The Home Stretch

Traveling along a quiet, dusty road in the western United States, Shannon Still, Ph.D., is on the lookout for an evasive plant. He hopes to find it before it disappears to another location, or just disappears altogether.

A postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Dr. Still is investigating nearly 500 plant species living in parts of 11 western states from Washington and Montana south to Arizona and New Mexico.

Dr. Still identifies rare plants in California.
Dr. Still identifies rare plants in California.

“Between now and 2080, most of these species are predicted to lose suitable habitat,” said Still. By acting now, his hope is that he can help direct future research and conservation resources toward preserving species in greatest need.

Rolling in the Dust
On this trip, he was hunting for the federally endangered Siler pincushion cactus (Pediocactus sileri). Similar to most others on Still’s list, Siler pincushion is a rare species, meaning few plants exist, or those that do are loosely spread over a large area. 

Like most rare species, it is also very particular about its living conditions — surviving only where elements like the type of soil and pollinator match its preferences.

The Garden research vehicle awaits Dr. Still in Utah’s San Raphael Swell.
The Garden research vehicle awaits Dr. Still in Utah’s San Raphael Swell.

The cactus only grows on gypsum, an uncommon soil type. So, Still hopped into a Garden research vehicle and drove to where gypsum can be found, in the Arizona Strip — a range of desert located just north of the Grand Canyon in southern Utah.

He was glad to find populations of Siler pincushion continuing to exist where they had been previously documented.

But, he was elated to discover another 500 individuals, or an additional 5 percent of the total number of individual plants.

His excitement was short-lived. Back at the Garden, he compared the plants’ precise locations to expected habitat changes in those areas as a result of climate change — temperature increases, changes in rainfall, or other shifts.

Siler pincushion cactus is slightly larger than Dr. Still’s notebook, shown here in Arizona southeast of Colorado City.
Siler pincushion cactus is slightly larger than Dr. Still’s notebook, which is shown here in Arizona southeast of Colorado City.

Although Siler pincushion has a firm grip today, its future is on shaky ground.

Sadly, this is the case for many rare plants.

Where the Pollen Goes
If their current habitat changes as significantly as is predicted, these species could drop off the map. Unless, that is, with the help of pollinators they are able to move to new locations, which may become more livable as a result of climate change. If they do, he wants a forwarding address.

Joining Still in front of his computer, I was amazed to see the number of charts and graphs he had created for this purpose.

A plant scientist with computer-programming expertise, he has written code to build evaluation tools and populated them with data he collected in the field and elsewhere.

“We’re making models for the current predictions which helps us then look ahead decades to the 2020s, 2050s, and 2080s,” he said. “Instead of using several different programs, I can write everything through one interface.”

Unlike common plants, which are expected to migrate north as temperatures warm, Still has found that there is no such norm for his study plants. “What we’re seeing for the rare species is that there is no given direction. It is much more complicated,” he said.

One graph he showed me was covered with arrows of varying lengths and directions. There, he had plotted the anticipated direction and distance of movement of hundreds of species.

“I really enjoy working with people to solve problems and find different ways to do things,” said Still. Learn more about his work.

A Course for Expansion
A small number of rare plants are expected to remain in relatively unchanged habitat areas, he found. In fact, climate change may actually expand the number of places where they can thrive. The San Joaquin woollythread (Monolopia congdonii) is one of those. Still’s chart showed that this federally endangered herb is likely to grow in population by 20 percent and expand to new areas that will become more desirable.

Himalayan blue poppy is now grown and displayed in gardens across the country.
Himalayan blue poppy is now grown and displayed in gardens across the country.

Which Road to Travel?
This three-year research project is well on its way to mapping the species and habitat areas to receive extra attention in the near future.

However, it seems even more challenging to predict how far Still could go in coming years. His master’s thesis on the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis) paved the way for the dazzling flower to be grown and displayed at public gardens around the United States.

This includes the Chicago Botanic Garden, where the poppies were recently displayed in the Greenhouses and the Regenstein Center.


Learn more about this story in the fall issue of the Garden’s member magazine, Keep Growing. Join the Garden now to receive your copy!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Prairie Patrol

Stranded, a purple coneflower stretches up from an unplowed slice of Minnesota grassland, signaling for help like a shipwrecked sailor on a desert island. Separated from its lifeline — a native prairie filled with plants and pollinators — it illustrates a widespread threat to the entire species.

This specimen arises with a few relatives from a remnant bound by railroad tracks and row crops. It is one of 27 study sites in Douglas County, Minnesota, evaluated each year by Stuart Wagenius, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Although this plant may survive many more years, he says, it is unlikely to produce offspring due to its isolation. This is serious trouble for a species that relies on a habitat that has already dwindled to 1 percent of its original size. 

Prairie, says Dr. Wagenius, “is one of the most endangered habitats in the world. We want to learn as much about it as we can in part because the opportunity is fading, but also because there are opportunities for us to conserve it.”

Despite having been scraped by a snowplow the prior year, this roadside Echinacea angustifolia plant bore the most heads seen during a long-term study.
Despite having been scraped by a snowplow the prior year, this roadside plant bore the most heads seen during a long-term study.

His research focuses on Echinacea angustifolia, or narrow-leaved purple coneflower, a prominent prairie species native to Minnesota. Begun as his doctoral research project in 1996, it has since become a lifelong mission. He wants to create an improved habitat for existing plants, and increase the species’ ability to reproduce and thrive.  

Each year, he watches the plants on his study sites for damage from a triple-edged sword—pollination, genetic, and ecological issues.

The Pollination Puzzle
When the prairie stretched from horizon to horizon more than 100 years ago, Wagenius explains, a bee could have flown endlessly from flower to flower, carrying and delivering pollen. Are these insects still able to do their job?

Wagenius’s research has shown that the coneflowers continue to receive adequate visits from native bees. In fact, as he gave me a tour of his lab, he showed me an impressive collection of preserved sweat bees—small, emerald-green locals who have not succumbed to the plight of so many bees like the nonnative honey bees.

A native sweat bee collects pollen from a purple-leaved coneflower.
A native sweat bee collects pollen from a purple-leaved coneflower.

Instead, the problem is that the bees can only carry pollen so far. When they have few plants to work with in a small area, the pollen they deliver is not always accepted by the recipients.

The Genetic Glitch
After a few generations, Wagenius explains, all of the coneflowers in a small prairie become related, sharing pollen and some of the same genes. Then, if a bee delivers pollen with the same genes as the recipient plant, the pollen is likely to be rejected. In that case, no new seeds would be produced and no new generation of coneflowers would exist.

“Studying the genetics has offered some pretty good insight into what is going on in these small populations,” he says.

If related pollen is accepted, inbreeding can occur, which often results in weak offspring. Both issues diminish prospects for future generations.

Larger prairies are one potential solution to this problem. The other, Wagenius has found, lies right at his feet.

Wagenius and students discuss the discovery of a fly larva found eating pollen on a plant.
Wagenius and students discuss the discovery of a fly larva found eating pollen on a plant.

The Ecological Equation
In the past, natural fires on the land encouraged plants to flower, leading to new mating opportunities and refreshing local genetic diversity. Development meant the end of most of those fires. So, Wagenius and his team encourage trained land managers to restore fire through controlled burns.

When Wagenius returns to fieldwork this June, he plans to start with a blaze. He will conduct such a burn on a private landscape to increase the number of flowering plants and improve their chances of successful pollination and seed production.

A Family Affair
To begin fieldwork, he will meet on one of the larger study sites with his academic collaborators—including his wife Gretel, who is a botanist, and graduate and undergraduate students. His stay will be long enough that his other family members will join him there.

Researchers count leaves in a plot where 10,000 individual specimens were planted.
Researchers count leaves in a plot where 10,000 individual specimens were planted.

During fieldwork, he and his crew will measure the length and width of the leaves on each plant, and collect seeds that are later counted by Garden volunteers in a laboratory at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center.

These characteristics help document the fitness of the plants. He will also compare the size of each preserve to the number of incompatible coneflower mates by studying the plants’ genetic patterns.

In addition, Wagenius will meet with local land managers and organizations to share advice on effective techniques. For example, he has suggested a controlled burn rather than plowing and replanting. “I’m glad to promote good conservation practices,” he says.

“I study habitat fragmentation and its consequences,” says Wagenius. Watch a video and learn more about his work.

Fortunately, many people would like to help him save the prairie, from duck hunters to farmers. “I’m in the role of not telling people to do more, but telling them how to do it better,” he explains. “I like being a person in our society helping others to do the right thing.”

This summer, a vision of hope rather than hopelessness will accompany Wagenius as he stands on the prairie with his research team and, well, a few relatives.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Springing Forward in the Wild West

A race is on in the Colorado Plateau, where native and nonnative plants are battling to out-compete the other and lay claim to the land.  In this dynamic location bridging Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, the situation is heating up.

It’s a race scientists are not willing to gamble on. Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is working with a research team to determine how to give native plants the lead.

The Colorado Plateau stretches into Arizona.

Since invasive species such as cheatgrass arrived on the Plateau more than a century ago, they have fueled destructive fires and caused numerous other problems, according to Dr. Kramer.

These problems do not deter the expansion of cheatgrass, but they do inhibit many native species. This clears the way for more cheatgrass to grow each year. In this area that is home to numerous native animals including the nearly endangered sage grouse bird, a solution is imperative.

The cheatgrass invasion is an accelerating problem that once seemed hopeless. But now, building on research begun in the Garden’s Plant Production Greenhouse by Becky Barak, currently a Ph.D. student in the Garden’s joint graduate program in plant biology and conservation with Northwestern University, Kramer and her team have learned that native species are not as helpless as they once seemed.  Some of them may even be unlikely heroes.

“We’re focusing on the native wildflowers, particularly on the Colorado Plateau because they are so important to the functioning of those natural communities, and because so little is known about them,” said Dr. Kramer.

Andrea Kramer Ph.D.
Dr. Kramer samples and photographs study plants near Utah’s Zion National Park.

She has worked with botanists around the Colorado Plateau to identify specific species of native plants, categorized as native “winners,” that have naturally begun adapting to the new circumstances.

Unlike their counterparts in unaltered locations, these species have learned how to grow their roots deeper, faster to access water, or found other ways to gain an advantage. Not only are they capable of surviving in an unnaturally harsh environment, but Kramer believes they could prove to be smart and fast enough to help keep invasive species in check.

In labs at the Garden, she is working with graduate student Alicia Foxx to stage trials between cheatgrass and these plants in conditions nearly identical to those in the Plateau. Kramer’s goal is to identify the strongest native “winners.” Once they are known, she will work with local partners in the west to test the best seeds on the ground in this struggling landscape. Then, they will make sure the seed is available for restoration work — positioning the native “winners” for success.

“Ultimately, we want to get the right seed in the hands of the right people,” said Kramer.

Kramer’s field research began last year, and will resume in coming weeks. On a typical expedition, she flies into the Las Vegas airport — the closest access point to the Plateau. Along with fellow Garden researchers and graduate students, she climbs into a research vehicle and rolls into the field armed with data from the lab, a bundle of tools, and camping equipment. Over a series of days at a range of locations, they meet with local botanists and collect seeds from key locations to take back to the Garden lab for study.  

native winner vs. cheatgrass
In the Garden laboratory, a native “winner” on the left, battles cheatgrass, on the right.

This year, they are eager to return to a site they planted with native “winners” last year, in order to check for progress. The site, called Pine Ridge, experienced an extensive fire in July 2012 when lightning struck an area with abundant cheatgrass.

