Archives For Horticulture & Display Gardens

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

Once there was a boy who loved model trains. When the boy grew up, he became the chief engineer of train exhibitions at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and he still plays with trains. “I hardly get to play with my railroad at home because I get to play with this one,” said Dave Rodelius, in the tone of a man who can’t believe his good fortune.

PHOTO: Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this summer: a steam engine!

Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this spring: a steam engine!

This year marks Rodelius’s 15th season at the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, which opens Saturday, May 9, with a special treat. This season, the Model Railroad Garden will pay tribute to steam engines, in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Chicago Horticultural Society (the Society founded and manages the Chicago Botanic Garden). Models of historic steam engines will chug along 1,600 feet of track, representing the early days of the Society, when steam engines ran commuter coaches along Chicago’s elevated tracks and hauled freight over long distances.

Q. Dave, you have the greatest job title ever! How did you get this job?

A. I was retired, and my wife saw a little blurb in the newspaper that the Chicago Botanic Garden needed tram drivers. So I became a tram driver. One day, I saw that they had torn things up right in the middle of the Garden. I said, “What the Sam Hill are they doing here?” That’s how I found out there was going to be a model railroad out there. Then one of the secretaries, who worked for a vice president, found out that I had been into model railroads all my life. So one day, the vice president of visitor operations at the time called me into her office and asked if I would be interested in managing the railroad. I didn’t get a chance to ask her how much I’d have to pay.

PHOTO: Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Q. But that was back in 2000—and the railroad exhibition was going to be a five-month exhibition.

A. We had more than 100,000 people come through in five months. The little path out there was constantly packed with people. One thing led to another. In our first year, the trains didn’t make any sounds—no choo-choos or whistles or anything, so we added sound cars. Gradually, the railroad became so darn popular that it became a permanent exhibition.

Q. So you became interested in trains as a kid?

A. When I was 6 or 7, my dad bought me a Lionel train. That train would go around the Christmas tree and in the bedroom. Now I have a model railroad layout of Solothurn, Switzerland, where my daughter got married; it’s in my basement. It has Swiss trains and a ski lift.

Q. It sounds like you were a busy kid.

A. My family had 2.5 acres that we farmed in World War II for vegetables. I sold vegetables in the neighborhood in my little wagon. Then I was in the Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout in 1948….I grew up in Evanston and still live in Evanston, and I have lunch with some sixth-grade classmates once a month.

Q. And you’ve had some other interesting jobs before you started running the railroad.

A. I received a bachelor’s degree in animal science at the University of Illinois. I wanted to raise cattle. In college, I was an intern at a purebred cattle farm. The most fascinating thing I did was to help birth calves. You get to see the little rascals trying to get up and stumble around….Eventually, I was drafted into the U.S. Army engineer corps. Two years later, I was discharged and became a manager at a livestock feed manufacturing company. Then my dad bought a photography studio in 1961, and I became a photographer.

Q. What keeps you motivated after all these years?

A. My passion for the railroad is what drives me—I absolutely love this railroad. The same passion goes for everyone. We have 18 engineers and 75 to 80 volunteers. They get along so darn well that I can’t believe it. You cannot keep these people away; they are just so dedicated. They whole thing has kept me young. I get up and down on my hands and knees all the time. I should write to the AARP—if you want to hear about a good job to have, we at the Garden have it.

PHOTO: Model Railroad Garden volunteers.

Left to right: Model Railroad Garden volunteer engineers Ken Press and Mark Rosenblum with George Knuth, staff engineer

Q. What do you do in your spare time?

A. I do some gardening, and some fishing and boating. My wife and I have three daughters and three grandkids. My wife is spectacular, one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

World Bonsai Day

Chris Baker —  May 6, 2015 — Leave a comment

Join us for a new program at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Saturday, May 9: World Bonsai Day! 

Observed on the second Saturday in May, this day was established by the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) in 2010 to honor WBFF founder and bonsai master Saburo Kato’s contributions to the world of bonsai, and to bring all bonsai enthusiasts together for a day to promote bonsai and friendship throughout the world.

PHOTO: The late bonsai master Saburo Kato.

The late bonsai master Saburo Kato

The oldest son of bonsai master Tomekichi Kato, Saburo Kato followed in his father’s footsteps cultivating bonsai, and at his father’s death, became the third-generation owner of Mansei-en Bonsai Garden in Japan, one of the most famous bonsai nurseries in the world. As an author, teacher, and poet, Kato inspired countless people throughout the world to learn the art of bonsai cultivation. He believed so strongly that bonsai could bring peace throughout the world that he founded the WBFF.

