Archives For plant conservation

Botanic gardens are looking at the ways that zoos are trying to save threatened and exceptional species—including whooping cranes, black-footed ferrets, and giants pandas—to see if their approach could be adapted and used to help save rare plant species.  

Over the past year, the Chicago Botanic Garden has been working with the Brookfield Zoo, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and other institutions to modify management tools developed for zoo living collections for botanic garden use.

Scientists and curators at botanic gardens and zoos both manage populations—of plants and animals, respectively—for conservation purposes. This type of conservation, outside the habitat of the plant or animal, is called “ex situ” (off site) conservation. There is a lot of similarity between the best practices for living collection management at zoos and botanic gardens, but to date, we have not often worked together to adapt tools developed for animals to plants and vice-versa.

This may be due, in part, to the fact that plant conservation relies heavily on seed banking. Storing seeds is an effective conservation method for most plant species, and avoids many of the problems associated with growing plants in the garden. (Living plants may be killed or injured by diseases and pests, may hybridize with other plants in the garden, and over several generations, may change genetically in ways that make them less suited for reintroduction.) However, many plant species are not well-suited for seed banking, either because their seeds are recalcitrant—they cannot be dried and frozen—or because some plants rarely produce seeds. Living collections offer an alternative conservation method for these “exceptional” species.

PHOTO: Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

In this recent paper in the American Journal of Botany, we describe an approach that botanic gardens could adopt to improve their management of rare plant species—based on the “studbook” approach zoos use for animals. We hope to test this approach in two rare plants next year: Quercus oglethorpensis (Ogelthorpe oak—found only in the southeastern United States), and Brighamia insignis (Ālula—found only on Kauai in Hawaii).

PHOTO: Quercus oglethorpensis.

Quercus oglethorpensis
Photo ©2015, Virginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation

PHOTO: Brighamia insignis.

Brighamia insignis

It is clear that zoos and botanic gardens have much to learn from each other, and we hope to work more with our zoo counterparts in the future.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Plants of Concern volunteers come from many backgrounds, but all share a common denominator: not surprisingly, they are concerned about plants.

PHOTO: The beautiful Cypripedium candidum, one of the many rare plants Plants of Concern monitors.

The beautiful Cypripedium candidum, one of the many rare plants Plants of Concern monitors

So concerned are these citizen scientists, in fact, that they are willing to traipse all over our region of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana to monitor hundreds of rare, threatened, and endangered species in a variety of habitats. Their findings help plant scientists understand and work to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as encroaching urbanization and invasive species.

Here are profiles of three Plants of Concern volunteers, in their own words. We hope these stories inspire you to consider joining their ranks. Another Plants of Concern volunteer recently blogged about her experience as a newbie with relatively little plant-related expertise, and you can find that post here.

Kathy Garness

PHOTO: Kathleen GarnessBachelor’s degree from DePaul University in visual arts; master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University. Worked for many years as a director of religious education in the Episcopal church, in the commercial art field for more than a decade, and now as administrator and a lead teacher in a nature-based preschool. Earned a botanical art certificate from the Morton Arboretum. Helped develop the Field Museum’s Common Plant Families of the of the Chicago Region field guide.

I started volunteering with Plants of Concern in 2002. I learned about POC after a chance meeting at the REI store in Oakbrook with Audubon representative and Northeastern Illinois University professor Steve Frankel. Steve told me about POC, and that meeting changed my life in a huge way.

I monitor 25 species at nine different sites, including Grainger Woods in Lake County; Theodore Stone in Cook County; several high-quality prairies in Cook, DuPage, and McHenry Counties; and Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. POC assigned them to me because of my interest in and ability to ID many species of native orchids (there are more than 40 just in the Chicago region). But I monitor other plants besides orchids.

PHOTO: Kathy Garness leads a tour at Illinois Beach State Park.

Kathy Garness leads a tour at Illinois Beach State Park. Photo by Michael Rzepka, Forest Preserve District of Will County

Volunteering for POC differs from most other volunteering positions I’ve held [at the Art Institute and the Field Museum] because there is a lot of independence, and also much more technical training. This citizen science is vital to the sites’ ecologists—most agencies don’t have enough funding to pay staff to collect the valuable, detailed information we do. Volunteers also are highly accountable, and you need to be really sure about your species. That knowledge comes over years of participation, but even if someone just participates once, and goes out with a more experienced monitor, the information collected helps fill gaps in our understanding of our natural areas. And it’s way more fun than playing Pokémon, once you get the hang of it!

