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I’m a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have an incredible job that allows me to work with many wonderful graduate students and a team of researchers to study ways to restore natural areas in the Colorado Plateau.

If you’ve ever visited national parks like the Grand Canyon or Arches, you’ve experienced at least some of what the Colorado Plateau (also known as the Four Corners region) has to offer. It includes more than 80 million acres across Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—and the largest concentration of national parks in the country.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer in the Colorado plateau.

Our research team heads out across a recently-burned area in search of data.

Although beautiful, the Colorado Plateau’s natural areas are facing many threats, including wildfires, a changing climate, and destructive invasive species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens). Working with many partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, we are studying which native plants may be best able to handle these growing threats (we refer to them as “native winners”). The ultimate goal is to help make restoration of these plants and habitats as effective as possible in order to maintain healthy natural areas that support wildlife and pollinators, and help keep our air and water clean.

PHOTO: Andrea Kramer at Rio Mesa.

Another beautiful day at Rio Mesa

This is no small task. The invasive species that the native plants are up against are very impressive. For example, Russian knapweed is allelopathic (prevents other plants from growing nearby), and it has roots that can grow more than 20 feet deep, seeking the water table. Fortunately, some native species are also able to grow in these conditions, and some even appear to be evolving and adapting to be better competitors.

Three Northwestern University graduate students are working with me. Master’s student Nora Talkington is testing how different populations of a native grass are able to compete with Russian knapweed, while doctoral student Alicia Foxx is researching how different root structures of native plants help them compete with invasive species. Master’s student Maggie Eshleman is studying six native wildflower species including the smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia), which has tiny, fiery orange flowers. These wildflowers are likely “native winners” and are strong candidates for increased use when restoring habitat in the Colorado Plateau.

A rainbow of wildflowers for restoration:

  • Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens): This purple-flowered plant is good for pollinators, one of the few plants that flowers late in the season, and on top of that, is really good at growing in sites that need to be restored.
  • Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica): This cute little annual plant is often the only thing we find flowering and producing seeds during extreme drought years. It is very impressive!
  • Bee plant (Cleome lutea): This annual plant has gorgeous yellow flowers. It’s good at growing in disturbed areas and, as its name indicates, is a great forage plant for bees.
PHOTO: Cleome lutea.

Bee plant (Cleome lutea) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Sphaeralcea parvifolia.

Smallflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia) by Andrea Kramer

PHOTO: Machaeranthera canescens.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens or Dieteria canascens) by Maggie Eshleman

PHOTO: Plantago patagonica.

Woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica) by Andrea Kramer

This summer was a busy one. My students and I spent many weeks in the Colorado Plateau working with collaborators to collect seeds (as part of Seeds of Success collectors—a national native seed collection program). These seeds are now being used for studies in the Garden’s research greenhouses and growth chambers, and at study plots in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. In the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, we are also using incubators to create spring- and summer-like conditions that will help us understand when and why seeds of certain species are able to germinate and grow. This is an important aspect of ultimately being able to restore species in a degraded habitat.

PHOTO: La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May.

La Sal mountains in the background; the plains abloom in May

How cool is it to be able to take research that’s been done on a small scale and actually apply it to the real world? I feel so lucky to be able to do this work, and being here at the Chicago Botanic Garden has allowed me to build long-term partnerships that investigate the application of research, rather than just focusing on publishing it. Stay tuned for updates on how these native winners perform.


This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Project Overview:
Shannon Still and Nick Jensen work on a project studying the impact of climate change on the distribution of rare plants in the western United States. The grant, funded through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), examines the changes in projected species distributions between now and 2080. The goal of the research is to help BLM to make informed management decisions regarding rare plants. The research takes them to many exciting destinations as they search for rare plants in the west.

 

habit of Enceliopsis argophylla

Habitat of Enceliopsis argophylla, which thrives in gypsum-rich soil.

The silverleaf sunray (Enceliopsis argophylla),  is a photogenic species in the Asteraceae, or sunflower, family. This rare plant grows in basal clumps of silver-colored, hairy leaves with flowers extended on long stalks, and the entire plant may reach 2 feet tall. The flowers nod with maturity.

The large yellow daisy flowers are 3 to 4 inches across when open. They are quite a sight and stand in stark contrast to the habitat. Due to the extreme habitat, silverleaf sunray offers one of the more striking photo opportunities as the plants grow from a barren landscape.

Silverleaf sunray on a barren hillside.

Silverleaf sunray on a barren hillside


Nick Jensen with a silverleaf sunray.

Nick Jensen with a silverleaf sunray

These gems are found in Clark County, Nevada, east of Las Vegas in the Lake Mead area. They are also found in Mohave County, Arizona, close to Lake Mead.

The habitat for the silverleaf sunray has been encroached by Lake Mead and is threatened by off-highway vehicle use to a minor extent. The habitat in which the sunray grows is easily damaged due to the fragile soil environment (see photos to left) in which the species lives. Much like the dwarf bear-poppy (Arctomecon humilis), the silverleaf sunray grows in a gypsum-rich soil that typically has a healthy soil crust. Damage to this crust can allow invasive plants to grow more easily.

