Archives For Jacob Burns

A Paranormal Perennial

Jacob Burns —  October 20, 2015 — 4 Comments

I appreciate any cultivar name that invokes thoughts of my favorite holiday: Halloween.

It is fun to stumble upon some Gaillardia ‘Goblin’, Hemerocallis ‘Bela Lugosi’, or Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’ and suddenly wonder, “What should my costume be this year?” One perennial in particular has a designation so dark, it can conjure up a gruesome ghost story: 

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’
Side-flowering aster

PHOTO: Symphyotrichum lateriflorum 'Lady in Black' with frost.

A late-fall frost, not ghostly images, sets off Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’. Image courtesy Northcreek Nursery

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ was one of only seven asters to receive a five-star rating of excellence by Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The straight species, S. lateriflorum, was also among the seven, so you can see that this is one of the best asters for your garden.

The foliage of ‘Lady in Black’ is an almost black-purple color, enhanced in autumn by numerous sprays of teeny white daisies with pinkish-purple centers. A location in full sun or partial sun will produce the darkest foliage.

Side-flowered asters can grow three feet tall, and a striking effect is to plant it in front of Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) or any other shrub with amazing fall color.

“Lady in Black” also happens to be the popular name for a mournful soul who haunts Fort Warren, located on George’s Island in Boston Harbor.

The myth goes like this:

In 1862, Mrs. Melanie Lanier of South Carolina tried to rescue her husband, who had become imprisoned at the fort during the Civil War. On a stormy night in January, she rowed across the freezing water with nothing more than a pickax and an old pistol. She chopped off her hair and disguised herself in men’s clothing. She snuck her way to the prison cells and signaled to her husband by whistling a Southern refrain. He signaled back, and quickly she found a way to squeeze through the bars of his cell window.

Worried about seeing the Lady in Black?

PHOTO: Victorian Lady in Black wearing mourning jewelry and clothing.

Pick your superstition: In Victorian times, seeing an owl during the day, finding a single snowdrop flower in your garden or witnessing a sparrow land on a piano all foretold imminent death.

After weeks of tunneling underground with the pickax, they were discovered. Mrs. Lanier shocked the guards and tried to shoot a Union officer with her pistol. However, the antiquated weapon backfired, and some shrapnel ended up killing her husband. She was captured, tried, and hung a month later.

Just before her death, she was given a black robe, the closest thing to a dress they could find. Visitors to George’s Island now claim to see a woman in this same black robe. The Lady in Black has been known to appear in photos, and her moans have even scared away fishermen.

Not spooked? These creepy (or dangerous) plants might do the trick!


While I’m fairly certain that the Dutch breeders who named Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ were not familiar with this particular ghost story, you can’t help but wonder if they were not aware of some other spirit dressed in dark garb, drifting or moaning down the paths of their garden.

So the next time you notice an eerie cultivar name like Geranium phaeum ‘Stillingfleet Ghost’, Hemerocallis ‘Snowy Apparition‘ or Eupatorium dubium ‘Phantom’, try not to get shivers down your spine.

PHOTO: "The Fly" Halloween costume.

The author as pollinator and (much) larger-than-life pest

Get your costumes on and discover more spooky fun in the Garden at HallowFest and the Spooky Pooch Parade! Corpse flower costumes, anyone?

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

September Shorties

Jacob Burns —  September 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

Fall bloomers are already stealing the show and, while they are colorful, it is largely due to their size.

By the time many of these perennials bloom, they are so tall that they often need to be staked. Not to mention, some end up having unsightly “legs” from shedding lower leaves. Ironweed, monkshood, and sneezeweed are all guilty of this unsightly phenomenon. Fortunately, there is a compact substitute for each of these bulky favorites. So, if you want to give your yard more color in autumn but don’t want it confined to the back of the border, try planting these “shorties” up front.

PHOTO: Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Little Henry'

Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’

Little Henry sweet coneflower
Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 3 feet tall and 24 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Little Henry sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Little Henry’)  is the petite progeny of Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’. While 3 feet isn’t necessarily short for a perennial, it is definitely an improvement over its 5- to 6-foot-tall daddy. And like Henry Eilers sweet coneflower, each petal is rolled to create a quilled appearance around an obvious chocolate cone. Flowering can begin well before September, but the unique shape and yellow hue really stand out in the fall landscape. (The leaves are said to smell of vanilla, but if you’re like me, ragweed season will make it difficult to notice.) Don’t be afraid to stick these beauties in a vase.

