Archives For Horticulture & Display Gardens

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

For many people, lilacs are a sentimental flower. My mother planted many lilacs on our farm in Kansas. The scent carried across the yard as I played. When my husband and I started our family, planting a lilac in our garden was a priority so our children will have the same heavenly memory of the fragrance and flower.

Over the years I have tried to bring the bounty of this flower into my home and have often failed. The flowers would droop within an hour of bringing them inside, even though I had them in a clean vase full of fresh water. Through trial and error I found the trick to help the blooms last as long as possible:

Fill a bucket half full of fresh, cool water, and have it at hand as you cut blooms. Pick flowers in the cool of the morning or evening. Lilacs open very little after harvest, so choose stems that have at least three-quarters of the flowers open. Next, remove all of the leaves so the plant isn’t putting its effort into keeping the leaves hydrated. Place stems in the water. Leave the bucket in a cool, dark place and allow the flowers to take up water for at least an hour.

Pick flowers in the cool of morning or evening.

Pick flowers in the cool of morning or evening.

Remove all of the leaves from each stem.

Remove all of the leaves from each stem.

Next, using heavy clippers, recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches. Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward. Immediately place the cut stems back into the bucket of water.  Allow the stems to take up more water in a cool, dark place for another one to two hours. The lilacs will then be ready for arranging, and will last three to four days.

Recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches.

Recut the stem ends, then slice vertically up the stem 1-2 inches.

Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward.

Grasp one side of the sliced stem and twist backward.

An arrangement of fragrant Evangeline hyacinth lilac (Syringa xhyacinthiflora 'Evangeline')

Our finished bouquet: an arrangement of fragrant Evangeline hyacinth lilac (Syringa ×hyacinthiflora ‘Evangeline’)


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

I put together my top five picks for all-around Best Midwest plants after being contacted by editors at Midwest Living magazine.

Polling a number of experts in the Midwest, the editors asked for recommendations of award-worthy plants and then came up with a list of great plants that gardeners can count on. (I was happy to note some of the winners are proven perennials from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s trials, as well as plants I’ve grown and loved for a long time.)

Here’s my shortlist—including one with crazy beautiful flowers and one that’s so easy to grow that you basically just plant it in the right spot and water it.

See the plants that made it on to the Midwest Living list.

Best for Sun

‘Joanna Reed’ catmint (Nepeta ‘Joanna Reed’) is one of the tidiest catmints I’ve ever grown, an attribute that cinched a top rating in our trial. The strong stems never flopped and new shoots grow quickly to conceal the declining flowers stems, thus eliminating the need for deadheading. Compact, wide spreading plants (24 inches tall and 48 inches wide) are covered with a continuous display of violet-blue flowers from spring into fall; if you’re thinking that means loads of pollinators, you’d be right! The aromatic, dusty green leaves are not only attractive but also unpalatable to deer—a bragging point shared by many catmints.

Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantia) and catmint (Nepeta) in the Garden.

Fuzzy lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) pair well with catmint (Nepeta—in the background).

To me, lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) is an essential perennial for sunny gardens and ‘Big Ears’ is my favorite. Its large, pale silvery-green leaves are velvety soft and the perfect color and textural foil for other perennials—it looks good with both hot- and cool-colored flowers. ‘Big Ears’ is a shy flowerer; in fact, it is touted as non-flowering. Occasionally, a fuzzy flower stem or two pops up with tiny purple flowers hidden in woolly clusters. Low growing and spreading (14 inches tall and 30 inches wide), ‘Big Ears’ is a great groundcover or massing plant. Both of these sun-loving perennials like well-drained soils and are tolerant of hot, dry conditions.

Best Native Plant

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) makes my list of best native plants because its flowers are crazy beautiful, and it might just be one of the most important plants of the day. Honestly, the eye-catching bright orange flowers are reason enough to love this plant, but the fact that they attract a myriad of butterflies, including the beloved monarch, makes them invaluable. The survival and success of the monarch butterfly is tied directly to butterfly weed—the caterpillar feeds on the leaves and the adult butterfly on the nectar. Butterfly weed is a great garden perennial in formal and naturalistic plantings, and because it is commonly seed-grown, flower color varies from orange to yellow to nearly red. The Perennial Plant Association named Asclepias tuberosa the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

Best Annual

Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue')

Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’)

I haven’t evaluated annuals in more than 20 years, and I don’t personally grow many annuals. However, I’m a huge fan of tender sages—so much so that we started a trial of 105 different nonhardy sages last year. Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ has been around for a while and has proven to be a phenomenal plant for seasonal displays in containers and garden borders. The combination of cobalt blue flowers and near-black calyces and stems is stunning. It blooms from midsummer to frost and attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees aplenty. ‘Black and Blue’ is a rapid grower, reaching 2 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide in a summer, and is best suited to sunny locations.

