Seed counting milestone

Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer and community scientist Allen Wagner just counted his 1,500,001st Echinacea fruit today. Allen counts fruits of plants from science projects that shed light on pollination of purple coneflowers in experimental plots and in natural prairies. Allen has collected data for the Echinacea Project research initiative since 2017 to help us learn about the effects of prescribed fire on plant reproduction and about the magnitude of inbreeding depression in fragmented prairie populations.

Thank you Allen for your dedicated service to the Echinacea project, to advancing science, and to the conservation of prairie habitat!

Alan has been a volunteer at the Chicago Botanic Garden for 19 years and has been working on the Echinacea project in the plant reproductive biology lab at the Chicago at the plant conservation sign center since 2017. For his dedication, and speediness, Allen has been invested as the Count of Achene County and CEO of Echinacea Inc. What’s next… President of the Echi-nation?

NB. ‘Achene’ /uh-keen/ is the technical term for an Echinacea fruit.

Fannie Liang

Echinacea Project 2023

Biological Sciences (Ecology Concentration) & Psychology, Northwestern University, 2024

pronouns: she/her

Research Interests

As someone coming from a pre-health background, I am still exploring my interests in the different areas of plant research. I am interested in learning more about native plants, conservation, and plant ecology. I am also interested in learning more about human and animal interactions with plants.


I am from Chicago! I have always been interested in science and biology, so going into pre-med/pre-health seemed like the most rational decision to make. However, after taking more biology classes involving plants and ecology, I became more interested in plant ecology and human-plant/animal-plant interactions.

In my spare time, I like to knit/crochet (would love to get back into embroidery and sewing), spend time by the lakefill, watch dramas, and be a virtual farmer in Stardew. This summer, I would love to explore the garden more and to learn more plant names.

Enthroning the Empress Of Echinacea

On the final Tuesday of March, the Echinacea Project honored our most recent inductee to the Achene County royal court. One of our loyal volunteers, Char Schweingruber, was crowned the Empress of Echinacea! This is a prestigious title reserved for a citizen who has demonstrated a longtime dedication to the lab, a mastery of cleaning Echinacea heads and a passion for conservation and restoration.

Char has been a volunteer at CBG since 1993. She began much of her volunteer career outdoors doing restoration work in the natural areas of the garden, especially in our beloved prairie ecosystem! She has been involved in the Echinacea Project since its inception when Stuart began at the garden in 2001. She joined a small group of volunteers that spearheaded our ACE protocol where Echinacea seeds are cleaned, counted and assessed for pollination rates. These days, Char is an expert at cleaning Echinacea heads and is essential in keeping our lab process moving. We appreciate our volunteers, like Char, who dedicate their time to the Echinacea Project!

The ceremony involved a speech from Stuart, the conferring of the royal sash, and a delicious strawberry layer cake baked fresh by Alex! As Tuesdays are the day where we have the most volunteers in the lab, it was great to celebrate all of Char’s hard work with a large group of volunteers and CBG staff members.

If you see Char walking in the halls of the Plant Science building, don’t forget to congratulate her on her new title (and maybe give a proper bow or curtsy, if you feel inclined)!

Allen’s Investiture

Hear ye, hear ye! On December 14th of 2022, members of Achene County celebrated volunteer Allen Wagner for his service. In 2022 alone, Allen has worked over 683 hours and counted over 52,653 achenes thus far. However, Allen has been an essential member of Team Echinacea for many years and has been a volunteer at the Chicago Botanic Gardens for 17 years! The celebration began with an official proclamation from Stuart, our town crier. Allen was given the honorific of “The Count of Achene County”.

No noble is complete without their regal garb. Along with the title of “The Count”, Allen received his black and purple royal mantle and an all-powerful Echinacea scepter. Now everyone in the county will recognize our royal member.

There was quite the crowd for this special coronation! All great celebrations involve some sweet treat, so Alex made a delicious chocolate cake for the occasion. The cake was frosted so when you cut it into slices, the slices looked like achenes!

Allen is just one of the many volunteers who keep this village running. We are so thankful for all their hard work and dedication!

Remnant 2022 harvest summary

This summer, we harvested 330 Echinacea angustifolia heads from 23 prairie remnants. Remnant harvest started on August 16th and ended on September 14th, when we finally collected the last 4 heads, 3 at Steven’s Approach and 1 at Landfill West. We harvested the most heads on August 23rd, a total of 109 heads in one day. The heads are located in 15 gbags labeled RA-RP (there is no gbag RJ).

We only visited sites where we recorded phenology this summer, so we harvested from fewer sites than last year. We did not harvest from Aanenson, East Elk Lake Road, Near Town Hall, On 27, Riley, Railroad, or Town Hall.

Volunteers Luk and Sue clean rem2022 heads in the lab

After Manogya and I completed data entry on the harvest list, I inventoried all of the bags that we brought back to the lab. There were a few mysteries to solve. We had several extra heads, but they mostly turned out to be heads that were supposed to be harvested, but someone forgot to check them off on the harvest datasheet, so it looked like they were missing. However, there was one perplexing puzzle that took some sleuthing to unravel. Two different people claimed to have harvested a head with a black twist tie from plant 18066 at Landfill West. In the lab, I found two heads with black twist ties labeled 18066, but I knew that they couldn’t both be the same plant. I donned my Sherlock hat and examined all the available evidence: survey, demography, and phenology data. From the survey data, I figured out that plant 18066’s neighbor, plant 27711, also had a head with black twist tie, so one of the duplicate heads was likely from the nearby plant. The phenology data revealed that 27711’s head had white gunk on it during the summer, and it had more rows of achenes than 18066’s head. Sure enough, one of the heads was larger than the other and had a speck of white on it. Mystery solved! I removed the imposter from the bag of heads to clean.

