Archives For conservation

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. 

EarthWe’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.

PHOTO: Dandelions.

These happy dandelions could contribute valuable information to the science of climate change.

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 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.

PHOTO: This is a printout from the Project BudBurst Website, that asks about the location of the plant and provides places to record bloom times, as well as other comments.

The BudBurst Wildflower Regular Report is easy to use and will guide you through the process.

girl with data sheet

After you find a dandelion you want to watch, record information about the location of the plant.

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.

budburst notebook

  • 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.) 

PHOTO: Two girls are looking closely at a milkweed plant that has about eight green seed pods.

These students are observing a milkweed that is in the “First Ripe Fruit” stage.

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!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Wildfire. Flooding. Thirst. These issues can all be addressed through large-scale landscape restoration, according to speakers at the 2015 Janet Meakin Poor Research Symposium. Addressing a crowd of regional stewardship professionals and academics, as well as Conservation Land Management (CLM) and Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) interns at the Chicago Botanic Garden on June 12, they focused on solutions for ecological challenges.

The effects of strong conservation work are magnified when done on a large scale, they shared, and the theme of the day was how to magnify every step from seed-management procedures to restoration time frames and budgets to make the process as beneficial as possible. As mining, drilling, and similar industries move broadly across open lands in the United States and abroad, along with increasingly frequent and far-reaching extreme weather events, conservation practices must evolve with the times to keep pace.

PHOTO: Conservation and Land Management (CLM) interns measure species density in the field.

Conservation and Land Management (CLM) interns measure species density in the field.

As the CLM interns prepare to set off on a summer of hands-on restoration work across the United States, and potentially launch their careers shortly thereafter, these are critical issues for them to understand, according to Kay Havens, Ph.D., of the Chicago Botanic Garden, who organized the symposium. Many of the interns work in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on the ground in forestry, wildlife management, and habitat restoration, among others.

Fittingly, the first speaker of the day was Amy Leuders, the acting assistant director of BLM, who noted that the partnership with the Garden since 2001 has led to the training, hiring, and placement of more than 1,000 interns on federal lands. About 50 percent of those interns are later hired by a stewardship agency. “The Bureau of Land Management has had a long and successful partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden…developing the next generation of land stewards,” she said.

In particular, she imparted to the audience the importance of developing a large scale national seed strategy, so that targeted plant seeds will be thoughtfully collected and preserved for future use. She cited examples of events in which seeds saved by chance allowed for the restoration of areas that later succumbed to natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. This new process would allow for seed saving to take place in a more proactive and calculated manner.

PHOTO: Seeds are collected at the Garden and stored in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Collected seeds are stored in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

According to the second speaker, Kingsley Dixon, Ph.D., professor at Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, the current supply of wild seed cannot support global restoration demands. Innovations are helping to change that. Tools that process seeds into pellets or other small packets facilitate their successful mass delivery into recovering ecosystems, helping to achieve the level of seed performance seen in the agricultural sector. He noted that “Only by thinking at an industrial level of efficiency will ecological restoration be able to achieve the pace needed to protect and enhance natural resources.”

Drinking water quality can also be managed by restoration, said Joy Zedler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She shared examples of how restoration has been “scaled up” adaptively (learning while restoring) to benefit large areas. When it comes to managing water, she explained, it is essential to manage an entire watershed. One area of poor water quality will flow into every crevice in the system, for example. In the end, she explained, it is about safeguarding ecosystem services that human health and wellbeing depend on, from clean water to fresh air. “Our global society needs to redirect itself to achieve a sustainable future,” she said.

Brian Winter of the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota echoed her sentiments, as he ran through a real-life wetland restoration process for the audience. He emphasized that wetlands hold rainwater and are capable of preventing disastrous amounts of water from washing through nearby agricultural fields. The value of wetland restoration is immense and ongoing, he explained.

Conservation is in transition, explained speaker John Rogner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Rogner discussed the steps involved in planning for a successful restoration, and the importance of landscape conservation cooperatives that can work together across states or even countries to identify and address issues in a given geographic area such as the Great Lakes watershed. He outlined an ongoing project to improve blockages in the Great Lakes system that impede fish migration. This can lead to a buildup of invasive plant species that create additional system blockages. A regional perspective and collaboration across entities is critical, he said. “It is absolutely essential that everyone have access to the same information to keep moving in the right direction,” added Rogner.

Issues that often fall to the side in planning are conceptual, according to James Aronson of the Missouri Botanical Garden. He urged the audience to pay attention to the economic side of their work by learning to speak and think in terms of renewable natural capital. Across land and ocean, natural capital can be restored to facilitate the flow of ecosystem services such as fresh air and clean water.

PHOTO: One of our greatest national resources and treasures: the Colorado River Basin.

One of our greatest national resources and treasures: the Colorado River Basin.

Lastly, Megan Haidet with Seeds of Success emphasized the importance of partnerships to meet the goals of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration 2015–2020. She noted that increased coordination is vital to accelerate the pace and scale of restoration and provide native plant materials when and where they are needed.

The Garden’s CLM interns have now dispersed across the United States, where they will work for the next five months on public lands to put these lessons into action.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

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

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

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