Print Logo

Blog

Share
  • The Osage Orange

    Share

    Tags: osage orange, hedges, midwest history, chicago history, regional history, bow, osage nation, plants, horticulture

    Created: 5/23/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The first question I ask of any plant is “Can I eat it?". But there are plenty of other fascinating stories waiting to be told. Take for instance the unruly-looking and inedible* Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera).  Its closest regional relative is the mulberry (Morus sp.) but most of the Moraceae family is more tropical—figs and jackfruits, for example. Its softball-sized fruits are hard, dense, only vaguely resemble oranges, and aren’t related to them at all. It takes its common name from the Osage Nation, a tribe which used the tree for tools, clubs, and most importantly, bows. There are records of a well-made Osage-orange bow being worth a horse and blanket as an even trade, meaning the people controlling the supply of the trees could make quite a tidy living as, effectively, arms traders. There seem to have been multiple wars fought over the land where the trees grew, and the Osage Nation was known to send parties hundreds of miles to harvest from their favorite stands. Even the Blackfoot tribe in now Montana used bows of this wood, nearly 2000 miles from where it grew.

    At the time of European colonization, the range of the Osage-orange was confined to river bottoms in a relatively small area of what became Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Why this is so is a subject of some speculation. Generally when a tree produces such a large fruit it is because some large critter loves to eat that fruit, and the seeds get dispersed when the odd few make it through the digestive tract unharmed and germinate. But nothing really seems to like the Osage-orange fruit. Squirrels will tear them apart to get to the seeds, but they grind the seeds to pulp and destroy them in the process. One theory is that animals now extinct on the continent were the primary distributor of the fruit, perhaps mastodons, early horse-like animals, or some sort of (I’m not kidding) giant sloth. With their decline, possibly due to overhunting, came the diminishing range of the tree, and it is possible it could have gone extinct without Native Americans propagating it for their uses.

    • Osage Tree
    • Osage Seed Ball

    Lewis and Clark sent some cuttings to President Jefferson as part of their first shipment of samples. They got them from a guy who said they came from an Osage Indian village, and the common name was a done deal--though they called them Osage-apples at first. European settlers had little to no use for longbows, but high on their wish list was fencing or hedges to ‘civilize’ the prairies. (It had been common practice in much of Europe to mark field boundaries with hedges, which can provide harvestable yields, contain livestock, reduce wind, and provide habitat for wildlife.) Osage-orange was found incredibly suitable to this task, because if densely planted it provided a fence “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight,” in the words of one early promoter. This is why many people from rural backgrounds, myself included, first learn this tree as the “Hedge-apple.”  (As an aside, other plants brought from overseas to serve this purpose include buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), both of which have become destructive invasive species.)

    • Osage Hedge Trimmed
    • Osage Fencepost

    Eventually the hedge fell out of fashion because of a fabulous new invention: barbed wire.  Farmers decided they’d rather have dead fences than living ones, since time spent pruning is time not plowing.  They were pleased I’m sure to learn that Osage-orange is one of the most fungal- and rot-resistant woods in the world, and immune to termites, giving farmers another incentive to keep the trees around for their value as fencepost material (above right). And after the Dustbowl, millions of the trees were planted in a 100-mile wide strip from North Dakota to Texas as part of FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt program, eventually run by the WPA. This program is to date the largest US government program aimed at tackling an environmental problem. Eventually the trees became established or reestablished in all of the lower 48 states.

    You can still see remnant Osage-orange windbreaks marking field edges in the Chicagoland region and beyond. Some people recognize the altogether silly fruits, and occasionally remember hearing that people put them around the house to repel spiders back in The Before Time. Some folks still heat their homes with wood, and may know that it provides the highest BTU value of any wood in North America. But few people are aware of the role this one plant species has played in the history of this country, the many nations that came before it, and perhaps the continent before humans ever arrived. 

    Not a bad story for being inedible.

    Andrew Wunschel
    Assistant Horticulturist

    *There are reports you could go through a lot of effort to get the seeds out and eat them, with no ill effects, but to me “edible” means “worth eating.”

    View Comments

  • Project Squirrel Foraging Data

    Share

    Tags: project squirrel, foraging data, citizen scientist, squirrels

    Created: 5/23/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Squirrel eating corn

    Project Squirrel will be conducting foraging studies on urban squirrels throughout the summer. Members of our team will put out foraging trays like these on at least four consecutive days twice in a month. Trays are placed in the morning and retrieved each evening. Data are collected by looking at how much corn was consumed and how it was consumed. We would like to increase the number of sites we are studying. If you live in or near Oak Park or River Forest and have a tree 15 cm in diameter at breast height in both the front and back yards and might be interested in letting us use your yard for the study, please email Steve for more details.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

    View Comments

  • Tea with the Turtles

    Share

    Tags: world turtle day, tea with the turtles, turtles, reptiles

    Created: 5/13/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Have you ever had tea with a turtle? If not then you need to head on over to the Nature Museum on Saturday May 18th!

