together.

Since I began the program as a master’s degree student in 2009, I’ve learned a lot about how native plants and pollinators can be supported on green roofs. For my master’s thesis, I wanted to see if native wildflowers were visited by pollinators and if they were receiving enough high-quality pollen to makes seeds and reproduce. Good news! The nine native wildflower species I tested produced just as many seeds on roofs as they normally do on the ground, and these seeds are able to germinate, or grow into new plants.

Once I knew that pollinator-dependent plants should be able to reproduce on green roofs, I set out to learn how to intentionally design green roofs to mimic prairies for my doctoral research. I started by visiting about 20 short-grass prairies in the Chicago region to see which species lived together in habitats that are similar to green roofs. These short-grass prairies all had very shallow soil that drained quickly and next to no shade; the same conditions you’d find on a green roof. 

PHOTO: Ksiazek poses for a photo among prairie grasses.

Plant species from this dry sand prairie just south of Chicago might also be able to survive on green roofs in the city.

PHOTO: Plant seedling.

A tiny bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) seedling grows on the green roof at the Plant Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: Hand holding a seedling; paperwork is in the background, along with a seedling tray.

One of my experiments involves planting tiny native seedlings into special experimental green roof trays. They’re now on top of the Plant Science Center. Go take a look!

I’m now setting up experiments that test the ability of the short-grass prairie species to live together on green roofs. Some of these experiments involved using seeds as a cheap and fast way of getting native plants on the roof. Other experiments involved using small plant seedlings that may have a better chance of survival, although, as any gardener could tell you, are more expensive and labor intensive than planting seeds. I will continue to collect data on the survival and health of all these native plants at several locations, including the green roof on the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center at the Garden.

Ideally, I would continue to collect data on these experimental prairies to see how they develop over the next 50 years and learn how the plants were able to support native insects, such as pollinating bees and butterflies. But I didn’t want my Ph.D. to last 50 years so instead, I decided to collect the same type of data on green roofs that have already been around for a few decades. Because the technology is still relatively new in America, I had to go to Germany to collect this data, where the history of green roofs is much older. Last year, through a Fulbright and Germanistic Society of America Fellowship, I collected insects and data about the plant communities on several green roofs in and around Berlin and learned that green roofs can support very diverse plant and insect communities over time. We scientists are just starting to learn more about how green roofs are different from other urban gardens and parks, but it’s looking like they might be able to contribute to urban biodiversity conservation and support.

PHOTO: Ksiazek collects insects from traps on a green roof in Berlin.

I collected almost 10,000 insects on green roofs in and around Berlin, Germany in 2013.

PHOTO: Closeup of a pinned bee collected from a green roof in Berlin.

I found more than 50 different species of bees on the green roofs in Germany.

Now that I’m back in Chicago and have been awarded research grants from several institutions, I’m setting up a new experiment to learn about how pollinators move pollen from one green roof to another. I’ll be using a couple different prairie plants to measure “gene flow,” which basically describes how pollen moves between maternal and paternal plants. If I find that pollinators bring pollen from one roof to anther, this means that green roofs might be connected to the large urban habitat, rather than merely being isolated “islands in the sky,” as some people have suggested. If this is true, then green roofs could also help other plants in their surroundings—more pollinating green roof bees could mean more fruit yield for your nearby garden.  

PHOTO: Aerial view of Chicago at Lake Michigan, with green rectangles superimposed over building which house green roofs.

The green boxes represent green roofs near Lake Michigan. How will pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths move pollen between plants on these different roofs? This summer, I will be carrying out an experiment to find out.

There are still many questions to be answered in this new field of plant science research. I’m very excited to be learning so much through the graduate program at the Garden and to be collaborating with innovative researchers both in Chicago and abroad. If you’re interested in keeping up with my monthly progress, please visit my research blog at the Phipps Conservatory Botany in Action Fellows’ page

PHOTO: A wasp drinks water from a flower after rain.

A friendly little wasp enjoys the native green roof plants on a rainy day in Paris.

And if you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll get a chance to visit the green roof at the Plant Science Center and see how beautiful plant conservation happening right over your head can be! 

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Monarch butterflies have left their overwintering sites in Mexico and are heading back toward the Midwest, including the Chicago area.

Unfortunately, far fewer monarchs will be making the northward flight this year and the chance to see large numbers of these beautiful butterflies in your garden or flying across a prairie is becoming less certain.

Explore pollinators at World Environment Day, June 7.

