Created: 12/5/2016 Updated: 3/3/2017
In this new series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!
Is corn a grass?
The Short Answer:
A cob of corn may not resemble the green grass growing in your lawn, but if you ask any biologist or botanist, they will tell you that yes, the corn plant is a grass!
Photo courtesy of Meg Stewart (CC BY-SA 2.0)
How can that be? First, biologists study the features of plants and animals. Then, biologists create groups of plants and animals that have the same features. This science of grouping similar plants and animals together is called taxonomy. For example, the science of taxonomy says that "mammals" are animals that have fur, give live birth to babies, and feed their babies with milk. In taxonomy, a "grass" refers to a specific group of plants. Grasses have leaves that grow around the stem, and each leaf has a central “vein” that helps support the leaf. Grasses have flowers at the top of their stem in a shape called a "spikelet," and those flowers do not have petals. Using that definition from taxonomy, both lawn grass and the corn plant are grass! When you compare corn and lawn grass like a botanist, you can see how the two plants are related. In the pictures of grass and corn below, what similarities do you see?
Lawn Grass Corn
What other groups of animals or plants can you think of? What features do they have in common?
If you really want to get confused, ask a botanist about fruits: a botanist will tell you that cucumbers, pumpkins, peanuts, and chili peppers are all fruits! The lesson is, when a botanist offers you a fruit salad, make sure you get a list of ingredients before you accept.
The Long(er) Answer:
The original corn plant does resemble a wild grass plant, but thousands of years of domestication by the native peoples of central Mexico have turned a wild, small-seeded grass known as teosinte into the familiar plant we know today. The kernels of early corn were either ground into a rough flour, or soaked in water, drained, and heated over a fire.
Modern corn is so unlike its genetic predecessor that the origin of corn was a complete mystery to archaeologists until the 1930s when a graduate student named George Beadle experimentally determined the connection between teosinte and the modern corn plant. Even still, corn and teosinte look so different that it took decades longer for the rest of the scientific community to agree with these experimental results!
Maybe the mystery of corn's origin would have been solved sooner had etymologists and botanists been comparing notes: the Aztec word for teosinte, teocentli, means "God's ear of corn," and teosinte is known in some regions of Mexico as madre de maiz or "mother of corn"!
The corn we grow today has been so selectively bred and utterly domesticated that corn cannot even survive without humans to plant it into the ground: if a cob of corn kernels falls to the ground and germinates, the cluster of seeds is so dense that they compete against each other for water and nutrients and few seedlings grow to maturity. In only a few generations without human intervention, modern corn would become extinct.
But other cereal crops like wheat, barley, and oats still grow on plants that still obviously look like grass, and those crops have a history of domestication as far back as corn. Why is corn unique?
It's important to remember that small genetic mutations can create profound changes in an organism It's possible that during domestication, random mutations occurred in early corn plants that did not randomly occur in other cereal crops. It's also possible that through genetic engineering, other cereal crops could be created with much larger grains as well. Scientists in Britain claim to have done just that with wheat, claiming to have created a strain of wheat with 40% greater yield than common wheat.
So, that’s that: corn isn’t a vegetable (botanically), but a wonder grass that feeds the western world. The only question that remains is, corn-fed beef or grass-fed beef: what’s really the difference?
Nature Museum Volunteer
 Eckardt, Nancy A. (2004) What Makes a Grass? DROOPING LEAF Influences Flower and Leaf Development in Rice. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://www.plantcell.org/content/16/2/291.full
 Carroll, Sean B. (2010) Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/25creature.html
 Beadle, George W. (1980) The Ancestry of Corn. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://users.clas.ufl.edu/dcgrove/mexarchreadings/corn.pdf
 Genetic Science Learning Center. (2013, July 1) Evolution of Corn. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/selection/corn/
 Knapton, Sarah. (2016, November 4) Genetically modified wheat could be grown in Britain from next spring. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/11/04/genetically-modified-wheat-could-be-grown-in-britain-from-next-s/
 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/44/Grassy_grass_plant.svg, By Kelvinsong (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/Maize_plant_diagram.svg, By LadyofHats (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons, edited to enlarge text
Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!View Comments
Created: 11/1/2016 Updated: 11/1/2016
For the next week, guests at the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will have the opportunity to see the world’s largest moth. The Atlas Moth recently arrived from Malaysia and will join the charismatic Birdwing Butterfly, Blue Morpho and 1,000 fluttering friends in our signature attraction.
The Judy Istock Butterfly Haven features more than 40 different types of butterflies and a variety of unique birds in a serene and colorful space featuring pools of water, flowers and tropical trees.
