For many people, lilacs are a sentimental flower. My mother planted many lilacs on our farm in Kansas. The scent carried across the yard as I played. When my husband and I started our family, planting a lilac in our garden was a priority so our children will have the same heavenly memory of the fragrance and flower.

Over the years I have tried to bring the bounty of this flower into my home and have often failed. The flowers would droop within an hour of bringing them inside, even though I had them in a clean vase full of fresh water. Through trial and error I found the trick to help the blooms last as long as possible:

Fill a bucket half full of fresh, cool water, and have it at hand as you cut blooms. Pick flowers in the cool of the morning or evening. Lilacs open very little after harvest, so choose stems that have at least three-quarters of the flowers open. Next, remove all of the leaves so the plant isn’t putting its effort into keeping the leaves hydrated. Place stems in the water. Leave the bucket in a cool, dark place and allow the flowers to take up water for at least an hour.

Pick flowers in the cool of morning or evening.

Pick flowers in the cool of morning or evening.

Remove all of the leaves from each stem.

Remove all of the leaves from each stem.

Next, using heavy clippers, recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches. Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward. Immediately place the cut stems back into the bucket of water.  Allow the stems to take up more water in a cool, dark place for another one to two hours. The lilacs will then be ready for arranging, and will last three to four days.

Recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches.

Recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches.

Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward.

Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward.

An arrangement of fragrant Evangeline hyacinth lilac (Syringa xhyacinthiflora 'Evangeline')

Our finished bouquet: an arrangement of fragrant Evangeline hyacinth lilac (Syringa ×hyacinthiflora ‘Evangeline’)


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I put together my top five picks for all-around Best Midwest plants after being contacted by editors at Midwest Living magazine.

Polling a number of experts in the Midwest, the editors asked for recommendations of award-worthy plants and then came up with a list of great plants that gardeners can count on. (I was happy to note some of the winners are proven perennials from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s trials, as well as plants I’ve grown and loved for a long time.)

Here’s my shortlist—including one with crazy beautiful flowers and one that’s so easy to grow that you basically just plant it in the right spot and water it.

See the plants that made it on to the Midwest Living list.

Best for Sun

‘Joanna Reed’ catmint (Nepeta ‘Joanna Reed’) is one of the tidiest catmints I’ve ever grown, an attribute that cinched a top rating in our trial. The strong stems never flopped and new shoots grow quickly to conceal the declining flowers stems, thus eliminating the need for deadheading. Compact, wide spreading plants (24 inches tall and 48 inches wide) are covered with a continuous display of violet-blue flowers from spring into fall; if you’re thinking that means loads of pollinators, you’d be right! The aromatic, dusty green leaves are not only attractive but also unpalatable to deer—a bragging point shared by many catmints.

Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantia) and catmint (Nepeta) in the Garden.

Fuzzy lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) pair well with catmint (Nepeta—in the background).

To me, lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) is an essential perennial for sunny gardens and ‘Big Ears’ is my favorite. Its large, pale silvery-green leaves are velvety soft and the perfect color and textural foil for other perennials—it looks good with both hot- and cool-colored flowers. ‘Big Ears’ is a shy flowerer; in fact, it is touted as non-flowering. Occasionally, a fuzzy flower stem or two pops up with tiny purple flowers hidden in woolly clusters. Low growing and spreading (14 inches tall and 30 inches wide), ‘Big Ears’ is a great groundcover or massing plant. Both of these sun-loving perennials like well-drained soils and are tolerant of hot, dry conditions.

Best Native Plant

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) makes my list of best native plants because its flowers are crazy beautiful, and it might just be one of the most important plants of the day. Honestly, the eye-catching bright orange flowers are reason enough to love this plant, but the fact that they attract a myriad of butterflies, including the beloved monarch, makes them invaluable. The survival and success of the monarch butterfly is tied directly to butterfly weed—the caterpillar feeds on the leaves and the adult butterfly on the nectar. Butterfly weed is a great garden perennial in formal and naturalistic plantings, and because it is commonly seed-grown, flower color varies from orange to yellow to nearly red. The Perennial Plant Association named Asclepias tuberosa the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

Best Annual

Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue')

Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’)

I haven’t evaluated annuals in more than 20 years, and I don’t personally grow many annuals. However, I’m a huge fan of tender sages—so much so that we started a trial of 105 different nonhardy sages last year. Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ has been around for a while and has proven to be a phenomenal plant for seasonal displays in containers and garden borders. The combination of cobalt blue flowers and near-black calyces and stems is stunning. It blooms from midsummer to frost and attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees aplenty. ‘Black and Blue’ is a rapid grower, reaching 2 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide in a summer, and is best suited to sunny locations.

