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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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  • Stuff that’s Cool and Rad About PlantS – part II, Home Edition

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    Tags: houseplants, horticulture, houseplant appreciation day

    Created: 1/8/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    Don’t you just love this time of year? The decorations, the parties, that feeling of excitement in the air? Wherever you go, you hear those old familiar phrases: Peace on earth, goodwill towards ferns…Have yourself a merry little pothos… Happy philodendrons to all, and to all a good night! I tell ya, you just can’t help but smile a little longer and a little stronger during this special season.

    What’s that? You didn’t know?? How is that possible – have you been living under a rock?  Houseplant Appreciation Day is January 10th! Clearly, it’s high time someone taught you the true meaning of Plantmas. No need for ghostly visitors, envisioning a world where you were never born, or stealing Cindy Lou Who’s last can of who hash; we can do this right here, right now. Read and learn, Ebenezer Grinch.

    Money Tree

    Ever seen one of these beauties?

    Money Tree

    They call it a money tree, because reasons. Will owning a money tree bring you inexplicably swimmable piles of coins, a la Scrooge McDuck? No, but if you were to let it grow to full size, you would get this:

    Full grown Money Tree

    Sweet genius, that is a legit, tropical rainforest tree with buttress roots, bats for pollinators, and big ol’ edible “chestnuts” for seeds. Who needs good fortune when you’ve a got a Pachira glabra (or rather, five of them braided together) growing in your house? A stalwart of new world rainforests, right on your coffee table? Now that’s worth appreciating.

    Avocado ‘Day’

    Avocado ‘Day’

    Do you like to eat? Do you like to eat fresh fruit?  Do you like to eat fresh fruit that you grew -- in your own house? Well then, you best be appreciatin’ this avocado variety hard. Tasty avocados from a three-foot tall tree in your living room – yep, that’s a thing. Also things are home grown bananas, citrus fruits, figs, mulberries, passionfruits, and even star fruits. Merry Plantmas indeed!

    Ponytail Palm

    Ponytail Palm

    Aww, look at that little thing!  It’s adorable. All pudgy and messy-haired like that schoolmate in the chess club you weirdly had a crush on in 8th grade. If that’s not enough to get you to appreciate this plant, check it out fully grown:

    Full grown Ponytail Palm

    Magnificent! Still pudgy, but it’s blossomed in such an attractive way that you’re kicking yourself for not asking it to junior prom.

    Not just a pretty face, this tree is tough. A relative of asparagus, the ponytail (not actually a) palm hails from sunny Mexico. Water stored in the trunk accounts for its bulbous look, and helps it endure extreme conditions. Mature specimens have been known to survive two years without water. No wonder they sometimes live for three centuries!

    Last but not least, do you recognize this wild beauty?

    Wild poinsettia

    Not really? Perhaps this picture will help:

    traditional poinsettia

    “I appreciate you!”

    That of course, is Euphorbia pulcherrima, otherwise known as the poinsettia. Talk about a plant we should be appreciating more – the poor poinsettia surely takes first prize in the “plant we’re most likely to buy and then throw in the trash while it’s still living a month later” contest. Granted, it is a hassle to get it to bloom the following year. And, as it grows it will become sparser and leggier. And the sap can be mildly irritating (not poisonous). And you can’t plant it outside, because frost will kill it. So I guess it’s really not surprising that people coldly toss them in the dumpster by the millions right around, well, now. But this Plantmas, let’s not forget to pour out an eggnog for our fallen poinsettias. So young… So tragic…

    There. Now do you understand the true spirit of Houseplant Appreciation Day? Are you ready to gift your houseplants with the finest fertilizers, the most beautiful pots, and the tastiest sunlight? I thought so. Your heart’s grown three sizes this day.

    Heart-shaped leaf

    Check out the first blog in the series to learn more interesting tidbits about plants of all shapes and sizes.

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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  • Feasting on S.C.R.A.PS.

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    Tags: plants, horticulture

    Created: 6/8/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Apparently it’s been three days north of forever since I wrote a blog post. I realized this recently when our social media guru began dropping subtle hints about it.

     

    Angry woman yelling into a phone

    (Picture is unrelated.)

