News from Conservation and Land Management Interns

CLM interns in the field

The hiring process for the 2013 Conservation and Land Management (CLM) Internship Program is nearly complete, and newly hired interns are just beginning their experiences in unique locations across the western U.S.!

Sclerocactus glaucus, endemic species of western Colorado, in bloom (Photo ©Peter Gordon)

Since 2001, the Chicago Botanic Garden and many federal agencies (Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, and U.S. Geological Survey to name a few) have combined their strengths to train more than 700 college graduates through the CLM program, primarily in 13 western states. These internships involve work in botany and wildlife-related fields, or combinations that may include monitoring or assessing threatened and endangered species and habitats. As 2013 CLM interns begin a new journey, many of last year’s interns are finishing up, and still others continue their internship experiences into spring. Three interns recently shared their thoughts and experiences on the CLM blog:

  • Lauren Stevens worked in Phoenix, Arizona, and reflects on her time there with a poem.
  • Carson Moscoso just started his internship in Las Vegas, Nevada, and explains the excitement of upcoming fieldwork.
  • Darnisha Coverson, an intern in Lakewood, Colorado, tells about the duties of an intern during the winter months.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Welcome, Daffodils

PHOTO: Narcissus 'Mondragon'
Narcissus ‘Mondragon’

Is there any more welcome sight than daffodils blooming in the spring? Not to me! I’m thrilled by the sight of these flowers, their colors ranging from the most vivid yellows and oranges to muted pastels to pure white.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, daffodils so captivated the poet William Wordsworth that he wrote “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” a poem celebrating their ability to lift the spirit.

“…A host, of golden daffodils;
 Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
 Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…”

“…The waves beside them danced; but they
 Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
 A poet could not but be gay,
 In such a jocund company…”

Also enchanted by the flower, the prophet Mohammed reportedly said, “Let him who hath two loaves sell one, and buy the flower of narcissus: for bread is but food for the body, whereas narcissus is food for the soul.”

During the Victorian era, when flowers were selected carefully for their meanings, daffodils conveyed a number of messages, such as friendship, chivalry, and respect. Depending on the context, a daffodil could also signal unrequited love or misfortune. The last two interpretations stem (so to speak) from the plant’s genus name, Narcissus, with its connection to Greek mythology. Most people are familiar with the story of handsome Narcissus, who spurned the affections of the wood nymph Echo and thereby irritated Nemesis, the goddess of revenge; Nemesis doomed Narcissus to becoming so obsessed with his looks that he faded away, reborn as a flower that sprang up beside the pool where he gazed himself into oblivion.

Narcissus (c. 1599), by Caravaggio (1573–1610)
Narcissus (c. 1599), by Caravaggio (1573–1610)
PHOTO: Narcissus 'Dutch Master'
Narcissus ‘Dutch Master’

When Wordsworth came upon “A host, of golden daffodils” he marveled, “Ten thousand, saw I, at a glance.” Were the poet to time-travel forward to the twenty-first century and emerge here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, he would no doubt be amazed for many reasons, not the least of which would be the sight of more than 500,000 daffodils. There are 90,000 daffodils on the North Lake’s Bird Island alone, and thousands of others massed on Evening Island and within the Lakeside, Crescent, and Bulb Gardens, among other places. Daffodils are a bright and hopeful beacon of spring, and at the Garden, visitors of all ages, interests, abilities (and centuries) can enjoy 230 varieties of them in all of their forms: trumpet, large-cupped, small-cupped, double, triandus, clyclamineus, jonquilla, and tazetta.

PHOTO: The Daffodils on Bird Island
Thousands of Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ and other cultivars adorn Bird Island in spring.

Visit the Midwest Daffodil Society Show, April 27 – 28, for more eye-popping cultivars.

Wander the Garden’s beauty this spring, and keep your favorite Narcissus in your heart. Then, plan for fall and our annual Fall Bulb Festival. Next spring, your landscape will come alive with daffodils, and your heart—like Wordsworth’s—will fill with pleasure at their beauty.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Time to Uncover the Rose Garden

Who doesn’t love a warm winter blanket? With unseasonably cold temperatures continuing into early April, that blanket has been especially welcome this year. If you are like me, though, you just can’t wait for that first day when you lose the covers and open the windows. It is that breath of fresh air that tells us summer is just around the corner.

PHOTO: A view of the roses near the education building.
Roses under a warm winter blanket of mulch.