    Every year in May there is an international event called World Turtle Day. It was developed to raise public awareness of the threats that numerous turtle and tortoise species around the world are facing. As you know, we are extremely fond of turtles here at the museum so we developed a way to mark this worldwide event; we call it Tea with the Turtles.

    Harrison the box turtle with a tea cup and saucer

    This year will be our fourth annual Tea with the Turtles, it will run from 11am until 1pm and it is a great way to learn more about these enigmatic creatures. As well as all the turtles that are resident here at the museum we will be having some ‘special guests’ on display too. Suffice it to say, there will be a multitude of turtle and tortoise species here for you to get up close and personal with.

    Painted Turtle hatchlings  Pancake the spiny softshell turtle

    And the second part of the equation? The tea! Ah yes we provide an array of fruit teas to keep you refreshed, as well as some non-tea alternatives. There will also be snacks and cookies to keep your strength up.

    For the young (and young at heart) there will be turtle related games, coloring and crafts and for the less energetic who would rather sit and relax we will have a presentation about the endangered turtle species we have here at the museum and what you can do to help conserve them. We will also have numerous biologists on hand to tell you about our conservation work.

    Children interacting with turtles on the terrace  Child learning about Blanding's turtles


    A special item, created for this years event is our wonderful Tea with the Turtles mug – ‘modeled’ here by Claire, one of our beautiful box turtles. These will be on sale at the event with 100% of the profit going towards our turtle conservation work.

    Box turtle with Nature Museum turtles mug

    If you would like to attend this fabulous event, please register online here.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

    View Comments

  • Photo Shoot in the Museum Collections!

    Share

    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, collections, photography, specimens, oology, mammalogy, image

    Created: 5/4/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to describing an object in a museum collection, a picture can provide essential information. An image of a specimen or artifact adds clarification for distinguishing similar items and provides a visual record for tracking preservation issues and treatments. Images of museum objects can be utilized for exhibition development, initial scientific research, or as an educational resource.

    With the help of some amazing volunteers, our Collections staff are digitally photographing specimens and artifacts in the Academy’s collections. Our photography workstation is one we devised and consists of a wire shelving unit with adjustable shelves, so the work area can be changed when desired. We selected acid-free grey paper for a backdrop and created many of our reflectors and stands from materials we had on hand. Some of our best reflectors are simply sheets of hard white foam and the reflective interior of a coffee can!

    Photography equipment and lighting  Staff member taking photos of specimens


    Digital photography of our scientific collection began with the imaging of our type specimens. A “type” specimen is the specimen originally used to describe a species and displays the majority of characteristics used to identify that species. It’s because of type specimens that we are able to distinguish one animal from another.  Here is the type specimen for the subspecies of the Southern Appalachian Rock Vole, Microtus chrotorrhinus carolinensis (Komarek). This specimen was collected in 1931 from North Carolina.

    Rock vole type specimen  Rock vole skull


    We’ve since expanded this project and are now systematically photographing catalogued specimens in the Academy's collections. We’ve photographed bird eggs and nests in the oology collection and mammal study skins and skulls in the mammalogy collection. Images from the oology collection were included in a bird identification DVD series released by Thayer Birding Software (www.ThayerBirding.com) released in 2012. Check them out!

    • Egg specimen
    • Egg and nest specimens
    • Bat specimen


    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

    View Comments

  • Chicago Botanical Artists

    Share

    Tags: public programs, botanical drawing, art, drawing

    Created: 5/3/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    You may already know that the Nature Museum is a regular meeting place for the Chicago Herpetological Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society. Both of these groups focus on animals (reptiles, amphibians and birds, respectively) but as our Horticulturist Seth Harper might say, what about plants? Don’t worry Seth, there is a new group to add to the list- Chicago Botanical Artists.  

    Chicago Botanical Artists is open to all botanical artists, beginners through advanced, who want to sketch together, share works in progress and develop a supportive community that exhibits and educates. The group will sketch native plants in and around the Nature Museum’s gardens, working outdoors when weather permits, or indoors with specimens. Since its inaugural meeting in February, Chicago Botanical Artists has enjoyed steady growth and looks forward to welcoming more new members.

    • Wild Sunflower

      Wild Sunflower

    • Sunflower illustration

      Illustration Courtesy of Derek Norman

    • Common IronweedCommon Ironweed

    The group meets on the second Monday of each month, May-June from 1 to 3 p.m., July-August 3 to 5 p.m. There is no charge to participate. For questions or to RSVP, email adultprograms@naturemuseum.org or call 773-755-5128.

