Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

Spring isn’t progressing very quickly outside, so we stopped by the production greenhouses to find out how spring is growing behind the scenes. Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, was excited to show us what it takes to grow thousands of the spring annuals and vegetables that will soon be planted outdoors.

Tim told us we are growing 73,000 spring annuals and vegetables this year to be planted outside in the gardens in April. If you like pansies and violas, you are in for a treat, as we’ve planted almost 30,000 of them! A lot of planning goes into scheduling when to start seeds, thin them, transplant them, and harden them off to be ready when each horticulturist needs them. The production team of more than 50 staff members and volunteers makes it all look easy, but I’m guessing with this harsh winter, it hasn’t been easy.

Just one of the wows visitors will see this spring are the hayracks that hang over the bridge from the Visitor Center to the main island. Staff members and volunteers just recently spent 12 hours planting them with 1,200 plants. They will grow safely in the greenhouses until the weather gets warm enough to bring them outside. Can’t wait!

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to learn all about getting ready for spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Love Lives of Orchids

Four fab stories with lyrics from the Fab Four

Karen Z. —  February 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

This year, Valentine’s Day has special meaning for us at the Chicago Botanic Garden—it’s opening night for our first-ever Orchid Show (purchase tickets here). With that in mind, we’ve gathered a few stories about how orchids will do just about anything to attract a pollinator…along with a few soundtrack suggestions…

PHOTO: A spray of blooming orchids, which resemble tropical spiders.

A spray of Brassia rex “spider” blooms await pollinating parasitic wasps.

She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
With a love like that, you know you should be glad, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Granted, a little makeup can work wonders on date night. But the spider orchid, Brassia, takes things even further in order to attract an insect: it makes itself up to look like a pollinator’s favorite food.

The orchid’s flower has developed the color and shape of a large tropical spider. But it’s not trying to attract the spider—no, that would be too obvious. Rather, scientists think that the orchid attracts a wasp that hunts the spider as potential food for its own larvae. Thus the wasp is fooled into landing on the flower—and picking up its pollen—while hunting. So cheeky!

PHOTO: Closeup of a hammer orchid.

A hammer orchid (Drakaea glyptodon) awaits its next suitor. Photo by Mark Brundrett.

I’ve Just Seen a Face
Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again.

When the hammer orchid (Drakaea species) set its sights on the Thynnid wasp as a pollinator, it didn’t mess around: it developed a flower that looked like a lady wasp and a scent like the female pheromone used to attract a male.

In nature, the lady wasp climbs to the top of a plant and awaits a male—who recognizes the pheromone, flies over, plucks her off the plant, and mates. The hammer orchid’s flower mimics the look of the waiting female, but when the male flies up and lands, his weight throws him into the back part of the flower that carries the pollen—with the force of a hammer strike. He realizes he can’t carry her off, and heads off for another orchid, where the next hammer throw deposits the pollen he’s already carrying.

PHOTO: Closeup of Coryanthes speciosa, showing bucket and drip of nectar.

Coryanthes speciosa by Dalton Holland Baptista [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Taste of Honey
I will return, yes I will return. I’ll come back for the honey and you.

The right perfume can change a man. The bucket orchid, Coryanthes speciosa, has singled out the male euglossine bee for a pollinator. The flower produces a highly scented perfume that attracts swarms of male bees—which know that it’s a female’s favorite and rub it all over themselves. But step carefully, gentlemen: it’s a slippery slope into the flower’s bucket, where you’ll have to swim to the exit—picking up the flower’s pollen on your way out. On the plus side: you’ll smell great to that female bee when you finally find her!

(Check out more on orchids fooling mating bees with this famous video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-h8I3cqpgnA.)

PHOTO: A spray of fuchsia-colored, ruffled-petal blooms.

Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’ has dancing skirts and chocolate fragrance.

I’m Happy Just to Dance with You
Before this dance is through I think I’ll love you too. I’m so happy when you dance with me.

The most fashion-conscious orchids (Oncidium) are called “Dancing Ladies,” because of their wonderfully ruffly petals that look like the spread skirts of dancers. The most prominent petal on the orchid’s flower—called a lip, or labellum—can be ruffled, spotted, hairy, pouched, or fringed. All are features meant to attract a pollinator into using it for a miniature landing platform (the lip is much sturdier than this bloom’s delicate design lets on), drawing it in close to the center column that holds pollen.

Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’ is the supermodel of dancing ladies—and did we mention that it just happens to smell like chocolate? Most fragrant in the late afternoon to early evening, this is truly an orchid that knows the way to a woman’s heart.

PHOTO: The incredibly long nectar spur of Angreacum sesquipedale.

