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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

Interns Harvest More Than Veggies

What internship with Windy City Harvest gave us this summer

Windy City Harvest —  August 26, 2014 — Leave a comment

A summer spent at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden is full of little joys and big surprises.

Interning at Windy City Harvest, we (Lesley and Rachel) started our time with grand plans to become farmers, urban agriculture pioneers, business owners, and horticulturists. We thought a summer at the parent organization—the Chicago Botanic Garden—learning about a vast collection of fruit and vegetable plant varieties would be a good way to jump-start our careers in the field.

But the weather and the Garden had a much different education for us in mind.

PHOTO: Fruit and Veg interns Leslie and Rachel

Fruit & Vegetable interns Leslie and Rachel weeding the beds

The summer’s weather has been very cool and wet: this is not ideal for some of the fruiting crops that most people prize. Cucumbers and squash are everywhere and right on schedule, but the bright red, heavy tomatoes we love to harvest this time of year are taking a bit longer to ripen in the cooler weather. And yet, the cooler weather has brought visitors to the Garden in friendly droves. These visitors (avid gardeners, young children, families, and globetrotters) have encouraged us to keep the garden in good shape throughout the season, and shared their own sense of wonder about fruits and vegetables.

Although the Chicago Botanic Garden has a separate garden—the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden—dedicated to working with children, many families bring their children to visit the Fruit & Vegetable Garden while they are here because of the broad range of fruit and vegetables we have on display. They can also learn about bees or growing watermelons. They may even spot toads here and there, if they have a quick eye.

PHOTO: Potato flower (Solanum tuberosum 'Kennebec')

Can you identify this gorgeous bloom? Its tubers are a staple food crop.

Both of us have enjoyed showing children how carrots and potatoes grow, since those plants, specifically, look very different when they are growing than when they are on a plate. Getting the chance to talk to children about food and farming has affirmed our commitment to the work that lies ahead. Sharing our knowledge about growing healthy, sustainable food is one of the most important skills that we can develop as future farmers.

One warm July day, a group of 7- and 8-year-olds walked into the garden, where we happened to be cultivating “the three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash). They stopped in their tracks, entranced by the long ears of corn. “Do you know where popcorn comes from?” Rachel asked. The curious kids looked at one another, shrugged, and all eyes turned to the apprentice farmer. She asked the children to look around and spot the plant that might be responsible for the delicious snack. Suddenly, it dawned on a few of them, and they jumped and pointed, “It’s the corn! It’s the corn!” The corn plants took on a new significance when we were able to put them into context.

PHOTO: Popcorn cob

The discovery of how favorite foods grow brings delight in the garden.

The diversity of plant life in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden attracts some of the most inquisitive, passionate, and skilled gardeners from around the globe. Patrons are constantly asking us questions about plant varieties, weather patterns, soil amendments, and why our eggplants don’t look like their eggplants. They want to know what cardoons taste like, or where we sell the gigantic Zephyr squash.

PHOTO: Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

A highlight of the vast collection displayed at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, the cardoon. Is it a thistle or an artichoke? A little bit of both—and edible!

On a particularly lovely early morning, a couple from England pulled us aside and shared what they’ve been growing in their allotment garden across the pond. They were inspired by the fruits and vegetables they saw in the garden and wanted to share and compare notes about their own bounty at home.

“Have you ever made beetroot chutney?” they inquired. We looked at each other and shook our heads, but we wanted to know more. We had never heard of the recipe but were certainly intrigued by the sound of it. The couple explained that it was a savory dish consisting of sautéed beets, onions, herbs, and vinegar—lovely as a condiment or side dish. We were both inspired to call beets “beetroot” and make beetroot chutney after that conversation.

Herein lies one of the greatest gifts of our internship: we have been able to learn from experts, share knowledge with visitors, and get a lot of hands-on experience. We thought we might have a difficult time adjusting to the early morning hours and manual labor, but the joy we have experienced has definitely made it worthwhile. Our paths have crossed with so many interesting and amazing people—all in the name of fruits and vegetables.

Both of us are former educators who value the gifts of teaching and learning. Our previous classrooms had four walls that bound us to a specific space. We continue to teach and to learn. But our classroom looks a little different—no walls, open space, tons of possibilities—the Garden.

PHOTO: Girls gather in the vegetables on a field trip to Fruit & Veg.

There is much knowledge to share about growing fruits and vegetables—for experienced pros and newcomers alike.

These experiences are not only for Windy City Harvest interns. Hop on your bike, take a walk, and plan a visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden or your local farm and talk to your gardener!