The Bureau of Land Management lists the silverleaf sunray as a sensitive species in Nevada and the species was considered, but rejected, for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Around Lake Mead the silverleaf sunray grows with the golden bear-claw poppy or Las Vegas bear-poppy (Arctomecon californica), a federally listed species. So while the species is not federally listed, the habitat is often protected due to the proximity of other federally listed rare plants.

Side view of the silverleaf sunray flower.

Silverleaf sunray is a striking plant that grows in close proximity to urban and recreation areas. If you are ever in the Las Vegas area, it is worth traveling the short distance to see these plants.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

We recently toured the Greenhouses with Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, to see what’s in bloom and take in the different climates visitors can enjoy.

In the Arid Greenhouse, we saw a number of species of aloe from South Africa just coming into bloom as well as cacti and succulents.

In the Tropical Greenhouse, we were surrounded by palms and cycads while we admired the many orchids in bloom. Tankersley pointed out the acanthus cultivar (Aphelandra sinclairiana ‘Panama Queen’) native to Panama and Costa Rica, as one of his favorites. 

PHOTO: Panama Queen acanthus (Aphelandra sinclairiana 'Panama Queen')

The Semitropical Greenhouse was filled with blooms like pinkball dombeya (Dombeya wallichii). Native to East Africa and Madagascar, the genus is a highly sought-after ornamental in USDA Zones 9 and warmer.

PHOTO: Pinkball dombeya (Dombeya wallichii)

One of the rarest plants in our collections is Deppea splendens. Native to the mountains of western Mexico, this plant is extinct in the wild.

PHOTO: Deppea splendens

Visit our What’s in Bloom highlight page each week — twice a week during the summer bloom season — to learn more about the different plants in bloom. Then, come out to see them in person for their fragrance and the humidity of the warmer greenhouse climates.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

You may think of the three greenhouses as warm and cozy places to visit on a chilly fall day, but look sharp! There are dark and chilling secrets among the plants you may see there…

In the Arid Greenhouse

PHOTO: Giant toad plant.

Carrion flower or giant toad plant (Stapelia gigantea pallida) smells about as attractive as you might guess from its name.

ROT ROT ROT:  Though the star-shaped flowers of the toad plant look beautiful, they smell like rotten meat. (The scent attracts flies, which are the plant’s pollinators.) We warned you.

DEADLY SAP:  The milky sap of many plants in the euphorbia family irritates the skin and eyes…and is poisonous to humans and animals if ingested.

PHOTO: Peruvian apple cactus.

“Night owls” — bats, really — pollinate the peruvian apple (Cereus peruvanius).

THE BAT SIGNAL:  All cactus flowers last just one day—but the flowers of the Peruvian apple cactus only bloom one night, the better to attract its pollinator, a bat.

SHARP LEAVES:  Although cactus needles are nothing more than very skinny, narrow leaves, they are sharp enough to hurt. The tiny, hairlike needles can really get under your skin…ouch!

In the Tropical Greenhouse

PHOTO: Cocoa tree.

The fruit of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) give us our favorite dessert: chocolate!

CHOCOLATE AND FLIES:  Think about this as you’re eating your Halloween candy: tiny flies (called midges) are the pollinators for the cocoa tree. Therefore, every bit of chocolate you eat started with a fly…yum yum.

BANANA BLOOD?  When a leaf is trimmed off the banana plant, the sap that runs out is initially clear…but then it turns purplish-brown, leaving “blood” on the clothes of those who trim it. Is that a stain on your shirt?

KILLER BUGS:  When plant-eating bugs attack in the greenhouse, we release the appropriate bug-eating bugs. Although these mini-carnivores are mostly too small to be seen by humans…wait, do you hear munching?

In the Mediterranean Greenhouse

THE STRANGLER:  A rubber plant called the “Strangler Fig” has long, creeping roots that climb over other plants, tapping into that plant’s circulatory system and eventually smothering it. Most rubber plants are harmless…did you just see something move?

PHOTO: Deppea splendens.

The colorful and elegant Deppea splendens can be found in our greenhouses.

THE SPOOKIEST OF ALL:  By tearing down forests and destroying its natural habitat, humans have caused plants like Deppea splendens to become all but extinct. The only known survivors live in botanical gardens like this one.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

An interesting plant has come into bloom for the first time in the Arid Greenhouse. Turquoise puya (Puya alpestris) produces brilliant turquoise flowers accentuated by intensely orange anthers. The species is native to the high desert mountains of southern Chile, and obtains almost all of its water from the morning dews that briefly precipitate water before sunrise. The long, thin, arching leaves are protected by spines along the margin that discourage herbivores from taking a bite. Learn more about this and four other plants in this week’s Bloom Highlight. http://www.chicagobotanic.org/inbloom/highlight.php