Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

Early summer in the Dwarf Conifer Garden is all about the new growth. Everything is bursting forth with fresh new growth in vivid shades of green, chartreuse, yellow…and blue!  

PHOTO: Dwarf Conifer Garden in spring.

Layers of color draw you into hidden paths throughout the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

Many of the trees feature entirely unexpected colors. For most of the year, Spring Ghost blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Spring Ghost’) looks like your average Colorado spruce. From early spring through midsummer, however, the tips of every branch shine with the palest yellow—nearly white—new growth. Likewise, Taylor’s Sunburst lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’) is a handsome green tree for most of the year—until spring, when radiant yellow new growth bursts forth, bringing a welcome dose of sunshine to the garden.

PHOTO: Picea pungens 'Spring Ghost'.

Picea pungens ‘Spring Ghost’

PHOTO: Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'.

Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’

PHOTO: Pinus cembra 'Blue Mound'.

Pinus cembra ‘Blue Mound’

New needles aren’t the only attraction this time of year. Many conifers have cones that start out in surprising shades! Blue Mound Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra ‘Blue Mound’) would be a beautiful plant in its own right, with its long, soft, blue-green needles. But when you throw in dusky purple cones, you get a plant that is truly a gem. As the cones age, they’ll slowly turn into the more typical brown of a ripe cone, but right now, they’re as pretty as any flower.

Red can be a difficult color to find in conifers, but Acrocona spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’) has cones that start out a vivid ruby red and slowly fade to a soft tan. The cones start out upward-facing, but slowly begin to droop as they age.

PHOTO: Picea abies 'Acrocona'.

Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ has cones that start ruby red, and slowly fade to tan.

PHOTO: Abies koreana 'Silver Show'.

Abies koreana ‘Silver Show’

Another unique plant is Silver Show dwarf Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Silver Show’). Unlike other conifers, the firs (Abies sp.) have cones that always face upward. ‘Silver Show’ is beautiful any time of the year, but its purple upward-facing cones really make it special in spring. The cones start out small and green, but as you can see in this picture, they begin to turn purple as they grow until you’re left with dozens of dark purple cones set against perfectly tiered, silvery green foliage. There really is nothing else like it in the Garden.

PHOTO: Male cones on Pinus leucodermis.

Male cones on Pinus leucodermis

On most conifers, it’s the female cones that are most showy and most often noticed, but on Bosnian pine (Pinus leucodermis), it’s the male (pollen-bearing) cones that steal the show. Arranged in groups at the end of every branch, they light up the tree like little Christmas lights. Even on a gloomy day, the bright orangey-tan color stands out against some of the deepest green needles in the garden.

All of these colors are a seasonal show that is best appreciated before things start to heat up for the summer, so now is your best time to come see them!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Once there was a boy who loved model trains. When the boy grew up, he became the chief engineer of train exhibitions at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and he still plays with trains. “I hardly get to play with my railroad at home because I get to play with this one,” said Dave Rodelius, in the tone of a man who can’t believe his good fortune.

PHOTO: Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this summer: a steam engine!

Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this spring: a steam engine!

This year marks Rodelius’s 15th season at the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, which opens Saturday, May 9, with a special treat. This season, the Model Railroad Garden will pay tribute to steam engines, in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Chicago Horticultural Society (the Society founded and manages the Chicago Botanic Garden). Models of historic steam engines will chug along 1,600 feet of track, representing the early days of the Society, when steam engines ran commuter coaches along Chicago’s elevated tracks and hauled freight over long distances.

Q. Dave, you have the greatest job title ever! How did you get this job?

A. I was retired, and my wife saw a little blurb in the newspaper that the Chicago Botanic Garden needed tram drivers. So I became a tram driver. One day, I saw that they had torn things up right in the middle of the Garden. I said, “What the Sam Hill are they doing here?” That’s how I found out there was going to be a model railroad out there. Then one of the secretaries, who worked for a vice president, found out that I had been into model railroads all my life. So one day, the vice president of visitor operations at the time called me into her office and asked if I would be interested in managing the railroad. I didn’t get a chance to ask her how much I’d have to pay.