The Atlas Moth – whose wingspan extends averages 9 inches—is also larger than any species of butterfly. The Atlas Moth is much easier to see and photograph than the typical butterfly or moth because it spends most of its time perched on vegetation. Its wings feature shades of brown and cream with some red markings and the outer tips resemble the head of a snake.
Some facts about Atlas Moths include:
- Their large cocoons are used as purses in Taiwan because they are made of such sturdy silk.
- Atlas Moths have no functional mouth and don’t eat as adults. They live on their fat reserves and their lifespan (1-2 weeks) is shorter than the average butterfly/moth.
- Once they emerge from their cocoon, they never close their wings.
Created: 7/19/2016 Updated: 7/24/2016
Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere
On July 24, 1949 the great Wallace W. Atwood died at the age of 76. As a geographer and geologist, Atwood wrote and contributed to textbooks, taught classes, and even contributed to the New Jersey Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Natural History Survey. Although you may not immediately recognize his name, he contributed an important exhibit to the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and one of our fellow Chicago museums.
The Atwood Sphere in 1913 (Photo from Popular Science)
The Atwood Celestial Sphere opened at the Academy in June of 1913. What set it apart from other planetariums of the period was its ability to rotate around visitors as they stood inside it. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum, designed the incredible apparatus and it helped usher in a new age of planetariums.
Illustration of the Atwood Sphere (From Popular Science)
The sphere was constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal and only measured 15 feet in diameter. Tiny perforations in the exterior of the sphere allowed light to penetrate, appearing as stars to those viewing from the inside. Atwood designed the celestial sphere to portray the stellar sky as seen from Chicago and visitors would watch as the sun, moon, and stars rotated around them in simulation of Earth’s orbit through the solar system. The sphere was utilized heavily for educational programs at the Academy. School groups, clubs, and other visitors would tour the sphere, with programs often led by Atwood himself during his time with the Academy.
The Sphere as it looked in the Laflin Memorial Building in 1987
When the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas in the 1960s, the exterior of the Sphere was painted to look like the Earth and the ceiling of the Laflin Building painted to look like the night sky to blend more readily with the new exhibits. When the Academy moved from the Laflin Building in 1995, the Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium, officially making the move on December 16, 1997. Once it was transferred the staff at the Adler began to restore it to its original 1913 appearance. The geographical features that had been built up on the Sphere’s exterior were flattened, paint was removed and the original star holes were cleaned. Instead of walking into the Sphere, visitors now enter the Sphere in a motorized cart, and the Sphere rotates around the cart, but the experience is very similar to what Academy visitors experience when they walked into the Sphere in 1913.
The Atwood Sphere as it looks today on exhibit at the Adler PlanetariumView Comments
Created: 7/12/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
If you love pollinators as much as we do, you’re probably aware of the recent population decline of many pollinator species. The fact that 75% of our food is made possible because of pollination from butterflies, bees and other species has made this problem an international priority. Groups like the International Pollinator Initiative are working to highlight the need for public participation and awareness.
It’s become a local priority as well. On Earth Day of this year, we were happy to host ComEd as the company announced its plan to improve Monarch butterfly breeding areas around its transmission lines. Fidel Marquez, Senior Vice President of Governmental and External Affairs for ComEd, joined us to announce ComEd's plan to increase the mixture of milkweed plants used in its prairie restoration program by more than 30%. Meanwhile, at the Nature Museum, we are continually working to protect and reestablish populations of locally imperiled butterflies. Our efforts are to coordinate the restoration of their native habitat, to propagate imperiled butterflies in our Conservation Lab for the purpose of reintroduction, and to monitor butterfly populations throughout the state with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network citizen science program.
Two native species we continually work within our Butterfly Restoration Project are the Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), and the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum). The swamp metalmark, endangered in Illinois, is a rare butterfly that can only be found in wetlands. Its populations are small and intensely local in nature. In contrast, the Regal Fritillary was once common in tallgrass prairies across the country but now is rarely seen east of the Mississippi River. In fact, it is now threatened in Illinois. The Regal Fritillary was recently designated a priority species by the Chicago Wilderness Council with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum as the lead partner to coordinate regional efforts to conserve this species. We are also lead partners on two other species, the Monarch Butterfly and the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, and are currently working with Chicago Wilderness developing strategies to protect these species throughout the region.
We are also doing what we can to help out one of our most effective pollinators, the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) by hosting a number of beehives on our green roof. You will see our bees' hard at work when you visit our outdoor exhibits Nature Trails and the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden.