Join us Friday, June 6, for the Make Way for Monarchs research symposium.

PHOTO: Asclepias tuberosa, a native milkweed species, in bloom.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one of many native milkweed species that provide food for monarch butterfly caterpillars and a nectar source for flower visitors such as bees and butterflies.

In the 1990s, hundreds of millions of monarchs made the journey each fall from the northern plains of the United States and Canada to forested sites north of Mexico City. In western North America, more than a million monarchs made a shorter flight to tree groves on California’s coast. However, monarch numbers have been declining for more than a decade, and this year scientists documented record low numbers. We have seen more than a 90 percent decline.

Why is this occurring? We don’t know for sure, although there are several factors that are likely contributing. Habitat loss due to urban development and large-scale agriculture are key concerns. Farms now cover vast areas and many grow genetically modified crops that allow herbicide applications to be used on and around the crop, including in areas where milkweed—the one plant that monarch caterpillars need—used to grow. These “Roundup ready” crops have been identified as a major cause of milkweed loss throughout the Midwest. Additionally, millions of acres of farms and urban land are treated with toxic insecticides. The loss of forest habitat in Mexico and the decline of monarch groves in California may also be playing a role. In the West, severe drought is likely contributing to reduced monarch populations. These threats are compounded by climate change.

We do not have to sit and watch these declines continue.

We can provide these butterflies (and other wildlife) with high-quality, insecticide-free habitats. This is not something that needs to be restricted to a distant wilderness. Indeed, it is a cause in which everyone can take part. Homeowners and farmers can plant milkweed to support monarch caterpillars, and native flowers to provide nectar for adult butterflies, and work to limit the impact of insecticides. Land managers can ensure that milkweed stands are adequately protected.

Sign up for “The Monarch Butterfly: How You Can Help Save This Iconic Species,” Saturday, June 7, at 1 p.m.

PHOTO: A native milkweed pod burst open in winter, distributing seeds.

The Milkweed Seed Finder gives you quick access to regionally appropriate seed sources, with options to search by milkweed species and by state.

The Xerces Society’s Project Milkweed has been working with native wildflower seed nurseries, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and community partners to produce huge volumes of milkweed seed that are being used to restore monarch habitat. In just three years, this work has led to the production of 35 million milkweed seeds! As a result of this effort, milkweed seed is rapidly becoming more available in many regions of the country. To make it easier for people to find seed sources, we’ve launched the Milkweed Seed Finder, a comprehensive directory of milkweed seed vendors across the country.

In addition, the Xerces Society’s work with farmers and the NRCS has led to the creation of tens of thousands of acres of wildflower habitat that includes milkweed, across much of the monarch’s breeding range.

Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” For the sake of the monarch—and so many other species—it is time to heal as many wounds as possible.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On March 3, we inaugurate World Wildlife Day, designated by the United Nations to raise awareness of wild animals and plants—from ivory to ebony—worldwide. This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the intrinsic value of all living things and remember that the well-being of humans is inextricably tied to the well-being of nature.

PHOTO: Two baby elephants playing on the savannah.

Elephants in the wild. Photo by Jonathan D. Sherman.

Botanic gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta protect live plants and animals and play an important role in conserving wildlife and wild places throughout our local communities, nationally, and worldwide. More than 200 million Americans each year visit gardens, zoos, aquariums, and arboreta. This is more than all who attend NFL, NBA, and major league baseball games combined.1 From dolphins to snow leopards, kookaburras to monarchs, oaks to asters to mosses, the living collections visitors enjoy along our paths and through our windows engage and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Our institutions provide protection to many thousands of rare and endangered species, some of which now exist only in our care.  Our conservation biologists conduct important research and create practical, effective solutions to preserve wildlife and biodiversity throughout the world.  Our intensive preK through Ph.D. education and training programs for students of all backgrounds and abilities enable the next generation of scientists, teachers, and innovators to continue our work.

PHOTO: Closeup of wetlands flower, "shooting star."

Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star)

Garden, zoo, aquarium, and arboretum leaders also serve as leading international resources for biodiversity conservation policy, leading conservation commissions such as those facilitated by the United Nations, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the U.S. State Department, and Department of Interior. Together, and with other nongovernmental partners as well, we strive to implement the tenets of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, build and deliver comprehensive curriculum and education in science and climate change, and implement robust wildlife conservation programs.