Our Krasberg Rose Garden is ready for its breath of fresh air, too. All winter, many of our roses have been under their warm blanket of composted horse manure. Compost protects roses from the harsh winter winds and freeze and thaw cycles that can be deadly to many cultivars.

As the hours of sunlight increase and daytime temperatures get warmer, however, we need to start inspecting our roses for signs that it is time to remove the compost and prepare the roses for the beauty yet to come.

The process is fairly straightforward. In late March, or whenever we have had several warm days with limited risk of a killing frost, we use our hands to carefully remove the thawed compost from around a rose bush. We need to inspect several bushes because some areas of our Garden thaw and start actively growing earlier than others.

PHOTO: A rose with new spring growth.
New growth from the base of the plant.

We look for yellow, bright green or reddish growth around the base of the plant — these are new rose canes. If we do not see any new growth or if new growth is still very small, we may cover the roses for a few more days. The warm compost encourages rose bushes to break dormancy.

However, if we see new growth and it is an inch or longer, then is it time to completely remove the compost and let the canes grow freely. The sooner this new growth begins to photosynthesize in the sun, the healthier and stronger your plant will be the rest of season. Remember that this new growth is very fragile, so we use gentle care when removing the compost.

PHOTO: Rose before Pruning
Look for black canes that indicate they are dead.

Once we remove the compost, our team then prunes the canes for optimum health. We first remove any cane that is black or brown — these are dead or dying — and anything that looks diseased.

From there, we prune the shrub until it has five or six healthy, large canes that are at least the diameter of a pencil. The pruning should result in an open center, with the top bud on each remaining cane facing away from the center of the plant. The open center maximizes the amount of sunshine and air circulation within the plant — important components to plant growth and disease prevention.

We also take time to frequently disinfect our pruning tools as we work through this late-winter chore. Tools can easily transfer diseases from one rose shrub to another, so sanitation is very important. Mix a solution of 10 percent rubbing alcohol or bleach and 90 percent water in a spray bottle to spray on your tools.

PHOTO: The final rose after spring pruning.
After pruning, the remaining canes look healthy.

By taking a few simple steps like these right now, the rose bushes will be on their way to beautiful blooms in June. Now that’s a breath of fresh air.

You can learn more about rose care with a class at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Click here to see what classes are currently available.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Earth on its Back

There is a Native American myth that is believed to have originated with the Onondaga tribe of the Iroquois nation of northeastern North America. It is a creation legend about how the earth (the land) was created. The legend incorporates a number of different animals including swans, pied-billed grebes, muskrats, and many others. The central character in the story is a turtle. The turtle, an island in a world of water, was chosen to carry soil and tree seedlings on its back, which eventually became the land the people lived on. So this story is about preservation and nurturing. Although this legend may have originated with the Onondaga, it is a common myth found throughout many Native American cultures.

The fact that the turtle myth was so widespread across the continent is not really all that surprising when you consider how many different species of turtles there are. There is a turtle species for just about every kind of wetland environment that exists, from sea turtles to bog turtles to  river cooters and pond sliders. There are approximately 17 species of turtles native to Illinois and nearly half of those occur at the Garden.

Other than birds, turtles are among the most common animals you are likely to encounter on any given day during the growing season at the Garden. Like the early blooming wildflowers in McDonald Woods, turtles are truly one of the first signs of spring. Soon after the ice melts on our lakes, turtles begin moving from the bottom of the lakes where they spent the winter hibernating. During the dark days of winter under the ice, turtles are able to slow their bodily functions down to the point where they can obtain enough oxygen to survive by absorbing it through the mucus membranes and tiny capillaries of their throat and cloaca (the common opening for defecation and egg laying). They also use some fascinating chemistry, part of which involves dissolving calcium from their shells to help neutralize toxic acids that would be fatal under normal circumstances. Still cold and sluggish from their long winter sleep, they begin swimming around near the surface, often poking their heads out to take their first real breath of air since descending to the bottom of the lakes in fall.    

Hoop trap for aquatic turtles
Hoop trap for aquatic turtles

Several years ago, I initiated a turtle project with one of the summer interns. We set out to try to determine how many turtles and how many species occur in our lakes. Utilizing a number of different live traps, we were able to count most of the individuals and almost all of the species that can be found here. Over three months, we were able to capture nearly eighty individuals of eight different species.

