Archives For Programs and Events

These posts offer previews or behind-the-scenes information on some of the Garden’s special events. Learn what it takes to put together these exquisite events and then come see them in person!

Some of the star attractions of Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden are the dozens of beautiful dwarf conifers used to create Chicago in miniature. What you might not know is that many of these conifers are great plants for the Chicago area and can easily be incorporated into your home landscape.

Dwarf conifers are a good way to add four-season interest and wildlife habitat to your yard, and with their unique colors and growth habits, they are practically living sculptures. I’ve selected four of my favorite interesting and unique conifers (found in Wonderland Express—go check them out) that are hardy in the Chicago region.

Picea englemanii 'Bush's Lace'

Picea englemannii ‘Bush’s Lace’ features elegantly draping stems.

Picea omorika 'de Rutyer'

Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’ displays bright blue needles.

Engleman spruce (Picea engelmannii ‘Bush’s Lace’) is a tall, powder blue spruce that is grown for its upright habit and pendulous side branches. Unlike some evergreens, this spruce will keep the gorgeous blue color throughout the year. This tree thrives in the extremes of Chicago’s summers and frigid winters. It is a vigorous plant and will often put on two feet of growth in one season, so make sure to plant it somewhere where it has some room. Engleman spruce are happiest in full sun with well-drained soil. A mature specimen of this tree can be found in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

De Ruyter Serbian spruce (Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’) is another spruce that will thrive in the Chicago region. Serbian spruce typically feature dark green needles with silver undersides that shimmer in the breeze, but on this variety, the silver is on top, making for a pop of silvery blue on each branch. This is a slower-growing cultivar, often growing only six to eight inches a year in a loosely conical shape. Because it is a spruce, it requires full sun and well-drained soil to look its best. There is also a large specimen of De Ruyter in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

Pinus mugo 'Tannenbaum'

Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’ holds its beautiful green color all winter.

Tannenbaum mugo pine (Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’) is a twist on a classic mugo pine. Most people are familiar with mugo pines as the little round pines that often resemble boulders in the landscape. Tannenbaum, as the name suggests, is an upright form that grows as a perfect green pyramid, with the classic Christmas tree shape. It is a relatively slow-growing plant—approximately six inches per year—and holds its dark green color all year. Mugo pines are amazingly hardy and should do well throughout the Chicago area, provided they receive full sun and have relatively well-drained soil.

Glauca Prostrata noble fir (Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’) grows as a creeping mat of icy blue foliage. Weeping blue noble fir makes an unusual addition to the landscape due to its rounded needles, unlike the similar weeping Colorado blue spruce, which has incredibly sharp needles. This makes it a far better choice for placing near walkways. This slow-growing plant averages four to six  inches of growth a year, eventually forming a clump about two feet tall and about six feet wide. As with other conifers, this noble fir prefers full sun and well-drained soil.

Abies procera 'Glauca Prostrata'

Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ stands out among the surrounding greenery.

Top tips for keeping your conifers happy:

  1. Most conifers prefer full sun and have very little shade tolerance. All of the trees in this article prefer full sun.
  2. Conifers are generally adapted to areas with well-drained soil. Avoid places that stay wet to prolong the life of your plant.
  3. Avoid windy locations. Because conifers keep their needles all year, it is best to site them in less exposed places so they don’t dry out and lose their needles.
  4. Water thoroughly in the fall. You only have once chance to make sure the plant has enough water before the ground freezes and you can’t water it anymore. If we have a dry fall, it is helpful to water your newly planted trees until the ground freezes so they have enough water to last the winter.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

As Wonderland Express gets ready to open its doors to visitors on the day after Thanksgiving, there are many behind-the-scenes activities that are happening to create this colorful show for the holidays. 

PHOTO: panorama of poinsettias in the production greenhouses.

A poinsettia panorama has been in production all this past summer.

Wonderland Express will be open November 25, 2016 – January 2, 2017. Get your tickets today.

