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  • A Rainforest Refresh - Introducing Our Newest Critters!

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    Tags: rainforest adventure, rainforest animals, dumeril's boa, parrots, toucans, aracari, amazon, tree monitor, henkel's leaf-tailed gecko

    Created: 3/4/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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    Visitors have enjoyed our "Rainforest Adventure" exhibit so much, that we've extended its run through the end of May! To refresh it a little, we've switched out Iggy, Tonks and the rest of the critters for a new group of rainforest friends. Be sure to stop by and say 'hello' in person, and learn more about them below!

    Green Aracari

    Green Aracari 

    Green Aracaris are found in the lowland forests of northeastern South America, the northeast Amazon Basin, the Guianas and the eastern Orinoco River drainage of Venezuela. They nest in tree hollows and cavities, digging to expand the chambers for more room. Both parents cooperate to rear their young. The Green Aracari is the smallest member of the toucan family. Their diet consists primarily of fruit. The large bill’s serrated edges help the bird to grip and gather fruit. Insects are an occasional part of the diet, providing protein.

    Kindly loaned by Jason J. Crean, American Federation of Aviculture, Promoting a Future with Birds.

     

    Ivory-Billed Aracari

    Ivory-Billed Aracari

    Like the Green Aracari, Ivory-Billed Aracaris are also found in South America, mostly in the lowlands of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, and in the lower elevations of the Andes.  Ivory-Billed Aracaris are the smallest members of the Aracari family, typically weighing about 5.3 oz. Males have a black crown while females have a brown crown. The males also typically have longer bills.

    Kindly loaned by Jason J. Crean, American Federation of Aviculture, Promoting a Future with Birds

     

    Green Tree Monitor

    Green Tree Monitors

    This small to medium-sized tree dwelling monitor lizard is known for its unusual coloring, which serves as camouflage in its natural environment. The lizards are found in tropical forests, palm swamps and cocoa plantations in New Guinea and several surrounding islands. They have prehensile tails, long claws, and the soles of their feet have enlarged scales for extra grip. Their diet consists of large tree-dwelling arthropods including katydids, beetles, centipedes, spiders, stick insects and crabs, as well as birds and small mammals.

    Kindly loaned by Julie TenBensel Vicary.

     

    Lilac-Crowned Amazon

    Lilac-Crowned Amazon

    This parrot is native to the Pacific slopes of Mexico, but there are feral populations in several Southern California counties. Lilac-crowned Amazons have been kept as pets since the 1800s, and are one of the most popular parrot species in the pet trade. Due to the loss and degradation of habitat, the wild population of these parrots has declined by an estimated 30 to 49 percent over the past decade. The illegal Central and South American pet trade has also contributed to their decline. This species is listed as vulnerable within its natural range.

    Kindly loaned by Jason J. Crean, American Federation of Aviculture, Promoting a Future with Birds.

    Dumeril’s Boa

    Dumeril's Boa

    This non-venomous Boa species is found on Madagascar and Reunion Island, located east of Madagascar on the Indian Ocean. Adults average 6.5 feet in length although specimens over 8 feet long have been reported. Dumeril’s Boa is threatened by deforestation and hunting by humans. In some areas they are killed on sight due to unfounded fear. Their diet consists of small animals, including birds, lizards, and mammals, and they are also known to prey on other snakes.

    Kindly loaned by The Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest.

     

    Henkel’s Leaf-Tailed Gecko

    Henkel’s Leaf-Tailed Gecko

    Also known as Flat-tailed Geckos, there are eight species of these animals, all native to Madagascar. All Leaf-tailed Geckos are being threatened by habitat loss caused by deforestation across the island. Leaf-tailed Geckos’ skin often resembles tree bark. This provides excellent camouflage when the geckos are basking in the sun during the day. They are carnivorous, with insects comprising the bulk of their diet, but, occasionally, they will hunt other invertebrates, small rodents or reptiles.

    Kindly loaned by The Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest.

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  • From Confections to Fossils: Charles F. Gunther

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    Created: 3/2/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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    Charles F. Gunther was born on this day in 1837. Although he spent a large portion of his life as a successful confectioner, he also contributed to the Chicago Academy of Sciences in a number of ways.

