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Grow tillandsias for the holiday season

Published November 22, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Plant enthusiasts should check out tillandsia this holiday season, according to University of Illinois Extension educator Kelly Allsup.

“Even if you describe yourself as a brown thumb and are allergic to soil, you are going to love growing these super easy plants. The strappy tillandsia plants come in different sizes, textures, and colors and you are sure to find one to fit your holiday décor,” Allsup says.

Tillandsia is a type of epiphyte or “air plant.” In the wild, they use their minimal root system to attach themselves to trees and rocks, absorbing moisture and nutrients through small scales on their leaves. These scales give the plants their unique silver or gray appearance. “Air plants resemble a little octopus with their spreading tentacles,” Allsup says.

“They have been made popular as a houseplant and generally are easy to care for,” Allsup notes. “They enjoy indirect sun within the home or a shadier location if placed outside. Watering is critical. We recommend watering tillandsia once per week by submerging the entire plant in a bowl for 30 minutes to 2 hours. Allow them to dry a couple of hours before putting back into an enclosed environment. Misting can be done once or twice a week depending on the season.”

Tillandsia flowers range from white to bold orange, red, purple, or pink. Blossoms can quickly fade away or persist for several months. The flowers are long, tubular to funnel shaped, with showy floral parts. If they do not bloom, this may be an indication of insufficient light.

Allsup explains that there are two main types of tillandsias. “Some are gray and some are green. The gray kinds are native to tropical forests where long droughts are common. Their gray leaves reflect sunlight and conserve moisture. These can be mounted and grown in bright filtered light. Green-leaved tillandsias are native to rainy, humid tropical forests and are grown best in less light inside containers to keep them moist. Our Illinois winter homes are most appropriate for the gray kinds.”

Allsup recommends the following tillandsias for Illinois:

  • Tillandsia caput-medusae has silvery twisty leaves, a swollen base, and a red flower stalk.
  • Tillandsia plumosa boasts silvery leaves and can be grown on rocks or limbs.
  • Tillandsia utriculata v. pringleyi has delicate thin silver leaves with a flowering stalk that is red to orange or pink.

Tillandsias can be displayed in a variety of artistic ways. For example, Allsup recommends creating a unique wreath by using the formed grapevine wreaths found in craft stores as a base. “Glue a variety of tillandsias, either in on one part of the wreath for an asymmetrical effect or throughout and then add small pine cones, colorful mosses, or miniature festive decorations,” she says.

“Or create a tillandsia landscape in a lantern, square glass vase, or under a cloche,” Allsup suggests. “Fill it with moss or aquarium gravel for a base, place in tillandsias, and adorn with pinecones, miniature décor, and driftwood. You could also place them in wine glasses and line them up along the center of the holiday table.

“For a unique gift,” Allsup adds, “place tillandsia in a clear plastic or glass ornament with colorful moss, or glue tillandsia to a wine cork or crystal.”

News Source:

Kelly Allsup, 309-663-8306

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension
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Will US corn and soybean surpluses be reduced next year?

Published November 21, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA’s November World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report projected that U.S. stocks of corn will grow from 1.738 billion bushels at the beginning of the current marketing year to 2.403 billion bushels at the end of the marketing year. Soybean stocks are expected to grow from 197 million bushels to 480 million bushels.

According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good, large increases in stocks are expected even though corn consumption during the current marketing year is expected to exceed that of last year by 948 million bushels (6.9 percent) and soybean consumption is expected to increase by 165 million bushels (4.2 percent).

“Increased corn consumption is projected in both the feed and residual and export categories,” Good says. “A majority of the expected increase in soybean consumption is in the export category. The expected increase in stocks reflects the extremely large crops produced this year.”

Good says the large crops and resulting low prices are creating increased financial stress for corn and soybean producers and a lot of interest in how long surpluses and low prices might persist. “For now, much of the focus is on the potential size of the 2017 South American crops and the implications for demand for U.S. crops,” Good says. “Increasingly, the focus will shift to 2017 production prospects in the United States. The over-riding question is whether surpluses and low prices will persist for another year. It is a bit early to speculate on supply and consumption prospects for the 2017-18 marketing year, but some scenarios can be considered.”

For corn, Good says there is a general expectation that U.S. producers will reduce acreage in the year ahead. A decrease of about 3.5 million acres to 83.3 million acres harvested for grain, seems to be a common expectation right now. “With such a reduction and a 2017 U.S. average corn yield near our calculated trend value of 168.8 bushels, the 2017 crop would total 14.06 billion bushels, 1.165 billion bushels less than the 2016 harvest,” he says. “If corn consumption during the 2017-18 marketing year remains at the elevated level of 14.61 billion bushels projected for the current year, stocks at the end of the 2017-18 marketing year would be reduced to about 1.9 billion bushels.”