The volunteers started cleaning the 2022 remnant heads on October 11th. They are currently working on gbag RE, bag 5 of 15, so they are making great progress.

Congrats volunteers and students!

It’s been a busy spring at the lab: 11 volunteers and 6 students from Northwestern and Lake Forest College contributed to the Echinacea Project. We are currently wrapping up before field season starts, and we want to celebrate everything they accomplished in the last few months! Since January, volunteers and students:

  • Finished cleaning cg2018 (4 bags)
  • Cleaned 9 bags from cg2019 (only 4 left!)
  • Finished scanning rem2020 and rem2021 (359 heads)
  • Counted 194 heads from rem2020
  • Finished randomizing rem2020 (221 heads)
  • Randomized 227 heads from rem2021

And that’s just Echinacea. People also worked on several other prairie species: Liatris aspera, Lilium philadelphicum, and Andropogon gerardii.

In total, volunteers and cleaned ~1,014 Echinacea heads, scanned 359 heads, counted 194 heads, and randomized 448 heads. Citizen science at its best!

There are 106 heads from rem2021 left to randomize. Can we finish by next week???

Cleaning 2018 is done!

On Friday, volunteers Marty and Mike finished cleaning the last batch of heads from the 2018 common garden experiment. Huzzah! The volunteers had been working on the 2018 heads back before the pandemic started, and after a long break, 2018 is finally done. Many thanks to all the volunteers who made this possible, especially the 2021-2022 crew: Allen, Char, Elif, Laura, Luk, Marty, Mike, and Suzanne! Now, we have a lot of rechecking to do.

ACE progress update

So far this year, we have sadly not been able to have volunteers in the lab due to the continuing threat of COVID-19. However, over the last few months, we made quite a bit of progress on the remnant Echinacea harvests from 2020 and 2021. In the fall, we had help from volunteers, students from Lake Forest College, and externs from Carleton College. Thanks for your help! In January, Sophia finished cleaning the last head from 2021, which was an exciting accomplishment.

To track our progress in the lab, I created an R script to visualize the various steps of the ACE process for each batch of Echinacea. The figures for rem2020 and rem2021 are included here. Hopefully, this method will work for the cg harvests as well.

The ACE stages are listed along the x-axis, and the number of Echinacea heads are on the y-axis. The light blue shows how much we have completed, and the dark blue shows what remains to be done. The small numbers on each bar indicate the corresponding number of heads, and the width of the bars is roughly proportional to the amount of time each step takes. Along the top, the dates indicate the last day that the totals for each stage were updated.

The script to create these graphs can be found here: echinaceasandbox/oop/trackAceProgressTest.R

Volunteers and mystery bees

Visiting Minnesota to plant seeds last week was a welcome break from sitting at a desk all day. However, we were glad to be back in the lab this week. On Thursday, I finished the inventory of the remnant 2021 heads, so they are now ready to be cleaned by volunteers.

We have a great crew of volunteers this fall. Suzanne wins the award for the longest volunteer record; she has been helping the Echinacea Project since 1999! In contrast, Elif joined the lab in 2019 and is our newest volunteer. So far, all of the volunteers have been cleaning seed heads, an important early step in the ACE workflow. However, many of them specialize in other steps of the process such as quality control, scanning, randomization, weighing, x-raying, counting, or classifying. Once we have made a dent in the backlog of seed heads, the volunteers will be able to diversify and find the steps that they enjoy most.

Our other project this week was to clean out the freezer in the lab. The freezer mainly contained coolers of empty vials that were used to collect bees for the Yellow Pan Trap (YPT) project. As Mia and I sorted through the vials, we also discovered one cooler that still contained bees! Why were these bees collected? To what project do they belong? Why haven’t they been pinned like all the other bees? According to Detective Stuart, “We have a mystery to solve. First stage is to gather evidence. (Don’t disturb the scene of the crime.)” I followed Stuart’s instructions and returned the cooler to the freezer. After doing some sleuthing, I now suspect that vial GQ-9417 contains YPT specimens that were collected on 31 July 2019. The other vials, however, remain a mystery. If anyone can identify the suspects or has information about the day of the crime, 16 July 2019, please let me know.

Cupcakes and cleaning

On Monday, we welcomed back our second volunteer of the season, Marty. Marty is an expert on the scanner and x-ray, but since the new x-ray machine hasn’t arrived yet, she and Allen have been our rockstar head cleaners. So far, it has taken 22 person hours to clean 85 echinacea heads.  Based on these numbers, it will take an additional 56 hours to finish cleaning the 216 remaining heads in the 2020 burn rem batch that we’re currently working on.  If the volunteers continue to work at this rate, cleaning this batch would be completed by next Tuesday, October 26. In preparation for future head cleaning, we emptied out the seed dryer and refilled it with gbags from the 2021 harvest.

To celebrate several birthdays this month, Mia baked cupcakes for us! They were very chocolatey and delicious. We even made some new friends in the Plant Conservation Science Building by offering them cupcakes.