My advice for prospective volunteers is to go out first with more experienced monitors. Learn from them—they are better than a digital (or even paper) field guide. Clean your boots off carefully beforehand; don’t track any weed seeds into a high-quality remnant. Observe more than just the monitored plants—look for butterflies, listen for birds, notice the dragonflies and frog calls. Tread lightly and watch your step. Bring extra water and a snack. Use bug spray. Learn what poison ivy is but don’t be afraid of it—just don’t get it on your skin! No matter how hot it is, I wear long trousers, long sleeves, a broad-brimmed hat, and thin leather gloves. Never, ever, go out in the woods alone. Let people know where you are going and when you plan to return. Watch the weather signs. Keep your cell phone charged and with you at all times.

Above all, enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience!

Fay Liu 

Bachelor’s degree in agriculture technology/animal sciences from Utah State University; master’s degree in food science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Trained as a food-science researcher focusing on meat quality. Researched pork quality for a commercial pig farm/processing plant and a pig genetic company.

PHOTO: Fay Liu on a foray for Plants of Concern.

Fay Liu enjoys a foray. Photo by Plants of Concern

I have been volunteering with Plants of Concern since 2012. I am interested in nature and enjoying the outdoors, and this is a fantastic program for me. My family always spent time hiking and fishing on weekends. I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, where we had easy access to mountains and the ocean—unlike in the Midwest. We also had a container garden on top of our four-story building, and I helped to take care of the plants.

For POC I primarily volunteer at Openlands, which is about 20 minutes from my house. However, I have also volunteered farther away, south to Will County, east to the city of Chicago, and north to Zion.

Plants of Concern involves many aspects of science: identifying target plants and knowing the plants surrounding them, locating target populations, and using statistical methods to measure populations. For me, the most fun thing is learning new things each time I come out to the field. Maybe it’s a new plant that I have never seen before, or a new hiking route. The most frustrating times are when it’s hard to find the target plant because the population is low.

The advice I have for prospective volunteers is to keep your curiosity alive!

Karen Lustig

Bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; master’s degree in botany from the University of Minnesota. Has taught botany at Harper College since 1987.

PHOTO: Karen Lustig on the prowl for Plants of Concern.

Karen Lustig on the prowl for Plants of Concern

I have been interested in plants since I can remember. My father loved to hike, and my mother was a gardener. Instead of moving furniture around, my mother moved plants. We spent a lot of time outside.

I have volunteered with Plants of Concern since its beginning. I monitored white-fringed prairie orchids with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and many other plants with the Nature Conservancy even before then. I knew people (still do) at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I heard about the program from them, so it was sort of a transfer. I remember that when POC started, we worked in forest preserves. I understood why there was a desire to work in protected lands, but I said we needed to include other properties. And the program expanded beyond the preserves!

I actively monitor for POC at Illinois Beach State Park (IBSP) and also help out at Openlands when I have time. The forays are great fun. That’s my favorite thing: getting out there and being with other people and learning about new plants. At IBSP, visitors are expected to stay on the trail. Of course, most plants don’t grow right on it, but you can usually spot them. Once I was looking around for plants and saw this guy sort of thrashing around in the cattails. I reported him since he looked so bizarre out there, and it turns out he was a skipper [butterfly] expert taking samples for the Karner blue butterfly project. I met him later…a really nice guy, it turns out!

What makes Plants of Concern special is that it is so well run. The staff is quick on feedback and offers lots of help. The training programs are excellent. I’ve heard some terrific speakers, too. Other organizations sometimes don’t seem to have quite the staff or funding for their programs, which can make volunteering challenging. If I had to identify the biggest challenge as a POC volunteer, it would be the paperwork. With POC you can do the entry online, which helps. But filling out forms remains my least favorite thing to do…I just filled out a form [in August] for data collecting I did in May.

My advice to new Plants of Concern volunteers is to go to the workshops—even if you think you know the stuff. It’s amazing what you can learn. And when you first go out, it can be hard just to find the plants, even using a GPS, much less to know what to do when you find them. So go with experienced people!

Students at Harper College have volunteer workdays, and when mine return to the classroom after volunteering with POC groups, they always talk about how knowledgeable and interesting the volunteers are—and these are college environmental science students. It’s great that people can get together and share not just their knowledge but their enthusiasm through Plants of Concern.

poc-monitoring-flagsJoin the ranks of the dedicated people of Plants of Concern: volunteer today.

Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Reforestation from the Ground Up

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  August 3, 2016 — 1 Comment

Experts in reforestation are concerned with the reasons why some replanted sites struggle. They suspect the problem may be solved through soil science.

The health of a forest is rooted in soil and the diverse fungi living within it, according to researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Northwestern University, and collaborators at China’s Central South University of Forestry and Technology.

In densely populated places such as the Chicago area and Changsha, the capitol of the Hunan province, ongoing development and urban expansion frequently lead to the deforestation of native natural areas.

Collaborators tour a study site in China.

Research collaborators tour a study site in China.

“There has been a lot of deforestation in China and so there is interest in knowing how best to do reforestation, whether we’re using native plants or introduced plants in plantation settings,” explained Greg Mueller, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Garden. “Understanding who the players are both above ground and below ground helps us understand the health and sustainability of that above-ground plant community,” he added. “It’s analogous to restoration work being carried out here in the Midwest.” The climate, he explained, is similar in Changsha and Chicago.

A wide variety of fungi live in a symbiotic partnership with roots of trees everywhere. These fungi and trees are involved in a vital exchange of goods. The fungi deliver water and nutrients to the trees, and in return take sugars the trees produce during photosynthesis. Without this symbiotic relationship, the system would fail.

Not all tree species and fungi can team up for success, according to Dr. Mueller, who explained that it is essential for the partners to be correct if the tree is to survive. “The wrong fungi may actually be more pathogenic than beneficial,” he explained. Mueller is guiding research on this delicate soil-tree relationship as conducted by his doctoral student Chen Ning.

Ning is on leave from his position as a lecturer at Central South University of Forestry and Technology while he completes his studies with the Garden and Northwestern University. However, much of his work is taking place in China, where he has just completed the first phase of fieldwork.

After completing his master’s degree, Ning was keenly aware of the important role fungi play in the health of the natural world. He knew that he “wanted to ask some questions about the environment and how fungi influence the environment.” He added with a smile, “that’s why I chose to do some dirty work in the soil.”


Chen Ning stands behind Dr. Greg Mueller and collaborating professors.

The bright scientist is using the latest technology available, next-generation sequencing, to examine the molecular composition of soil samples taken from locations where native or nonnative trees or both were replanted 30 or 40 years ago. Specifically, he is looking at the replanting of Mason pines, a native Chinese pine, and slash pine (Pinus ellitottii), a nonnative pine introduced to China from the tropical state of Florida.

Ning recently completed his first review of those samples, finding large numbers of fungi in each. In addition, he found that the three different habitats have very different fungal communities.

Mueller and Ning visited the university and collaborators in Changsha in February. Mueller was able to visit the sites Ning sampled during the first phase of research and see the setup for the second phase of research in the greenhouses. The level of disturbance in the natural areas was extensive, a point of interest for Mueller who said, “that again makes it interesting to look at some ecological questions about disturbance and how that impacts these systems.” The team also had time to discuss the importance of considering fungi in related research initiatives.

PHOTO: Dr. Greg Mueller and Chinese collaborators.

Taking a break for a selfie and some sightseeing

Next up, Ning will examine his greenhouse plantings that use soils taken from his different field sites to determine if the fungi community changes in response to what type of tree is planted. When that is complete at the end of this summer, Ning will look at the enzyme activity in the soil to determine if fungi are functioning differently in the three different plantings (native forest, native tree in plantation, exotic tree in plantation). The study is on a fast track with a targeted completion date in late 2017 and is expected to add new understandings to the biology of plant-fungal relationships while generating important information on reforesting disturbed sites in south-central China.

After completing his Ph.D., Ning hopes to work as a professor to inspire students in China to pursue similar research. He also aspires to serve as a bridge between the United States and China for new research collaborations on topics such as climate change in order to help figure out the ‘big picture’ in the future.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

How Love and Science May Defend a Wild Orchid

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  February 18, 2016 — Leave a comment

Life on the prairie hasn’t been a breeze for the beautiful eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Once common across the Midwest and Canada, the enchanting wildflower caught the attention of collectors and was overharvested throughout the 1900s. At the same time, large portions of its wet prairie, sedge meadow, and wetland habitat were converted to agriculture. By 1989, just 20 percent of the original population of Platanthera leucophaea remained, and the orchid was added to the federally threatened species list.