Angraecum sesquipedale ‘Flambouyant’ x var. bosseri ‘Lisa’—pollinated by the light of the moon.

Bonus Track! Mr. Moonlight
And the night you don’t come my way, Oh I pray and pray more each day, ’cause we love you, Mr. Moonlight.

At the Orchid Show, which opens this weekend, you’ll get introduced to Darwin’s orchid, or Angraecum sesquipedale, an orchid with an elegantly long nectar spur. When Charles Darwin first described the orchid in 1862, he postulated that it must have a pollinator with a long tongue, though none was known at the time. The mystery persisted for 40 years until a hawkmoth with a fantastically long 12- to 18-inch proboscis—a straw-like tongue—was finally identified. The moth flits from flower to flower at night, reaching deep into the brilliant white flower’s spur in a split second—all by the light of the moon.

With thanks and apologies to the Beatles, who performed for the first time in America on TV’s the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago this week. Since then, generations have grown up knowing the words to their love songs.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In three days, the Chicago Botanic Garden will present its first ever Garden-designed Orchid Show (purchase tickets here).

PHOTO: Gabe Hutchison in the greenhouse.

Horticulturist Gabe Hutchison attaches orchids to their new habitat: the orchid trees in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Looking at it now, the winter of 2014 has not been an ideal year to tackle an in-depth and delicate project of this scale. A winter season with near record snowfall and record low temperatures has posed plenty of challenges in getting warmth-loving tropical orchids to the snowy, freezing Midwest, and securely into the Regenstein Center Greenhouses. Single-digit and sub-zero temperatures have been putting the Garden’s horticulture staff on heightened concern to protect these orchids in their various stages of buds and blooms. The transfer and well-being of more than 10,000 orchids has been a well-orchestrated undertaking shared by Garden staff (especially horticulturist Sharon Nejman) and the vendors who packed and sent the trucks.

PHOTO: A metal cage holding branches is suspended from the greenhouse's glass ceiling.

A combination of metal cage and hazelnut (Corylus) tree branches creates the perfect framing to place an orchid display.

Beginning just a month ago, the Garden’s horticulture staff began a tear-down of Wonderland Express, immediately switching gears to the equally large endeavor of creating and setting up the Orchid Show. Existing Greenhouse beds have been modified to make room for impressive structures, and organic materials host epiphytic orchids of different genera. Presenting these impressive splashes of colorful orchids in a nontraditional display comes with some scalp-scratching challenges.

More than 10,000 orchids find homes on a variety of structures designed and fabricated by Garden staff.

Working closely with Orchid Show designer and horticulturist Brian Barker, I had the shared task of designating orchid choices based on the length of bloom life and needed care, while trying not to limit creativity and whimsy. My experience in maintaining private orchid collections for individuals and overseeing the care and aesthetics of three preexisting cork bark orchid “trees” in the Regenstein Greenhouses opened a role in the planning and installation of the show for me.

PHOTO: Pine bark lines the walls of a hallway, and vines and creepers stretch across the ceiling.

The entry to Nichols Hall transforms into an incredible tropical gateway.

In June 2012, when first presented with the challenge of building a new exhibition—an orchid show—we discovered logistical riddles we hadn’t considered being thrown at us. Along the way, new visions and ideas were presented, and have become focal points of the show during planning. Now we are here at the installation stage, with our materials, wondering,”How do I get hundreds of this particular orchid in these two or three colors to hang sideways or upside down over the visitors’ heads (sometimes way over), and keep the flowers happy?” Or, “How do we water a structure like this, and how do we do it efficiently?” Or, when we discover orchids are not happy in a location, how do we replace them quickly and in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the aesthetics of this visual centerpiece?

PHOTO: Two staffers gently weave orchids and roots into a metal cone framework.

Teamwork is critical! Leah Pilon and Aysa Pogue gently weave orchid roots into a display frame.

Together, the horticulture staff is figuring out the solutions to these in-no-way-little challenges as they are presented, and in the process, admiring the great orchid creations that are coming together around us with pride. With every step, we are enjoying Brian Barker’s visions with the awe they deserve, knowing that in a few more days, we will be able to step back and appreciate our final creation and see it in the eyes of a Garden visitor.

Winter white blankets the ground outside, but inside, the Greenhouses are alive with jewel tones.

From the moment the public enters Nichols Hall, crossing through Joutras Gallery and the entrance into the Greenhouses, our goal is to present an experience of grandeur, a lush habitat of color, and a mix of curiosity and wonder.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Do you remember the orchid spheres that were featured in the Tropical Greenhouse during Wonderland Express in 2012? I always wondered, “How did they do that?” and tried to examine them after they were already created.

