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Unfolding the Mysteries of the Ravines

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  March 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

Standing guard along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the ravines are a naturally engineered filtration system from land to water.

Curving up from the flat lands of Illinois and arching alongside the coast into Wisconsin, their hills and valleys are filled with an abundance of foliage, plants, and animal life unlike any other ecosystem in the Chicago Wilderness region. Among other benefits, they help to filter rainwater. Rare plants, migratory birds, remnant woodlands, and fish are a part of this shadowed world that has long been entrenched in mystery for local residents and scientists alike.

As urbanization, erosion, increasingly intense weather events, and invasive plants begin to peel away at the perimeter of the ravines, it has become increasingly urgent for us to unwrap those mysteries and help protect the system that has long protected us.

New volunteers are welcome to dig in this spring and summer. Register to begin by attending a new volunteer workshop.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Volunteers and staff sample vegetation along a bluff transect at Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

“The ravines are one of Illinois’s last natural drainage systems to the lake,” said Rachel Goad, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. “They are delicate landscapes. It can be challenging to get in to them. It can be challenging to move around on the steep slopes.” Those challenges have not deterred Goad and a team of citizen scientists from digging in to look for solutions.

For 15 years, the many contributors to Plants of Concern have been collecting data in the ravines, with a particular focus on the rare plant species that can be found there. The data, now quite valuable due to its longevity, is a treasure chest for land managers and others who are trying to better understand the system and how to save it.

Goad and her team are now in the final stages of testing a vegetation assessment connected to a virtual field guide for the ravines. She hopes it will be completed by the end of this year. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for ravine restoration and management long term. The plant-focused sampling method, called a rapid assessment, is the third piece of a larger ravine-management toolkit that includes a way to evaluate erosion and stream invertebrates considered to be indicator species. The toolkit has been assembled by Plants of Concern and partner organizations in recent years.

“The idea is that a land manager or landowner could pull these tools off of the Internet—there would be data sheets and an explanation for how to use them, and these resources would provide a practical, tangible way for people to better understand the ravines,” explained Goad. She and her volunteers will test the protocol this summer, as they meander through the ravines with their notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment in hand. What they learn could benefit managers trying to determine whether to focus on vegetation management or restoring the stability of a ravine, for example. The toolkit, according to Goad, “is complementary to restoration and understanding these plant communities.”

The data, however, is only one piece of the solution. Goad believes the connections people make when monitoring the ravines are what will impress upon them the significance and urgency of the issue. Her goals are to create connections between people and their local natural communities, and to engage a more diverse representation of volunteers in the program.

“What Plants of Concern is doing is engaging local citizens, introducing them to ravines, and getting them interested in what’s happening in these mysterious V-shaped valleys around them,” said Goad.

In all, Plants of Concern monitors 288 species across 1170 populations in 15 counties, covering 13 habitat types.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Rachel Goad monitors rare plants in a ravine.

Goad hopes that by growing connections between these ravines and those who live nearby, she can increase the chances that this system will continue to protect rare plant species and one of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. As a recent recipient of a Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship, administered by Audubon, Goad is intent on better understanding how to build such connections.

“We are working to make connections between monitoring and stewardship,” she said. “Monitoring can be a transformative experience.” Once a volunteer is in the field, navigating the terrain and gaining familiarity, they learn to see existing threats, such as encroachment by invasive species. Documenting these threats is important, but can feel disempowering if they’re not being addressed. Goad wants to show volunteers that there is something that can be done about the problems they encounter, and build a proactive understanding of conservation. “I believe in citizen science, which is the idea that anybody can do science and get involved in research,” she said.

Goad stepped in as manager of Plants of Concern just last year, after earning her master’s degree. It was like returning home in some ways, as she had previously helped to manage natural areas at the Garden.

In part because of that initial experience, “I knew I wanted to work in plant conservation,” she said. “It felt pretty perfect to get to come back and work with Plants of Concern. It’s an amazing experience to live in Chicago and to be able to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas in the region.”

Early spring ephemerals in bloom on a ravine bluff.

Early spring ephemerals bloom on a ravine bluff.

Plants of Concern has been a mainstay at the Garden for 15 years, dispatching committed volunteers to the ravines and other key locations across the Chicago Wilderness region to monitor and collect data on endangered, threatened, and rare species. The mounting data collected by the program is often used as baseline information for shifting or struggling species, and is shared with land managers. Through special projects, such as with one of the Garden’s recent REU interns, they have also contributed to habitat suitability modeling for rare species.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Tonight’s Tomato Sauce

A recipe just in time for Heirloom Tomato Weekend

Karen Z. —  August 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

tomatoes on the vineWhen Larry Aronson stepped in to substitute for a scheduled chef during a recent Garden Chef Series demonstration, the long-time Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer brought three important things with him:

  1. His chef son, Richard, who helped demonstrate alongside his dad.
  2. Decades of cooking and restaurant experience as the owner of My π Pizza Unique Pizza in the Pan.
  3. An awesome tomato sauce recipe that he had developed especially for the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden’s Heirloom Tomato Weekend.

Aronson knows tomatoes, and he knows that many of us are just starting to pick the first ripe tomatoes from the vine. (Cooler nights have delayed ripening.) What can a gardener do with just a few tomatoes from each plant, instead of a bushel full?