In 2014, the following organizations celebrated World Bonsai Day: National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), the North Carolina Arboretum, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, the Pacific Bonsai Museum, and Rosade Bonsai Studio.

PHOTO: Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014

Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014

PHOTO: Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).

Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).

Join me, curator Chris Baker, and some of our bonsai volunteers in the activities below on World Bonsai Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The stages of growing bonsai will be featured with specific examples. Explore the tools, pots, wire, etc., used to practice bonsai, and get information on upcoming bonsai classes.

Program Schedule:

  • 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Tree Styling
    I will demonstrate how major tree shaping is done, with a tree being formed into a bonsai.
  • 1 p.m.: Spring Garden Walk: Bonsai Collection Highlights
    During the scheduled Spring Garden Walk, I’ll be showcasing selections from the Garden’s Bonsai Collection and pointing out special spring highlights. (Note: due to the recent warm weather, the Korean lilac, wisteria, crabapple, or azalea bonsai may be in bloom.)
  • 1 to 4 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Landscape Planting
    I will demonstrate how I create a “landscape planting” with multiple bonsai on a rock slab.

Come back to the Garden May 16 – 17 for the Midwest Bonsai Society Spring Show & Sale.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Leave Room for Blooms

Five fresh ways to serve edible flowers

Karen Z. —  May 5, 2015 — Leave a comment

Have you eaten a flower today?

Americans are getting comfortable with the idea of edible flowers. But how—aside from sugar-candied flowers for bakers—do you use them?

We asked horticulturist Nancy Clifton, who brought five really fresh ideas to the table.

PHOTO: Today’s blue plate special: flavorful greens finished with blue flower petals.

Today’s blue plate special: flavorful greens finished with blue flower petals.

1. A modern salad: greens + color

Gone are the days of a plain side salad on a white plate: today, even a tiny saladette is vibrant with color and flavors. Start with a blue (or green) plate. Add a piquant mix of salad greens (and reds), including baby chards and chois, and leafy herbs like parsley and cilantro. Then finish with flower petals: snip blue bachelor button petals to highlight that plate, dot white sweet alyssum among the greens, and trade the traditional sprig of parsley for blooming sage and rosemary.


PHOTO: Nasturtium or chive flowers make a lovely pink vinegar. For a fruitier flavor, pour white vinegar over one cup of gently washed fresh raspberries.

Nasturtium or chive flowers make a lovely pink vinegar. For a fruitier flavor, pour white vinegar over one cup of gently washed fresh raspberries.

2. Flowers are the new dressing

You’ll need a dressing for that salad above: Nancy’s flower-based vinegar recipe couldn’t be easier:

  1. Wash one cup of nasturtium or chive flowers and let dry.
  2. Gently add flowers to a sterile quart jar. Pour in plain white or white wine vinegar to cover.
  3. Let steep for two weeks in a cool, dark spot.
  4. Strain vinegar into a fresh jar to use. Note how flowers have lost their color to the vinegar.

Such beautiful pink color! Sprinkle as is onto leafy greens, or mix with oil and season to taste.


PHOTO: Blue bachelor buttons, red cranberries, and white apples: a red/white/blue salad for the Fourth of July!

Blue bachelor buttons, red cranberries, and white apples: a red/white/blue salad for the Fourth of July!

3. Hello, Farro!

Also called wheatberry, farro makes a delicious base for a “superfood” salad chock full of fruits and nuts and topped with flowers. Nancy notes that all amounts can be adjusted to your preference.

To begin, cook one cup of farro according to directions (Nancy suggests substituting apple cider vinegar for part of the cooking liquid). While the farro is cooling (about 3 cups cooked), make the dressing:

  1. Toast ½ cup pecans in an oven or fry pan until fragrant. Set aside to cool, then chop.
  2. Sauté one small (or ½ large), chopped red or yellow onion in olive oil until translucent.
  3. Add one medium, unpeeled, chopped Granny Smith or gala apple to pan. Continue to sauté for 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat. Stir in fresh thyme (leaves of 2 sprigs) and ½ cup dried cranberries.
  5. Dress with a mix of 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar and 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, seasoned to taste.
  6. Combine farro with the sautéed mix.
  7. Snip bachelor button or calendula petals and sprinkle over the top.

