Winter Birds Are Here!

The flowers are gone, the trees are bare, now what to photograph? Birds, of course! Winter is a great time to get some fabulous shots of winter birds. One huge bonus is that there are no leaves on the trees and the birds are much easier to see!

There are the “regular” local birds, like robins (yes, some robins do stay around all winter), goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, mallards, Canada geese, red-tailed hawks, and cedar waxwings, to name a few. Plus, winter has the bonus of birds that actually migrate to our area just for the winter. Some migrants you will see every year are juncos, tree sparrows, and a variety of ducks. Other birds are occasional, or eruptive, and only show up once every few years, like pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, and redpolls. Then there are the, “wow! I’m really lucky to find this species!” birds, like crossbills, snowy owls, bald eagles, and bohemian waxwings. That is the fun part—you never know what you will find on any given day. That is why I go out every chance I get!

You can check the list of birds that you can expect to see at the Garden here.

Goldfinch in toned-down winter plumage, enjoying seeds on Dixon Prairie.
A goldfinch in toned-down winter plumage enjoys seeds on the Dixon Prairie. ©Carol Freeman
Male cardinal surveying the bounty on the prairie.
A male cardinal surveys the bounty on the prairie. ©Carol Freeman
Common redpoll feasting on birch tree seeds around the Regenstein building. It was a nice find to see this occasional visitor at the garden.
This common redpoll was feasting on birch tree seeds around the Regenstein Center. It was a nice find to see this occasional visitor at the Garden. ©Carol Freeman
Tap, tap, tap, I heard the Downy woodpecker before I saw him.
Tap, tap, tap…I heard the downy woodpecker before I saw him. ©Carol Freeman

When you get to the Garden, some places to look are all the trees with berries! Yes, the birds love them. Another good place to look is the Dixon Prairie, where all those seeds attract a lot of birds. Be sure to check out the bird feeders at the Buehler Enabling Garden too. You can also find a variety of birds—especially woodpeckers—in the McDonald Woods. If there is open water, check there for ducks and geese. You might be surprised at just how many birds you can find in winter.

What a surprise to find this adult bald eagle sitting in a tree just next to the Plant Science building!
What a surprise to find this adult bald eagle sitting in a tree just next to the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center! ©Carol Freeman
The local Robins are taking advantage of the abundant food supply at the garden.
The local robins take advantage of the abundant food supply at the Garden. ©Carol Freeman
The pine siskins were enjoying the bounty at the Enabling Garden bird feeders.
The pine siskins enjoy the thistle seeds at the Enabling Garden bird feeders. ©Carol Freeman

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Willow Verification Project Moves Forward

The versatility of the willow in the landscape, its year-round ornamental appeal, and its adaptability to colder climates make it a staple and a highlight of the Garden’s plant collections. In fact, the Garden is committed to amassing and displaying one of the largest collections of willows in the country. This initiative was started informally more than two decades ago when Kris Jarantoski, the Garden’s executive vice president and director, began collecting willows from other institutions.

PHOTO: Willow tree at Dudley Point, at the Serpentine Bridge.
The Garden has 2.4 million plants, and specializes in the cultivation of a select few genera. These specialized collections will become collections of distinction, recognized nationally and internationally.

Willows have long been used by indigenous cultures worldwide. Ancient cultures used the willow as medicine (aspirin derives from salicylic acid—a component found in willow bark); as weaving material for baskets; and for creating shelter. These days, willows are used in furniture; as a material in cricket bats; and as an ornamental landscape plant.

PHOTO: Salix tarraconensis catkins in winter.
Shrub willows like this Salix tarraconensis are a highlight of the Garden’s specialized collections.

The willow genus (Salix) contains more than 400 species. Derived from the Celtic word sallis—sal ‘near’ and lis ‘water’—their genus name describes the ideal natural habitat of most willows. Despite a natural affinity for water, however, many members of this diverse genus are adaptable to various landscape conditions, including dry sites (once established). Most are native to the cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere, but a few species occur naturally in the Southern Hemisphere. (Australia does not have native willow species, although willows are cultivated there.) 

Developing a world-class collection of willows is a team effort

The process of developing a specialized collection involves much more than acquiring as many difference species and varieties as possible. It also involves ongoing research on these collections by Garden staff and others. But before that is possible, it is essential the collection is authenticated—just as an art museum would do with a painting it received.

PHOTO: A group of willow twigs shows a variety of color for the winter landscape.
Willow twigs are a colorful highlight of the winter landscape. Shown here are twigs from four varieties in the collection.

Willows are a complex and difficult group to accurately identify, and the Garden is currently in the process of verifying its holdings—a process that we believe will take nearly three years!

