Summer won’t be over for a while in my book—not as long as there are dragonflies around. I think I’ve seen more dragonflies this year at the Chicago Botanic Garden than I have in the past ten years combined. The quick, strong fliers seem to be everywhere.
Some of the dragonflies migrate south toward the Gulf Coast through September and maybe beyond. With the help of citizen observers, scientists are studying the migration patterns of this fascinating insect, which has a near 360-degree field of vision that helps it avoid predators.
The most abundant dragonfly I’ve seen this year is the Eastern pondhawk, with blue dasher dragonflies coming in a close second. I’m also seeing quite a few damselflies, which are generally smaller and more thin-bodied than dragonflies and tend to hold their wings above their bodies. (See my blogpost Damselflies 101 for more information.)
Dragonflies and damselflies, both in the order Odonata, can spend several years as aquatic nymphs before they emerge into the beautiful winged insects we see on land, which is why you will often see them around water. They are fierce hunters in both stages. They don’t bite or sting humans, though.
Dragonflies can be found here from March through the first hard freeze in the fall. Right now, you might even be lucky to find yourself in the middle of a migrating swarm of green darners, black saddlebags, or wandering gliders as they head south. About 90 different odonates can be found in the Chicago area. Each one is a delight to behold.
Dragonflies are territorial and will often chase off other dragonflies, only to return to their favorite perch. A favorite place to find them at the Garden is around the waterlilies and lotus blossoms, but you can spot them throughout the 385-acre grounds. Drop by and keep an eye out for the dragonflies near the late-summer blooms.
Are your summer container gardens in need of a fall makeover? Good news! There are many fall-flavored plants that will provide you with texture, form, and long-lasting colors in both flowers and foliage.
I love the combination of purple or blue asters (Symphyotrichum) with ornamental kale as the colors play off each other nicely for a long-lasting fall container. Using other lesser-known plants, such as some of the fall-blooming Salvias or sage can add height and lend to very interesting combinations in your container gardens. Try using cold-hardy vegetables and adding herbs to create interest and texture to any combination. I like using Swiss chard, broccoli, Asian greens, parsley, and onions (Allium) for interesting and colorful effects.
Here are a few tips for planning your fall containers:
To achieve a fuller effect, use more plants than you would in the spring or summer. As the days begin to get shorter and the nights get cooler, plant growth is slowing down or ceasing. By planting a fuller container, you will see immediate results that can last for the remainder of the fall season.
Try to plant by early September to give your plants a chance to kick in with some growth before the cooler temperatures and shorter days slow things down. Remember, many plants available for fall container gardens can take temperatures in the 20s Fahrenheit without being damaged, while many plants actually begin to show better foliage colors with cooler temperatures. These include ornamental kale and cabbage, Heuchera, and many ornamental grasses as well.
Select plants that have a variety of tones that contrast and set off each other. Think about using colorful cultivars of Heuchera for their many foliage colors, and colorful grasses or grass-like plants, such as Pennisetum, Carex, Juncus, or the black foliage of Ophiopogon. See the list below of other fall plants to consider for your containers.
Remember, a pot of mums looks fresh for three to four weeks at most, and then the show is over. Showy foliage from grasses or kale and cabbage will carry the display much longer.
The fall foliage on evergreen succulents (Sempervivum ‘Hens and chicks’), and many of the stonecrop (Sedum) cultivars changes and develops more dramatic color once the temperatures stay cool.
If you must have flower power, consider long- and late-blooming Salvia, Cuphea, or fall pansies or violas.
When nighttime temperatures drop below freezing, have light blankets, large pots, or even an empty trash barrel handy to cover your container and protect the plantings from frost.
As November passes, the time will come to disassemble your planter. Carefully place your hardy plants in a nursery bed or empty space in your vegetable garden plot to hold them over until next spring, when you can plant them in a permanent home to enjoy for another season.
Here are a few fall plants and items that can be added to your fall container gardens:
Capsicum, ornamental peppers
Dianthus cultivars, ‘Sweet William’ and other Pinks
Brassica varieties, ornamental kale and cabbage
Pansies and violas
Perennials, trees, shrubs:
Chrysanthemum, hardy fall mums
Helianthus and Helianthoides, perennial sunflowers
Sedum and Sempervivum, and other succulents
Fall foliage color with trees and shrubs; maples, cornus, viburnum, spirea, and others
Pennisetum cultivars, including ornamental millet
Muhlenbergia, Muhly grass
Stipatenuissima, Mexican feather grass
Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem
Other fall items:
Gourds and squash
Fall decorative items; scarecrows, Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations
At Butterflies & Blooms on Monday, I saw something I had never seen before in my five years as a butterfly wrangler at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I noticed that a leopard lacewing’s right wings were bright orange, just like any other male of the species, but the left wings were beige—only females have beige wings. This lacewing was half male and half female, or a gynandromorphic butterfly.
That morning, when I had discovered the male-female lacewing, butterfly visitors had been waiting for me to release butterflies from the pupae chamber. So I packed up the lacewing, with all of the other newborns. I then released each of the two dozen butterflies that had hatched that morning, saving our special discovery for last. I got everyone’s attention and announced, “This is extremely rare! As a butterfly wrangler, I have released many thousands of butterflies, but this is the one and only butterfly that is literally half male and half female!” The visitors were fascinated by the lacewing, which sat on the tip of my finger. Then it took flight and was free in the blink of an eye. Luckily, one of our volunteers snapped some beautiful photos.
