Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

I remember vividly the first time I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was silent (unusual for me) and in awe. Everywhere I looked, I saw plant labels, and looking at them provided me some kind of familiarity—like when you meet someone new, you want to know their name, what they do, what they like, right? Well, the same with plants.

One important aspect of visiting a botanic garden is acknowledging its plant collection. Botanic gardens are living museums, and when you go to a museum, you want to know what is in front of you. A display plant’s name on the label is the first interaction between you, the individual, and the environment. It’s important to recognize how vital it is to label our plant collection.

Here at the Garden, we use the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). Only scientific names—written in Latin—are universal worldwide. The scientific name of a plant usually consists of its generic name and its specific epithet, which forms the name of the species. There are no regulations for common names, but scientific names are constantly reviewed and occasionally, we have to replace labels where a plant’s Latin name changes when it is reclassified.  

PHOTO: Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

PHOTO: The plant label room, with bundles of labels stored in buckets in front of card catalogs.

Not everything is glamorous: the cluttered label room

My volunteers and I are responsible for providing display plant labels to the horticulture staff and exhibitions department. People ask me, “Are you bored in wintertime, since there is nothing for you to do?” Uh, what? That may be the busiest season for the labeling team.

We start checking label requests lists, which had been coming in since the previous December, pull labels out of the drawers, assess the accuracy of labels with no name changes, check their appearance, and assemble and process label orders. These processes take four months. In the next few weeks, as the Garden prepares to bloom, we are prepared to deliver 3,400 display labels for spring and summer annuals—plus, the labels for our permanent collection.

Our label room stores more than 45,000 plant labels. We have card catalog cabinets (remember those from libraries before we went digital?) and now even shoeboxes that hold our labels. The labeling team collects, maintains, disassembles, recycles, and discards labels. The Garden has produced close to 10,000 labels a year.

How do we print our labels?

PHOTO: Sample of a display label in the Chicago Botanic Garden.

This is our standard label, 2” x 4”, printed with a metalphoto process (photosensitive anodized aluminum); using silver letters with black finish.

Our labels are printed on photosensitive anodized aluminum, a process called metalphoto finish. It withstands the temperature variations in our climate, and also doesn’t rust or fade. This keeps all the labels in our collection looking standardized, so they are not a distraction in the garden beds, but a helpful hint.

Other botanic gardens use different methods for displaying plant information, based on their individual climate and labeling needs. It’s always fun to see how someone else solves a problem when I am out travelling:

Planter in downtown Quebec with a plant label in it.

A label from downtown, Quebec, Canada. I do not speak French, and before I get nervous, I see the scientific name with relief.

A plant label in Montreal Botanic Garden is a QR code; you must scan the code to see the information.

A label from the Alpine Garden, Montreal Botanic Garden, displays only a QR code; you need access to the internet to scan the code and download the plant information.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

This label is mounted on a post at Royal Kew Gardens, London, England.

This label is mounted on a post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England. They speak English here, but the common name of the plant could have varied. Still, as long as I see the scientific name, I know what I see.

This is a big display/interpretive label at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo; about 12 inches by 18 inches.

Labeling at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan. I’m not fluent in Japanese, but I can read the Latin names. This is a big display/interpretive label, about 12 inches by 18 inches.

This label is made to withstand the constant humidity of Costa Rica.

A label in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica. I speak Spanish, but the common name would vary from region to region, so I stick to the scientific name. This label is big and sturdy, around 7 to 8 inches across, and is made to withstand the constant humidity.

Next time you visit the Garden, check out the Linnaeus statue in the Heritage Garden and see the decoding of a plant name.

Our visitors come for different reasons. Some look for comfort, solitude, peace of mind. Others come for education, research, experience, horticulture, and design. Most of them have this in common: they will want to know what they are looking at. And as diverse as our audience is, they will look for the scientific name that is universal. If you visit any botanic garden in the world, the display plant label will remain the same, no matter the country. It may vary in design or style, but at the end, we all speak “plant language.”


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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 my.chicagobotanic.org

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 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

This summer, the Chicago Botanic Garden is transforming—with tall coconut palm trees and other iconic plants of Brazil, inspired by the designs of renowned Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.

The making of Brazil in the Garden started with an unlikely source, a family’s brick townhouse in Philadelphia.

Two members of the Garden’s design team visited the townhouse last summer, not sure what to expect. What they found was a treasure trove of original work by Burle Marx (1909–94), including stacks of rare, numbered lithographs, rolled tapestries too large to hang, and framed paintings. Some of the pieces, which had never been on public display, are now part of an exclusive Burle Marx exhibition at the Garden.

The collection had been in private hands, owned by landscape architect Conrad Hamerman and kept on the third story of his townhouse. When Hamerman died in 2014, his family inherited the pieces. Hamerman was a close friend of Burle Marx, and represented his work in the United States; Burle Marx gave him the pieces as gifts and as payment for his services.

Conrad Hamerman and Roberto Burle Marx Photo ©Rick Darke

Conrad Hamerman and Roberto Burle Marx
Photo ©Rick Darke

Through a contact, the Garden’s exhibition manager Gabriel Hutchison and senior designer Nancy Snyder met with Hamerman’s wife and daughter in Philadelphia to discuss Burle Marx’s artistic legacy and his friendship with Conrad Hamerman. The Garden’s Burle Marx exhibition reveals a rare glimpse of Burle Marx as an artist known for his bold colors, abstract shapes, and modernist style.

Hutchison and Snyder spent two days reviewing and evaluating the material for possible exhibition. “The collection was so much more diverse than I had imagined—sketches, oil paintings, landscape plans, and painted canvas wall hangings,” Snyder said. “This was really an honor to work on, and all along it felt like exhibiting the work was a suitable tribute to the rich friendship between the Hamermans and Roberto Burle Marx.”

Hamerman and Burle Marx met as young men in Brazil. Hamerman was a landscape designer who wanted to become an artist, and Burle Marx was an artist who wanted to become a landscape designer. Above all, they were both avid plant people. Their mutual love of plants, art, and design formed the basis of a lasting friendship that inspired them to travel on many expeditions to collect plants together.

“Conrad was a professional colleague of Roberto’s and collaborated with him a lot,” said Hutchison. “Over the years they became close friends, and although Conrad enjoyed doing his own work, I think he was most passionate about working with Roberto.”

The two even taught university courses together, which is where landscape architect Andrew Durham first encountered Burle Marx’s work. A former student and family friend of Hamerman’s, Durham arranged the loan of pieces from the family’s personal collection for the Garden’s exhibition.

Roberto Burle Marx exhibition

The Roberto Burle Marx exhibition runs through September 10, 2017.

“One thing that made Hamerman unique as a professor was his close friendship with Roberto Burle Marx,” said Durham. “Our class traveled for a month to Brazil, where Burle Marx personally showed us his gardens. That trip changed many of us forever, and I’ve embedded in my own work much of what I learned from Burle Marx’s use of texture and color.”

Though known for revolutionizing tropical landscape design, Burle Marx also worked in other artistic mediums. The paintings and textiles at the Garden exhibition showcase his style of vast swaths of bold hues, cubist influences, and contrasting fabrics.

See the Roberto Burle Marx exhibition, open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Regenstein Center, Joutras Gallery, through September 10, 2017.

Brazil in the GardenThroughout the Garden, we’re paying tribute to the vibrant spirit of Brazil. Look for samba on the Esplanade, the Brazilian national cocktail in the Garden View Café, cool plants including striking Bismarck palms, and much more. See Brazil in the Gardenthroughout the Garden—through October 15, 2017.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org