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  • Top 5 Favorite Pollinator Plants

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    Tags: plants, pollinators, top five list, top 5 plants, chicagoland plants, horticulture, botany

    Created: 4/25/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    The world-famous PNNMPFPGS (Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale) is in full swing! Plants are selling like hotcakes in the magical world of cyberspace at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale. You’re understandably excited, and probably opening a new browser tab as we speak. But don’t get distressed if you notice some ‘sold out’ messages. There’ll still be plenty of plants available for purchase IRL on May 8th here at the museum.

    To help you keep that excitement percolating until sale day, let me drop some details about five of the pollinator favorites we will be offering.

    Lesser Calamint

    Lesser Calamint (Calamintha nepeta)

    Not to be confused with catmint (Nepeta spp.) Or catnip (Nepeta cataria.) Or Catwoman (Julie Newmar.) Calamint is more well-behaved than any of those, though it may spread a bit by seed.  Growing only a foot or two tall, it produces a seemingly endless supply of small, white flowers on neat panicles from June to September. The foliage stays tidy and offers a pleasant, minty aroma. Spent flower heads look pretty cool in the winter, so you won’t want to cut them back until spring. Best of all, though, bees of many kinds go absolutely bugnuts (get it?) over calamint. A calamint without bees would be like…indoors, I guess? I don’t know how else that would be possible. 

    Sweet Alyssum

    Sweet Alyssum

    Alyssum is a delicate, precious plant – so sweet and dainty, with wiry little leaves and tiny, honey-scented flowers. Why, just look at it! One can hardly believe such a thing exists on the same planet as botflies, Ebola, and trial lawyers. But then, alyssum doesn’t just exist. It thrives. And frankly, it doesn’t appreciate your twee condescension. It blooms continuously throughout the spring (into summer if it’s not too hot) and again in fall if you chop it back a bit during the dog days. And those pleasant little flowers are potent pollinator attractors, bringing in all sorts of small bees and nectar-loving flies.

    October Skies

    October Skies ‘ Aromatic Aster

    Three things I love about this plant:

    • Rabbits hate it.
    • Butterflies love it.
    • It stays low, neat, and dense, and unlike some other asters, never needs staking.

    One thing I hate – that some botanist in search of something to do decided to change the genus name from the simple, evocative, and universally understood “aster” to the pedantic and thoroughly unspellable “symphyotrichum.”

    Cardinal

    Cardinal Flower

    This plant has a reputation, and not in a good way. People say it’s picky. Short-lived. Wants to be coddled with extra watering. Bupkis! With a little afternoon shade, it needs no more watering than your average perennial. Short-lived? No more so than coreopsis or columbine, and nobody complains about them. Seriously, give it a try – that striking, pure red color is a rare treat in the perennial garden.  And hummingbirds love it!   

    Impatiens

    Impatiens

    I know what you’re thinking: either I’ve gone off my rocker or I have no idea what I’m talking about.  Because everybody knows impatiens don’t attract pollinators. Before you write an angry, embarrassingly misguided letter to your congressman, hear me out. Let’s face it: butterflies like sunshine. They don’t spend much time in the shade, and few shade plants have formed mutually beneficial relationships with them. But people do like shade. And in a big city with lots of big, spiky buildings like Chicago, shade is all many of you have in your yards and on your patios. So I chose impatiens for the garden sale, as they will bloom quite reliably in shade. Are you likely to see a bunch of butterflies busily nectaring on impatiens? No. But they are the ONLY full-shade annual I am aware of that can and does feed the occasional wandering butterfly. So step aside, and let sunlight-impaired butterfly gardeners take a shot. (A long shot, admittedly.)

    Seth Harper photo and signature

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

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  • Support Pollinators During Our Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale!

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    Tags: pollinators, plants, horticulture, botany

    Created: 4/12/2016      Updated: 7/7/2016

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    Guys.

    GUYS.

    Do you realize what is happening RIGHT NOW at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale? Well, if you were gifted with even the vaguest ability to make discernments from contextual clues, I don’t need to tell you. But for the rest of you (bless your hearts), let me spell it out. We are having a Garden Sale!  The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale (or PNNMPFPGS, for the simplicity’s sake) has begun, with pre-sale online ordering (at a discount!) Why should you be excited about the PNNMPFPGS? Because of the PFP part, naturally!