March 3 was chosen as the day to inaugurate World Wildlife Day because it is the anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While CITES has not become a household acronym, 179 countries have signed on to this intergovernmental agreement to help ensure that what we buy—whether it be food, leather, musical instruments, timber, medicine, jewelry, or a vacation memento—has not cost a protected or endangered species its life.  More than 35,000 species of plants and animals are protected by CITES, and these species’ continuing survival, along with the habitats where they live, are critical to the web of life on which all life—our life—depends.

PHOTO: Closeup of an orb weaver spider.

An orb weaver spider ties off a corner of its web.

We, as leaders of the living collections organizations in Chicago, urge you to celebrate World Wildlife Day with us and to join our personal and institutional efforts to promote the importance of conserving plants and animals, and the healthy habitats on which all wildlife—and we—depend. By protecting wildlife, we can ensure that the diversity of life on our planet will endure. We also ensure that the pleasures and basic needs we derive from wildlife continue in the future. These include everything from food and shelter to clean air, water, protection from the effects of floods, droughts, and pollution, as well as the joy of the living world around us.

Please visit your local garden, zoo, aquarium, or arboretum to find out more about what we are doing to preserve wildlife and get involved. Show your support for World Wildlife Day by following @WildlifeDay on Twitter and “liking” the Facebook page.

Sophia Shaw Siskel
President and CEO, Chicago Botanic Garden

Ted Beattie, President and CEO, Shedd Aquarium
Kevin Bell, President and CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo
Gerard T. Donnelly, Ph.D, President and CEO, Morton Arboretum
Stuart D. Strahl, Ph.D, President and CEO, Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo)


[1] Association of Zoos and Aquariums

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Why go all the way to China to talk about climate change, when there are plenty of conversations to have here in the U.S.?

MAP

Xishuangbanna shares border land with Myanmar and Laos.

Returning from a week at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden for their Third International Symposium focused on “The Role of Botanic Gardens in Addressing Climate Change,” I’m struck both by the complexity and difference of the Chinese culture from ours, and by how many of the same challenges we face.

These challenges are global, and to solve them, we need to take a global perspective. Though the United States and China are in very different stages of economic development, we are the two leading emitters of greenhouse gasses—and we must lead the way in reducing our impact.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden is located near the village of Menglun in the Dai Independent Prefecture of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province in China, which shares 619 miles of borderland with Myanmar and Laos.

The area is a lush, tropical paradise, and does not seem at all affected by climate change, but it is a concern: the tropical areas of China—only 0.2 percent of its total land mass—represent more than 15 percent of the biodiversity in the country.

PHOTO: Peach-colored epiphytic orchids wrap their roots around a branch.

Native epiphytic orchids in Xishuangbanna

PHOTO: A view up into an enormous strangler fig.

Strangler figs and other enormous tropical trees create a high canopy above the forest floor.

Biogeographically, Xishuangbanna is located in a transitional zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical East Asia, so the climate is characterized as a seasonal tropical rain forest, with an annual average temperature of 18-22℃ (64.4-71.6℉), with seasonal variation. At about 20 degrees north of the equator, it is just on the northern edge of what is considered the tropics, though it does follow the rainy/dry seasonal patterns—May to October is the rainy season and November to April is the dry season. During my stay, they were experiencing weather somewhat colder than usual, with nighttime temperatures in the upper 40s and daytime temperatures in the low 60s. Earlier in the month, it was only in the upper 30s, but still far warmer than here in Chicago!

PHOTO: A view of the Mekong River Valley

A view of the Mekong River Valley

The vistas were breathtaking. This is a mountainous region, covered with lush tropical and semitropical plant life, wild bananas, lianas (long-stemmed, woody vines), tualang (Koompassia), and Dipterocarpaceae trees—some of which are more than 40 meters tall!

When I arrived on January 10, I noticed that many of the mountains were covered with what looked like vast areas of rust-colored trees. Rust-colored, I learned, because of a recent cold snap that damaged the leaves of the local monoculture: rubber trees.

PHOTO: View of Menglun Village, China.

A view of Menglun Village from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. The Mekong River tributary is in the foreground; rubber trees cover the hills in the background.

Rubber is the new thing in Xishuangbanna. Over the past 40 years, rubber trees have been bred for cooler climates, so production has moved northward from the true tropics to areas like Xishuangbanna. This has had enormous benefits for the local Dai population. Subsistence farmers in the past, they have been able to substantially improve their town infrastructure and their standard of living. But as rubber plantations expand, the ecosystem here is increasingly threatened, with only scattered fragments of untouched tropical forest left. While not directly related to climate change, the impacts of rubber were extensively discussed among conference attendees, because climate change exacerbates other environmental stresses like the fragmentation caused by the rubber plots.