PHOTO: Summer weddings, showers, and graduations call for a flower-spiked punch.

Summer weddings, showers, and graduations call for a flower-spiked punch.

PHOTO: Nancy likes the look of fresh ginger ale studded with a flower that floats.

Nancy likes the look of fresh ginger ale studded with a flower that floats.

4. Flower floats

In the 1950s and ’60s, no punch bowl was presented without an ice ring. Nancy charmingly updates the idea for a homemade lemonade or champagne brunch punch, using fresh flowers. Try pansies or violets, or a mix of flowers and fruits, such as calendula petals with strawberries or bachelor buttons with blueberries.

A crazy good ice tip: to make clear ice cubes (rather than cloudy) or ice rings, use distilled water or filtered bottled water—or boil and cool the water twice before adding to ice mold or trays.

  1. Line a bundt pan or jello mold ring with gently washed and dried pansies.
  2. Gently fill with water. The pansies will float to the top.
  3. Freeze.
  4. When ready to use, dip the mold into a larger bowl holding an inch or two of hot water, which will loosen the ice ring.
  5. Invert and set ice ring into punch bowl. (Right side up or upside down? Either works.) Pour in punch or beverage of choice.

Floral ice cubes are great for summer parties, too: adjust the above directions for your ice cube trays.


PHOTO: How do they taste? “Like mushrooms,” Nancy says. Dandelions are great as a conversation-sparking finger food!

How do they taste? “Like mushrooms,” Nancy says. Dandelions are great as a conversation-sparking finger food!

5. Deep-fried dandelions

We didn’t believe it, either, but Nancy’s how-to-fry-a-dandelion demo changed our minds forever about everyone’s formerly least-favorite flower.

  1. Pick freshly-bloomed dandelions (just the blossom, no stem) from a trusted, chemical-free site.
  2. Gently wash the blossoms. While moist, lightly flour each flower (shake with ½ cup seasoned flour in a zip-lock bag).
  3. Heat ¼-inch of olive oil in a small fry pan.
  4. Gently fry flowers, turning delicately, until golden brown.
  5. Drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Fry fresh sage leaves alongside dandelions, then crumble both on salads.

Next time you’re out at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, check out the spring edible flower bed in the Small Space area, where sweet alyssum, calendula, and dianthus are set off by towers of climbing peas for pea shoots—the new foodie rage!

Use common sense before eating flowers.

Know your flowers! Grow your own chemical-free flowers; don’t use unfamiliar flowers or those from non-organic sources. Our Plant Information staff has a good write-up about the difference between edible/inedible, plus a list of flower suggestions. More questions about what’s edible and what’s not? Call our Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Sometimes spring just doesn’t want to arrive. Sometimes it can’t wait to burst forth with flowers and foliage and make everything look fresh and new. This year definitely falls into the first category, but this isn’t a bad thing. It gives us time  to appreciate some things that might otherwise be overlooked by the flashier signs of spring.

PHOTO: Red Charm Peony buds push out of the ground.

Red Charm peony buds (Paeonia ‘Red Charm’) look like alien asparagus pushing their way out of the ground in the Farwell Landscape Garden.

The cooler temperatures are slowing growth for most plants but also allowing for richer colors to develop. These peony stems have a rich burgundy color that is highly ornamental in an otherwise empty bed. Eventually these will grow out into large bushy plants with showy red flowers, but for now we can enjoy the unique form of the new growth.

Many geranium varieties also feature beautiful new growth in the spring. Geranium ‘Blue Sunrise’ in the Dwarf Conifer Garden has gorgeous bright green foliage in the summer, but in the spring it has stunning orange and red new growth that almost looks like flames coming out of the ground. Having plants with vibrant new growth can give your garden a whole new dimension. Imagine how bright blue Scilla siberica would stand out against the geranium, or how lush a planting of soft pink Chionodoxa lucillae ‘Pink Giant’ would look among the hellebores. It’s almost as though you’re getting two different plants for the price of one when you have such distinctive spring growth.

PHOTO: New shoots of Geranium 'Blue Sunrise'.

New growth doesn’t have to be dull! These Geranium ‘Blue Sunrise’ have new growth that looks like flames coming out of the ground.

PHOTO: New spring growth on Helleborus x hybridus 'Blue Metallic Lady'.