PHOTO: Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Q. But that was back in 2000—and the railroad exhibition was going to be a five-month exhibition.

A. We had more than 100,000 people come through in five months. The little path out there was constantly packed with people. One thing led to another. In our first year, the trains didn’t make any sounds—no choo-choos or whistles or anything, so we added sound cars. Gradually, the railroad became so darn popular that it became a permanent exhibition.

Q. So you became interested in trains as a kid?

A. When I was 6 or 7, my dad bought me a Lionel train. That train would go around the Christmas tree and in the bedroom. Now I have a model railroad layout of Solothurn, Switzerland, where my daughter got married; it’s in my basement. It has Swiss trains and a ski lift.

Q. It sounds like you were a busy kid.

A. My family had 2.5 acres that we farmed in World War II for vegetables. I sold vegetables in the neighborhood in my little wagon. Then I was in the Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout in 1948….I grew up in Evanston and still live in Evanston, and I have lunch with some sixth-grade classmates once a month.

Q. And you’ve had some other interesting jobs before you started running the railroad.

A. I received a bachelor’s degree in animal science at the University of Illinois. I wanted to raise cattle. In college, I was an intern at a purebred cattle farm. The most fascinating thing I did was to help birth calves. You get to see the little rascals trying to get up and stumble around….Eventually, I was drafted into the U.S. Army engineer corps. Two years later, I was discharged and became a manager at a livestock feed manufacturing company. Then my dad bought a photography studio in 1961, and I became a photographer.

Q. What keeps you motivated after all these years?

A. My passion for the railroad is what drives me—I absolutely love this railroad. The same passion goes for everyone. We have 18 engineers and 75 to 80 volunteers. They get along so darn well that I can’t believe it. You cannot keep these people away; they are just so dedicated. They whole thing has kept me young. I get up and down on my hands and knees all the time. I should write to the AARP—if you want to hear about a good job to have, we at the Garden have it.

PHOTO: Model Railroad Garden volunteers.

Left to right: Model Railroad Garden volunteer engineers Ken Press and Mark Rosenblum with George Knuth, staff engineer

Q. What do you do in your spare time?

A. I do some gardening, and some fishing and boating. My wife and I have three daughters and three grandkids. My wife is spectacular, one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Love spring, but hate all that heavy lifting in the garden?

Tell us about it! That’s why we developed the PlantDropter™, our new remote control planting assistant.

PHOTO: Drone quadcopter delivers a seedling to be planted.

PlantDropter™ is the intellectual property of the Chicago Botanic Garden

We tell it which plant we want to move, program the coordinates for a particular garden, and it does the carrying for us!

Staff is raving about the ability to travel “as the crow flies.” With 250,000 plants to put in this year, you can imagine the efficiency of the PlantDropter™! The only issue so far: it drops just one plant at a time.

That’s one down and 249,999 to go. We’ll keep you posted.

 

For more information or to order yours today, click here!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Gift of Bonsai

Chris Baker —  December 17, 2014 — 1 Comment

Thirteen years ago, when I was working as an exotic animal veterinary technician, I bought my friend a gift—a juniper bonsai—that would set me on a course that I never could have imagined.

I already had a yard full of tropical plants, succulents, and orchids, but once I added my first bonsai, I knew something had changed. It was the beginning of a journey that took me from Gainesville, Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Japan and finally here to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am the curator in charge of the Bonsai Collection, which is known as one of the best of its kind in the world.

PHOTO: Chris Baker pruning bonsai.

Tending this large bonsai is a delicate task.

Shortly after I purchased my first tree, I started learning about bonsai and joined a prominent bonsai club in Gainesville. In 2006, Gainesville (home of the Gators) hosted the State Bonsai Convention. That weekend was an eye-opening experience for me, as I got to learn from and assist international bonsai artists like Jim Smith, Colin Lewis, and others. That weekend convention was very influential and would fuel my desire to continue learning.

