Archive for January, 2013

January 31, 2013

Molly Steinwald Delivers Keynote: The Importance of Nurturing Future Naturalists

by Melissa Harding

Steinwald_Molly-by Ben Filio

Last week, our  Director of Science Education and Research, Molly Steinwald, delivered the keynote address of the winter symposium at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. A crowd of 2,000 listened to Molly talk about the importance of connecting people to nature; more specifically, connecting people to the local nature of their communities and backyards. Molly believes that focusing people on the nature in their own neighborhoods might be more effective than images of rain forests and mountains. She shared her background growing up in rural New Hampshire; as young person, environmentalism sounded elitist, not accessible.  She was turned on to science by a caring teacher and has a passion to share her message with others. Molly also spoke about the need for environmentalists to understand that their work is not just about preserving ecosystems, but connecting with the people who live in them. She advocates for focusing on attainable goals when introducing people to the environment.

In a recent interview with Radish magazine, Molly notes: [It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that] “society is made up of a wide variety of people with different backgrounds, stresses, motivations, needs; and that in order to create a truly sustainable society, environmentalists need to spend time understanding their audiences, appreciating them, and meeting them where they’re at.”

To learn more, check out Molly’s article in Radish magazine, as well as this coverage by the local Quad-Cities paper.

The above photo was taken by Ben Filio.

January 30, 2013

Little Sprouts Plant Their First Garden

by Melissa Harding


We just finished our latest four-week Little Sprouts program, My First Garden, and we had so much fun! Campers learned how plants grow from seeds to flowers and back again, as well as how to plant and take care of their very own gardens.  They even worked together on a rainbow garden mural by matching colored flowers and vegetables to the colors of the rainbow, building a beautiful garden. Campers sang songs, played games and read stories to help them understand the plant life cycle.


Week one focused on the parts of a plant. Campers learned that roots keep a plant anchored into the ground and that stems act like straws to suck up water. They also learned that plants love sunshine and use their leaves to catch it to make food. Campers and grown-ups explored the Tropical Forest, looking for different plant parts on a scavenger hunt. We found big leaves, small leaves, brightly colored flowers and lots of exposed roots! Campers also planted grass heads, which are nylon knee-high stockings filled with soil and grass seeds, and decorated recycled yogurt containers to put them in. The first week, they don’t look like much, but after four weeks they are covered in green “hair”. One of our sprouts calls it her “little potato”!


Week two was all about seeds. Campers made drums from recycled containers and filled them with seeds, using recycled drum sticks to play them. After they were finished with their drums, campers explored a set of seed instruments and various seeds big and small, from a coconut to a carrot seed.  During the lesson, campers learned that a seed is a baby plant waiting to grow. Each sprout got a soaked lima bean and dissected it to find the seed coat, embryo and cotyledon. We also looked at all the different seeds in the drum, finding corn, peas and colored beans; after which, we all pretended to be seeds going through the life cycle and turning into flowers. Campers walked through the east wing of the Conservatory, looking at fern spores and learning that not every plant comes from a seed. Finally, we sang some fun seed songs, playing along with our drums.


Week three focused on caring for a garden. Campers used vegetables as paint brushes to make pictures in a sensory craft. They also played in our dirt bins, using small cups, shovels and rakes. During the lesson, campers learned that plants need water, soil, air and sunlight to survive. Campers read several interactive stories about gardens and then we all planted a pretend garden using the lima beans from last week. Campers explored the west wing of Conservatory, looking for gardeners, a hose, a rake, and other gardening implements on their walk. Finally, they all planted lettuce to take home and grow on their windowsills.


Week four was for the birds as campers learned about garden critters. Campers made bird feeders out of pipe cleaners and cereal to feed their avian friends in the winter. During the lesson, campers learned that the garden is full of helpful friends like birds, bugs and worms. Campers looked through our worm bins to find a worm friend to observe, using flashlights and magnifying glasses to learn more about their bodies. They also learned that worms are important to the health of both soil and plants, making garden grow. Campers explored the Conservatory looking for critters, stopping to see some of the good bugs that we use to help the plants. Finally, they took home their grass heads, many of which had grown a full head of green hair!

If you want to read some great stories about gardening with your own Little Sprout, check out these books:
Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert
Two Old Potatoes and Me by John Coy
No Carrots for Harry by Jean Langeman
The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle
Now I Know All About Seeds by Susan Kuchalla
A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long
Jack’s Garden by Henry Cole

Our next Little Sprouts: Single Servings program, My Tropical Adventure, is scheduled for February 15, 10:30 am-noon. If you would like to sign up your child for a future Little Sprouts program, please contact Sarah at (412)441-4442 ext. 3925.

For a complete list of all our Little Sprout offerings, please visit our website. We hope to see you there!

The above pictures were taken by our wonderful volunteer, Pam Russel.

