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Alabama Adventures: Longleaf Pine Treasure Forest

After hearing about Pinus palustris from several southern botanist friends, I had to see the trees for myself! I had the great pleasure of ...

31 December 2017

Pollinator Garden + Monarch Madness

I didn't realise it had been so long since my last post! Since we moved into a house, I've been busy with fixing stuff up with Steve, spending time with the kids, cleaning up the basement after it flooded, therapy, gardening, etc.

My first gardening project was to turn a garden bed in the middle of the front yard into a pollinator garden. It was full of weeds and hostas. I left some weeds (especially violets and creeping charlie) in the spring so bees had something to visit, but gradually I planted native and pollinator host plants, then removed most of the weeds and the hostas.

This is what it initially looked like.

Since we moved in spring, I had plenty of native plant sales to visit. Aside from those, I managed to find a bunch of native plants at Gurnee Garden Center and Pasquesi Home & Garden (though the latter has less of a selection in that category).

Progress! I yanked out the solar lights and planted the first three plants. I unfortunately didn't take consistent update photos.

For this first year, I planted Asclepias incarnata, A. incarnata 'Cinderella', A. exaltata, Carex bebbii, C. radiata, Foeniculum vulgare, F. vulgare 'Purpureum', Dianthus 'Neon Star', Liatris spicata, Lobelia siphilitica, Lobelia cardinalis, Lupinus perennis, Monarda fistulosa, M. punctata, Silene regia, and Silphium laciniatum. The only plants I lost were the poke milkweed and lupine, both of which were doing great for a while but suddenly died within a few days. So, not too shabby for my first garden! I don't have much gardening experience, so I'm basically winging it.

I planted the milkweed for monarchs, of course, but wasn't sure what to expect as far as monarch eggs. I waited for some time and stopped checking daily when I kept finding nothing, but one day I checked and I found two 5th instar monarch cats! I brought them in to pupate, and released them a day apart. Shortly after, I started finding an insane amount of eggs and larvae! Overall there were 30 healthy butterflies successfully released, with an overwhelming majority being female.

I had some issues with OE, so I lost a lot of larvae, unfortunately. That's nature for you. Steve reminded me that its better to focus on the butterflies we released, because ultimately our goal is to help the monarchs, whether that ends up being five or fifty.

Raising monarchs was educational for us, especially for the kids. I was inspired to do more research on monarchs, and read some books on them as well. I learned quite a few interesting things about their relationship with milkweed and their life cycle. The most rewarding thing was feeling connected to these cute little critters. I never knew how tiny they started out until I saw in person. It is amazing watching them go from egg, to the few instars, pupating, and then releasing a beautiful butterfly!

 Click here for a compliation of videos and pics!

I definitely need to plant a lot of milkweed because we nearly ran out this first year. Those little caterpillars sure can eat! I collected some seed from the swamp milkweed, and hopefully I successfully propagate it so I have free plants for the monarchs in 2018. :) I am considering tagging migrating monarchs for 2018.

I didn't see any swallowtail eggs on the Apiaceae plants this year, but I saw one swallowtail butterfly! The fennel and bronze fennel really took off, and seem to be popular with some pollinators. I am happy with my decision to put them in the pollinator garden. I snagged the fennel at Fresh Thyme in Kenosha for less than a dollar, and it was looking small and a bit worse for wear, but it recovered nicely.

I think next year I'll add a few more Liatris since it did so well and popular with pollinators. I was so pleased with the Monarda spp.; I knew M. fistulosa would do well but I had never seen M. punctata before. I love the colours of spotted beebalm!

I'm really excited to see how the sedges fill out. They are really neat plants! Lobelia siphilitica was constantly covered with bees, and Silene regia was such a gorgeous pop of red when it finally bloomed. There was only foliage on the Lobelia cardinalis and Silphium this year.



 I am so grateful to have a garden to tend to now. Planning what to do for it for 2018 makes the winters a little more bearable. :) It is amazing how therapeutic horticulture is.

21 May 2017

Lincoln Park Conservatory

I meant to finish this up and post it around February, but I've been busy with life!
Finally, here's the post about my visit to LPC!


Near the end of October 2016 on a beautiful day, I visited Lincoln Park Conservatory.

It was a charming place, with plenty of gorgeous plants and dramatic contrast between light and shadows. There were times that I felt like I had stumbled across a secret garden, with how serene the scenes in front of me were. I met quite a few interesting plants for the first time, my favourite being Spathicarpa hastifolia (caterpillar plant), which has the spadix fused to the spathe.

I checked the Orchid House, excited to see the Stanhopea in bloom, but unfortunately I had missed it by a few days. All that was left was a basket with leaves, which I took a moment to check it out, despite the lack of flowers to enjoy. Of course, there were plenty of other beautiful orchids to admire, one of my favourites being Gongora galeata (pictured immediately below).


Click here for more photos!


I actually went with Steve and the kids, but the kids wanted to see other areas and the zoo, so we split up and met again later. The kids loved the conservatory and the zoo! I can't believe we only had to pay for parking, since admission was free to both. If you are in the area or want somewhere nice and inexpensive to take your kids, I highly recommend checking LPC and the zoo out!

