Archives For Erica Masini

Meditative, artful, and transporting. In a way, the experience of seeing Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show is much like ikebana, the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging. On display now through March 25, this new feature of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show invites you to pause and reflect on this historic art form.


Ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging.

The practice of ikebana (ee-kay-bah-nah), also called kado (or, the “way of flowers”), dates back approximately 600 years. Originally, men and women arranged flowers as Buddhist offerings for altars at temples. Since then, ikebana has established itself as an art form beyond religious ritual, and is often seen displayed in people’s homes. 

Though it is now a secular practice, ikebana carries deep philosophical meaning. When arranging flowers in the ikebana style, the arranger is invited to remain silent. The silence creates a meditative space for the artist to connect with and appreciate nature more closely. For ikebana floral designer and Garden volunteer Shelley Galloway, the connection between nature and person is key.

Orchid ikebana display

Ikebana with Phalaenopsis orchids and ferns

“Love of nature, the desire to convey the inner essence of the plant material, and the ability to give a personal interpretation reflecting the artist’s own view of the world are all important components of ikebana,” said Galloway.

Although ikebana designs can be created with all kinds of flowers, the designs on display at this year’s Orchid Show feature the main event: orchids. 

“Unusual orchid varieties were most attractive to my eye for use in the ikebana arrangements,” said Galloway. “The Garden provided us with some very tiny colorful orchid plants whose arching stem structure gave me the shape I wanted to echo.”

The art of ikebana is more than simply putting pretty flowers in a vase. Ikebana is known for its distinct asymmetrical style and the use of empty space. Attention to harmony and balance is key, as in many other traditional Japanese art forms. Ikebana is also customarily taught by a teacher, who instructs you how to insert flowers into a base or container.


Harmony and asymmetry are hallmarks of the ikebana style.

At the Orchid Show, artists from three schools, or styles, of ikebana created the compositions on display. The arrangements reflect balance and the beauty of nature, as interpreted by the schools of Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu.

  • Ikenobo —The oldest school of ikebana, Ikenobo is based in Kyoto, Japan. It features classic and contemporary styles, and observes the belief that flowers reflect the passing of time.
  • Ohara —The Ohara school of ikebana focuses on the natural world. It emphasizes seasonal changes, and invites its students to observe nature and the growth processes of plant materials.
  • Sogetsu —The Sogetsu school considers ikebana a practice accessible to people of all cultures—not only Japanese. It aims to spread appreciation of the art form all over the world.

The Chicago Botanic Garden celebrates this timeless art form at three ikebana shows annually. The first show is happening now at the Orchid Show, through March 25. The Ikenobo Ikebana Chicago Chapter Show will be held August 25 to 26, 2018. The Sogetsu School of Illinois Ikebana Sogetsu Exhibition will be held September 8 to 9, 2018.

Orchid Show entry display

See Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; join us for our final Orchids After Hours on March 15 and 22, from 4 to 8 p.m.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

So You Want to Buy Your First Houseplant

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  February 12, 2018 — 7 Comments

Soil has spilled all over my kitchen floor. It happened while I was dumping another withered plant—this time, a sad collard green—from its pot into the trash. The mess, and the funeral, is for a good cause though.

Today, I bravely enter new territory: My neighborhood garden center, where I will adopt my first, fledgling plant family. You might remember my pledge to become a better plant parent from the first post in this series. Now, my adventure begins.

Erica's starter plant family

My new plant family. Aww.

For moral (and horticultural) support, I’ve asked Wade Wheatley to be my fearless guide. Wheatley, the Garden’s tropical greenhouse horticulturist, knows a thing or two about indoor plants. His love for all things botanical began back in fourth grade, when his grandmother gifted him a clipping of one of her many houseplants. When the clipping grew into its own plant, “It blew my fourth-grade mind,” he said.

wade_wNow, Wheatley has—count them—almost 70 houseplants. He even keeps an Excel spreadsheet to track the Latin name of each plant, where it came from, its parentage, care preferences, and age. An Excel spreadsheet, you guys. This man is not messing around.

For the likes of me, Wheatley recommends a more forgiving collection of starter plants. For those of us new to this plant parenting thing, starter plants can survive on low maintenance care, even benign neglect. They’re independent teens who don’t like too much attention. When you pick them up from school and ask them about their day, they say, “Fine.”

