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

Full bellies and full hearts. It’s what great Thanksgivings are made of. This year, add a special touch to your holiday table with harvest-inspired centerpieces that bring the whole family together.

We asked Nancy Clifton, program specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, to share some easy, crafty ideas that would fit a variety of party styles. Here are three centerpieces you can create (and mix-and-match) to impress your guests.

A Festive Friendsgiving

Friends are family you choose, as the saying goes. For these cozy gatherings, pick your own flowers, too. Here’s how you can make Thanksgiving-themed floral centerpieces like a pro:

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Thanksgiving Flower Arrangements

Pick flowers in autumn colors. Buy a few bunches of flowers in different fall colors and textures at your local grocery store. Nancy chose red roses, yellow mums, red-yellow mums, and hypericum berries to give the arrangements some variety.

Paint Thanksgiving mason jars. If you want to up your Thanksgiving game, paint your vases in holiday colors such as brown, orange, and ivory. Nancy used craft paint on mason jars, and sanded the lettering on the jars to give them a vintage look.

Save time by measuring flowers. Nancy’s time-saving hack is to trim one flower with pruners and remove foliage at the bottom of the stem. Place that flower in the mason jar vase. If you’re happy with the height, remove the flower and use it as a measuring tool to trim the rest of your flowers. Make sure you trim the flowers low enough so you can see your friends’ faces!

Impress-the-in-laws Pumpkin Planters

If you’ve got some serious entertaining to do (or at least want more excuses to use your hot-glue gun), wow your crowd with pumpkin succulent centerpieces. The best part? You can repurpose and eat parts of them when you’re done.

See the demo video on YouTube here.

Thanksgiving Centerpiece

The finished succulent and squash centerpiece

Gather the basic tools and ingredients. Grab a hot-glue gun, reindeer moss, and floral picks from the craft store. At your local grocery store, find small- and medium-sized pumpkins (you will want several), a succulent container, bunches of kale, and cabbages.

Assemble the planters. Cut the ends off of your succulents so they have a flat base, and set them aside. Adhere moss to the top of your medium-sized pumpkins with your hot-glue gun. Once the glue is dried, add the succulents on top of the moss, and adhere with hot glue or floral picks.

Arrange your centerpiece. When the pumpkins are dried, place them in the center of a large decorative tray. Add smaller pumpkins, bunches of kale, and cabbages to tray, arranging them in a bountiful display. You can even paint the stems of your small pumpkins with glitter-paint to give them extra-fancy glitz.

Give Thanks Table Runner

One of our favorite Thanksgiving traditions is sharing what we’re grateful for. A fun way to involve the whole family in this tradition is to have everyone write their “thanks”on a centerpiece mural.

Buy a roll of Kraft paper. Think of this as your table runner. You may want to lay this on top of a tablecloth to protect your table from stray doodles.

Decorate with thanks. Place markers around the table for guests to write their thanks on the runner.

Add an intimate glow. Nancy added pumpkin planters, candles, and string lights to the centerpiece to bring a warm, enchanting feeling to your party.

We hope you enjoy creating these centerpieces, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Find more of Nancy’s ideas, check out her 101 on creating Thanksgiving cornucopias.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

At the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, you see model trains chugging charmingly through the trees, mountains, and cityscapes, and clacking across bridges as they merrily toot their horns.

You don’t see the workshop crammed with test tracks, a lathe, a drill press, soldering irons, a drawer filled with spare train motors, dozens of bins of spare parts, and rows of small jars of paint labeled “CNW yellow” and “Wisconsin Central maroon.”

But that’s what keeps the trains rolling at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Watch our engineer interview video on YouTube.

Have a tiny engineer? Don’t miss Trains, Tricks & Treats on October 21 & 22.

Small boy with a microphone talks about the Model Railroad Garden.

This summer, a few of our younger visitors got a chance to interview our engineers. View the video on YouTube here.

A room in the basement of the Regenstein Center is the hive of repair activity for the Model Railroad Garden, which operates through October 29. There are also ghost trains for Night of 1,000 Jack-o’-Lanterns (October 26 to 29), and trains that wend through Wonderland Express, which begins November 24. That is why there is a staff of three year-round engineers and 18 seasonal engineers, helped by 66 volunteers, that keep the repair shop busy year-round.