    PFP (Plants for Pollinators) is a thing people are into these days, and for good reason. Planting a garden that can attract and feed pollinating species of insects and birds is like putting ice cream on a brownie. Sure, brownies are great, but when you add ice cream, you get a treat truly worthy of the inevitable, ensuing weight gain. Growing a garden is also great. But a garden that’s alive with bugs and birds – now that’s a real, brownie-and-ice-cream level experience!

    Besides, pollinators do so much for us (over thirty percent of our food crop production relies on them) and we don’t always treat them well in return. Habitat loss and improper pesticide use have negatively impacted many populations of pollinators. Providing them with extra food in the form of beautiful garden flowers can really make a difference!

    So check out the pre-sale, but if you’re the type that prefers to buy in person, come down to the museum on May 8th from 10am-4pm to pick out your plants. We’ll have everything you need: annuals, perennials, and knowledgeable horticulturists (who are handsome but in an approachable kind of way) to answer your questions. As if all this wasn’t enough, watch this space for more info on pollinator gardening as the season progresses.

    Here’s just a small sampling of the plants we are offering:

    Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ – Dwarf Joe Pye Weed

    Not much is better at drawing in butterflies than Joe Pye Weed. But your typical version of this plant gets really tall and can require staking. Not this “dwarfish” variety. It still tops out at a rather impressive 3’-4’, but it stays manageable and doesn’t flop as much as other varieties.

    Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ – Claire Grace Wild Bergamot

    Bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds find this long-blooming native irresistible. This variety is less prone to foliar diseases than your standard, run-of-the-mill Wild Bergamot.

    Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’ – ‘October Skies Aromatic Aster

    Asters provide nectar late into the fall, which is crucial for bees as they store up honey for the winter.   Monarchs also appreciate snacking on Asters as they migrate southward.

    Good stuff, right? And that was just a taste!  But maybe you’re new to gardening, and feeling a little intimidated. Take a deep breath. If you need some basic know-how, look no further than your taxpayer-funded, University of Illinois’ Cooperative Extension Service. They’ve got knowledge galore, like so:

    http://extension.illinois.edu/annuals/

    http://extension.illinois.edu/perennials/

    See? Couldn’t be easier. So are you stoked about pollinator gardening now? Good, cause we’re super-stoked about helping you make it happen! 

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

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  • Donald T. Ries Photography Collection: A Museum Intern's Perspective

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    Tags: Archives, photography, 35mm slides, Donald T. Ries, flowers, botany

    Created: 10/8/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Donald T. Ries passed away in 1967. For the past four months I have been the Collections-Photography Intern for the Collections Department, cataloguing Ries’ work that is housed in the Archive. When I applied for the position, I thought I was going to be working more with cameras or scanners, and while that may still be in store for Ries' collection my job so far entails cataloguing, researching, and identifying the subjects of his photographs.

    In 1969, Ries' sisters donated over 10,000 of his nature photography images, in the form of 35 mm slides and black and white negatives to the Academy. Ries’ collection was accessioned into the collection all those years ago but methods for cataloguing have since become more rigorous. Luckily for me, the museum has not had the resources to allocate towards addressing those changes, so Amber and Dawn brought me in to start attending to those needs. Throughout the process I have gained hands-on experience with contemporary cataloguing techniques and object handling. I have also seen just how time consuming and arduous managing and maintaining a museum collection can be; a great lesson for a museum studies graduate student like me.

    Drawers from the storage cabinet received with the Donald T. Ries photography donation

    Drawers from the storage cabinet received with the Donald T. Ries photography donation

    I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Donald T. Ries. From my personal research, I found that Ries was a biology professor at Illinois State University and he belonged to an amateur photography club, from which he won several awards. He spent his summers pursuing and working on his passion for nature photography by researching and recording different natural environments and their inhabitants. Ries then spent the time to label most of his images with the appropriate scientific name or taxonomy.