Overall, it was an incredible experience, and I hope to go back soon.

18 January 2017

Mitchell Park Conservatory (The Domes): Milwaukee's Horticultural Treasure

The Desert Dome

I was going through my plant nerd bucket list when I realised I never made a post about my visits to The Domes in Milwaukee! My first time at the conservatory was an adventure I made solo in March 2015. I made the hour drive to Milwaukee and used my CBG membership to gain free entry. Parking was also free.

There are three domes: The Show Dome, Tropical Dome, and Desert Dome. I made a beeline for the Tropical Dome to see what neat plants I'd find in there. I was not disappointed! Upon entering the room, it was as if I walked through a portal. I stepped out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, into a tropical paradise. The first plant that really wowed me was an Amorphophallus sp. (voodoo lily)! It looks similar to its relative A. titanum, the titan arum.

I made my way down the path, surrounded by lush foliage and stunning flowers. There were many gorgeous orchids, and a lovely waterfall with a pond. I spent some time staring out at the water, contemplating the diversity of tropical plants in that dome, before returning to the hall.

 I took a moment to adjust to reality; I was back in Milwaukee. I continued on to the Desert Dome, and again I was transported to a different world: an arid landscape with an oasis, and succulents all around me.

In contrast to the Tropical Dome with its canopy providing shaded areas, this dome had the sun shining bright overhead, mostly unobstructed. As I wandered down the path, I recognised a few familiar species, but so many more that I never saw before. There were interesting cacti, agave with variegation so beautiful it was like a painting, and showy aloe flowers rising above the rocky terrain.

I returned back to the cold halls of Wisconsin, and made a quick run through the Show Dome. There was a spring theme, with cyclamen and hydrangea beautifully arranged. (Unfortunately my camera died after only a few photos so I don't have much to post about that dome. I don't remember as much from that one, especially without any photos to jog my memory.)


I loved The Domes so much that I brought Steve and the kids along on another visit a week later. It was during a free admission day, so it was quite crowded.

It was great to see so many people excited to see plants, so I didn't mind. We went through the domes in the same order that I did during my first trip. The kids were impressed by the massive banana trees, dangling sausage tree fruit, and a cute little palm seedling.

To my slight disappointment (and Steve's relief), the voodoo lily was finished blooming, and nobody got to smell the stench. Still, it reminded me how lucky I was to see it the week before!


The thing I love most about visiting a garden more than once is the fact that I will always find something new to see, even if my visit is only one week apart. I had the great pleasure of noticing Ceiba pentandra, called kapok in English and bulak in Tagalog. Like the hibiscus throughout the Tropical Dome, kapok is in the Malvaceae. I swooned at the sight of buttressed roots and large thorns scattered about the trunk.


At the Desert Dome, Ari and Sandy loved the burning orange-yellow flowers of Bulbine frutescens.

We all got a giggle out of a silly sign:

After another peek into the Show Dome (with another dead camera battery), we checked out the gift shop. Steve said no to more plants, but I did get to add a nifty patch to my public garden souvenir collection (I have several patches and pins from various places).

We had a great family visit to The Domes.


Unfortunately due to some safety issues The Domes had to close for some time, but recently opened up again. It has been such a long time since I've visited, so I will make sure to make my way up to Milwaukee and wander the conservatory soon!

If you're in the Milwaukee area you definitely should check this conservatory out for yourself!



04 January 2017

Happy New Year! Reflections on the Past Year & Hopes for 2017

I'm finally getting around to this post! Typing this up four days into the new year wasn't what I planned, but we don't have internet currently for another week. So, I'm at the library!

If you've been following me on Instagram (or if you check on the sidebar for the Instagram widget), you saw me post many photos from January 2016 to August 2016. I skipped September onward since it was only a few months ago, and I didn't want people to feel spammed with too many photos.

I honestly didn't mean to post so many, but I couldn't just pick a few from each month. Each photo contains beautiful memories and I wanted to share the best of them with everyone. I generally don't post too many pictures from each adventure as it is, so I went a little crazy for the year-end journey down memory lane.

Anyways, in 2016 I noticed that I went to public gardens quite a bit less than the previous year. Part of this is because I didn't get a membership that year (it expired around January). I also didn't volunteer as much in ecological restoration, and another reason for both of these things is because we're down to one vehicle and I don't like to drive as much (thanks, anxiety).

I concentrated mostly on hiking and botanising in natural areas, with occasional visits to public gardens. When I did volunteer, it was mainly at the local library and at Illinois Beach State Park. So, for this year, I'd like to get a CBG membership again and visit gardens again. I'd also like to swing by Cook County volunteer workdays again and see my Chicago volunteer buddies. I'd like to get back into helping LCFPD because, aside from IBSP and the library, I didn't volunteer as much in the local area. I guess to most people I volunteer quite a bit, but I feel I could do more. It is good for me and the local communities to dedicate my time doing volunteer work as much as I am able to.

