A Native Beauty

The pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) is our featured butterfly this week. This beauty can be found in the southern half of the United States all the way south to Mexico. Occasionally it can even be found further north. In Mexico, pipevines can be found all year round.

PHOTO: top view of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.
Top view of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor)
Photographs by Bill Bishoff

Like many butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail warns potential predators with its bright colors that it is inedible. Caterpillars feed on the toxic leaves of Aristolochia species and become unpalatable, staying that way through their metamorphosis. Females even pass the toxins along to eggs, which then also become protected.

Another beautiful native, the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) mimics the pipevine swallowtail as a form of defense—the pipevine’s bad taste and toxic makeup are enviable traits in a butterfly! Though not toxic itself, the spicebush’s convincing disguise fools predators into thinking twice before snacking.

PHOTO: side view of the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.
Side view of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly

Like many other butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail gets its nutrients from “puddling,” in which a group of butterflies gathers at one location, such as a shallow puddle or a mud pile, and drinks any available liquid. This is a common way to supplement their primary diet of nectar with much needed salts and minerals.

This beautiful butterfly regularly visits our coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, and can easily be spotted. Make sure to check them out on your next trip to the Garden!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Planter Puzzler

Looking for a fun and novel table decoration for a special event? Here’s an idea. We turned our table decorations into a game for the School Gardening Conference.

PHOTO: Oregano sprigs in an oregano spice jar.
Oregano in its namesake jar was our Planter Puzzler example.

We paired unusual plant containers with plants that had some relationship to those planters and asked teachers to guess the connections. We provided an easy example to start. You can duplicate this game using our examples or invent your own combinations. Start with a plant that has a fun name that lends itself to ideas for containers based on the shape, color, or function of the container. You can also start with a container and then select a plant or seeds to match.

If you have one or the other and can’t think of good pairing, do an internet image search for related words. We had a gumball machine, so we tried “gum plant,” “ball plant,” and other ideas just to play around with the idea before we decided to fill it with sweet gum tree seeds. (Sorry, I did not get a good photo of it.)

PHOTO: birdseed growing in a birdhouse.
I had a ceramic birdhouse, so I filled it with soil and planted birdseed (actually, millet and sunflower seeds).
PHOTO: Goldfish plant growing in a fish bowl.
It was easy to find the right container for this goldfish plant (Hypocyrta glabra)—a fish bowl!
PHOTO: A pitcher plant growing in a pitcher.
A pitcher plant growing inside a beverage pitcher was a favorite table display. (This pitcher is a species of Nepenthes.)

Here are a few practical tips for doing this at home:

Since these containers were not made for plants, you may need to line them with a plastic bag or insert a plastic cup or pot. If you want to keep the plants in this container for any length of time, you’ll need to provide drainage or the roots will rot. Follow directions from Tim Pollack for planting a terrarium in this YouTube video.

You may have to alter the container to make it work. I had to take apart a toy drum to turn it into a planter for beets. (Beets in a drum—get it? If you want to impress, don’t shy away from puns, references to popular stories, or inside jokes.)

In addition to the ideas mentioned above, we also used these plant-container pairings:

  • chamomile in a Peter Rabbit teapot
  • radishes in a Peter Rabbit ceramic bowl
  • mint in a teacup
  • lettuce in a wooden salad bowl
  • chain of hearts in a valentine chocolate box
  • spider plant in a “Big Bugs” coffee mug
  • herbs in a recipe box
PHOTO: Chain of Hearts plant grows in a Valentine's Day chocolate tin.
A heart-shaped chocolates tin from Valentine’s Day—the perfect home for a string of hearts plant (Ceropegia woodii)

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Weevil Warriors

A bracelet of pink-and-cream blooms borders Lake Michigan at this time of year. Growing up from barren, sandy areas, Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) is like an oasis for nearby insects looking for nectar.

Helpful pollinators visit the plants often, but not nearly enough to offset the damage of the predatory visitors, according to Garden scientists, who hope to tip the balance in order to save the federally threatened plant species. It all began in 1997, when Kay Havens, Ph.D., joined a team of researchers to reintroduce Pitcher’s thistle to Illinois Beach State Park. But she wondered why a reintroduction was needed for a normally sturdy group of plants.

PHOTO: Adult weevils on Pitcher’s thistle plants in Door County, Wisconsin
Adult weevils on Pitcher’s thistle plants in Door County, Wisconsin

“Thistles as a group are typically pretty successful, even weedy, and it’s unusual to have a native thistle that is so rare,” said Dr. Havens, Medard and Elizabeth Welch director of plant science and conservation at the Garden.