PHOTO: Helenium autumnale 'Short and Sassy'

Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’

Short and Sassy sneezeweed
Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’

Zones: 3 to 8
Size: 18 inches tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; moist to wet soil

With Short and Sassy sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale ‘Short and Sassy’), the cultivar name says it all: the plant is 2 feet tall with an assertive orange-yellow color. In the past, all sneezeweeds grew 5 feet tall and would push out flowers from the beginning of August until October. ‘Short and Sassy’, however, has a much longer bloom time. Since it doesn’t have to grow as big, this cultivar begins flowering in midsummer and doesn’t quit until it has fought its way through multiple frosts. Heleniums are plants perfect for rain gardens or any moist, sunny spot. Butterflies find them irresistible, too.

PHOTO: Aconitum fischeri

Aconitum fischeri

Fischer’s monkshood
Aconitum fischeri

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 2 feet tall and 18 inches wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, rich, well-drained soil

Under favorable conditions, an autumn-flowering monkshood can reach 4 to 5 feet tall—not exactly a plant you can showcase next to a path. Nevertheless, Fischer’s monkshood (Aconitum fischeri) is a lesser-known species that is beginning to find its way into the market. The 2-foot-tall plants sport the same size flowers as the commonly seen Aconitum carmichaelii and its hybrids. The showy blue flowers are perfect for adding fall color to a woodland garden, but are just as nice in a sunny border. Monkshoods are poisonous, so hide the children!

PHOTO: Vernonia lettermanii 'Iron Butterfly'

Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

Iron Butterfly Ironweed
Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

The reddish-purple color found in ironweed flowers is one of kind. The problem with these natives is that most of them get gigantic, usually around 8 feet tall. Fortunately, you can enjoy that stunning hue on a much more compact plant. Vernonia lettermanii is a 2- to 3-foot-tall species that naturally occurs in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Allan Armitage, Ph.D., selected the best form of this species from his trials and called it ‘Iron Butterfly’. The foliage and form are similar to Amsonia hubrichtii, but without the fall color. This shorty is tolerant of droughty soils or brief flooding, but it requires lots of sun. It’s also a butterfly magnet!

PHOTO: Anemone x hybrida 'Pretty Lady Susan'

Anemone × hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’

Pretty Lady Susan windflower
Anemone × hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’

Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 16 inches tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, rich, well-drained soil

While I would rather see pink in the spring, I do love the poppylike feel of windflowers. They are also known as Japanese anemones and are sometimes listed under the name Anemone hupehensis. The Pretty Lady Series features crosses that stay 16 inches tall, as opposed to unwieldy 3- to 4-foot-high plants. They also have the same 2-inch flowers you would find on other Japanese anemone hybrids. Pictured here is a dark pink variety called Pretty Lady Susan windflower (Anemone x hybrida ‘Pretty Lady Susan’, but the series also includes a double-flowered, a bicolored, and a white-blooming form. Of course, I can’t wait to get my hands on Pretty Lady Maria windflower—the non-pink one.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Real San Francisco Treat

Jacob Burns —  November 4, 2013 — 2 Comments

Over the summer I had the chance to visit many places, from arboreta, native plant gardens, and desert gardens, to cemeteries—all in an effort to interact with additional leaders in the field and get inspiration from other gardens across the country.  This was all possible due to the Chanticleer Scholarship, which supports educational opportunities for public-garden professionals. I arranged to spend a full day touring with each expert. While each place I visited was totally unique and showcased a vast array of plants, it was the San Francisco Botanical Garden (SFBG) that intrigued me the most.

I arranged to meet with Bob Fiorello, who is an award-winning horticulturist and pest-management professional with more than 25 years of experience in public gardening. Mr. Fiorello has been a gardener at SFBG since 1998 and started both the San Francisco Integrated Pest Management Task Force and the Sustainable Parks Information Network (SPIN).

PHOTO: Banksia bloom

Unusual leaves are topped with an unusual bloom on Banskia speciosa.