Hiking at Sun Lake Forest Preserve in Lake County, IL

I want the kids to interact more with nature when we go for walks and hikes. Sometimes they're excited, other times they roll their eyes and can't wait until we go home. I get so preoccupied with my own experiences with plants and critters that I forget how important it is to talk about what I'm thinking with the kids, in kid-friendly terms of course. They will only roll their eyes harder if I try to teach them Latin names.

Ari & Sandy looking out at Lake Carina in Lake County, IL

Another task I need to work on is improving my mental health. I've talked about that a little bit on this blog and on Instagram. I try not to talk about it *all the time* (especially since this blog is centred around nature) but I still feel like its good to share my story and my experiences, in case it helps others out, whether they're going through something similar or are a "regular" person trying to empathise with people like me. Also I don't want generally talking about mental illness to be something taboo; if I speak out about it, that helps even if a little bit. Nature and volunteering is really helpful in managing my mental health, but it is going to take so much more to make enough meaningful progress this year. I'm looking more into self-help books, specifically those that focus on PTSD, anxiety, depression, and childhood physical/mental abuse. I hope to get into a therapy within the next couple of years, and I'm working on getting into a mental health specialist instead of going to a gp, so I can look into better options as far as medicine goes. I also want to make sure my diagnoses are super accurate since my mental health is crazy complicated. Sometimes many different things can layer over each other and look like something else entirely. Diagnosing mental health isn't an exact science, for as much progress as we've made thus far. Things change, symptoms can mimic others, and sometimes people are wrong. It happens.

So, back to thinking about the past year... What are the most exciting experiences I had? What did I learn?

I had an incredibly fun time volunteering at the Peggy Notebaert Museum for WeDigBio. I was blowing through plant label transcriptions, visually eating up the herbarium specimens. Through that program, I learned about Notes from Nature, where I've been transcribing from my laptop. How cool is that?! I've actually done many transcriptions where I forgot to log in to record my progress, but as far as what was recorded on my account, I've done 100 transcriptions. There are even cool badges you earn for transcribing a certain amount of records and such.

Rudbeckia hirta herbarium specimen with label at Peggy Notebaert Museum in Chicago

I met two awesome friends from Instagram in person, and we went on a fun hike in Somme Woods. I can't express in words how awesome it was to connect with them like that. I really enjoy interacting with people on Instagram, but this was on a whole new level, and I'm grateful for that experience.

Michelle and Theresa checking out Arisaema spp.

Another neat adventure from 2016 was FINALLY visiting Lincoln Park Conservatory! My next post will be about that. What a charming place.

Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Formal Garden

There were many plants I met for the first time and plants that I visited for the millionth time. Both are equally fantastic. There were so many small, wonderful moments in nature that comprised my year. From the accomplished feeling of successfully identifying wild plants, to humbly learning from mistakes in id, I'm very grateful to be so aware of the beauty of nature. 

I met Gentianopsis crinita (greater fringed gentian) for the first time in 2016!
...and then I greeted Opuntia humifusa again...with my hand. It said hi back with several glochids.

I've been moving along on my quest to teach myself more about nature, especially when it comes to botany. I've learned that for as much as I know, I don't know so much more! And that's okay. I feel that I can only teach myself so much, and have to observe others and ask for help sometimes. Also okay. I learn Latin names by reading, then find out that I'm horribly mangling the pronunciation when a more seasoned plant nerd says it aloud. Reading about how to identify plants with various technical definitions of plant parts is great, but it is the hands-on learning during hikes that this information sticks.

Look at the petiole and glands of Viburnum opulus! Wow, such botany! Very plant! Much science!

I couldn't talk about plants the way a horticulturist or botanist with years of experience and a 4-year-degree (or more) could, but I guarantee you I talk about plants with just as much passion as that horticulturist or botanist does. I've learned that is probably the most important part because it is that passion that drives my journey to learn more. Another important aspect is not to second guess myself all the time; being confident (within reason) and willing to be wrong will get me further than shying away ever could. Even the most educated professional with several degrees under their belt still doesn't know it all. I also realised these past few years as I learn more and more, that I also shouldn't let my knowledge get the best of me. If I'm not careful I could very well end up being a know-it-all. It's about balance. I don't need to be too hard on myself for what I don't know -- but I also don't need to be too full of myself for what I do know. For now I am a botanist at heart; I am a plant enthusiast. And one day I very well be a botanist as a profession. It's all part of a big adventure!

All that being said, I really hope I'm not being obnoxious with how I talk about plants, or for sharing photos of "basic" plants. I don't mean to sound like I know it all, and I don't mean to act like posting a photo of a dandelion with information about it is some great feat. I am just really fascinated by plants! That includes weedy, common plants. You'll often see me hashtag stuff like #asterids, #rosids, #[insertfamilynamehere], etc on Instagram. That's partially to organise the post into those hashtags if other people are interested in looking at photos of such things, but mainly because it helps me learn. If I use the #Adoxaceae on Viburnum spp. photos or #Bignoniaceae on Catalpa speciosa pics every time, I'll more easily remember which families each belongs to.

Anyways, I could probably ramble more and make up more "resolutions". Alas it is time to go home and wait for Ari to get off the bus, and I don't have internet at home as I've mentioned. I'm sure that, after all this rambling, none of you will mind. :)

I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and a fantastic start to 2017!