    Charles F. Gunther

    Charles F. Gunther

    Gunther was born in Germany, then moved to the U.S. with his family, first to Pennsylvania then Illinois. After fighting in the Civil War, he traveled to Europe to study and learn from confectioners in Europe. He started his own company in 1868, specializing in caramels, and saw tremendous success. So much so, that he began to use his fortune purchasing unique, if not always legitimate, historical artifacts. His collection included everything from shrunken heads, to fossils, to Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, to alleged Biblical relics. He then bought the Libby War Prison in Richmond, moved it Chicago and turned it into a museum to house his collection. It was open from 1889 to 1899. It was around this time that he became involved with the Academy.

    He joined the Academy’s Board of Trustees in 1889, and soon after began donating some of the natural history pieces of his collection to the Academy. From 1895 to 1911, he contributed fossils, minerals, birds, fish, snakes, lizards, and cultural items. Some of the largest (and most impressive) pieces he donated are actually still on display in the Nature Museum. This Mastodon jaw and tooth are from the Pleistocene Epoch and, coincidentally, were found 6 miles from Abraham Lincoln’s first home in Macon County, Illinois.

    Mastodon mandible

    Mastodon mandible. Donated by Charles F. Gunther.

    Event though his own museum closed in 1899, Gunther remained an Academy trustee until 1911. He had hoped to open a new museum for his collection, but his condition that the city provide a building to house the museum in Garfield Park was never met. Gunther died February 10, 1920, but the impact he had on the Academy’s collection remains.

    Mastodon tooth

    Mastodon tooth. Donated by Charles F. Gunther.

    Learn more about Gunther's work by checking out the resources below:

    Museum Work: Including the Proceedings of the American Association of Museums Volumes 1 & 2 pp. 205-206

    Charles F. Gunther 1837-1920

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  • "Fieldwork is the Lifeblood of Museums": Remembering Alfred M. Bailey

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    Tags: Alfred M. Bailey, Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, ornithology

    Created: 2/16/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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    If you're familiar with the Chicago Academy Sciences and our history, then chances are good that you've heard the name Alfred M. Bailey before. For just shy of a decade, Bailey was Director of the Academy, and added some invaluable specimens to our ornithology collection...but who exactly was he?

    Edward Ford, Alfred M. Bailey and William I. Lyon standing on a pier

    Edward Ford, Alfred M. Bailey and William I. Lyon
    Chicago Academy of Sciences Archive, Photography Collection.

    Alfred Marshall Bailey was born on this day in 1894 in Iowa City, Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1916, and as an undergrad worked in a government-sponsored expedition to the Hawaiian Island of Laysan. From here, he quickly became involved in the world of museums. From 1916 to 1919 he worked as the curator of birds and mammals at the Louisiana State Museum, and from 1921 to 1926 he worked at the Denver Museum of Natural History, before making the move to the Midwest.

    In 1926, Bailey came to Chicago to join the Field Museum, but after a year, he made the move to the Chicago Academy of Sciences where he was appointed Director of the Academy. During the nine years he spent as Director, Bailey continued to focus on ornithology, organizing trips back to Louisiana to capture still and motion photography of migrating birds. He also organized trips to Alaska and, working with collectors there, collected birds and bird eggs. This culminated in the publication of the Academy’s Program of Activities “Birds of the Region of Point Barrow, Alaska” in 1933.

    Alfred M. Bailey in a field filming birds in Louisiana.

    Alfred M. Bailey (with camera) filming birds in Louisiana. 
    Chicago Academy of Sciences Archive, Photography Collection.

    When Bailey resigned from the Academy, he returned to the Denver Museum of Natural History where he was appointed Director, a position he held until 1969. He remained involved with the Denver Museum until his death in 1978.

    In his obituary for Bailey, Allan R. Phillips detailed that Bailey’s credo was “fieldwork is the lifeblood of natural history museums and he himself was a leading fieldman.” This extensive fieldwork not only produced Academy publications, it also resulted in some prized pieces of our ornithology collection. Some of the specimens in our collection were collected as part of Bailey’s work to document avian diversity in his book Birds of Arctic Alaska. In addition to those specimens, we also have a large number of Bailey’s photographs in our archives that were taken during his trips across the United States and Canada. To see some of them, check out this blog post.

