Archives For June 2017

On a walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, you are likely to encounter dozens of woody plants—short, tall, flowering, or simply lending structural beauty to a landscape. It’s OK to have a favorite. Phillip Douglas, the Garden’s new curator of woody plants, is not shy about listing his top picks.

Spending his first summer in Glencoe, Douglas is especially taken with the variety of oaks at the Garden. The horticulturist points out the deep purple leaves on the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’) in the meadow east of the English Walled Garden, and the cutleaf emperor oak (Quercus dentata var. pinnatifida) growing near the road south of the Regenstein Learning Campus.

English oak (Quercus robur 'Purpurascens')

The deep purple leaves of the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’)

He favors the narrow, upright Regal Prince oak (Quercus × warei ‘Long’)—in the rainwater glen on the southeast corner of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center—for smaller landscapes. He describes Regal Prince as a hybrid oak that is columnar in shape. Along with a similar hybrid, Kindred Spirit (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’), it is readily available in nurseries. “The big push in the industry now is hybrid oaks that are fastigiate (column-like) trees,” he explained. “If someone would like an upright oak in a home landscape, either is a good option to consider.”

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus x warei 'Nadler')

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’). Photo by Joshnadler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Douglas credits his fascination with the oak species as his entry point into the field of horticulture. During an internship at the Boone County Arboretum in Kentucky, “I started getting interested in oaks, started collecting oaks for my house, and the obsession grew from there,” he said. The outdoors has always been a part of his life, from growing up in Kentucky close to water and woods, to his years as a Marine. His transition into horticulture felt natural, he said.

Douglas is eager to share his knowledge with Garden visitors and to help build the woody plants collection.

“Woody plants fulfill such a role for us and for the environment,” he said. “They provide so much for us, and they really fulfill an important niche in our landscapes.” The benefits of such plants include providing shade, reducing storm water runoff, and providing habitat for animals and insects.

“Oak is an incredibly enormous, diverse genus,” Douglas said. “There are about 500 species that grow all over the world. You can have anything from a very small shrub to large trees that can be thousands of years old.”

Among his first projects are the development of the oak and willow collections, and a review of all such plants already on-site.

Douglas will also be helping to organize trips to collect plants in the wild with Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Garden and director of plant collections. Collecting trips are planned for the summer and then fall to domestic and international locations with similar growing climates to Chicago.

“Both his passion and previous collecting experiences will be immediately useful in two collecting trips Phil is helping coordinate to Kentucky and Tennessee and Azerbaijan,” said Bunting, who was delighted to welcome Douglas to his team in April. “Phil Douglas has been a wonderful addition to the collections teams at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  He brings extensive woody plant knowledge to the Garden, especially with the genera Magnolia, Quercus, and Populus.”

The Chicago Botanic Garden's new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

The Garden’s new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

Back in his office in the Horticulture Building, Douglas is surrounded by plans for the near future. On the desk sit outlines for wild-collecting trips. Just outside of his window, construction continues on a new garden. His first months in Glencoe have been both overwhelming and energizing. “I like the variety of the things that I get to do, and I’m excited to help develop the collections and to add to the Garden,” he said.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Butterflies & Blooms has moved to the Regenstein Learning Campus and I have good feeling it’s going to be the best season yet, because we currently have a plethora of butterfly species native to Brazil. The Chicago Botanic Garden is celebrating Brazil in the Garden this summer, and Butterflies & Blooms is part of the celebration. 

Since we first opened Butterflies & Bloomswe have sought to display the most beautiful butterflies in the world, both exotic and domestic. Naturally, the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. A whopping 60 percent of this precious treasure lies within Brazil. Brazil is home to thousands of butterfly and moth species (in comparison, all of Europe has about 300 species), and scientists have only recorded a fraction of the Lepidoptera species of Brazil and the greater Amazon rainforest.

You can find dozens of butterflies native to Brazil and neighboring countries in the exhibit on any given day. Currently, we have beauties such as the giant owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) and its close relative, the forest mort bleu (Caligo eurilochus). These two butterflies are often confused with moths because of their earth-toned camouflage and also because they are usually found resting on a shady tree branch during the heat of the day.

Large tiger butterfly (Lycorea cleobaea)

The large tiger butterfly (Lycorea cleobaea) thrives in the tropical rainforests of Brazil; find it here in Butterflies & Blooms. Photo ©Anne Belmont.

Blue morpho (Morpho peleides)

One of our most popular butterflies, the blue morpho (Morpho peleides) is another Brazilian native. Photo ©Anne Belmont.

