It’s officially summer in Chicago, and you’ll start to notice a plethora of begonias, impatiens, marigolds, cannas, dahlias, and elephant ears, all planted for a temporary taste of the tropics.

If you’ve dreamed about creating an exotic vacation look at home, but wanted to reduce your yearly investment in annuals, consider pairing them with tropical-looking hardy perennials that come back yearly. The following additions will help give your garden that south Florida feel.

PHOTO: Hibiscus 'Midnight Marvel'

Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’

Midnight Marvel hibiscus

You don’t have to live in Hawaii to grow hibiscus. There are actually two species native to Illinois. Several others occur in the southeastern states. These hardy plants emerge late in the spring, get quite large and shrubby, bloom their hearts out in late summer, and then retreat underground when winters comes along.

Midnight Marvel is a spectacular hybrid with very deep wine-colored foliage and dinner-plate-sized crimson flowers. Each flower lasts just a day a two, but are so plentiful that the show lasts for weeks, and hummingbirds love it. After each flower passes, the light green calyx tubes look pretty set against the dark leaves. Midnight Marvel reaches 4 to 5 feet tall, so is best placed at the back of the bed in a site with full sun.

PHOTO: Belamcanda chinensis 'Freckle Face'

Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’

Freckle Face blackberry lily

Orange is a hot color, perfect for a tropical garden. The flowers of Freckle Face blackberry lily (Iris domestica ‘Freckle Face’) are a gorgeous carroty shade with many vivid red spots covering each petal. The blackberry portion of the name refers to shiny black seed clusters that pop out of the split open pods. Sprays of flowers bloom for several weeks in late summer on these 2-foot-tall plants.

Despite its name, this plant isn’t actually a lily at all, but resides in the iris family. The blue-green spiky leaves even resemble bearded iris foliage. Taxonomists very recently changed the name, so when searching online, you will most likely find it under Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’.

PHOTO: Aralia cordata 'Sun King'

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’

Sun King udo

Here’s a statuesque perennial for the part-sun area of your tropical garden. An enormous specimen, reaching 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, Sun King udo is mistaken for a shrub, but is completely herbaceous. This is definitely a shade plant, but providing it with just a few hours of sun will really enhance the gold color of its foliage.

In summer, Sun King udo’s many umbels of greenish-white flowers are total bee magnets. By autumn, the spent flowers have changed into densely fruited clusters of wine red berries. The fruits are attractive, but best left for the birds, since they are not remotely tasty.

Shieldleaf rodgersflower

If you’ve got shade, consider mixing bold and tropical-looking foliage for a jungle effect. The perfect non-invasive perennial for this is shieldleaf rodgersflower. Formerly in the genus Rodgersia, Astilboides tabularis produces gigantic 2 to 3-foot-wide parasol-like leaves.

PHOTO: Astilboides tabularis

Astilboides tabularis

While the leaves are the most striking part, creamy-white astilbe-like flowers do sprout up through the dome of foliage in late June. With enough moisture, the foliage remains light green and attractive until autumn. This is not a plant for dry shade or windy spots, but perfect for moist, rich soil. For additional large leaves in the shade, try Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’, Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’, and Rodgersia.

PHOTO: Dryopteris goldiana

Dryopteris goldiana

Goldie’s fern

Tropical gardens are meant to invoke a relaxing vacation, and what is more cool and calm than ferns? Many gardeners grow ostrich fern, which is one of the largest and most tropical-looking spore producers in the Northern Hemisphere. However, ostrich fern can be a bit of a thug if space does not permit. Instead, try growing Goldie’s fern, which is a slow spreader and the largest species of Dryopteris in the United States. Under the best conditions, it will reach 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The fronds are a soothing shade of dark green and not golden as the name implies. (It is actually named after Scottish botanist John Goldie.)

The trick to getting the tropical look to work in your garden is to create a framework of dramatic, large-leaved perennials, and lacy, soothing ferns, then surround those with some hot red, orange, and yellow annuals. Top it off with some tiki torches, bamboo fencing, and a few lawn flamingos and you’ll have the perfect paradise for a hammock and mai tais!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Most plants hate saltwater. Pour saltwater on your houseplants and, a little while later, you’ll have some wilty plants. But mangroves can grow—and thrive—in saltwater.

You may have seen mangroves if you’ve been to the Florida Everglades or gone to an island in the Caribbean. Mangroves are trees that live in tropical, coastal zones and have special adaptations for life in saltwater. One of these adaptations is in how they reproduce: mangroves don’t make seeds. Instead, they make living, buoyant embryos called propagules (prop-a-gyule).

Mangrove propagules come in different shapes and sizes. Each species has its own unique propagule.

Mangroves produce a huge number of propagules the same way an oak would make hundreds of acorns.

Mangroves produce a huge number of propagules the same way an oak would make hundreds of acorns.

These relatively small propagules could become giant red mangrove trees.