In the Plant Production greenhouses, the process of preparing the poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) for Wonderland Express starts much earlier: around mid-summer! The majority of the poinsettias start to arrive in July as rooted cuttings, only about 2 to 3 inches tall. All of these plants are transplanted into their finished pot sizes based on the requests and the ultimate uses for the plants in the displays. In fact, just over 1,000 plants were grown for this year’s display.

Care is taken for each plant—pinching the plants to produce more branches, tying them to keep them upright and sturdier, fertilizing, and controlling the light exposure to time the blooms. This is just some of the loving care the plants receive from the production staff.

PHOTO: Winter Rose Eggnog poinsettia.

Winter Rose Eggnog poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Winter Rose Eggnog’)

In the beginning of the crop cycle, the plants grow best under the long, natural days of summer day length. But when it is time to begin to force them into color, the use of short days is required to initiate flowering about 9 to 9½ weeks before they are to be sent up for the Wonderland Express display. In order to accomplish this, black-out curtains are used to shorten the days artificially, which gives the plants 14 hours of darkness. We grow two crops of poinsettias; the early crop is installed in late November just before opening the exhibition, and a second crop is grown for changing out in mid-December in order to keep the entire display looking fresh and at its best.

In addition to growing more than 1,000 plants to perfection, there are several varieties and colors of poinsettias grown. Even the red varieties have different cultivar names. Look for cultivars such as ‘Jubilee Red’, ‘Christmas Day Red’, ‘Candle Light White’, ‘Cherry Crush’, ‘Premier Jingle Bells’, and ‘Valentine’ (with its interesting, rosebud-shaped flowers).

PHOTO: Valentine poinsettia.

Valentine poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Valentine’)

PHOTO: Premier Jingle Bells poinsettia.

Premier Jingle Bells poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Premier Jingle Bells’)

Poinsettias are just a few of the plants grown for Wonderland Express. We also grew hundreds of amaryllis for this year’s display, and there is an amazing variety in the hundreds of small evergreens and conifers to be found throughout the displays.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It always starts with the place. The garden, the park, the stairwell, the commuter train station—wherever the artwork will be sited, Michael Szabo starts out by spending time in it. Szabo, a maker of sculpture, waterworks, and tabletop vessels, is one of the artists who will be featured in the American Craft Exposition (ACE), held at the Chicago Botanic Garden this weekend, September 23 through 25.

Buy your ACE three-day pass today to see the show all weekend long. 
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Friday & Saturday
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday
$13 member/$15 nonmember

At this juried exposition and sale of fine crafts, visitors can see and buy one-of-a-kind works in metal, ceramics, fiber, jewelry, glass, leather, and other media. The show, which features some of the top crafts artists in the country, will help support pharmacogenomics at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

Attending the show is a chance not just to see and buy art, but to talk to the artists about their creative process. Szabo’s begins with the site.

“I’ll come and look at a space, and it’s the space that really inspires the concept and the work, as well as the goals of the project,” he said from his studio in San Francisco.

PHOTO: Michael Szabo begins work on a piece in his San Francisco studio.

Michael Szabo begins work on a piece in his San Francisco studio.

He considers the landscape, the architecture, the feeling. He thinks about the spot’s history, its place in people’s daily lives, its meaning to a community. Then he puts his hands to work.

He builds a small model, experimenting with various materials and exploring how they move and behave. Ideas begin to take shape.

“The way the material acts is the starting point for defining the form,” he said. “I’m not trying to force anything to do anything it doesn’t naturally want to do.”

Take water. Szabo has learned by experience that you can’t force water to do anything.

“I’ve come up with a lot of my concepts about water by observing it, seeing how it falls, and trying to build the piece kind of around that,” he said. “I’ll design the sculpture around the water rather than the other way around. Water does what it wants.”

But metal?

“Metal is a very forgiving and versatile material,” he said. “You get some beautiful curves out of it.”

As he builds the model, the exploration and creativity flow.