    Heather Grance

    Manager of Public Programs

    View Comments

  • Tropical Visitors

    Share

    Tags: warblers, migration, bird watching, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, urban ecology

    Created: 5/3/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Stop by North Pond for the next several days to greet our tropical visitors---warblers.  There are many species of warblers, small insect eating birds, that live in the tropics during our winter, then fly through our backyards on the way to Canada to spend the summer breeding and eating things like tent caterpillars. 

    Palm Warbler



    Today the Palm Warbler Setophaga palmarum is common and easy to find.  The birds you see today around the pond may have been in Panama or Cuba just a few days ago.  Look for the rusty cap and a constantly twitching tail.

    View Comments

  • Migratory Dragonfly Partnership

    Share

    Tags: dragonflies, migration, conservation, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Biology, insects

    Created: 4/23/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    When most people think of insect migration, they quite understandably think of the Monarch butterfly. It comes as a surprise to many that some species of dragonflies also migrate. In this part of the world, many of the larger and more familiar species, like Green Darners and Black Saddlebags, are among the migrants.

    Swarm of migrating Green Darner
    Swarm of migrating Green Darner (Anax junius) dragonflies outside of the Nature Museum

    Migrating swarms of dragonflies have been observed in places like the shores of Lake Michigan, the Gulf Coast of Texas, and along the east coast of Mexico in places like Veracruz. Migrating swarms are sometimes observed near migrating flocks of raptors, and there is some evidence that they provide a significant nutritional resource for migrating hawks. 

    A saddlebags dragonfly
    A saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea sp.) in Veracruz.  This is one of the species that migrates.

    In contrast to the Monarch migration, there still isn't much known about the dragonfly migration. Details of the timing and the ultimate destination are still unknown. Are the individuals that head south the same ones that return north?

    The Cansaburro Dunes in Veracruz
    The Cansaburro Dunes in Veracruz.  Researchers are trying to determine how the Gulf Coast of Mexico figures in dragonfly migration.

    In an attempt to learn more about dragonfly migration, the US Forest Service's Wings Across the Americas program has assembled a group of dragonfly experts, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, and federal agencies and formed the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP). The partnership includes representatives from Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Members of the partnership, including representatives from the Nature Museum, have traveled to Veracruz to observe migrating dragonflies. The partnership meets annually to discuss how best to learn more about dragonfly migration. 

    You can find out more about ways to help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration by visiting the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership web site.

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

    View Comments

  • Vernal Musings

    Share

    Tags: spring, crocus

    Created: 4/21/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Sow the radishes and pop in the pansies!  It’s spring! 

    I don’t mind telling you folks; when your job is all plants all the time, spring is a pretty big deal.  No more waiting, no more desperately ogling seed catalogs in a darkened office or checking the potted palms for watering again. Time to get moving.

    I should say time to stay moving. We’ve already got the beds raked out and the veggie garden sown and the Butterfly Haven replanted and the pansies in and so on and so forth.  Next week, plants arrive for the expansion of the Wickham Butterfly Garden, and before you know it we’ll be firing up the lawn tractor.  Spring doesn’t slow down; it only accelerates, until the heat of July finally forces it to sit down in the shade with a glass of lemonade. April is the time when a gardener must shake himself free from the grey slumber of winter, grab a rake, and start rebuilding the atrophied muscles and calluses he will need to keep pace.

    It might sound to you like I’m complaining, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am so ready to be surrounded by green, growing things, even if half of them are weeds I need to pull. It’s not that I hate winter. Every season has its charms. But there’s something about spring. Something beyond the warmth and beauty. Something about the resilience of life, the renewing power of change, the hopefulness of a world made young...Sorry, I seem to be waxing spiritual. Hard to avoid at this time of year.

    I feel fortunate to live in Chicago, where spring is a full season long, unlike father east or south, where it often seems like little more than a two-week argument between Old Man Winter and the May Queen.  Back east, everything would be brown one day and green the next, leaving precious little time to savor the yearly miracles of bursting buds and stretching stalks. But here, day after day brings new developments that can be watched, reported on, and discussed with fellow springtime aficionados. Elms are blooming.  Tulips are up early this year. Saw my first violet today. To a gardener, this is a rewarding conversation.

    Crocus


    My favorite moment every spring comes early on, often in March. It’s the moment when I spot my first crocus flower of the season. Be it yellow or purple, that speck of color is nothing less than shocking to an eye lulled to complacency by winter’s stark palette. For a moment, that shock seems to resonate, excite, and compel like the very spark of life itself. It’s as if that little crocus has a message for me: Change has come. Wake up. Get moving. Be a part of it all.

    Thanks little guy.  I’m on it.