With a trend yield of 168.8 bushels and a constant level of consumption, any reduction of more than 0.5 million acres would result in some draw down in year-ending stocks of corn during the 2017-18 marketing year, Good says. Conversely, a 3.5 million acre reduction along with a constant level of consumption means that an average yield of less than 174.8 bushels would result in some draw down in marketing year-ending stocks. However, if combined corn production in Brazil and Argentina in 2017 increases by 945 million bushels, as now projected by the USDA, U.S. corn exports would be expected to decline during the 2017-18 marketing year. If U.S. exports decline by 250 million bushels and acreage is reduced by 3.5 million acres, the 2017 average yield would need to be less than 171.8 bushels in order to reduce year-ending stocks.

For soybeans, Good says there is a general expectation that U.S. producers will increase acreage in the year ahead. An increase of about 5 million acres, to 88 million harvested acres, seems to be a common expectation right now. The extremely high soybean yields of the past three years raise some questions about a potential increase in the trend yield. “However, if the 2017 U.S. average soybean yield is near our calculated linear trend value of 47.5 bushels and acreage is increased as expected, the 2017 crop would total 4.18 billion bushels, 181 million bushels less than the 2016 harvest,” he says. “If soybean consumption during the 2017-18 marketing year remains at the elevated level of 4.108 billion bushels projected for the current year, stocks at the end of the 2017-18 marketing year would grow to about 580 million bushels.”

According to Good, with a trend yield of 47.5 bushels and a constant level of consumption, any increase of more than 2.85 million acres would result in some further growth in year-ending stocks of soybeans during the 2017-18 marketing year. On the other hand, a 5 million-acre increase in soybean area along with a constant level of consumption means that an average yield of more than 46.3 bushels would result in some increase in marketing year-ending stocks. However, if combined soybean production in Brazil and Argentina in 2017 increases by 210 million bushels, as now projected by the USDA, U.S. soybean exports would be expected to decline during the 2017-18 marketing year. If U.S. exports decline by 100 million bushels and acreage is increased by 5 million acres, a 2017 average yield of more than 45.2 bushels would result in some increase in year-ending stocks. 

“There are obviously multiple potential acreage, yield, consumption, and ending-stocks scenarios for the 2017-18 U.S. corn and soybean marketing year,” Good says. “The most likely scenarios tend to favor a modest reduction in marketing year-ending stocks of corn and a modest to large increase in marketing year-ending stocks of soybeans.

“The corn market currently appears to reflect expectations of reduced stocks, with the December 2017 futures price 37 cents higher than the December 2016 price. The soybean market is apparently not convinced that stocks will continue to grow next year, with the January 2018 future price only 6 cents lower than the January 2017 price. The soybean market appears to be reflecting more production risk than reflected by the corn market. Perceived production risk may stem from current drought conditions in the southeast U.S. and/or uncertainty about potential impacts if a La Niña episode unfolds.”


Get to know chestnuts

Published November 21, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Many Americans only know chestnuts from the famous line, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” in the 1945 song, “Merry Christmas to You,” by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé. Prior to its demise in the first half of the 20th century, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was one of the largest and most important timber- and nut-producing trees in the eastern United States. In less than a lifetime, the native American chestnut population that spanned the entire Appalachian Mountain range plunged from an estimated 3-4 billion trees to a few hundred survivors. This was all due to the introduction of an exotic Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) growing on the bark of resistant Chinese (C. mollissima) and Japanese (C. crenata) chestnut trees imported by the New York Zoological Park (now known as the Bronx Zoo) for addition to their collection in 1904.

“All types of ‘true’ chestnuts are edible raw or roasted, though roasting is the preferred method, not only for enhanced flavor, but also for ease of peeling the brown skin-like pellicle from the yellowish-white edible kernel of the nut,” says University of Illinois Extension educator Elizabeth Wahle.

Although American chestnuts are considered one of the sweetest tasting chestnuts, its nickel-sized nut is relatively small compared to others. European “sweet” chestnuts (C. sativa) and Chinese chestnuts that now dominate the American market are not considered quite as sweet as the American chestnut, but their larger nut size makes up for this difference. In addition, chestnuts in the genus Castanea interbreed readily, which opens the door for breeding hybrid cultivars with blight resistance and superior nut quality.