Best Plant-It-and-Forget-It

Hosta sieboldiana 'Elegans'

Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’

Hostas are quintessential plant-it-and-forget-it perennials. Long-lived and easy-care, hostas come in a wide variety of colors, forms, and sizes. Success is as simple as providing them with adequate water and planting them in partial to dappled shade. Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ features thick, corrugated blue-green leaves and near-white funnel-shaped flowers in early summer. ‘Elegans’ is robust at 30 inches tall and 48 inches wide, with heart-shaped leaves more than a foot long. Hostas rarely, if ever, need division—I have a big planting of ‘Elegans’ in my home garden that has been in place for more than 20 years with no care beyond removing the old leaves in the spring.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

We dreamed green, from the moment we started planning the Learning Center on the Regenstein Learning Campus—in every solar panel we placed, in every window we installed, in every cleaning product we used. Recently, the hard work brought us national recognition.

The Chicago Botanic Garden is pleased that the U.S. Green Building Council has awarded the top rating of Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to the Learning Center, which opened in September 2016. The designation means that the Garden is recognized as a leader in the green building movement. Of 51,875 projects in the United States that has earned LEED status since 2004, only 10.7 percent have been awarded platinum recognition.

Natural daylight from clerestory windows illuminates the building's main hallway.

Natural daylight from clerestory windows illuminates the Learning Center’s main hallway.

Sustainability Features

People of all ages and abilities connect with the natural world in the programs, classes, and events through the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden, based at the Learning Center. In every single decision we made before opening the Center’s doors, we applied the same sustainability standards that we use for our gardens: How do we save water and energy? What is the best way to reduce our environmental footprint?

Solar panels (like these on the Children's Growing Garden next door) supply 16 percent of the Regenstein Learning Center's electricity.

Solar panels (like these on the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden next door) supply 16 percent of the  Learning Center’s electricity.

Here are some of the ways we did so, with the help of architects Booth Hansen & Associates and the Rocky Mountain Institute, which provided sustainability counsel. The Learning Center uses the following:

  • A rainwater capture and storage system (the rainwater is used to water the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden)
  • 83 solar panels, which generate 16 percent of the building’s electricity
  • Environmentally friendly cleaning products, and paints, adhesives, and sealings with low amounts of chemicals that could harm indoor air quality 
  • 90 percent natural daylight
  • Special windows to deter bird collisions

Even outside the Learning Center, we made sure to think local and sustainable in the Nature Play Garden, with climbing boulders from Wisconsin and as many native plants as possible—not as part of the LEED certification, but as part of our environmental ethos.

“We are an organization that cares deeply about conservation and sustainability. When it comes to our buildings, we embrace energy-efficient construction practices that mitigate environmental impact,” said Jean M. Franczyk, the Garden’s president and CEO.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Imagine an episode of the Jerry Springer Show in which the paternity of a child will be determined. Now imagine that instead of human beings, the show is focused on plants, and the issue at hand is the paternity of seeds produced by a given flower.

Next, consider that instead of just two candidate dads, there are dozens or even hundreds of individuals that could have fathered those seeds. What would you expect to find out at the end of the episode?

New research by biologists at Chicago Botanic Garden and the University of Arizona brings such a scenario into reality, and the “big reveal,” while not quite as dramatic as what you’d typically see on the Springer show, offers new insights into plant mating. The paper, titled “Pollinator identity and spatial isolation influence multiple paternity in an annual plant,” was published online today in Molecular Ecology.

“Biologists have known for decades that multiple paternity is common in plants—that is, the seeds contained in a fruit will often have been fathered by many different individuals,” said Matt Rhodes, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. “While we have long had a basic understanding of how multiple paternity occurs in plants, we wanted to explore how it might be influenced by some of the messier aspects of pollination ecology.”

Much of this messiness stems from the fact that plants are sessile: once they start growing, they’re stuck where they are. “One important consequence of this immobility is that plants can’t seek out mates on their own,” Rhodes explains. “Instead, most flowering plants entrust the mating process to animal pollinators that move pollen from flower to flower. On top of that, some individuals are surrounded by potential mates while others are spatially isolated. There are good reasons to expect both of those factors to influence multiple paternity, and that’s what motivated our study.”

In the video above, pollen is deposited on the proboscis and body as hawkmoths (Hyles lineata and Manduca quiquimaculata) visit flowers of Oenothera harringtonii. (Video: K. Skogen) View video on YouTube here.

To address these issues, Rhodes went to the grasslands of southeastern Colorado with Jeremie Fant and Krissa Skogen, conservation scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden who co-authored the article. They studied a rare evening primrose species with a strange twist in its pollination ecology: its flowers are visited by large-bodied hawkmoths at night and comparably smaller-bodied bees during the morning. “Based on these differences in body size as well as some important differences in behavior, we predicted that flowers visited by hawkmoths would mate with a greater number of fathers than those visited by bees,” said Skogen. “Because these floral visitors are active at different times of day, we were able to test this prediction with a fairly simple experiment in which we limited different flowers on a plant to visits from either hawkmoths or bees. We also predicted that multiple paternity would be less likely for individuals that were farther away from potential mates.”