Wondering how you can work to help pollinators? Here are a few easy ways to start:
- Plant more native species and pollinator-friendly plants in your yard and garden. Check out this brochure to help you get started.
- Avoid using pesticides whenever possible. Remove pests by hand and use non-systemic pesticides such as insecticidal soap if necessary.
- Support the upkeep of our own Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden as it continues to serve as a way-station and food source for Monarchs and other species.
- Don’t use insecticides on bee swarms. If you notice a swarm on your property, contact a local honey co-op (like the Chicago Honey Co-Op) and a beekeeper will come and remove it from your property.
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.View Comments
Created: 7/12/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
The plants in our prairie and Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden are in full bloom. If you have a garden of your own, you’ve probably noticed it, too. You’ve probably also noticed lots insect buzzing around, including bees. Although the fear of bees is one of the most common fears, you shouldn’t be startled or scared to see bees buzzing around your garden.
Bees are vital pollinators. They are responsible for as much as $5.2 billion of agriculture production in the US alone, and 75% of all the food we eat benefits from pollination. Seeing them in your garden means that they recognize your plants as a food source, and it means that you’re doing your part to help pollinators. That said, there are some other flying insects that are easily mistaken for bees. While most are pollinators, some are more effective than others. Here’s a quick guide to help you identify who has been buzzing around your flowers.
Honey bees (Apis mellifera)
- Honey bees are wonderful pollinators of a wide variety of flowers in the garden.
- They are usually not aggressive. Bees that are out foraging among flowers for nectar and pollen usually sting only if stepped on or swatted. They are more aggressive if you approach their nest as stinging is primarily a defense to protect their brood. If they’re in your garden, you should be okay as they are happy minding their own business. If a swarm gathers, contact the Chicago Honey Co-Op for removal.
- Workers can only sting once, and they are reluctant to do so.
Bumble bees (Bombus spp.)
- Some flowers, such as snapdragons, are much better pollinated by bumble bees because they can do buzz pollination where they forcefully vibrate and shake the pollen off of the anthers.
- They are usually not aggressive. They nest underground, and may sting in defense if directly handled or if nest is threatened.
- They can sting more than once so be mindful of nests. Try to accommodate them as much as possible, if they've chosen your garden or yard as their nesting point.
Paper wasps (HYMENOPTERA: Vespidae)
- While they will visit flowers to drink nectar and can be responsible for some pollination, paper wasps are primarily carnivores. They can help take care of garden pests and do eat other insects, such as caterpillars.
- Paper wasps such as yellow jackets can be aggressive if threatened or if you approach their nest. They can be aggravated by swatting.
- Can sting multiple times and more painful than that of a honey bee.
Sweat bees (HYMENOPTERA: Halictidae)
- There are many native species that fall under the name "sweat bee". All species are important pollen feeders and pollinators of native, wild plants.
- They can be attracted to perspiration, hence their name.
- They are a smaller species and are mostly solitary.
- Likely only sting if disturbed, not very painful feels like a slight prick.
Hover flies (DIPTERA: Syrphidae)
- While not a bee or wasp at all these mimics can be important pollinators of plants that benefit most from fly pollination. The maggots are also voracious predators known as aphid lions and are excellent at controlling garden pests like aphids.
- Can be seen hovering around flowers and sometimes will land on your skin.
- Cannot sting as they do not possess stingers.
Leaf-cutter bees (HYMENOPTERA: Megachilidae)
- Leaf-cutter bees are another important native pollinator. Larger than sweat bees, but smaller than honey bees, these bees collect pollen on their bellies and will cut circular sections from leaves to build their nests from.
- A solitary species.
- Can sting more than once but are not aggressive and unlikely to sting.
Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus)
- While these incredibly large wasps will visit flowers and feed on nectar they are not very active pollinators. Adult cicada killers will hunt down and paralyze cicadas, then bring them back to their underground nest and feed their young.
- Although they can be intimidating, cicada killers are not aggressive and will very rarely sting only when handled or stepped on.
- Even if stung, it’s been described to feel no worse than a pinprick.
Mud daubers (HYMENOPTERA: Sphecidae or Crabronidae)
- Like paper wasps, are primarily carnivorous but adults also drink nectar and engage in some pollination.
- Create nests out of mud, can often be found on the sides of buildings. Mud daubers will fill their nests with spiders to feed their young.
- Non aggressive and will rarely sting if aggravated.
Although they all contribute to the ecology of a garden, some species of pollinators can occasionally cause a problem when they choose to nest in a poor location. If you spot a nest or hive that you feel may directly impact your safety, please contact a professional pest removal service.
