Have you ever noticed the first crocuses poking out of the snow or the brilliant, changing colors of fall leaves? If so, we need your help with the critical work of studying how plants are affected by a changing climate.
Budburst, a project adopted by the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2017, brings together citizens, research scientists, educators, and horticulturists to study “phenology,” or the life-cycle events of plants. Wildflower phenology events, for example, are fairly simple: first flower, full flower, first fruit, and full fruiting. Deciduous trees, on the other hand, are more complex, with stages from first buds to leaf drop.
Budburst builds on the basic human drive to notice this kind of changing nature around us and record the information to a database for scientists to review. As director of Budburst, I’m excited to hear about your observations on Fall into Phenology, a study on the autumnal changes you see in plants, or the Nativars Research Project, which looks at how bees, butterflies, and other pollinators react to cultivated varieties of native plants.
Budburst’s Fall into Phenology is not limited to just leaf color and seed; it is about observing plants in the fall. This will be my second autumn with Budburst and the Garden, and I’m looking forward to watching some my favorite plants go through their life-cycle changes. I’ll be keeping an eye on the sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) underneath my window at the Regenstein Learning Campus, for instance. I can’t wait to see the beautiful shades of yellow or orange or…well, you just never know.
How do you bring an endangered plant species back from the brink of extinction? The answer might be found in zoo animals.
That’s the inspiration for Chicago Botanic Garden scientist Jeremie Fant’s latest research. Fant, a molecular ecologist and plant genetics guru, is working with other botanic gardens around the world to develop conservation and reintroduction plans modeled after the ones used by zoos to protect endangered animal species.
“When we conserve plant species, it’s possible to preserve hundreds of individuals, and the genetic information they contain, by banking their seed or using cuttings to propagate them,” said Fant. “But when this is not possible, these plant collections are maintained by continually crossing with other plants to produce new seed. This is akin to animals in zoo collections. Zoos have used genetic information to develop ‘studbooks’ to decide what crosses are compatible so they maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.”
Fant’s work is based on zoological cases including black-footed ferrets in the 1980s. Zoologists created a breeding program that ultimately reintroduced the threatened species back into the wild. The zoologists used genetic information taken from the remaining black-footed ferrets, and bred a strong, biodiverse population that could keep the animals healthy and, more importantly, increase numbers, which is the aim of all good conservation programs.
Fant’s work centers on one plant in particular: the Brighamia insignis, or “Cabbage on a stick,” or as we’ve fondly named it, “Cabby.” This is Cabby’s story:
To stay tuned on what Fant, and the rest of the Garden’s conservation scientists are doing, check out the latest news at chicagobotanic.org/research.
Why did five Midwestern horticulturists hike through the oak-hickory forests of the Missouri Ozarks? And why did we need a desiderata? The first question is easy—we were on the trail of specific wildflowers and woody plants to preserve and add to our collections.
In a trip funded by the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), a consortium of public gardens, Tom Weaver (horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden) and I (senior horticulturist, Entrance Gardens) joined Kelly Norris (the trip leader) and Josh Schultes of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, along with Steve McNamara of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Before we left, our desiderata—or essential list of desirable plants we would target—was developed, based on what plants our gardens deemed important for conservation, to fill a gap in our collections, or add beauty to our display gardens. And of course, we had the proper state and federal permits in hand for seed collecting. The six areas that we explored were typically oak-hickory forests, which opened up to rocky-soiled glades and provided for plentiful opportunity for collecting wildflowers.With an eye for distinct plant material and genetic diversity, we roamed through the uneven Ozarks terrain, but we weren’t tied to our wish list—we also found a couple of surprises.
Since seed-grown plants are reproduced sexually through pollination, via wind or insects/animals, they are genetically variable. A variety of genes can give each plant the best chance to exhibit a specific phenotype, or physical appearance, and better adaptability to survive pests and diseases. Where seeds are collected could have significant implications on whether a plant can survive in a given environment or not. For instance, we collected seeds of Echinacea paradoxa (yellow coneflower) from its northern most growing region, in Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Missouri. Selecting seeds of Missouri provenance gives this wildflower a better chance of survival in our region, rather than if the seeds had been collected in Texas. Plants that have a different phenotype from what we commonly observe in northern Illinois were of special interest to us. Fruit from Diospyros virginiana (common persimmon) was collected on a 4-foot-tall tree in Mark Twain National Forest because it is unusual to see fruit on a tree of such short stature. In a similar fashion, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry), was collected from the Big Buffalo Creek Conservation Area, after we all remarked at the stunning ornamental quality of the fruit display.