With help from Wheatley, I plan a crew of tropical plants that would do well in my small studio. Most houseplants are native to tropical or subtropical habitats where temperatures remain above freezing, which means they can survive year-round in our warm homes. My apartment is hardly freezing (the overactive radiators make sure of that) and I have two windowsills—an east-facing one with bright, direct light, and a west-facing one with low, indirect light. I also have a cat who, although she cannot be bothered with houseplants, I don’t want to accidentally poison.

With my beginner-level skills and apartment limits in mind, here’s what Wheatley recommends:

Six Starter Plants for the New Plant Parent

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Now that I’ve watered this ZZ plant, maybe I’ll grab a glass for myself…

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
Meet ZZ, the poster child of starter plants. “ZZ plants can handle dryness if you forget to water them, and are unbothered by low light levels (though bright is better),” said Wheatley. A good rule of thumb is, if you think you should water ZZ, wait a day, and then wait three more days. This guy likes it dry, so I’ll plan to put him in my west-facing window.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)

“Praying” this plant makes it. I really like it in this spot.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura)
Known for its variegated foliage, or funky leaf patterns, the prayer plant’s leaves move. At night, the leaves respond to the dark by gradually turning up, then folding back down during the day. Plus, they’re easy to care for. “The prayer plant can handle it pretty dark, but likes even soil moisture,” said Wheatley. When the top ½ inch of soil feels dry, I’ll give it a drink.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Spider plant’s runners can be cut and replanted very easily.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Arachnophobes, fear not. Spider plants are easy to grow and do well without much water. “Spider plants can go a little drier, and make a fun hanging basket if you let its runners spill over the side of the pot,” said Wheatley. Never mind that they look like spiders dangling by a thread above your head. Just go to sleep.

Aloe hybrid

I love this aloe’s gorgeous bloom.

Aloe (Aloe hybrid)
Though I was a little afraid the coral flowers make for a good cat toy, Wheatley told me not to worry. “Aloe isn’t poisonous, should your cat find it tasty,” he said. “It requires a lot of light, but it’s very drought tolerant.” Read: Aloes love neglect.

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)

Flamingo flower & east-facing window: check!

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)
An easy way to add color to your home, anthuriums bloom bold red and pink flowers. “Anthuriums are generally problem-free and easy to grow. They can handle a wide range of light but would probably do best in a bright, east-facing window,” said Wheatley.

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)

So. Fuzzy. In love with this succulent already.

Mexican firecracker succulent (Echeveria setosa)
Succulents can be deceivingly tricky to care for. They thrive on dryness, so most people kill them by over-watering. This is another one for my bright, east-facing window sill.

Armed with Wheatley’s advice, I push open the greenhouse door at my local plant center, and my glasses fog up. Water trickles into a nearby koi fish pond, and birds chirp softly in a cage. I unwrap my scarf. An employee spots me wiping my lenses and asks, “Do you need help?” My plant blindness is showing—literally.

The employee points me to an aisle of easy-to-care-for, relatively-indestructible, can’t-possibly-mess-this-up plants. People go about their work around me, tending to the shelves of anthuriums, cacti, and orchids. They seem to have a peaceful glow to them, and I wonder how long it’ll be until I’m gliding around my own apartment, watering my plants in a blissed-out state. Science says nature makes us happier, after all. It’s only a matter of time.

Follow along with Plant Parenthood as I track the success of my starter plant family.

After assembling my plant gang, I ask Wheatley if there was anything else I should grab. Do I need pots? (No. You should only repot a plant after at least one year.) Do I need plant food? (Sure! General all-purpose fertilizers will do the trick. Just follow the instructions.) Seems easy enough. I grab my bag of plants, and turn to go.

“Wait!” An employee hands me another bag of wrapped plants. “You almost forgot half your kids.”

Next: Tips for keeping an eye on the “kids.”

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Does This Houseplant Make Me Look Like an Adult?

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  January 17, 2018 — 8 Comments

Hi, my name is Erica. I’m a bad plant parent.

The irony that I work at the Chicago Botanic Garden is not lost on me. (Please don’t fire me, plant bosses.) The problem is, I have no idea how to take care of plants. Not really.

Erica Masini, blog author and plant parent

I have no idea what I’m doing.

