Archives For Behind the Scenes

An uncommon look at how the Chicago Botanic Garden’s beauty is created and cultivated.

As Wonderland Express gets ready to open its doors to visitors on the day after Thanksgiving, there are many behind-the-scenes activities that are happening to create this colorful show for the holidays. 

PHOTO: panorama of poinsettias in the production greenhouses.

A poinsettia panorama has been in production all this past summer.

Wonderland Express will be open November 25, 2016 – January 2, 2017. Get your tickets today.

In the Plant Production greenhouses, the process of preparing the poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) for Wonderland Express starts much earlier: around mid-summer! The majority of the poinsettias start to arrive in July as rooted cuttings, only about 2 to 3 inches tall. All of these plants are transplanted into their finished pot sizes based on the requests and the ultimate uses for the plants in the displays. In fact, just over 1,000 plants were grown for this year’s display.

Care is taken for each plant—pinching the plants to produce more branches, tying them to keep them upright and sturdier, fertilizing, and controlling the light exposure to time the blooms. This is just some of the loving care the plants receive from the production staff.

PHOTO: Winter Rose Eggnog poinsettia.

Winter Rose Eggnog poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Winter Rose Eggnog’)

In the beginning of the crop cycle, the plants grow best under the long, natural days of summer day length. But when it is time to begin to force them into color, the use of short days is required to initiate flowering about 9 to 9½ weeks before they are to be sent up for the Wonderland Express display. In order to accomplish this, black-out curtains are used to shorten the days artificially, which gives the plants 14 hours of darkness. We grow two crops of poinsettias; the early crop is installed in late November just before opening the exhibition, and a second crop is grown for changing out in mid-December in order to keep the entire display looking fresh and at its best.

In addition to growing more than 1,000 plants to perfection, there are several varieties and colors of poinsettias grown. Even the red varieties have different cultivar names. Look for cultivars such as ‘Jubilee Red’, ‘Christmas Day Red’, ‘Candle Light White’, ‘Cherry Crush’, ‘Premier Jingle Bells’, and ‘Valentine’ (with its interesting, rosebud-shaped flowers).

PHOTO: Valentine poinsettia.

Valentine poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Valentine’)

PHOTO: Premier Jingle Bells poinsettia.

Premier Jingle Bells poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Premier Jingle Bells’)

Poinsettias are just a few of the plants grown for Wonderland Express. We also grew hundreds of amaryllis for this year’s display, and there is an amazing variety in the hundreds of small evergreens and conifers to be found throughout the displays.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to spend two weeks in Kyoto, Japan, attending the Japanese Garden Intensive Seminar offered by the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art & Historical Heritage.

PHOTO: tea and a small treat.

A small treat prepares the palette for the sweet and astringent taste of sencha. The idea is to savor the flavor of the tea from the few drops served in these tiny cups.

The seminar began full force the day after I arrived in Kyoto after a 16-hour flight and a 14-hour time change. A sencha tea ceremony was very cleverly scheduled for our first day to combat the heavy jet lag we all felt. Ogawa Kashin founded the Ogawa school of sencha tea ceremony in Kyoto about 200 years ago. Kashin devised his own tea-brewing rituals and became celebrated as an original-minded tea master with modern ideals.

In the following days, we visited many gardens and temples and attended lectures. It’d be hard to mention every one of them in the space of this blog so I picked a few I found particularly impressive and transformative.

Kinkaku-ji Temple or Temple of the Golden Pavilion

PHOTO: The Golden Pavilion and its reflection.

The Golden Pavilion and its reflection

PHOTO: The Golden Pavilion surrounded by beautiful pines and the immaculate moss.

The Golden Pavilion surrounded by beautiful pines and the immaculate moss

PHOTO: The ancient pine at Kinkaku-Ji with branch supports.

The ancient pine at Kinkaku-ji with branch supports

PHOTO: The ancient pine at Kinkaku-Ji with branch supports.

Never sprayed, it only gets fed a little bit of mycorrhizae

PHOTO: Mr. Tamane sitting by the dry garden around the building where he offered us tea.