Emily Russell, assistant curator of woody plants, and Frank Balestri, research assistant at the Garden, work with our collaborators Michael Dodge, a willow enthusiast and owner of Vermont Willow Nursery, and Irina Belyaeva, Ph.D., taxonomist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Russell and Balestri and their teams of photo documentation and herbarium voucher staff and volunteers have devoted countless hours to the willow effort. Russell accompanies Dodge as he surveys the Garden’s collections during visits, and records new information as it becomes available. Balestri’s primary role has been to collect herbarium vouchers prepared by volunteers that will be shipped to Dr. Belyaeva early next year. As we near the end of year two, we are still very busy in these winter months as we continue to collect digital images and herbarium vouchers!  

PHOTO: Emily Russell and Michael Dodge looking at alpine Salix in the rock garden.
Emily Russell and Michael Dodge look at alpine Salix in the rock garden.
PHOTO: Frank Balestri examines a Salix herbarium voucher.
Frank Balestri examines a Salix herbarium voucher

While we continue this project over the coming months, we encourage you to visit the Garden and explore our Salix collection. Winter is a great time to explore the wonderful world of willows!

Learn about the ornamental value of Salix, the characteristics of shrub species, and their beauty in the winter landscape in the winter issue of Keep Growing.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Secret Society of Soil

When you lift a rock in your garden and glimpse earthworms and tiny insects hustling for cover, you’ve just encountered the celebrities of soil. We all know them on sight. The leggy, the skinny, the pale…the surprisingly fast.

Behind this fleeting moment are what may be considered the producers, editors, and set designers of the mysterious and complex world of soil—fungi. They often go unrecognized, simply because most of us can’t see them.

PHOTO: Otidea decomposer.
Otidea, a decomposer

Fortunately, new technologies are helping experts, like Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Louise Egerton-Warburton, Ph.D., get a better look at fungi than ever before, and discover vital information.

“One of the problems we have with soil science is that you can’t see into it so you really depend on a lot of techniques and methods to work out what’s happening,” explained Dr. Egerton-Warburton, associate conservation scientist in soil and microbial ecology.

In the last year, she has used high-throughput sequencing (also termed Next Generation Sequencing) to identify more than 120 species of mycorrhizal fungi in a single plant community. In contrast, previous reports suggested there were, at most, about 55 mycorrhizal species in a plant community. These tiny heroes are microscopic organisms that attach themselves to plant roots, for example, to carry out critical functions that support all life on earth. They are essential for the well-being of more than 85 percent of all plants, including those in your garden.

Mycorrhizal fungi are fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with roots of a vascular plant; from the Greek for “fungus” and “root.”

PHOTO: White mushrooms.
Mushrooms are the above-ground fruiting body of fungi.

If climate change results in more intense rainfall and drought—as is predicted by climate change scientists—mycorrhizal fungi will also play an important role in processing varied levels of water in the soil.

Egerton-Warburton has just returned from November field work in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, where she has been testing the responses of mycorrhizal fungi to changes in rainfall and soil moisture, especially to drought. Will fungi be able to keep pace? Will they be able to survive? What does that mean for other plant life? “Fungi are really good indicators of any environmental problems. So they are more likely to show the effects of any environmental stress before the plants will,” she said.

Each type of fungi also has a specific role, according to Egerton-Warburton, with some specialized to take up nutrients from the soil, while others cooperate to complete a function, such as fully decomposing a leaf.  A lot of fungi are needed to keep the system working. “You get 110 yards of fungal material in every teaspoon of soil,” she explained.

Aside from breaking down deceased plant material, fungi play a key role in many plant-soil interactions and the redistribution of resources in an ecosystem. They filter water that runs into the ground, cleaning it before it hits the bottom aquifers and drains out into rivers. Also, in the top few inches of soil, many fungi are respiring, along with their earthworm and other living counterparts, helping to filter gases and air that move through the system. Of growing interest, is also the fact that fungi could have a major role in soil carbon sequestration.

Soil carbon sequestration is the process of transferring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil in a form that is not immediately reemitted.

PHOTO: Leucocoprinus fungi.
Leucocoprinus fungi

For the past four years, Egerton-Warburton and colleagues at Northwestern University have been working to better understand the flow of carbon through fungal communities that results in long-term soil carbon sequestration. Soil’s capacity to store carbon is a reason for hope and a potential way to mitigate climate change. According to Egerton-Warburton, soil is known to hold three times more carbon than plants and trees above ground. “Maybe there are other ways we can manage the systems and enhance that capacity in the soil,” she said.

The study has required a lot of ‘getting to know you’, as the researchers first sought to identify each type of fungi involved in the process of carbon sequestration. As plant parts above ground are faced with absorbing and converting larger and larger amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere into sugars, and sending it down into their roots, the more beneficial it will be to have a healthy suite of fungi waiting to receive it, use it, and move it along for future long-term storage.