    Seth Harper, Horticulturist

     

    View Comments

  • Virtual Butterfly Collecting

    Share

    Tags: butterfly collecting, butterflies, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Biology, lepidoptera

    Created: 4/19/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    About three years ago, I began a project of trying to take a bunch of butterfly photos. I had an old lecture with images in 35 mm slide format that I wanted to convert to a digital presentation. In the process, I discovered how much more I enjoyed taking digital photos of butterflies than using the old film format. My project quickly changed from getting images for a talk to starting a virtual butterfly collection.

    Buckeye butterfly
    Buckeye (Junonia coenia),
    Willow Springs, IL July 18, 2010

    This was one of the first specimens in my virtual collection.

    I've collected butterflies most of my life. Early on my collecting was simply a hobby. As I began collecting for a variety of professional purposes, I stopped collecting for fun. Among other things, I couldn't justify taking the butterflies simply for my own amusement. Digital photography has changed all of that.

    California Sister butterfly
    Caption: California Sister (Adelpha californica)
    Madera Canyon, Arizona. July 31, 2012

    I've been surprised at how similar digital photography is to collecting specimens. Both involve similar pleasures of the pursuit in the field and both require knowledge of habitats and host plants. Both result in a sense of elation at the moment of capture. Both involve work with the specimen once you get it home. In the case of the physical specimen this work involves relaxing, pinning mounting and labeling. In the case of the photograph, it involves cropping and correcting exposure. For me, one of the enjoyable parts of virtual collecting has been keeping records of date and location of capture that are just as rigorous as those that I would maintain for a pinned specimen. 

    Olympia Marble butterfly
    Olympia Marble (Euchloe olympia). 
    Illinois Beach State Park May 11, 2011

    Ethical and conservation concerns aside, there are additional advantages to virtual butterfly collecting over traditional specimen collecting. Want to collect an endangered species or collect in a National Park?  Not so fast- you need a slew of permits and a really good reason to do so. But with a camera, you can take as many images as you would like. Are you traveling abroad and want to collect butterflies?  Many countries now prohibit the export of species, and many more require a permit.  In contrast, the images on your camera will go right through customs, no problem. 

    Karner Blue butterfly
    Karner Blue (Lyciades melissa samuelis)

    Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, May 30, 2009

    A double whammy: This endangered species was virtually collected in a National Park.

    One of the things that I always enjoyed with my specimen collection was looking at my specimens much later and remembering where I was, who I was with, and how much I was enjoying myself. I now get a very similar kind of enjoyment from my virtual collection-- and the specimens in it don't fade or break or get eaten by dermestid beetles. I'll continue collecting actual butterflies for the Nature Museum as the specifics of my work require it. But I also expect to be collecting virtually with my camera for my own enjoyment for the rest of my life.

    Fatima Peacock
    Fatima Peacock (Anartia Fatima)
    Vallarta Botanical Gardens, Jalisco, Mexico, February 15, 2012

    I had no trouble getting this virtual specimen of a Fatima Peacock through customs when I returned home from Mexico.

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology


    View Comments

  • Become a Blanding's Turtle Tracker

    Share

    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, blandings turtle, conservation, research, endangered

    Created: 4/19/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Several years ago the Chicago Academy of Sciences became involved in the conservation and restoration of the State endangered Blanding’s Turtle. For those of you who visit the museum regularly, you can’t fail to have noticed our beautiful display tank, which houses two sub-adults and some hatchlings.

    Blanding's turtle display tank

    The hatchlings are headstarted for two years in a controlled environment, which allows us to protect them from predation at their most vulnerable stage. We then release them out into a suitable habitat equipped with a tiny radio transmitter.

    Blanding's with radio transmitter

    After hopefully surviving their first winter hibernating deep down in the mud we begin to track them as soon as the weather begins to warm up in the spring.

    Biologist tracking turtles

    Each transmitter has a unique frequency so we know exactly which turtle we are tracking and as we collect data we are able to develop a picture of survival rates and habitat usage. Blanding’s Turtles live to between 60 and 70 years and do not become reproductively viable until their mid teens so, as an organization we have committed to this study for a long time.

    Holding a Blanding's turtle

    Would you like to become involved in this project? Well you can! We have developed a program called ‘Become a Blanding’s Turtle Tracker.’ For $75 per year or $130 for two years you can donate directly to the cost of the radio transmitters and in exchange get regular Enews updates about the research program as well as a brochure and certificate.

    Blanding's e-newsletter

    What better way to get involved in a current conservation project without leaving the comfort of your own back yard? To become a Blanding’s Turtle Tracker simply click on this link and sign up today. The Blanding’s Turtles will really appreciate your help.

    Blanding's turtle closeup

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

    View Comments

 
Close
Mobile navigation