PHOTO: Floating trap for basking turtles.
Floating trap for basking turtles

The turtles can be divided into two general groups, those that like to bask (sun themselves on logs, rocks, or on the shore) and those that rarely bask. The basking turtles are the species most often encountered at the Garden. The most abundant member of this group is the red-eared slider. 

This is the turtle of dime-store fame. There was a time when it seemed like every kid had one of these sliders as a pet – do you remember Cuff and Link from the movie Rocky? They are distinctive, with a bright red slash along the side of their heads.  Although they are the most abundant species here, they are not native to this part of Illinois. Sliders have been introduced to many parts of the country where they had not previously been found. This is the result of all those dime-store turtles that grew up to be bigger turtles that were eventually released when their owners either ran out of room for them or the appeal of these long-lived animals wore off. Like many introduced species, the slider is aggressive toward our native species and as a result has achieved a dominant place in the turtle population.

PHOTO: The introduced red-eared slider.
The red-eared slider, named for the distinctive red patches over its ears.
PHOTO: False map turtle
Notice the narrow yellow bar on head of the false map turtle.
PHOTO: Underside of false map turtle
Topography-like lines mark the underside of the shell of this false map turtle.
PHOTO: Ouachita map turtle
Notice the square yellow blotch behind the eyes of the Ouachita map turtle.

The slider is not the only introduced turtle at the Garden. Some other species that can be found here that were not known in the region historically include the three-toed box turtle, the false map, common map, and the Ouachita map turtles.

Releasing pet turtles is not a good idea. The slider has greatly changed the dynamics of natural turtle populations all over the country. Some species, like the box turtles, which are terrestrial species that do not hibernate in lakes, are sometimes found at the Garden only after they have died after not being able to survive the winter here. There is also the possibility of spreading diseases.

The native turtles found at the Garden include the Midland painted turtle, Western painted turtle, stinkpot or musk turtle, spiny soft-shelled turtle, and the snapping turtle. The stinkpot and the snapping turtles are members of that group of more aquatic turtles that do not typically bask on logs or rocks. So although the snapping turtle is a common species at the Garden, it and the stinkpot are not seen nearly as much as the basking species.

A spiny soft shell
A spiny soft shell
PHOTO: Closeup of the spiny soft-shelled turtle.
The spiny soft-shelled turtle’s snorkel-like nose.
PHOTO: Western painted turtle.
The western painted turtle

Where do these turtles get their names? The map turtle gets its name from the pattern along the underside of the shell and along its neck and head that looks like topographic lines on a map. The box turtle has a hinged plastron (belly) that allows it to pull its head and legs inside the shell and close the “doors” sealing out predators. 

Soft-shell turtles have a soft, leathery shell that bends and flexes like an old leather baseball mitt. They have a very low profile and look like a large, olive-colored drab Frisbee when they are basking on the lawn.  Painted turtles often have attractive red markings along the edge of their carapace (shell) and plastron. As far as the stinkpot turtle goes, I’ll let you guess why they have that common name. I’m sure that if you do some digging, you’ll be able to sniff out the answer.

The turtles are egg-laying reptiles. Their eggs are probably best described as leathery-shelled ping-pong balls.  During the summer, the adult turtles will haul themselves out along the shore and look for suitable places to dig a hole in which to deposit their eggs. At the Garden, turtles often choose to lay their eggs in the mulch around the tree and shrub planting beds, probably because it is a softer, easier place to dig. This egg-laying season is a dangerous time for turtles.  

PHOTO: Snapping turtle laying eggs.
Snapping turtle laying eggs

During this time they are out of the water, many encounter predators, and often cross roads looking for

PHOTO: Snapping turtle eggs.
Snapping turtle eggs

nesting locations. Once the eggs are laid, the turtle covers the eggs with soil and then retreats to the water, leaving the eggs and young to fend for themselves. Usually the eggs will hatch in 45-90 days, but sometimes, for individuals that lay their eggs too late in the season, they may overwinter.  Although turtles generally lay a good number of eggs (2-40 or more, depending on the size of the individual and species), the failure of those eggs is high due to predators. Skunks and raccoons are probably the two most frequent predators of turtle eggs, but almost any predator that comes across a nest is likely to take at least some.