The work is crucial. The Model Railroad Garden has 350 model railroad cars and 125 engines, and during the season they run on a punishing schedule: eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week.

“The trains are not designed to operate the way we operate them; companies will not design them that way,” said chief engineer Dave Rodelius. “So we just continually use up the trains, and when they’re used up, we discard them. We get two of everything. When one breaks down, we replace it with the other.”

The engineers replace motors, wheels, and track—400 feet of track a year. They repair motors. They wire the electronics that make the trains run, testing the trains on the workshop tracks before putting them into service; incorrect wiring causes the fuses to blow. They install circuit boards with electronic sound cards that make horn or bell sounds when the train travels over magnets.

They also invent their own fixes. They have to.

Every spring, the miniatures also get a mini-makeover. Read more about our Miniature Maintenance.

PHOTO: Miniature Chicago Cubs fans.

Cubs fans in fresh whites never lose hope for their team winning one day.

“The Amtrak train hasn’t been made since 2004; we couldn’t get wheels anymore,” said operating engineer John Ciszek. “So we re-engineered the truck assembly (which holds the wheels) with a bolster plate.” Now they can replace the wheels with ones still being made.

And when they need a part that doesn’t exist, they have it custom engineered.

The behind-the-scenes work continues outside. Discreetly tucked away in the Model Railroad Garden is a shed that stores cars and engines overnight, and another that houses banks of remote controllers that operate the engines and their charging stations. A board fitted with small colored lights shows the direction each railroad line is operating—green for clockwise, red for counterclockwise.

The constant work is a labor of love. Rodelius, Ciszek, and maintenance technician Dave Perez have been model railroad enthusiasts themselves since they were children.

“Most of the engineers have their own layouts in their basements,” Rodelius said. “It’s the perfect job for most of the people here. They love it. You can’t keep them out of here.”


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Autumn Asters

Jacob Burns —  September 26, 2017 — 1 Comment

The harbinger of fall, for many folks, is when asters finally bloom. Their flowers look like miniature daisies and come in shades of purple, blue, white, and occasionally pink. These cool tones allow autumnal hues of yellow, orange, and red to truly pop throughout the landscape. Aster blossoms twinkle across roadsides, meadows, woodland edges, and even home gardens. Interestingly, astéri is the Greek word for star.

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)

White wood aster among birch trunks near the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden sets the perfect fall scene.

Hosts of pollinators favor asters. The late-season blooms provide vital sustenance for adult monarch butterflies during their annual migration to Mexico. Each flower contains plentiful sources of pollen and nectar, because the central disc is comprised of up to 300 tiny florets. After pollination, a disc will turn darker and reddish, informing other insects to keep moving. In the end, birds come to consume the seeds.

Asters belong to a huge family called Asteraceae, which also includes daisies, black-eyed Susans, and sunflowers. They are mainly native to North America and Eurasia. More than 600 species once made up the genus known as Aster. However, in the 1990s, taxonomists decided to divide New World species into ten other genera. The most common ones are Eurybia and Symphyotrichum. Few nurseries adopt these names and continue to list their plants under the genus Aster

Asters are easy to please with well-drained soil and adequate sunlight. Some even prefer shade. An assortment of heights (1 – 6 feet tall) allows them to shine in the front, middle, or back of the border. Powdery mildew is problematic for some, but you can always hide the unsightly lower stems among grasses or ferns. While pretty in nature, some asters just look scruffy in the garden. Selecting the right type is the key to a tidy look. The following asters perform best:

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus 'Jindai')

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’) can be found in the Lakeside Garden and on Evening Island at the Trellis Bridge.

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) can be found in the Heritage Garden beds, throughout the Landscape and Bulb Gardens, in large groupings on Evening Island, and all around the Plant Science Center.