Tokushirou Tamane sitting by the dry garden around the building where he offered us tea

Registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site, the pavilion takes your breath away. Tokushirou Tamane, the 82-year-old head gardener, is equally extraordinary. He allowed us into paths closed to the general public to take in the views of the pavilion and the surrounding gardens from the best angles possible. The garden and the buildings, centered on the Golden Pavilion, represent the “pure land” of Buddha in this world.

Gonaitei Garden, Kyoto Imperial Palace

This garden is located at the living quarters of the emperor, the Otsunegoten, inside the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The building houses the imperial sleeping chamber and the room with the sacred sword and the seal. As the emperor’s private garden, it feels very intimate, with a meandering stream spanned by earthen and wooden bridges. Beautifully pruned pines and shrubs and charming accents carefully placed throughout the garden create a space where one can spend hours gazing at each detail.

PHOTO: Earthen and wood bridges in Gonaitei Garden.

Earthen and wooden bridges in Gonaitei Garden

PHOTO: A majestic Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora).

A majestic Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora)

PHOTO: A view into the stream is framed by plantings.

A view into the stream is framed by plantings

PHOTO: Japanese lantern.

Many types of lanterns adorn the garden…

PHOTO: Japanese lantern.

some in plain view…

PHOTO: Japanese lantern.

some hidden, to be discovered.

Ginkaku-ji Temple or The Silver Pavilion

Located in the foothills of the east side of Kyoto, this temple was established in 1482 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa. He intended to cover the pavilion in silver leaf. Although it was never plated with silver, the pavilion, an unpainted brown, looks over the flawlessly raked sand, Ginsyadan; and the white sand, Mt. Fuji-shaped Kongetsudai. 

PHOTO: The Silver Pavilion with a beautiful reflection.

The Silver Pavilion with a beautiful reflection

PHOTO: Ginsyadan and Kongetsudai are truly enchanting. The gardener in blue uniform in the center of the photo is sweeping the moss, a common sight at all the gardens I visited.

Ginsyadan and Kongetsudai are truly enchanting. The gardener in blue uniform in the center of the photo is sweeping the moss, a common sight at all the gardens I visited.

PHOTO: Mossy path up the hill at Ginkakuji.

The mossy path up the hill leads to…

PHOTO: A view of the city surrounding Ginkakuji.

magnificent views of Ginkaku-ji and the surrounding area.

Tofuku-ji Temple Hojo Garden

The Hojo (Abbot’s Hall) at Tofuku-ji Temple was rebuilt in 1890 and Shigemori Mirei, a famous garden designer, laid out the four gardens that surround the building. He combined tradition and abstractionism to create these contemporary Zen gardens.

PHOTO: The eastern garden of Tofuku-ji's Hojo, with the temple’s foundation pillars, and the western garden with square azalea shrubs which reflect an ancient Chinese way of land division

The eastern garden of Tofuku-ji’s Hojo, with the temple’s foundation pillars, and the western garden with square azalea shrubs, reflect an ancient Chinese way of land division.

PHOTO: The southern garden showcases a cluster of forceful rock groupings and moss covered mounds.

The southern garden showcases a cluster of forceful rock groupings and moss-covered mounds.

PHOTO: Visitors sitting quietly and gazing at the dry garden at Tofuku-ji.

Visitors sit quietly gazing out at the dry garden.

PHOTO: The northern garden uses foundation rocks and moss in an irregular checkered pattern.

My most favorite—the northern garden—uses foundation rocks and moss in an irregular checkered pattern.

PHOTO: The design, very minimalistic and modern, captures you as much as the southern dry garden with its giant rocks and mossy hills.

The design, very minimalistic and modern, captures visitors as much as the southern dry garden with its giant rocks and mossy hills.

The seminar also included a visit to a cloisonné museum, a stone cutter’s studio, and a trip to Ashu forest for an all-day garden-making workshop.

PHOTO: Kinzo Nishimura, a 4th generation stone lantern maker, designed the famous lantern at Kenroku-en.

