Wolfsbane is a beautiful—and poisonous—fall-blooming perennial. It also has a colorful history associated with werewolves, vampires, and witches.
The plant has been a familiar plot element in horror movies, television shows, and novels. In the Harry Potter series, Remus Lupin, a tormented werewolf, drinks a potion of wolfsbane carefully concocted to control his transformations. As early as Dracula in 1931, wolfsbane casually replaced garlic as a repellent for vampires in film. Nevertheless, the correlation of wolfsbane with the supernatural predates Hollywood and familiar authors.
In Greek myth, wolfsbane (Aconitum) originated from the toxic slobber of a three-headed dog named Cerberus, the scary canine guardian to the gates of Hell. In the Dark Ages, wolfsbane was said to be used by witches in spells and potions and was one of several ingredients for an ointment that, when applied to a broom, could facilitate flight. Stories also proclaimed that a sorceress who carried wolfsbane seeds wrapped in lizard skin could become invisible and witches who applied the poisonous sap to their flints and launched them at unsuspecting enemies.
One thing both Hollywood and horticulturists can agree on: wolfsbane is a potent plant. Ingesting wolfsbane is typically fatal.
The plant belongs to a genus of highly poisonous perennials known as monkshood or aconite. They naturally grow in mountainous areas across the northern half of the globe and are also planted in gardens for their deep purple blooms, which continue flowering long after other perennials fade for the season. Ancient Greeks hunted wolves by poisoning their bait with this plant, which lead to the common name of wolfsbane.
While those hunting traditions were lost, the plant retained its common name into the Middle Ages, where wolves and werewolves were a genuine fear in Europe. Frightened folks turned to growing wolfsbane for their protection, as superstitions said that werewolves could be repelled by the plant, or even tamed by it. Others, however, believed that having contact with wolfsbane on a full moon could actually cause shape-shifting. Patients who suffered from lycanthropy (the delusion of being a wolf) were prescribed regular—and often lethal—doses of wolfsbane by their medieval doctors.
For gardeners, it is important to remember to always wear gloves while handling a deadly plant such as wolfsbane.
Find wolfsbane at the Garden with our Plantfinder or on the GardenGuide app. Remember to look—don’t touch!—its beautiful blooms. Happy Halloween!
No matter where I teach—at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at Edison Elementary in Morton Grove—I see how kids recognize the value of science education.
For each of the last 18 summers, I have been a science teacher at the Garden. My own children grew up attending Camp CBG. It was—and is—a family tradition, and something my kids and I looked forward to each summer.
The Garden is an extraordinary science location. At the center of its mission are three core “beliefs.” All are excellent, but one correlates most strongly with my values as a science educator: “The future of life on Earth depends on how well we understand, value, and protect plants, other wildlife, and the natural habitats that sustain our world.” For kids, taking care of the Earth is a no-brainer, it is something we should all be doing, a “given.” It has been a privilege to be a part of the Garden’s mission.
In 2014, camp director Amy Wells nominated me for the most prestigious award a science or math teacher in our nation can receive: the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). I had the good fortune of being nominated before and achieved recognition as a state level finalist on three previous occasions (2006, 2008 and 2010). As it turned out, Amy’s nomination was the lucky one. Thanks, Amy! After being chosen as a 2014 state level finalist, I was awarded national recognition from the White House in 2015, and got to attend a special ceremony in Washington D.C. this past September with my wife, Tiffany.
My twelve-year journey, from my initial nomination to my national award recognition, intertwines with my teaching at the Garden. Although it was challenging to wait 12 years to finally achieve this recognition, I came to realize it was a journey that forced me to grow as an educator. It made me a better teacher, no doubt, and the hands-on experiences at the Garden honed my skill set—benefitting my school kids and my campers at Camp CBG. Win, win, and win for all.
The award ceremony in Washington was magnificent. To be evaluated by experts at that level and recognized by the White House was truly humbling. I was able to meet teachers from around the country who also shared a passion for science instruction. So much positive energy. While I was in Washington, and in the past few months since I discovered I won (while I was working with teachers in Kenya), I have reflected on my teaching history. I recognized that the Garden was such an important part of the teacher I have become. I’ve had the good fortune of teaching hundreds of kids here, in all age ranges, in an environment that maximizes science instruction. Here’s to another 18 years.
—Dr. Jim O’Malley
Fourth grade science teacher Dr. Jim O’Malley, better known as Dr. O to students, has spent the better part of his career engaging kids by offering a mostly hands-on science curriculum where students learn by doing at Edison Elementary School in District 69.
He was a winner well before being honored with the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching by helping students tap into their sense of wonder and curiosity as part of every-day science discovery.