    To learn more about Bailey’s life and work, check out these resources:

    Allan R. Phillips, “In Memoriam: Alfred M. Bailey”, The Auk Vol. 98, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 173-175

    Papers of Alfred M. Bailey – University of Iowa Libraries

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  • The Work of William Stimpson

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    Tags: william stimpson, Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, founders

    Created: 2/10/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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    Although February 14 is recognized as Valentine’s Day, it’s a special day to the Nature Museum for another reason. It’s also the birthday of William Stimpson, a major force in the creation and establishment of the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    William Stimpson

    Born on February 14, 1832 in Boston, Stimpson seems to have been born with a love of nature. By the age of 14, he’d begun independently exploring geology and invertebrates. Despite this love of the natural world, Stimpson found himself pushed toward engineering by his father who believed there was no money to be had in the scientific field. While Stimpson begrudgingly obeyed his wishes for a couple of years, by 1850 he was studying under the prodigious biologist/geologist Louis Agassiz at Cambridge. Two years later, he was appointed naturalist of the North Pacific Exploring Expedition. He was only 20 years old. He remained with the Expedition for four years, collecting 5,300 specimens and making special notes and drawings of over 3,000 specimens. You can read his report on the crustacea collected during the expedition here.

    Nautilus drawn by William Stimpson
    William Stimpson, Nautilus Drawing, US Pacific Expedition, Aug 14, 1853
     

    Upon his return, he began studying at the Smithsonian, later becoming the head of the invertebrates department. It was here where he met Robert Kennicott, the naturalist who’d begun to make a name for himself by cataloging the fauna of his home state of Illinois. In 1865, Stimpson was widely recognized as the leading American authority on aquatic invertebrates. It was at this time that his old pal Robert Kennicott called on him to join the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    Kennicott was about to leave on expedition to Alaska and appointed Stimpson to take his place as Curator of the Academy, as well as Academy Secretary. Stimpson not only brought a new energy to this role, he also brought much of the collection he built during the course of his own personal research, as well as what he collected while with the Smithsonian. When Kennicott died while on expedition, Stimpson was elected to take his place as Director of the Academy. Through Stimpson’s leadership, the Academy’s collection grew to be the fourth largest in the country, with only the Smithsonian’s collection as its rival in importance. Sadly, it was lost during the Great Chicago Fire – a loss that Stimpson never fully recovered from.

    Stimpson died of tuberculosis just nine months after the Great Fire. Although he had been working to rebuild the collection, he was in poor health, and the loss of his life’s work weighed on him heavily. Despite the incredible loss, Stimpson never regretted his decision to join the Academy. In a letter to his secretary he said:

    But had I lost twice as much, I shall never regret coming to Chicago, for I have found there noble and generous friends, not only to myself, but friends to science and such as no other city in America can boast; and of more value to me than worldly possessions will be the memory of the friendly experiences I have had with yourself and the other trustees and the friends of the Academy, while we together built up a monument which, though now leveled with the dust, will long live in scientific history.

    William Stimpson

    Sources:

    Josiah Seymour Currey, Chicago: Its History and Its Builders…: 157
    Alfred Goldsborough Mayer, “Biographical Memoir of William Stimpson”, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences: 419-433
    Special Publication – Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volumes 1 & 2
    “William Stimpson”, Spencer Baird and Icthyology at the Smithsonian


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  • Taking a Closer Look at Howard K. Gloyd

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, herpetology, snakes, howard k gloyd

    Created: 2/9/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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    Chicago Academy of Sciences Director and herpetologist Howard Kay Gloyd was born 113 years ago today.

    Howard Gloyd on expedition

    Born in DeSoto, Kansas, Gloyd taught at Ottawa University, the Agricultural College of Kansas State University and the University of Michigan before joining the Chicago Academy of Sciences in 1936 as Academy Director. It was also around this time that he became vice president of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologist and was a consultant for the State Natural History Survey of Illinois. While at the Academy, Gloyd worked to expand the Academy’s scientific publications and additions to the Academy’s public lecture series, and still conducted his own personal research on snakes with a special emphasis on rattlesnakes.

    Gloyd’s focus on rattlesnakes led him to organize three separate expeditions to Arizona, with the first in 1936, the second in 1940, and the third in 1946. The specimens he acquired during these expeditions are actually still in our collections. Although Gloyd left the Academy in 1958, he continued to remain an important figure in the world of herpetology, describing new species (like the Florida cottonmouth snake) and holding various lecturer and research associate positions at the University of Arizona which culminated in his appointment as Emeritus Professor of Zoology at U of A. He held this position until his death in 1978.