But what about those other chestnuts? “Horse-chestnuts or buckeyes (Aesculus spp.) are trees and shrubs unrelated to chestnuts and can be toxic if not prepared properly,” Wahle warns. “There are many similarities between chestnuts and horse-chestnuts and only an experienced and informed forager should collect nuts from the wild for consumption. The water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) is not a nut at all, but the corm, or belowground stem, of a grass-like sedge that is grown as a vegetable in aquatic habitats.”

Chestnuts are a highly perishable, high-starch, low-fat food unlike other common tree nuts. For this reason, chestnuts should be purchased close to the time of intended use.

“Choose chestnuts with clean outer shells that are a shiny brown color,” Wahle says. “The tan-colored end of the nuts should be free of mold. The freshest chestnuts are very firm and do not dent when pressed. When cut, the kernel should be yellow. Avoid chestnuts with blue streaking through the kernel, a vinegary smell, or a slimy feel. Chestnuts lose moisture quickly at room temperature and humidity, causing the kernels to dry, harden, and become moldy. To extend the storage life, maintain proper moisture conditions by storing chestnuts in a ventilated plastic bag in the refrigerator and use within a few weeks.

“Because of the high moisture content of the kernel, the outer shell and pellicle must be pierced with a sharp serrated knife, regardless of cooking method. Avoid cutting into the kernel to make shelling easier. A single slit across the widest part of the nut is sufficient to prevent bursting during the cooking process,” Wahle notes.

Chestnuts may be roasted over an open fire for 15-20 minutes with constant motion; roasted in a conventional oven at 300-325°F for 15-20 minutes; boiled or steamed for 10-15 minutes; or microwaved wrapped in damp paper towels for 45-50 seconds on high. “Regardless of the heating process, peeling is easier if nuts are allowed to cool just enough to handle without injury. As nuts cool, peeling the pellicle from the kernel becomes an ever-increasing challenge,” Wahle says.

Chestnuts are not crunchy even when roasted; their texture comes closer to a hard cheese. Although roasted chestnuts can be eaten by the handful, chestnuts can be utilized in a number of culinary endeavors, including flour, thickening for soups, poultry stuffing, nut breads, cakes, puddings, and even wine.

“I hope more Americans get to know chestnuts this holiday season,” Wahle says.

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Soybean plants with fewer leaves yield more

Published November 18, 2016
soybean being snipped
Researchers manually cut off new leaflets to decrease leaf area by just 5 percent and increased yields by 8 percent.

URBANA, Ill. - Using computer model simulations, scientists have predicted that modern soybean crops produce more leaves than they need to the detriment of yield—a problem made worse by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide. They tested their prediction by removing about one third of the emerging leaves on soybeans and found an 8 percent increase in seed yield in replicated trials. They attribute this boost in yield to increased photosynthesis, decreased respiration, and diversion of resources that would have been invested in more leaves than seeds.

“The reduction in leaves allows more sun light to penetrate through the canopy making the whole plant more productive, and it also reduces crop water demand,” said the project lead Praveen Kumar, Lovell Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois.

Currently, we only achieve a 1 percent annual increase in yields due to crop improvements, which has slowed in the last decade. “This rate is insufficient to fulfill the needs for global food security, where we need to produce 70-100 percent more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9.7 billion people,” said project co-lead Steve Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.

“We are trying to identify non-conventional techniques that can give us a quick boost in yield so that we can get closer to those predicted demands,” said first author Venkatraman Srinivasan, a postdoctoral researcher at Illinois. “Soybeans are one of the four major staple crops and also the most important vegetable protein source in the world. If we can increase the yield of soybeans, we can solve the problems of protein demand and food production at the same time.”

Published in Global Change Biology, their paper found that soybean plants produce too many leaves, most of which are shaded and inefficient, thereby wasting resources like water, carbon and nitrogen. “The model shows that by investing less in leaves, the plant can produce more seeds,” Srinivasan said.

The model predicted that a 30-40 percent decrease in leaf area would increase yields by 8-10 percent in field trials, they decreased leaf area (by manually cutting off new leaflets) by just 5 percent and still increased yields by 8 percent.

“The experiment indicates that that our model is conservative,” Srinivasan said. “We hypothesize that plants with fewer leaves need less water, which requires fewer roots. Cutting down on roots could produce additional carbon savings that the plant can invest towards boosting yield. Alternatively, plants with fewer leaves are more water efficient, and thereby may be potentially drought tolerant.”

