Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

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 my.chicagobotanic.org

I have an update on Alice the Amorphophallus: Alice has been repotted and has a leaf sprout. Yes, Alice is alive and well, happily growing in the production greenhouses here at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

(Many of you might remember we successfully pollinated Alice with pollen from Stinky, donated to us from the Denver Botanic Gardens’ own Amorphophallus titanum.)

Alice followed a normal growth cycle—as it would have in its native habitat on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia—producing fruit and seeds. This past summer, the flower stalk with the remaining fruit began to wither and collapse as Alice went into dormancy. (We successfully sowed and germinated the seeds, and were rewarded with several dozen seedlings.) On Tuesday, September 13, we removed Alice from the wooden crate she had been living in for the past 24 months, pleased to observe a healthy corm—and a new leaf shoot emerging from the top! We loosened the corm below the soil surface in order to repot it and record its current measurements, and got a few pretty interesting photos. 

First, we washed the corm thoroughly so we could examine it better and get accurate measurements of the corm’s weight and size. We looked for areas of rot, if any, and pulled off any new bulblets that may have developed. (We removed and potted up two new small bulblets—mini-corms—from Alice at this repotting.)

PHOTO: Amorphophallus corm before repotting.

Here is Alice the Amorphophallus as removed from the crate, before washing.

PHOTO: The freshly washed titan arum corm awaits weighing.

The freshly washed titan arum corm awaits weighing.

One big observation was that the corm had actually decreased in size and weight. The big cracks seen in the images below are from the corm rapidly shrinking in size. This is from the large amount of energy (starch and sugars) used for Alice to bloom, and in the production of fruit and seeds. Rather than losing mass and becoming spongy, the post-bloom and fruiting corm is the same density, but smaller in size—both diameter and height—by several inches.

PHOTO: Titan arum corm with emerging leaf sprout and roots.

Splits in the titan arum’s corm are from its rapid decrease in size as energy was used up.

PHOTO: Closeup of a large split in the titan arum corm.

Close-up of a large split in the corm

Now Alice is getting ready to begin the life cycle all over again as a leaf. A ring of new roots at the top of the corm is to support the growth of the emerging leaf bud. The roots do not form or add to a new corm—new corms come from the main corm as bulblets on the side and bottom of the original corm.

The corm has been repotted in a mixture of peat, coir (coconut fiber), composted bark, and perlite, back in its original crate, which still has room to grow in it. 

PHOTO: Alice the Amorphophallus gets ready to leaf out, almost exactly a year after blooming.

Alice the Amorphophallus gets ready to leaf out, almost exactly a year after blooming.

Here are some interesting details on the corm: 

  • Corm size: 13 inches in diameter and 7.5 inches in height
  • Corm weight: 17.5 pounds (weight at last repotting in 2014 was 28.2 pounds)
  • Base of old stem (top growth plate): 4.75 inches in diameter
  • Bottom growth plate: 3.5 inches in diameter
  • New growth/leaf shoot: 2 inches tall (still underground) with a healthy rosette of new roots
  • Surface of the corm: very lumpy and warty looking

I can’t believe it has been a year since we all gathered in the Semitropical Greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden to celebrate Alice’s bloom and stink. What an event that was! Alice will bloom another day, maybe three to five years from now; we will just have to wait and see. But in the meantime, it’s likely another one of the titan arums in our collection will bloom before then. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The opening celebration of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Regenstein Learning Campus on September 10 and 11 is just the beginning of the fun at the Nature Play Garden. How about splashing in the runnel or running up and down the rolling hills?

Beyond those charms, the Nature Play Garden has another wonderful element: plants that were chosen specifically for this garden. There are plants that appeal to all five senses, and plants with funny names or those that exhibit extreme contrasts. One of the best ways to explore the new Learning Campus and its Nature Play Garden is through plants.

In the Garden’s 26 other gardens, plants are chosen, tended, and laid out to enhance the visitor experience. In this, the Garden’s 27th garden, plants are meant to be touched, smelled, and examined up close.

Plants that appeal to the senses:

PHOTO: Stachys byzantina 'Big Ears'

Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’

Sensory plants like lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’) feel soft to the touch.

PHOTO: Physostegia virginiana 'Miss Manners'

Physostegia virginiana ‘Miss Manners’

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana ‘Miss Manners’) has tubular flowers that remain in place if you move them.

PHOTO: Polemonium reptans 'Heaven Scent'

Polemonium reptans ‘Heaven Scent’
Photo courtesy of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens

Heaven Scent Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans ‘Heaven Scent’) was chosen for its fragrance. Enjoy its bright bloom in the spring.

PHOTO: Bergenia cordifolia 'Winterglut'

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’) has big, fleshy leaves that squeak when rubbing fingers over them.

PHOTO: Liquidambar styraciflua

Liquidambar styraciflua

Moraine American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moraine’) has star-shaped leaves and seedpods that are spiky; when dry, the seedpods are a great percussion instrument when shaken.


Plants that look cool:

PHOTO: Sedum 'T. Rex'

Sedum ‘T. Rex’

Autumn stonecrop (Sedum ‘T Rex’) was a cultivar we didn’t yet have in the Garden. The education staff likes these leaves because they can be filled with air.

PHOTO: Cercis canadensis 'Columbus Strain'

Cercis canadensis ‘Columbus Strain’

Columbus Strain redbud (Cercis Canadensis ‘Columbus Strain’) promise to put on a glorious color show each fall. You won’t have to look far to find these: more than 60 surround the McCormick Entry Plaza. 

