Budding and flowering trees and shrubs—redbud, plum, spirea, almond—are among the great joys of spring. Under the calm and creative eye of Field & Florist’s Heidi Joynt, we learned to turn those branches into lovely, living wreaths in a perfectly timed class at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Spring blooming wreaths included “delicate” branches like those shown here.
Most Chicago-area yards have a flowering shrub or tree, much admired when it bursts into bloom in spring. While some intrepid gardeners know to cut early branches to force bloom indoors, Joynt takes the idea in a different direction—in a circle, with living branches forming a perfect-for-the-front-door wreath.
Imagine walking out into your yard, pruning a cluster of branch tips—plus a large branch or two—then starting to fill in an 8- to 12-inch grapevine or curly willow wreath (purchased or handmade). That’s how surprisingly simple the process is.
As everyone clipped and pondered and designed, Joynt offered helpful wreath-making and wreath-tending tips:
Larger branches of redbud, crabapple, forsythia, double almond, or plum can be strategically wired onto the wreath to create a focal point.
Add delicate curly willow or birch catkins at the center and the outer edges of your wreath. Bouncing and waving in the breeze, they add movement and interest to your design.
Hung on your front door, the living wreath can be spritzed with water once or twice a day to keep flowers fresh.
As flowers drop off or brown, pull the branches out of your wreath and replace them with the next blooming items in your yard. Fresh flowers like tulips and roses can also be inserted by placing them in flower tubes (available at florists and craft shops) and tucking them into the wreath.
Yes, silk flowers are an option. Joynt recommends www.shopterrain.com for extremely realistic flowering branches.
Amorphophallus remains a unique occupant in the world of plants, and visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden recently experienced the fascinating bloom cycle with the titan arum Sprout. However, there is an additional denizen of the Araceae (a.k.a. Aroid, a.k.a. Arum) family with rare and exceptional attributes, which can be seen blooming this very moment at the Garden.
Japanese cobra lily (Arisaema ringens) has an uncanny, serpent-shaped, flower and possesses a remarkable ability to do something which few other plants can do: change its gender from year to year.
Arisaema species (jacks), are paradioecious, meaning the blooms of an individual plant can be male one year and female the next. Young plants will produce male flowers with pollen until they are mature enough to produce fruit. When they have accumulated enough energy to fruit, they will produce a female flower that will hopefully become pollinated.
However, after an exhausting round of fruit set, the plant may take a break and produce male flowers the next year. Producing pollen, rather than fruit, saves energy. Unhealthy conditions or damage to a female flowering plant can also cause it to produce male flowers the next time around.
Basically, Japanese cobra lilies change sex for a period of time to save energy and allow themselves time to recover.
Like all species of Arisaema, the flowers of Japanese cobra lily have a spathe (pulpit) with a spadix (jack) inside. The pulpit is striped purple with white on the outside while the interior is a dark, shiny chocolate color. What is different about the blossom of Japanese cobra lily is that the hood of the spathe is curved and helmet-like, with the tip covering the front of the opening where which jack resides. This formation produces the startling look of snake eyes.
One of the first jacks to emerge in spring, cobra lily flowers can last eons in the cool spring weather.
Fortunately, the blossom does not have the noticeable unpleasant odor that a corpse flower has, but it still manages to attract the flies and beetles that do their bidding. In physical appearance, Arisaema ringens is similar to our native jack-in-the-pulpit; however, the entire plant is more robust with a pair of giant, polished trifoliate leaves, creating an almost tropical appearance for a Midwest garden. The overall height is two feet tall. Female plants can produce bright reddish-orange berries in late summer and early fall, extending the show.
As with most Arisaema species, Japanese cobra lily hails from China, Japan, and Korea. It is one of the easiest to grow, and perhaps the best garden subject for the Chicago area. They are pricey to buy; however, the flying saucer-shaped tubers will bulk up quickly in a rich woodsy soil.
There are warnings against growing them in heavy clay, but the Garden has terribly dense soils and our planting has performed nicely. Keeping conditions moist and shady in the summer will prevent an early dormancy. Another bonus is that Arisaema ringens are deer resistant because the leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals, which make them smelly, poisonous, and irritating to chew.
If you would like to see Japanese cobra lilies during your visit, just head down the lower woodland path of the Sensory Garden. You can also search for them via the Garden’s Plant Finder.
