Beatrix Potter: Author, Illustrator, Naturalist, Environmentalist – An Early Woman in STEM

Like many children, I was fascinated with Beatrix Potter, the creator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. I remember wanting to visit Hill Top Farm, Potter’s home, after finding a photo of children reading by the fireplace in a National Geographic my parents had.

PHOTO: Hill Top Farm, near Sawrey, Cumbria. Photographed in 2012.
Picturesque Hill Top Farm was purchased by Beatrix Potter in 1905 with proceeds from the sale of her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Photo by Richerman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Those feelings returned after I saw Beatrix Potter: Beloved Children’s Author and Naturalist, on display through February 7 at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library. The exhibition gives wonderful insight into Potter’s early life and career, along with her love of nature and preservation. Here are ten things from the exhibition and beyond that you might not know about the beloved children’s author:

Potter was also an accomplished naturalist and botanical illustrator, although her paper On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae was dismissed by London’s Linnean Society—which had typical Victorian assumptions about women and their research.
Potter was an accomplished naturalist and botanical illustrator. However, her paper On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae was dismissed by London’s Linnean Society—which had a few assumptions about women and their research.
  1. Beatrix’s full name is Helen Beatrix Potter. She shares her first name with her mother, Helen Leech Potter, who was also interested in drawing and painting—common pastimes for upper-middle-class Victorian women. Beatrix used a paint box inscribed with her mother’s name, and she signed some of her drawings H.B.P.
  1. It was summer forays from the Potters’ London family home—first to Dalguise House in Perthshire, Scotland, and later England’s Lake District—that inspired Beatrix’s love of nature. Charles McIntosh, the postman Beatrix befriended in the Lake District, would collect mushroom specimens for her to draw. Some examples of her remarkable mycological illustrations are featured in the Lenhardt Library exhibition.
  1. She kept a secret journal between the ages of 15 and 30, and it was written in code. Though the journal was discovered in 1952, the code was not broken until 1958 by collector Leslie Linder, who then began a massive project to decipher the entire journal. The journal was published in 1966 and gives insights into her thoughts and daily life.
PHOTO: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in both original black-and-white, and color editions.
First published with black-and-white illustrations (inset), The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 45 million copies over the past century.
  1. Her most famous work, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was first self-published with black-and-white illustrations on December 16, 1901. Peter Rabbit started as a letter to Noel, the ill son of her former governess/companion. 
  1. She purchased Hill Top Farm with proceeds from book sales of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published by Frederick Warne & Co. (Beatrix had been engaged for a short time to her publisher, Norman Warne, but he died of leukemia before they married.) She learned too late that she had overpaid for the property and was embarrassed about it. Beatrix vowed to be smarter if she purchased additional property and decided she would seek the assistance of a solicitor. As she began to acquire more property, she secured the services of William Heelis. They later married in 1913, when Beatrix was 47 years old. 
  1. She raised sheep. As Beatrix spent more time at Hill Top Farm, she focused her time and energy on raising local heritage livestock—primarily Herdwick sheep—with Kep, her favorite collie. Beatrix dressed in Herdwick tweed skirts and jackets, served as a sheep judge, and was the first female elected president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association in 1943. Unfortunately, she died before she could serve.
PHOTO: Beatrix Potter (Mrs. Heelis) by Charles King, April/May 1913, with her favourite collie Kep in the garden at Hill Top Farm and wearing her familiar Herdwick tweed skirt and jacket.
Beatrix Potter (Mrs. Heelis) by Charles King, April/May 1913, with her favorite collie Kep in the garden at Hill Top Farm and wearing her familiar Herdwick tweed skirt and jacket.
  1. The Fairy Caravan, a longer book for older children published in 1929, is autobiographical. Marta McDowell, author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, wrote of The Fairy Caravan: “A very personal book, she wove in the birds and blooms of memory, writing of old gardens and woodlands of her grandparents’ home in Camfield.” Once I read the exhibition label, I quickly went to my local library and am now reading The Fairy Caravan for the first time.
  1. She was an ardent preservationist. Beatrix realized that times would change the Lake District she loved so dearly, and she eventually bought 14 farms comprising over 4,000 acres that she donated to the National Trust. Many of her illustrations are directly drawn from the Lake District countryside. If you visit the Lake District, consider ordering Walking With Beatrix Potter: Fifteen Walks in Beatrix Potter Country by Norman and June Buckley.
  1. Peter Rabbit is extremely popular in Japan. The exhibition shows this through a Japanese catalog of all things Peter Rabbit for purchase. There is even a life-sized recreation of Hill Top Farm you can visit near Tokyo that was built in 2006.
PHOTO: Waud felt figurine of Peter Rabbit.
Part of our Wonderland Express every year, our Waud’s felt figurine exhibit includes this beloved rascal—Peter Rabbit. Read more about the Waud felts here.
  1. Her Hill Top Farm still includes many small details of Beatrix’s life. Several years ago when I visited the farm, her clogs were still by the fireplace and, upstairs, the plaster ham Hunca Munca tried to carve in The Tale of Two Bad Mice was in the dollhouse. I almost expected Miss Potter/Mrs. Heelis to pop around the corner.

Beatrix Potter: Beloved Children’s Author and Naturalist closes on February 7, but the Lenhardt Library has a terrific selection of books about and by Beatrix Potter. Check out one of the books to learn more about Beatrix and her many contributions.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Mushroom Discovery

All the possibilities for the Obama Library plus our Windy City Harvest Youth Farm are featured on National Geographic’s website! Read about it in Greg Mueller’s article, The Next New Species Could be in Your Backyard: Why Exploration and Discovery Matter—Everywhere on National Geographic. Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation vice president of science at the Garden, describes the excitement of discovering new species in our own neighborhoods and parks.

