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

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

Last month, torrential rains fell over much of our region, particularly in Lake and McHenry counties, as well as southeastern Wisconsin. Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, high water levels in the Skokie River forced us to close on July 13 and 14—the first time in the Garden’s history that we’ve been closed to visitors for two consecutive days. 

So what exactly happened that required us to close? And how did the flooding affect our plants? 

Flooding at the visitor entrance’s main intersection

Flooding at the visitor entrance’s main intersection

Skokie River watershed map

The Skokie River watershed, highlighted in blue. (Click here for larger view.)

The Garden is situated in the “watershed” of the Skokie River that extends north to Waukegan. A portion of the rain that falls in this upstream, 20-square-mile watershed eventually finds its way to the Skokie River. During the early morning of July 12, between 3 and 5 inches of rain fell in that watershed area over a matter of hours, resulting in a rapid rise in the Skokie River as it flows around the west side of the Garden. In fact, the rainfall was so severe that portions of the village of Lake Bluff (located in our watershed) experienced rainfall intensity and quantity that is predicted to occur with a frequency of only about once every 140 years.

Prior to the Garden’s creation, the Skokie River meandered through the middle of our property. As the Garden began to take shape in the late 1960s, heavy construction equipment excavated our lakes (some exceed 16 feet deep), and those soils were then used to create the islands and display gardens that you enjoy today.

At the same time, the Skokie River was moved into a defined channel on the west side of our property near the highway, and two dams were installed at the north and south ends of our lake system to isolate it from the river except during high flows (see graphic). These dams were installed to help protect communities downstream of the Garden from flooding: if levels in the Skokie River rise high enough, river water flows over the north dam into the Garden lakes and we’ll temporarily store over 100 million gallons of floodwater. After the river’s flood peak has passed, we slowly release that water out of the Garden’s lakes and back into the Skokie River.

Map of the lakes and dams in the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Map of the lakes and dams in the Chicago Botanic Garden. (Click here for a larger view.)

Last month’s flooding at the Garden was dramatic. Our lake levels rose more than 5.5 feet above normal and were on par with the highest we’ve ever encountered. At one point early in the flood, an intersection along the Garden’s visitor entrance was submerged under more than 30 inches of water—thereby necessitating our closure.

The image below shows one of our service roads during normal water levels as it crosses a narrow point in our lake system. Compare that image to the video, taken at the peak of the floodwater inflow to the Garden, showing swift and powerful water flowing through this area. 

About three days after the heavy rains fell, the flood peak had passed, and the Garden was able to begin releasing lake water back into the Skokie River via a 10,000 gallon-per-minute pump near the south dam. Nine days later, all 100 million gallons of floodwater had been removed and our lake levels were back to normal.

The Rose Garden causeway August 16, 2017

One of the Garden’s service roads on August 16, 2017; and below, on July 13, 2017

The images below illustrate the extent of the high water levels at the Garden. Remember, at their peak, the lake levels were more than 5.5 feet above normal.

The Serpentine Bridge on July 13, 2017

The Serpentine Bridge on July 13, 2017

The Serpentine Bridge on August 22, 2017

The Serpentine Bridge on August 22, 2017

The lower walkway pergola in the Bulb Garden on July 13, 2017

The lower walkway pergola in the Graham Bulb Garden on July 13, 2017

The lower walkway pergola in the Bulb Garden on August 16, 2017

The lower walkway pergola in the Bulb Garden on August 16, 2017

Because the Garden was intentionally designed from the very beginning to accept and temporarily store floodwater from the Skokie River, we’ve experienced few long-term impacts from the recent flood. None of our buildings took on any water. Most of the vegetation near the lakeshore that went underwater survived. There was some damage to plants in the Garden—a few inundation-sensitive shrubs and herbaceous plants, as well as some turf were affected (particularly along the water’s edge of the Malott Japanese Garden). Some were pruned and others may need to be replaced with more water-tolerant taxa. Importantly, more than 500,000 native shoreline plants that we’ve installed along the Garden’s lakeshore withstood being underwater for up to nine days without impact. These plants will continue their important “engineering function” to stabilize our fragile shoreline soils and keep the slopes from eroding into the lake.