Kinzo Nishimura, a fourth-generation stone lantern maker, designed the famous lantern at Kenroku-en.

PHOTO: Kinzo Nishimura in his workshop.

All lanterns at his workshop are chiseled by hand.

Seeing these world-famous gardens in person, attending lectures, and being immersed in a fascinating culture will make me a better and a more well-rounded Japanese gardener. I have a much better grasp now on certain features of my garden and why they became a part of the original design. I also loved Kyoto as a town, with its lush mountains always in view and ever-present water in the form of rivers, streams, and canals. I already have a list of gardens I will visit next time I’m in town.

PHOTO: Finished lanterns dwell between the forest and unworked stone in the foreground.

Finished lanterns dwell between the forest and unworked stone in the foreground.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Walking around the Garden, you may see lots of holes being dug and bulbs being planted for a colorful display in the spring. But one place you may not expect to see this is the Green Roof Garden at the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center.

Green roofs are known for having lots of sedum and other drought-tolerant plants, but rarely do you see bulbs. We decided to give it a try several years ago and found that it works! So every year we plant thousands of bulbs on the north roof and hope for a showy spring display.

PHOTO: Daffodils sprinkle the Green Roof Garden in early spring.

Daffodils sprinkle the Green Roof Garden in early spring.

Planting these bulbs is not as easy as just throwing them in a hole and walking away; there are a few factors to take into consideration.

One major factor is soil depth. There are three different categories of green roofs: extensive, semi-intensive, and intensive, with a different growing medium depth for each. An extensive green roof has a depth of 6 inches or less, semi-intensive needs 25 percent of the green roof area above or below 6 inches, and intensive has a depth of more than 6 inches.

The Plant Science Center’s Green Roof Garden is semi-intensive, with depths of 4 inches, 6 inches, and 8 inches. When planting bulbs, the rule of thumb is to plant them two to three times deeper than the size of the actual bulb. This means larger bulbs like daffodils or tulips will be planted about 6 inches deep while smaller bulbs like scilla or crocus will be planted 2 to 3 inches deep.

PHOTO: Narcissus 'Little Gem'.

Miniature daffodils like Narcissus ‘Little Gem’ are a great pick for green roof gardens. Find some great mini daffodil cultivars in our Smart Gardener articles.

PHOTO: Scilla (squill).

Tiny squill (Scilla) work well in shallow planting depths.

PHOTO: Tulipa turkestanica.

Turkestan tulip (Tulipa turkestanica) is a small species tulip that is a stunning addition to any spring bulb display.

PHOTO: Tiny species tulips nestle between sedums in the shallow beds on the green roof.

Tiny species tulips nestle between sedums in the shallow beds in the Green Roof Garden.

So when deciding which bulbs we would like to see in the spring display, we must take into account how large the bulb is, and where in the Garden it can be planted. Luckily, we are able to plant bulbs in all three depths (with 4 inches being the shallowest). In the 4-inch display there are crocus and smaller species tulips; in the 6-inch area you will see daffodils, Siberian squill, and more tulips, and in the 8-inch area we have planted more daffodils and larger tulips.

PHOTO: Tulipa biflora, also known as Tulipa polychroma, is a great species tulip for the green roof.

A great species tulip (Tulipa biflora) or (Tulipa polychroma)) is a star on the green roof. Photo by Ulf Eliasson [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

When designing where each bulb will go, we also chose how many of each we need to plant. Further back in the 8-inch area, we order larger numbers of each bulb in order to create a large sweep of color that you can see from the viewing deck. Up front in the 4-inch area, we plant several little groupings of bulbs with much smaller blooms, creating a display with a range of color.

So this spring, when you are strolling through the Garden admiring all the gorgeous bulbs in bloom, just remember: not all of them are on the ground. Make sure to come visit the Green Roof Garden at the Plant Science Center and see which bulbs decided to pop up and put on a show for us.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

What’s black and white and spread all over? Zebra mussels—but they’re no joke.

