Archives For plant science

The number of women in science is pretty dismal. Despite earning about half the doctorates in science, only 21 percent of full science professors in the United States are women,* but I feel very fortunate to work at an institution committed to inclusiveness and diversity. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, 25 of our 47 scientific staff are women; our graduate student body is 61 percent female. 

Still, implicit gender biases persist in science, resulting in fewer women in top positions, along with women earning less pay, winning fewer grants, and publishing fewer papers. This comes at a time when we are faced with numerous grand challenges in science and need a diversity of approaches to tackle those challenges.

In the Chicago Botanic Garden’s science program, we are conducting research on how human activities are affecting plants through climate change, habitat fragmentation, introduction of invasive species, pollinator loss, pollution, and more. These threats to plants are unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future, and we are finding ways to conserve plants in changing and challenging environments. We are working hard to protect the plants and plant communities upon which we all depend. We are also working hard to create a pipeline into science for all—especially traditionally under-represented groups—through our Science Career Continuum, because diversity of plants and diversity of scientists are both good things.

Krissa Skogen studying hawkmoth pollination with Victoria Luizzi (Amherst College Student, NSF REU Student, Summer 2016), Emily Lewis (research assistant), Andrea Gruver (research assistant), Tania Jogesh (postdoc), and Kat Andrews (PBC M.S. student).

Left to right: Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., is studying hawkmoth pollination with Victoria Luizzi (Amherst College Student, NSF REU Student, Summer 2016), Emily Lewis (research assistant), Andrea Gruver (research assistant), Tania Jogesh (postdoc), and Kat Andrews (PBC M.S. student). Dr. Skogen is a conservation scientist and manager of the Conservation and Land Management Internship Program.

Meet some of our women scientists:

Lauren Umek studies how invasive species change plant communities and soil properties in the Chicago region and how this can improve restoration methods.

Lauren Umek studies how invasive species change plant communities and soil properties in the Chicago region and how this can improve restoration methods.

Nyree Zerega studies evolution/genomics in underutilized tropical fruit trees and their wild relatives to promote and conserve food diversity.

Nyree Zerega studies evolution/genomics in underutilized tropical fruit trees and their wild relatives to promote and conserve food diversity.

Botanist, seed conservationist and geographer Emily Yates has conserved thousands of seeds to protect the native tallgrass prairie ecosystem of the American Midwest.

Botanist, seed conservationist, and geographer Emily Yates has conserved thousands of seeds to protect the native tallgrass prairie ecosystem of the Midwest.

Ph.D. student Colby Witherup uses computers to study plant DNA, looking for signs of evolution in genes that control sexual reproduction.

Ph.D. candidate Colby Witherup studies plant DNA, looking for signs of evolution in genes that control sexual reproduction.

Evelyn Williams Ph.D. (left, with Adrienne Basey) traveled to Guadalupe Nation Park in Texas to study the shrub Burgess' Scalebroom.

Evelyn Williams, Ph.D., (left, with Adrienne Basey) traveled to Guadalupe Nation Park in Texas to study the shrub Burgess’ scalebroom.

Amy Waananen studies populations of Echinacea angustifolia in Western Minnesota as a research assistant for The Echinacea Project, a long-term ecological study that began in 1995.

Amy Waananen studies populations of purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) in western Minnesota as a research assistant for The Echinacea Project, a long-term ecological study that began in 1995.

Mary Patterson studies restoration, invasive species, and fire ecology with a focus in the Western United States.

Mary Patterson studies restoration, invasive species, and fire ecology with a focus in the Western United States.

Joan O'Shaughnessy manages the Dixon Prairie at the Garden.

Joan O’Shaughnessy manages the Dixon Prairie at the Garden.

Kelly Ksiazek-Mikenas studies how green roofs can provide habitat for native plant species.

Kelly Ksiazek-Mikenas studies how green roofs can provide habitat for native plant species.

Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., conducts research on native plants to support ecological restoration that sustains people, wildlife, and the planet.

Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., conducts research on native plants to support ecological restoration that sustains people, wildlife, and the planet.

