Archives For Horticulture & Display Gardens

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

You’ve undoubtedly noticed a tall, vertical grass, planted en masse, swaying in the wind at the entrance to the mall, in your neighbor’s yard, or most likely, at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) has, for good reason, become a staple in perennial gardens.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ by Daryl Mitchell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This hybrid of two species native to Europe and Asia can thank German nurseryman Karl Foerster (1874–1970), for discovering the species in the 1930s along a railway in Germany. It is reported that he pulled the emergency brake on the train he was riding in order to collect the plant. The cultivar ‘Karl Foerster’ was named to honor him.

Karl Foerster, son of a painter and an astronomer, was well known for his unique and innovative plant selections at his nursery in Potsdam-Bornim, Germany. The nursery focused on breeding hardy perennials from all over the world. Foerster successfully bred approximately 370 crosses, with a particular interest in clumping grasses, Delphiniums, and Phlox. Originally propagated at Foerster’s nursery, Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldstrum’ is another perennial that remains popular today. Foerster’s nursery endured difficult times over the years yet managed to survive the Great Depression and World War II, during which he is said to have employed Jewish friends despite the risk. As a plant breeder and garden designer, Foerster helped to popularize the use of grasses in garden design and heavily influenced the “New German Garden Style” which focuses on low-maintenance gardening and four-season interest. Those concepts continue to be popular in garden design today. 

Two more modern-day revolutionaries in the field of landscape architecture are Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. Both were inspired and influenced by Karl Foerster. In his book Gardening with Nature, van Sweden remarks “Foerster’s great contribution was to make plants the most important element of the garden, especially perennials and grasses. He was highly sensitive to seasonal variations and promoted the garden as a place of learning.” With inspiration from the arts, travel, and the influence of other garden styles, Oehme and van Sweden pioneered the “New American Garden Style.”

Mimicking the American prairie, this dynamic gardening style blends both native and cultivated plants with a goal of low maintenance. One can easily see similarities to the “New German Style.” At the Chicago Botanic Garden, Evening Island was designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates landscape architecture firm and is representative of the “New American Garden Style.” Sweeps of perennials and grasses weave harmoniously through the landscape of Evening Island, softening the transition between the formal gardens of the main island and the native Dixon Prairie. With perhaps a nod to the past, Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is a favorite of Oehme and van Sweden and in my opinion one of the stars of the Evening Island plant palette.

View of the landscape design of Evening Island, designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

Sweeps of perennials and grasses weave harmoniously through the landscape of Evening Island.

View of the landscape design of Evening Island, designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

Sandy-colored Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is a cornerstone of the landscape design by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.

The most notable characteristic of Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ are the 5-foot flower stems that tower over a shorter but dense clump of narrow leaves. Purple-tinged plumes of flowers emerge in late spring and as the seeds (which are sterile) mature, the flower stalk turns a sandy color by fall. The seed stems continue to act as a vertical accent through the winter months making it truly a four-season plant. While full sun and well-drained soil with adequate moisture are ideal, this plant can tolerate some shade and heavier clay soils. However, you will see fewer flowers and floppier foliage with more shade. Drifts of this clumping grass are reminiscent of a field of wheat dancing back and forth in the wind. Interrupting the sweeps of grass with a pop of color from another perennial such as Leichtlins’ lily (Lilium leichtlinii), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), or purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) will add an element of surprise to the garden. While planning your garden for this year, take a leaf out of Foerster’s book and give Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ a try! 


Reimann, Dorothy. “Herr der blühenden Gärten.” Monumente, June 2005, (accessed January 23, 2018).

Rettig, Larry. “Karl Foerster’s Lasting Imprint on the World of Horticulture,” (blog), April 26, 2010,

Van Sweden, James. Gardening With Nature: How James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme Plant Slopes, Meadows, Outdoor Rooms & Garden Screens. Random House Gardening Series, 1997.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Welcome to winter, one of the best seasons for gardeners. You have time to plan, prune, and enjoy those houseplants that don’t get much love during the outdoor growing season. Make the most of your winter gardening with these dos and don’ts from Chicago Botanic Garden experts.

DO prune your deciduous trees. From mid-November to mid-March, it’s much easier to prune because you’ll be able to better see a tree’s branching structure and there is less chance of transmitting diseases from one plant to another.

Winter is the perfect time to prune deciduous trees or remove nuisance buckthorn.

Winter is the perfect time to prune deciduous trees or remove nuisance buckthorn.

DON’T prune conifers. Needled evergreens can be pruned in late winter or early spring, before growth begins. Arborvitae should be pruned during spring and early summer.