If you noticed more aquatic “weeds” and algae growing in the Garden Lakes this year—or that our beloved Smith Fountain was MIA after mid-summer—read on to find out why.

Invasive plants and the problems they pose have been the topic of frequent postings here on the Chicago Botanic Garden’s blog. Now we have another invasive species to tell you about—and this time, it’s an animal: zebra mussels.

PHOTO: Adult zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha).

Adult zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) are about the size of your thumbnail.

Like many invasive plants and animals, zebra mussels’ native range is a faraway place; in this case, eastern Europe and western Russia. In the past 200 years, they have spread throughout all of Europe and Asia. Here in North America, the first account of an established population was in 1988 in Lake St. Clair (located between Lakes Huron and Erie), likely arriving here as tiny hitchhikers in the ballast water of a single commercial cargo ship traveling from the north shore of the Black Sea.

Somewhat remarkably, over the next two years they had spread throughout the entire Great Lakes. Just a year later in 1991, zebra mussels had escaped the Great Lakes and begun their march across North America’s inland waters. (Watch an animation of their spread). Today they are found in at least 29 states.

A zebra mussel may live up to five years and produce up to one million eggs each year—that’s five million eggs over their lifetime. A freshwater species of mollusk, they prefer to live in lakes and rivers with relatively warm, calcium-rich water (to help support their shell development). They feed by filtering microscopic algae from the surrounding water, with each adult zebra mussel filtering up to one liter of water per day.

Though tiny in size (adults are typically ½ to 2 inches long), their ecological and economic impacts can be enormous. Adult zebra mussels prefer to attach to hard surfaces such as submerged rocks, boat hulls, and pier posts—but they also cling to water intake structures as well as the interior of most any pipe that has flowing water in it (such as drinking water supply and irrigation system piping). From an ecological perspective, zebra mussels’ removal of microscopic algae often causes the afflicted waterway to become much more “clear.” While this clearer water may otherwise seem like a good thing, the now-removed microscopic algae is an important food source for many native aquatic animals. The clearer water also allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water, thereby stimulating much more rooted aquatic plant growth.

Nearby, zebra mussels were first identified in 2000 at the Skokie Lagoons, just south of the Garden. In 2013 and again in 2014, just a few zebra mussel shells were found at the Garden on the intake screens for our irrigation system’s South Pumphouse. Since so few mussels were found, we were hoping that the Garden’s lakes were simply not a hospitable place for the zebra mussels to flourish. Unfortunately, that thinking all changed in 2015….

PHOTO: Waterfall Garden label covered in zebra mussels.

These zebra mussels, only a few months old at the time, completely covered this plant label that had inadvertently fallen to the bottom of the Waterfall Garden’s upper pool.

At our Waterfall Garden, 1,000 gallons per minute of lake water are pumped to the top of the garden, after which the water flows down through the garden’s channels and then back into the lake. When Garden staff drained the Waterfall Garden for cleaning in June 2015, there were no apparent zebra mussels present—but by September 2015, the entire bottom of the Waterfall Garden’s upper pool was completely encrusted with attached zebra mussels. Needless to say, we were more than a little alarmed.

Realizing that the Garden’s lakes could indeed support massive growth of zebra mussels, the Garden’s science, horticulture, and maintenance staff quickly came together to devise a remediation strategy that would protect two critical components of the Garden’s infrastructure from “clogging” by zebra mussels: our irrigation system (which utilizes lake water to irrigate nearly all of our outdoor plant collections) and our building cooling systems (three of our public buildings extract lake water to support their air conditioning systems).

PHOTO: One of the Garden's lake water filtration systems.

Automatic backwash filters like the ones pictured here will be added to each of the Garden’s three pumping stations that withdraw lake water to irrigate nearly all of our outdoor plant collections.