    What can I say?  I’ve been busy with, you know, spring. But I get it; all y’alls been waitin’ for me to drop some botanical flava on this blog, and I just can’t keep letting you down. So hey, how about a new feature? What if I were to present, in no particular order and with no discernible practical application, an ongoing listicle of botanical wonderment? You down? Good. I think it should look a little something like this:

    Stuff that’s Cool and Rad About PlantS

    Still with me, despite the puerile, half-baked title?  Then let’s do this.

    1.  Graft Chimeras

    When it comes to stuff that’s cool and rad and rad and cool, it’s hard to beat a graft chimera.  Few are known to exist, and even these are rarely seen.  But before you can understand the extent of their coolradness, you’ll need a basic understanding of grafting.

    Grafting is the age-old process of cutting off a piece of one plant, sticking it onto another, and hoping they get along.  It’s extremely common in certain areas of horticulture, particularly fruit production.  For example, basically every single apple you’ve ever eaten was grown on a grafted plant.  A typical apple variety starts as a branch that just happens to be different from its neighbors on the tree.  An orchardist might notice that this branch produces fruit that is redder, larger, or holds later into the fall.  Perhaps it has a wicked backhand, and the orchardist is in need of a mixed-doubles partner.  Whatever the reason, he or she cuts off a part of this branch, clones it, and then grafts the clones onto the bottom halves of young apple trees that have been selected for their superior roots.  The resulting grafted plants will now produce reams of tennis-playing fruit on healthy-rooted trees.

    Typically, the “root” portion of a grafted plant (called the rootstock) and the “shoot” portion (the scion) remain distinct from each other. But sometimes the union between the two gets…fuzzy.  The result is a graft chimera, a plant that mixes two different sets of genes – and thus two different types of growth – into one.  Here are a couple of famous examples.  Below is a +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, and man, do I want one!  Check it out:

    +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, a tree that has two different types of flowers -- one is pink the other is yellow.

    Yep, that’s one tree with two entirely different types of flowers.  Here’s another example, aptly named a Bizzaria:

    A graft chimera citrus plant, containing a fruit that is half bitter orange and half citron.

    This harvest-time nightmare is a genetic tutti-frutti of Citrus medica and Citrus aurantium.  It was discovered in Florence in 1640, and is perhaps the best known graft chimera, with none other than Chuck Darwin taking a stab at describing it.

    Unfortunately, graft chimeras are notoriously unstable, so individual plants may lose one of their conjoined halves, returning to a non-chimeric state. But that just makes them cooler, right? And rad-er.

    2.  The Mountain Buffalo

    By now you’ve no doubt glanced ahead at the picture, BUT, before you go getting all excited, I must add a disclaimer to this entry. Most of the information I’ve found about this plant comes from not-so-sciencey sources, so please take it with a grain or two of salt. That being said, just look at this thing:

     A toddler sitting on top of a giant potato

    No small potatoes.

    That is a tuber which will not be denied. According to this website, it is from a species of Thladiantha that grows in the Yunnan province of China, and if this picture is to be believed, it is one of the largest tubers in the world. Also, someone is trying to pickpocket a baby. (Good luck – babies are notoriously cash-strapped.) As the website helpfully explains, “The tubers are resembling resting buffalos when seen from the distance in dense forest, hence their name.” I’ve done some digging to try and find out more about this beast of a plant, and I can say without doubt that the genus Thladiantha is a real thing and that several species within this genus produce large tubers. But is this photo legit? I want to believe.

    3.  Sand Food

    No disclaimer needed here; sand food is definitely legit and definitely weird (and cool and rad.) Found only in the Sonoran Desert, this bizarre member of the forget-me-not family is not-forgettable indeed.  Its name is blandly appropriate, since it grows as a ropy stem buried under shifting sands, and it is an important food source for the area’s indigenous people and jawas. Containing no chlorophyll, sand food lives as a parasite on the roots of various desert shrubs. In the spring, it produces a mushroom like flower head, like so:

    Sand food 

    Photo courtesy of Tatooine Botanical Gardens

    How the 10 or 20 tiny seeds that each flower produces manage to locate a suitable host plant is not well understood. Ants or kangaroo rats may carry the seeds underground. Or perhaps they move through the desert by clinging to the feet of lost droids. We may never know, but I would guess that the Force is strong with them.