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.
Interested in learning more about honeybees? Join us on Saturday, July 23 as Dr. Lucy King, Elephants and Bees Project Leader, joins us to talk about the multiple uses of beehive fences as a natural deterrent to reduce damaging crop-raiding by elephants. Click here for more information.View Comments
Created: 7/7/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
If you’ve wandered through our Nature Trails or the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden lately, you’ve probably seen a variety of pollinators and other insects. In addition to the bees that call our rooftop beehives home, you’ve probably seen a number of butterflies fluttering around. If you have your own pollinator garden, you’ve probably seen some of them there, too. But what are they? Here are six common species of butterflies you’re likely to find around the Nature Museum and in your neck of the woods.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Red admiral butterflies are very common and very easy to spot, thanks to their striking black forewings which featured red bars and white spots. Red Admirals are often seen in residential neighborhoods of large cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. They are frequent visitors to parks and gardens, but just as much at home in a prairie preserve. The range of the Red Admiral extends from Guatemala up into Northern Canada. While they fly year-round in Guatemala and Mexico, in the northern areas of their range they hibernate or overwinter as chrysalides. Red Admiral caterpillars eat plants of the Nettle family (Urticacea) such as Pellitory. Red Admirals can be found in most sunny places including moist fields, prairies or marshes. In urban areas, look for them in parks or along tree lined residential streets.
Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
Viceroy butterflies closely resemble Monarchs, but their behavior is very different. Viceroys prefer wet habitats and are territorial – they will chase away other butterflies that come too close. Viceroys also fly by flapping their wings quickly, while Monarchs usually glide between wing strokes. You can also tell the difference between the two by examining their wings. A black line crosses through the veins in the Viceroy’s postmedian hindwing, but Monarch wings do not have this line. Viceroys range from the mountain states east to the Atlantic and from Texas north into the Canadian plains. They over-winter in the larva stage. Viceroy caterpillars feed on Willows, Aspens and Cottonwoods. Viceroys are usually found in wetlands and prairies with willows. They are also found in human-disturbed wet areas, like suburban lake edges.
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
One of the most familiar North American butterflies, the Monarch is distinctive for its striking colors and as a study in butterfly biology. The caterpillars accumulate toxins from the steady milkweed diet which makes this animal poisonous to predators especially birds. Birds apparently learn to avoid eating monarchs and other butterflies, like Viceroys, that look like Monarchs. Monarchs range across North America – coast to coast – and up into southern Canada during the summer. Every autumn, millions of Monarchs migrate south and west to central California and central Mexico. Monarchs are also found year-round in Central America. Monarch Caterpillars eat Milkweed it is therefore referred to as the Monarch's Host Plant. Monarchs will inhabit almost any sunny place with flowers, including parks, gardens or prairies.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
Painted Ladies are found year-round in the deserts of the southwest. They migrate into the Midwest and northeastern states each spring and return to the southwest before winter. In some years – 1992 was one example – they may multiply rapidly across the entire continent in a population explosion. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. In North America, they live year-round in Mexico, but migrate north each year across the continent, all the way to the Arctic Circle. Painted Lady Caterpillars eat Thistle, Mallow, Hollyhock and related plants. These plants are referred to as the Painted Lady’s Host Plants. Painted Ladies are found just about anywhere that thistles grow
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
Cabbage Whites are imports from Europe. They first appeared in Canada in 1860 and have since spread as far as south Texas. They can be seen just about anywhere from March to November. Several generations are produced each year. The Cabbage White ranges from central Canada as far as Texas and northwest Mexico. Individuals over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Cabbage White caterpillars eat Cabbage, Radish, Mustard, Peppergrass, and related plants. The caterpillar is often considered an agricultural pest. Cabbage Whites are found in weedy habitats like vacant lots, power line right of ways and roadsides as well as in marches and gardens where its food plants grow.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
In the Chicago area, these large swallowtails are first seen in April and early May. A second generation begins emerging from chrysalides in mid-June and a third generation may emerge in August or September. Black Swallowtails are attracted to butterfly gardens with fennel or dill plants. Their range extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They are found in Arizona, New Mexico, and the eastern half of the United States. Black Swallowtails over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Black Swallowtail Caterpillars eat Parsnips, Wild Carrots, Celery, Parsley and Dill. Black Swallowtails like sunny places with weeds and flowers, and can be found in gardens, vacant lots, old fields, pastures and marshes. They thrive in cities and suburbs due to the abundance of Queen Anne's Lace.