In some cases, we came across desirable plants, but they had already dropped their seed for the year, or simply didn’t produce any due to drought-induced stress. With the aid of GPS, we marked these areas so future explorers to the Ozarks are aware of these plants for their potential collections. For example, Boyce Tankersley, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s director of living plant documentation, was a part of a team that collected in many of these same areas in 2005; their field data was helpful in our search.
Although the Ozarks region experienced a late-summer drought that negatively impacted seed production in some instances, we were still able to make 71 collections from October 12 to 16. Our seeds will be grown in our plant production greenhouses. Once they achieve a certain size, they will be distributed to PCC members and planted in the Garden. I am ecstatic to cross Liatris punctata (dotted blazingstar) off the desiderata for use in my gravel garden project in parking lot 1. The seeds we collected should be ready to plant in these beds in two years.
Botanic gardens are looking at the ways that zoos are trying to save threatened and exceptional species—including whooping cranes, black-footed ferrets, and giants pandas—to see if their approach could be adapted and used to help save rare plant species.
Over the past year, the Chicago Botanic Garden has been working with the Brookfield Zoo, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and other institutions to modify management tools developed for zoo living collections for botanic garden use.
Scientists and curators at botanic gardens and zoos both manage populations—of plants and animals, respectively—for conservation purposes. This type of conservation, outside the habitat of the plant or animal, is called “ex situ” (off site) conservation. There is a lot of similarity between the best practices for living collection management at zoos and botanic gardens, but to date, we have not often worked together to adapt tools developed for animals to plants and vice-versa.
This may be due, in part, to the fact that plant conservation relies heavily on seed banking. Storing seeds is an effective conservation method for most plant species, and avoids many of the problems associated with growing plants in the garden. (Living plants may be killed or injured by diseases and pests, may hybridize with other plants in the garden, and over several generations, may change genetically in ways that make them less suited for reintroduction.) However, many plant species are not well-suited for seed banking, either because their seeds are recalcitrant—they cannot be dried and frozen—or because some plants rarely produce seeds. Living collections offer an alternative conservation method for these “exceptional” species.
In this recent paper in the American Journal of Botany, we describe an approach that botanic gardens could adopt to improve their management of rare plant species—based on the “studbook” approach zoos use for animals. We hope to test this approach in two rare plants next year: Quercus oglethorpensis (Ogelthorpe oak—found only in the southeastern United States), and Brighamia insignis (Ālula—found only on Kauai in Hawaii).
It is clear that zoos and botanic gardens have much to learn from each other, and we hope to work more with our zoo counterparts in the future.
Plants of Concern volunteers come from many backgrounds, but all share a common denominator: not surprisingly, they are concerned about plants.
So concerned are these citizen scientists, in fact, that they are willing to traipse all over our region of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana to monitor hundreds of rare, threatened, and endangered species in a variety of habitats. Their findings help plant scientists understand and work to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as encroaching urbanization and invasive species.
Bachelor’s degree from DePaul University in visual arts; master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University. Worked for many years as a director of religious education in the Episcopal church, in the commercial art field for more than a decade, and now as administrator and a lead teacher in a nature-based preschool. Earned a botanical art certificate from the Morton Arboretum. Helped develop the Field Museum’s Common Plant Families of the of the Chicago Region field guide.
I started volunteering with Plants of Concern in 2002. I learned about POC after a chance meeting at the REI store in Oakbrook with Audubon representative and Northeastern Illinois University professor Steve Frankel. Steve told me about POC, and that meeting changed my life in a huge way.
I monitor 25 species at nine different sites, including Grainger Woods in Lake County; Theodore Stone in Cook County; several high-quality prairies in Cook, DuPage, and McHenry Counties; and Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. POC assigned them to me because of my interest in and ability to ID many species of native orchids (there are more than 40 just in the Chicago region). But I monitor other plants besides orchids.
Volunteering for POC differs from most other volunteering positions I’ve held [at the Art Institute and the Field Museum] because there is a lot of independence, and also much more technical training. This citizen science is vital to the sites’ ecologists—most agencies don’t have enough funding to pay staff to collect the valuable, detailed information we do. Volunteers also are highly accountable, and you need to be really sure about your species. That knowledge comes over years of participation, but even if someone just participates once, and goes out with a more experienced monitor, the information collected helps fill gaps in our understanding of our natural areas. And it’s way more fun than playing Pokémon, once you get the hang of it!
