Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

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

On a walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden, you are likely to encounter dozens of woody plants—short, tall, flowering, or simply lending structural beauty to a landscape. It’s OK to have a favorite. Phillip Douglas, the Garden’s new curator of woody plants, is not shy about listing his top picks.

Spending his first summer in Glencoe, Douglas is especially taken with the variety of oaks at the Garden. The horticulturist points out the deep purple leaves on the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’) in the meadow east of the English Walled Garden, and the cutleaf emperor oak (Quercus dentata var. pinnatifida) growing near the road south of the Regenstein Learning Campus.

English oak (Quercus robur 'Purpurascens')

The deep purple leaves of the English oak tree (Quercus robur ‘Purpurascens’)

He favors the narrow, upright Regal Prince oak (Quercus × warei ‘Long’)—in the rainwater glen on the southeast corner of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center—for smaller landscapes. He describes Regal Prince as a hybrid oak that is columnar in shape. Along with a similar hybrid, Kindred Spirit (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’), it is readily available in nurseries. “The big push in the industry now is hybrid oaks that are fastigiate (column-like) trees,” he explained. “If someone would like an upright oak in a home landscape, either is a good option to consider.”

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus x warei 'Nadler')

Kindred Spirit hybrid oak (Quercus × warei ‘Nadler’). Photo by Joshnadler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Douglas credits his fascination with the oak species as his entry point into the field of horticulture. During an internship at the Boone County Arboretum in Kentucky, “I started getting interested in oaks, started collecting oaks for my house, and the obsession grew from there,” he said. The outdoors has always been a part of his life, from growing up in Kentucky close to water and woods, to his years as a Marine. His transition into horticulture felt natural, he said.

Douglas is eager to share his knowledge with Garden visitors and to help build the woody plants collection.

“Woody plants fulfill such a role for us and for the environment,” he said. “They provide so much for us, and they really fulfill an important niche in our landscapes.” The benefits of such plants include providing shade, reducing storm water runoff, and providing habitat for animals and insects.

“Oak is an incredibly enormous, diverse genus,” Douglas said. “There are about 500 species that grow all over the world. You can have anything from a very small shrub to large trees that can be thousands of years old.”

Among his first projects are the development of the oak and willow collections, and a review of all such plants already on-site.

Douglas will also be helping to organize trips to collect plants in the wild with Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Garden and director of plant collections. Collecting trips are planned for the summer and then fall to domestic and international locations with similar growing climates to Chicago.

“Both his passion and previous collecting experiences will be immediately useful in two collecting trips Phil is helping coordinate to Kentucky and Tennessee and Azerbaijan,” said Bunting, who was delighted to welcome Douglas to his team in April. “Phil Douglas has been a wonderful addition to the collections teams at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  He brings extensive woody plant knowledge to the Garden, especially with the genera Magnolia, Quercus, and Populus.”

The Chicago Botanic Garden's new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

The Garden’s new curator of woody plants, Phillip Douglas.

Back in his office in the Horticulture Building, Douglas is surrounded by plans for the near future. On the desk sit outlines for wild-collecting trips. Just outside of his window, construction continues on a new garden. His first months in Glencoe have been both overwhelming and energizing. “I like the variety of the things that I get to do, and I’m excited to help develop the collections and to add to the Garden,” he said.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What comes to mind when conceptualizing a new garden design? Color? Absolutely. Soil and sun conditions? That’s a given. Texture? Sure thing. Two other components of plant selection that are of utmost importance are adding biodiversity and sustainability. Both of these elements are omnipresent in gravel gardens.

The origins of gravel gardening are rooted in Essex, EngIand, via Beth Chatto, Cassian Schmidt at the Hermannshof Garden in Germany, and Roy Diblik of Northwind Farm in Wisconsin. I was introduced to gravel gardens while I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Not only were gravel gardens featured at Olbrich Botanical Garden, but they were also on display at my previous place of employment, Epic Systems, in Verona, Wisconsin. Jeff Epping, the director of horticulture at Olbrich, established the gravel gardens at both Olbrich and Epic Systems, and has been very supportive in my mission to bring these types of gardens to the Chicago Botanic Garden.  