Next, the researchers will bioengineer plants or search for varieties that naturally have fewer leaves to test these preliminary findings on a larger scale. They will also continue exploring ways to optimize other aspects of this crop’s canopy of leaves—such as the distribution and angle of leaves—to design better soybean plants that yield more without the need for more water and other resources.

Srinivasan said, “We want to optimize the plant’s canopy structure so that we can get as much photosynthesis as possible out of the crop to increase the food supply.”


This work is part of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), a multi-institutional research project that is developing high-yielding crops for farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Learn more about the project at

The paper "Decreasing, not increasing, leaf area will raise crop yields under global atmospheric change" was published in Global Change Biology (DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13526) and is available online or upon request. Funding from the National Science Foundation and RIPE project supported this research.


News Source:

Steve Long

ACES investigators discuss opportunities and challenges of USAID-sponsored programs

Published November 17, 2016
USAID investigators: Paul McNamara, Pete Goldsmith, and KC Ting

Three ACES faculty who have collectively been awarded over $60 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) since 2010 talked about the unique opportunities and challenges associated with Feed the Future funding in a panel presentation sponsored by the ACES Office of International Programs.

The panel included Peter Goldsmith (Director Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab); Paul McNamara (Director Integrating Gender and Nutrition in Extension and Advisory Services and Strengthening Agriculture and Nutrition Extension in Malawi); and KC Ting (Co-PI of Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium).

Through the Feed the Future Program, USAID has increasingly emphasized research for international development in food and agriculture. As funding from USAID to universities and research institutes for work in food and agriculture has more than doubled between 2010 and 2015, ACES’ funding from this source has dramatically increased.

Alex Winter-Nelson, director of the Office of International Programs, introduced the speakers and noted that such funding opportunities are likely to continue under a new administration as the passage of the Global Food Security Act in July 2016 strongly supports funding at near current levels for the next two years.  However, as a funding agency, USAID differs in many ways from more common sponsors of academic research like the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health. 

The presenters each described the opportunities provided by their ongoing projects as well as the challenges they have faced. They agreed that USAID-funded programs are seeking different results than what is typically valued in an academic environment. While academic research and publication can be made consistent with a USAID project, investigators must also demonstrate other types of outcomes. Indeed, outcomes not generally valued by the university may be extremely important to USAID.

The first investigator to speak was Prof. Pete Goldsmith, Director of the Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL). SIL is one of over 20 Feed the Future innovation labs that USAID funds as a mechanism for engaging with universities.  Dr. Goldsmith reminded faculty interested in competing for such funding, that even though USAID targets universities in the innovation labs, “[when applying to USAID] you are not designing projects with publications in mind.”

“USAID is not focused on peer-reviewed articles as significant outcomes; they want immediate and shorter term impacts. As a result, we have learned to balance their demands with our own scholarship expectations. They like to see a series of useful products coming out,” said Goldsmith who provides weekly updates on the Illinois-led tropical soybean project at:

Goldsmith also noted it is easy to overlook overhead and administrative costs when creating project budgets for USAID. He said, for example, he did not budget for communications staff, but soon learned he needed that support to disseminate project deliverables that are highly valued by USAID and critical to the development of the nascent soybean sector in Africa.

Next, Dr. KC Ting spoke about the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Project (ASMC) that is reducing labor and human drudgery and intensifying productivity to improve the quality of life of smallholder farmers around the world. ASMC is a subcontract from another USAID-funded innovation lab.

Dr. Ting emphasized it is important to find the right partners for work in the countries that USAID specifies for activities.

“We have partnered with a university in each focus country to create an information hub. These university hubs must be strong enough to enable the team to network with the rural communities, smallholders and entrepreneurs, NGOs, and faculty and students within the universities themselves. Because the ultimate goal is for these hubs to be self-sustainable.”

Dr. Ting admitted the funding provided is not always equal to the large effort these projects require and that he and his colleagues are instead driven by the opportunity to lead this important work and to showcase the abilities of the University of Illinois.

His team has made significant progress during the ASMC’s first year, performing household surveys and time and motion studies to identify the most time consuming and labor intensive tasks in all four locations.    

You can learn more about the ASMC project at:

The final presenter was Dr. Paul McNamara who leads multiple extension strengthening programs for USAID starting with the Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS) project, which has provided improved services to 11,500,000 rural clients. The success of the MEAS project led to his team being awarded several other extension strengthening projects to reduce gender gaps and increase extension services in volatile areas of the world. Unlike the other two investigators, McNamara’s USAID funding is not through an innovation lab structure and has conditions that are less aligned to university priorities and processes.