Walk into my apartment and tell me what you see: A wasteland of unsuspecting money trees and innocent spiderworts. A drooping pothos in the corner, desperate for water. Squeezing the life out of my little green pals does not bring me joy. And yet, here I am, a lone wolf among my jungalow-dwelling, millennial peers: A plant-killer.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever asked these questions: Does my monstera prefer direct sun? Will an aloe vera kill my cat? What if I get too caught up in my very important plans (read: binging Mindhunter on Netflix) that I forget to water my fern every day? Why would I even want a plant? (More on that later).

One of my goals is to have more life in my home; to lay down some roots, so to speak (plant-pun intended). And so I invite you to follow along with me as I chronicle my gardening adventures in Plant Parenthood—a blog series about growing a relationship with plants.

With the Garden’s horticulture staff as my guide, I’ll learn the ins and outs of soil, pests, and shade. I’ll make mistakes. I’ll definitely kill more plants.

But along the way, I’ll learn something. And I hope you will, too.

TL;DR? Click here for the “Three Things Every New #PlantParent Should Know”

A wee "air plant"

One thing I’ve learned so far is I’m not the only young person new to gardening. The 2016 National Gardening Report found of the six million Americans new to gardening, five million of them were 18- to 34-year-olds. Millennials, according to a widely shared Washington Post article last year, are gardening indoors because they’ve moved to small, urban apartments and crave nature. Look no further than Instagram to see the evidence: hashtags like #urbanjungle and #jungalow call up all sorts of gauzy photos of apartments brimming with foliage.

What’s more: These plant parents seem genuinely proud to show off their blossoming, plant-baby families. How do they do it, I wonder? Where is a recovering plant-ignoramus to start?

I went to Fred Spicer for advice. As executive vice president and director of the Garden, he understands plants. Plus, he wears a gardening hat 80 percent of the time, so I figure he must know something.

Fred Spicer, executive vice president and director of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Fred Spicer, plant guru

Turns out “plant blindness”—or the inability to notice, appreciate, and understand plants—is a common problem among humans. The term was coined in 1998 by botanist-educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler, who argued humans generally connect more with animals, despite the fact that plants fuel all life on earth. Think back to grade school science class, when you first learned about photosynthesis and plant biology. Have you thought much about it since? I began to worry about the imbalance of affection toward my cat versus my definitely dead lemon cypress.

“Humans generally don’t think too much about plants, unless we’re eating them,” said Spicer. “We’re animals, our pets are animals, we generally know what animals want. Plants are different. They don’t have the same biology we do. So they’re mysterious to us.”

For instance, plants aren’t active, at least not in the way animals are active. Their activity happens on a different timeline than ours. Humans pay attention to big and rapid changes, like when the leaves change during the fall, or when trees are bare in winter. But the small things, like a budding leaf, we don’t always stop to notice.

OK, so plants aren’t animals. How, then, do I begin to understand them?

Here’s what Spicer recommends:

Three things every new #PlantParent should ask:

  1. Light — No houseplant lives in the dark. Spicer asks whether your living space is plant hospitable: Do you have natural light? Are there places in your home that get more direct/indirect light? If not, are you open to artificial lighting, like grow lamps?
  2. Maintenance — How much do you want to interact with your plants? “Do you want to fuss with them every day? Do you want to be able to leave them for a week? Some plants need more attention than others,” said Spicer. Be realistic about how much time and energy you can spend.
  3. Purpose — What do you want to get out of your plants? Spicer asks: “Do you want to eat them? Do you want to see flowers? Do you want to create a particular design aesthetic?” Knowing your goals can help you pick the right plants.

As I sit with these questions, I think about a plant I picked up from the Garden last week. It was an azalea, a small shrub with white flowers that look like snowflakes. Left over from a recent exhibition, it most likely would die within a week, but nevertheless, as I placed it in the backseat of my car to take it home, I caught myself reaching for the seat belt. I almost buckled it in. Maybe plant parenthood won’t be so unnatural after all.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Many of the display gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden may be sleeping this time of year, but our horticulturists definitely are not. They’re hard at work during snowy winters, thinking about all the new plants and planning for the New Year.

The Garden in Winter

We asked a few horticulturists for their gardening resolutions for 2018—whether at the Chicago Botanic Garden, or in their own backyard. Feel free to snag one of their ideas for yourself.

Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden

Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden
Some of my New Year’s resolutions are to clean and sharpen my tools, start a compost pile with my kitchen scraps, pet more bumble bees, and sit on a garden bench every day. Okay, maybe every week. Well, at least every month. Baby steps. Baby steps.

Michael Jesiolowski, senior horticulturist, Entrance Gardens

Michael Jesiolowski, senior horticulturist, entrance gardens
I want to include more bulbs in my perennial plantings. Bulbs might not be the first thing that comes to mind when going plant shopping, but they can be used to complement perennials in bloom or massed on their own to make a bold statement. How about an early summer combo of Allium ‘Globemaster’ and Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’? Hmmm…

Ayse Pogue, senior horticulturist, Japanese Garden

Ayse Pogue, senior horticulturist, Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden
My New Year’s resolution is to apply the principles of the  soil initiative the Garden has just begun. I am very excited to learn more about how to take care of our soils properly and, in the meantime, increase the vigor and resiliency of our plants.

Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist, Rose Garden, Heritage Garden, and Linden Allee

Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist, Krasberg Rose Garden, Heritage Garden, and Linden Allee
For me, plants with especially unique leaf characteristics such as color, shape, and variegation have recently piqued my interest. I’ll be on the hunt in 2018 for more plant ideas that express these characteristics. Distinctive plants inspire my seasonal designs in the Heritage Garden.

Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, Greenhouses

Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, Greenhouses
My horticultural New Year’s resolution is to be a better plant dad to my houseplants. Since I spend the day at work taking care of the tropical plants at the Garden, it is sometimes difficult to maintain enthusiasm to come home and keep watering plants. However, I know that when I am more attentive to my houseplants they thrive and brighten up my living space.

Tom Weaver, horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden and Waterfall Garden

Tom Weaver, horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden and Waterfall Garden
My New Year’s resolution for my home garden is to be less stressed out when my dog, Pepin, tries to help me by digging holes all over the garden. I chose this because she loves to dig and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop her, so I might as well use the help and make use of the holes she’s digging!

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Over the river and through the woods you trekked to find the perfect, most lush Christmas tree (okay, maybe you drove to the nearest retail lot and pointed at that one). Now that you picked your evergreen, how do you make it last through the holidays (and possibly even longer)?

Keeping your tree fresh isn’t hard—most can live up to a month—as long as you follow some simple rules of evergreen thumb. Get it? Horticulturist Tom Weaver explains how to get the most life out of your tree in a few easy steps.


Pick a fresh tree
If you’re shopping for pre-cut live trees at a nursery or retail lot, never buy a bagged tree, says Weaver. It’s harder to know whether the tree is fresh if it’s wrapped in netting. The best way to tell which pre-cut tree will last longest is to do the “shake test.” Grab a tree by its trunk and give it a little jostle. If more than handful of the tree’s needles fall off, you may want to keep looking. Also, make sure the needles are firm, flexible, and dark green—not dry, brown, and brittle. Firs keep their needles longest, but there are many kinds of evergreens to choose from.

Give the stump a fresh cut
If you purchase a tree at a location less than 20 minutes from your home, ask for the tree stump to be cut ½ to 1 inch while at the retailer. If you’re commuting more than 20 minutes with tree in tow, make the cut yourself at home. When a tree sits in a lot, its stump creates a callus to prevent it from losing water and sap. A fresh cut allows the tree to absorb water more easily. Make sure the cut is perpendicular, not at an angle or pointed.

Watering rules
As soon as you get your tree home, plunge it in a bucket of room-temperature water until you’re ready to put it in a tree stand. Make sure the tree stand reservoir can hold enough water for the size of tree you picked—Christmas trees generally drink a quart of water a day per 1 inch diameter of the tree’s stem. Most drink up to a gallon a day. Don’t let the water dish run dry!

To feed or not to feed?
Although some tree experts say water is plenty, Weaver recommends adding Christmas tree food to the mix. “Think of it as a giant cut flower,” said Weaver. “You’ll have better luck extending the life of your tree with some food.”

Step away from the heat
Though you’ll likely want to snuggle up next to the fire to gaze lovingly at your tree, the tree doesn’t share this wish. Position it far away from any heat source (fireplaces, furnaces, radiators, and heating vents), because heat speeds up the drying out process. Not only will that mean your tree will die sooner, but a dry tree is also a big fire hazard. Show your tree some love by keeping it in a cool place, and you’ll enjoy its piney scent through the New Year.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and