Jindai Tatarian aster (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’) originates in Asia and has uniquely large and toothed foliage. From mid- to late fall, lavender-blue daisies appear in showy flat-topped clusters upon 3 – 4 foot tall stems. Best planted in the back of a bed with plenty of sun and space, its roots slowly spread into a weed smothering ground cover. Pair it with some equally tall and tough switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) blooms for a long time, starting in late summer and lasting throughout fall. Clouds of starry white flowers are borne on 2-foot stems with heart-shaped leaves. It grows in woodlands of eastern North America where it spreads slowly by rhizomes and quickly from seed. Cut spent flower stems off if you do not want extra plants. Combines wonderfully with ferns, sedges, and shade-loving goldenrods like Solidago caesia or Solidago flexicaulis.

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium 'Avondale')

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Avondale’) can be found on Evening Island, just west of the carillon along the path.

October Skies aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies')

Find aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’) in the Landscape Garden, along the Lakeside Garden path, at McGinley Pavilion, on Evening Island near the Arch Bridge, and near the Plant Science Center.

Avondale blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium ‘Avondale’) is an extra-floriferous selection of an eastern North American species found at forest edges. A plethora of attractive blue flowers begin in early fall on 2 – 3 foot stems. Grows well in either sun or shade, where it adds additional color to perennials like Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis), monkshood (Aconitum), and the yellow fall foliage of blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii).

October Skies aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’) is a great alternative to New England aster (S. novae-angliae), because it is less prone to powdery mildew. With full sun, it forms a compact 2- x 2-foot mound of nicely scented foliage. In autumn, hundreds of blue-purple flowers cover the plant. The species naturally occurs across the central and eastern United States. Try it with fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides).

Frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum)

Frost aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) overflows the center plantings of the Heritage Garden.

Frost aster, or hairy aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum) is a 3- x 3-foot, clump-forming plant with many branched and arching stems. In fall, it becomes loaded with little white daisies and creates a baby’s breath appearance among flowers like Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis). Frost aster is common in a variety of dry, sunny habitats in eastern North America. It spreads happily by seed, so if you have too many, cut off the spent flower stems before they develop any further.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Moving Houseplants Back Indoors

Tom Weaver —  September 23, 2017 — 3 Comments

In spite of the recent 90 degree temperatures, it’s time to start thinking about moving your houseplants inside.

The best time to do this is when temperatures outside are relatively close to the temperatures indoors, meaning mid- to late September. Before you move everything in, however, there are four quick steps you’ll want to take to help ensure a successful winter of windowsill gardening.

The same care tips also apply to overwintering tropical plants such as palms and bromeliads

The same care tips also apply to overwintering tropical plants, such as palms and bromeliads.

1. Clean up any dead or damaged growth.

Why bring any additional mess indoors when you don’t have to? Carefully remove any broken branches, sunburned leaves, or otherwise unsightly growth from your plants.

2. Lightly trim back plants as needed.

This step is a bit optional, and you really only need to do it if your plants have become large and overgrown. Never remove more than one-third of the growth at a time. Removing more can stress the plant and send it into shock, which can be hard to recover from indoors.

3. Check thoroughly for pests, and treat as needed.

One of the biggest ways to set yourself up for success is to start with clean plants. There are several pests that can cause problems indoors. The most common are mealybugs, spider mites, scale, and aphids. Insecticidal soap is a lower toxicity insecticide that is safe for most houseplants and will take care of nearly any pest problem you might have. As with any chemical, make sure to follow all package instructions. It is NOT recommended to use soapy water—this eats away at the cuticle (a protective waxy layer on the leaf), making it more vulnerable to disease problems in the future. For specific pest recommendations, contact our Plant Information Service.

Large-leaved plants are particularly susceptible to spider mites.

Large-leaved plants are particularly susceptible to spider mites.

Spider mites can also cause brown edges that mimic sunburn. Look for the telltale webbing to determine if you have mites.

Spider mites can also cause brown edges that mimic sunburn. Look for the telltale webbing to determine if you have mites.

Mealybug feeding on the stem of Dioscorea elephantipes

Mealybug feeding on the stem of Dioscorea elephantipes

Sunburn causes brown spots on leaves.