DO water newly planted trees and shrubs that might be in the path of salt spray from salted roads during periods of winter thaw. Consider wrapping vulnerable trees to prevent damage from salt and extreme temperatures.

DON’T overwater houseplants. Because of shorter days and reduced humidity, most houseplants aren’t in an active growth phase, so they’ll require less water and fertilizer.

DO keep houseplants away from cold drafts, radiators, hot air vents, and cold windows. Plants growing in sunny east- or north-facing windows may benefit from being moved to a southern or western exposure for winter.

DON’T try to remove ice or snow that has frozen onto your outdoor plants. You might inadvertently damage them. Let it melt off on its own.

DO start to plan your garden for the new year. Order seeds and bulbs during the winter so you’ll be ready to plant in the spring. Need some help? Come to Super Seed Weekend on January 27 and 28 to talk to experts, attend a workshop, and find seeds and bulbs for your garden.

Ornithogalum 'Chesapeake Snowflake'

Ornithogalum ‘Chesapeake Snowflake’

Get more indoor and outdoor plant care tips with our monthly plant care checklists.

Plan for spring with a class in Front Yard Design, Backyard DesignGrowing Salads Indoors, or Small Space Food Gardens

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Why did five Midwestern horticulturists hike through the oak-hickory forests of the Missouri Ozarks? And why did we need a desiderata? The first question is easy—we were on the trail of specific wildflowers and woody plants to preserve and add to our collections.

Collections trip horticulturists Mike Jesiolowski, Tom Weaver, Josh Schultes, Kelly Norris, and Steve McNamara

Collections trip horticulturists Michael Jesiolowski, Tom Weaver, Josh Schultes, Kelly Norris, and Steve McNamara (left to right)

In a trip funded by the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), a consortium of public gardens, Tom Weaver (horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden) and I (senior horticulturist, Entrance Gardens) joined Kelly Norris (the trip leader) and Josh Schultes of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, along with Steve McNamara of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Before we left, our desiderata—or essential list of desirable plants we would target—was developed, based on what plants our gardens deemed important for conservation, to fill a gap in our collections, or add beauty to our display gardens. And of course, we had the proper state and federal permits in hand for seed collecting. The six areas that we explored were typically oak-hickory forests, which opened up to rocky-soiled glades and provided for plentiful opportunity for collecting wildflowers. With an eye for distinct plant material and genetic diversity, we roamed through the uneven Ozarks terrain, but we weren’t tied to our wish list—we also found a couple of surprises.

Glade opening at Roaring River State Park

Glade opening at Roaring River State Park

Since seed-grown plants are reproduced sexually through pollination, via wind or insects/animals, they are genetically variable. A variety of genes can give each plant the best chance to exhibit a specific phenotype, or physical appearance, and better adaptability to survive pests and diseases. Where seeds are collected could have significant implications on whether a plant can survive in a given environment or not. For instance, we collected seeds of Echinacea paradoxa (yellow coneflower) from its northern most growing region, in Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Missouri. Selecting seeds of Missouri provenance gives this wildflower a better chance of survival in our region, rather than if the seeds had been collected in Texas. Plants that have a different phenotype from what we commonly observe in northern Illinois were of special interest to us. Fruit from Diospyros virginiana (common persimmon) was collected on a 4-foot-tall tree in Mark Twain National Forest because it is unusual to see fruit on a tree of such short stature. In a similar fashion, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry), was collected from the Big Buffalo Creek Conservation Area, after we all remarked at the stunning ornamental quality of the fruit display.  

Yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)

Yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Josh Schultes examines some holly (Ilex decidua) for collection.

Josh Schultes examines possumhaw holly for collection.

In some cases, we came across desirable plants, but they had already dropped their seed for the year, or simply didn’t produce any due to drought-induced stress. With the aid of GPS, we marked these areas so future explorers to the Ozarks are aware of these plants for their potential collections. For example, Boyce Tankersley, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s director of living plant documentation, was a part of a team that collected in many of these same areas in 2005; their field data was helpful in our search.

Dotted blazingstar (Liatris punctata)

Dotted blazingstar (Liatris punctata)

Although the Ozarks region experienced a late-summer drought that negatively impacted seed production in some instances, we were still able to make 71 collections from October 12 to 16. Our seeds will be grown in our plant production greenhouses. Once they achieve a certain size, they will be distributed to PCC members and planted in the Garden. I am ecstatic to cross Liatris punctata (dotted blazingstar) off the desiderata for use in my gravel garden project in parking lot 1. The seeds we collected should be ready to plant in these beds in two years.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and

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

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