Archives For Horticulture & Display Gardens

Learn more about the plants and gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Did the striking Silver Fox foxglove make it into “the show” this spring? Who decides which flowers make the cut anyway for the unfurling of 75,000 annuals at the Chicago Botanic Garden?

We’ll show you a few of our spring favorites that made it through the multi-level review process.

Digitalis purpurea ssp. heywoodii ‘Silver Fox’

Digitalis purpurea ssp. heywoodii ‘Silver Fox’ (Sensory Garden)

“Behind all of these beautiful displays, there is a lot more happening than what you may think,” said Tim Johnson, the Garden’s senior director of horticulture. “It can be very complex—different plants have different production times.” Besides considering how long it takes for a plant to grow in our greenhouses, the Garden’s experts also consider the desired size and bloom time.

Every season, each horticulturist proposes a color scheme and submits plans to Johnson. About ten months before spring or the start of the other seasons, the proposals are reviewed by experts, including Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director; Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist; Brian Clark, manager of plant production; Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Garden and director of plant collections, and Johnson. The team also considers how each proposed plant fits into a garden’s design and color scheme, along with its habit, culture, and cost. “They all need to be looked at globally to make sure there are different plants, varieties, and color schemes throughout the entire Garden,” Johnson said. “Each garden should have a unique look to it.”

Viola 'Fizzy Grape' by Ball Seed

Viola × wittrockiana ‘Fizzy Grape’ (Lake Cook Road entrance and gatehouse)

Primula vulgaris ‘Primlet Golden Shade' by Panam Seed

Primula vulgaris ‘Primlet Golden Shade’ (Heritage Garden troughs)

Hyacinthoides hispanica 'Excelsior' by Brent & Becky's Bulbs

Hyacinthoides hispanica ‘Excelsior’ (Heritage Garden troughs)

Ranunculus asiaticus Maché 'Purple' by Ball Seed

Ranunculus asiaticus ‘Maché Purple’ (Green Roof)

Linaria maroccana 'Licilia Peach'

Linaria maroccana ‘Licilia Peach’ (Circle Garden)

Calendula officinalis 'Neon'

Calendula officinalis ‘Neon’ (Sensory Garden)

Dianthus barbatus ‘Sweet Purple’ by Panam Seed

Dianthus barbatus ‘Sweet Purple’ (Sensory Garden)

Tulipa 'Amazone'

Tulipa ‘Amazone’ (Crescent Garden)

Before spring slips away, come see what’s in bloom at the Garden and look for the annuals that made the final cut, including—you guessed it—an unusual foxglove known as ‘Silver Fox’. Before you visit, download our free GardenGuide app to help you find plants.


©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

Ooooh-ooh That Smell…

The first visitors to our latest corpse flower bloom give their impressions

Renee T. —  April 26, 2016 — Leave a comment

On Tuesday, April 24, #CBGSprout raised a big stink at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Our day included these snapshots of the early morning visitors to the rare phenomenon of a corpse flower in full bloom.

We chatted with the early birds and met some “regulars”—visitors who had come by to meet Spike, the Garden’s first titan arum on display last August, and Alice, the corpse flower that bloomed last September.

Kids visiting corpse flower bloom, wearing a corpse flower t-shirt.

Maxwell and Lexi (in her Alice T-shirt) Kirchen visit Sprout early this morning before school.

Baby visiting corpse flower bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Harper, 14 months old, waves at #CBGSprout the corpse flower.

Carrie Kirchen of Deerfield visited this morning, along with Maxwell, age 9, and Lexi, age 6.

Lexi: It smells horrible.

Maxwell: We found out on the Internet. The Internet knows everything.

Lexi: It’s very stinky.

Maxwell: It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it. And it is very stinky.

Carrie: I happened to see the Facebook post. And we were here every day for Spike (a titan arum that previously was on display at the Garden).

Jamie Smith of Highland Park was here with Harper, 14 months old, as well as Susan and Jim Osiol of Mt. Prospect.

Jamie: We keep coming! Third time is the charm.

Susan: I’m obsessed. Our daughter called first thing this morning: ‘Mom, Sprout is blooming!’