January 29, 2013

Follow the Fellows: Discovering Traditional Plant Medicines in Nepal

by Melissa Harding


The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed both to excellent research and educational outreach. Open to PhD students enrolled at US graduate institutions and conducting plant-based scientific field research, the BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research with a broad range of public audiences.

Current BIA Fellows are engaged in local research in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland and research abroad in Nepal, Thailand, India, and Brazil. Their work covers topics ranging from the role of green roof plants in urban storm water management to the effects of plant invasion on a rare woodland butterfly.

January’s Featured Fellow is Aurelie Jacquet. Aurelie is a PhD student at Purdue University. She is from France and learning about America culture as well as Ethnobotany while studying at Purdue. Aurelie is studying the medicinal plants used in Nepalese traditional medicine to cure Parkinson’s disease. She interviews traditional healers in Nepal to learn about medicinal plants. She also studies these plants in the lab
to identify their healing properties.  Her work could help people all over the world who are affected by Parkinson’s disease.

Read an update on Aurelie’s research and life as a scientist at the Botany In Action website!

You can follow Aurelie and all of the BIA fellows as they study plants across the US and across the world at the Follow the Fellows section of our Botany In Action website.

The following Botany In Action update was written by Amanda Joy, Botany in Action Fellowship coordinator.

The above image was provided by Aurelie Jacquet.

January 25, 2013

Herbs in Action: Botanists on the Radio!

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education_BIA (5)

This Saturday, the next installment of the Herbs in Action radio program will hit the airwaves. If you are new to this space, the Herbs in Action radio program is a project created by the Phipps Botany in Action fellows .  In order to share their science stories with the community, BIA fellows were interviewed for The Saturday Light Brigade. (You may remember that our Fairchild Challenge winners in the middle school category are all interviewed on SLB every month as well). The Saturday Light Brigade  is a Pittsburgh family radio station; “SLB Radio Productions, Inc. (SLB) uses radio and audio to encourage, amplify, share and archive the ideas, stories, and feelings of children, youth and families.” BIA fellows shared stories about a plant that they have had a personal connection with through their work as scientists, creating a series of Herbs In Action stories. You can hear their stories by tuning in to The Saturday Light Brigade  or listen to the archives at the Mary Jane Berger Memorial Fountain.

Herbs in Action – Airtime schedule on The Saturday Light Brigade:  All spots air at 9:05am. This radio program is available throughout Western PA, Eastern OH and streaming online.

For a full list of affiliates and options visit:

1/26 – Anita Varghese – Ginger
2/2 – George Meindl – Jewelflower
2/9 – Lisa Offringa – Black Pepper
2/16 – Aurelie Jacquet – Himalayan Birch

Not familiar with the Botany In Action program? Check out our new Follow the Fellows monthly feature!

The above photo was taken by Molly Steinwald.

January 23, 2013

Thoreau’s Phenology: Past Plant Wisdom for a Changing Climate

by Melissa Harding


Serviceberries are one of the first trees that flowers in the spring. With their tiny, white flowers, these small trees show some of the first stirrings of life in the winter forest. The plant gets its name from the early settlers who used it as an indicator of spring; when the tree was flowering, they knew that the ground was thawed enough to bury those who had died over the winter. The delicate blossoms served as a beautiful memorial to the dead and marked the time for funeral services. For these settlers, early spring started in April or even May. Winter was bitter and long, lasting many months. Fast forward to 2012 and the serviceberry plant is starting to bloom as early as March. This large change in bloom times is measured by the practice of phenology, or the study of plant and animal life cycles.

Many famous authors and statesmen were phenologists; from 1766-1824, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote volumes on the plants and animals at Monticello; from 1852-1858, Henry David Thoreau passionately recorded the coming of spring flowers around Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts; from 1935-1945, Aldo Leopold chronicled the coming and going of life in Dane County, Wisconsin. These men spent every day walking acres of land and taking note of what they saw happening around them. They developed an intimate knowledge of the land they walked, noticing every minor occurence. Every spring, Thoreau recorded in his journals when hundreds of different flowers first opened.

Today’s scientists are using the records left by these early naturalists to predict the changes that climate instability will bring. Scientists in both Wisconsin and Massachusetts, working collaboratively on separate but parallel studies, published the findings of research comparing data from both Thoreau and Leopold to current phenological data. Their research shows that the record high temperatures of last spring resulted in earlier bloom times. In Massachusetts, the pattern they found was that for each degree Celsius rise in mean spring temperature, plants bloomed 3.2 days earlier. In Wisconsin, it was 4.1 days earlier for each degree rise. In an average year, spring plants will bloom around 11 days earlier than in the time of Thoreau.