    Seth Harper, Nature Museum horticulturist

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  • At Least We Have Houseplants

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    Tags: houseplants, plants, horticulture

    Created: 1/16/2015      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    And the snow lies drifted white
    In the bower of our delight
    Where the beech threw gracious shade
    On the cheek of boy and maid:
    And the bitter blasts make roar
    Through the fleshless sycamore

    ~ Willa Cather

    It’s cold. Like, Siberia cold. I am a person who values his time outdoors, but to heck with this. Blankets, hot beverages, and good books – these shall be the apparatus of my forbearance, until the blessed day arrives when I can stand outside for more than ten minutes without losing feeling in my extremities.

    Winter is hard on a horticulturist (as I have lamented before). But thanks to a the accidental genius of a Victorian-era Englishman named Nathaniel BagshawWard, and the insatiable social ambitions of the ascendant middle class in his milieu, we have houseplants upon which to turn our phytophilic attentions when snowflakes fly.

    With enough space and the proper equipment, virtually any plant can be grown indoors. However, there are a few dozen hardy species that have become archetypal denizens of shopping malls, lobbies, and hotel atriums, as well as residential windowsills. You may not know their names, but you know them: aglaonemas, marantas, spathiphyllums, crotons… 

    Counter to their colloquial reputation, some familiar houseplants have secret talents and unique life stories that are worth investigating…under a Snuggie, with a laptop warming your thighs. So grab another mug of chai, and let’s explore a couple, shall we?

    Ficus tree

    (Courtesy of Kenpei via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

    We’ll begin with Ficus benjamina, known as Benjamin’s fig or, more simply, the ficus tree. Despite its deserved reputation as a finicky leaf-dropper, ficus trees frequently adorn large interior spaces. This is due to their tolerance of low light and dry air, and because their fine texture and broad branching structure fit our temperate-zone expectations of what a tree should look like. Native to Southeast Asia, the ficus is a close relative of strangler figs and banyans, and like those plants, will often send down aerial roots from its branches. As with all plants in its genus (including the edible fig, Ficus carica), the Benjamin fig relies on a symbiotic relationship with a particular species of tiny wasp in order to produce seeds.

    Botanically speaking, a fig is not an individual fruit, but rather a receptacle that encloses multiple small fruits (the fleshy bits inside). These fruits started off as hidden flowers, pollinated when the aforementioned wasp entered the fig through a tiny hole in the tip. The wasp lays eggs inside, thus protecting them from predators and providing a food source for the resultant larvae. In return, the wasp performs necessary pollination duties. In a fascinating example of coevolution, nearly all of the 800 or so species of Ficus are pollinated by different, unique species of wasps.

    Monstera deliciosa, aka Mexican breadfruit or Swiss cheese plant

    (Courtesy of Mokkie via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Surely one of the best scientifically-named plants of all time, Monstera deliciosa, aka Mexican breadfruit or Swiss cheese plant, is indeed a monster of a plant. In its native Central American climes, its stout, vining stems can climb 60 feet or more into the trees. Edible, pineapple-like fruits are sparsely produced beneath its enormous, leathery leaves. 

    Grown indoors, the “delicious monster” typically stays much smaller, and may lack the bizarre fenestration that makes this plant a favorite in humid conservatories. No one really knows the wherefores of the leaves’ “Swiss cheese” stylings, but there are some theories out there.

    As with several other plants in its family, Monstera can actually generate its own heat. At certain blooming stages, its inflorescences (flower clusters) can be as much as 5°C hotter than the surrounding air. This phenomenon, known as thermogenesis, likely aids the dispersal of chemical signals that attract pollinators.

    Dieffenbachia aka dumbcane

    (Courtesy of Louise Wolff/darina via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Now lets take a look the deceptively euro-sounding dieffenbachia. A relative of the Mostera, the dieffenbachia or dumbcane hails from similar, neo-tropical environs. Its speckled leaves have been bred and selected for many distinct and interesting patterns, which has led, along with its remarkable shade tolerance and overall ease of culture, to the Dieffenbachia’s predominance as a parochial favorite.

    But dumbcane is not without its dark side. In common with its familial brethren, its cells contain tiny, sharp crystals of calcium oxylate that can be extremely irritating to the skin, eyes, mouth, and esophagus. The name dumbcane derives from the tendency of the tongue to swell if the plant is chewed, causing temporary mutism. In the West Indies, exceedingly awful human beings once took advantage of this phenomenon to punish their rebellious slaves.