Sunburn causes brown spots on leaves. Trimming off damaged leaves helps keep plants looking good all winter.

4. Finally, resist the urge to repot unless necessary.

Sometimes plants have simply grown too large for their pots, in which case it’s OK to repot. But don’t repot if the plant doesn’t need it, as this will add unnecessary stress that could harm the plant in the long term. Always use soil specifically for containers (potting soil). Black dirt is too heavy and will encourage rot. When repotting, select a new pot that’s only 1 or 2 inches larger in diameter. Anything much larger than that will encourage rot because the soil will stay wet for a long time.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Getting That Tropical Look

Tom Weaver —  September 6, 2017 — 1 Comment

This season’s Brazil in the Garden exhibition features a bold tropical look at the Chicago Botanic Garden—you can get that same vibrant feel in your home garden, using perennial plants.

Surprisingly, there are a number of plants that thrive in the Chicago area in spite of their tropical looks. With attributes ranging from huge leaves, delicious fruits, or potent fragrances, these trees and shrubs will add a tropical splash to your backyard year after year.

Magnolia ashei is one of the most tropical-looking plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It features huge leaves, huge flowers, and huge fruits. The leaves can grow up to 36 inches long, the flowers can be more than a foot across, and the fruits are up to 5 inches long and turn bright red. Magnolia ashei has an irregular growth habit and makes a bold specimen. Look for this one in the Native Plant Garden (however, this plant is not an Illinois native).

PHOTO: Magnolia ashei

Magnolia ashei has beautiful leaves and intriguing fruit.

Another large leaf magolia, Magnolia tripetala x obovata, is similar in most respects; however, it features a broad, round form and is a bit more formal in the landscape. This magnolia can be found in the Waterfall Garden.

PHOTO: Magnolia tripetala x obovata

The blooms of Magnolia tripetala × obovata can be up to a foot across.

Campsis radicans is a native vine with large, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers all summer long. The flowers are a hummingbird magnet, which just adds to the tropical allure, and are available in numerous colors, including red, orange, and yellow. This is a large, growing vine so give it room to grow. It does tolerate pruning but blooms best when allowed to grow uninterrupted. Even the seed pods are ornamental, looking almost like green bananas hanging from the flower clusters. Look for it in the Waterfall Garden, and the fence surrounding the Graham Bulb Garden, where we have red and yellow varieties mixed together.

PHOTO: Campsis radicans

Campsis radicans grows in the Waterfall Garden.

PHOTO: Asimina triloba

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) fruits hang high in the tree.

Another native plant that wouldn’t look out of place in the rain forest is the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba). This native tree has green leaves that can reach a foot long. It’s a beautiful understory tree that will grow well in dappled shade with ample moisture (but never standing water). However, the real reward with pawpaws are the fruit. These large fruits have an incredibly tropical flavor, like a mix of mango, pineapple, and bananas. The fruit are among the last to ripen in the late summer and well worth the wait. To get a good crop of fruit, make sure to plant two varieties.

Pawpaws also get beautiful golden fall color, which only adds to their appeal. One note of caution however: the trees can sucker, so make sure to plant your pawpaw somewhere where this isn’t a problem, or make sure to remove the suckers as they sprout. Look for pawpaws in the Bulb Garden, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and Native Plant Garden.

And finally, what is a tropical garden without lush fragrances? Clethra alnifolia is a hardy shrub that thrives in partial shade and boasts intensely fragrant blooms in late summer.

PHOTO: Clethra alnifolia 'Rosea'

Clethra alnifolia ‘Rosea’ has cheerful pink flowers that hummingbirds love.

PHOTO: Clethra alnifolia 'September Beauty'

Clethra alnifolia ‘September Beauty’ is one of the latest-blooming summer-sweet cultivars.

Clethra flowers have a rich smell similar to gardenia, but with spicy undertones. The flowers are tall spikes of white or pink and are a magnet for pollinators such as honeybees and hummingbirds. With careful planning, you can mix varieties of clethra and have blooms that last from mid-July through late August. Several varieties of clethra can be found in the Sensory Garden.

See Brazil in the Garden through October 15, 2017.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org