Collection: Patrick R. Leacock 5450 2003 Aug 9 USA, Illinois, Cook County Illinois Mycological Association foray Herbarium: F, C0210207F
Photograph by Patrick R. Leacock

Read more by Garden scientists at
Copyright © 2014 National Geographic

Are You Really Going to Eat Those Mushrooms?

I don’t have to look outside to know that it has been raining lately. My phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from the Illinois Poison Center requesting help with potential mushroom poisoning cases. I helped with four different cases today! Three of them involved children; the other was a case of an adult eating something that “looked good to eat.”

Chlorophyllum molybdites, the green-spored lepiota, was the mushroom du jour. Three of the cases involved this toxic mushroom that is commonly found in yards after summer rains. It looks lovely, and it usually won’t kill you, but I’m told that it makes one sick enough that people think that they might die. Symptoms involve vomiting and/or diarrhea, often severe, starting one to three hours after ingestion. This is the most commonly eaten toxic mushroom in the United States.

PHOTO: Suburban lawn covered with mushrooms.
It might seem like a bumper crop of free eats in your lawn, but Chlorophyllum molybdites is toxic.

Today’s other culprit was Panaeolina foenisecii, known as the lawn mower’s mushroom, also commonly found growing in lawns. Unlike Chlorophyllum molybdites, this is no beauty. It is an LBM (little brown mushroom). It too can cause gastric upset and has been reported to cause slight hallucinations in some cases, but never in the numerous cases in which I’ve been involved.

PHOTO: Panaeolus foenisecii, or lawn mower's mushroom
Panaeolus foenisecii, or lawn mower’s mushroom, is also nonedible. (Photo with permission Michael Kuo,

Not all mushrooms growing in lawns are toxic. But the only way to tell is to know what the mushroom is (identify it). There are no short cuts or tricks to knowing whether a mushroom is toxic or not, so think before you eat! There are a number of mushroom books that can help (I’m partial to Wild Edible Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States by my colleague Joe McFarland and me). And a great way to learn mushroom identification is to join a club like the Illinois Mycological Association.

Identifying mushrooms and plants for the Illinois Poison Center and hospitals is something that I and other Chicago Botanic Garden staff gladly do. Freely sharing our expertise is part of the Garden’s commitment to the region.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Hunting for Gold in an Oak Woodland

Foraging for edible mushrooms is a treasure hunt that always yields a reward. You never know what you’re going to find. At the least, you’ve spent enjoyable time outdoors in nature.

PHOTO: Closeup of Mueller examining a mushroom.
Examining a woodland specimen

My tools are simple: a hand lens, knife, and a flat-bottomed basket that prevents any mushrooms I’ve collected from scrunching together. I like to wrap my finds in wax paper or wax paper bags. Paper bags can work too, but mushrooms tend to dry out after a while. (At the other extreme, mushrooms wrapped in plastic tend to sweat and can develop undesirable molds.) I typically head out in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt—protection against the poison ivy and bugs abounding in the woods.

I also carry knowledge that helps me discern among the more than 1,200 types of mushrooms identified so far in the Chicago metropolitan area. For more than 30 years, I’ve researched the vital role that fungi play in ecosystems around the world (but my interest in mushrooms and love of nature extends well beyond the laboratory).

Great finds: black trumpets, and more importantly—chanterelles!

PHOTO: Black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides)
A delicious find: black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides). Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont

Summertime is the fruiting season for two of my favorite edible mushrooms: chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides). Chanterelles are one of my very, very, very favorite things to collect.

I look for chanterelles in oak woodlands because chanterelles and oaks need each other to survive. The long fibrous root system of the chanterelle’s mycelium—the long-lived part of the mushroom comprised of microscopic filaments that grow through the soil—forms a protective sheath around the roots of the oak and provides the tree with water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. The symbiotic relationship allows the chanterelle to take up excess sugar the tree has produced through photosynthesis. We wouldn’t have a forest without mushrooms like chanterelles, and we wouldn’t have chanterelles without a forest.

PHOTO: Chantarelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius)
My favorite discovery: chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius)

Chanterelles have a yellow-gold color that makes them somewhat easy to spot on the woodland floor, and they offer up a fruity, apricot-like smell when picked. They do, however, bear a resemblance to the toxic jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), the second-most common mistakenly eaten mushroom in the United States. (The green-spored lepiota [Chlorphyllum molybdites] is the most common.) We can tell chanterelles from jack-o-lanterns when we turn them over and look at the underside of the cap: chanterelles are nearly smooth to strongly ridged, while the jack-o-lantern has well-developed gills like a grocery store mushroom.

Chanterelles are also getting a closer look from the scientific community. Until fairly recently, we assumed that the chanterelles growing around the world belonged to a single species. Subtle differences in color and size were attributed to normal variations within a species. DNA analysis suggests that the chanterelle genus contains myriad distinct species. My team of researchers has found three different types growing in the Chicago area alone, and we believe this is just the tip the iceberg. The findings have important implications for plant conservation. What are the threats to individual species of chanterelle? What will happen to local ecosystems if a unique species is lost?

PHOTO: A group of chantarelles found in the woods.
A group of chanterelles found in the woods

In early August I discovered my first chanterelles of the season growing in a nearby oak woodland. I won’t harvest these—it’s illegal to collect mushrooms in forest preserves in counties surrounding Chicago—but I can imagine the delectable mushrooms sautéed in butter or a little olive oil, and minimally seasoned (so I can enjoy the pure chanterelle taste). For a more substantial dish, a chanterelle omelet is just to die for.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and