Best Plant-It-and-Forget-It

Hosta sieboldiana 'Elegans'

Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’

Hostas are quintessential plant-it-and-forget-it perennials. Long-lived and easy-care, hostas come in a wide variety of colors, forms, and sizes. Success is as simple as providing them with adequate water and planting them in partial to dappled shade. Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ features thick, corrugated blue-green leaves and near-white funnel-shaped flowers in early summer. ‘Elegans’ is robust at 30 inches tall and 48 inches wide, with heart-shaped leaves more than a foot long. Hostas rarely, if ever, need division—I have a big planting of ‘Elegans’ in my home garden that has been in place for more than 20 years with no care beyond removing the old leaves in the spring.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring is my favorite time of year. As the manager of horticultural events, I have the pleasure of working with the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society to plan the yearly Fall Bulb Sale as part of the Fall Bulb Festival. I spend a little more than half of my year thinking about spring-blooming bulbs, and I love it.

The National Garden Bureau has declared daffodils as the 2017 flower of the year. For me daffodils reign supreme. There is a wide variety of shapes and colors to choose from—some are even fragrant—and best of all, critters do not dig them up or eat them when they are blooming.

Narcissus 'Tweety Bird'

Narcissus ‘Tweety Bird’

Daffodils are classified by the shape and size of the cup (or trumpet) and the petals. For example, Division 1 Trumpet Daffodils have a cup or trumpet that measures longer than the length of the petals. (The Royal Horticultural Society lists 13 divisions for daffodils.) This season, I am especially fond of Narcissus ‘Tweety Bird’. The flower is petite, but still has the stature and allure of the stately trumpet daffodil—with a slight twist: the petals reflex back, making it a Division 6 Cyclamineus Daffodil.

I am often asked to decipher the difference between Narcissus, daffodil, and jonquil. Narcissus refers to the botanical name for this group of flowers. “Daffodil” is the common name for this group, and “jonquil” actually refers to a specific kind of Narcissus (daffodil).

Nothing says Spring like a daffodil bouquet.

Nothing says spring like a daffodil bouquet.

Daffodils as cut flowers are a giant perk of the spring season. Generally, they have a vase life of nearly a week if harvested before the flowers are fully open. Daffodils ooze a slimy sap that is toxic to other flowers and will shorten their vase life. To avoid affecting other flowers in an arrangement, “condition” daffodils by placing freshly cut stems into cool water for two to three hours first. During that time, the stem ends will callus over and the toxic sap will stop flowing. The daffodil stems (do not recut the ends) can be added with other flowers, or you can create an arrangement using only daffodils.

Want to know more about cultivating Narcissus? Visit our daffodil page for links and tips.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has 219 daffodil varieties—a total of 521,802 bulbs—resulting in more than one million blooms during the spring season (starting in late March and lasting all the way through late May, and sometimes into early June). There are many “sweet spots” in the Garden to find your new favorite variety of daffodil. I especially love the Sensory Garden, Evening Island, and of course, the Graham Bulb Garden. I hope to see you out enjoying the daffodil vistas in the Garden.

Viewable from the Visitor Center bridge and the Crescent Garden, Bird Island is currently abloom with daffodils.

Viewable from the Visitor Center bridge and the Crescent Garden, Bird Island is currently abloom with daffodils.

Come see the 2017 Midwest Daffodil Society Show on Saturday, April 29, noon – 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 30, 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fragrance is one of the benefits of a garden that is often overlooked.

Lots of thought is given to plants’ textures, colors, seasonality, sizes—all important visual characteristics without a doubt—but a garden with scents provides a deeper, richer experience by supplementing visual stimuli with olfactory. 

Fragrances, like music, often elicit memories, and so this short list of favorite fragrant plants includes a number that I experienced when I was younger. People, places, time—all are recalled with great fondness in a single whiff. 

Also among the list are a number of annuals that are perfect for containers, which allow the gardener to move plants into prominence as they reach their peak throughout the season.