PHOTO: Carpinus caroliniana 'JN Select'

Carpinus caroliniana ‘JN Select’

Johnson’s Select American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana ‘JN Select’), a cultivar of hornbeam that is recognized for its unusually smaller and upright stature, is ideal for smaller urban gardens with red and orange fall color. These create the Hornbeam Room in the Nature Play Garden.

PHOTO: Chelone obliqua 'Tiny Tortuga'

Chelone obliqua ‘Tiny Tortuga’

Tiny Tortuga turtlehead (Chelone obliqua ‘Tiny Tortuga’) has flower heads that look like turtles.

PHOTO: Alchemilla mollis 'Thriller'

Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’

Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’) is best when it rains because the raindrops stay on the leaves.


And a few bonus plants with fun names:

PHOTO: Eupatorium perfoliatum 'Milk and Cookies'

Eupatorium perfoliatum ‘Milk and Cookies’

Milk and Cookies common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum ‘Milk and Cookies’) is unusually dark-leafed.

There’s also a mythical hero — Hercules coral bells (Heuchera ‘Hercules’) — and a princess — Cinderella anemone (Anemone × hybrida ‘Cinderella’).

PHOTO: Heuchera 'Hercules'

Heuchera ‘Hercules’

PHOTO: Anemone x hybrida 'Cinderella'

Anemone × hybrida ‘Cinderella’

The team of horticulturists and landscape designers who worked to choose and plant the elements of the Nature Play Garden looked for four-season interest and plants that would appeal to visitors of all ages and abilities. Our heavy clay soil didn’t work for everything, but the range of options was still enormous. Come to the Nature Play Garden and discover your own favorite plants.

Join us for the opening celebration of the Regenstein Learning Campus, Saturday and Sunday, September 10 & 11, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Attention orchid fans: our vanilla orchid is blooming in the Tropical Greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It’s a rare occurrence in the wild—and in a greenhouse. Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, seized the moment to hand-pollinate the flower. 

Vanilla planifolia before pollination

Vanilla planifolia before pollination

Why hand pollinate? In hopes of producing a vanilla bean. Yes, the fruit of a vanilla orchid is used to make pure vanilla extract, which flavors many foods we enjoy.

Vanilla vines typically begin to flower at five years or older. Flowers are produced in clusters, with one flower opening each day in the morning. Stop by the Tropical Greenhouse soon to see what’s in bloom. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It is our responsibility as citizens, but especially as practitioners in the fields of horticulture and botanical sciences, to be good stewards of the land and ensure that what we are growing in our backyards and at the Chicago Botanic Garden will not contribute to problems in the future. That is why the Garden recently replaced the callery pears at the entrance to the Visitor Center.

In addition to the callery pear, the Garden also removed winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus) and tamarisk (Tamarix spp.).

Callery pear and euonymous plantings at the Visitor Center entrance in autumn of 2010.

Callery pear and euonymus plantings at the Visitor Center entrance in autumn of 2010.

One threat to our natural world is invasive plants. While many of these plants may on the surface appear to be attractive additions to the landscape, they can force out native species. Short of complete destruction of a natural area, I cannot think of anything more unsightly than a natural area that has been completely consumed by an invasive species to the point that it is no longer recognizable and holds very little biodiversity.

The list of invasive plants and potentially invasive plants is not set in stone; it is an evolving list and one that will continue to change as our climate changes. The callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) was not on the invasive species lists for our region a decade ago, but today it is in Illinois, along with Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Most are familiar with the cultivar ‘Bradford’, but there are several others, including ‘Aristocrat’, ‘Autumn Blaze’, and ‘Cleveland Select’.

Garden staff plant non-invasive American yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) at the entrance to the Visitor Center.

Garden staff plant non-invasive American yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) at the entrance to the Visitor Center.

This spring we replaced all of the Pyrus calleryana ‘Autumn Blaze’ at the front entrance of the Visitor Center with the non-invasive American yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea). As a result, the front entrance is noticeably more open in appearance, and the low canopy and refreshing shade that existed in years past is now gone; it will return as the plantings grow.

Although both of these species are medium-sized deciduous trees with white flowers, the yellowwood has different ornamental characteristics. The callery pear flowers in the early spring, while the yellowwood flowers in late spring to early summer. The callery pear has unrivaled fall color in shades of red, orange, and yellow, while the yellowwood is one of the best for yellow fall color. 

Why is the callery pear called an invasive?

This pear has abundant seeds that can be carried by birds to natural areas. Plants can then become established, thus displacing native species. As land stewards, the Garden is very mindful of prohibiting and eliminating any plants known to be invasive in our region.

The new plantings at the Visitor Center entrance.

The new plantings at the Visitor Center entrance will take time to grow, but will someday provide the shade and fall color of their predecessors.

I have no doubt that some of these recently removed invasive plants were favorites among Garden visitors, our staff included. But sometimes what we like isn’t always good for us, or good for the environment.

New seasonal plantings replace the previous shrubs in the entry beds.

New seasonal plantings replace the previous shrubs in the entry beds.

I encourage you to review and continue to consult invasive species lists, including on the invasive.org website, and do your part by removing invasive species from your garden and resist purchasing and adding more. There are so many benign, beautiful options available to gardeners, and the Garden, along with numerous other organizations, has done the work for you by listing alternatives for the invasive plants that we feel we cannot live without. View a list of our recommended alternatives to invasive plant species here

Each of us can play an important role in preserving the natural landscapes for future generations.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org