The heavy, clay-laden soils of the Chicago area are infamous to anyone who has gardened here. No one escapes the frustration the water-retaining properties of these soils causes. Midwestern gardeners often amend the soil in their home gardens. But amending soils in garden beds each season to improve plant health and drainage can also be an expensive endeavor for the home gardener.

The first step in prepping the beds: removing the top layer of soil.

The first step in prepping the beds is removing the top layer of soil.

This season, as a trial, we are converting ten island beds in parking lot 1 to gravel garden beds. These beds are covered by 4 to 5 inches of pea gravel. The gravel allows plants to grow in sharp drainage, which is a very desirable attribute when growing many native prairie plants or other dry-loving plants. Ours include coneflower  (Echinacea paradoxa), ‘Siskiyou Pink’ beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskiyou Pink’), and ‘Red Rocks’ beardtongue (Penstemon x mexicali ‘Red Rocks’).

The key to establishing the plants in a gravel garden is to prevent the root balls from drying out until they have a chance to root down below the gravel layer. This means watering new plantings daily, or even twice daily if weather conditions dictate. Although a significant commitment to watering is required up front, watering can be reduced six to eight weeks after planting, and nearly eliminated after two years. In fact, with the exception of times of extreme drought, no supplemental watering was necessary for the gravel garden beds I managed at Epic Systems.

Gravel garden plantings include succulents and drought-hardy plants.

Plantings include succulents and drought-hardy plants. They will need careful monitoring at first, but once established, this bed will be a beautiful, low-maintenance garden.

Another benefit of growing plants in 4 to 5 inches of gravel? A significant reduction in the number of weeds! Since no soil exists in the top 4 to 5 inches of the bed, weeds don’t have a chance to root in. Maintaining this “sterile” environment is a matter of simply making sure old plant material is removed from the bed each spring, and that no organic material is left on the beds (which could potentially break down to humus).

Not only will these beds help to bring added color to the parking lots as they fill in, but they will also introduce new taxa to the Garden. Although these beds will be full of color in time, we will need patience in the short-term. The beds will take some time to establish, with only a few flowers this year, a bigger display next year, and with the beds hitting maturity in 2019. It is my hope that this patience will give way to something beautiful for years to come.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What is old is new again.

The dinosaur of the plant kingdom, a Wollemia pine tree (Wollemia nobilis), has surprised horticulturists at the Chicago Botanic Garden with a burst of promising male and female cones this winter.

In Glencoe, the sole tree spends its winters in the carefully controlled environment of the production greenhouse. In the wild, its relatives are clinging to life on remote sandstone gorges in the Blue Mountains of Australia.

“It is probably the most watched plant in the Garden right now,” said Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation. Little is known about the prehistoric species that is part of a genus dating back 65 million years. The Garden’s specimen is a youthful 8 years old, and is just beginning to show off its unusual characteristics.

“In this case, there is such little information in the literature,” noted Tankersley, who was amazed to see both male and female cones emerging from the tree’s branches earlier this year. “We don’t know enough about this plant to know if it is going to set seed…but at least it is producing cones, which will allow us to try some experiments,” he said. The tree has grown male cones in recent years, but this is the first year it has produced any female cones.

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis female cone.

Wollemia nobilis female cone

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis male cone.

Wollemia nobilis male cone

Scientists do know that the species that has managed to survive the test of time possesses some unusual adaptations. It can generate new seedlings by dropping specific branches that take root, or it can exchange pollen from male to female cones to generate seed.  

At the Garden, scientists plan to pollinate the tree when the time is right. They will use pollen from the tree itself, and if available, pollen from a tree at another botanic garden. They will also reserve pollen for a potential future exchange.

PHOTO: Wollemia nobilis in the Heritage Garden in summer.

Find Wollemia nobilis in the Heritage Garden in the summer months.

Trees in the wild population are believed to be closely related to one another. As a result, any seeds they produce have a low level of viability. Only 6 percent or fewer go on to become healthy, mature trees. The species is listed as critically endangered. The urgency to save the pines is accelerated by changes in climate. Their mountain home is experiencing increasingly hotter and drier weather than ever before.