Is this good for plants or bad? A little bit of both. For example, plants might benefit from longer growing seasons, but they could suffer if their pollinators don’t adapt as quickly. Before this study, scientists didn’t know if plants would be able to adjust their bloom times to the changing climate; there was concern that flowering, leaf out, and growth might be delayed for plants that have not experienced long spring photoperiods or that need a long cold period to hibernate. This peek into the future by way of the past allows scientists to predict bloom times for current temperatures, though they caution that as temperatures increase further, plants may not be able to keep up.

To learn more, check out NPR’s Science page or the peruse entire study at the journal PLOS One.

The above image is courtesy of May Dream Garden.

January 22, 2013

School Program Spotlight: Carnivorous Plants

by Melissa Harding


In School Program Spotlight, we explore the content of some of our most popular school programs.

Children love carnivorous plants; even when the lesson is about butterflies, many students ask when they are going to see the venus fly traps and the pitcher plants. Who could blame them? Carnivorous plants are a marvel of nature and really, really cool. They construct careful traps to lure and snag their prey, using lightening reflexes to catch an unsuspecting fly or midge. They can seem almost more like an animal than a plant. In reality, they are just incredibly adapted to lives in swampy, nutrient-poor soil. Swampy soil is missing nitrogen, a key nutrient that plants need to grow foliage. Carnivorous plants get their nitrogen from the amino acids found in their prey, rather than from ions in the soil. The adaptations that allow plants to do this are wide and varied, from the sundew with its sticky, whip-like leaves to the bladderwort with its air-filled, under water traps.

Our Carnivorous Plants program uses real plant examples to teach students how and why carnivorous plants are so well adapted to their environment. The program focuses on plants with passive, active and semi-active traps and explains how they work. This two-hour field trip is broken down into a classroom portion and a tour.

carn plant
In the classroom portion, students learn that carnivorous plants are adapted to very particular kinds of soil and where those soils are found all over the world. They learn that each plant has a different method of capturing their prey; some use sweet-smelling bait, some triggered traps and others some combination of the two. Students watch exciting videos of plants catching their prey and dissect a pitcher plant to find out what it has been eating.

The tour portion of the program consists of a self-guided or docent-lead tour of the Conservatory. Those who would prefer a self-guided experience may request a PDF of our self-guided tour or explore on their own. Those who choose the docent-lead tour will learn about the history of the Conservatory and the plants of our tropical and desert biomes, as well as the soil we use to grow them.

If you are a teacher and would like more information on how to sign up for this or any other school program, please use the “Registering for Programs” link in the menu above. Please note that scout groups, home school groups and other groups of 10 or more may sign up for any of our school programs as well!

The above photos were taken by Melissa Harding and Molly Steinwald.

January 18, 2013

Inspire Speaker Series: The Bertschi School and Phipps Conservatory on Uniting Communities for Sustainability

by Melissa Harding

bertschi 4

Last Thursday night, as part of the Inspire Speaker Series, green professionals from all over the city were treated to a wonderful series of talks on the importance of integrative design, as well as given a sneak peek at the new Center for Sustainable Landscapes. Inspire Speakers Richard Piacentini, Mark Beuhrer, Stacy Smedley and Chris Hellstern shared their experiences in working with the Living Building Challenge to create the CSL and the Bertschi School Living Science Wing.

After introducing the twenty principles of the Living Building Challenge, Beuhrer, Smedley and Hellstern shared how they used these principles as a basis to create the beautiful Bertschi School Living Building Science Wing for the Bertschi School in Seattle, Washington. The three design professionals compiled a collective of local green businesses to handle all aspects of design and pre-construction services for the school. Using the process of integrative design, all stakeholders participated in a series of design charrettes, allowing everyone to work together to create a united vision. In addition to the usual stakeholders, this process also included the students. Students wanted a wall that was always growing, a river running through the floor, a fountain, and composting toilets; they got all of that and more. The Living Building Science Wing is an innovative education space, designed to be part of the science curriculum. Changing with the seasons and always growing, this building is truly alive.

Speaking also of integrative design, Richard Piacentini described the design and construction process of the CSL. Additionally, he shared why Phipps decided to pursue the Living Building Challenge. Phipps values not only sustainability, but connecting people to the environment; Phipps desires to reach out to people of all ages and help them learn about and rediscover the natural world. Piacentini also spoke about the importance of walking the walk and taking action. Complete with both an indoor and an outdoor classroom, fixtures to support employee relations with the outdoors and an interactive green roof, the CSL is designed to connect all people to nature.

Join us at Phipps February 14, 5:30-8:30 p.m., when The Inspire Speaker series welcomes national guest Steve Ashkin, the Father of Green Cleaning, and local guests Vivian Loftness and Erica Cochran, Carnegie Mellon University sustainability researchers, to talk about healthy places and indoor air quality. To learn more and register, visit the Green Building Alliance website.

Check out the slide show below for more images from the evening!

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The above images are courtesy of the Green Building Alliance.


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