Archives For Horticulture & Display Gardens

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

This summer, the Chicago Botanic Garden is transforming—with tall coconut palm trees and other iconic plants of Brazil, inspired by the designs of renowned Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.

The making of Brazil in the Garden started with an unlikely source, a family’s brick townhouse in Philadelphia.

Two members of the Garden’s design team visited the townhouse last summer, not sure what to expect. What they found was a treasure trove of original work by Burle Marx (1909–94), including stacks of rare, numbered lithographs, rolled tapestries too large to hang, and framed paintings. Some of the pieces, which had never been on public display, are now part of an exclusive Burle Marx exhibition at the Garden.

The collection had been in private hands, owned by landscape architect Conrad Hamerman and kept on the third story of his townhouse. When Hamerman died in 2014, his family inherited the pieces. Hamerman was a close friend of Burle Marx, and represented his work in the United States; Burle Marx gave him the pieces as gifts and as payment for his services.

Conrad Hamerman and Roberto Burle Marx Photo ©Rick Darke

Conrad Hamerman and Roberto Burle Marx
Photo ©Rick Darke

Through a contact, the Garden’s exhibition manager Gabriel Hutchison and senior designer Nancy Snyder met with Hamerman’s wife and daughter in Philadelphia to discuss Burle Marx’s artistic legacy and his friendship with Conrad Hamerman. The Garden’s Burle Marx exhibition reveals a rare glimpse of Burle Marx as an artist known for his bold colors, abstract shapes, and modernist style.

Hutchison and Snyder spent two days reviewing and evaluating the material for possible exhibition. “The collection was so much more diverse than I had imagined—sketches, oil paintings, landscape plans, and painted canvas wall hangings,” Snyder said. “This was really an honor to work on, and all along it felt like exhibiting the work was a suitable tribute to the rich friendship between the Hamermans and Roberto Burle Marx.”

Hamerman and Burle Marx met as young men in Brazil. Hamerman was a landscape designer who wanted to become an artist, and Burle Marx was an artist who wanted to become a landscape designer. Above all, they were both avid plant people. Their mutual love of plants, art, and design formed the basis of a lasting friendship that inspired them to travel on many expeditions to collect plants together.

“Conrad was a professional colleague of Roberto’s and collaborated with him a lot,” said Hutchison. “Over the years they became close friends, and although Conrad enjoyed doing his own work, I think he was most passionate about working with Roberto.”

The two even taught university courses together, which is where landscape architect Andrew Durham first encountered Burle Marx’s work. A former student and family friend of Hamerman’s, Durham arranged the loan of pieces from the family’s personal collection for the Garden’s exhibition.

Roberto Burle Marx exhibition

The Roberto Burle Marx exhibition runs through September 10, 2017.

“One thing that made Hamerman unique as a professor was his close friendship with Roberto Burle Marx,” said Durham. “Our class traveled for a month to Brazil, where Burle Marx personally showed us his gardens. That trip changed many of us forever, and I’ve embedded in my own work much of what I learned from Burle Marx’s use of texture and color.”

Though known for revolutionizing tropical landscape design, Burle Marx also worked in other artistic mediums. The paintings and textiles at the Garden exhibition showcase his style of vast swaths of bold hues, cubist influences, and contrasting fabrics.

See the Roberto Burle Marx exhibition, open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Regenstein Center, Joutras Gallery, through September 10, 2017.

Brazil in the GardenThroughout the Garden, we’re paying tribute to the vibrant spirit of Brazil. Look for samba on the Esplanade, the Brazilian national cocktail in the Garden View Café, cool plants including striking Bismarck palms, and much more. See Brazil in the Gardenthroughout the Garden—through October 15, 2017.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On a walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, you are likely to encounter dozens of woody plants—short, tall, flowering, or simply lending structural beauty to a landscape. It’s OK to have a favorite. Phillip Douglas, the Garden’s new curator of woody plants, is not shy about listing his top picks.

Spending his first summer in Glencoe, Douglas is especially taken with the variety of oaks at the Garden. The horticulturist points out the deep purple leaves on the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’) in the meadow east of the English Walled Garden, and the cutleaf emperor oak (Quercus dentata var. pinnatifida) growing near the road south of the Regenstein Learning Campus.

English oak (Quercus robur 'Purpurascens')

The deep purple leaves of the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’)

He favors the narrow, upright Regal Prince oak (Quercus × warei ‘Long’)—in the rainwater glen on the southeast corner of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center—for smaller landscapes. He describes Regal Prince as a hybrid oak that is columnar in shape. Along with a similar hybrid, Kindred Spirit (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’), it is readily available in nurseries. “The big push in the industry now is hybrid oaks that are fastigiate (column-like) trees,” he explained. “If someone would like an upright oak in a home landscape, either is a good option to consider.”