McNamara’s programs have received tens of millions of dollars in sponsored projects, but he emphasized, his 18 member team was not funded by USAID to “do research” but literally to “make a difference on the ground.”  Expanding on this, McNamara warned those considering similar projects, “We are expected to produce a lot, reach a certain number of farmers, train a certain number of policy makers, have agents download a certain number of materials.” It is very different from a typical research grant.

He noted it has been important to listen to the funders very carefully, through weekly meetings, and to be able to adapt quickly. For example, if there is a drought in an area of the world in which the project is active, the project managers will expect a change in the content of the activities to be relevant to the changing conditions.  

McNamara related it is possible to conduct research as part of these projects. Indeed, the MEAS project generated 16 peer reviewed articles.  He has also been able to fund graduate students and their thesis research through these projects, but the work being done on the ground to achieve USAID’s development goals has to frame their research, not the other way around.

Find out more about the MEAS project and its associate awards at:

Altogether, the three USAID projects reveal it is possible to blend international development work with academic research. But the research follows the development objectives, and pursuing development objectives is a difficult process that introduces challenges most researchers never have to face. But the opportunity to participate in real development and utilize one’s research to directly address problems of poverty and malnutrition in the here and now provides all the motivation a professor needs.  ACES scientists accept the burden of travel and reporting requirements and uncontrollable changes in circumstances among other things for the immeasurable reward of knowing their work is making a difference in people’s lives.

Gardeners daydream about planting award winners in spring

Published November 17, 2016
Celosia Asian Garden
Celosia Asian Garden

URBANA, Ill. – The weather is turning colder as we approach the holiday season. Leaves have finished displaying their autumn color and fallen, and gardens have been cleaned up to begin their winter rest. Gardeners can finally enjoy a well-deserved break, but it may not be long before the anticipation of spring creeps in.

“There is no quicker way to beat those winter blues than starting your garden planning early,” says University of Illinois Extension educator Bruce Black. “Garden planning starts by thumbing through paper and online plant catalogs looking for something new, yet tested. The All-America Selections are a nice starting place."

All-America Selections (AAS) is an independent, non-profit organization that tests new varieties every year through 88 registered private and public trial gardens located around the United States and Canada. Independent AAS judges award overall national winners and winners in specific geographic regions. Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin are located in the Great Lakes Region, so Black says to look for either national winners or Great Lakes winners.

“For those of you located along the Mississippi River, Iowa, and Missouri, consider national and Heartland winners. In far southern Illinois bordering Kentucky, you could also consider Southeast winners,” Black notes.

Five 2017 AAS Winners have been announced, including four vegetables and one flower. They are:

Celosia Asian Garden (Celosia argentea var. Asian Garden): Asian Garden is a continuous bright pink flowered annual with dark green foliage noted for attracting pollinators. National Flower Award Winner.

Okra Candle Fire F1 (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Candle Fire F1): Candle Fire is a bright red, rounded okra noted for high productivity, pod taste, tenderness, and texture, as well as possible ornamental usage. Candle Fire is disease resistant for hot and humid climates. National Vegetable Award Winner.

Pea Patio Pride (Pisum sativum var. Patio Pride): A compact, uniform, and quick maturing variety, Patio Pride is ideal for container plantings or in-ground gardening. Due to its fast growth in the cool season, Patio Pride is perfect for spring, fall, or succession plantings. Southeast Vegetable Award Winner.

Squash, Winter Honeybaby F1 (Cucurbita mushata var. Honeybaby F1): Honeybaby is a semi-bush compact variety with larger, meatier, and sweeter fruits when compared to similar varieties. Powdery mildew-tolerant and crack-resistant. Heartland Vegetable Award Winner.

Watermelon Mini Love F1 (Citrullus lanatus var. Mini Love F1): As the name suggests, Mini Love is a shorter 3- to 4-foot vined Asian watermelon with up to six small 7- to 9-pound dark green fruits. National Vegetable Award Winner.

Founded in 1932, All-America Selections has a list of all current and past winners—vegetables and flowers—available on their website ( that have been "Tested Nationally and Proven Locally®." AAS winners are announced three times each year. Look for more selections in January and July.

“Just reading about these winners has begun to paint the garden possibilities for next year,” Black remarks. “A possible theme for 2017 could be a rainbow-colored garden, using some of these colorful new winners and some standard garden varieties.”

For more information about gardening, check out the University of Illinois Extension websites Watch Your Garden Grow and Beyond Impatiens & Petunias.

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension