all quiet on the eastern front

Hi flog,

I’m still here! In Chicago, that is. Hilary, the volunteers, and I have been quietly and methodically catching up on lab work for the last month. An update on our progress:

  • Earlier this week, Art completed counting the last achenes from 2014! Now we have estimates of seed set for every plant harvested in 2014. He and Aldo will now count achenes from one of the inbreeding experiments, before moving on to P2, which Lois has been working on since March.
  • Anne has finished scanning qGen_a in 2015. These have been uploaded and are ready to be counted.
  • Thanks to Char, Susie, Suzanne, Shelley and Laura, we are almost done randomizing qGen_a in 2015. These guys finished randomizing the massive P2 experiment last month. I think they are randomizing so quickly I am going to have to ask some of them to switch to cleaning soon.
  • Speaking of cleaning, there are only 31 heads left from 2015 to clean. Wow! That is less than 1% of that year’s massive harvest of over 3200 heads. Soon, they will start the much smaller and more manageable harvest of 2016, which had only 1060 heads. Naomi, Allen and Susie have done a lot of the cleaning recently.
  • Leslie and Kathryn have been rechecking very efficiently and providing good, clean achene packets for scanning. They are currently rechecking qGen_b from 2015.
  • Art and Anne have picked up in assembling sheets for x-raying in the Fall. All of 2013 and 2014’s sheets have been assembled, so they are assembling sheets from P2 in 2015. Today Anne assembled over 10 sheets! In her words it was, “kinda meditative”.

Echinacea is only starting to flower in Minnesota, but it has been flowering here at the Botanic Garden for a few weeks now. I’ve taken some pictures of some of the pollinators I’ve seen!

Just a reminder that it’s not just bees that feed on pollen! Here is a fly I saw sitting directly on an anther . Interestingly, I didn’t see it move around the head — I wonder how much pollen it was actually transferring.


This bumblebee was going to down on this Echinacea pallida outside the Rice building! This surprised me because Stuart said he has only once ever seen any type of bumblebee pollinating angustifolia.

In other exciting news, today we had a power outage at CBG due to construction! This meant that I worked for part of the day in the dark. Anne and Shelley came in later to keep me company and we moved to a room with big windows to enjoy the ambient light. We were so inspired by this day without electricity that Shelley took me to Stuart and Gretel’s house, where I harvested some of the lettuce from their garden. I was happy for the lettuce, but sad because today was my last day of working with both Shelley and Anne. Hopefully I will see them again some day.

Me living off of that rich Highland Park soil! Thanks Stuart and Gretel!

Team Potluck

We had a great time at our annual lab potluck on Tuesday. We celebrated all the people in the lab, including all of the undergraduate interns. Scott told us about the smoke experiment. Then Amy explained the pollinator study from 2016. Lea talked about her projects on flowering phenology. We reviewed some of our many accomplishments in the lab, including: 1) cleaning and randomizing all 1233 heads from exPt2 in 2015, 2) counting 478,069 achenes from 3078 heads, 3) scanning 1710 images, 4) assembling 198 xray sheets. This year Lois, our reigning “achene queen,” counted her 800,000th achene and Sam counted his 250,000th! This summer we have ambitious plans for the field and lab. It was a lot of fun and the food was great–an incredibly diverse spread of tasty dishes.

We took a group photo:

First row (L to R): Lois, Art, Leslie, Amy, Laura; Second row: Susie, Char, Gretel, Anne, Stuart, Allen, Mike, Ivy, Lea, Scott, Shelley. Not pictured: Aldo, Susan, Michele, Marty, Naomi, Sam, Kathryn, Lou, Suzanne, Nicolette, Sarah.

Thanks for a great year!

My first day in Chicago

Hi flog,

Instead of posting from Kensington, I’m posting today from the lab computer at the Plant Conservation Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This morning, I met up with Lea (who devoted flog readers will remember from the summer) and Sam, an undergraduate Biology student at Northwestern who will be working at the Garden this Fall. Sam and I were able to bond over how the bike ride from Evanston was longer than we both expected. I also got to meet Chris and several of our excellent and expert volunteers for the first time. They taught me how to dissect heads and separate the achenes from other flower-parts (the “chaff”) and gave some helpful advice from years of their own experiences. After that, Sam and Stuart brainstormed some cool projects that Sam could get involved with. I then looked at some materials for counting and classifying achenes as full, empty, or partially-full in x-ray images using an informative tutorial that Danny wrote last year. These classifications are used to estimate seed-set size, an important part of quantifying Darwinian fitness, as well as assessing the amount (or quality) of pollen these flowers are receiving.

Volunteers show Sam, Lea and me how to dissect heads and count achenes. From left, Suzanne, Bill (in back), Char, me, Art, Aldo, Sam, Lea, Suzie.

Volunteers show Sam, Lea and me how to dissect heads and count achenes. From left, Suzanne, Bill (in back), Char, me, Art, Aldo, Sam, Lea, Susie.

Team Echinacea Lab Potluck

We had a great turnout for our annual lab potluck yesterday. Good times were had by all as we heard updates about what the lab accomplished this past year. Here are some highlights:

  • This year, Bob and Aldo counted their 250,000th achenes. Anne counted her 400,000th, and Bill counted his 500,000th. Just yesterday morning, Lois, our reigning “achene queen,” counted her 700,000th!
  • We finished doing all the hands-on work for 2014 and have already made great progress on cleaning and randomizing heads from the 2015 harvest.
  • Stuart summarized progress and preliminary analyses of the qGen_a experiment, which tests for the heritability of fitness traits in Echinacea.
  • The lab interns, Rachael, Gordon, Danny, and I, talked about our independent projects, all of which push the frontiers of science!
  • We talked about plans for this summer. While Stuart, Gretel, and I head back to Minnesota, Danny and our citizen scientists will be busy in the lab cleaning last year’s (huge) harvest from Experimental Plot 2 and counting experiments from 2015. They’ll be joined by Chris, a MS student at Northwestern who will help get our (many) achenes organized for storage in the seed bank.
  • There were too many tasty dishes to name all of the ones I enjoyed here. However, as a sampling, there was homemade spinach dip, mashed sweet potatoes, several broccoli dishes, iced tea, and a rhubarb crisp, which we polished off.

We took a group photo:

First row (L to R): Aldo, Gretel, Lois, Shelley, Char, Stuart; Second row: Art, Amy, Susie; Third row: Danny, Sarah, Kathryn, Susan; Fourth row: Rachael, Gordon, Bill, Suzanne

First row (L to R): Aldo, Gretel, Lois, Shelley, Char, Stuart; Second row: Art, Amy, Susie; Third row: Danny, Sarah, Kathryn, Susan; Fourth row: Rachael, Gordon, Bill, Suzanne; Not pictured: Anne, Bob, Laura, Leslie, Marty, Sam, and interns Mackenzie, Keke, and Nina

Thanks for coming, those of you who could make it, and for a great year!

spring cleaning

Something about springtime makes you more aware of the layers of grime covering every surface of your life. Thankfully, volunteers Leslie and Anne agreed to help us battle the accumulated dust throughout lab. Believe it or not, this is a vacuum cleaner, not a ghost-busting device.


Now that the lab is sparkling, clean, and free of ghosts, we can continue our scientific endeavors in a grime-free environment.

heart-shaped cookies and plug trays

Our volunteers have been making progress in counting, randomizing, and weighing Echinacea achenes from 2011 and cleaning achenes from 2012. We are over half-way through randomizing and weighing achenes from the sizable 1999 experiment and have made progress counting achenes from the remaining 2011 harvest. And what better way to celebrate progress than with heart-shaped cookies, courtesy of Bob’s wife (Bob is on the left, counting achenes)?


In other news, intern Jill Pastick is making progress with her experiment comparing Echinacea germination on agar vs. blotter paper. Last week she transferred the newly-germinated sprouts from petri dishes to plug trays in order to monitor their growth. So far, it looks like the agar method worked well in promoting germination and minimizing mold. However, we will know more once Jill analyzes the data on germination rates and seedling growth. The results of this pilot study will help guide our methods in two upcoming germination experiments.


ants and plants

We have two interns pursuing independent projects in the lab. Jill Pastick, a junior at Lakeforest College, is testing out different methods of germinating Echinacea achenes and helping us prepare the germination phase of two ongoing experiments.