According to Tankersley, there is hope that more diversity may be found within the propagated plants, and that their offspring could lead to a stronger future for the species. However, scientists are only mildly optimistic. “In a world where there is so much that we can’t do anything about, it’s good to have something where you can participate in efforts to keep something from going extinct,” he said. “This plant is not gone; there’s something we might be able to do to help it out.” In addition, the plant may inform the research of paleobotanists who rarely have the opportunity to see a live plant with such historic roots to compare against the fossil record. “In a scientific way, we’ve been looking at the earth in a relatively short period of time,” added Tankersley. “When we find something like this that is very uncommon, everything about it is unknown…it’s sort of a miniature warehouse that we don’t want to lose because in the future, it may be more important than a mere botanical curiosity.”

The horticultural team also takes the cone production as validation that they are meeting the plant’s very particular growing requirements.

The Garden’s Wollemia pine spends its summers in the Australia bed of the Heritage Garden. Tankersley anticipates that it will be back on display this June.

As for the voyage of discovery with this extraordinary plant, he says, it is to be continued…


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

This past summer, the Chicago Botanic Garden joined an intrepid team of plant collectors from four other American institutions on an expedition to the Republic of Georgia.

Our focus: to collect seeds to diversify the genetic diversity of ex-situ plant collections; to bring back and evaluate species for their ornamental potential; and to provide a hedge against natural and man-made disasters—all while building upon institutional collaborations developed during previous expeditions.

The PCC16-Georgia group poses at the Old Omalo Guest House in the Tusheti Region, Georgia.

The PCC16-Georgia group poses at the Old Omalo Guest House in the Tusheti Region, Georgia. From left to right: Joe Meny (US National Arboretum), Peter Zale (Longwood Gardens), Boyce Tankersley (Chicago Botanic Garden), Vince Marrocco (Morris Arboretum), Koba (owner of Old Omalo Guest House/Hotel Tusheti), Matt Lobdell (The Morton Arboretum), Temuri Siukaev (driver), Koba’s daughter, Constantine Zagareishvili (driver), Manana Khutsishvili (botanist), David Chelidze (botanist)

Map showing the location of the Republic of Georgia.

Just east of the Black Sea is the Republic of Georgia. Map courtesy worldatlas.

The Republic of Georgia was chosen because it is the only biodiversity hotspot that is situated within the temperate climatic zones.

Over millennia, the high peaks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains to the north, Lesser Caucasus Mountains to the south, and their inter-connecting mountain ranges situated between the Black Sea to the west and Caspian Sea to the east have provided a refuge for species that have gone extinct elsewhere due to glaciation and other climate extremes.

Tucked into hundreds of microclimates created by this varied topography, many of these endemic species (found nowhere else on earth) are perfectly hardy in American, Russian, and European gardens much farther north. 

Coordinating the trip on the Georgian side were our colleagues from the Institute of Botany, Tbilisi and Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden. They provided invaluable logistical support through the use of two of the foremost botanists in the region, drivers, vehicles, and places to stay.

The varied topography of the Tusheti Region.

The varied topography of the Tusheti Region.

Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden, Institute of Botany, and American collectors at Bakuriani Field Station.

Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden, Institute of Botany, and American collectors at Bakuriani Field Station

In a little more than two weeks in the field, the group traveled more than 1,100 miles from the high—and barely accessible—Greater Caucasus Mountains of the Tusheti region in northeastern Georgia, through the central valleys, to Lake Tabatskuri in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains in the south, between the Tetrobi Reserve and Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden.

The central valley separating the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges.

The central valley separating the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges

Lake Tabatskuri is situated between the Tetrobi Reserve and Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden; the Lesser Caucasus mountain peaks are in the distance.

Lake Tabatskuri is situated between the Tetrobi Reserve and Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden; the Lesser Caucasus mountain peaks are in the distance.

The geographic location of Georgia (Russia to the north, Central Asia to the east, Persia to the south and Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Europe to the west) has made this region a favorite transit point for merchants. Tucked into remote mountain valleys are small communities created from the descendants of Greeks, Germans, Hebrews, Persians, Armenians, Turks, Russians, Circassians, Huns, Mongols, and more, with remnants of each people’s own unique culinary, religious and linguistic traditions.

It was also, unfortunately, a thoroughfare for invading armies. Ancient fortifications, places of worship, homes—all show evidence of destruction and rebuilding.  

