Archives For Jacob Burns

Wolfsbane is a beautiful—and poisonous—fall-blooming perennial. It also has a colorful history associated with werewolves, vampires, and witches.

PHOTO: Werewolf gargoyle at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Moulins

Werewolf gargoyle at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Moulins

The plant has been a familiar plot element in horror movies, television shows, and novels. In the Harry Potter series, Remus Lupin, a tormented werewolf, drinks a potion of wolfsbane carefully concocted to control his transformations. As early as Dracula in 1931, wolfsbane casually replaced garlic as a repellent for vampires in film. Nevertheless, the correlation of wolfsbane with the supernatural predates Hollywood and familiar authors. 

In Greek myth, wolfsbane (Aconitum) originated from the toxic slobber of a three-headed dog named Cerberus, the scary canine guardian to the gates of Hell. In the Dark Ages, wolfsbane was said to be used by witches in spells and potions and was one of several ingredients for an ointment that, when applied to a broom, could facilitate flight. Stories also proclaimed that a sorceress who carried wolfsbane seeds wrapped in lizard skin could become invisible and witches who applied the poisonous sap to their flints and launched them at unsuspecting enemies.

One thing both Hollywood and horticulturists can agree on: wolfsbane is a potent plant. Ingesting wolfsbane is typically fatal. 

PHOTO: Arends azure monkshood/wolfsbane.

Arends azure monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’)

PHOTO: Lamarck monkshood/wolfsbane.

Lamarck monkshood (Aconitum lamarckii)

The plant belongs to a genus of highly poisonous perennials known as monkshood or aconite. They naturally grow in mountainous areas across the northern half of the globe and are also planted in gardens for their deep purple blooms, which continue flowering long after other perennials fade for the season. Ancient Greeks hunted wolves by poisoning their bait with this plant, which lead to the common name of wolfsbane.

PHOTO: Werewolf illustration circa 1512 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Werewolf illustration circa 1512 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

While those hunting traditions were lost, the plant retained its common name into the Middle Ages, where wolves and werewolves were a genuine fear in Europe. Frightened folks turned to growing wolfsbane for their protection, as superstitions said that werewolves could be repelled by the plant, or even tamed by it. Others, however, believed that having contact with wolfsbane on a full moon could actually cause shape-shifting. Patients who suffered from lycanthropy (the delusion of being a wolf) were prescribed regular—and often lethal—doses of wolfsbane by their medieval doctors.

For gardeners, it is important to remember to always wear gloves while handling a deadly plant such as wolfsbane.

Find wolfsbane at the Garden with our Plantfinder or on the GardenGuide app. Remember to look—don’t touch!—its beautiful blooms. Happy Halloween!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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

This Amazing Plant Changes Gender from Year to Year

Japanese Cobra Lily is a Snake that Charms

Jacob Burns —  April 27, 2016 — 3 Comments

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.

PHOTO: Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

Almost anyone who grew up in an Eastern or Central time zone will recognize our native jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

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.

PHOTO: Japanese cobra lily (Arisaema ringens).

Japanese cobra lily (Arisaema ringens) appears early in the spring each year; the flowers will remain until the large leaves have fully extended, shading the bloom.

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.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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!

YIKES!

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 my.chicagobotanic.org

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 my.chicagobotanic.org