Make this sauce.

tomato_sauceThe flavorful sauce was a hit at the chef demonstration that day, and it was a hit with the volunteers and staff who got to sample it at a follow-up luncheon. At the latter, Aronson also served the “winter” version of his sauce—same recipe, but made with canned tomatoes instead of fresh. Both were tasty, in different ways: the “summer” version was light, bright, and refreshing; the “winter” sauce was thicker, richer, and heartier. 

Aronson will have copies of his recipe on hand and will be talking tomatoes when he volunteers at Heirloom Tomato Weekend this Saturday and Sunday (11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day). Stop by to talk tomatoes—and recipes!

We’re happy to share the recipe here, too—just in case you need it for tonight’s tomato sauce.

Click here to download a PDF of Larry Aronson’s marinara recipe.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Five Unexpected Things to Learn in Master Gardener Training

The new session is underway!

Karen Z. —  February 15, 2013 — 1 Comment

It’s snowy outdoors at the Chicago Botanic Garden. But serious gardening is underway indoors, where master gardener training has begun.

The Garden’s Plant Information Service help desk typically recruits 20 new master gardener interns from each biannual training session. Master gardeners answer your questions!

Every two years, the Garden becomes a teaching site for the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener program. This year, the ten-week course, which started January 16, saw a record number of students enroll in on-site (93) and online (31 — triple the number of screen users as last session) classrooms.

What are those 124 folks up to so far? They’ve finished sessions in topics including botany, soils & fertilizers, and woody plants. (Herbaceous plants, vegetables, fruits, turf, plant pathology, insects, and IPM/pesticide safety are up next.) They’re learning skills which are key to the program, including how to be a volunteer community educator — the true definition of a master gardener.

Lessons learned along the way include:

1. You don’t have to know everything.  Yes, master gardener training is a crash course with lots of information coming at you fast. And, yes, there’s a test after every week’s session (it’s open-book, and you can take it at home). The real skill is to learn about the resources with the answers to the questions you’ll be fielding as a volunteer.  As one instructor puts it, “there are two kinds of knowledge: what you already know, and what you know you can find the answer to.” The master gardener program teaches both.

Soil Class_rjc4600

Students learn to identify soil samples.

2. The educators bring some interesting stuff to class. While class is lecture-based, there are plenty of PowerPoint visuals to help you picture what you’ll encounter out in the Garden. In the Soils & Fertilizers class on January 23, instructor Ellen Phillips brought soil samples, and explained soil porosity with the aid of…sponges!

3. You learn from everyone in class. Most classes have a Q & A session, and that’s when things can really get interesting. The real-life questions that fellow master gardener trainees bring up in class are the same questions you’ll be asked by the public. Many an “after-school” conversation, and many a gardening friendship, have begun from a question asked in class.

4. You identify your real interests. Are you a natural teacher? A community organizer at heart? Or a home gardener with decades of skills to share? After successfully finishing the course, master gardener trainees head out to master gardener internships, with lots of opportunities to find a volunteer situation that truly fits their interests.

Master Gardeners answer gardening questions at the Plant Information Service.

Master gardeners answer gardening questions via Plant Information Service.

5. You realize that this is a special program. Started in Illinois back in 1975, the master gardener program began as an aid to agricultural extension officers who needed to be out in the field helping farmers, but also needed volunteers to run the office and answer day-to-day questions from the community. (It still functions that way in some rural counties.) Today, the program is a shining example of public education at work, as university/research-based knowledge gets passed on from master gardener instructors to master gardener trainees to the public, in communities all over the state.

Although the next on-site master gardener session won’t start at the Garden until 2015, we offer the course every year online! There are also different University of Illinois county extension offices that offer the program each year. Think about your schedule, talk to our Plant Information Service volunteer master gardeners, and do some research about the program on our website. See you at the next master gardener training!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

PHOTO: Fall cabbageFall is a great time of year to challenge yourself to compose images that include complementary color relationships. Wet surfaces make colors more vibrant. Stone and masonry take on rich tones and show more color variation than when they are dry. This photo by volunteer Bill Bishoff was taken during a light rain. Notice how the bricks appear with a vibrant rosy surface that otherwise would appear pale.

This image also takes advantage of complementary colors to make the subject pop. Complementary colors appear opposite one another on the color wheel— blue/orange, red/green, and purple/yellow. Together, complementary colors appear brighter. In this image, Bill includes two complementary pairs—purple/yellow and red/green.

PHOTO: Photographer Bill Bishoff, keeping his camera dry.It is important to make sure you and your equipment are protected from the rain. You don’t need anything more complicated than a plastic bag and a handkerchief. Poke a hole in one end of the plastic bag for your lens, and peek in the other side when you are ready to take a picture. The handkerchief helps to dry off any raindrops that fall on your lens. If you use a UV filter on the end of your lens, you can safely wipe it dry it without worry of scratching the lens. If any damage occurs, you need only replace the filter, not the lens. 

Keeping yourself dry is also a good idea. If you are caught without an umbrella, there are plenty of dry vantage points around the Garden. You could appreciate the vistas from the comfort of McGinley Pavilion, or enjoy the solitude of McDonald Woods from the woods shelter.

During fall, sunny days can become scarce, but an overcast or rainy day can also be a great photo opportunity.

Join us on the first Saturday of every month for a photo walk in the Garden. We’ll cover a different subject each month and take some photos together.


Ray Wilke leads this tour of the Shoin House, located in the Malott Japanese Garden, or Sansho-En. Both the house and the garden were designed by Koichi Kawana. Visit for more information on the Malott Japanese Garden.