Rachel Goad is a botanist with a background in restoration ecology and a keen interest in native plant conservation.

Rachel Goad (far right) is a botanist with a background in restoration ecology and a keen interest in native plant conservation.

Louise Egerton-Warburton's work examines soil fungal diversity and functioning and its role in ecosystem processes.

Louise Egerton-Warburton, Ph.D., does work examining soil fungal diversity and functioning and its role in ecosystem processes.

Research assistant Susan Deans uses neutral genetic markers to examine how well gardens and conservation collections capture the remaining wild genetic diversity of threatened Hawaiian plant species.

Research assistant Susan Deans uses neutral genetic markers to examine how well gardens and conservation collections capture the remaining wild genetic diversity of threatened Hawaiian plant species.

Ph. D. student Becky Barak studies plant diversity in restored tallgrass prairies.

Ph.D. candidate Becky Barak studies plant diversity in restored tallgrass prairies.

Kay Havens studies rare plant conservation, restoration, pollination and plant responses to climate change.

Kay Havens, Ph.D., studies rare plant conservation, restoration, pollination and plant responses to climate change.


*From Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap, by Helen Shan, 06 March 2013, nature.com

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org


PHOTO: Becky Barak.Becky Barak is a Ph.D. candidate in Plant Biology and Conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University. She studies plant biodiversity in restored prairies, and tweets about ecology, prairies, and her favorite plants at @BeckSamBar.


A dark, stinky plume of smoke rising from a nature preserve might be alarming. But fire is what makes a prairie a prairie.

A prairie is a type of natural habitat, like a forest, but forests are dominated by trees, and prairies by grasses. If you’re used to the neatly trimmed grass of a soccer field, you may not even recognize the grasses of the prairie. They can get so tall a person can get lost.

Prairies are maintained by fire; without it, they would turn into forests. Any chunky acorn or winged maple seed dropping into a prairie could grow into a giant tree, but they generally don’t because prairies are burned every few years. In fact, fossilized pollen and charcoal remains from ancient sediments show that fire, started by lightning and/or people, has maintained the prairies of Illinois for at least 10,000 years. Today, restoration managers (with back up from the local fire department), are the ones protecting the prairie by setting it aflame.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden ecologist Joah O'Shaughnessy monitors a prairie burn.

Garden ecologist Joan O’Shaughnessy monitors a spring burn of the Dixon Prairie.

PHOTO: New growth after a prairie burn.

New growth emerges a scant month after the prairie burn.

Prairie plants survive these periodic fires because they have incredibly deep roots. These roots send up new shoots after fire chars the old ones. Burning also promotes seed germination of some tough-seeded species, and helps keep weeds at bay by giving all plants a fresh start.

Read more about our conservation and restoration projects on the Chicago Botanic Garden website. Want to get involved in our local ecosystem conservation? Find your opportunity with Chicago Wilderness.


Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This is our third installment of their exploration.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

PHOTO: Alicia Foxx.Alicia Foxx is a second-year Ph.D., student in the joint program in Plant Biology and Conservation between Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on restoration of native plants in the Colorado Plateau, where invasive plants are present. Specifically, she studies how we can understand the root traits of these native plants, how those traits impact competition, and whether plant neighbors can remain together in the plant community at hand.


Life for plants on land is hard because the environment can become dry. Water is important because it is used when plants take in sunlight and carbon dioxide to make energy; this is called photosynthesis. In fact, the largest object in a plant cell is a sack that holds water. Without water, plants would die.

Plants first evolved in water, which is a comfortable place: there is little friction, you almost feel weightless, and…there was plenty of water back then. These plants had no difficulty photosynthesizing, as water diffused quite easily into their leaf cells! They had little use for roots.

Evolving Plant Structures

In the time plants evolved to live on land (100 million years later), water shortages and the need to be anchored in place became issues and restricted plants to living near bodies of water. Some plants evolved root-like structures that were mostly for anchoring a plant in place, but also took in some water.  

