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I scratch my head and wipe the sweat from my brow. One of my summer interns found a little plant, under a bunch of big plants, and we thought for a second it might be the same as the big plants, but it is definitely different. It’s our first field day. We don’t know what this plant is called, and it’s a hot and humid summer day in Chicago, and we have been searching through our identification guidebooks for what seems like forever. “Is it this one?” we ask each other, pointing to pictures in the book where the leaves kinda sorta look like our little plant. Finally, we flip through the book one last time, and it seems to open all on its own to the right place. It’s called water horehound (Lycopus americanus). We cheer! Now that we know this little plant’s name, we start to see it everywhere.

PHOTO: Poring over a specimen in the field.

Poring over a specimen in the field

I’ve been working all summer with a fresh-faced team of undergraduate interns to quantify plant community biodiversity (i.e. identify and count plants) in restored prairies around Chicago. Some of our sites have been right by the lake, some have been in community parks, some in forest preserves, and one in what seemed to be a drainage ditch. So far, we have identified more than 200 plant species.

Biodiversity is all around us. And I’m not just talking about in the tropical rainforest or a coral reef, though there are many species there, too. Even in the temperate zone, even in a park, and probably even in your backyard, there are many species. A species is defined as a group of organisms that can breed with one another. While most people would feel comfortable declaring that an elephant is different from a carp, an oak tree, or a shiitake, there are often much more subtle distinctions that can signify that organisms belong to different species. To humans trying to identify plants, the distinction between two species could be as minute as whether the leaf hairs are hooked or straight. Seeing species is hard but worthwhile. It will help you develop keen observation skills, and (I hope!) an appreciation of the world around you.

PHOTO: Dodecatheon meadia.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) is a distinctive early flowering species of the prairie. Photo by Jessica Riebkes

Before we can identify what a species is, we first have to determine that it is something different from the other surrounding plants. We tend to look at plants as a bunch of green stuff, not always recognizing the diversity present even in seemingly mundane habitats. We call this phenomenon “plant blindness,” the tendency to see plants as background, and not as unique organisms. My Ph.D. advisor said I should call our inability to recognize differences between species, “species blindness” (The only other reference I could find for species blindness was in Rutgers University Professor Lena Struwe’s bioblitz project).

Recognizing differences among species is only the first hurdle. Then, you have to identify them. The identification can be confounded in many ways, like the issue of timing. Some species may be distinctive at maturity but can remain a mystery at other times. Take rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). There is no mistaking the master when it’s flowering. The flowers are small, green and white, but are contained within a spiky ball of a flowering head. The leaves are thick, pointy, and spear-like, prickles sticking out all along the edges. But when the mighty rattlesnake master pokes out of the ground in the spring, you would definitely mistake it for a grass; there are no flowers, no spiky balls, no spears. The only way to know it isn’t a grass is to observe the sparse, puny prickles just starting out.

PHOTO: Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with a co-occuring species.

The distinctive rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium with co-occuring species. How many can you spot?

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about grass. (No, no I am not talking about marijuana.) Botanist Chris Martine already addressed that in his essay, “I am a botanist, and no, I don’t grow marijuana.”) I just mean grass, the stringy green stuff that grows out of the ground. This demonstrates another hurdle to combating species blindness: the sheer number of species out there. Guess how many species of grass there are. Go ahead, guess. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew keeps a database of grasses called, of course, GrassBase. Currently, GrassBase includes 11,313 different species of grass. Grass is actually a plant family, containing many different species (please see this amazing rap if you need a refresher on biological classification). As you can figure out by exploring an overgrown park, an abandoned field, or my favorite place to study grass, a prairie, there are grasses that are incredibly distinctive. Some have seedheads that smell like popcorn! Sometimes, though, the grass isn’t blooming (grasses are flowering plants, by the way), and you end up pulling back leaf after leaf trying to find a ligule to help with the identification. A ligule is what’s found where a grass leaf blade meets the stem. The ligule can be rigid or floppy, membranous, or hairy, or totally absent. Once you know that the ligule exists, you might try to find it on any and all grasses you pass (I do!).