Hyles lineata visits an Oenothera harringtonii flower; note the pollen on the moth’s head and body. (Photo: S. Todd)

Hyles lineata visits an Oenothera harringtonii flower; note the pollen on the moth’s head and body.
(Photo: S. Todd)

A Lasioglossum bee collects pollen from the anthers of an Oenothera harringtonii flower without coming into contact with the stigma. (Photo: S. Todd)

A Lasioglossum bee collects pollen from the anthers of an Oenothera harringtonii flower without coming into contact with the stigma. (Photo: S. Todd)

After collecting the seeds from these plants, the researchers spent months examining seed DNA in the genetics lab. “By comparing the seeds’ DNA to the DNA of the maternal plants from which we collected them, we were able to figure out which parts of the DNA came from the father,” explains Fant. “We then screened that paternal DNA against all of the individuals in the population—which in our case included more than 300 plants spread across 2 square miles of the landscape—to find the most likely father for each of the seeds we collected.”

For the most part, the results were consistent with the researchers’ predictions. “We found that on average, flowers visited by hawkmoths mated with nearly twice as many different fathers as flowers visited by bees,” said Rhodes. “We also found that spatially isolated individuals were far less likely to mate with multiple different fathers. Overall, it looks as though plant ‘promiscuity’ depends both on what kind of animal visits the flowers, and how far away that individual is from potential mates.”

Scales from Hyles lineata were deposited on the stigma of an Oenothera harringtonii flower. (Photo: K. Skogen)

Scales from Hyles lineata were deposited on the stigma of an Oenothera harringtonii flower. (Photo: K. Skogen)

In addition to providing a more thorough account of factors that can influence multiple paternity in plants, the results also allow researchers to consider how plants might be affected by the loss of certain pollinators. “This study allows us to make predictions about how some plants may be affected if particular pollinators disappear. Hawkmoths play an important role in moving pollen from plant to plant; if they decline in large numbers or are lost completely, there may be cascading effects on the success of future generations of hawkmoth-pollinated plants” said Skogen.

Comanche National Grasslands, Colorado— the shortgrass prairie where the study was conducted. (Photo: K. Skogen)

Comanche National Grassland, Colorado— the shortgrass prairie where the study was conducted. (Photo: K. Skogen)

The field team in Colorado (left to right: Kelly Ksiazek, Matt Rhodes, Sadie Todd, Evan Hilpman, Krissa Skogen, and Jeremie Fant)

The field team in Colorado (left to right: Kelly Ksiazek, Matt Rhodes, Sadie Todd, Evan Hilpman, Krissa Skogen, and Jeremie Fant)


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring is my favorite time of year. As the manager of horticultural events, I have the pleasure of working with the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society to plan the yearly Fall Bulb Sale as part of the Fall Bulb Festival. I spend a little more than half of my year thinking about spring-blooming bulbs, and I love it.

The National Garden Bureau has declared daffodils as the 2017 flower of the year. For me daffodils reign supreme. There is a wide variety of shapes and colors to choose from—some are even fragrant—and best of all, critters do not dig them up or eat them when they are blooming.

Narcissus 'Tweety Bird'

Narcissus ‘Tweety Bird’

Daffodils are classified by the shape and size of the cup (or trumpet) and the petals. For example, Division 1 Trumpet Daffodils have a cup or trumpet that measures longer than the length of the petals. (The Royal Horticultural Society lists 13 divisions for daffodils.) This season, I am especially fond of Narcissus ‘Tweety Bird’. The flower is petite, but still has the stature and allure of the stately trumpet daffodil—with a slight twist: the petals reflex back, making it a Division 6 Cyclamineus Daffodil.

I am often asked to decipher the difference between Narcissus, daffodil, and jonquil. Narcissus refers to the botanical name for this group of flowers. “Daffodil” is the common name for this group, and “jonquil” actually refers to a specific kind of Narcissus (daffodil).

Nothing says Spring like a daffodil bouquet.

Nothing says spring like a daffodil bouquet.

Daffodils as cut flowers are a giant perk of the spring season. Generally, they have a vase life of nearly a week if harvested before the flowers are fully open. Daffodils ooze a slimy sap that is toxic to other flowers and will shorten their vase life. To avoid affecting other flowers in an arrangement, “condition” daffodils by placing freshly cut stems into cool water for two to three hours first. During that time, the stem ends will callus over and the toxic sap will stop flowing. The daffodil stems (do not recut the ends) can be added with other flowers, or you can create an arrangement using only daffodils.

Want to know more about cultivating Narcissus? Visit our daffodil page for links and tips.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has 219 daffodil varieties—a total of 521,802 bulbs—resulting in more than one million blooms during the spring season (starting in late March and lasting all the way through late May, and sometimes into early June). There are many “sweet spots” in the Garden to find your new favorite variety of daffodil. I especially love the Sensory Garden, Evening Island, and of course, the Graham Bulb Garden. I hope to see you out enjoying the daffodil vistas in the Garden.

Viewable from the Visitor Center bridge and the Crescent Garden, Bird Island is currently abloom with daffodils.

Viewable from the Visitor Center bridge and the Crescent Garden, Bird Island is currently abloom with daffodils.

Come see the 2017 Midwest Daffodil Society Show on Saturday, April 29, noon – 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 30, 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org