When compared to lab results, their findings will inform which seeds may go into development for restoration use on the Plateau.

The concept of native “winners” is helpful to many newer research projects in other locations, including Illinois. Another graduate student in the Garden’s program is beginning to apply the process to plants found in Illinois wetlands.

It is this opportunity for collaboration and expansion that most excites Kramer. “It’s a great project because it uses the expertise of many garden research staff members and engages students,” she noted. “We have this in-house expertise in working with the species, the labs here are unique, and the opportunity to engage students is also unique.”

Learn more about Dr. Kramer’s work and watch a video interview.

Kramer spent her youth exploring an agricultural area of Nebraska where she grew up. Her love of the outdoors led her to study botany in Minnesota, where she quickly became enamored with prairie plants. At the Garden, she takes every opportunity to stroll the Dixon Prairie. “It’s like revisiting old friends,” she said.

Clearly, Kramer is a good friend to have.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Coloring Between the Lines

As dusk fell over Illinois State Beach Park, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., perched silently beside the rare downy Indian paintbrush. He watched as the white-blooming Castilleja plant opened its tubular flower and emitted a sweet scent. The clock ticked past 6 p.m. Cautiously, a moth appeared out of the night sky, and fluttered over to sip the plant’s nectar. Bingo.

That moment, and subsequent research in Illinois and Colorado, led Dr. Fant, a molecular ecologist with the Chicago Botanic Garden, to become the first to document the moth as a pollinator of Castilleja with Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., his research partner and a conservation scientist at the Garden.

Dr. Fant in the field
Dr. Fant conducts fieldwork in the Comanche National Grasslands in Colorado.

Fant studies the importance of how flowers are designed to attract specific pollinators, and what a plant’s pollinator means for its survival as a species. “I am fascinated by the way these events can lead to permanent impacts on a plant population,” he said.

He recently explained the intricacies of the process to me, and why the palette of colors we see in the Garden and elsewhere is not only beautiful, but also functional.

The Palette of Pollinators
Pollinators—such as bees, birds, flies, and moths—offer specific benefits to plants, according to Fant. Birds travel expansive geographic areas, and can spread the pollen of a single plant over a large area. Bees, on the other hand, are more localized in their foraging, covering more plants in a condensed area. Where moths fall in this spectrum is not known: they may diversify the genes in a plant population by carrying pollen further than bees, but they may not travel as far as birds.

“The imprint left behind from genealogy is stamped on the landscape, and it’s my job to figure out how that pattern got there,” said Dr. Fant.

Plants Spin the Color Wheel
A flowering plant puts a lot of energy into producing a flower. Why? The purpose of flowers is to attract pollinators who will spread the plant’s genes— promoting the continuation of the species, said Fant. When a plant is red, it attracts birds as pollinators, but if it is yellow, it attracts bees. White flowers are particularly appealing to moths—especially those that bloom after sunset when moths are out and about. The color, combined with the scent, allows a plant to lure in a specific pollinator.

Connecting the Dots
This information led to a hunch when Fant considered the white flowers on the downy Indian paintbrush in Colorado and at Illinois State Beach Park, where he conducts much of his fieldwork. Most species of Castilleja plants produce red flowers and are known to be pollinated by birds. But here in Illinois, in the furthest east population of such plants, they chose a different color, and as he confirmed, a different pollinator. It is the question of why, and what that choice means for the plant, that Fant is now preparing to study when he returns to his field research this spring.

prairie aug-2574
Charismatic red flowers bloom on the gravel hill in the Dixon Prairie, Fant’s favorite area at the Garden.

Ultimately, Fant tracks how genes move within plant populations, which largely hinges on how they are carried by pollinators. He examines plant DNA to determine if they share one or more genes, and are therefore related. Then, he maps the location of related plants, tracking the movement of specific genes and inferring how and why they got there. “There’s always some reason for the movement,” he said.