The Garden’s zebra mussel remediation team drew upon the best scientific expertise available in North America, which confirmed that there is no scientifically proven approach for removing all zebra mussels from a body of water. The team explored all potential options for eliminating zebra mussel impacts on our infrastructure, and ultimately settled on two approaches: first, the installation of automatic backwash filters to keep even the tiniest of zebra mussels from getting into our irrigation system (the youngest zebra mussels are about 70 microns in size, or about the width of a human hair), and second, the installation of conventional closed-loop “cooling towers” on the three Garden buildings that currently use lake water for air conditioning (thereby discontinuing all withdrawals of the lake water for building cooling). Final design of the backwash filtration systems and the cooling towers is currently underway, and our intent is to have everything installed and operational by spring 2017.

PHOTO: The Garden’s aquatic plant harvester cuts and removes excessive aquatic vegetation and algae from the Garden lakes.

The Garden’s aquatic plant harvester cuts and removes excessive aquatic vegetation and algae from the Garden lakes.

If you visited the Garden in 2016, you probably witnessed some of the zebra mussels’ ecological impacts to our lakes. Mid-summer lake water transparency in our lakes typically is about 3 to 4 feet—but in 2016, this increased dramatically to about 6 feet (likely due to the zebra mussels’ filtering abilities described earlier). This clearer water resulted in much great submerged aquatic plant growth in our lakes, and our aquatic plant harvester struggled to keep up. Many visitors commented that there was much more aquatic “weed” growth in the lakes this year—and they were correct.

In fact, there was so much aquatic plant growth in our lakes this summer that the water intake for Smith Fountain in the North Lake became clogged and the pump burned out. Look for a repaired Smith Fountain (with a more clog-resistant intake) to reappear next spring.

PHOTO: The Smith Fountain (which is illuminated at night) is an acclaimed feature in the North Lake.

The Smith Fountain (which is illuminated at night) is an acclaimed feature in the North Lake.

While there currently is no known way to eliminate zebra mussels from freshwater lakes and streams, Garden researchers intend to utilize the new aquatic research facilities in the emerging Kris Jarantoski Campus to explore experimental approaches, such as biological control agents, to potentially lessen the zebra mussels’ ecological impacts to our 60-acre system of lakes. Stay tuned.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

In the past year, more than 181 million people learned about Spike, Alice the Amorphophallus, and Sprout—the Chicago Botanic Garden’s titan arums (Amorphophallus titanum) that entered a bloom cycle—through various media sources.

Now even more people may have the chance to learn about the unique corpse flower from seedlings sowed at the Garden that have been shared throughout the United States.

It all began about 12 years ago when the Garden procured titan arum bulbs and seeds, which we carefully cultivated until they were ready to flower. With the bloom cycles of Alice and Sprout, we wanted to try to pollinate our plants. In nature, titan arums are pollinated by carrion beetles. Since such insects don’t exist at the Garden, we needed to do the work ourselves. As Spike, Alice, and Sprout are thought to be very closely related (with very similar genetic makeup), we speculated that fertilization with pollen from our first titan—Spike—to Alice would not occur: they were “self incompatible”—a term that often describes a plant species that is unable to be fertilized by its own pollen. So in addition to Spike’s pollen, we looked for genetically different pollen. Fortunately, the Denver Botanic Gardens also had a titan arum (“Stinky”) in bloom last year, and they sent us some of Stinky’s pollen, which we used to pollinate Alice.

After the pollination, Alice developed large, plump red fruits. These fruits were harvested and cleaned, and Deb Moore, part of the Garden’s plant production team, sowed the seeds. The result: about 40 quick-growing seedlings—each a single titan arum leaf

We decided to keep a few seedlings for our own uses, but we really wanted to share these young plants with the broader botanical community. We contacted institutions in the American Public Gardens Association to see if any would be interested in acquiring an Amorphophallus titanum.

We had great response. Seedlings were sent to 27 institutions (see Google map above), including the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden; the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University; the Botanic Garden of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; Ganna Walska Lotusland in Santa Barbara, California; the University of Idaho Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Moscow, Idaho; Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, D.C.; University of California-Davis Department of Plant Biology; and of course, three seedlings went to the Denver Botanic Gardens to grow alongside Stinky. 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and