    In addition to his contributions to our collections, Gloyd continues to be connected to the Nature Museum. Two of the snake species featured in our living collections are actually his herpetological namesakes. The Eastern Fox Snake (Elaphe vuplina gloydi) was named for Gloyd by Roger Conant in 1940, while the Western Hognose Snake subspecies the Dusty Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus gloydi) was named for Gloyd by Richard A. Edgren in 1952. You may have met some of our own Fox Snakes, like Toblerone, during our Critter Connections, and if you’ve wandered through Mysteries of the Marsh, you’ve no doubt seen our own beautiful Western Hognose Snake!

    Eastern Fox SnakeWestern Hognose Snake

    Eastern Fox Snake and Western Hognose Snake, both named for Howard K. Gloyd

    You can learn more about Howard K. Gloyd by checking out the resource below.

    Biographies of People Honored in the Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America

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  • Bunking with the Butterflies: A Night in the Life of a Girl Scout at the Nature Museum

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    Tags: overnights, scout programs, museum programs

    Created: 2/6/2015      Updated: 1/9/2018

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    Girl Scouts playing with animal antlers and pelts during a Nature Museum overnight program

    6:00:  I arrived at the Museum to find 150 other girls with sleeping bags and pillows, waiting to see where we’d be sleeping for the night.

    6:30:  After dropping off our belongings, we all came together in a GIANT circle to meet the staff, sing some songs, and go over the rules for the evening.

    7:00:  I GOT TO MEET A TURTLE. His name is Bob and he’s a Blanding’s turtle. They are an endangered species. I can’t believe I got to pet him!

    7:30:  My troop just got to explore the Museum’s exhibits…and we were the only ones there! It was so cool to have the whole place to ourselves. We built dams in RiverWorks, then spent a long time watching the animals in the Rainforest Adventure exhibit. So cool!

    8:00:  Now I know how to tell the difference between a fox squirrel and a grey squirrel.  I got to touch some real (but no longer living) squirrel specimens and play this fun matching game where I had to find two pictures of squirrels of the same species that matched.

    8:30:  I just ate some popcorn and other snacks in Nature’s Lunchbox.  I loved the chance to hang out with my friends.

    9:00:  Craft time! We made these awesome seed bombs out of clay, dirt, and seeds. I can’t wait to plant it in my backyard.

    9:30:  It’s time to start getting ready for bed. I rolled out my sleeping bag, then I brushed my teeth and changed into my PJs. 

    11:00:  Lights out. I AM SLEEPING AT THE MUSEUM. Ah!

    ::next morning::

    7:00:  Time to wake up! So soon?! 

    8:00:  We had breakfast together and got our badges that prove that we spent the WHOLE NIGHT at the Museum.

    8:30:  Before the Museum’s even open, we got the special chance to explore the Butterfly Haven.  Since we had the place to ourselves, I had a chance to look more closely than usual at everything in there. I didn’t know there were birds in the haven! I love the button quail, running around among the plants. I’m going to come back and visit them again.

    9:00:  I stopped by the gift shop to buy a souvenir from this great trip. I got a stuffed turtle who I’m going to sleep with from now on so I always remember the night I spent at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

    Girl Scouts examining reptile and amphibian specimens in jars during a Nature Museum overnight program

    Sounds like a great time, right? Well, this is a REAL experience for young girls at the Museum. We are recruiting Girl Scout troops for two upcoming overnights this spring:

    Juniors (4th and 5th graders): April 24-25

    Brownies (2nd and 3rd graders): May 8-9

    5:30pm-9am

    $45/girl, $15/chaperone

    If you know a Girl Scout who might like to participate in this unique program, please have her troop leader visit our Overnight Programs page to register or learn more. Questions can be directed to overnights@naturemuseum.org or 773-755-5100 x5037. 

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  • Introducing Discovery Day

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    Tags: discovery day, specimens, collections

    Created: 2/2/2015      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    Have you ever seen something in nature that you just couldn’t identify? On Saturday, February 28, we'll be sharing our experts with you during our very first Discovery Day! Our entomologists, paleontologists, and urban ecologists will help identify your discoveries. Whether your specimen is a feather, fossil, shell, rock, plant, photograph, or observation you can join our experts at the Museum from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to learn more about it! As a bonus, visitors who bring a specimen to identify on Discovery Day will receive free admission.

    Discovery Day promotional poster

    Don't have a piece to bring in? Don't worry! You'll still be able to speak with our experts, ask questions, and learn about some of the Museum’s own discoveries by examining some specimens from our own collection up close.