Orchid Sphere

Orchid Sphere in Wonderland Express

When I heard they were making ten of them for the Orchid Show, I asked horticulturist Elizabeth Rex to show me (and you) exactly how they do it. She and the other talented horticulturists constructed them from up to 150 light and dark purple Phalaenopsis orchids, spending six to eight hours per sphere. I’m not sure any of you will be creating your own orchid spheres at home, but if you do, Rex tells me they will last up to six weeks with proper care. That’s good, because the Orchid Show will be open from February 15 to March 16.

Keep a look out for other fantastic orchid creations including arches, chandeliers, and trees. I wonder how those were made…

Visit and discover the Orchid Show for yourself! Click here to purchase advance tickets.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A circle, a ring, a wreath

Karen Z. —  December 22, 2013 — 2 Comments

“A ring speaks of strength and friendship and is one of the great symbols of mankind.”

Those are the words of Jens Jensen, the great landscape designer who celebrated the native and the natural and often included circular council rings in his garden plans.  

At the holidays, we hang wreaths on our doors as symbols of love, of welcome, of community. Twenty-nine wreaths, all handmade by our horticulturists and staff, are currently drawing visitors to the galleries at the Wonderland Express exhibition, and the detail and craftsmanship in them is amazing. (The answer to the frequently asked question “Can you buy them?” is yes—pick them up after January 5, the final day of Wonderland Express. Proceeds from the sale of the wreaths go to fund the Garden’s programs.)

Ring in the new year with our staff’s creative interpretations of the circle, the ring, the wreath.

PHOTO: Six types of colorful indian corn—husks facing outward as a fringe—create this wreath.

This is a BIG wreath—great for an outdoor wall.

Flint. Dent. Sweet. Flour. Pod. Pop. Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg celebrates these six major types of corn—and beautiful heirloom varieties with names like ‘Blue Jade’, ‘Glass Gem’, and ‘Golden Bantam’—in a seasonless sunburst.

PHOTO: An owl made from natural materials perches in this cotton boll wreath.

The French saying on this wreath translates to, “the moon is my light and my joy.”

Monica Vachlon (administrative assistant of horticulture) and Jacob Burns (herbaceous perennial plant curator) built a wintry vignette around a charming mascot dubbed “Mr. Who.”

Children’s educator Kathy Johnson used just one ingredient for her made-by-hand wreath: natural raffia. It’s hand-knotted into evergreen sprays and red berries, and crocheted into a life-like cardinal couple, nesting at the bottom.

PHOTO: A hand-crocheted raffia cardinal.

Even the branches of this wreath are made of raffia.

A nursery grower in our production greenhouse by day, Lorin Fox is an artist and woodcarver off-hours. A close look at his wreath reveals the mushrooms he hand-carved from tagua nuts and cedar.

PHOTO: Incredibly realistic hand-carved wooden mushrooms on a real piece of wood.

Everlasting mushrooms were hand-carved from wood and nuts.

Star-shaped flowers are made from milkweed pods, with a crabapple at the center.

Star-shaped flowers are made from milkweed pods, with a crabapple at the center.

The supersized fruit of ‘Ralph Shay’ crabapple dot the centers of milkweed pod “flowers” on this dramatic, dried Baptisia wreath by ecologist Dave Sollenberger. He foraged all of the materials from gardens here and at home.

PHOTO: Wreath of grapevine, cotton bolls, and hydrangea.

Cotton turned up as a natural and everlasting element in several wreaths.

Wonderland Express = teamwork. So thoughtfully did the team from the Development Department (spearheaded by Lisa Bakker) brainstorm, gather, and plan for their wreath that it took them just two lunch breaks to assemble and decorate it.

All summer long, assistant horticulturist Leah Pilon kept a sharp eye out for materials that dried well: the Carex seed pods, okra, millet, dried flowerheads (Green Ball dianthus), and Engelmann creeper vine (for the bow) were all collected in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

PHOTO: Wreath created from millet, with evergreens, carex seedpods, a lotus pod and a creeper vine bow.

Even okra works on this wreath made from materials in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Horticulturist Ayse Pogue pays tribute to her Mediterranean roots with a fragrant wreath made of juniper and olive branches. Tucked in in delicate sprays, tiny spray-painted alder cones stand in for “olives.”

PHOTO: Wreath made of real olive leaves and faux olives.

Real olive leaves, with faux olive fruit (they’re alder cones, painted black).

PHOTO: Large, heart-shaped wreath made from grape vines.

Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, showers, weddings: proof that one wreath can do it all.

In simplicity is elegance. Made from grapevines growing in McDonald Woods, this heartfelt wreath by senior horticulturist Heather Sherwood can hang indoors or out. Leave it up straight through February 14.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org