Later, it occurred to me that this specimen could actually be a valuable contribution to science, and if nothing else, something that everyone should get a chance to see. I tried to find and capture it so an expert could take a closer look. A full day went by without anyone seeing it. I was afraid we had missed an opportunity to contribute something special to the scientific community, but our luck was about to change.
On Wednesday morning, I was chatting with a young butterfly enthusiast about the gynandromorphic lacewing. I asked him if he could keep an eye out and possibly help me find it. He said, “Oh, you mean like this one?” He turned and pointed to the rare creature, which was sunbathing just behind his head. I couldn’t believe it. I offered to name the butterfly after him, but he modestly declined. I’m still trying to reach out to experts. Meanwhile, after that, I brought the special butterfly back into the pupae chamber, where it has been on display to visitors. I have been feeding it by hand, using a piece of foam dipped in fruit juice and Gatorade, which the butterfly seems to love.
Here is a little information about gynandromorphism. Gynandromorphs are very rare, but can be found in birds, fish, crustaceans, and butterflies, among other organisms. Usually, gynandromorphs have an uneven mixture of male and female features, but our special butterfly has an even rarer form of gynandromorphism because the male and female traits are bilateral, meaning they are split perfectly down the center of the body. How rare are we talking? In a 1980s study, only five out of 30,000 butterflies displayed gynandromorphism.
So how does gynandromorphism occur? There are several possibilities having to do with mishaps that occur during early cell division. Butterflies have a W and a Z chromosome for female and male, respectively. Sometimes, the W and Z chromosomes get stuck together during cell division, resulting in a mixture of male and female traits. In another scenario, the embryo is “double fertilized,” resulting in both female and male nuclei throughout the organism. The causes include bacterial or viral infections, ultraviolet radiation, and other environmental factors that can alter an organism’s DNA during division and growth.
In any case, it’s cool to have a butterfly with such a rare deformation that is still fully able to exist as a healthy adult, sipping nectar and basking in the adoration and fascination of its fans. We have not yet named this butterfly, so please leave some suggestions. The typical lifespan of an adult butterfly is about two weeks, so drop by Butterflies & Blooms and say hello to our newest celebrity.
When Science First student Divine isn’t at the Chicago Botanic Garden, she’s in her backyard, trying to use her iffy, only-works-when-it-wants-to telescope and peering into the future. Someday, she wants to be an astrophysicist and help put people into space.
As part of Science First each summer, about 40 students from Chicago Public Schools travel to the Garden by school bus from designated stops all around the city to spend up to four weeks being immersed in a free, nature-based science enrichment program. Science First inspires students in grades 8 to 10 who come from backgrounds underrepresented in science to pursue careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math.
Divine, who is from the Chicago neighborhood of Ashburn, will be a freshman at Lindblom Math and Science Academy next year. Another participant, Alexis, who is from Little Village, begins his freshman year at Northside College Preparatory High School in the fall. Both students have a strong interest in science and were first-time Science First participants this summer.
Divine’s church youth group leader recommended that she apply to the program, which seemed a perfect fit—her interest in science is rooted in the books she read as a child. Divine has always loved reading and would sometimes get in trouble for it. The books she doesn’t want to put down even today are cosmos-related or anything about planets, stars, and galaxies. She wants to learn about how the world works on earth before learning about what’s in space.
“I like the world around me and seeing how things grow,” Divine said. “I like space a lot, but I want to know how it works down here before I learn about what’s up there.”
Alexis’s interest in science also started at an early age. He likes the rigors of science—following steps to get the results that show you what may or may not be the problem.
Last year, Alexis’s passion for procedures was ignited in his eighth-grade chemistry class, where he enjoyed doing experiments with different types of elements. These days, though, he is mostly interested in engineering.
“Before chemistry, I was interested in mechanical engineering, mostly robotics,” he said. “I feel like they can probably help us in the future, such as helping us care for our own environment.”
Alexis imagines combining a career in mechanical engineering with his interest in the natural sciences when, hopefully, robotics can someday be used to help remove or control invasive species in certain ecosystems.
This summer at the Garden, Divine and Alexis learned about issues including invasive species and climate change, and considered issues such as overpopulation and lack of food. In the process, they learned about scientific inquiry and research—tools to take away, no matter what path they choose.
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library has a wonderful rare book collection, and soon it will be able to share some of those rare gems with the world.
Selections from The Language of Flowers collections are being digitized and conserved with a new grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and those selections will be uploaded to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. This work will add to the body of knowledge on the subject of language of flowers, at the intersection of art, botany, and poetry.
Also being digitized is Garden Talk, the Chicago Horticultural Society’s membership magazine that was published from 1945, 1953-2007. Chicago’s gardening trends and fads, techniques, and ecological strategies were all fodder for editorial content. Once digitized, the columns will be available at the Illinois Digital Archives with new grant funding from the Illinois State Library.
Note: Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations on this web page do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.