Less than a year after that convention, I had an opportunity to move to Baltimore, Maryland, and work at the National Aquarium. I quickly joined the Baltimore Bonsai Society and continued learning. Feeling more and more drawn to a career in horticulture, I made the move from veterinary technician to horticulturist of the Rainforest Exhibit at the National Aquarium. This opportunity made me think that I actually could have a career working with bonsai. Then, during a Baltimore Bonsai Club event at the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., I had a chance meeting with the curator Jack Sustic. I introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Chris Baker. I have aspirations of being a bonsai curator some day, and I would like to volunteer here at the collection.” That sentence would forever alter my path. My time as a volunteer and then intern at the National Arboretum was inspirational and educational, and ultimately would lead me to Japan.

Jack Sustic would become a mentor and friend; he introduced me to Torhu Suzuki at the Daijuen Bonsai Nursery in Okazaki, Japan, where he had spent some time. Suzuki, or “Oyakata” (an honorific reserved for a person of high authority) as we would call him, was a third-generation bonsai master and prominent figure in Japanese bonsai culture. In 2012, I spent six months as an apprentice at Daijuen. In that time I learned so many lessons and skills that I use every day. It also gave me an entirely different perspective on how the practice of bonsai has evolved in Japan for centuries.

In April 2014, I started as the curator of bonsai at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Having the opportunity to be the first full-time curator here at a collection of this caliber is a dream job, which comes with a lot of expectations and responsibility. During the display season (April to November), horticulturists Joe Olsen and Gabe Hutchinson provided great support in keeping the trees watered and benches looking great for our visitors. The remaining trees are kept on the south end of the Garden, in the production area. Brian Clark, manager of plant production, and his team help care for the trees on my days off. Last but not least, the support of my 12 volunteers is essential. They are a great team of dedicated people who each brings something different to the Collection. 

PHOTO: Volunteer Eileen Michal working on Bonsai with Chris Baker.

Volunteer Eileen Michal working on the Collection with me.

I’m often asked what has drawn me to bonsai, and why would I pursue a career in it, with only ten or so full-time curator jobs in the entire country? For me, bonsai starts with an appreciation of nature over all things. An ancient tree has the power to move people and evoke emotion. It’s what inspired the Chinese centuries ago to take something of beauty they saw in nature and grow it in a container.

Creating bonsai takes the eye of an artist, the horticultural knowledge of a botanist, and the hands of a mechanic. I have been painting and creating art with many mediums for years. I often draw my trees prior to styling them. It allows me to see different style ideas before I even touch a single branch. I love the horticultural aspect of bonsai, from soil science, to fertilizing, to advanced techniques of grafting and air layering. To me, the mechanical aspect is fun as well. I enjoy making large bends in branches using rebar and guy wires on developmental trees, as well as doing the fine detail work for a show-quality tree. A bonsai is never finished, and the skills and knowledge of a true bonsai expert take a lifetime of study to master and fully understand all it has to offer.

Bonsai has taught me many things, introduced me to wonderful people, and taken me to places I never thought I’d see…At this point in my life, it just seems silly for me to do anything else.

PHOTO: Bonsai Book

Know someone else curious about the Garden’s Bonsai Collection? Bonsai: A Patient Art makes a great gift.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium on plant exploration that was held in Des Moines, Iowa. The audience was enthralled following the plant collecting exploits of such luminaries as Dan Hinkley, one of the founders of the renowned (alas, no more) Heronswood Nursery, to far-flung locales such as Vietnam, China, and Bhutan.

Much of my presentation focused on plant collecting a tad closer to home—not as exotic perhaps, but still crucial in support of my research as the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant breeder. So let’s go seek out the elusive wild phlox.