Gia Hallaman, a junior at Northwestern, is helping out with several projects, including counting achenes in x-ray images from Jill’s germination experiment (you can see them on the computer screen below). She is also learning how to identify ants to morphospecies. That means distinguishing different species based on morphology and making our best guess on which species they are. It takes time to develop an eye for the different traits that distinguish closely related species; often the most obvious traits, like color and size, are not informative for differentiating species. Jill is learning to use a combination of tools, including online dichotomous keys and photo databases (, to identify ants to species or morphospecies. With her help, we should be able to make a dent in identifying the ants we collected from Minnesota prairie remnants in the summer of 2012.


new and old

This week has involved a combination of new projects and ongoing endeavors.

First of all, I should mention that the Echinacea Project is hiring field interns for the summer of 2013. See for more information about job openings.

The volunteers have continued making progress in processing Echinacea heads harvested in 2011. We are nearly halfway through weighing achenes from an experiment planted in 1999 and have have obtained achene counts for 3 of the 9 experiments in the main experimental plot. The volunteers are working on counting achenes for the remaining experiments and on cleaning Echinacea heads harvested in 2012.

More projects has meant more people in the lab. On Thursday, we had a vibrant crowd of five volunteers and two student interns.


One of these interns (not shown in the picture) is Jill Pastick, a junior at Lakeforest college who will be working in the lab until May. Her project will involve germinating achenes from one or two ongoing experiments. One of these experiments is examining hybridization between two species of Echinacea: the native E. angustifolia (the one we work on) and the non-native E. pallida. This summer, Shona Sanford-Long (a junior at Middlebury College) performed experimental crosses of E. angustifolia and E. pallida growing in a Minnesota prairie restoration and is currently analyzing her results to assess the success of different parental combinations in producing fertile achenes. The other experiment examines the effects of burning on offspring fitness in E. angustifolia. Last summer, Kelly Kapsar (a junior at Carleton College) recorded the flowering phenology of Echinacea in burned and unburned units of a prairie preserve. Several interns have been involved in cleaning and weighing the achenes from those plants.The next step in both of these experiments will be to germinate the achenes in the lab and plant them in an experimental plot in Minnesota.

What to do When the Weight Test Fails: Methods to Distinguish between Full and Empty Achenes in Echinacea angustifolia

By Marie Schaedel

Most Echinacea heads have achenes with a clear weight gap between full and empty, which is useful for lab purposes. Sometimes, however, there is no clear difference in weight for full and empty achenes. This winter, I took a closer look at achenes from Echinacea heads that had a continuous pattern of variation in weight to see if there was another way to distinguish between full and empty achenes when the weight test failed. To do this, I reweighed achenes from 20 samples that lacked an obvious weight cutoff. After plotting the new weights in R, I gathered X-ray images of the achenes closest to my best-guess cutoff weight for each sample. I found that more than half of the samples I tested had an intermediate transition weight that divided the full from empty populations of achenes. For ambiguous cases in which there is no clear difference in weight between full and empty achenes, this transition weight can be used to predict the cutoff value.

Read more:What to do when the Weight Test Fails.pdfAppendix



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X-Ray Images









































Photograph Images


12139.1_top_red: Close-up of two achenes with a transition weight


14142.1_top_wht: Close-up of two achenes with a transition weight





















Plant biology student internship poster

Mindy Runge & Ale Mendoza participated in a mini-internship in the Echinacea lab at the Chicago Botanic Garden this fall. They are in Lynn Westley’s Plant Biology class at Lake Forest College.

Mindy & Ale investigated seed set in Echinacea heads from a prairie remnant in western Minnesota. They compared seed set in tops and bottoms of heads (florets at the bottom of a head flower first). In the process of answering their question, they learned how to dissect achenes from Echinacea seed heads, how to operate our high-tech seed balance, and how to organize datasets.


Ale and Mindy dissecting seedheads