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.View Comments
Created: 6/3/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
This week's post was contributed by Michèle Noach. She is a London-based printmaker. Since 2004, she has been visiting the Arctic on research expeditions, tracking retreating glaciers. Her work Through The Ice, Darkly can currently be seen at the Nature Museum as part of Weather to Climate: Our Changing World (open through October 23). In this post, Noach describes her inspiration and process. You can learn more about Noach by visiting her website.
My first venture to the High Arctic was on an expedition in 2004 to Svalbard, midway between the northern-most tip of Norway and the North Pole. It is fair to say it was, visually, like being in a washing machine: I emerged with a recalibrated sense of what constituted beauty, the colour palette, the natural world, and the planet. Having mostly worked from a bubble-gum colour wheel before, in my capacity as an artoonist, it was a scouring experience and I returned with a new interest in ice, the sea and the spectrum of white as a storehouse for all colours.
Ice became an increasing obsession over the years with subsequent trips back to the Arctic, and it was impossible to ignore the ravaged glaciers, the great majority of Arctic ones being in monumental retreat. In their wake, they left gaping dark valleys of broken rock and ancient geological debris. They also took with them the unmistakable romance of the colossal inching rivers of bright ice that had descended from interior land to the sea.
I had by this time started collecting Victorian-era postcards of Northern Norway, photographs taken from 1880’s to the 1910’s, often featuring intrepid tourists in their extravagant garments, walking around the imposing fronts of these glaciers, clearly in awe of their might and beauty. Some of these images were exquisite, taken with very good camera lenses. The differing textures and shades of the ice were mesmerising, determined by age and temperature. Libraries of past climate.
It occurred to me that I could go back to these exact places, so clearly marked, named and dated on many of the negatives still visible on these early postcards, and rephotograph the location. So I spent the next few years on this project and revisited numerous sites, standing as near as I could to the original postcard photographer and recording the shocking diminution or absence of every one of the glaciers I had chosen.
Speaking to locals, there were many changes they experienced with the loss of their glaciers, including the now-impossible traditional methods of travel between villages which involved crossing the snow and ice, reduction of fresh water supplies and disappearing hunting practices.
But for all the practical tragedies and changes logged, it was the altered visual experience that was most striking. A magical, myth-laden Arctic Circle dreamscape was transforming slowly into what looked like quarries or disgarded open mines. The reflected light, colour and strangeness (for example, the inexplicable sounds emitted from inside the glaciers) all gone and only dark, cracked-rock gouges left.
I transported some of the wandering characters from the old postcards into the rephotographed glacial valleys, to bear some kind of witness to the change. Their century-old eyes might be searching for the ice, wondering how it can have disappeared so dramatically, and why. Their voices might be ours too.
The series Through The Ice, Darkly currently on show at the Peggy Notebaert Museum as part of the Weather To Climate exhibition is specifically about the subjective change in the landscape, the shift of mood apparent to an artist’s eyes, a lost ice world.
Original postcard of Kjendalsbræ
Cropped area of original postcard
Final cropped image from postcard, turned into a lenticular 3D print
Final lenticular image of current glacier with a character from old postcard, placed in approximately the same spot as 100 years before
Michèle NoachView Comments
Created: 5/20/2016 Updated: 5/23/2016
Have you ever wondered what goes into making a museum-quality taxidermy mount or study skin? Nature Museum volunteer Annamarie Fadorsen gives you a glimpse into the detailed work that goes into it in this video.
Created: 5/18/2016 Updated: 5/18/2016
Ever wish you could get an insider's look at our Collections facility? In honor of International Museum Day, we're giving you that chance! Check out the facility, and a few of the hundreds of thousands of specimens it holds, in this video! Featuring Dawn Roberts, Director of Collections, and Erica Krimmel, Assistant Collections Manager.
Created: 5/12/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
If you've walked around North Pond recently, you may have noticed this goose. It's suffering from a condition known as Angel Wing Syndrome.
Angel Wing is a condition that affects mostly waterfowl, caused by a nutritional deficiency in vitamins and minerals combined with a high level of carbohydrates and sugars. While a number of factors are involved, human-fed bread is one of the probable causes. It causes the carpal joint (or wrist) on the wing to grow awkwardly, leaving the wing unable to sit flush at the bird’s side. This affects their ability to fly and the growth of their primary flight feathers -- making them look more like sticks than feathers.
Damage in fully mature birds is irreversible and likely fatal, due to the inability to fly to food sources and rejection from their flocks. If the bird is young and the diet changes dramatically, however, the damage could be reversed.