Phlox is predominantly a North American genus (one species sneaks into Siberia) best known for its gaudily—some say garishly colored—harbinger of spring, the moss phlox (Phlox subulata), and for that summer stalwart, the garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). For an idea of the diversity of the garden phlox, you can see Richard Hawke’s latest evaluation report on Phlox paniculata cultivars. The woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and the meadow phlox (Phlox maculata) also have their selections and garden advocates. It’s likely that every midwestern gardener has a phlox or two in their landscape.

Most of the remaining 60-plus phlox species are relatively unknown to horticulture, yet can delight the senses with their almost infinite variation of flower color and fragrance. The underutilized species are admittedly a persnickety group to cultivate, with many of them inhabiting harsh habitats from baking desert valleys to frigid alpine rock outcrops. So phlox breeding efforts in the past have focused (and rightly so) on the more amenable-to-cultivate species mentioned above. 

My breeding work at the Garden has always focused on developing new garden plants from interspecific hybridization, or crossing different species in the same genus. I’ve used this approach to develop new coneflowers (Echinacea) and false indigos (Baptisia), to name a few. In 2006, I started assembling a collection of phlox with the intent of testing my luck in creating novel hybrids between the species here as well. The botanical and horticulture literature wasn’t too encouraging on this front, with perhaps about a dozen authenticated natural and man-made interspecific hybrids known to date. But my perseverance led to two interspecific hybrid phlox, which gardeners may be able to purchase in 2015: Phlox x procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ and Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’.

PHOTO: Pink Profusion phlox.

Phlox × procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ PPAF

PHOTO: Violet Pinwheels phlox.

Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’ PPAF

You may ask,“And where is the plant exploration in this story?” I’m getting there!

Most of the phlox species simply aren’t available in the horticulture trade, yet I desired them for my breeding program. So commencing in 2011, I started my own plant collecting efforts to locate, study, and collect species phlox in the wild. Weeks were spent pouring over old taxonomic literature, maps, herbarium records and the like just to find out where phlox may yet exist in the wild. I say “may,” as the earliest records I located were from the 1940s—never a good harbinger, as urban sprawl, agriculture, and the like all too often swallow up such older stands of native plants. But records from recent years gave me strong hope that some phlox species are still “out there.” Modern collections invariably include GPS coordinates in their notes. Google Earth became my friend at this time, helping to locate potential collecting sites and plan out my trips.

PHOTO: Jim Ault in Russia.

On a trip a few years ago, a bit further afield: an expedition in Russia with colleagues

Finally: boots on the ground! I’ve made local trips around northern Illinois and Indiana, and trips further afield to South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. I’ve settled into a now-familiar routine. Do my research ahead of time, as above. Then go locate the plants in bloom, which translates into days of cruising bumpy, muddy, delightfully scenic and isolated dirt roads out west with one eye on the curves and drop-offs ahead and the other on the disturbed road edges, where so many phlox tend to congregate. Phlox as a rule are resentful of heavy plant competition, and so ironically, often thrive on road edges where the occasional mower or bulldozer damage clears out the competitors. It is that or scramble up steep cliffs and talus slopes, or venture out on to harsh alkaline flats, where yet again the plant competition is light, allowing phlox to thrive.

PHOTO: Haemanthus aliblos in vitro specimen.

Another project in vitro: Haemanthus aliblos specimen
Photo by Jim Ault

As I find populations with plants that appear promising for cultivation, I record field notes and GPS readings, then return in another month or year with collecting permits in hand to collect seed or cuttings. Slowly, I have been building collections of several phlox species, with the hope of ultimately combining through breeding their traits of varied flower shapes, color, and fragrance, plant habits, and adaptability for cold, heat, drought, moisture, high pH, and salinity. Phlox typically take two years from a rooted cutting or a germinated seed to grow into a flowering-sized plant, so the process of growing the species and then using them in breeding is taking time. But this year marked the first I saw a significant number of plants bloom that were hybrids made between garden cultivars and wild-collected plants. As is typical in plant breeding, most of the plants were “dogs” with terrible flowers or habits, or poorly adapted to our local garden conditions. These all got the heave-ho to the compost pile. But a few gems stood out. Stay tuned for future updates!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org