The recent heavy rainfall and flooding were of historic proportions and caused devastation to many communities in our region. Looking forward, residents can take steps to help lessen flooding: for example, installing a rain garden on your property can help reduce flooding, particularly for small- and modest-sized storm events; click here for more information. Regional solutions for stormwater management can be particularly beneficial for larger rainfall events. Countywide stormwater management agencies in our region work to implement flood control programs and help homeowners who have been affected by flooding. For more information about these agencies and the programs they offer, in Cook County, contact the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District; in Lake County, contact the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission.

And so while the recent flooding may have left a bit of soil residue on some leaves of plants located nearest the lakeshore, rest assured that all is quite well here at the Garden. In fact, the frequent rains this summer have contributed to luxuriant growth and some amazing blooms, and we look forward to a continued explosion of color as summer progresses into fall.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Sunshine is the latest corpse flower at the Chicago Botanic Garden to bloom.

A member of the Aroid plant family (Araceae) from Sumatra, it has a number of titan arum relatives at the Garden from around the world.

Sunshine the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in the Sensory Garden

Sunshine the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in the Sensory Garden

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) are the two most common Chicago natives in this family. Other relatives hail from continents, regions, countries, and islands. Taxa growing at the Garden have the following native ranges: North America, Northeastern United States and Canada, Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, Russian Far East, Kamchatka Island, Sakalin Island, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Greece, Republic of Georgia, Spain, Italy, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Tibet, Burma, Himalayan Mountains, Yemen, Mexico, Central America, Panama, Guatemala, Caribbean Islands, South America, Colombia, Peru, South Africa, and Lesotho.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
Photo by Jacob Burns

Not only is it widespread, the members are also adapted to a number of environments from hot, humid Sumatra rain forests where Sunshine calls home to cold, temperate deciduous forests, temperate and tropical wetlands, Mediterranean climates, and deserts.

Find caladiums and others as you stroll Brazil in the Garden this summer; visit #CBGSunshine the titan arum outside in the Sensory Garden and stay tuned for a potential bloom!

The Araceae is one of the larger plant families, containing 117 different genera. The Garden features 27 of those genera containing 152 species and cultivars. Our GardenGuide smartphone app features the locations where Sunshine’s family can be seen throughout the Garden. Many are grown ornamentally for their attractive leaf shape (philodendrons, anthuriums) and colorations (elephant ears, caladiums, dieffenbachia, pothos, taro) while others, anthuriums and Calla lilies chief among them, are grown for their attractive flowers. While not all members of the family smell bad—the Calla lily, for instance, has a light citrus fragrance and anthuriums don’t have any fragrance at all—many are real stinkers with common names like Dead Horse Arum, Dead Mouse Arum, and Corpse Flower.

Caladium bicolor 'White Dynasty'

White Dynasty caladium (Caladium bicolor) ‘White Dynasty’

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aetiopica)

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aetiopica)

Caladium 'Red Flash'

Red Flash elephant ear (Caladium ‘Red Flash’)

Most members of the family contain a number of compounds (often including calcium oxylate crystals) in their sap to deter herbivores that illicit a mechanical gag reflex in people. Calcium oxylate crystals look like glass shards on steroids under a microscope and play havoc with the soft tissues of the inside of the mouth, tongue, and throat. The most notable food crop in this family? Taro, or poi. Preparation of the starchy tubers have adapted techniques over the centuries that remove the toxic compounds.

Ready for an Aroid treasure hunt?

Find these titan arum relatives as you stroll the Tropical Greenhouse, where a titan arum leaf is also housed. Can you spot the family resemblance? 

Anthurium andraeanum 'White Heart'

Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum ‘White Heart’) is a classic anthurium flower of the florist trade in white with a red spadix; find it near the east entrance.

Anthurium x garfieldii

Find Garfield anthurium (Anthurium × garfieldii) in classical birds’ nest form with a long, thin flowering spathe and a spadix in dark maroon. Photo by horticulturist Wade Wheatley.

Monstera deliciosa

Split leaf philodendron or Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) has a vining habit; it is clambering up the side of the greenhouse sporting large, deeply divided leaves.

Dieffenbachia 'Camouflage'

Its name says it all: Camouflage dumb cane (Dieffenbachia ‘Camouflage’) is hidden west of the palm alleé.

Amorphophallus titanum leaves in the Production Greenhouses

Amorphophallus titanum leaves in the production greenhouses. Find one in the Tropical Greenhouse, too.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Towering palms, bold swaths of color, and tropical plants have transformed the Chicago Botanic Garden into an exotic paradise this year for Brazil in the Garden.