This spring and summer, look for red flowers on the gravel hill in the Dixon Prairie, where Dr. Fant is growing unique bird-pollinated plants such as the royal catchfly, with the goal of increasing the plants’ genetic diversity.

Fant noted that moths are often overlooked as pollinators, and along with Dr. Skogen he is especially interested in studying their relationship with many kinds of plants. In addition to the Castilleja, he also studies rare species of the gravel hill in the Garden’s Dixon Prairie.

At the end of our conversation, Fant, dressed in a bright-yellow sweater, jumped up from his desk and headed toward his lab in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, where he is always moving forward to catch up with the past.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Finding the Perfect Match

PHOTO: Norm Wickett looks at moss.
Dr. Wickett looks for liverworts growing under the cover of other vegetation on a previous research trip to Costa Rica.

In the deep green landscape of Vancouver, British Columbia, Norm Wickett stood spellbound.  As an undergraduate biology major at the University of British Columbia, he was enchanted by the seemingly endless ribbons of moss wrapped around the region’s natural areas.

“My heart is in mosses,” he shared during our recent conversation in his office at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “My first love in biology is mosses.”

Many of us non-scientists might consider this common plant—often seen lurking in shadowed, damp areas, to be a turnoff. But to Wickett, Ph.D., now a conservation scientist at the Garden, it presents an irresistible puzzle. How did this plant, likely one of the first to have lived on land, evolve from relatively few species during the Jurassic period to the 15,000 species living today? How did it adapt to all of the environmental changes that occurred?

“I’m attracted to more primitive plants,” said Wickett. He enjoys observing early species in the Garden’s Dwarf Conifer Garden.

As the recipient of a new grant from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Wickett is working to put the pieces together. “This grant is going to allow me to get back into mosses and it’s a great opportunity,” he said.

Part of the National Science Foundation initiative called “Assembling the Tree of Life,” Wickett’s project is one of many branches of study the organization is funding to explore how all life is related.

His work, he believes, will answer important questions about the evolution of all plants from mosses to the conifers and flowering foliage that ensued. Also, it will allow him to identify the ways in which past environmental events, such as climate change, influenced the evolution of mosses, other plants, and animals. This type of knowledge will help researchers predict how plants could respond to future environmental changes.

The spore-bearing capsules of a species of Dicranum moss drew Wickett’s attention while he climbed to a high elevation in Costa Rica.

Wickett’s research process begins in growth chambers in the Garden’s Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. There, he nurtures plants for study. He then takes samples of them to capture the many strands of RNA, or genes, in each species. An expert in plant genetics, he uses new computerized technology to compare the genes of many species of moss and look for patterns.

Why are genetic patterns important? They draw a mazelike course scientists can follow to answer vital questions. Wickett will trace them from species to species in order to see which mosses share RNA and are therefore related. He will also use this information to determine when new species, which share some genes with earlier moss species but also carry some slightly different genes, emerged and what the environmental conditions were at the time that allowed them to thrive.

Timing is everything. He explained that the arrival of new genes must happen at the same time as a complimentary environmental condition for a new species to endure. For example, a plant which developed the ability to hold more water would have been successful during a drought, while it may not have survived during a flood.

Wickett noticed this patch of Sphagnum moss in Costa Rica at a high elevation.

The genetic change can only last, according to Wickett, if it occurs at a time when it gives the plant a benefit in its environment. “It’s a combination of genetic changes in the moss and changes in the climate and finding the change that is most successful,” said Wickett. “For all these things the first step is that there has to be a change in the genes.” Then, he said, “we can go back in time using computer modeling to see what caused the changes.”  These are the pieces Wickett plans to assemble into a bigger picture of evolution during the next three years of his research project.

It is too early to predict where his discoveries may take him, but for now, at least, it is clear that his heart is in the right place.


Look for liverworts, a relative of moss, growing in the Greenhouses on your next visit!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and