PHOTO: For larger, sited works, Michael Szabo visits the site to make sure the piece will integrate into its surroundings when complete.

For larger, sited works, Michael Szabo visits the site to make sure the piece will integrate into its surroundings when complete.

“It’s almost like I’m using this solitary, really exploratory process of building a small structure by myself and seeing what the material wants to do, creating these curves based on the material, gravity, stress, and pressure,” he said.

Then Szabo and his assistants turn his model into a full-size artwork. They fabricate support structures and shining curves of steel, assemble them in the studio and make the model into large-scale art—a wall of rugged metal panels covered by sheets of falling water, a sculpture formed of intertwining tendrils of steel, another that arcs and curves like a huge, silvery snake.

Photo: Studio staff assist in welding a larger piece.

Studio staff assist in welding a larger piece.

PHOTO: Equipoise by Michael Szabo, Bronze, 14' x 11' x 9', 2015, Tysons Corner, VA

“Equipoise” by Michael Szabo, Bronze, 14′ x 11′ x 9′, 2015, Tysons Corner, Virginia

But his work isn’t all large-scale; he has never stopped making the small, sleek, steel vessels that marked his first explorations into making art with metal. He’ll be bringing some of his elegant tabletop sculptures to ACE, along with larger pieces and water features. And while visitors to the show will get to talk with outstanding artists about their work, the artists will also be able to talk to the public. It’s an interaction Szabo appreciates.

PHOTO: "Alight" by Michael Szabo, Bronze & Stone, 36" x 14" x 12", 2014

“Alight” by Michael Szabo, Bronze & Stone, 36″ x 14″ x 12″, 2014

“It’s a really great opportunity to show what I can do and talk to people about what I do,” he said. “I really like getting the feedback and reactions of people to my work. It helps me understand how it’s engaging people.”

He is deeply involved in his current project, a commission from the town of Wylie, Texas, to create sculptures marking the start and finish of a walking path. He plans to evoke both the site’s past as a Texas blackland prairie and its future as part of the bustling Dallas metroplex. He’ll be glad to talk to you about it.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s been another fantastic season at Butterflies & Blooms, which is open through September 5 at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This is my second year working at Butterflies & Blooms, and I think it’s looking better than ever. 

The biggest surprise this year happened this week.

We received some big, hairy atlas moth cocoons, and I was a little concerned about whether they would have time to emerge before we have to shut our doors for the season. When I came into the pupae chamber a few days after they arrived, there was a giant female Attacus atlas staring at me, as if to say, “Ha! I showed you!” I chuckled to myself. Our volunteers had also assumed we might not have any more moths this season, so they were equally surprised. I brought it out of the display, its strong feet clinging to my finger. I reached far up into a serviceberry tree and placed the moth where visitors could get an ideal view. Just a few minutes later, a handful of photographers stopped by, and they happily snapped away.

PHOTO: Photographers snap pictures of our new atlas moth, “Aaliyah.”

Volunteer Robyn Lynblad came up with the idea of naming each moth the way meteorologists name tropical storms, so we named this one “Aaliyah.”

To make that week even better, a new African moon moth (Argema mimosae) emerged. We are not sure if it’s male or female, so we decided to name it “Bobby.” Bobby and Aaliyah (the atlas moth) will definitely be hanging around for a couple of weeks, so come over and say hello.

PHOTO: Atlas moth.

Photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

PHOTO: African moon moth.

Photo by Tucson Botanical (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies & Blooms will be moving to its new home at the Regenstein Learning Campus in 2017. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for visitors to come to interact and learn about nature in some of its most beautiful forms. Being able to study and interact with nature has a profound effect on people of all ages, especially children. It awakens the childlike wonder that we all have. It certainly has for me.

See Butterflies & Blooms in its current location from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through September 5, 2016.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

We humans have used technology to become masters of communication. But we are far from the only species with an impressive array of “superhuman” abilities. Butterflies have unique features they use for socializing, mating, warding off predators, and more!