Although there are more nutritional foods that humans can provide (like non-moldy cracked corn, wheat, barley or standard birdseed), geese and ducks are grazers and have no trouble finding food on their own. In fact, feeding them can create an unnatural and unhealthy dependence on us as their food providers, and can lead to other problems, like overcrowding and water pollution.
Help keep our waterfowl happy and healthy by spreading the word about the dangers of feeding them bread and crackers. You can download the image below and share it on your own social media channels to help educate your friends, family and neighbors.
Created: 4/25/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
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 (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.
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 ‘ 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.”
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!
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.)
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.
Created: 4/12/2016 Updated: 7/7/2016
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:
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.View Comments
Created: 3/21/2016 Updated: 3/28/2016
At the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, we pride ourselves on producing self-created exhibits on timely issues that will resonate with our family audience. As we celebrate the rich history of our institution during its 160th anniversary, we are busy putting the finishing touches on our most ambitious exhibit yet, one that puts one of the most consequential issues of our time into perspective for families in a fun environment.
On April 2nd, the Nature Museum will open Weather to Climate: Our Changing World. The exhibit will present in an accessible way the fundamentals of weather and climate, the science behind climate change, and what actions people can take to reduce our own impact. The exhibit will run through October 23, 2016 and drive a community-wide conversation about climate change.
For the last two years — thanks in large part to a diverse collaboration of subject matter experts including Molly Woloszyn at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center and Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel — we have immersed ourselves in this important issue. By creating Weather to Climate from the ground up, we were able to put a truly personal touch on the exhibit. Throughout this process, we worked hand-in-hand with our education department to make sure the interactive content is presented in a way that is easy to understand. In addition, the exhibit will facilitate ways for visitors to continue discussing climate change after they have left the Nature Museum.
This exhibit also represents our biggest foray into multi-media. The exhibit will feature interactive displays, video games, weather simulations, climate labs and more, including an immersive entry experience where guests can experience the sensations of different types of weather. From a design standpoint, it has been fascinating to see ideas initially scratched out on paper be transformed into active, dynamic content.
In addition to the interactive, multi-media elements, the exhibit will also include a selection of animals from our living collections. The animals featured will represent some of the animals that are likely to experience an increase or decrease in population as a result of climate change.
The Nature Museum is dedicated to creating a positive relationship between people and nature through collaborations, education, research and exhibitions such as Weather to Climate. As Chicago’s urban gateway to nature and science we could not be more proud to bring this global conversation to our own community. Join us on April 2nd as we open Weather to Climate and begin that dialogue.
Alvaro RamosView Comments
Vice President and Curator of Museum Experience
Created: 2/10/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
Later this month we will host the Chicago Volunteer Expo, now in its fourth year. We are proud to be the home of this city-wide event that showcases hundreds of volunteer opportunities at over 85 nonprofit and community organizations. Join us on Sunday, February 28, from 10am to 4pm, to find the opportunity that’s right for you.
Need a little motivation? Here’s why we think you should be there:
- It’s free. There’s not a lot more to be said here. Who doesn’t love a Sunday outing that costs nothing?
- It takes place at the Nature Museum. Instead of a giant, boring convention center, we hold the Chicago Volunteer Expo right here at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Not only will you get to learn about hundreds of volunteer opportunities all over the city, you’ll also have the chance to explore our exhibits. You can meet live critters, check out our historic collections, and get acquainted with urban nature. And I challenge you to find a more pleasant place to be on a February afternoon than our Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, which we keep at 80 degrees.
- You’ll have real conversations, with real people representing great causes. Sure, you could go online and search for volunteer opportunities, but an in-person conversation just can’t be beat when it comes to decisions like where to volunteer your time. Sometimes the most interesting opportunities are at tiny organizations that are not posted online and don’t show up in Google searches. Even if you do find a good opportunity listed, too often you fill out an inquiry and simply never hear back from anyone. At the Chicago Volunteer Expo, you can personally meet with more than 85 organizations and learn immediately how you can help make an impact with your valuable volunteer time.
- Instant gratification. Even while you’re still browsing the options at the Expo, you can start lending a hand on the spot. We call it speed volunteering – it’s kind of like speed dating, but less awkward. All day long, you can help turn used plastic grocery bags into beautiful and functional sleeping mats for the homeless. It only takes minutes, and you can see your impact immediately.
- School credit or brownie points at work. Most schools now require service learning of some kind, but it can be hard for teens to find volunteer work. We carefully curate the organizations that come to this event, and 59% of them offer volunteer opportunities for teens. Another common challenge is finding opportunities for groups of coworkers to volunteer together – it’s great for teambuilding, but a lot of places just can’t accommodate groups. Never fear: 61% of the organizations at the Expo will take groups.