A Helleborus x hybridus ‘Blue Metallic Lady’ in the English Walled Garden sports new growth that is almost showier than its flowers.

Of course, since it is spring, there are plenty of flowers to see. Many people associate spring with bulbs, but there are some other unusual plants blooming now too. Petasites japonicus spends the summer looking like a rhubarb that has aspirations to take over the world. However, in the spring it graces us with patches of inflorescences that look like bright green cabbages. Nestled inside of the “cabbages” are clusters of lime green flowers that will gradually elongate into a short spike of tufty white flowers. They’re not the showiest flowers ever, but they have a clean, bright color that really makes them pop against the dark soil of the hillside in the Waterfall Garden.

PHOTO: Petasites japonicus has rather unusual spring blooms.

Petasites japonicus has rather unusual spring blooms.

PHOTO: Buds opening on Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas).

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) provides a gentle pop of spring color during a sometimes dreary time of the year.

And finally, the cornelian cherry trees (Cornus mas) in the Heritage Garden provide a soft glowing yellow that is a much gentler burst of color than the more common forsythia that can sometimes be almost gaudy with the intensity of its colors. During a time of year when so much is happening, it’s sometimes nice to have plants that allow your eyes to rest and regroup before moving on to the next batch of vibrant, eye-catching color.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I am happy to announce the addition of four bonsai trees on display in the Semitropical Greenhouse in the Regenstein Center.

PHOTO: Bonsai on display in the Semi-tropical Greenhouse.

Bonsai on display in the Semitropical Greenhouse

The crape myrtle, two ficus species, and natal plum trees were placed on display on March 28. The display will be up through the end of May with a change of tree species the last week of April. It’s the first time these trees are being displayed in this fashion here at the Garden, giving visitors the opportunity to see tropical and subtropical trees that otherwise would not be able to be shown in our courtyards until late May, due to temperature requirements.

The courtyards will open on Tuesday April 21, 2015, with our cold-hardy evergreen and deciduous trees.

PHOTO: Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) bonsai.

This crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) is continuing to respond very favorably to the root work we did.

This crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) was the focus of my previous post on repotting. It is continuing to respond very favorably to the root work we did.

Crape myrtles are a genus of about fifty species of trees and shrubs native to South Asia, Northern Australia, and some Pacific islands. Some varieties can grow as tall as 100 feet, but most species grow as either small trees or large shrubs. Some varieties are deciduous, and some are broadleaf evergreens—this is a deciduous variety.

Crape myrtles are most famous for their flowers, which grow as clusters of small blooms. Flowering typically takes place between June and August. This tree has never flowered while here at the Garden. I am hoping that with the addition of a more appropriate soil mix, fertilizer changes, and a longer growing season we can can encourage this tree to bloom in the years to come.

The natal plum (Carissa grandiflora) is a dense evergreen tree with sharp spines. It’s native to tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Australia, and Asia.

PHOTO: Natal plum bonsai in fruit and flower.

Our natal plum in fruit and flower at the same time!

Our natal plum produces beautiful flowers throughout the year. These can occur either as individual blooms or in clusters. The flowers have a powerful fragrance reminiscent of gardenia. The fruit is plum-shaped and can be red to dark purple-black in color. The fruit of the natal plum is edible and tastes like a giant cranberry—but please don’t eat ours! :)

PHOTO: Willow-leaf fig (Ficus salicifolia) bonsai.

Willow-leaf fig (Ficus salicifolia)

PHOTO: Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarpa) bonsai.

Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarpa)

Our two ficus trees on display are monsters! The Nabari (base of the tree) on these trees are huge, and they have a great presence. Ficus are tropical and subtropical trees native to southern Asia and India. However, they are also commonly found in South American countries and the southern United States. There are hundreds of species in the ficus genus in the world, but there are only about a half dozen that are commonly used for bonsai. Ficus benjamina, Ficus microcarpa, Ficus retusa (or Green Island fig), and Ficus salicifolia are among the most frequently used. These are great examples of tropical bonsai that will love their new temporary home in the Greenhouse.

Be sure to come down and see these amazing trees while they are on display! And keep a lookout for the new additions coming later this month. Here is a sneak peek at one of the trees you might see…can you tell what species it is?

PHOTO: Bonsai in bloom.

This mystery tree might be blooming soon in the Regenstein Center—can you guess what it is?

Thanks for reading, and be sure to follow me on instagram @Windy_City_Bonsai for updates and pictures of the collection!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org