    Join our experts in the Nature Museum’s Wilderness Walk on February 28 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to discover more about your natural treasures, or maybe even stump our scientists!

    Please note, our experts will not be giving appraisals during Discovery Day. 

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  • February Happenings at the Chicago Herpetological Society and CJHS

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    Created: 1/23/2015      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    The first full weekend of every month, the Nature Museum becomes a herpetologist haven! That's when the Chicago Herpetological Society sets up tables in the Nature Walk for some reptile fun with the public and the Junior Herp Society holds their monthly meetings! The Notebaert is an awesome and beautiful place to go and reconnect with nature during these colder months

    Junior Herp Society logoChicago Herpetological Society with live animals in the Nature Museum's Wilderness Walk

    Join us for some reptile fun!

    The Chicago Junior Herpetological Society is about sharing the love of amphibians and reptiles with the younger generation, and fostering an appreciation of wildlife and nature through educational speakers and hands-on interaction.

    The regular monthly meetings of the Chicago Junior Herpetological Society take place at The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, on the Sunday of the first full weekend every month, from noon till about 1:30. Meetings are free to members of the CHS and visitors to the museum. The next meeting will be on Sunday, February 8th. Our speaker will be Vince Sourile from Eden's Bane Exotics and he will be discussing Ball Pythons, morphs and care. We are looking forward to the warmer weather and would like to plan a few field trips this year and lots of other fun stuff.

    You can learn more about the CJHS here.

     

    Junior Herp Society meetingVince Sourile from Eden's Bane Exotics

    The Chicago Herpetological Society is a non-profit all volunteer organization dedicated to the conservation of all wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians, the cooperation of amateur and professional herpetologists toward a more complete understanding of herpetofauna, and the education of the general public about these often misunderstood but fascinating animals.‚Äč

    When considering getting a new pet for the family, a great option to consider is adoption. There are many awesome animals out there in need of a loving home. The CHS has an adoption program available to members. There are currently some awesome animals being fostered and ready for a new forever home. Contact Colleen Schwarz or Linda Malawy of the CHS adoption program.

    You can learn more about CHS adoptions here.

    Chicago Herpetological Society logoBearded dragons

    General meetings of the Chicago Herpetological Society are held on the last Wednesday every month at 7:30pm at the Notebaert. Meetings are free to attend. We are also gearing up for next year’s ReptileFest, the nation’s largest educational herpetological event. ReptileFest 2015 will be on April 11 and 12, from 10am to 5pm in the University of Illinois Phys Ed building. Mark your calendars, this will be the 22nd year of this wonderful show.

    You can learn more about the Chicago Herpetological Society here and Reptilefest here.

    Hope to see you there!

    Rich Lamszus
    Chicago Junior Herp Society
    Chicago Herpetological Society

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  • The Office That Started It All: A Closer Look at Dr. Edmund Andrews

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    Tags: founder's week, chicago history, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 1/22/2015      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    Last week we celebrated our 158th birthday, this week we’re recognizing one of the founder who made it all possible. Dr. Edmund Andrews died on this day in 1904. Andrews was born in Vermont and expressed interest in botany and geology from an early age. Although he soon turned his professional focus to medicine, this love remained with him. He studied medicine at the University of Michigan, and became demonstrator of anatomy and professor of comparative anatomy. He became a published author and had his essays featured in medical journals. It was this work that then brought him to settle in Chicago.

    Edmund Andrews in office

    Although he was a practicing surgeon, during his off-hours he returned to his love of nature. It was in his offices that the original members of what was to later become the Chicago Academy of Sciences began to meet. When the Academy was formalized in 1857, Andrews was named Curator of the Academy. By the time Robert Kennicott took over the position in 1863, Andrews had co-founded the Chicago Medical College, and had been appointed Surgeon in Chief of Camp Douglas. Although his medical work kept him occupied professionally, he still remained involved with the Academy. His interest in geology and glacial history led him to publish some of his findings in the Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and he served as the President of the Board of Trustees for a number of terms and through some of its toughest years.

    Edmund Andrews in profile

    While we recognized and remember Dr. Edmund Andrews for his work with the Academy, he truly made a name for himself as a pioneering surgeon. To learn more about his contributions to the world of medicine, check out the links below.

    Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
    Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago by J. Carbuff

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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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