Once you’ve found a distinct species, how do you figure out its name? We budding botanists have a few tricks. We search through field guides so many times that we memorize the pages for certain families. We spend a lot of time looking at the glossary of our field guides, trying to remember the meaning of botanical terms like panicle, petiole, connate, cordate, corolla, and cyme. We use multiple senses. We are known to crush leaves and breathe deep, searching for the piney smell of a goldenrod, the freshness of a mountain mint, or the musk of bee balm. We are almost obsessive about our rubbing of leaves to distinguish new textures. And we hunt for tiny clues (often with a hand lens) like a line of hairs down a stem or a gland at the base of a hair on the edge of a leaf blade. We value the time we get to spend in the field or the lab with expert botanists that put our identification skills to shame. And when all else fails, we post to Twitter or Facebook botany groups and someone always knows.

PHOTO: Becky Barak in the field.

The best part of the job—doing research in the field!

I’m asking you to combat species blindness by working hard to notice species. Dig a little deeper, look a little closer. If you’re out with children, challenge them to find as many different species as they can. At first glance, it may seem like everything is the same, but with careful observation, the species will begin to show themselves. Look at all parts of the plant. Flowers sometimes get all the love, but stems and leaves and fruits and seeds can hold the keys to identification. Plants are a good place to start because they are known to stay in one place, but the same patterns apply to all living things. Biological diversity is out there; you just need to know how to look.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On any given day, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s science laboratories are bustling with activity. Some of the researchers are extracting DNA from leaves, analyzing soil samples, discussing how to restore degraded dunes—and talking about where they’re going to college. The young researchers are interns in the Garden’s College First program, studying field ecology and conservation science, and working side by side with scientists, horticulturists, and educators.

PHOTO: Orange-shirted middle schoolers examine palm trees and take data in the greenhouse.

Science First participants gather data in the Greenhouse.

PHOTO: Two high school girls wearing blue "College First" tshirts and latex gloves examine samples in the lab.

Two College First participants work on analyzing samples in the Garden’s plant science labs.

The Science Career Continuum consists of five programs:

  • Science First, a four-week enrichment program for students in grades 8 through 10.
  • College First, an eight-week summer internship for high school juniors and seniors with monthly meetings during the school year.
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a ten-week summer research-based science internship supervised by a Garden scientist and funded through a National Science Foundation grant. In 2014, three College First graduates will participate.
  • Conservation and Land Management (CLM) internship, offered through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and held in 13 western states.
  • Graduate programs in plant biology and conservation, offered jointly with Northwestern University for master’s degree and doctoral students.

The program is part of the Science Career Continuum, which is aimed at training the next generation of dedicated land stewards and conservation scientists. The Continuum engages Chicago Public Schools students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful scientific research and mentoring programs from middle school through college and beyond. “Each level of the Continuum challenges students to improve their science skills, building on what was learned at the previous level and preparing them for the next,” said Kathy Johnson, director of teacher and student programs.

College First is a paid eight-week summer internship for up to 20 qualified students. Isobel Araujo, a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, attended the College First program in 2011 and 2012. As part of the program, she did research on orchids and learned how to estimate budgets to fix hypothetical ecological problems. “It was definitely challenging, but it was awesome,” said Araujo, who plans to major in environmental studies.

During the school year, College First students also attend monthly meetings that help them select colleges, complete applications, and find financial aid to continue their education. More than 94 percent of College First graduates attend two- or four-year colleges, and many are the first in their family to attend college. Three students, including Robert Harris III, received full scholarships to universities beginning in fall 2013.

Harris is a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As a junior and senior at Lane Tech High School in Chicago, he made a three-hour daily round-trip commute to the Garden for the College First program. During his internship, he learned to extract plant DNA and study genetic markers in the Artocarpus genus, which includes breadfruit and jackfruit. Harris said the program was a great experience. “You get out of the city and experience nature close up,” he said. “The Garden itself is one big laboratory, and it was a lot more hands-on than in high school.”

PHOTO: An intern carries a quiver full of marking flags, and takes notes on her clipboard.

Science First and College First programs lead into other graduate and postgraduate programs. Visit chicagobotanic.org/research/training to find information on these programs.

PHOTO: A group of about 50 people pose at the end of the Serpentine Bridge.

Conservation and Land Management (CLM) postgraduate interns for 2013 pose for a group photo at the Garden. Visit clminternship.org to find out more about this program.

Because of funding restrictions, enrollment for the Continuum programs are limited to students from Chicago Public Schools. For more information, visit chicagobotanic.org/ctl/teacher_students or call (847) 835-6871.


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

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org