Competition is heating up in the western United States. Invasive and native plants are racing to claim available land and resources. Alicia Foxx, who studies the interplay of roots of native and invasive plants, is glued to the action. The results of this contest, says the plant biology and conservation doctoral student at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University, could be difficult to reverse.
Cheatgrass, which is an aggressive, invasive plant with a dense root system, is in the lead and spreading quickly across the west. Native plants are falling in its wake—especially when it comes to their delicate seedlings that lead to new generations.
Foxx is one of the scientists working to give native plants a leg (or root) up. She hypothesizes that a carefully assembled team of native plant seedlings with just the right root traits may be able to work together to outpace their competition.
“We often evaluate plants for the way they look above ground, but I think we have to look below ground as well,” she said. Foxx’s master thesis focused on a native grass known as squirreltail, and her hypothesis addressed the idea that the more robust the root system was in a native grass, the better it was at competing with cheatgrass. Now, “I’m looking more at how native plants behave in a community, as opposed to evaluating them one by one… How they interact with one another and how that might influence their performance or establishment in the Colorado plateau.”
In the desert climate, human-related disturbances such as mining, gas exploration, livestock trampling, or unnaturally frequent fires have killed off native plants and left barren patches of land behind that are susceptible to the arrival of cheatgrass.
“Some of our activities are exacerbating the conditions [that are favorable for invasive plants]. We need to make sure that we have forage for the wildlife and the plants themselves, because they are important to us for different reasons, including the prevention of mudslides,” she said. “We are definitely confronted with a changing climate and it would be really difficult for us to reverse any damage we have caused, so we’re trying to shift the plant community so it can be here in 50 years.”
Garden conservation scientist Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. advises Foxx, and her mentorship has allowed Foxx to see how science theories created in a laboratory become real-life solutions in the field. “I think I’m very fortunate to work with Andrea, who works very closely with the Bureau of Land Management…it’s really nice to see that this gets replicated out in the world,” said Foxx. Seeds from their joint collecting trip in 2012 have been added to the Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.
In a way, Foxx is also learning from the invasive plants themselves. To develop her hypothesis, she considered the qualities of the invasive plants; those that succeeded had roots that are highly competitive for resources. After securing seeds from multiple sources, she is now working in the Garden’s greenhouse and the Population Biology Laboratory to grow native plants that may be up to the challenge. She is growing the seedlings in three different categories: a single plant, a group of the same species together, and a group of species that look different (such as a grass and a wildflower). In total, there will be 600 tubes holding plants. She will then evaluate their ability to establish themselves in a location and to survive over time.
There has been very little research on plant roots, but Foxx said the traits of roots, such as how fibrous they are, their length, or the number of hair-like branches they form, tell us a lot about how they function.
“I’m hoping that looking at some of these root traits and looking at how these plants interact with one another will reveal something new or solidify some of the theories,” said Foxx.
She aims to have what she learns about the ecology of roots benefit restorations in the western United States. It is possible that her findings will shape thoughts in other regions as well, such as the prairies of the Midwest. Future research using the seeds Foxx collected could contribute to the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration, of which the Garden is a key resource for research and seeds for future restoration needs.
The Chicago native has come a long way since she first discovered her love of botany during high school. After completing her research and her Ph.D., she hopes to nurture future scientists and citizen scientists through her ongoing work, and help them make the connections that can lead to a love of plants.
What’s black and white and spread all over? Zebra mussels—but they’re no joke.
If you noticed more aquatic “weeds” and algae growing in the Garden Lakes this year—or that our beloved Smith Fountain was MIA after mid-summer—read on to find out why.
Invasive plants and the problems they pose have been the topic of frequent postings here on the Chicago Botanic Garden’s blog. Now we have another invasive species to tell you about—and this time, it’s an animal: zebra mussels.
Like many invasive plants and animals, zebra mussels’ native range is a faraway place; in this case, eastern Europe and western Russia. In the past 200 years, they have spread throughout all of Europe and Asia. Here in North America, the first account of an established population was in 1988 in Lake St. Clair (located between Lakes Huron and Erie), likely arriving here as tiny hitchhikers in the ballast water of a single commercial cargo ship traveling from the north shore of the Black Sea.
Somewhat remarkably, over the next two years they had spread throughout the entire Great Lakes. Just a year later in 1991, zebra mussels had escaped the Great Lakes and begun their march across North America’s inland waters. (Watch an animation of their spread). Today they are found in at least 29 states.
A zebra mussel may live up to five years and produce up to one million eggs each year—that’s five million eggs over their lifetime. A freshwater species of mollusk, they prefer to live in lakes and rivers with relatively warm, calcium-rich water (to help support their shell development). They feed by filtering microscopic algae from the surrounding water, with each adult zebra mussel filtering up to one liter of water per day.