    Having experienced the harrowing topical effects of the dieffenbachia on more occasions than I like to admit (note to self: GLOVES!), I can attest that potency varies widely among varieties, and tends to be greatest in the stems and roots of large specimens. Fortunately the swelling, numbness, and prickly aches brought on by contact with the plant’s juices rarely last more than a day. And there is a rather unforgettable odor to the cut stems of older plants that serves as a helpful reminder not to rub an eye or bite a fingernail until one has thoroughly washed up.

    This odor comes from compounds closely related to asparagusic acid, which is the same stuff that makes your pee smell funny (giggle) when you eat asparagus. Speaking of which, is there any vegetable that induces thoughts of springtime as reliably as fresh asparagus? I can see them now -- pale stems pushing their way out of the warming soil, ready to drink in the nourishing rays of waxing daylight…I can hear a robin tweeting happily among bursting buds…And the flowers! Daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia!

    Crap. Have you seen the weather forecast?

    Seth Harper, horticulturist

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  • Spring Flowers Around the Museum

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    Tags: spring flowers, prairie, savanah, horticulture, wildflowers

    Created: 5/18/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Walk around the restored habitat vignettes on the East and South sides of the museum grounds, and you may notice much of what you see is last year’s dead vegetation, with patches of green and a mixture of native and non-native flowers. Early spring on the prairie is a notoriously dull time for flowers, compared to woodlands or savannas. This is in part due to the fact that, in woodlands, the herbaceous layer is in a race to grow and flower before the trees fully leaf out and gobble up the available light. This results in a floral display intensely concentrated in late April and early May. In prairies, there is no shortage of light and therefore no hurry. Here, the greatest number of species flower in mid to late summer. In addition, tallgrass prairies (and, to a lesser degree, savannas) tended to burn more often in early spring than dense woodlands. This could also be a factor in why saving the flower show for later would be advantageous. Our native habitat restorations are a mixture of both prairie and savanna. Many of the native plants in bloom around the museum are found in both.
     
    I have compiled a list of native species that are in bloom this week. This isn’t meant to be a field guide, but could save time for anyone interested in doing an internet search on a plant they see. I  have attempted to include every native species, but It changes fast, and this list will be obsolete soon!  (Also, there are several species of the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae), in addition to the two I have listed, which cannot be identified until their seeds ripen)   

    These are the native species which we have intentionally planted:

    White Trout Lilly



    White Trout Lilly (Erythronium albidum) We have already missed this one’s blooming period, but some may have noticed this plant a couple weeks ago. A small but conspicuous part of our early spring flora.  It grows in large colonies, usually with the basal leaves far outnumbering the flowering stalks. The number of plants which flower varies greatly from year to year. This plant can be seen in almost any moderately intact woodland or savanna near Chicago in the early spring, and often ventures into nearby prairies as well. Around the Museum, they can be seen in greatest number in the Prairie on the southern side. The show doesn’t last long however, and within a few weeks the flowers and leaves seem to vanish without a trace, until next spring.

    Penn’s Sedge


     
    Penn’s Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)  Most people may not think of grasses or sedges as flowers, but if you look closely in certain spots around the museum’s restored areas, you will notice what looks like patches of thin grass with tiny yellow flower petals at the end of short stalks. Actually, this is not a grass but a sedge- a similar looking, but different family of plants. The differences between grasses and sedges are a bit complex to get into here, but an age old rule-of-thumb cliché is that “Sedges have edges.” The base of a Sedge stem is solid and triangular, while grasses have hollow, round stems.  It may be difficult to see, but if you roll the base of a sedge stem between your fingers, you can feel the “edges.” If not, it is probably a grass. This sedge is also a trademark of Chicago area woodlands and nearby prairies that are not too shady. It is one of the first sedges to bloom, and its flowers are also extremely short-lived. The leaves remains visible until at least late summer however. Around the museum, it can be seen in patches all over, especially along the trail to the right of the entrance doors, and on the north side of the “ravine” in back, just before it meets North Pond.

    Jacob’s Ladder


    Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) Another attractive purple flower with “ladder-like” leaves which will persist until June. Grows in damp meadows and woods with rich soil. More occasional around Chicago than common. Very conspicuous on the hill facing Fullerton Ave. at the moment.

    Golden Alexanders


    Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) Found in prairies to open woods, this bright yellow flower is just beginning to bloom.

    Wild garlic/onion


    Wild garlic/onion (Allium canadense) Not quite in bloom yet but will be soon.  One of two species around Chicago (and the museum) this one blooms earlier than the other.