Another pair of Brazilian butterflies that grace the exhibit are the grey cracker (Hamadryas feronia) and the starry cracker (Hamadryas laodamia), They are aptly named, since they can clap their wings while flying in order to make a percussive cracking sound as a means of communication. They use this talent when predators approach, to declare territory, and, of course, for mating. While the grey cracker blends into its environment with its intricate, drab coloration, the starry cracker is very showy, coated with brilliant blue specks on a dark blue field. Looking at it can feel like looking up into a starry night.

At Butterflies & Blooms, you can always find at least a few different species of longwing butterflies (Heliconius). Longwing butterflies have been extensively studied since Victorian times, because they display numerous forms of mimicry. In the late nineteenth century, the naturalist Henry Walter Bates traveled to Brazil and studied these butterflies. He noticed that Heliconius erato would mimic the coloration of other Heliconians, because they were poisonous. This particular form of mimicry was coined  “Batesian mimicry” after the naturalist. When Bates returned from Brazil, he used his findings to help support Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Postman butterfly (Heliconius erato)

One of the longwing butterflies common to Brazil is the postman butterfly (Heliconius erato). Photo ©Anne Belmont

Another naturalist by the name of Fritz Müller observed what became known as “Müllerian mimicry”—also while studying longwings in Brazil. In this case, he noted that multiple species of poisonous butterflies will adopt the same coloration, making it easier for them to be recognized as poisonous would-be predators. Müller’s studies also led him to support Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Amazon rainforest continues to be a scientific cornucopia to this day. The next time you visit Butterflies & Blooms, check out the owls, crackers, and longwings, and remember that they all represent the natural wonders of the Amazon rainforest and Brazil. Then take a walk through the Garden to discover more of the vibrant plants and colors of Brazil.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Alongside the stunning flora of Brazil, visitors to the Garden can taste the flavors of Brazil in two ways this summer.

The popular Garden Chef series, where visitors can watch cooking demonstrations by local chefs and sample the fare, will include Brazilian chefs and chefs from Brazilian-inspired restaurants cooking authentic dishes. Join us for Brazilian-themed demos at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. on the following dates:

  • June 17 – Jorgina Pereira from Sinhá
  • July 1 – Cristiane Pereira from Taste of Brazil Café
  • July 30 – John Manion from La Sirena Clandestina
  • September 10 – Tony Castillo from Longitud315

Visitors can also enjoy Brazilian flavors at the Garden View Café throughout the run of Brazil in the Garden. Favorites like caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil, and brigadeiro, a sweet, truffle-like dessert, will be served. Some regular menu items, including salads and pastries, have been reimagined to include flavors found in Brazilian cooking. Highlights from the menu include a misto quente sandwich, Brazilian beef picanha skewers, and Brazilian nut cake.

Brazilian Superfood Chopped Salad

Brazilian superfood chopped salad

Picanha Skewers

Picanha skewers

The Café’s Brazil-inspired menu items are as follows:

  • Brazilian superfood chopped salad: Baby kale and spinach, quinoa, fresh mango, broccoli, black beans, radishes, flax seed, Brazil nuts, orange-agave dressing
  • Citrus salmon salad: Local greens, hearts of palm, cherry tomato, Vidalia onion, spring onion, avocado, citrus vinaigrette
  • Misto quente sandwich: Applewood-smoked jamon (ham), queso blanco (white cheese), local tomato, oregano aioli, buttered brioche
  • Brazilian couscous salad and chicken salpicão sandwich at the grab-and-go bar

At the Garden Grille:

  • Brazilian beef picanha skewers: Grilled sirloin, zucchini, Vidalia onion, cilantro-lime rice, chimichurri
  • Brazilian caipirinha cocktail: Cachaça, fresh lime

Barista and Pastries:

  • Brazilian nut cake
  • Cocoa carob cookies
  • Brigadeiro
  • Acai fruit smoothie with banana, acai berry, blueberry, raspberry, almond milk
  • Summer mango smoothie with mango, banana, almond milk

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What comes to mind when conceptualizing a new garden design? Color? Absolutely. Soil and sun conditions? That’s a given. Texture? Sure thing. Two other components of plant selection that are of utmost importance are adding biodiversity and sustainability. Both of these elements are omnipresent in gravel gardens.