What do these critters eat? Most species are omnivores. They eat a combination of plant and animal material. The common map turtle specializes in mollusks, like clams and snails that it crushes with its broad hard mouthparts. The spiny soft-shell is a fast swimmer and often feeds on fish. The red-eared slider is also omnivorous, but tends to become more of an herbivore as it gets older. It should also be noted that turtles perform a valuable ecosystem service as carrion feeders by feeding on dead fish and aquatic animals that would otherwise remain for long periods as they decompose. So you can think of turtles as sort of turkey vultures of the aquatic world – the sanitation squad.

Visitors frequently encounter turtles crossing the road at the Garden during the summer. Although the urge is strong to help the turtle back into the lake, don’t approach them too closely since turtle are very good at defending themselves and have long necks that can dart out and grab anyone or anything that gets too close. Turtles have very sharp-edged mouthparts and once they get hold of something, they don’t let go. Many a dog has lost a piece of its nose when getting too inquisitive about turtles.

If you happen to be visiting the Garden in summer and spot a turtle basking in the sun, try to see if you can figure out which species it is. Perhaps more importantly, if you spot a turtle, try to remember the Onondaga legend and the great responsibility bestowed on it to preserve the land and plants for the people.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Journey to Kokufu

KANJI TEXT: To Garden is to Learn.

Niwa ni manabu koto desu.
To garden is to learn.

PHOTO: Overhead shot of viewing room.
The main gallery at Kokufu.

That’s why Ivan Watters, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s curator of bonsai, travels to Japan every year to attend Kokufu — the Japan National Bonsai Exhibition and most important bonsai show in the world.

“It’s a true learning experience,” he says. “You pick up technical ideas, artistic ideas, and learn a few bonsai tricks.” For example? “The first branch of an informal upright bonsai should come out of the midline across the front of the trunk. But the unconventional branch on one entry started at the back of the trunk and wrapped around to the side, with a secondary branch positioned to hide the manipulation.” It’s a vivid description, sure to be shared with his bonsai volunteers.

PHOTO: Ivan Watters
Bonsai curator Ivan Watters arranges a speciment at a photo shoot for Bonsai: A Patient Art.

Watters is a long-time member of the Nippon Bonsai Association, the venerable group that sponsors the exhibit. Held this year (for the 87th time) at the recently renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Kokufu brought together 204 of the most outstanding trees in the country, culled from 500 entries. As always, requirements for entry are firm. Trees must reside in Japan (quarantine issues prohibit the Garden from competing) and, if selected, entrants must wait three years to compete again in the show.

This year marked Watters’ 20th year attending the show. What caught his eye this year? One large bonsai that combined nine separate Japanese white pines, each more than 100 years old. “It was the majesty of it,” he remarks, “so beautifully placed in their container.” Also large in scale were several bonsai from the Imperial Palace Collection, holding pride of place at the entrance to the show. Displayed on burgundy velvet cloths, the imperial bonsai befit the proportions of the Imperial Palace — many imperial trees are more than 500 years old and have been in the collection for more than 300 years.

Watters took a side trip to the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama, and to a small exhibit (just eight trees) at a temple celebrating ume season, the flowering of Japan’s plum or apricot trees.

PHOTO: Susumu Nakamura trains a bonsai.
Bonsai master Susumu Nakamura tends a white pine that he donated to the Garden.

The trip wasn’t all business. Watters also hosted an 81st birthday party for bonsai master Susumu Nakamura at the latter’s favorite eel restaurant, Izuei. Nakamura, the former vice chairman of Kokufu, donated 19 of his trees to the Garden’s collection in 2000. (Only one other donated tree has come to America, at the United States Botanic Garden.) On this latest trip to Japan, Watters gifted Nakamura with a copy of the Garden’s newest publication, Bonsai: A Patient Art. The beautifully photographed book illuminates the intricacies of bonsai in both art and history. Most of the trees that came from Nakamura are included in its pages, including an extremely fine example of a formal upright bonsai, the white pine shown here, which has been trained for at least 100 years.  

This spring, Watters and his volunteers are busy repotting more than 100 bonsai trees in preparation for the reopening of the bonsai courtyards on April 29. Watters is also teaching bonsai workshops. Bonsai Basics on June 1 is a good first class to begin your learning.

PHOTO: Bonsai Book

Curious about the Japanese trees at the heart of the Garden’s bonsai collection? Bonsai: A Patient Art is available to purchase. This stunning volume presents more than sixty living masterpieces from the Garden’s collection. Board member and bonsai enthusiast Robert H. Malott supported publication of this beautiful book.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and