On Tuesday, April 24, #CBGSprout raised a big stink at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Our day included these snapshots of the early morning visitors to the rare phenomenon of a corpse flower in full bloom.
We chatted with the early birds and met some “regulars”—visitors who had come by to meet Spike, the Garden’s first titan arum on display last August, and Alice, the corpse flower that bloomed last September.
Carrie Kirchen of Deerfield visited this morning, along with Maxwell, age 9, and Lexi, age 6.
Lexi: It smells horrible.
Maxwell: We found out on the Internet. The Internet knows everything.
Lexi: It’s very stinky.
Maxwell: It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it. And it is very stinky.
Carrie: I happened to see the Facebook post. And we were here every day for Spike (a titan arum that previously was on display at the Garden).
Jamie Smith of Highland Park was here with Harper, 14 months old, as well as Susan and Jim Osiol of Mt. Prospect.
Jamie: We keep coming! Third time is the charm.
Susan: I’m obsessed. Our daughter called first thing this morning: ‘Mom, Sprout is blooming!’
Jim: It is vibrant. It’s a piece of nature that’s fascinating.
Megan and Daniel Ladror of Chicago analyzed the smell:
Daniel: This smells like our garbage at home after two days.
Megan: It’s such a rare event. I’m excited to see one without waiting in line.
Emily Rosenberg of Highland Park loved the bloom:
Emily: Beautiful. It is so interesting with the spathe (modified frilly leaf). It has great textures.
Michelle and Haley Nordstrom, who live five minutes from the Garden:
Michelle (who was watching the livestream at the school bus stop with her daughter when she realized that Sprout was blooming; they jumped in the car): I took a photo of Sprout and sent it to my daughter’s school and said, “We’re going to be late.”
Visitors Roberta Stack, Joanna Wozniak, and Apple, age 7:
Roberta: I’ve been watching it in the camera and saw it open. I ran right down.
Apple: Pretty smelly.
Joanna: I’m catching a cheesey whiff. A bit of Parmesan.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is on #TitanWatch. That’s right: if you visit the Garden’s Semitropical Greenhouse, you will see Sprout, the latest corpse flower from the Garden’s collection of 13 titan arums to begin a bloom cycle.
You might remember Spike and Alice in 2015: Spike failed to bloom but provided so much excitement; and Alice the Amorphophallus brought visitors to the Garden at all hours to see, and smell, a corpse flower in bloom. Now we are all watching Sprout to see if the corpse flower—known as a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum)— will produce a huge, rotten bloom. Follow the progress of #CBGSprout on our corpse flower webcam and check our website for updates.
We learned a lot about corpse flowers in the last few months, and in the Semitropical Greenhouse, there are corpse flowers at three different stages on display: in the middle of a bloom cycle (Sprout); a non-blooming titan arum leaf; and a pollinated and fruiting titan arum (it’s Alice!).
Here’s what you need to know as you watch Sprout grow:
The corpse flower is one of the largest and rarest flowering plants in the world. It takes seven to ten years for a single corpse flower to produce a flowering structure (inflorescence). While other corpse flowers in cultivation have bloomed around the world recently, having more than one plant bloom in such a short time is uncommon. Watch for these signs the titan arum bloom is starting.
Speaking of night, that’s when corpse flowers usually bloom. And once they bloom, the bloom lasts 24 to 36 hours. Want a sneak peek? View our last titan arum bloom.
If Sprout blooms, the Garden will stay open until 2 a.m. so visitors can experience the corpse flower bloom up close (last Garden entry will be 1 a.m.). Watch the live corpse flower webcam, check the blog (subscribe today), and follow the Garden on Facebook and #CBGSprout on Twitter to get the latest information.
Corpse flowers are BIG. In their natural habitats, they can reach 10 to 12 feet tall with a bloom diameter of 5 feet. In cultivation, they typically reach 6 to 8 feet in height, but all are different.
Corpse flowers are unpredictable. When the Garden was watching Spike, the first titan arum, even the horticulturists were surprised that the plant did not flower.
Corpse flowers are native to Sumatra, but Sprout was grown here from seed the Garden received in 2008 from the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Learn about the titan arum’s native habitat.