PHOTO: The bark is stripped from a rubber tree. The sap is gathered and turned into rubber.

Not originally a local crop, rubber has become a primary crop of the area.

This seems to me to be a constant tension globally—the competing interest between economic development and conservation—and we’re still looking for the balance. In the United States we continue to have this debate, but around fracking and oil production rather than agriculture. Economic growth at the expense of the environment seems reasonable until we suddenly reach the point where the ecosystem services we depend on to live—clean water and air, food, medicine, etc.—are suddenly in jeopardy, either through direct human action or indirectly though other anthropogenic causes. And that brings us back to climate change.

Climate change is not an easy or comfortable topic of conversation.

Climate change is scary, politically (though not scientifically) controversial, abstract, and easy to ignore. It challenges us as individuals and organizations to rethink our priorities and choices, and to recognize that we may have to change the ways we do things, and how we live our lives, if we are to really address the problem. It is for these reasons, I think, that it generally is not a topic that botanic gardens have focused on when we develop our education or outreach programs. Internationally, gardens are finally beginning to work towards changing that, by building staff capacity to teach about climate change and by integrating climate-change education into existing and new programs.

Where better to understand and communicate how climate change will impact the natural world than at a botanic garden, where we can actually observe its impacts on plants?

The purpose of the conference was to bring together a group of international botanic garden researchers and educators to share their activities around climate change and to think broadly about how botanic gardens can and should use their resources to support movement towards a more sustainable society, as well as how we develop mitigation and adaptation strategies both for conservation purposes and human survival.  Almost 20 countries were represented at the conference, though disappointingly, I was the only U.S. attendee.

PHOTO: Group shot of a handful of conference attendees around a low table, eating dinner.

Many of our dinners were in the amazing local Dai cuisine—a real treat!

My particular area of expertise is environmental education, so experiencing tropical ecosystems directly, which there obviously isn’t the opportunity to do here in the Midwest, truly amazed and inspired me, and renewed my passion for communicating the wonder of nature to all the audiences that the Chicago Botanic Garden serves. It also drove home the real challenge we have to protect these ecosystems as the climate changes. In our discussions and in the sessions, we really focused on looking for solutions—action items—immediate and long term, that we as researchers and educators, and collectively as botanic gardens, could do to make a difference. 

After dozens of sessions on research and education (everything from paleobotany to using neuroscience to better tailor climate- education messaging—really fascinating!), and discussion in targeted working groups, we produced the Xishuangbanna Declaration on Botanical Gardens and Climate Change

In the education group, we took a multifaceted approach to the challenge—to really make a difference we need to increase our own capacity to communicate about climate change, more effectively engage our visitors in that discussion, and reach out to political, social, religious, and economic leaders to support the development of policies and practices that address the impacts of climate change on plants and society. It sounds like a herculean task, but if we each take one part of the job, I believe we can do it together. For example, here at the Chicago Botanic Garden we’ve stopped selling bottled water, use electric hand dryers rather than waste paper, are committed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for new building construction, and continue to look for other ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

It’s important that as institutions, gardens begin to “live the message” by implementing appropriate sustainability policies at our own institutions.

The entire declaration provides what I think is a concise, yet comprehensive, outline of how botanic gardens can use their strengths to address the very real challenge of climate change: through education, by taking meaningful steps to engage all our audiences; through research, by better understanding how climate change is affecting our environment; and through conservation, by protecting biodiversity and the other natural resources on which we depend.

PHOTO: Chinese temple.

Highlights outside the symposium included visiting this temple and the local market, and taking a canopy walk.

PHOTO: Women at market with giat 9-foot stalks of harvested sugar cane.

Sadly, raw sugar cane available in the local market would not fit in my suitcase to go home.

PHOTO: The author standing at a joint in a canopy walk path.

The signs on this walk warn that there is no turning around on the path. It’s not hard to see why.

PHOTO: A view back across the canopy bridge reveals how high the path is in the trees.

SO high up in the canopy, but the hills are still taller.