My advice for prospective volunteers is to go out first with more experienced monitors. Learn from them—they are better than a digital (or even paper) field guide. Clean your boots off carefully beforehand; don’t track any weed seeds into a high-quality remnant. Observe more than just the monitored plants—look for butterflies, listen for birds, notice the dragonflies and frog calls. Tread lightly and watch your step. Bring extra water and a snack. Use bug spray. Learn what poison ivy is but don’t be afraid of it—just don’t get it on your skin! No matter how hot it is, I wear long trousers, long sleeves, a broad-brimmed hat, and thin leather gloves. Never, ever, go out in the woods alone. Let people know where you are going and when you plan to return. Watch the weather signs. Keep your cell phone charged and with you at all times.
Above all, enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience!
Bachelor’s degree in agriculture technology/animal sciences from Utah State University; master’s degree in food science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Trained as a food-science researcher focusing on meat quality. Researched pork quality for a commercial pig farm/processing plant and a pig genetic company.
I have been volunteering with Plants of Concern since 2012. I am interested in nature and enjoying the outdoors, and this is a fantastic program for me. My family always spent time hiking and fishing on weekends. I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, where we had easy access to mountains and the ocean—unlike in the Midwest. We also had a container garden on top of our four-story building, and I helped to take care of the plants.
For POC I primarily volunteer at Openlands, which is about 20 minutes from my house. However, I have also volunteered farther away, south to Will County, east to the city of Chicago, and north to Zion.
Plants of Concern involves many aspects of science: identifying target plants and knowing the plants surrounding them, locating target populations, and using statistical methods to measure populations. For me, the most fun thing is learning new things each time I come out to the field. Maybe it’s a new plant that I have never seen before, or a new hiking route. The most frustrating times are when it’s hard to find the target plant because the population is low.
The advice I have for prospective volunteers is to keep your curiosity alive!
Bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; master’s degree in botany from the University of Minnesota. Has taught botany at Harper College since 1987.
I have been interested in plants since I can remember. My father loved to hike, and my mother was a gardener. Instead of moving furniture around, my mother moved plants. We spent a lot of time outside.
I have volunteered with Plants of Concern since its beginning. I monitored white-fringed prairie orchids with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and many other plants with the Nature Conservancy even before then. I knew people (still do) at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I heard about the program from them, so it was sort of a transfer. I remember that when POC started, we worked in forest preserves. I understood why there was a desire to work in protected lands, but I said we needed to include other properties. And the program expanded beyond the preserves!
I actively monitor for POC at Illinois Beach State Park (IBSP) and also help out at Openlands when I have time. The forays are great fun. That’s my favorite thing: getting out there and being with other people and learning about new plants. At IBSP, visitors are expected to stay on the trail. Of course, most plants don’t grow right on it, but you can usually spot them. Once I was looking around for plants and saw this guy sort of thrashing around in the cattails. I reported him since he looked so bizarre out there, and it turns out he was a skipper [butterfly] expert taking samples for the Karner blue butterfly project. I met him later…a really nice guy, it turns out!
What makes Plants of Concern special is that it is so well run. The staff is quick on feedback and offers lots of help. The training programs are excellent. I’ve heard some terrific speakers, too. Other organizations sometimes don’t seem to have quite the staff or funding for their programs, which can make volunteering challenging. If I had to identify the biggest challenge as a POC volunteer, it would be the paperwork. With POC you can do the entry online, which helps. But filling out forms remains my least favorite thing to do…I just filled out a form [in August] for data collecting I did in May.
My advice to new Plants of Concern volunteers is to go to the workshops—even if you think you know the stuff. It’s amazing what you can learn. And when you first go out, it can be hard just to find the plants, even using a GPS, much less to know what to do when you find them. So go with experienced people!
Students at Harper College have volunteer workdays, and when mine return to the classroom after volunteering with POC groups, they always talk about how knowledgeable and interesting the volunteers are—and these are college environmental science students. It’s great that people can get together and share not just their knowledge but their enthusiasm through Plants of Concern.
Join the ranks of the dedicated people of Plants of Concern: volunteer today.
Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.