    Chimaphila umbellata, Pipissewa or Prince’s Pine

    Image of Chimaphila umbellata, Pipissewa or Prince’s Pine

    Part of cataloguing Ries’ images involves using the USDA Plants database to verify and confirm the information on Ries’ labels. The database also maps the natural habitats for the flora I am investigating, highlighting the states where they grow naturally. Those maps and the dates on Ries’ slides allow me to “play detective,” inferring in what regions of the country Ries was when he took certain images. My favorite part of the internship has been mentally mapping Ries' travels. I imagine him preferring a trip to southern Canada in July where the Lady Slipper Orchid might be in bloom over a vacation at a beach resort in some tropical climate.

    Cypripedium arietinum, Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper

    Image of Cypripedium arietinum, Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper

    Another rewarding aspect entails researching the unidentified slides, trying to find and attribute the correct taxonomy to the species in each image. With little more than a descriptive vocabulary and a growing understanding of the botanical language, I pore over hundreds of images from the Internet trying to discover the species of plant at which I am looking. I cannot describe the satisfaction I receive every time I scour through countless images, and find a flower similar to the slide I am studying; I found the clues necessary to unlock the riddle.

    Oxalis montana, Mountain Woodsorrel

    Image of Oxalis montana, Mountain Woodsorrel

    This experience provided a glimpse at how a Collections Department operates and increased my desire to work in museums. I also gained a greater appreciation for flowers as well as the work of avid nature photographers, even becoming adept at identifying previously unknown species of flowers in my friends’ backyards. Finally, I got to know this fellow photographer, developing a connection to him that could never have otherwise been made. I plan on continuing with the Donald T. Ries project as a volunteer and I am excited to continue working with and learning from the Collections staff at the Academy.

    Leonard M. Cicero
    Collections Department Intern/Volunteer

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  • Wherefore the fall that makes fall, fall?

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    Tags: trees, autumn, botany, horticulture, grounds

    Created: 10/8/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The last, tremulous notes of the ice cream truck have faded into the distance. Sales of fun-sized candy bars are spiking. And all across this great nation, people are attaching their egos to teams of large, colorfully outfitted men battling over oblong balls. Yes, fall is here, and leaves are raining to the ground like opponents’ home runs onto the bleachers of Wrigley Field.  But why? Why would otherwise perfectly reasonable trees decide to shamelessly expose their naked limbs? (In front of the saplings, no less!)

    Fallen leaves on museum grounds

    Thanks, guys. You know I'm gonna have to rake that, right?

    Well, winter is hard on us all. For plants, the main problem is water, which, like most people, becomes sedentary and expands during cold weather. Sedentary water (by which I mean ice and snow) can’t be absorbed by a plant’s roots. So when the ground is frozen, water lost through its leaves can’t be replaced.  Most plants in our area avoid the problem by stripping bare.

    Tree with fall colors

    As for expansion, water is quite odd in that it becomes less dense when it freezes, so the same amount of water takes up more space when it becomes ice. This is a big deal for plants, since it causes their cells to quite literally explode as the water inside them swells. Try freezing a salad and you’ll know what I mean.

    So instead of risking death by dehydration or cell destruction, a clever tree ditches its leaves for the winter. But, you say, ever the contrarian, what about evergreens? Well, your average pine or spruce has small leaves with thick 'skin' to slow water loss. And it's quite industrious, churning out resins and antifreeze compounds to prevent cell damage. Deciduous (leaf-losing) trees can't be bothered to spend as much energy on such nonsense. What antifreeze they do get around to manufacturing is concentrated in their buds in preparation for spring.

    Tree with fall colors

    All this hard work gives evergreens a competitive advantage in early spring, when temperatures are warm enough for efficient photosynthesis. Deciduous trees can’t get moving until they stop hitting the snooze button and get to work cranking out leaves, while Joe Spruce is already soaking up the vernal sun and adding inches. The tables turn in summer, when the larger leaves of deciduous trees allow them to collect more light and grow faster than our work-a-day friend Mr. Spruce. These differing strategies are one reason evergreens dominate the landscape of northern latitudes. Short summers don’t allow those deciduous layabouts enough time to catch up.  

    Seth Harper - Museum Horticulturist

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