Though tiny in size (adults are typically ½ to 2 inches long), their ecological and economic impacts can be enormous. Adult zebra mussels prefer to attach to hard surfaces such as submerged rocks, boat hulls, and pier posts—but they also cling to water intake structures as well as the interior of most any pipe that has flowing water in it (such as drinking water supply and irrigation system piping). From an ecological perspective, zebra mussels’ removal of microscopic algae often causes the afflicted waterway to become much more “clear.” While this clearer water may otherwise seem like a good thing, the now-removed microscopic algae is an important food source for many native aquatic animals. The clearer water also allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water, thereby stimulating much more rooted aquatic plant growth.
Nearby, zebra mussels were first identified in 2000 at the Skokie Lagoons, just south of the Garden. In 2013 and again in 2014, just a few zebra mussel shells were found at the Garden on the intake screens for our irrigation system’s South Pumphouse. Since so few mussels were found, we were hoping that the Garden’s lakes were simply not a hospitable place for the zebra mussels to flourish. Unfortunately, that thinking all changed in 2015….
At our Waterfall Garden, 1,000 gallons per minute of lake water are pumped to the top of the garden, after which the water flows down through the garden’s channels and then back into the lake. When Garden staff drained the Waterfall Garden for cleaning in June 2015, there were no apparent zebra mussels present—but by September 2015, the entire bottom of the Waterfall Garden’s upper pool was completely encrusted with attached zebra mussels. Needless to say, we were more than a little alarmed.
Realizing that the Garden’s lakes could indeed support massive growth of zebra mussels, the Garden’s science, horticulture, and maintenance staff quickly came together to devise a remediation strategy that would protect two critical components of the Garden’s infrastructure from “clogging” by zebra mussels: our irrigation system (which utilizes lake water to irrigate nearly all of our outdoor plant collections) and our building cooling systems (three of our public buildings extract lake water to support their air conditioning systems).
The Garden’s zebra mussel remediation team drew upon the best scientific expertise available in North America, which confirmed that there is no scientifically proven approach for removing all zebra mussels from a body of water. The team explored all potential options for eliminating zebra mussel impacts on our infrastructure, and ultimately settled on two approaches: first, the installation of automatic backwash filters to keep even the tiniest of zebra mussels from getting into our irrigation system (the youngest zebra mussels are about 70 microns in size, or about the width of a human hair), and second, the installation of conventional closed-loop “cooling towers” on the three Garden buildings that currently use lake water for air conditioning (thereby discontinuing all withdrawals of the lake water for building cooling). Final design of the backwash filtration systems and the cooling towers is currently underway, and our intent is to have everything installed and operational by spring 2017.
If you visited the Garden in 2016, you probably witnessed some of the zebra mussels’ ecological impacts to our lakes. Mid-summer lake water transparency in our lakes typically is about 3 to 4 feet—but in 2016, this increased dramatically to about 6 feet (likely due to the zebra mussels’ filtering abilities described earlier). This clearer water resulted in much great submerged aquatic plant growth in our lakes, and our aquatic plant harvester struggled to keep up. Many visitors commented that there was much more aquatic “weed” growth in the lakes this year—and they were correct.
In fact, there was so much aquatic plant growth in our lakes this summer that the water intake for Smith Fountain in the North Lake became clogged and the pump burned out. Look for a repaired Smith Fountain (with a more clog-resistant intake) to reappear next spring.
While there currently is no known way to eliminate zebra mussels from freshwater lakes and streams, Garden researchers intend to utilize the new aquatic research facilities in the emerging Kris Jarantoski Campus to explore experimental approaches, such as biological control agents, to potentially lessen the zebra mussels’ ecological impacts to our 60-acre system of lakes. Stay tuned.
Leaves are green. There are very few exceptions in healthy living plants, and most of the exceptions are partially green with red, yellow, orange, or white patterns; or they look white, but upon closer inspection they are actually whitish, bluish-green, and not pure white. The pigments that give all leaves their color are essential for the plant’s ability to harness energy from the sun and make sugars in the process we know as photosynthesis.
But every once in a while, a completely white seedling sprouts from a seed. This happened with some basil I grew a few years ago.
My albino basil survived only a few days. Without any chlorophyll—the green pigment necessary for photosynthesis—this seedling was doomed. That is the case with all albino plants. The gene mutation that gives rise to albino plants is fatal to the plant, because without the ability to make sugars, the plant runs out of energy to live.
So when I was perusing the online Burpee seed catalog and came across “variegated cat grass” I was curious. VERY curious, and perhaps you are, too.