Finally, I believe every garden should have a least one rose; and that it should be fragrant. Rosa ‘Mister Lincoln’, with deep velvety red petals and incredible tea rose fragrance, has stood the test of time. Both Honey Perfume™ (Rosa ‘JACarque’) and Rosa ‘Apricot Nectar’ reflect the current desire to combine fragrance with beauty and disease resistance in a hardy shrub rose. The Chicago Peace rose (Rosa ‘Chicago Peace’) earned a place at the top of our list long before we moved to Chicago with its creamy yellow flowers tinged with pink along the edges of the petals and a delicate rose fragrance. My wife would be upset if I didn’t mention her favorite, a David Austin shrub rose by the name of Evelyn (Rosa ‘AUSsaucer’), which bears delicate apricot-to-pink single-to-double quartered flowers—and a wonderful fragrance.

Rosa 'Mister Lincoln'

Rosa ‘Mister Lincoln’

Honey Perfume rose (Rosa 'JACarque')

Honey Perfume™ rose (Rosa ‘JACarque’)

Evelyn rose (Rosa 'AUSsaucer')

Evelyn rose (Rosa ‘AUSsaucer’)
Photo by Patrick Nouhailler [CC 2.0].

And now, the list:

Honeysuckles are among the most fragrant of garden plants available, but many of the most common are non-native and have begun to “jump the fence” and invade natural areas. Many of the sterile cultivars, unfortunately, are not fragrant, and the species native to the southeastern United States are not reliably hardy (Lonicera sempervirens). Fortunately Lonicera flava—also native to this region—is fragrant. Its yellow-to-orange summer blooms are followed by showy (but inedible) berries in fall.

Lonicera flava honeysuckle is a fragrant and hardy variety.

Lonicera flava honeysuckle is a fragrant and hardy variety. Photo via southeasternflora.com.

Tuberose, Polianthes tuberosa, is a nonhardy (for us) bulb from northern Mexico with an intoxicating scent so distinctive it is known simply as “tuberose.” Creamy white flowers on spikes appear from late summer up to frost. Like many fragrant plants, the scent was developed to attract night-flying pollinators and becomes more intense as late afternoon transitions to evening. Tuberose is great in a large container or can be planted in flower beds.

Hosta have long been used by gardeners to fill parts of the garden that are heavily shaded. While they all flower, ‘Royal Standard’ (among others), produces large, white intensely fragrant (in the evening) flowers in late summer.

Oncidium Sharry Baby 'Sweet Fragrance'

Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’

One of the featured plants from the Garden’s recent Orchid Show, Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’ is easily grown on a brightly lit windowsill in the home. A relatively small plant maturing at about 6 inches in height, it produces sprays of pinkish red, sweetly fragrant flowers almost year-round. It’s not overpowering.

At the end of the daffodil season, end of May to the beginning of June, a small-statured Narcissus jonquilla fills the garden with delightfully sweet scents. Relatively small in stature, the bright yellow flowers, one to three per stem, are produced above grass-like foliage. Unlike some of the larger leafed cultivars, there is rarely a need to fuss with the foliage as it dies back. Tuck it in among perennials and small shrubs.

Garden stock (Matthiola incana) is another one of those plant groups that for a while, featured size, shape, and color of the flowers at the expense of fragrance. Fortunately the pendulum has swung back and a number of modern cultivars feature fragrance in addition to some really cool colors.

Prairifire crabapple (Malus 'Prairifire')

Prairifire crabapple (Malus ‘Prairifire’)

Crabapples bloom here at the Garden, reliably on Mother’s Day, and their fragrance is another one so distinctive as to be given its own name. Malus ‘Prairifire’ is not only fragrant, but is smaller in size—perfectly suited for modern gardens. It features white to pink flowers and showy red fruit in fall.

Paeonia 'Festiva Maxima'

Paeonia ‘Festiva Maxima’

The herbaceous peony Festiva Maxima is an old cultivar but its fragrance has earned it a spot in the moving van during every move. White flowers flecked with red have that wonderful peony fragrance. It needs staking and if planted in a crowded location, is susceptible to powdery mildew. Recipes online provide instructions on using the petals to make peony-scented jelly—a very delicate, flavored sweet with a light pink color. Small nectar glands on the sides of the flower buds attract small ants to the plants. The ants don’t pollinate the flowers, but they are important to the dispersal of the seeds later in the year. The seeds feature an elaiosome (fleshy appendage) that the ants strip off and feed upon once they have hauled the seed to their nest—insuring the dispersal of peony seeds. The nectar is simply there to make sure they are around when the seeds are ripe.

Phlox paniculata 'David'

Phlox paniculata ‘David’

Many of the garden phlox, Phlox paniculata, feature a vanilla clove fragrance in mid-summer. The cultivar ‘David’ features pure white flowers on disease-resistant foliage. I let it reseed in the garden, and the results are spectacular—the offspring feature light to dark lavender flowers surrounding the white parent.