It wasn’t until an additional 50 million years after the move on to land that true roots evolved, and these are very effective at getting the resources essential for photosynthesis and survival. In fact, the evolution of true roots 400 million years ago is associated with the worldwide reductions in carbon dioxide, since more resources could be gathered by roots for photosynthesis. Importantly, plants were no longer tied to bodies of water!

PHOTO: tree roots.

Large roots anchor a plant in place.

PHOTO: bulb with tiny bulblets and root hairs.

Tiny root hairs on a bulb take up nutrients when moisture is present.

Water issues continued, however, even with true roots. Early roots were very thick and could not efficiently search through the soil for resources. So plants either evolved thinner roots, or formed beneficial associations with very tiny fungi (called mycorrhizal fungi) that live in the soil. These fungi create very thin, root-like structures that allow for more effective resource uptake. In general, while life on land is hard, plants have evolved ways to cope via their roots.

Garden scientists are studying the relationships between plants and mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Orchids are masters of nutrient collection. The vanilla orchid has terrestrial (in soil) and epiphytic (above ground, or air) roots—and forms relationships with fungi for nutrient collection. Read more about research on Vanilla planifolia here


Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This is our second installment of their exploration.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. Each week this spring, we’ll publish some of the results.

These brief explanations cover the topics of seed dormancy and germination, the role of fire in maintaining prairies, the evolution of roots, the Janzen-Connell model of tropical forest diversity, and more. Join us the next several weeks to see how our students met this challenge, and learn a bit of plant science too.


PHOTO: Alexandra Seglias at work in the field.Alexandra Seglias is a second-year master’s student in the Plant Biology and Conservation program at Northwestern University/The Chicago Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on the relationship between climate and dormancy and germination of Colorado Plateau native forb species. She hopes that the results of her research will help inform seed sourcing decisions in restoration projects.


PHOTO: A tiny oak sprouting from an acorn.

A tiny oak emerges from an acorn. Photo by Amphis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Dormancy and Germination

The seed is an essential life stage of a plant. Without seeds, flowers and trees would not exist. However, a seed doesn’t always live a nice, cozy life in the soil, and go on to produce a mature, healthy plant. Similar to Goldilocks, the conditions for growth of a seed should be “just right.” The charismatic acorn is just one type of seed, but it can be used here as an example. Mature acorns fall from the branches of a majestic oak and land on the ground below the mother tree. A thrifty squirrel may harvest one of these acorns and stash it away for safekeeping to eat as a snack at a later time. The squirrel, scatterbrained as he is, forgets many of his secret hiding places for his nuts, and the acorn has a chance at life. But it’s not quite smooth sailing from here for that little acorn.

Imagine trying to be your most productive in extreme drought, or during a blizzard. It would be impossible! Just as we have trouble in such inhospitable conditions, a seed also finds difficulty in remaining active, and as a result, it essentially goes into hibernation until conditions for growth are more suitable. Think of a bear going into hibernation as a way to explore seed dormancy. The acorn cozies up in the soil similar to the way a bear crawls into her den in the snowy winter and goes to sleep until spring comes along. As the snow melts, the bear stretches out her sore limbs and makes her way out into the bright world. The acorn feels just as good when that warmer weather comes about, and it too stretches. But rather than limbs, it stretches its fragile root out into the soil and begins the process of germination. This process allows the seed to develop into a tiny seedling — and perhaps eventually grow into a beautiful, magnificent oak tree.

Our scientists are studying seed germination in a changing climate. Learn how you can help efforts to help match plants to a changing ecosystem with the National Seed Strategy


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spike’s Teachable Moment

What was happening with Spike? Our scientists investigate.

Karen Z. —  August 30, 2015 — 6 Comments

What an amazing plant science moment occurred in the Semitropical Greenhouse this morning, as a fascinated crowd gathered to see what was happening with Spike, the titan arum.

On Saturday, it was determined that Spike had run out of the energy it needed to continue its bloom cycle. Spike is powered by energy from the sun, stored in its beach-ball-sized corm—a tuber-like underground structure. A tremendous amount of energy goes into producing the single, giant flower structure that a titan can send up in its first decade or so of life (Spike is about 12 years old).