Mr. Fiorello gave me a very elaborate tour, informing me that the San Francisco Botanical Garden makes up 55 acres, convenient for tourists visiting Golden Gate Park. I noticed that the paths are wide, yet there are many smaller paths that allow you to admire every one of the 8,000 different types of plants from across the world. Most of the collections are displayed geographically, so I felt as if I were walking through distinctive habitats on other continents. Most of the plants I witnessed are the result of collecting expeditions to diverse parts of the world.  

The most unique habitats rendered are cloud forests.  Cloud forests are distinctive areas prone to continual fog and are mainly found in Central and South America, East and Central Africa, and Southeast Asia, where temperatures are mild all year round. San Francisco has abundant fog in summer and rarely drops below freezing in winter, so cultivating plants from these environments makes sense, especially when these habitats are diminishing in nature due to human destruction.

Brugmansias, fuschias, and salvias were some of the radiant flowers I witnessed throughout the MesoAmerican Cloud Forest.  Even brighter were passionflower vines climbing up trees and shedding neon orange and pink blossoms across the paths. This particular cloud forest has become established as a national and international resource by the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC) for scientists and researchers and is one of the few specialized collections focusing geographically on a diverse group of plants.  Most other gardens, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, simply focus on collecting plants within a certain genus, with the goal of being experts of that group.

PHOTO: Trumpet-shaped Brugmansia blooms hang pendulously from a vine.

Brugmansia (Photo courtesy San Francisco Botanical Garden)

PHOTO: Passionflower vine blossoms.

Passionflower (Passiflora sp.) vine blossoms

Mr. Fiorello wanted me to see his favorite genus, Banksia. For that, we had to travel to an area devoted to the flora of Australia and New Zealand. The saw-tooth leaves on Banksia serrata were unusual. In fact all the plants in this collection were strange in appearance when compared to other vegetation.  The red-colored aerial roots of New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsia) were sort of creepy, while the red-hued fronds of the Pukupuku fern (Doodia media) were quite attractive. Even the hot pink fruit of the lily pilly tree (Syzygium smithii) looked tasty (though I hear it is not).

PHOTO: New Zealand Christmas tree.

New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa)

PHOTO: Lilly Pily tree.

Lilly pilly tree (Syzygium smithii)

PHOTO: Pukupuku, or common rasp fern.

Pukupuku, or common rasp fern (Doodia media)

I am crazy about native plants, and California hosts more wild plants than any other state.  I was told that the greatest numbers of natives are displayed across the bay at Berkeley Botanical Garden, where they make up a third of that garden.  The San Francisco Botanical Garden’s native plant collection differs however, being heavily designed and with less emphasis on individual plant communities.  While they have fewer natives than Berkeley, the selected plants are grown in much broader sweeps and in beautiful combinations that really put on quite a show.

The native that wowed me most was Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri). The blossoms are enormous and resemble sunny-side-up eggs, held on tall grey-green foliage. The other eye-catcher is flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum), a fifteen-foot-tall, irregularly shaped shrub with fuzzy lobed leaves and prolific flowers that are yellow-orange.

PHOTO: Matilija poppy.

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)

PHOTO: California flannelbush in bloom.

California flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum)

There is nothing more festive than wandering the replicated redwood grove. Below the colossal tree trunks, I found a solid carpet of green comprised of shamrock-like redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), robust fronds of sword fern (Polystichum munitum), bold leaves of Western coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus), and lacy-looking Inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra). This was a great prequel to what I would enjoy while hiking Muir Woods and perfect for tourists who may not have the chance to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.

PHOTO: A view up into the redwood canopy.

A view up into the redwood canopy

PHOTO: Redwood sorrel.

Redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

My tour of SFBG taught me that plant-collecting expeditions can be one of the most gratifying means of obtaining plants.  I also found that not every specialized collection has to fall under the same rules to be recognized by the NAPCC. For instance, we at the Chicago Botanic Garden are among the few gardens that attempt to preserve cultivars of plants while most public gardens focus on the wild collected species of plants.

Even after almost eight hours, I still had not seen everything. I thanked Mr. Fiorello for his gracious time and insight and insisted he go enjoy his weekend.  I continued to wander the grounds for another three hours filling my camera with photos and enjoying the cool autumn air.

If you find yourself in San Francisco, do take the time to visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden. You will not regret it. Although you might be sorry that you flew and cannot bring home all of the gorgeous and inexpensive plants sold in their incredible gift shop (as I was).

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and