Nicotiana alata 'Perfume Deep Purple'

Nicotiana alata ‘Perfume Deep Purple’

Fragrant tobacco, Nicotiana alata, produces tall spikes of sweetly scented long, tubular white flowers throughout the summer. I let mine reseed underneath the dryer vent, ensuring a return the following year. This plant is great in containers or used as an in-ground annual.

Clove currant (Ribes odoratum) is an underutilized medium-sized shrub with bright yellow flowers with, you guessed it, the scent of cloves. This is a great plant as a mounded specimen or can be utilized as a hedge.

Butterfly bushes are another of the “must have” sweetly scented garden plants. Like others on this list, the cultivars I grew up with have developed a bad habit of “jumping the fence” and invading natural areas. Plant breeders have risen to the challenge and produced a number of sterile hybrids. Lo & Behold Blue Chip is smaller in stature with lavender-to-blue flowers with the classic fragrance. Asian Moon is a larger growing cultivar with deep purple petals surrounding the orange throat and a rich, sweet fragrance.

Pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, is a classic selection for a “brush against” plant for a location near a walkway or door. Dill, parsley, basil, thyme, rosemary, scented geraniums, and many other herbs can be selected to add their notes to the garden, depending on the gardener’s tastes.

Heliotrope arborescens

Heliotropium arborescens

Heliotrope, Heliotropium arborescens, rounds out the favorites list. Deep purple flower clusters add a wonderfully sweet scent to the landscape and work out well in containers or in-ground locations.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What is old is new again.

The dinosaur of the plant kingdom, a Wollemia pine tree (Wollemia nobilis), has surprised horticulturists at the Chicago Botanic Garden with a burst of promising male and female cones this winter.

In Glencoe, the sole tree spends its winters in the carefully controlled environment of the production greenhouse. In the wild, its relatives are clinging to life on remote sandstone gorges in the Blue Mountains of Australia.

“It is probably the most watched plant in the Garden right now,” said Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation. Little is known about the prehistoric species that is part of a genus dating back 65 million years. The Garden’s specimen is a youthful 8 years old, and is just beginning to show off its unusual characteristics.

“In this case, there is such little information in the literature,” noted Tankersley, who was amazed to see both male and female cones emerging from the tree’s branches earlier this year. “We don’t know enough about this plant to know if it is going to set seed…but at least it is producing cones, which will allow us to try some experiments,” he said. The tree has grown male cones in recent years, but this is the first year it has produced any female cones.

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis female cone.

Wollemia nobilis female cone

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis male cone.

Wollemia nobilis male cone

Scientists do know that the species that has managed to survive the test of time possesses some unusual adaptations. It can generate new seedlings by dropping specific branches that take root, or it can exchange pollen from male to female cones to generate seed.  

At the Garden, scientists plan to pollinate the tree when the time is right. They will use pollen from the tree itself, and if available, pollen from a tree at another botanic garden. They will also reserve pollen for a potential future exchange.

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis in the Heritage Garden in summer.

Find Wollemia nobilis in the Heritage Garden in the summer months.

Trees in the wild population are believed to be closely related to one another. As a result, any seeds they produce have a low level of viability. Only 6 percent or fewer go on to become healthy, mature trees. The species is listed as critically endangered. The urgency to save the pines is accelerated by changes in climate. Their mountain home is experiencing increasingly hotter and drier weather than ever before.

According to Tankersley, there is hope that more diversity may be found within the propagated plants, and that their offspring could lead to a stronger future for the species. However, scientists are only mildly optimistic. “In a world where there is so much that we can’t do anything about, it’s good to have something where you can participate in efforts to keep something from going extinct,” he said. “This plant is not gone; there’s something we might be able to do to help it out.” In addition, the plant may inform the research of paleobotanists who rarely have the opportunity to see a live plant with such historic roots to compare against the fossil record. “In a scientific way, we’ve been looking at the earth in a relatively short period of time,” added Tankersley. “When we find something like this that is very uncommon, everything about it is unknown…it’s sort of a miniature warehouse that we don’t want to lose because in the future, it may be more important than a mere botanical curiosity.”

The horticultural team also takes the cone production as validation that they are meeting the plant’s very particular growing requirements.

The Garden’s Wollemia pine spends its summers in the Australia bed of the Heritage Garden. Tankersley anticipates that it will be back on display this June.

As for the voyage of discovery with this extraordinary plant, he says, it is to be continued…


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org