To create the “Brazil effect,” floriculturist Tim Pollak and Andrew Bunting, the Garden’s assistant director and director of plant collections, drew from designs by renowned Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who was known for his bold, modernist style.

We talked with Pollak and Bunting to learn how you can grow a Brazil-inspired tropical garden.

Aechmea 'Blue Tango'

Aechmea ‘Blue Tango’

1. Find color in foliage

Burle Marx used bold, bright colors such as purple, orange, and green in his gardens. When planting your garden, Pollak recommended choosing foliage plants with various shades of green. Foliage tones are endless: silvers, blues, bronze, and burgundy. Foliage plants can also bring out the colors of flowers, and vice versa. For instance, if your garden’s foliage is silver, blue, and purple, pops of white flowers will enhance the foliage colors. “Remember,” Pollak said, “there are no rules when it comes to color.” Complementary or monochromatic schemes are subject to taste. But gardens can still be attractive without flowers. Instead, think of flowers as icing on the cake.

Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum 'Pie Crust'

The bright, speckled foliage of Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum ‘Pie Crust’ provides a host of contrasting color all in one plant.

2. Use contrasting textures and shapes

Burle Marx was known for using large swaths of contrasting textures and forms in his landscape designs. Get the Burle Marx effect by choosing plants with various surfaces and shapes. For instance, Pollak said to think about the foliage of your plant—is it shiny or muted? Waxy or fuzzy? Is the venation (patterns of veins on the leaf) netted or in parallel lines? Are the shapes of the leaves long and thin, or short and wide? When shopping at your local garden center or nursery, follow Pollak’s trick: Lay your plants next to each other on your cart or on the floor. You’ll see which plants have different styles, which create a lush, biodiverse mood in your garden.

Calathea burlemarmii 'Burle Marx' and Heuchera 'Dark Mystery'

This Burle Marx peacock plant (Calathea burlemarmii ‘Burle Marx’) surrounded by the dark purple leaves of Dark Mystery coral bells (Heuchera ‘Dark Mystery’)

3. Think: thrillers, fillers, and spillers

Pollak and Bunting often advise gardeners to think “thrillers, fillers, and spillers” when planning their garden design. By using a combination of these kinds of plants, you can easily create a varied garden design. Here’s a breakdown of the three types:

  • Thrillers: Tall plants are your “wow factors.” They’re dramatic, and stand out in your garden. Think of these plants as conversation starters. Pollak and Bunting recommend palms (Arecaceae), elephant ears (Colocasia), and cannas (Canna generalis) for Brazil-themed “thrillers.”
  • Fillers: Medium-sized plants fill space in your garden. They can be interesting foliage plants or flowers, or flowers with interesting foliage. Pollak and Bunting recommend Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) and firecracker plants (Cuphea ignea) for Brazil-themed “fillers.”
  • Spillers: Low plants spill out of a container, or trail along the foot of your garden bed. Pollak and Bunting recommend sweet potato plants (Ipomoea batata) and purple spiderwort (Tradescantia pallida) for Brazil-themed “spillers.”
"Thrillers," "spillers," and "fillers" in the Crescent Garden.

In the Crescent Garden, Bismarck fan palms (Bismarckia nobilis) and canna (Canna × generalis ‘Orange Punch’) create “thrillers.” The spectacular foliage of Grecian urn plant (Quesnalia marmota) and bromeliad Neoregelia ‘Sunkiss’ fill in the planting (“fillers”). Mexican bluebell (Ruellia brittoniana ‘Purple Showers’) and Purple Heart spiderwort (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’) create the “spillers” in the grouping.

4. Create repetition for effect

When arriving at the Garden’s Visitor Center, you might imagine you’ve landed in Miami. Rows of swaying coconut palms, towers of bromeliads, and beds of elephant ears greet visitors as they walk through the Garden. The tropical illusion is deliberate: We repeated similar plants in our beds to broaden the Garden’s designs, making small spaces look larger. In your own garden, you can use swaths of similar plants in rows or curving shapes. The result may transport you to the tropics.

Repetition for effect: planting areas with a single plant create an effect of making an area seem larger.