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus x warei 'Nadler')

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’). Photo by Joshnadler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Douglas credits his fascination with the oak species as his entry point into the field of horticulture. During an internship at the Boone County Arboretum in Kentucky, “I started getting interested in oaks, started collecting oaks for my house, and the obsession grew from there,” he said. The outdoors has always been a part of his life, from growing up in Kentucky close to water and woods, to his years as a Marine. His transition into horticulture felt natural, he said.

Douglas is eager to share his knowledge with Garden visitors and to help build the woody plants collection.

“Woody plants fulfill such a role for us and for the environment,” he said. “They provide so much for us, and they really fulfill an important niche in our landscapes.” The benefits of such plants include providing shade, reducing storm water runoff, and providing habitat for animals and insects.

“Oak is an incredibly enormous, diverse genus,” Douglas said. “There are about 500 species that grow all over the world. You can have anything from a very small shrub to large trees that can be thousands of years old.”

Among his first projects are the development of the oak and willow collections, and a review of all such plants already on-site.

Douglas will also be helping to organize trips to collect plants in the wild with Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Garden and director of plant collections. Collecting trips are planned for the summer and then fall to domestic and international locations with similar growing climates to Chicago.

“Both his passion and previous collecting experiences will be immediately useful in two collecting trips Phil is helping coordinate to Kentucky and Tennessee and Azerbaijan,” said Bunting, who was delighted to welcome Douglas to his team in April. “Phil Douglas has been a wonderful addition to the collections teams at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  He brings extensive woody plant knowledge to the Garden, especially with the genera Magnolia, Quercus, and Populus.”

The Chicago Botanic Garden's new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

The Garden’s new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

Back in his office in the Horticulture Building, Douglas is surrounded by plans for the near future. On the desk sit outlines for wild-collecting trips. Just outside of his window, construction continues on a new garden. His first months in Glencoe have been both overwhelming and energizing. “I like the variety of the things that I get to do, and I’m excited to help develop the collections and to add to the Garden,” he said.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What comes to mind when conceptualizing a new garden design? Color? Absolutely. Soil and sun conditions? That’s a given. Texture? Sure thing. Two other components of plant selection that are of utmost importance are adding biodiversity and sustainability. Both of these elements are omnipresent in gravel gardens.

The origins of gravel gardening are rooted in Essex, EngIand, via Beth Chatto, Cassian Schmidt at the Hermannshof Garden in Germany, and Roy Diblik of Northwind Farm in Wisconsin. I was introduced to gravel gardens while I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Not only were gravel gardens featured at Olbrich Botanical Garden, but they were also on display at my previous place of employment, Epic Systems, in Verona, Wisconsin. Jeff Epping, the director of horticulture at Olbrich, established the gravel gardens at both Olbrich and Epic Systems, and has been very supportive in my mission to bring these types of gardens to the Chicago Botanic Garden.  

The heavy, clay-laden soils of the Chicago area are infamous to anyone who has gardened here. No one escapes the frustration the water-retaining properties of these soils causes. Midwestern gardeners often amend the soil in their home gardens. But amending soils in garden beds each season to improve plant health and drainage can also be an expensive endeavor for the home gardener.

The first step in prepping the beds: removing the top layer of soil.

The first step in prepping the beds is removing the top layer of soil.

This season, as a trial, we are converting ten island beds in parking lot 1 to gravel garden beds. These beds are covered by 4 to 5 inches of pea gravel. The gravel allows plants to grow in sharp drainage, which is a very desirable attribute when growing many native prairie plants or other dry-loving plants. Ours include coneflower  (Echinacea paradoxa), ‘Siskiyou Pink’ beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’), and ‘Red Rocks’ beardtongue (Penstemon x mexicali ‘Red Rocks’).

The key to establishing the plants in a gravel garden is to prevent the root balls from drying out until they have a chance to root down below the gravel layer. This means watering new plantings daily, or even twice daily if weather conditions dictate. Although a significant commitment to watering is required up front, watering can be reduced six to eight weeks after planting, and nearly eliminated after two years. In fact, with the exception of times of extreme drought, no supplemental watering was necessary for the gravel garden beds I managed at Epic Systems.

Gravel garden plantings include succulents and drought-hardy plants.

Plantings include succulents and drought-hardy plants. They will need careful monitoring at first, but once established, this bed will be a beautiful, low-maintenance garden.

Another benefit of growing plants in 4 to 5 inches of gravel? A significant reduction in the number of weeds! Since no soil exists in the top 4 to 5 inches of the bed, weeds don’t have a chance to root in. Maintaining this “sterile” environment is a matter of simply making sure old plant material is removed from the bed each spring, and that no organic material is left on the beds (which could potentially break down to humus).

Not only will these beds help to bring added color to the parking lots as they fill in, but they will also introduce new taxa to the Garden. Although these beds will be full of color in time, we will need patience in the short-term. The beds will take some time to establish, with only a few flowers this year, a bigger display next year, and with the beds hitting maturity in 2019. It is my hope that this patience will give way to something beautiful for years to come.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Using peonies as a cut flower for floral design is easy, with a few tricks to preserve the health of your plants and flowers.