The origins of gravel gardening are rooted in Essex, EngIand, via Beth Chatto, Cassian Schmidt at the Hermannshof Garden in Germany, and Roy Diblik of Northwind Farm in Wisconsin. I was introduced to gravel gardens while I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Not only were gravel gardens featured at Olbrich Botanical Garden, but they were also on display at my previous place of employment, Epic Systems, in Verona, Wisconsin. Jeff Epping, the director of horticulture at Olbrich, established the gravel gardens at both Olbrich and Epic Systems, and has been very supportive in my mission to bring these types of gardens to the Chicago Botanic Garden.  

The heavy, clay-laden soils of the Chicago area are infamous to anyone who has gardened here. No one escapes the frustration the water-retaining properties of these soils causes. Midwestern gardeners often amend the soil in their home gardens. But amending soils in garden beds each season to improve plant health and drainage can also be an expensive endeavor for the home gardener.

The first step in prepping the beds: removing the top layer of soil.

The first step in prepping the beds is removing the top layer of soil.

This season, as a trial, we are converting ten island beds in parking lot 1 to gravel garden beds. These beds are covered by 4 to 5 inches of pea gravel. The gravel allows plants to grow in sharp drainage, which is a very desirable attribute when growing many native prairie plants or other dry-loving plants. Ours include coneflower  (Echinacea paradoxa), ‘Siskiyou Pink’ beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’), and ‘Red Rocks’ beardtongue (Penstemon x mexicali ‘Red Rocks’).

The key to establishing the plants in a gravel garden is to prevent the root balls from drying out until they have a chance to root down below the gravel layer. This means watering new plantings daily, or even twice daily if weather conditions dictate. Although a significant commitment to watering is required up front, watering can be reduced six to eight weeks after planting, and nearly eliminated after two years. In fact, with the exception of times of extreme drought, no supplemental watering was necessary for the gravel garden beds I managed at Epic Systems.

Gravel garden plantings include succulents and drought-hardy plants.

Plantings include succulents and drought-hardy plants. They will need careful monitoring at first, but once established, this bed will be a beautiful, low-maintenance garden.

Another benefit of growing plants in 4 to 5 inches of gravel? A significant reduction in the number of weeds! Since no soil exists in the top 4 to 5 inches of the bed, weeds don’t have a chance to root in. Maintaining this “sterile” environment is a matter of simply making sure old plant material is removed from the bed each spring, and that no organic material is left on the beds (which could potentially break down to humus).

Not only will these beds help to bring added color to the parking lots as they fill in, but they will also introduce new taxa to the Garden. Although these beds will be full of color in time, we will need patience in the short-term. The beds will take some time to establish, with only a few flowers this year, a bigger display next year, and with the beds hitting maturity in 2019. It is my hope that this patience will give way to something beautiful for years to come.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Using peonies as a cut flower for floral design is easy, with a few tricks to preserve the health of your plants and flowers.

Peonies are the queen of the garden during their blooming season. From late spring through early summer, there is a beautiful abundance of color and shapes blooming, depending on the variety. Finding a variety that is also fragrant adds to the reward of growing this exquisite flower.

Storing peony stems allows you to use early and mid-season blossoms together in an arrangement.

Storing peony stems allows you to use early and mid-season blossoms together in an arrangement.

Here are few tips to extend the bloom of cut peonies indoors.

When cutting flowers from your plants, be sure to leave at least two sets of leaves on the stem so that the plant can continue to thrive.

You can select flowers that are as open as you like, but for the best vase life, select buds that have just begun to open and feel similar to a marshmallow. 

Cut stems can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three weeks, butno fruit—such as apples—can be in the refrigerator with your peonies. The ethylene gas emitted by ripening fruit will cause petals to drop, and buds to wilt and fail to open. I store peony stems so that I can use early- and mid-season blossoms together in the same arrangement. (This is also a good safety net if you are hoping to use peonies for an event, but Mother Nature decided to allow the peonies to bloom early.)

I have success in storing blooms two ways. One is by placing cut stems in a clean vase of cool water in the refrigerator, making sure that low foliage is not in the water. This can be challenging because the height of the stems don’t always fit in the fridge very well. The other method is to cut the stems and place them lying down in a plastic bag with a dry paper towel to absorb moisture. Both methods require daily checks to replace the water in the vase or the paper towels. If any of the blossoms in the plastic bag grow moldy, the infected flowers should be discarded, and the remaining flowers placed in a clean plastic bag. If the buds droop, don’t worry—often they can be revived in a vase of warm water.

Got ants? Ants love the sweet nectar of peonies as they begin to open. I dunk the blossom end of the stem in cool, clean water for 30 seconds to rid the ants from the flower before bringing the flowers into the house.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org