    Shooting Star


    Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)-One of the earliest blooming Prairie Plants. It is distinctive, conventionally attractive, and quite popular in restoration projects and prairie gardens. It can be found in both prairie and savanna/open woodland. It is somewhat sensitive to disturbance, and unless reintroduced, indicates the land has not been plowed or  too heavily grazed. Currently, it has just began to flower, and will do so for about a month. A colony can be seen on the hill on the right side of the museum entrance.

    In addition to the Native plants we have intentionally planted, there are others that are not as sensitive to habitat disturbance, and came here on their own. These are some weedy natives:

    Common Wood Sedge


    Common Wood Sedge (Carex blanda)  This is probably the most common sedge of the Chicago region, and also one of the most bland-looking.  It has much wider, floppier leaves and stems than Penn’s sedge, and is a grayish blue-green color. (though the petals are also yellow).  It will grow almost anywhwere.

    Common Blue violet


    Common Blue violet (Viola sororia) Very common in our area, this species is unusual in its adaptability. It can be found in almost any habitat that is not too wet or dry; full sun to dense shade, pristine natural areas to mowed lawns. It has a long blooming period of a month or two. Around the museum, I have only seen a few near the tent out back (the blue variety) 

    Missouri Violet


    Missouri Violet (Viola missouriensis) Almost identical to common Blue Violet, except for its leaves, which are triangular and pointed, rather than heart shaped and round. Near Chicago, it is most often seen in moist woodlands and meadows, though it can sometimes be seen in more disturbed habitats as well, such as here.

    (Note - These two violet species caused me quite a bit of confusion. The majority of the plants around the museum are apparently of the white variety of Missouri Violet. Both have a blue and white variety. The white form is less common but not rare, especially with Common Blue Violet. In the Chicago region, The Missouri Violet is less common in general, and is less likely to occur in lawns and gardens, though around the museum, the reverse is apparently true!)

    Kidney-leaved Buttercup

    Kidney-leaved Buttercup (Ranuculus aborvitus) Blooms April-June. Part of the huge family of buttercups (Ranunculaceae), this one is the first to bloom and, of the natives in this area, the least sensitive to disturbance.  It can be found in almost any slightly damp place. This one came here on its own.

    Aunt Lucy


    Aunt Lucy (Ellisia nyctelea) Just beginning to bloom, and will continue into early summer. The flowers are very small, a dull white and easy to miss. This plant is a spring wildflower in woodlands but also a very common weed in gardens and disturbed ground.

    Purslane Speedwell


    Purslane Speedwell (Veronica peregrine) Very tiny and easy to miss, it looks very similar to the other, non-native Corn Speedwell, except with thinner leaves and white flowers.

    Nate Fremont
    Assistant Horticulturist

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  • Just Grow 'Em

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    Tags: native plants, black-eyed susans, purple coneflower, native gardening, Gardening, horticulture

    Created: 3/19/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    For all you tweethearts out there who prefer knowledge disseminated in 140 character quanta,  I will be participating in a Twitter discussion (follow me @HorticulturSeth) on #NativeGardening tomorrow, 3/20, at 12:00 pm CST.  No surprise, preparing for this event has turned my thoughts away from the tropical plants I was perusing just last week in Florida*, and back to local flora.

    Thoughts are really all I have at this point – interactions are limited by the fact that most plants ‘round here are still hitting the snooze button awaiting more favorable weather.

    Some of you may remember my “bottom ten” lists (to which I still owe a promised conclusion.) I must say, it’s fun writing those. I mean, who doesn’t love making fun of terrible, terrible things? Especially plants, which have a limited capacity for retaliation? So hopefully you will not think less of me for admitting the temptation to combine my love of cruel mockery with my current focus on native plants in order to generate a bottom ten native plant list. (I’m looking at you, Hackelia virginiana.)