These relatively small propagules could become giant red mangrove trees.

Black mangrove propagules on a branch; their outer coating will dissolve on their journey downstream.

Black mangrove propagules on a branch; their outer coating will dissolve on their journey downstream.

Propagules come in different shapes and sizes. These are from a tea mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae) tree.

Propagules come in different shapes and sizes. These are from a tea mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae) tree.

Normally, trees reproduce with seeds. You’ve probably seen the whirlybirds of maples and acorns of oaks. These seeds can go dormant. They are basically “asleep” or hibernate until something—water, temperature, or physical damage—wakes them up, allowing them to start growing months or years after they are produced.

Here I am with a couple of mangrove specimens. These roots are in water at high tide, but exposed at low tide.

Here I am with a couple of mangrove specimens. These roots are in water at high tide, but exposed at low tide.

Propagules, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury—they fall off their parent tree, ready to start rooting and growing a new tree. Nature has provided an amazing way for the mangrove seeds to move away from the parent tree: they float.

As the propagules float through the water, they shed their outermost layer and immediately start growing roots. The clock starts ticking as soon the propagules fall—if they don’t find a suitable place to start growing within a certain amount of time, they die. If a mangrove propagule ends its journey at a location that’s suitable for growth, the already-rooting propagule will send up its first set of leaves—cotyledons.

Ocean currents can take propagules thousands of miles away from where they started. A mangrove’s parent tree might be around the corner or around the continent.


Dr. Emily DangremondDr. Emily Dangremond is a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and a visiting scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She is currently studying the ecological and evolutionary consequences of mangroves responding to climate change at their northernmost limit in Florida.


Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Sharing the Titan Arum Love

Chicago Botanic Garden gives corpse flower to Garfield Park Conservatory

Karen Z. —  June 17, 2016 — Leave a comment

Spring is traditionally the season that gardener friends and neighbors share plants. So when we noticed in late May that one of the 13 corpse flowers in the production greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden was showing signs of sending up an inflorescence, we knew it was time to share.

PHOTO: Loading up the titan arum bud in the truck.

We bid a fond farewell to titan arum no. 5 (now dubbed “Persephone”) on May 31, 2016. The titan traveled by truck to its new home at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

Wanting to spread the titan bounty and to make this amazing plant accessible to Chicagoans from all parts of the city, the Garden turned to our friends at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

Titan arums hail from the rainforests of Sumatra, and therefore need the high humidity and controlled warmth of a greenhouse. (Check: the Conservatory’s Jens Jensen-designed greenhouses include an Aroid House with lagoon.) The plants are notoriously slow to reach the flowering stage and unpredictable when they do—careful horticultural monitoring is a must. (Check: we heart horticulturists.) And the Conservatory is located mere steps from Garfield Park’s beautifully renovated Green Line “L” stop, the city’s most central and accessible train line (super check).

Traveling in the city? Take the Green Line directly to the restored Conservatory–Central Park Drive el station.

Traveling in the city? Take the Green Line directly to the restored Conservatory–Central Park Drive “L” station.

For the Garden’s horticulture team, it has been a labor of love to raise “titan no. 5” to this stage. Grown from seed sent in 2008 by the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, the plant had developed the largest known corm in the Garden’s collection. When it was repotted in December 2015, the corm weighed in at 48.2 pounds and measured 16 inches wide and 12 inches tall. Through careful propagation and much TLC, the horticulture staff had coaxed this corpse flower toward opening in just eight years—a fairly short time frame in the life cycle of a titan. 

Mary Eysenbach, director of conservatories at the Chicago Park District, and her team at the Conservatory were thrilled to accept the gift of a titan arum, especially one nearing its first bloom. Dubbed “Persephone,” the plant was installed in the Aroid House, where it has been happily growing…and growing…among the Chihuly glass sculptures, reaching 69 inches in height by Thursday, June 16.

All signs now point to the corpse flower opening soon: slowing growth, reddening of the spathe, drying of the bracts. (Read more about the life cycle of titan arums on our blog.)

A titan arum, or corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) in bloom.

A titan arum’s inflorescence opens for a short time—just a day or two—and emits a powerfully stinky smell for the first few hours, as the female flowers inside put out the call for pollinators.

If you saw Spike or Alice or Sprout  at the Chicago Botanic Garden—or heard about “that stinky flower” through the news or social media—you know what a rare, amazing, sensational phenomenon a corpse flower can be. Increasingly rare in the wild, a flowering titan is a sight to behold, and a wonderful way to learn more about the astounding lives of the world’s plants.

We’re proud to share a titan arum with the Garfield Park Conservatory, and encourage everyone to visit, watch, and smell as its inflorescence opens.

Want to see Persephone in person? Take the Green Line directly to Conservatory–Central Park Drive. Follow the titan’s progress @gpconservatory #‎GPCPersephone‬.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When buckthorn moves in to the ecosystem, it dominates.