The corpse flower includes the corm, which may or may not go on to produce a flower; the spadix, which is the tall flower spike; the spathe, which is a single, frilly, modified leaf that enwraps the spadix; the petiole, which is the leaf stalk; and the branch-like rachis, which supports the many leaflets. Find more diagrams and information in our titan arum educator resources.
Corpse flowers that bloom in the wild attract pollinators like carrion beetles and flesh flies. Once the plant is successfully pollinated, it develops olive-shaped, red-orange berries. Read more about titan arum pollination.
Corpse flowers need protection. The Garden’s conservation work ensures that plants like these survive and thrive. Studying seeds from Sprout, Spike, and Alice enables scientists and horticulturists at universities, conservatories, and other institutions increase the genetic diversity of the species. See how we are studying our titan arum fruit.
While working out in the woods this winter, a small lump on the branch of a young elm tree caught my attention. At first I thought it might be a gall, or an injury that had healed-over. On closer inspection, the lump turned out to be a ruby-throated hummingbird nest from last summer.
Although I see hummingbirds regularly at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I rarely encounter one of their nests. Hummingbirds themselves are amazing, but their nests are truly a marvel of avian architecture. Not much larger in diameter than a quarter, they are just large enough to hold the one to three navy bean-sized eggs of the hummer. For the pint-sized bird to be able to keep the tiny eggs warm during incubation requires that the nest be not much larger than her body.
This is all well and good until the eggs hatch. Growing young hummingbirds can double or triple the amount of room necessary to hold the family. One of the ways the hummingbirds get around this need for flexibility is that they construct the nest of soft plant fibers and then wrap the whole thing with spiderweb silk. This creates an elastic nest that has the ability to expand as the contents of the nest increases. Can you imagine yourself going out and plucking a strand of sticky silk from a spider web with your fingers and then trying to use it to build something out of lightweight fuzzy plant fibers? I imagine you might find yourself wrapped up in a ball like some sort of oversized grotesque moth cocoon. The silk also helps to anchor the nest to the top surface of a horizontal branch.
Keeping the nest just the right size as the need arises helps to keep the growing youngsters warm and secure. In the western states where several species of hummingbirds nest, often at higher elevations, it is not only important to keep the nestlings warm, but also the incubating female, especially at night. Therefore, it is often the case that hummingbirds in these colder situations will locate their nests on a limb with an overhanging branch acting as a sort of roof to help block the nest from the night sky.
Although this measure helps reduce heat loss, it is often the case that nesting females will go into a state of torpor (reduced physiological activity to lower body temperature) in order to conserve energy on particularly cold nights. This is a principle of physics in which the larger the difference in temperature between objects, the faster the heat flows from the warmer one to the cooler one. Therefore, a hummingbird with a lower body temperature will lose heat more slowly than the one with a warmer body. As I stated earlier, hummingbirds are amazing!
Part of the reason—besides size—I had not noticed the nest earlier is that the birds do a fantastic job of camouflaging it. This also relates to the spiderweb silk. Some or all of the silk used is sticky. Upon completion of nest construction, the birds collect bits of lichen and attach them to the sticky strands on the outside of the nest. Interestingly, the birds seem to always use the same species of lichen, one that goes by the name of Parmelia sulcata.
Parmelia sulcata is a light greenish-gray lichen with a leafy (foliose) appearance. One of our more common lichens, it is often seen on the upper branches of trees, and was particularly abundant on the ash trees that died from emerald ash borer. I don’t know if the birds chose this species of lichen in particular or, being common, it is just found most often. It is also interesting that the birds seem to apply the lichens to the nest in an upright position, with the top facing outward, so they look like they could be growing on the nest.
Although this process is fascinating, it is not restricted to hummingbirds. One of the other breeding birds at the Garden utilizes a very similar nest construction technique to hold its three to five small eggs. The blue-gray gnatcatcher, another tiny bird (that somewhat resembles a miniature catbird in appearance and sound), also constructs a nest out of soft plant fibers, including spiderwebs, and applies lichen to the outside of its nest. A nest of this species, a little larger than that of a hummingbird, was found on a branch of one of the locust trees growing in a Garden parking lot.
If you’re lucky, you might find the nest of one of these birds during the nesting season, but if not, keep an eye out for little bumps, lumps, and knobs on bare branches in winter. You might get lucky.
Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View our list of upcoming events for free events near you.