While there is no one “one size fits all” agenda or program that will work for every garden or every individual, I think there is a common approach that can be taken—gardens collectively need to develop a consistent message and mobilize our networks to communicate about climate change and its impacts. Gardens, along with our members, visitors, and patrons, have the capacity and the opportunity, if we will only take it, to inspire the broader community to act now for a better future. Join us.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In late October 2012 when I was driving down a country road in rural northwest Illinois, I spotted some bright sky-blue asters blooming near the corner of a woodlot. I was traveling between nature preserves in this area of the state collecting seeds for the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank, so my mind was already tuned in for interesting native flora that might produce a collection for the seed bank. It was impossible to make a positive I.D. traveling at 60 m.p.h., but the color of that patch of blue was intriguing enough to warrant turning around to go back for a closer look.

As I had hoped, the attractive blue flowers belonged to a fine native species called Short’s aster (Symphiotrichum shortii), which inhabits high quality woodlands. This being the case, I thought it prudent to take a peek into the adjoining woodland to see what else might be growing there. To my surprise, within 30 feet of my entry point I stumbled across a large patch of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)—a once common but now rare plant of Illinois woodlands. Its rarity is attributed to its past popularity as a medicinal plant, which led to its overharvest. Along with goldenseal, other quality woodland plants such as bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) and baneberry (Actaea sp.) were also present.

PHOTO: golden seal (Hydrastis canadensis) in bloom.

This native woodland perennial produces two large, broad, palmately divided leaves atop a 1-foot-tall hairy stem. A small cluster of greenish-white flowers are produced at the base of one of the leaves in spring when the leaves are expanding, and they mature into a cluster of bright red fruits by midsummer. The knotty, bright yellow root of goldenseal has been harvested by humans for centuries for a variety of medicinal uses. Its popularity has led to extreme harvesting pressure culminating in drastically reduced natural populations.

I did not have time to explore the woodland further that day, so I made a note of where it was located and planned on returning to the site soon to explore it further. However, I had one question that I needed to answer before this was to happen: Who owned that woodland? I was confident that it wasn’t a nature preserve, because I had lists and maps of all of the protected preserves in the area. My guess was that it was privately owned. When I left the site, I recalled that there was a home situated just off the road near the middle of the woodland, so I thought that would be a good starting point.

PHOTO: Hydrastis canadensis leaves (with one ripe fruit).

Hydrastis canadensis leaves (with one ripe fruit)

As luck would have it, the owners of the home also owned the entire woodland. I spoke to the owner about the goldenseal I found in the corner of his property and the possibility of making a collection for the seed bank. It turns out that he already knew about the goldenseal population from a conversation that he had had with a local forester years ago. The forester thought that there was a good chance it had been planted there to be harvested for its medicinal value at a later date. This was a likely scenario, considering the size of the population. The owners agreed to allow me to collect its seeds as well as seeds from any other species that I sought for the seed bank. The only problem was that for the seed bank we are primarily interested in preserving the seeds of natural populations, not introduced ones. Seeds from natural populations represent individuals that are ideally suited to that environment by natural selection across generations, and are therefore of more value to those seeking genetically adapted seeds from a particular area.

PHOTO: Hydrastis canadensis fruit.

The raspberry-like fruit of goldenseal is considered inedible, but the roots have many medicinal properties.

So here lies the dilemma: large populations of goldenseal are rare, because of overharvesting. I rarely see this plant in woodlands, and when I do, it is always in small numbers. If this population was cultivated for the medicinal value of its roots, there is a good chance that it does not represent a natural population. I did not collect seeds of goldenseal that fall—the seeds had ripened and dropped much earlier in the summer. Any seed collection for the seed bank could not occur until the following year. This gave me plenty of time to contemplate whether or not to make the collection.

Since my first visit to the woodland, I have made several seed collections of many quality native woodland plants for the seed bank, including a collection of the Short’s aster that led me to the goldenseal discovery. During those collections I have become more familiar with the woods and have discovered additional colonies of goldenseal—some quite distant from the original population. Could these additional colonies represent multiple plantings? Maybe, but the sizes of the additional colonies are quite a bit smaller than the original. Perhaps they represent offspring from the original colony. If that is the case, this may be an indication that this particular woodland is an ideal habitat for goldenseal—even if it is not the original habitat. Or, there is a chance that this is a remnant population that for some reason survived overharvesting forays years ago.

PHOTO: A field of goldenseal in fruit.

A population of goldenseal on the property; one of several colonies where seeds were harvested

I completed a collection of the goldenseal population (estimated at more than 500 plants) for the seed bank on July 24, 2013. A notation in our database notes will read: “Population may not be natural.”


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org