Imagine a friend invites you to a dinner party, promising a delicious spread of food and libations. You arrive, excited and hungry, only to find nothing but raw kale, brought by an uninvited guest. Regardless of your feelings about kale, this would be pretty underwhelming. The other guests are obviously disappointed about the monotonous spread. Most people leave, and because most people aren’t eating the kale, the kale continues to dominate the party. Even if someone brought in better foods that more people enjoy, there is no room on the tables. The kale is everywhere!

PHOTO: Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)

While not a perfect analogy, this anecdote relays the reasons why buckthorn invasion is detrimental to forest ecosystems. The dinner guests are like the other plants and animals that usually live in the woods. They have certain dietary needs, and if those needs cannot be met, they will have to leave and find another place to live. The more one species dominates (kale, or in many local forests, buckthorn) the fewer species can live there, leading to the ecological equivalent of a party that ends at 8:30, just as everyone was arriving. While it may be true that one person at the party really likes kale, it’s hardly fair for the preferences of that person to supersede everyone else’s needs. In the case of buckthorn, many have opposed its removal because that denies robins a berry that they enjoy. However, keeping the buckthorn (which doesn’t belong there in the first place) is like keeping all of the kale on the tables and not allowing for other foods to be served just for that one person. Even more frustrating, the person that likes kale has plenty of other dietary options. Kale isn’t even their favorite food!

PHOTO: The McDonald woods shows healthy filtered sunlight and native plant understory growth after buckthorn removal.

The McDonald woods shows healthy filtered sunlight and native plant understory growth after buckthorn removal.

To many people, the idea of cutting down trees to help forests grow stronger is counterintuitive. But buckthorn is no ordinary tree. It is an invasive species, meaning that it doesn’t belong in Chicago area forests, and it steals resources from the plants that are supposed to live here. So remember, when you hear people talking about cutting down buckthorn, they are actually doing it to make the habitat healthier and more inclusive in the long term. They are working to replace the kale at the party with better food and drinks, ensuring that all the guests that were invited can have a good time, staying up until sunrise.

Read more about our ongoing buckthorn battle, and see the difference removal makes in restoring an ecosystem.


Bob Sherman

Bob Sherman is an undergraduate studying environmental science at Northwestern University. His research interests include prairie restoration and how abiotic factors impact prairie and forest ecosystems. He hopes that his research will have a positive impact on ecosystem restoration and management.


Students in the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University Program in Plant Biology and Conservation were given a challenge: Write a short, clear explanation of a scientific concept that can be easily understood by non-scientists. This post is part of their series.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Butterflies & Blooms, we have a variety of butterfly species that fall under the genus Heliconius. This fascinating group is commonly referred to as the longwings.

Longwings are native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World. This includes South America, Central America, and the southern United States. Florida’s state butterfly, the zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia), has been found as far north as South Carolina.

Zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconius charithonia)

Zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconius charithonia)

Despite their diminutive size, zebra longwings are noted for their long lifespans, which can be several months rather than several days or weeks. This is thanks to their ability to use pollen as a food source. Unlike nectar, pollen is rich in protein, and this healthy diet allows them to remain fertile for a longer period of time.

Mimicry in butterflies illustrated on these plates showing four forms of Heliconius numata, two forms of H. melpomene, and the two corresponding mimicking forms of H. erato. Image by see Source, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mimicry in butterflies illustrated on these plates showing four forms of Heliconius numata, two forms of H. melpomene, and the two corresponding mimicking forms of H. erato. Image by see Source [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Heliconians are also known to be very “intelligent” and social insects. They roost together in large groups, respect their elders by giving them the best roosting spots, and even wake each other up in the morning by gently nudging one another. At Butterflies & Blooms, you can usually find them comingling in loose groups called “flutters,” roosting in long rows on our serviceberry trees, or even mating.

Like Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands, the Heliconians have provided evolutionary biologists with a wealth of information and are studied more than any other butterfly. In the Amazon, Heliconians hybridize, form subspecies and local phenotypes, and mimic one another, confounding even the most seasoned lepidopterists.

Longwings have a unique and bizarre mating tactic called pupal mating that is not seen in most butterflies. Males will seek out female pupae and insert their abdomens into the chrysalids, fertilizing the females’ eggs before the butterflies finish emerging from the pupal stage. Scientists are currently studying the evolutionary effects that this tactic may have.

A Heliconius erato male is attracted by pheromones of a female pupa. He waits until she starts to emerge to attempt mating. Photo ©Holger Klee via Flickr.

A Heliconius erato male is attracted by pheromones of a female pupa. He waits until she starts to emerge to attempt mating. Photo ©Holger Klee via Flickr.

At Butterflies & Blooms we always have Heliconians flying around. You may find the postman, zebra longwing, Doris longwing, and many others. Ask us where to find them and we’ll point you in the right direction. Until next time, enjoy the gardens and keep your antennae up for future updates.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org