    But alas, I don’t have the heart. Native plants are underused, underappreciated, and under assault from development, climate change, and invasive species. So instead of following my baser instincts, I’m just  gonna drop some sweet, sweet native plant knowledge. To wit –

    Six native plants Chicago area gardeners really have no excuse for not growing:

    1. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – It’s attractive.  It’s available. It’s a potent pollinator magnet. And it’s easier than shooting fish in a barrel, assuming the fish are relatively large and not similarly armed. Seriously, all you need is sun and sorta decent dirt. You have that, right?
    2. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – Also easy to grow, though maybe a little harder to find in the garden center. Needs decently draining soil. The best thing about butterflyweed is that whole “butterfly” part. Monarchs feed on this plant from cradle to grave.**
    3. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) – You may be asking yourself, who is Joe Pye? Well, the answer is twofold: I don’t know and I don’t care. This is one of my favorite plants, and it wouldn’t change my opinion if I found out Joe Pye had invented spam email, parking meters, and the word “irregardless.” It should be noted that this plant’s kinda big. And it needs consistent moisture. But when in full bloom, there’re few plants that can rival its beauty and raw butterfly magnetism.
    4. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – Sun and dirt that’s not soggy - got that? You can grow this.  When you do, you’ll enjoy masses of colorful flowers over a long season, starting in early summer. You’ll also draw bees and butterflies like…flies.
    5. Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) – Whether their eyes are black or brown, the Susans really hit the spot for daisy lovers. There’s a place for a Susan in every garden, assuming she’s relatively sedentary. Also, I really needed something yellow on this list.

      Black-Eyed Susan
      Black-Eyed Susan
    6. Swamp Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) – Got a wet spot in your yard? As long as it’s sunny and the soil’s reasonably rich, you can grow flowers the size of your face.

    Swamp Mallow obscuring child's face
    Swamp Mallow

    *mic drop*

    *I travel to the Sunshine State once a year to purchase plants for the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. Can I be frank with you a moment? I have strong opinions about Florida, and they are not congenial.  I hope you’re happy, butterflies.

    **I use “grave” metaphorically, as very little is known about lepidopteran death rituals.

    Seth Harper, horticulturist

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  • The Emerald Ash Borer Reaches the Nature Museum

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    Tags: emerald ash borer, invasive species, ash trees, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, horticulture

    Created: 9/30/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    In the early 1900s, North America lost nearly every American Chestnut to the chestnut blight. My grandparents have likely never seen a mature one, though they are estimated to have numbered 3 billion.  Most people of my generation have rarely if ever seen an American Elm, once an extremely widely-planted shade tree which was almost killed off by Dutch Elm Disease from the 1920s to 1970s (and beyond). Now it seems that my grandchildren may be lucky to see an ash tree on this continent, as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) threatens to wipe out the entire genus, Fraxinus.

    The Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) was first discovered in North America in 2002, and since then has caused the death of around 40 million ash trees. While it seems to slightly prefer some ashes to others, it will attack any member of the genus. The beetle causes destruction in its larval phase, when it lives just under the outer bark and chews winding trails or “galleries” through the layer of tissue called phloem, which moves sugars from the leaves to the roots. Since the beetle lives under the bark, infestations can go unnoticed until the tree is visibly distressed.

    Tree with sprouts occurring at the base of the trunk

    Sprouts from the base are a common symptom

    I saw this recently on the museum grounds. In an ash tree, sprouts from the base are a common symptom of EAB infestation. The phloem is so damaged the roots have all but stopped getting nutrition from the leaves, and the tree sends new shoots from below the damaged area. Clearly, these few sprouts won’t suffice, and by the time such sprouts appear it is usually too late to save the tree. 

    D-shaped hole in tree bark

    D-shaped hole of emerging beetle

    A second sign presented itself with a closer look: the characteristic D-shaped hole where the adult beetle emerged. I saw around ten such holes on this tree. By prying some loose bark back with my knife I was able to catch a glimpse of the galleries left by the larvae.

    Trails of larvae in tree bark

    Gallery or trails of larvae

    The adults left to lay eggs on other nearby ash trees, of which there are plenty. 19% of the City of Chicago's trees are ashes, and there are an estimated half-million privately owned in the city.

    So far, the only effective treatment has been systemic insecticides. They must be applied before an infestation occurs, must be re-applied every few years, save only the treated tree, and kill all the other insects which feed on ash trees. Because of the expense and complications involved, only certain "high-value" trees are being treated, and most agencies prepare for the EAB’s arrival by replacing ashes with other trees. The EAB has a limited range and moves slowly, so it may be possible to impede its spread by treating and/or removing trees in areas not yet affected, in a strategy similar to a fire-break.

    Even if you don’t own or manage ash trees, you can still help. Always use locally-sourced firewood, so if any EAB larvae or adults are in the wood they stay in an already-infested area instead of being driven somewhere that had yet to be affected. It is likely that the original U.S. infestation was a small number of individual insects that arrived in wooden packing crates from Asia, where the insect is a minor pest. The cost of removing or replacing or treating trees could well run into the billions of dollars-- largely taxpayer dollars as governments manage large ash populations and dead trees cause hazards in populated areas-- so it is best for everyone if we leave wood where we find it and do what we can to limit the spread of this invasive species.

    Trust me, I wish I could end on a hopeful note, or even just give a spoonful of sugar with this bitter pill, but the destruction caused by invasive species far exceeds the limited resources of time, money, and personnel available to combat them. With luck, the EAB won’t kill all 2 billion ash trees and we’ll still have some for our grandchildren to appreciate, but now would probably be a good time for you to get to know the ashes in your area, whether the EAB is already present, and who to call if you spot damage in unaffected areas.

    Andrew Wunschel
    Assistant Horticulturist

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  • Horticultural Bottom Ten - Chicago Edition Part Two

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    Tags: horticulture, genetics, flowers, plants, humor

    Created: 8/13/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

    As predicted, Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten is well on its way to becoming an important, nay, essential treatise within the vast and tangled gallimaufry of gardening discourse. I am sorry for the delay in bringing you the next installment, gentle reader, but as you may well imagine, I have been wholly occupied accepting international awards, juggling requests for public appearances, and turning down marriage proposals. However, today I shall set aside these distractions, for the task at hand remains vital, and my expertise indispensable to its execution. So welcome, everyone, to the Bottom Ten Part Two: Unspeakable Lovecraftian Nightmare Edition!

    For those of you who don’t know what awesome is, H. P. Lovecraft was one of the 20th century’s most brilliant horror writers. If you’re unacquainted with his oeuvre, go read “The Thing at the Doorstep.” I’ll wait. Done? Cool. Good luck sleeping tonight. Lovecraft specializes in nurturing a crawling sense that someone or something within a story is…off. Unnatural. Distorted. Perverse. Then, in the final pages, when you’re good and creeped out, you finally encounter it: the Thing That Should Not Be.

    I am certainly no Lovecraft.  But I can recognize a hideous, forsaken monstrosity when I see it. I can tell when plant breeding has run disturbingly amok. Yes, gentle reader, I know them. I know the Plants That Should Not Be.

    Example 1:  Here is a normal coneflower…

    Purple coneflower

    …here is a ‘Greenline’ coneflower…

    Greenline coneflower with distinctive green coloring

    Eyeballs on stalks.  Watching you.  Forever.

    …and a ‘Green Wizard’ coneflower

    Green Wizard coneflower

    Kill it. With fire.

    Why? Just why? What disturbed compulsion forced otherwise well-intentioned plantsmen and women to create these botanical perversities? Are they pretty? Are they an improvement on the standard form?  The answer to both questions is a clear and resounding “no”.  Yet there they are. Living. Growing.

    Example 2:  Here is your standard daylily…

    Orange daylily

    Pretty!

    …and here is the cultivar ‘Sanford Double Doozy’.

    Sanford Double Doozy daylily

    (Not pretty.)

    Who did this? Who saw a daylily flower and thought it would look better disguised as a mutated, scum-crawling, deep-sea nudibranch? There is only one explanation. This must be the work of some ancient, cosmic horror lurking beyond the veil, pulling the strings on an unwitting, puppet horticulturist.     

    Example 3:  A typical daffodil…

    Daffodil

    …and a cultivar called ‘Delnashaugh’.

    Delnashaugh daffodil

    On quiet mornings, you can just make out the sound of its constant, pitiful weeping.

    Clearly, this daffodil is the product of a diseased mind. How else can one explain its nauseating jumble of contorted, flesh-colored protuberances? No one of sound faculties could ever conceive of creating something so unspeakable from a beloved harbinger of spring. Speaking of which…

    Example 4: Here is a tulip called ‘Rococo’.

    Rococo tulip

    Is it…bleeding?

    No.  No, no, no.  That is not a flower.  That is an incubus spawned from the unholy union of a cabbage and a stygian cacodemon.  Without doubt, its insatiable roots twist downward, downward, ever downward, though the inky, sulfurous miasmas of Tartarus, into the very gates of Gahenna, past the Well of Souls, finally plunging into the black, putrid soil of the Abyss. Any second now, its blood-caked petals will yawn open, revealing a hideous maw of toothy destruction. And it will scream. 

    My god, it will scream.

    Oh no.  I think it saw me!  I’ve got to get…blog…must finish…must warn…….