Jim: It is vibrant. It’s a piece of nature that’s fascinating.

Visitors to titan arum Sprout at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Megan and Daniel Ladror of Chicago

The first visitor to Sprout the titan arum on the morning after the bloom opened.

Emily Rosenberg of Highland Park was here when the doors opened at 6 a.m.

Megan and Daniel Ladror of Chicago analyzed the smell:

Daniel: This smells like our garbage at home after two days.

Megan: It’s such a rare event. I’m excited to see one without waiting in line.

Emily Rosenberg of Highland Park loved the bloom:

Emily: Beautiful. It is so interesting with the spathe (modified frilly leaf). It has great textures.

A visitor from the Czech Republic sniffs the window removed from the spathe for Sprout the corpse flower's pollination.

Roman Bouchal of the Czech Republic came for the smell this morning, and found it in the window removed from Sprout the corpse flower’s spathe for pollination.

Schoolteacher Jody Schatz reacts to Sprout the titan arum's smell.

Schoolteacher Jody Schatz will have something to share with her class at Reinberg Elementary School in Chicago.

Michelle and Haley Nordstrom, who live five minutes from the Garden:

Michelle (who was watching the livestream at the school bus stop with her daughter when she realized that Sprout was blooming; they jumped in the car): I took a photo of Sprout and sent it to my daughter’s school and said, “We’re going to be late.”

Visitors Roberta Stack, Joanna Wozniak, and Apple, age 7:

Roberta: I’ve been watching it in the camera and saw it open. I ran right down.

Apple: Pretty smelly.

Joanna: I’m catching a cheesey whiff. A bit of Parmesan.

Apple: It does kind of smell like cheese.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Chicago Botanic Garden is on #TitanWatch. That’s right: if you visit the Garden’s Semitropical Greenhouse, you will see Sprout, the latest corpse flower from the Garden’s collection of 13 titan arums to begin a bloom cycle. 

PHOTO: Corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) on display in a variety of life stages: in fruit, leaf, and bud.

Our corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) are now on display in a variety of life stages: in fruit, leaf, and imminent bloom.

You might remember Spike and Alice in 2015: Spike failed to bloom but provided so much excitement; and Alice the Amorphophallus brought visitors to the Garden at all hours to see, and smell, a corpse flower in bloom. Now we are all watching Sprout to see if the corpse flower—known as a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum)— will produce a huge, rotten bloom. Follow the progress of #CBGSprout on our corpse flower webcam and check our website for updates.

We learned a lot about corpse flowers in the last few months, and in the Semitropical Greenhouse, there are corpse flowers at three different stages on display: in the middle of a bloom cycle (Sprout); a non-blooming titan arum leaf; and a pollinated and fruiting titan arum (it’s Alice!). 

Here’s what you need to know as you watch Sprout grow:

  1. The corpse flower is one of the largest and rarest flowering plants in the world. It takes seven to ten years for a single corpse flower to produce a flowering structure (inflorescence). While other corpse flowers in cultivation have bloomed around the world recently, having more than one plant bloom in such a short time is uncommon. Watch for these signs the titan arum bloom is starting.
  2. Corpse flowers smell bad. Really bad. Peak stink time is usually very late at night.
  3. Speaking of night, that’s when corpse flowers usually bloom. And once they bloom, the bloom lasts 24 to 36 hours. Want a sneak peek? View our last titan arum bloom.
  4. If Sprout blooms, the Garden will stay open until 2 a.m. so visitors can experience the corpse flower bloom up close (last Garden entry will be 1 a.m.). Watch the live corpse flower webcam, check the blog (subscribe today), and follow the Garden on Facebook and #CBGSprout on Twitter to get the latest information. 
  5. Corpse flowers are BIG. In their natural habitats, they can reach 10 to 12 feet tall with a bloom diameter of 5 feet. In cultivation, they typically reach 6 to 8 feet in height, but all are different. 
  6. Corpse flowers are unpredictable. When the Garden was watching Spike, the first titan arum, even the horticulturists were surprised that the plant did not flower.
  7. Corpse flowers are native to Sumatra, but Sprout was grown here from seed the Garden received in 2008 from the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Learn about the titan arum’s native habitat.
  8. The corpse flower includes the corm, which may or may not go on to produce a flower; the spadix, which is the tall flower spike; the spathe, which is a single, frilly, modified leaf that enwraps the spadix; the petiole, which is the leaf stalk; and the branch-like rachis, which supports the many leaflets. Find more diagrams and information in our titan arum educator resourcesILLUSTRATION: Titan arum leaf parts diagram.
  9. Corpse flowers that bloom in the wild attract pollinators like carrion beetles and flesh flies. Once the plant is successfully pollinated, it develops olive-shaped, red-orange berries. Read more about titan arum pollination.
  10. Corpse flowers need protection. The Garden’s conservation work ensures that plants like these survive and thrive. Studying seeds from Sprout, Spike, and Alice enables scientists and horticulturists at universities, conservatories, and other institutions increase the genetic diversity of the species. See how we are studying our titan arum fruit.