PHOTO: Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

The struggles of the captivating orchid did not go unnoticed. Its lacey white flowers and unique biological attributes sparked a passion in scientists and volunteers across the Midwest who began gathering leaf samples for genetic analysis and recording measurements on the health of certain populations. Some volunteers dedicated decades to this work, and many continue to monitor their assigned location today.

As long ago as the mid 1800s, an earlier generation of the wildflower’s enthusiasts had preserved samples of actual plants, pressing them onto archival paper with their field notes and placing them in long-term storage facilities called herbaria, for future reference. As it turns out, some of the plant materials they saved are from populations that no longer exist.

Now, all of that data is coming together for the first time in a research study by graduate student Claire Ellwanger.

The master’s degree candidate—in a Plant Biology and Conservation graduate program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University—is using modern analysis tools to uncover the genetic history of the species. What she finds will give scientists a better picture of the present-day status of genetic diversity of the species, and insight into the best ways to manage it for the future.

PHOTO: Clarie Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

Claire Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

“This orchid is a pretty interesting species because there has been this massive volunteer effort for over 20 years to restore it in Illinois,” noted Ellwanger, who said that Illinois currently houses more populations, or locations, of the species than any other state.

She is focused on collecting and analyzing genetic information on the remaining plants, working with field collectors in the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio, and also from Maine. She is examining the genes, or DNA, of each of the sampled populations, along with genetic information she collected at eight sites right here in Illinois.

Ellwanger is also extracting DNA from the older herbarium samples to better understand how much genetic diversity was a part of the species in the past. “The herbarium samples will allow us to get a sense of historic genetic variation to compare to levels today,” she explained.

Along with her thesis advisor, Garden molecular ecologist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., she is especially interested in finding ways to maintain genetic diversity. “We know that if you are able to preserve the most genetic diversity in a species, it is more likely to persist for longer,” she explained.

PHOTO: Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

In the lab today with her research assistant, Laura Steger, she uses a genetic fingerprinting technique on all groups in her study subjects. By watching the same sequence of genes over time and locations, she can see clear patterns and any changes. The bonus to it all is that “understanding more about these plants and their genetic variation will be pretty applicable to other species that have undergone the same processes,” she noted.

As scientists and volunteers worked in the field over the last several decades, they did more than collect genetic information. They also took steps to boost new seed production by hand pollinating plants or conducting a form of seed dispersal. Through her study, Ellwanger is also tracking the success of each technique. “I’ll be able to complete a genetic comparison over time to see if these recovery goals are achieving what they set out to do,” she said, by comparing the genetic composition of a given population from the recent past to today.

PHOTO: A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds

A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds.

At sites Ellwanger visited personally, she collected seeds as well, and brought them back to the lab for examination. There, looking under a compound light microscope, she checked to see what percentage of seed embryos from the sites were plump and therefore viable. Her findings offer an additional perspective on what her genetic analysis will show. After examination, the seeds were returned to their field location.

In early analysis results, “it looks like reproductive fitness does differ between sites so it will be really interesting to see if those sites that have lower reproductive fitness also have higher levels of inbreeding,” noted Ellwanger. Inbreeding, the mating of closely related individuals, can result in reduced biological fitness in the population of plants. In such cases, it could be helpful to bring in pollen or seed from other populations to minimize mating with close relatives and strengthen populations for future generations.

PHOTO: Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

The eastern prairie fringed orchid will soon be better understood than ever before. The findings of the study may also provide insight into other problems that may be happening in the prairies where they live. “Orchids will be some of the first organisms to disappear once a habitat starts to be degraded. If we can better understand what’s going on with this plant it, could help out similar species,” said Ellwanger.

The researcher is looking forward to the impact this work could have on the future of the plant and the habitat that sustains it. “What motivates me about research is definitely the conservation implications,” said Ellwanger, who developed her love of conservation while growing up on the East Coast and learning about the complex systems that play a role in the health of the environment.

Read more about orchid research at the Garden, and don’t forget to visit the Orchid Show, open through March 13, 2016.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

A Search for Rare Oak Species Yields Results

Plant Collecting Collaborative visits Southeastern United States

Andrew Bunting —  January 21, 2016 — 2 Comments

On October 25 last year, I met Matt Lobdell, curator at the Morton Arboretum, in Orange Beach, Alabama, to begin a ten-day plant expedition trip to Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. 

Matt Lobdell had received a grant from the American Public Gardens Association and the U.S. Forest Service in the spring to collect seed of Quercus oglethorpensis from as many genetic populations as possible, so that the breadth of this species could be preserved in ex-situ collections in botanic gardens and arboreta. This expedition was an opportunity to collect this species and other important oak species, as well as other species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that could be added to our collections.