Part of this equation has been to understand which fungi benefit from the increasing supply of sugar. Previous work by Egerton-Warburton has shown that mycorrhizal fungi respond to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide by producing large quantities of hyphae, a fine root-like structure, in the soil. This is because increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide allow a plant to produce more sugars during photosynthesis, and these sugars are shunted below ground for use by roots and their mycorrhizal fungi. At the other end of the equation are saprophytic and decomposer fungi, waiting to break down the new hyphae.

Recent work in the Dixon Prairie has used the high throughput sequencing and chemical fingerprinting to identify the fungi involved in this decomposition phase. Once that is resolved, they will be able to better understand how the fungi interact and balance the cycle carbon through specific pathways of activity..

PHOTO: Louise Egerton-Warburton.
Louise Egerton-Warburton at work in the soil lab

The more the merrier, when it comes to fungi, and when it comes to people who are willing to help them endure, said Egerton-Warburton. The scientist often works with students who are interested in careers in the field, but encourages additional people to consider this critical line of work. “There’s a real need for soil ecologists in the country,” she said.

The good news is that the future story of fungi is one we can all help to script. Gardeners, she advised, can pay attention to the type of mulch they use in their garden, and plant lots of native species that will naturally enrich the function of that wonderful world that holds us up.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Gardening Gift Book Recommendations, Part 2

You can give a gardening book to almost everyone on your list. They will especially love books about food and how to grow it! Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg adds to her recent Top 10 Gardening Gift Books blog with a follow-up list—plus more titles to find at our Garden Shop (on-site and online). 

Order through our Amazon Smile link and 0.5 percent of the profits go to support the Chicago Botanic Garden! Or bookmark

Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide
Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide

Audels Gardeners & Growers Guide: Good Vegetables and Market Gardening. Its opening line: “The book of nature is open, but its wonderful beauties and mysteries are revealed only to the careful student.”

Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest
Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest by C.E. Voight and J.S. Vandermark

Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest by C. E. Voight and J. S. Vandermark. Our horticulturist-in-chief, Kris Jarantoski, included this classic on his recommendation list, too.

Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History
Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. A go-to history book about the world’s most distinctive gardens and the communities of people who built them.

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts
How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts by Frances Densmore

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts by Frances Densmore. Such a fascinating book, all about food history and resourcefulness.

How to Grow Vegetables by the Organic Method
How to Grow Vegetables by the Organic Method edited by J.I. Rodale

How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method edited by J. I. Rodale. The grandmother of organic gardening books, by the grandfather of organic gardening. A classic.

Edible Landscaping
Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy

Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy. Beautiful yards from beautiful vegetables.

Seed to Seed
Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth

Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. For the seed saver in your life.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. For gardeners of all ages.

Secret Garden, An Inky Treasure Hunt
Secret Garden, An Inky Treasure Hunt by Johanna Basford

Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book by Johanna Basford. A botanical coloring book to unleash your creativity—add Caran d’Ache colored pencils to this gift.

A RARE FIND: Planting: Putting Down Roots by Penelope Hobhouse. Sleuth the book resellers to find this hand-sized book, part of a series by one of England’s great gardeners. 

special bonus!

Now at our Garden Shop: More Great Gift Books

Lisa hand-picked these favorite fruit-and-vegetable books from the bookshelves at our Garden Shop. Members, make us your book-buying resource—you always save 10 percent!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Spring in December?

It has been an unusually mild December, and some of you may be seeing “springlike” growth in your home gardens. Plus, you are tempted to get out in the garden. Here’s what you can expect:

PHOTO: Viburnum in bloom.
It’s happening in our yard, too: This viburnum bloom photo was taken December 10, 2015.

Bulbs and perennials: Any new growth present now will experience a freeze in the very near future. That will have little impact on these plants come spring.

Evergreens and newly installed plants: Because it has rained so much, you shouldn’t have to do any supplemental watering. You should continue to monitor any evergreens that are in containers and provide supplemental water, if needed. A word of caution: always avoid working with and on soils that are wet.

Flowering trees and shrubs: Lilac, redbuds, forsythia and other flowering trees and shrubs will be impacted by this season’s warm weather. The longer the warm weather stays above freezing, the greater the chance there will be damage to the flowers. Prolonged warm weather at this time of year may mean fewer spring flowers on some plants.

There is another benefit to the warm weather: Get outside! You can finish those outside projects like installing brick pathways that you started earlier in the year. You can also lay sod and plant deciduous trees and shrubs until the ground freezes.

PHOTO: Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' in bloom.
Lenten roses like Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ are in bud or bloom in the Garden.

When you visit the Garden to see Wonderland Express, see if you can find lady’s mantle or the bed of dwarf fragrant viburnum in full flower, the hellebores coming to bud (hint: Farwell Landscape Garden), or the ornamental kales with great color.

It’s a great time for a winter walk!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and