Lesley Grill
Rachel Schipull

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The secret is out; visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden have unprecedented access to plant information, guides, and tours through a groundbreaking smartphone app, called GardenGuide, launched last year. Garden staff and volunteers used their skills and savvy to squeeze interactive maps, audio guides, points of interest, and botanic details on more than 10,000 plants into an application that sits in the palm of your hand. How did they do it, and what keeps the wheels turning?

Dorothy Peck, volunteer team leader at work.

Dorothy Peck, volunteer and team leader, at work

The ability to access this information in real time during a Garden visit is what makes the app so special, according to Boyce Tankersley, the Garden’s director of living plant documentation. He said that people “look down at the app, they see what they need to see, and then they are back to experiencing the Garden, just as we had hoped.” In addition, photos and plant information are frequently being added, so there is always something new to discover.  

Before new data and photos were added to the plant collections database, Tankersley and his team upgraded their long-time plant collection’s database to include 37 new information fields that would work well with the app, from soil type to bloom time to sun requirements. Many of the fields were added as check boxes, to make them easier to sort through with the app. It was then that he recruited another 80 volunteers to help gather and enter all of that new information.

As the project progressed, a new team of highly specialized volunteers came together to help build the data that is shared via the app. A group of 20 volunteer photographers captured digital images to accompany each species listed, under the direction of their team leader, Dorothy Peck. A group of 12 volunteers, led by team leader Glenn Kohlmeyer, scanned plant information slides researched by Richard Hawke, the Garden’s plant evaluation manager. Under Tankerley’s watchful eye, another 20 volunteers researched and input key facts about the plants. Perhaps furthest under the radar, was the smallest group of volunteers who handled the intricacies of GIS mapping with guidance from Veronica Harry-Jackson, a Garden GIS specialist. “We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated staff and volunteers,” said Tankersley.

“It was a Garden-wide project which was fantastic,”
said Van Deraa

The process to create the app began more than two years ago, when project manager Cheri Van Deraa, the Garden’s director of online marketing, assembled a team including representatives from different areas within the Garden. She led the initial step of researching similar products on the market and incorporating possible features. The list began with the Garden’s plant collections, and grew from there. The planning team considered a growing list of needs that visitors have when they come to the Garden, and included functions to address them. “The visitor needs we documented over time are now being met in this app,” said Tankersley.

John Moore

John Moore, volunteer photographer

Veronica Harry Jackson

Veronica Harry-Jackson with GIS equipment

“We wouldn’t be able to pull off a project like this without a lot of dedicated volunteers.”

“The basis of the app was the plant collections database, but we realized that people like to find other things at the Garden, so we created a new second database for the app. It has points of interest at the Garden, like water fountains, classrooms, sculpture, the location of the Japanese Garden, and more,” said Van Deraa. Once the two databases were polished, they were worked into the architecture and mapping system for the app software.

The GIS, or interactive mapping function, was also a critical component. Both Tankersley and Van Deraa saw tremendous value in offering the ability for a user to go from their Garden location to their desired destination. “We have a large campus and much to see,” said Van Deraa, who uses the app herself. “I just get a thrill every time I want to find a plant,” she said. “There was an iris I wanted to see in the spring, I dialed it in, and I could just walk right up to it. That was so cool.”

Crested iris on the GardenGuide

For those who are not sure what to look for, there is a feature called What’s in Bloom Highlights. The feature highlights plants in bloom twice each week, with a map that shows the visitor how to walk to them.

Additional functions that were built in include audio tours, walking tours, and Van Deraa’s, favorite—maps leading to ‘secret spots’ such as the quiet bench atop the Waterfall Garden where birds visit early in the morning. “The GardenGuide app was designed to deepen the visitor experience with the Garden,” said Van Deraa. 

Gabriela Rocha and Sil Argentin

Gabriela Rocha and volunteer Sil Argentin

GardenGuide has been in use for nearly a year now, and updates are ongoing. In 2014, the app was awarded a Gold Trumpet by the Publicity Club of Chicago for distinguished achievement. Not resting on her laurels, though, Van Deraa has been focused on updating the software necessary to work with a new Android operating system, KitKat, which is now complete. The next version of the GardenGuide 2.0 is in the works.

Volunteers continue to take and add new photos, and research and input new pieces of information. “Because the Garden is constantly adding new plants to the collection, we are always adding new plants to the app,” said Tankersley. “In the long term, in effect this becomes a digital encyclopedia of plants.” Tankersley hopes to eventually add data on another 46,000 plants that have previously lived at the Garden and may one day return.

Users of the GardenGuide app can be assured that the information in the app has been updated with care by a remarkable team of volunteers and professionals working together.

It’s all there, in the palm of your hand, just waiting to be tapped.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grant #MA-04-11-0101-11).

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

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 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 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 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