Peonies are the queen of the garden during their blooming season. From late spring through early summer, there is a beautiful abundance of color and shapes blooming, depending on the variety. Finding a variety that is also fragrant adds to the reward of growing this exquisite flower.

Storing peony stems allows you to use early and mid-season blossoms together in an arrangement.

Storing peony stems allows you to use early and mid-season blossoms together in an arrangement.

Here are few tips to extend the bloom of cut peonies indoors.

When cutting flowers from your plants, be sure to leave at least two sets of leaves on the stem so that the plant can continue to thrive.

You can select flowers that are as open as you like, but for the best vase life, select buds that have just begun to open and feel similar to a marshmallow. 

Cut stems can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three weeks, butno fruit—such as apples—can be in the refrigerator with your peonies. The ethylene gas emitted by ripening fruit will cause petals to drop, and buds to wilt and fail to open. I store peony stems so that I can use early- and mid-season blossoms together in the same arrangement. (This is also a good safety net if you are hoping to use peonies for an event, but Mother Nature decided to allow the peonies to bloom early.)

I have success in storing blooms two ways. One is by placing cut stems in a clean vase of cool water in the refrigerator, making sure that low foliage is not in the water. This can be challenging because the height of the stems don’t always fit in the fridge very well. The other method is to cut the stems and place them lying down in a plastic bag with a dry paper towel to absorb moisture. Both methods require daily checks to replace the water in the vase or the paper towels. If any of the blossoms in the plastic bag grow moldy, the infected flowers should be discarded, and the remaining flowers placed in a clean plastic bag. If the buds droop, don’t worry—often they can be revived in a vase of warm water.

Got ants? Ants love the sweet nectar of peonies as they begin to open. I dunk the blossom end of the stem in cool, clean water for 30 seconds to rid the ants from the flower before bringing the flowers into the house.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Well, here we are with another titan arum in bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden. (Java, the taller of our Titan Twins, began blooming at 8:28 p.m. on May 30.)

We never really considered the possibility that we might have two plants developing inflorescences at the same time. But it did not take too long to brainstorm some ideas on what we hope to learn from this rare possibility.

We have nicknamed these corpse flowers the Titan Twins because they grew from seed from the same parent plant.

The plants have been named Java and Sumatra, in recognition of two of the major islands in the nation of Indonesia. Amorphophallus titanum, the Latin name for the titan arum species, is native to the island of Sumatra.

The corms of the Titan Twins were almost identical in weight when they were measured several months ago; the young inflorescences emerged from the soil within 24 hours of each other, and until recently, they were within an inch of each other in height. On May 18, Java became—and remained—the taller of the two.

A school field trip visits the two titan arums on May 23, 2017.

A school field trip visits the two titan arums on May 23, 2017.

Java: height=79.75” and circumference 51.25”; Sumatra: height=69” and circumference of 54.75” at the moment

So what will we do to take advantage of possibly having two sibling plants coming into flower at the same time? We can’t cross-pollinate them, because this species has an incompatibility system that prevents successful fertilization between closely related individuals. Even if this weren’t the case, we want to maintain the highest levels of genetic diversity when producing offspring of this rare species—a conservation practice common among captive breeding programs of animals in zoos. (The Garden began collecting titan arums in 2003, as part of a worldwide conservation effort to preserve the species.) We do hope to pollinate one of the titan arums with pollen from an individual from another institution that has been stored “on ice” for just such an occasion. 

Having two plants blooming at nearly the same time allows us do an experiment to answer a question about what happens to the inflorescence just after pollination.

When Alice the Amorphophallus and Sprout bloomed at the Garden (Alice in September 2015 and Sprout in April 2016), we wondered if pollination of the female flowers influences how long the plant generates odor and heat. It is possible that when pollination takes place, it signals the plant to save energy and stop these energetically expensive processes. After all, pollination of the female flowers basically signals to the plant, “job well done.” Perhaps at that point, there’s no need to continue with the energy-intense display.

Dr. Pati Vitt checks out the pollination situation on our April 2016 bloom, Sprout.

Dr. Pati Vitt checks out the pollination situation on our April 2016 bloom, Sprout.

With two plants from the same parentage blooming at nearly the same time, we can do the experiment that could answer this question. We will not pollinate Java, the first plant that came into bloom, and then pollinate Sumatra, assuming it does open. We will record heat at regular intervals through use of a thermal camera and determine if the unpollinated inflorescence produces heat for a longer period than the pollinated one. Measuring odor production will be a bit more subjective—that will require sniff tests, and an abundant supply of fresh noses. Hopefully we will find some volunteers!

Check the video feed on the website, and plan your visit to see the titans in bloom today!

Patrick Herendeen and Pati Vitt


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org