- Volunteering might make you happier. It’s been studied! People who volunteer are happier than people who don’t, and some researchers have even found a causal effect – volunteering actually caused the increase in happiness. If you’re feeling those wintertime blues, why not lend a hand for a cause you care about? You might find that it’s mutually beneficial.
Jill DoubView Comments
Senior Director of Public Engagement
Created: 1/14/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
The Chicago Academy of Sciences has been a leader in local ecology and scientific education for 159 years. To commemorate the anniversary of our founding on January 13, 1857, our new exhibit, "Chicago's Explorers," highlights the institution's scientific and educational activities. The exhibit will be on display at the Nature Museum through the end of February.
If you'd like to learn more about the Academy's history, check out our detailed timeline, which will continue to grow as we continue to explore. We hope you enjoy our exhibit and get out to explore nature in Chicago with us!
Director of Collections
The Saloon Building in Chicago, 1839
(Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)
The Saloon Building is where Chicago’s first city government was formed and oversaw the fastest growing city in the world. It was also here that a group of forward-thinking scientists, physicians, and business leaders founded The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences on January 13, 1857. Some of these founders had been a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors just 11 years earlier. The institution was incorporated in 1859 as “The Chicago Academy of Sciences,” which remains our institutional name today.
Robert Kennicott, ca. 1860 (left)
(Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Kennicott’s caribou shirt, ca. 1860 (right)
The collections of Robert Kennicott formed the core of the Academy’s initial scientific collections. His expansive studies of Illinois fauna resulted in the discovery of many species new to science, some of which were named after him by other scientists, including the stripe-tail darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) and the western screech owl (Otus kennicotti). Kennicott also led the first U.S. scientific study of Russian America—the place that eventually became the state of Alaska. He died there while on expedition, on May 13, 1866.
The Great Chicago Fire consumed the city for three days from October 8 to 10, 1871. On the final day, the fire approached the Academy. The building was equipped with a fire proof vault and, with this in mind, staff quickly stored everything of importance there, expecting the building to be damaged but their valuable scientific collections and research notes to be saved. The heat from the fire was so great that it melted the supports of an ornamental limestone cornice at the top of the building, causing it to fall and crash through the roof of the vault. This structural failure allowed the fire to sweep inside and destroy the vault’s contents, along with the museum and most of the rest of the collections.
Academy staff were devastated. William Stimpson, the Academy’s director from 1866 to 1872 and a prominent malacologist (a scientist who studies shelled animals such as clams), lost his life’s work in the fire. In just a few moments the “the Smithsonian of the West” and the fourth largest scientific collection in the country was gone, and the Academy’s future was in question.
Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, 1894
Following the fire, the scientific community and public rallied around the Academy. Businessman and philanthropist Matthew Laflin was the primary funder for a new building, which opened on October 31, 1894 in Lincoln Park. In this new space, much of the Academy’s earlier scientific work, including natural history collecting, was able to continue and a new emphasis was placed on community involvement. This would be the Academy’s home for the next 100 years.
Frank C. Baker in the field around Skokie, 1908
At its founding, the Academy was one of only a few natural history museums in the nation. As such, its purview extended from coast to coast. As other similar institutions were founded, the Academy narrowed its scientific work to focus primarily on the Midwest and on specific kinds of organisms. Frank Baker, an Academy curator from 1894 to 1915 and prominent malacologist, conducted ecological surveys across Illinois and scientifically described many new species of snails. Among his significant publications are The Mollusca of the Chicago Region, several papers on anatomy of Lymnaea (a group of common pond snails), and a taxonomy of the family Muricidae (a diverse group of sea snails). Many of these publications are still relevant to malacological research today, and the historical record provided by Baker’s surveys gives us high-quality comparison data to assess how our local ecosystem has changed in the past hundred years.
Academy staff developing a photographic enlargement for a diorama, ca. 1915
Traditionally, animal specimens were preserved as study skins or as crudely stuffed mounts. Then, in the early 1910s, a man named Carl Akeley pioneered new specimen preparation techniques that enabled him to create more realistic displays. The Academy also began to experiment with these ideas, and devised large, meticulously detailed dioramas as a new way to represent local species and natural areas.
Frank Woodruff, an ornithologist, curator, and director at the Academy from 1896 to 1926, oversaw the development of the “Chicago Environs Series,” a group of exhibits that presented natural areas around Chicago. His first life-size diorama, depicting the dunes ecosystem and the Calumet River, used photographs that were enlarged up to 11 feet high by 10 feet wide for the backdrops. Here, Woodruff (in suspenders) and other Academy staff process one of these diorama backdrops.