Overheard: “I wish my biology teacher was here.”

As this week’s expected bloom time passed, our science and horticultural staff went into action. Spike wasn’t dying—but the flower structure had stopped maturing, and the spathe did not open. On Friday, Dr. Shannon Still, conservation scientist, and Tim Pollak, the floriculturist who had raised Spike from a seed, peeked inside the frilly spathe to check for pollen.

“If there had been pollen, it would have been all over my hand,” Still said. Pollen’s absence meant that the male and female flowers might not be fully developed. The possibility remained that pollen might still develop, even though the spathe would not open—and THAT led to the decision to remove the “frozen” spathe to see what was happening with the real flowers inside.

Overheard: “We were watching it every day. Every 20 minutes or so.”

First, Still assembled a working kit: scalpel, probes, test tubes, paintbrushes and a “scoopula” (to collect pollen).

At 10 a.m. today, staff gathered for the delicate procedure. Pollak and Still fist bumped…and the operation began. 

As Still began cutting just above the peduncle (stalk), the crowd grew quiet. Dr. Pat Herendeen, senior director, Systematics and Evolutionary Biology, narrated for the crowd. As the spathe started to come away from the towering spadix, the internal color started to be visible.

Left: a cross-section of the spathe reveals the cell structure inside. Right: close-up on the hundreds of male (top) and female (bottom) flowers inside Spike's spathe.

Left: A cross-section of the spathe reveals the cell structure inside. Right: A close-up of the hundreds of male (top) and female (bottom) flowers inside Spike’s spathe.

“The spathe feels a bit like cabbage leaves, with a rubbery texture,” Herendeen said. “The color inside varies from one plant to another in nature. It is dark maroon, the color of rotting meat, which is meant to attract the flies and beetles that are the plant’s natural pollinators.”

Pollak held the spathe steady as Still continued to free it from the stalk. With one last cut, it came free—and the crowd gasped as the inside of the spathe was unfurled and the true flowers at the base of the spadix were revealed—pale rows of bumpy-looking male flowers atop a strip of orange and brown female flowers.

Tim Pollak and Shannon Still make the first cut.

Left: Tim Pollak and Shannon Still make the first cut. Right: Tim Pollak reveals the spathe’s ravishing color.

Herendeen answered as questions flew: The male flowers do not appear to have produced pollen yet. Spike’s fabled scent is only detectable very close up to the spathe—much less apparent than it was earlier in the week.

Cameras focused in on the flower structure, as Still and Pollak carried the two large pieces of the cut-away spathe over to the crowd. Hands reached out for a touch; noses leaned in for a sniff. Spike’s spathe was set out on a gallery table so that everyone could touch and admire it before it begins to wilt.

Overheard: “Spike was the topic of dinner conversation with our two sons every night for the past week.”

While television camera crews stepped in for close-ups on the plant’s flowers, interviewers questioned the scientists: Where does the scent come from? (It’s believed that the tall appendix helps produce the scent, though scientists are also investigating the female flowers themselves.) Would Spike bloom again? (Probably, but the corm would have to recover first, by sending up an annual leaf for a few years to gather more energy.)

Cross-legged on the floor opposite Spike sat Chicago artist Heeyoung Kim, who sketched intently during the entire process. Her intricate pencil markings captured Spike’s pleats and tightly clustered flowers—the beginnings of a botanical illustration that could inform future scientists studying the titan arum’s beautiful structure for years to come.

We have been so thrilled with the intensity of interest in Spike—it’s not every day that crowds gather to watch a plant grow! We’ll continue to keep you posted about possible pollen development, our scientists’ thoughts about Spike’s arrested development, and on the progress of the eight other titan arums now growing in our production greenhouses. 

Left: what a great vibe! Right: Kris Jarantoski explains Spike's spathe to a young visitor.

Left: What a great vibe from the gathered crowd! Right: Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director, explains Spike’s spathe to a young visitor.

For more information please visit our titan arum page.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org