PHOTO: Scarlet Mormon (Papilio rumanzovia). Photo by Bill Bishoff.

Scarlet Mormon (Papilio rumanzovia)
Photo by Bill Bishoff

Consider the butterfly’s ability to see ultraviolet light. UV light is a spectrum of light between 10 and 400 nanometers that humans and most other animals cannot sense. Butterflies have complex mechanisms for both receiving and sending UV light, and they use these amazing gifts in a variety of clever ways.

One well-known phenomenon is the relationship between butterflies and nectar-producing flowers. Thanks to special photoreceptors in their huge compound eyes, butterflies can detect ultraviolet light. Many flowers have evolved to display ultraviolet patterning that helps lead the butterflies directly to their nectaries, resulting in a mutually beneficial exchange—nectar for the butterfly, pollination for the flower. These patterns can resemble airport landing strips or helicopter pads, advertising, “The food is in here!” The butterflies easily hone in on these markings and land on the flower petals.

From there, another unique ability helps to ensure the butterflies find what they’re looking for.

A chemoreceptor is a sensory cell or organ responsive to chemical stimuli.

Butterflies have chemoreceptors on their feet (among other places), so when they land on something, they can instantly “taste” whether it’s a food source or not. This comes in handy for food sources that do not have UV patterning, like rotting meat. (Yes, butterflies derive nutrients from deceased animals.)

PHOTO: Butterfly wing scales under a microscope. Photo credit: Thomas Eisner.

Butterfly wing scales as seen under a microscope. Photo credit: Thomas Eisner. Learn more about butterfly scales from his post, Scales: On the Wings of Butterflies and Moths.

Some people will be surprised to learn that in addition to sensing ultraviolet light, butterflies can also emit ultraviolet light waves through their wings. Their wings are coated with minuscule scales that can reflect different color spectrums, depending on their shape and the angle of light that hits them.

As the angle of sunlight shifts, the colors emitted from these scales shift. This is how visitors can watch our butterflies “change color” as they flap their wings and flutter about. The structure of these scales reflects many wavelengths of light that we perceive as brilliant colors, but the scales also reflect UV waves, which other butterflies can pick up on for communication.

Since butterflies have many predators, being able to send and receive discrete messages in the form of UV light ensures they won’t be detected. This is often used as a secretive means of courtship. Think of it as two naval ships using their flashing beacons to silently communicate without being detected by enemies. Alternatively, think of it like online dating. 

Male butterflies will pick up on the vivid UV patterning of a female, and begin their courtship rituals. The female will check out the UV patterning of the male to decide if he has the right stuff. If he does not, she will assume a posture that I described in my previous post, that is, lifting her wings and abdomen. What I didn’t know earlier was that by lifting her wings, the female effectively covers up the UV light that attracted the male in the first place, causing him to lose interest and leave. I guess things haven’t changed much in the last six million years!

PHOTO: Vogel’s Organ is thought to be used for hearing birds flap their wings. Photo credit: Ray Cannon.

Vogel’s Organ is thought to be used for hearing birds flap their wings. Photo credit: Ray Cannon. Read more about it in Ray Cannon’s Nature Notes.

Noisy butterflies?

As if ultraviolet-manipulation abilities weren’t enough, did you know that our blue morpho and giant owl butterflies have vestigial ears? Called “Vogel’s Organs,” they use these sense receptors to detect birds. Our cracker butterflies (Hamadryas sp.) can use these organs to sense—and create—ultrasonic sound waves to evade bats. What’s more, we have butterflies that can turn the table on their predators by scaring them off using markings that look identical to snakeheads and giant eyeballs!

PHOTO: Starry Cracker (Hamadryas laodamia).

Starry cracker (Hamadryas laodamia)

Stay tuned for the next installment of news from Butterflies & Blooms—the evolutionary war of super-senses and abilities among butterflies continues.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org