Academy field trip to Starved Rock State Park, ca. 1915
Field trips, like the one pictured here, were among the many ways the Academy actively included the Chicago community in its scientific work and promoted the appreciation of nature. Students who accompanied Academy naturalist Henry Cowles to the Indiana Dunes gathered data that eventually resulted in his theory of ecological succession—the idea that a habitat naturally progresses (e.g. from pond to wetland to shrubland to forest) as certain species dominate resources and then die off. In addition to offering field trips, the Academy’s innovative teacher training programs helped make Chicago’s teachers some of the most scientifically literate educators around, while lectures, films, and nature walks were popular with the broader community. For local naturalist groups, the Academy provided a home with space to meet and experts to interact with.
Leonara Gloyd in Arizona with a badger, 1937 (left)
Howard K. Gloyd in Arizona, 1937 (right)
Continuing efforts to document and study biodiversity, the Academy conducted several faunal surveys of the American Southwest between 1937 and 1946. The specimens, photographs, and motion film brought back to Chicago were shared through public lectures and publications, providing many Chicagoans with their first look at this desert environment. Spearheading the Arizona expeditions was Howard Gloyd, a herpetologist and director of the Academy from 1936 to 1958. Among many other scientific advancements, Gloyd published “The Rattlesnakes: Genera Sistrurus and Crotalus” and so defined North America’s most iconic snakes, including Illinois’ now-endangered Massasauga. His wife, Leonara, studied dragonflies and accompanied him on at least one of the Arizona expeditions.
William J. Beecher at a local beach along Lake Michigan with a reporter looking at birds killed by a major storm, 1969
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Academy revitalized its exhibits and expanded its education and outreach programs to further focus on Midwestern ecology. Under the leadership of William Beecher, director from 1958 to 1982 and an avid ornithologist and photographer, the Academy increased its involvement in local environmental issues, from preserving the Indiana Dunes to monitoring bird collisions with windows. Beecher also implemented the Junior Academy of Sciences, a program aimed at middle and high school students to provide extracurricular learning opportunities for young people interested in science. Today we still have active volunteers who began in the Junior Academy fifty years ago.
Academy symposiums, 1988 to 1990
Throughout its history, Academy lectures and symposiums have provided a venue for the community to learn about and be involved in scientific discussion. From the 1970s to 1990s the focus shifted away from taxonomic research to address pressing environmental issues, science education practices, and urban biodiversity. Among the influential meetings hosted by the Academy:
- “The Chicago Urban Environmental Conference” (1977) helped coalesce the land stewardship movement in Chicago.
- “Understanding Chimpanzees Symposium” (1986) and “Understanding Chimpanzees: Diversity and Survival” (1991) were attended by Jane Goodall and later credited by her as influencing to her work.
- “Science Learning in the Informal Setting” (1987) highlighted the importance of experiential learning.
- “Sustainable Cities Symposium: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity” (1990) was an early recognition of the role that urban habitat plays in conservation.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 1999
(Photo credit Dan Rest)
After 100 years in the Laflin Building, the Academy opened the doors to its new, larger home in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in October 1999. The Nature Museum provided the Academy a fresh venue through which to engage its audiences and continue to address the local environment in its exhibits, programs, and research.
Academy conservation work, 2001 to 2015
Since 2001, the Academy has been leading conservation efforts for a variety of local, threatened species. In the Istock Family Butterfly Conservation Lab, thousands of rare butterflies are bred for release, including the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum) and Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia). Partnering with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Academy staff have raised and released 236 baby Blanding’s turtles into the Chicago Wilderness region. Just this past fall, an Academy scientist found a hatchling Blanding’s turtle in the wild—the first one recorded within the project area since 1998.
Conservation efforts at the Academy include both animal husbandry and wild population monitoring, the success of which is largely due to the active participation of volunteer citizen scientists. Today, the Academy leads several citizen science initiatives: the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, Project Squirrel, and The Calling Frog Survey. Award-winning lesson plans, teacher development courses, and public programs build on and support the Academy’s conservation efforts.
Explore nature in Chicago with us!
Chicago is an urban area, and yet, nature exists all around us. What kind of nature is in your backyard or neighborhood? How do you interact with nature? Share your urban nature experiences with us through social media, #urbannature.View Comments
Created: 1/8/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
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.
Ever seen one of these beauties?
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:
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.
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!
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:
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?
Not really? Perhaps this picture will help:
“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.