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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  • Horticultural Bottom Ten – Chicago Edition (1st Installment)

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    Tags: horticulture, plants, Gardening, bottom ten, norway maple, rose of sharon, siberian elm

    Created: 7/15/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Gardening has, for many years, been America’s most popular hobby, so it should come as no surprise that numerous people have attempted to make a buck or two dispensing horticultural information to the masses. Gardeners clamor endlessly for the advice of experts, and so your average bookstore is absolutely lousy with flower books, to say nothing of the countless gardening websites available for the perusal of the plant-addled. Most of these resources focus on what to grow and why. As I considered topics for a blog post today, it occurred to me that I should avoid contributing to this information overload.  There is an eminently more useful service I can offer to the horticulturally inclined. And so, calling upon my years of training and experience, I've come up a with a list of plants that should never ever be planted by anyone, ever. Witness the first installment of the soon-to-be-indispensable Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten!*

    Norway Maple tree

    Norway Maple – Acer platanoides.

     
    This plant should need no introduction. Wherever you are in the city of Chicago, statistically speaking, a well-swung dead cat will either hit the side of a Dunkin Donuts or the trunk of a Norway Maple. This tree looks like it was lifted straight from your first grade art project - you know, back when you stupidly drew trees like green lollipops on brown sticks. Puerile geometry is pretty much all Norway Maples have to offer; yet people inexplicably keep planting them. Yes, the fall color is decent, but the brilliant oranges and crimsons of our native Red and Sugar Maples make the Norway’s pale yellow look sickly by comparison.  If that’s not enough to dissuade you from planting a Norway, please, for the sake of all that’s good in the world, read on. This tree’s shade is so dense that it’s tough to grow much of anything beneath it, especially since its shallow roots crowd out other plants. Its seeds sprout everywhere, requiring you to pull multitudes of saplings lest you end up with more of these affronts to botanical decency darkening your property. Oh, did I mention it’s an invasive species? And that YOU CAN’T EVEN MAKE MAPLE SYRUP WITH IT!? Sheesh!

    Rose of Sharon

    Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus.

     
    Your grandma had one of these. She also had Pat Boone records and a crocheted cover over the Kleenex box.  Just sayin.’ The Rose of Sharon looks good on paper – a tough shrub with reliable mid to late summer color. But you see, that’s what makes it so insidious. You want to like this shrub. You think you should.  It’s got huge pink or blue flowers after all.  What’s not to like? That’s what I’m here for, gentle reader, to tell you what’s not to like. Those flowers you were so excited about have limp, fleshy petals, insipid colors, and discordant, reddish centers. They smell…weird. After they die, they continue to hang around, all floppy and messy (see photo), for several days. And the rest of the plant has nothing at all to recommend it.  Its form is sort of like an upside-down Christmas tree, until it gets older and full of heavy flowers and starts looking like an upside-down Christmas tree trodden by elephants. The seed pods are unattractive and their contents sprout readily into hard-to-pull seedlings. Oh, and the curled up flower buds are a favorite home for slugs, as well as every homeowner’s favorite, Japanese Beetles.

    Siberian Elm

    Siberian Elm - Ulmus pumila.

     
    Unscrupulous plant peddlers sometimes sell this tree as a Dutch Elm Disease resistant alternative to the majestic American Elm. Unfortunately, it lacks the impeccable vase-like form of its American cousin, leaving it with - let me do the math here - ah yes, precisely zero ornamental characteristics. With weak wood that leaves the lawn littered with broken twigs, and massive horizontal roots to impede your mower, expect to spend more time than ever on yard work after you plant one of these embarrassments of the arboreal world. Here’s how I would describe the form: Take a bunch of parsley in your fist. Smash it into the wall a few times. Tie the stems together to form the “trunk” and poke it in the dirt. Congratulations, you now have a perfect bonsai replica of a Siberian Elm. Let me leave you with a few comments from the renowned plantsman Michael Dirr: “A poor ornamental tree that does not deserve to be planted anywhere!…One of, if not the, world’s worst trees…Native to eastern Siberia, northern China, Manchuria, Korea and, unfortunately, was not left there.” I think there’s a lesson there for us all.

    To be continued - watch this blog for the next installment!

    *Someone out there is about to fire off an indignant comment pointing out that there are examples of some of these plants on the museum grounds.  Rest assured, I sure as heck didn’t put ‘em there.

      



    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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