I had several questions:
The term “variegated” implies that the leaves would be striped or multicolored, but in the picture it appears that there are all white leaves. What will this grass actually look like?
How long will it take to sprout?
How easy it to grow?
Is there enough green on those leaves for the grass to survive or will it die off like my basil?
If it does survive, how long can I keep it growing?
And most importantly:
Would this make an awesome science activity for students in the classroom and at home to investigate the importance of chlorophyll in plants?
There was only one way to find the answers. I ordered the seeds and grew some variegated cat grass in our nature lab at the new Learning Center. You can do this in your classroom to find answers to my questions and your own.
Before I give you directions for growing cat grass, you may be wondering:
What IS cat grass?
The cat grass you may have seen sold in pet stores is usually a type of wheat, or Triticum. Our “variegated cat grass” is a type of barley (Hordeum vulgare variegata). Both are cereal grains that have been cultivated as food for hundreds of years. Both are sold commercially as cat grass because some cats like to chew on the leaves. Not being a cat owner, I don’t know if cats actually like this stuff, but apparently it sells.
Variegated barley was the result of science experiments on genetic mutations in barley seeds in the 1920s. The hybrid barley seeds have been packaged and sold by different seed companies because…well, they’re attractive and intriguing—they caught my attention.
How to plant cat grass, barley, wheat, or any grass seeds
A container that will hold soil at a depth of at least 2 inches; drainage holes are best, but not necessary
Variegated cat grass seeds (sold as “cat grass, variegated” and available at Burpee and other seed suppliers)
A warm, sunny location for your plants
Fill the container with moist potting soil. Spread seeds on the surface of the soil. Cover seeds with a thin layer of moist soil and tamp the soil down so that most of the seeds are covered. It’s all right if you can see some of the seeds through the thin layer of soil. Place in a warm, bright location. The seeds will sprout in a few days, but may take a week depending on the room temperature.
If students plant their own individual pots, have them place 20 – 30 seeds in each 3-inch container. The seeds I bought came 300 to a pack, so that means you need at least two (maybe three) packs to have enough for everyone in the class.
You can also use the whole pack in a 8- to 10-inch container, or even spread more seeds in a foil baking pan filled with soil to grow a carpet of grass. The more densely you plant the seeds, the closer the plants will grow together and it will look and feel more like a healthy lawn. A sparser planting makes it easier to observe individual plants. It’s up to you how you want to do it, really.
Keep the grass in a warm, sunny location. Water when dry, but do not allow it to dry out. When the grass leaves are more than 3 inches tall, use a sharp pair of scissors to trim them to a uniform height just as you would mow a lawn. This will prevent the grass from going to seed and keep it alive longer. You can plant new seeds in the same planter to revitalize in two to three weeks when it starts looking a little tired.
Now the REAL science part:
Whether you make a single classroom planter or have each student plant her own pot, observe your variegated cat grass for the next four to six weeks, or even longer. Keep it watered and trimmed. Measure its growth. Take photos or sketch it to record how it grows and changes. Ask your own questions and try to find answers, and ultimately reach a conclusion about what happens to white plants. If you and your class are really interested, plant some more cat grass and change the procedure to test your own ideas. It’s that easy to do plant science in your classroom.
Want more albino plant science? Read on.
More activities for inquiring minds
You can experiment with other genetically modified albino seeds available through science supply companies.
Carolina Biological Supply Company sells hybrid corn that will grow white leaves and stems. I have planted these seeds and they work pretty well, but require a bright window or light and a warm environment to sprout successfully. A classroom kit contains soil, planting trays, and 500 seeds for a classroom investigation, and costs about $100. You can order just the seeds in packs of 100 genetic corn seeds that are all albino (90 percent of the seedlings will grow to be albino) for $18.50, or a green/albino mix—which means about 75 percent of seedlings will be green and 25 percent white, for $10.50. The latter enables you to compare the mutation to the normal strain.
Nasco sells seeds and kits to investigate albino plants. Their “Observing the Growth of Mutant Corn Seeds” kit serves up to 40 students and costs $62.50. Nasco also has albino tobacco seeds with 3:1 green to white ratio, 1,200 seeds for $12.05. Tobacco seeds are smaller, and therefore more difficult for little fingers to handle than corn or barley. I have never tried growing them, but that might be my next science project this fall.
The answer to my question? Yes! This is an awesome science activity for students because it’s easy and demonstrates something really important—in fact, something essential to our existence!
You don’t need to purchase the fancy kits to investigate why plants are green. You can get a lot of good science learning out of a pack of variegated cat grass. All you really need to do is look around you and notice the colors in nature. Do you see white leaves anywhere? If you do, then there is probably a science investigation waiting for you.