PHOTO: The mature fruit of this Amorphophallus titanum is now being collected for seed.

The mature fruit of Alice the Amorphophallus is now being collected for seed.


We will be announcing extended viewing hours when #CBGSprout blooms. Spring is here, however—see what else is currently in bloom


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Do-It-Yourself Seed Balls

Karen Z. —  April 10, 2016 — 2 Comments

Spring is seed season—and a good time to think about gifting seeds to gardeners, friends, and green-thumbed moms (think Mother’s Day, May 8).

Musing about how to share some of the seeds that she gathered at February’s Seed Swap, horticulturist Nancy Clifton got interested in the guerrilla gardening-inspired idea of “seed balls” (or seed bombs, as they’re sometimes called). While the guerrilla gardening movement leans toward stealth seeding, Nancy thinks seed balls make an ideal gift item—they’re easy to make, easy to “plant,” and an easy way to teach kids about germination.

PHOTO: Seed balls made with different recipes.

Clay powder gives seed balls a reddish color and even texture; using clay chips makes a slightly chunkier, greenish seed ball. Both work equally well.

Here’s the easy seed ball recipe:

  • 1 cup powdered clay or potter’s clay (can be purchased online)
  • ½ cup dried compost (the finer, the better—Nancy used a pre-bagged compost mix)
  • 2 tablespoons desired seeds (see seed choice section below)
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper (to deter critters from eating the sprouts)
  • Water

Mix the dry ingredients; then add ½ cup water. Stir, then begin to judge the consistency. Wearing gardening or plastic gloves, roll a teaspoon-sized ball in your hands (size can vary). Think “mud pie”—the ball should hold together when you squeeze it, without crumbling or dripping water.

Roll all of the mixture into balls; then let the balls dry on newspaper or waxed paper for two or three days. Don’t worry about smoothness—rustic-looking seed balls are as interesting as marble-smooth. The color will change to dark red/terra cotta as the balls dry. This recipe yields about 24 seed balls.

About Your Seed Choice

  • Less is more. You only want a few seeds to sprout from each seed ball. Too many seeds mean too many sprouts, resulting in too much competition for nutrients and water.
  • All sun. All shade. All herbs. All spring. Choose seeds with similar needs to maximize success in their container or garden spot. Nancy’s variations:
    • All summer annuals
    • All lettuces
    • All cool-season herbs
  • Use organic, non-treated seeds from your own garden or from trusted sources.
  • Choose native species for flowers and perennials that will grow successfully in our USDA Zone 5 region. Be responsible: do not use seeds from invasive species.

PHOTO: Nancy handles finished seed balls using plastic gloves.

Wear plastic or latex gloves when making seed balls. The mixture tends to be very sticky, and clay can dry out your hands very easily.

Seed balls can be set into a container of potting soil (sink it down just a bit into the soil), or placed, randomly or intentionally, on bare soil in the garden. A rainy day is the perfect day to “plant” seed balls—rain helps to break down the clay and compost, giving seeds a good dose of food and water to get started growing.

Throw one in your garden. Fill an empty space. Gift a brown- or green-thumbed friend. And happy spring, everyone!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org