Repetition for effect: planting areas with a single plant create an effect of making an area seem larger. Golden yellow Duranta erecta ‘Aurea’ is planted around a Buccaneer palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii). Dark Neoregelia ‘Royal Burgundy’ is planted at the front of the bed alongside a grouping of fine-textured Stipa tenuissima feather grass. Behind the palm, a grouping of spiky-leafed Naranjilla contrasts with the fuzzy-leaves of Tibouchina grandifolia.

5. Add a touch of tropics

Planting a tropical-themed garden doesn’t require you to use 100 percent tropical plants, said Bunting, but a few plants can have an impact. To create a Brazil-themed garden, do as Burle Marx did: Find plants within your reach. That is, at your local garden center or nursery, find palms or other tropical plants that can be brought inside for the winter. To care for tropical plants, keep in mind they thrive in heat and humidity, and need plenty of moisture. Use supplementary fertilizer to keep them healthy and thriving. And remember, if you want the tropical effect without tropical plants, there are plenty of ways to think creatively by using bold houseplants, annuals, and perennials.

Aechmea 'Yellow Berries'

Vase plant (Aechmea ‘Yellow Berries’) adds a perfect touch of the tropics to your summer displays.

Learn more about the flora and fauna of Brazil in our upcoming conservation talks, held on the following Thursdays from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Linnaeus Room, Regenstein Center.

AUG
10
Birds of Brazil
Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist, The Field Museum
AUG
17
A Butterfly Adventure in the Amazon Basin
Doug Taron, chief curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
SEP
28
Plant Diversity and Conservation in Brazil
Pat Herendeen, senior director, Systematics and Evolutionary Biology, Chicago Botanic Garden
OCT
12
Mycological Adventures in Brazil
Greg Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science, Chicago Botanic Garden

Photos by Tia Mitchell Photography
©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How did the Chicago Botanic Garden end up sharing one of the most sought-after strawberry plants in the world with a three-star Michelin restaurant?   

The collaboration and conservation initiative began after Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg happened to meet Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener for the renowned French Laundry restaurant in California’s Napa Valley. At a conference in Iowa, their conversation turned to the rare Marshall Strawberry, known for its exceptional flavor. Keefer mentioned that he would love to grow the plant at the French Laundry, where the prepaid lunch tasting menu begins at $310 a person.

What is the Marshall strawberry?

Strawberry plant in fruit and flower

Strawberries flower and fruit at the same time.

The Marshall strawberry has a storied history. In the early twentieth century, it was a widely grown strawberry variety. James Beard, the legendary cook and television personality, once said he thought the Marshall was “the finest eating strawberry in America.” But by the 1950s, the Marshall had largely been replaced by other cultivars because, due to disease and its short shelf life, it became an expensive strawberry to produce. By 2007, the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon, was one of the few places to even have Marshall strawberry plants. Now, a handful of private growers is trying to bring it back to prominence.

The Garden’s role

Leah Gauthier, an artist from Maine, is one of the only certified distributors for the once critically endangered berry. Through her website, marshallstrawberry.com, Gauthier sells the plants as they become available. Only nine are available for order this year, and once they’re sold out, the next batch won’t be available until 2019.

In 2012, Hilgenberg was given three Marshall plants from Gauthier, who was living in Indiana at the time. Gauthier drove to the Garden to personally deliver the fragile cargo. Hilgenberg got the Marshall plants into the ground right away at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden; one was promptly stolen. But by 2013, Hilgenberg was able to propagate 50 of the strawberry plants, thus helping to preserve and conserve this unique strawberry.  

After her chance meeting with the French Laundry’s Keefer in summer 2016, Hilgenberg agreed to send him some Marshall plants. Coincidentally, the same week that Hilgenberg sent the plants to the French Laundry, Aaron Bertelsen, the gardener/chef at Great Dixter House & Gardens in the United Kingdom, was visiting the Garden. When Bertelsen also expressed an interest in the strawberry plants, Hilgenberg shared some with Great Dixter as well.

Hilgenberg said she hasn’t heard of any other public gardens that have shared plants with culinary gardens like those at the French Laundry and Great Dixter. But to her it seemed like a great opportunity to be part of “a conservation effort connecting more people to this plant.”

StrawberriesSee photos of the beautiful fruits and vegetables being grown at the French Laundry, Great Dixter, and the Chicago Botanic Garden by following Aaron Keefer (tfl_culinarygarden), Aaron Bertelsen (aaronbertelsenofficial), and Lisa Hilgenberg (hilgenberg8) on Instagram.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org