Along with her Garden colleague, Pati Vitt, Ph.D., she found the plant is especially susceptible to a species of weevil (Larinus planus) whose larvae feast on emerging seeds. Unfortunately, if a blooming thistle loses its seeds before they are dispersed, new plants cannot be started.

“We were the first to document the weevil in this threatened thistle,” said Havens. “If we don’t find a way to control it, the plant is further threatened with extinction.” This discovery was followed by the identification of a second, equally destructive weevil (Rhinocyllus conicus) in Indiana Dunes State Park.

“The weevils have become very widespread in Pitcher’s thistle and they cut the seed output by about half,” said Havens. Both insect species, she explained, are biocontrol weevils that were intentionally scattered in the area for years in an effort to control the invasive Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). Now, the damaging insects are off the list of solutions for Canada thistle.

As we talked, it was clear that this rescue team is not willing to accept defeat from a 7-millimeter bug. For years, they have been hard at work gathering information to help them arm the thistle against its adversary, and theorizing potential solutions.

Pitcher’s thistle lives four to eight years, and only blooms once, the conservation scientists told me. And they are also working to better understand the remarkable plant that has a custom set of strategies, like all plant species, to survive and reproduce.

“Every species represents a unique solution to an entire suite of environmental problems,” said Dr. Vitt, Susan and Roger Stone curator of the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank at the Garden.

These solutions, she explained, could solve large-scale problems for people or other species in ways we don’t yet know. “The species has intrinsic value because it has these unique solutions that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years,” she added.

PHOTO: The research site in Wisconsin with flags marking study plants
The research site in Wisconsin with flags marking study plants

This summer, Havens and Vitt spent weeks in Door County, Wisconsin, observing the interactions of the weevil with Pitcher’s thistle, as well as those of its suite of pollinator species.

Watch a video to learn how Havens became interested in plants as a child, and why she says we couldn’t survive without them today.

Together with their research team, they recorded detailed notes about the frequency and time of visits by the helpful pollinators, like bees, and the dreaded weevils. In total, they monitored 27 visiting insect species.

“We want to find ways to protect this plant from weevils without affecting its pollinators,” said Havens. Could a certain floral scent do the trick? Could a natural insecticide be the answer? Each solution must be carefully tested and put to trial first.

For now, they are busy trying to understand the life cycle of the weevil as it relates to the thistle—from the time an adult lays its eggs in the seedhead to the time the larvae emerge from the flower and eat the seeds that could have been the next generation of plants.

As I left Havens and Vitt in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, they were sorting through their samples of seedheads and weevils, collected in the field, and musing over the potential solutions planted by their research that are just beginning to grow.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

So many basils, so little time…

The Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden is the place to explore small-space gardening.

PHOTO: seven types of basil planted in a traditional "pie slice" herb bed.
Seven types of basil (listed below) were planted in the basil bed at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

There, basil is king. (Of course it is—the word basil is rooted in the Greek basilikos, meaning royalty.) The bed is planted with seven very different basil varieties, laid out in a pinwheel design, and all grown from seed. It’s enough to make a gardener’s—or a foodie’s—head spin with plans for dinner…and for your own herb garden. Discover these varieties of Ocimum basilicum:

‘Dwarf Fine Bush’ – The neat round globes that divide the pinwheel pack a big punch in those tiny leaves. This basil is highly aromatic, rich with cinnamon/anise/clove flavors. Although the leaves are too little to pluck for pesto, sprinkle them on hors d’oeuvres, or use them as a garnish on any dish. Really nice for nibbling, too.

‘Crimson King’ – It’s a Genovese-style basil, with big, curvy leaves, colored purple instead of green—the better to stand out in vegetable dishes, layered in a sandwich, or as a revelation with rice.

‘Serata’ – As the name says, this is basil with serrated edges. Big, ruffly, bright green leaves make ‘Serata’ pretty enough for the front of the flower bed. But it’s truly tasty, too, with real basil flavor, so it’s a great choice for pesto.

‘Ararat’ – Showstopping in a pot on a sunny porch or patio, bicolor ‘Ararat’ is green wherever it’s not purple. Its licorice taste immediately challenges your inner foodie: Salads? Tomato dishes? Ice cream?

‘Genovese Compact Improved’ – A relative of the classic Genovese, this is more compact in overall size. With the same big leaves and concentrated, sweet flavor—though more noticeably less anise in taste—this is the perfect basil for pesto.

‘Purple Ruffles’ – The name tells you what you need to know: it’s a beautiful basil, with a more complex cinnamon/spice/mint/anise flavor. Steep it in white wine vinegar for fresh vinaigrettes all summer and fall.

‘Purple Osmin’ – Fruity and sweet, this is one of the darkest of all basils, and delicious in Italian and Thai recipes.

Check out the kitchen garden bed just outside of our demonstration kitchen window.