Samshvilde Fortress ruins.

Samshvilde Fortress ruins

Fortified towers are a typical feature of many homes in the Greater Caucasus mountains.

Fortified towers are a typical feature of many homes in the Greater Caucasus mountains.

Church of St. George.

Church of St. George

The collections wrapped up with a foray into western Georgia (ancient Colchis in Greek mythology) in and around Kutaisi, the legislative capital and its third largest city. A brief visit to the Kutaisi Botanical Garden was in order here, before we left the region. A highlight: a small shrine built inside a living 450-year-old oak. 

In all, 205 different seed lots and herbarium vouchers—representing 169 different species of trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs—were collected, including six of seven species of Quercus (oaks) in support of the IUCN Redlist of all of the Quercus in the world.

Religious shrine built inside a 450-year-old Quercus hartwissiana at Kutaisi Botanical Garden.

A religious shrine is built inside this 450-year-old Quercus hartwissiana at Kutaisi Botanical Garden.

What a haul! Seed collectors admire hundreds of seed collections to be cleaned.

What a haul! Admiring hundreds of seed collections to be cleaned are (left to right): Dr. Fritz, Dr. Tatyana Shulina (Garden consultant), Dr. Manana Khutsishvili (lead Georgian botanist) and Dr. Marina Eristavi (botanist on a former trip).

While we each came away with a fantastic collection of seed to propagate, this trip was about much more than collecting plants. Our journey’s end featured a meeting with representatives of institutions from America, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia all focused on expanding collaboration to match areas of expertise with areas of need—not only in the area of collections, but also horticulture, conservation science, education, and fundraising/collaborative grants.

The Caucasus Regional Meeting Participants pose on balcony at the of Institute of Botany. The ancient Narikala Fortress of Tbilisi is in the background.

The Caucasus Regional Meeting participants pose on balcony at the of Institute of Botany. The ancient Narikala Fortress of Tbilisi is in the background.

Left to right: Dr. Marine Eristavi, conservation scientist, National Botanical Garden of Georgia, Dr. Tinatin Barblishvili, deputy director, National Botanical Garden of Georgia, Dr. Lamara Aieshvili, curator of rare and endemic plants of Georgia ex situ collection, National Botanical Garden of Georgia, Vince Marrocco, horticulture director, Morris Arboretum, Dr. Manana Khutsishvili, botanist, Institute of Botany, Tbilisi, Dr. Peter Zale, curator and plant breeder at Longwood Gardens, Matt Lobdell curator of The Morton Arboretum, Dr. Fritz, Dr. Tatyana Shulkina, former curator of the living collections of the Soviet Union, Komarov Botanical Garden and currently Chicago Botanic Garden consultant, Dr. Rashad Selimov, head of education, Institute of Botany Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, Baku, Joe Meny from the US National Arboretum, Dr. Vahid Farzaliyev, National Botanical Garden Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, Baku, Boyce Tankersley director of living plant documentation at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Dr. Shalva Sikharulidze, director of Institute of Botany, Georgia and Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden, Dr. George Fayvush, Department of Geo-botany Armenian Academy of Sciences, Yerevan, Dr. Zhirayr Vardanyan director of the Institute of Botany and National Botanical Garden Armenian Academy of Sciences Yerevan

What can we expect from our efforts? New blooms in the Garden! We have added quite a few plants to those brought back from Georgia on three previous trips:

Lilium monadelphum

Lilium monadelphum

Muscari armeniacum

Muscari armeniacum

Tulipa undulatifolia

Tulipa undulatifolia

Bellevalia makuensis

Bellevalia makuensis

Campanula lactiflora

Campanula lactiflora

Gentiana schistocalyx

Gentiana schistocalyx

Stachys macrantha

Stachys macrantha

Stokesia major

Stokesia major

Dianthus cretaceous

Dianthus cretaceous

Iris iberica ssp. Elegantissima

Iris iberica ssp. elegantissima

Verbascum pyramidatum

Verbascum pyramidatum

Colchicum trigyna

Colchicum trigyna

Stay tuned! Invitations have been received from institutions in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia for future plant collecting trips to the region. Likewise, scientists from these countries were invited to collect American native plants to increase the biodiversity of their ex-situ collections.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org