We were targeting the collection of four oaks with conservation status: Oglethorpe oak (Quercus oglethorpensis), Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana), Boynton sand post oak (Quercus boyntonii), and Arkansas oak (Quercus arkansana). All four of these oaks are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which identifies plants that have important conservation status. (Quercus georgiana and Q. oglethorpensis are listed as endangered.)

PHOTO: Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum and Greg Paige at Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum make an herbarium voucher of Quercus boyntonii.

Any successful plant expedition is the result of a very collaborative effort. Because we are often looking for hard-to-find species, we rely on local experts. For different parts of the trip we had guidance from Mike Gibson of Huntsville Botanical Garden; John Jensen and Tom Patrick at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Brian Keener at the University of Western Alabama, assisted by Wayne K. Webb at Superior Trees; Fred Spicer, CEO of Birmingham Botanical Gardens; and Patrick Thompson of Davis Arboretum at Auburn University.

We were also joined by other institutions that helped with both the collection of seed and the associated data, but also helped with the collecting of two herbarium vouchers for each collection (pressed specimens), which are now housed in the herbaria at the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden respectively. Assistance was provided by Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum; Amy Highland and Cat Meholic of Mt. Cuba Center; Ethan Kauffman of Moore Farms Botanical Garden; and Greg Paige from Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory and Arboretum.

Our expedition begins

On October 26, we collected at Gulf State Park in pelting rain and very high winds that resulted from the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, which had made landfall near Puerto Vallarta days earlier. Nevertheless, we found several small, windswept oaks in this sandy habitat, including Q. myrtifolia, Q. minima, Q. geminata, and Q. chapmanii.

PHOTO: Talladega National Forest

Talladega National Forest

The next day, we moved north to the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama. In addition to collecting more oaks, we made collections of the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Euonymus americanus, and the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). We also saw fantastic specimens of the big-leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but we were too late to find any viable seed.

PHOTO: Quercus boyntonii

Quercus boyntonii

Fred Spicer, CEO of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, joined us the next day, October 28, to take us to several populations of Q. boyntonii, where we were able to make collections for six different populations. He also took us to Moss Rock Preserve in Jefferson County, where we made collections of the Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana). We also made a collection of the Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera).

On October 30, we spent the day in Sumter County, Alabama, with Brian Keener, where we encountered Quercus arkansana, Dalea purpurea, Viburnum rufidulum, and Liatris aspera.

On October 31, we botanized in Blount County, Alabama, at Swann Bridge. Below the bridge was a small river, where we saw an array of interesting plants including the yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima); hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana); a small St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum); and a native stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron), in which we were able to find a few seeds. From there we continued on to the Bibb County Glades and collected Silphium glutinosum and Hypericum densiflorum.

PHOTO: Bibb County Glades

Bibb County Glades

PHOTO: Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

Moss Rock Preserve at the habitat of Quercus georgiana

On the following day, we made another collection of Quercus boyntonii in St. Clair Country and then headed to the Little River Canyon in Cherokee County. This was a rich area filled with native vegetation of many popular plants including the maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), with its wine-red fall color; both the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); the winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), and the Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Interestingly, many of these Alabama natives are perfectly hardy in the Chicago area.

Toward the end of the trip, we headed into Jasper County, Georgia, and met up with John Jensen and Tom Patrick of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who helped us find populations of Quercus oglethorpensis. In Taylor County, we collected several oaks, including Q. margarettae, Q. incana, and Q. laevis.

We finished the expedition in Sumter National Forest in McCormick County, South Carolina. This was the final collecting site for Q. oglethorpensis, which was cohabiting with Baptisia bracteata and Q. durandii.

PHOTO: Little River Canyon

Little River Canyon

PHOTO: Quercus ogelthorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

Quercus oglethorpensis seedlings in Jasper Country, Georgia

An expedition’s rewards

In total, we made 92 collections of seed and herbarium vouchers. The seed is being grown at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Most likely, plants will not be ready for distribution until 2017 and most likely would not be planted into the Garden’s collections until 2018 at the earliest.

In spring 2016, Northwestern University graduate student Jordan Wood will retrace some of our steps in search of leaf samples of Q. oglethorpensis so he can study the DNA and fully understand the genetic breadth of this species throughout its native range from Louisiana to South Carolina.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and