‘Sweet Thai’ – The distinctive spicy flavor of anise and clove make this the basil for red and green Thai curries and pho. Its purple flowers mix nicely in container or window box plantings.

‘Mrs. Burns’ Lemon’ – Pluck the lemony leaves for iced teas and lemonades, and use them generously when grilling.

That’s nine basil varieties to add to your summer repertoire. Need a kickstarter recipe? Paul Choi, who served as Garden Café executive chef,  shares his lemony pesto recipe below.

PHOTO: Ararat basil.
Ararat basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Ararat’)

Five Tips for Harvesting Basil

  1. Use scissors to clip individual basil leaves from the plant rather than tearing them off—much neater!
  2. Harvest basil branches with a clean cut across the stem, then stand them in cool water ‘til you’re ready to use.
  3. Harvest a whole plant by cutting straight across the main stem, leaving at least one leaf node with two shoots—the plant will rebranch from there.
  4. Start a new batch of seed every month from February (indoors) through September (bring plants in if nighttime temperatures dip below 50° Fahrenheit) for a continuous, fresh supply.
  5. Picked too much basil (is that possible)? Chop extra leaves, layer them into ice cube trays, fill with water or olive oil, and freeze. The individual cubes are great for cooking.
PHOTO: a bowl of freshly made pesto.

Garden-fresh Pesto

8 ounces fresh basil leaves
1-2 lemons, juiced and zested*
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup pine nuts (optional)
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 cup Parmesan, grated
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper

*Chef Choi prefers two for a zingier taste.

Place the pine nuts, garlic, and basil in a food processor. Process for about 30 seconds or until everything is chopped. With the processor running, slowly add the oil until the pesto is thoroughly puréed. Add the rest of your ingredients and purée until all are incorporated.

Store the pesto in the refrigerator for up to three days. The pesto must be stored with plastic wrap or another cover to keep air out. Or freeze in ice cube trays—just add a cube to any dish for extra flavor.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Meet Naranjilla

We get a lot of questions about one particular plant in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden: Naranjilla (pronounced nahr-ahn-HEE-yah). It’s easy to see why.

PHOTO: The naranjilla plant has thick green leaves that are about 10-12 inches long, 8-10 inches wide, with deeply serrated edges. Leaves have dark purple hairs on the veins and petioles.
You can find this naranjilla (Solanum quitoense) in Bed #10 in the Growing Garden.

This attractive plant has large, thick, green leaves, is about 10–12 inches long and 8–10 inches wide, with deeply serrated edges, and is completely covered in tiny, purple hairs (which are not really hairs—in the botanical world they are called “tricomes”). It is native to Ecuador and other South American countries.

There is more to notice about this intriguing plant than its gorgeous coloring, interesting texture, and striking presence. First, the naranjillas in this small garden bed, number 10, were put there for a reason. All but one of the plants in this bed are in the nightshade family, Solanaceae. This family includes tomato, eggplant, potato, and petunia. Naranjilla is cousin to these more familiar plants.

Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see how these plants are related.

When you’re in the garden, take a look at the flowers on these plants. You will see the similarities that characterize plants in the nightshade family. Notice that they all have five petals that are fused so that they look like a funnel with five lobes. You’ll easily be able to pick out the one plant that does not belong in the family.

PHOTO: close-up of a bright pink petunia.
See how this ‘Pink Dreams Fuseable’ petunia (Petunia x hybrida ‘Pink Dreams Fuseable’) has five petals fused together, so it is like one continuous petal? You’ll find the same bloom design on tomato and other nightshade flowers.

The naranjilla won’t bloom until much later in the summer, and when it does you’ll recognize the similar flower shape. Naranjilla means “little orange” in Spanish, because the fruits are small, yellow, and spherical like little oranges. Unfortunately, our growing season in Chicago is not long enough for naranjilla plants to produce the sweet fruits, which are juiced for beverages in Ecuador.

Another interesting thing about the naranjilla—a detail that separates it from other members of the family—is that the leaves look soft and fuzzy, but they can grow sharp thorns along the veins. As you might expect, the thorns discourage large animals from eating the leaves. They are not as sharp and menacing as rose thorns, but you wouldn’t want to stroke a naranjilla leaf that bears thorns.

PHOTO: this close up of a naranjillo leaf shows sharp thorns sticking up from the veins of the leaf.
This naranjilla leaf, which is growing in a container on the Learning Center deck, is covered in thorns. There are no thorns on the plants in the Growing Garden. (The white things on this leaf are stamens fallen from the nearby “bunny tail” grass.)

Stop by the Growing Garden at the Learning Campus from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends this summer to see our naranjilla plants and enjoy free family drop-in activities.

Please note: the Growing Garden is closed on weekday mornings while Camp CBG is in session.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org