Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

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

As Wonderland Express gets ready to open its doors to visitors on the day after Thanksgiving, there are many behind-the-scenes activities that are happening to create this colorful show for the holidays. 

PHOTO: panorama of poinsettias in the production greenhouses.

A poinsettia panorama has been in production all this past summer.

Wonderland Express will be open November 25, 2016 – January 2, 2017. Get your tickets today.

In the Plant Production greenhouses, the process of preparing the poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) for Wonderland Express starts much earlier: around mid-summer! The majority of the poinsettias start to arrive in July as rooted cuttings, only about 2 to 3 inches tall. All of these plants are transplanted into their finished pot sizes based on the requests and the ultimate uses for the plants in the displays. In fact, just over 1,000 plants were grown for this year’s display.

Care is taken for each plant—pinching the plants to produce more branches, tying them to keep them upright and sturdier, fertilizing, and controlling the light exposure to time the blooms. This is just some of the loving care the plants receive from the production staff.

PHOTO: Winter Rose Eggnog poinsettia.

Winter Rose Eggnog poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Winter Rose Eggnog’)

In the beginning of the crop cycle, the plants grow best under the long, natural days of summer day length. But when it is time to begin to force them into color, the use of short days is required to initiate flowering about 9 to 9½ weeks before they are to be sent up for the Wonderland Express display. In order to accomplish this, black-out curtains are used to shorten the days artificially, which gives the plants 14 hours of darkness. We grow two crops of poinsettias; the early crop is installed in late November just before opening the exhibition, and a second crop is grown for changing out in mid-December in order to keep the entire display looking fresh and at its best.

In addition to growing more than 1,000 plants to perfection, there are several varieties and colors of poinsettias grown. Even the red varieties have different cultivar names. Look for cultivars such as ‘Jubilee Red’, ‘Christmas Day Red’, ‘Candle Light White’, ‘Cherry Crush’, ‘Premier Jingle Bells’, and ‘Valentine’ (with its interesting, rosebud-shaped flowers).

PHOTO: Valentine poinsettia.

Valentine poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Valentine’)

PHOTO: Premier Jingle Bells poinsettia.

Premier Jingle Bells poinsettia
(Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Premier Jingle Bells’)

Poinsettias are just a few of the plants grown for Wonderland Express. We also grew hundreds of amaryllis for this year’s display, and there is an amazing variety in the hundreds of small evergreens and conifers to be found throughout the displays.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to spend two weeks in Kyoto, Japan, attending the Japanese Garden Intensive Seminar offered by the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art & Historical Heritage.

PHOTO: tea and a small treat.

A small treat prepares the palette for the sweet and astringent taste of sencha. The idea is to savor the flavor of the tea from the few drops served in these tiny cups.

The seminar began full force the day after I arrived in Kyoto after a 16-hour flight and a 14-hour time change. A sencha tea ceremony was very cleverly scheduled for our first day to combat the heavy jet lag we all felt. Ogawa Kashin founded the Ogawa school of sencha tea ceremony in Kyoto about 200 years ago. Kashin devised his own tea-brewing rituals and became celebrated as an original-minded tea master with modern ideals.

In the following days, we visited many gardens and temples and attended lectures. It’d be hard to mention every one of them in the space of this blog so I picked a few I found particularly impressive and transformative.

Kinkaku-ji Temple or Temple of the Golden Pavilion

PHOTO: The Golden Pavilion and its reflection.

The Golden Pavilion and its reflection

PHOTO: The Golden Pavilion surrounded by beautiful pines and the immaculate moss.

The Golden Pavilion surrounded by beautiful pines and the immaculate moss

PHOTO: The ancient pine at Kinkaku-Ji with branch supports.

The ancient pine at Kinkaku-ji with branch supports

PHOTO: The ancient pine at Kinkaku-Ji with branch supports.

Never sprayed, it only gets fed a little bit of mycorrhizae

PHOTO: Mr. Tamane sitting by the dry garden around the building where he offered us tea.

Tokushirou Tamane sitting by the dry garden around the building where he offered us tea

Registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site, the pavilion takes your breath away. Tokushirou Tamane, the 82-year-old head gardener, is equally extraordinary. He allowed us into paths closed to the general public to take in the views of the pavilion and the surrounding gardens from the best angles possible. The garden and the buildings, centered on the Golden Pavilion, represent the “pure land” of Buddha in this world.

Gonaitei Garden, Kyoto Imperial Palace

This garden is located at the living quarters of the emperor, the Otsunegoten, inside the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The building houses the imperial sleeping chamber and the room with the sacred sword and the seal. As the emperor’s private garden, it feels very intimate, with a meandering stream spanned by earthen and wooden bridges. Beautifully pruned pines and shrubs and charming accents carefully placed throughout the garden create a space where one can spend hours gazing at each detail.

PHOTO: Earthen and wood bridges in Gonaitei Garden.

Earthen and wooden bridges in Gonaitei Garden

PHOTO: A majestic Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora).

A majestic Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora)

PHOTO: A view into the stream is framed by plantings.

A view into the stream is framed by plantings

PHOTO: Japanese lantern.

Many types of lanterns adorn the garden…

PHOTO: Japanese lantern.

some in plain view…

PHOTO: Japanese lantern.

some hidden, to be discovered.

Ginkaku-ji Temple or The Silver Pavilion

Located in the foothills of the east side of Kyoto, this temple was established in 1482 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa. He intended to cover the pavilion in silver leaf. Although it was never plated with silver, the pavilion, an unpainted brown, looks over the flawlessly raked sand, Ginsyadan; and the white sand, Mt. Fuji-shaped Kongetsudai. 

PHOTO: The Silver Pavilion with a beautiful reflection.

The Silver Pavilion with a beautiful reflection

PHOTO: Ginsyadan and Kongetsudai are truly enchanting. The gardener in blue uniform in the center of the photo is sweeping the moss, a common sight at all the gardens I visited.

Ginsyadan and Kongetsudai are truly enchanting. The gardener in blue uniform in the center of the photo is sweeping the moss, a common sight at all the gardens I visited.

PHOTO: Mossy path up the hill at Ginkakuji.

The mossy path up the hill leads to…

PHOTO: A view of the city surrounding Ginkakuji.

magnificent views of Ginkaku-ji and the surrounding area.

Tofuku-ji Temple Hojo Garden

The Hojo (Abbot’s Hall) at Tofuku-ji Temple was rebuilt in 1890 and Shigemori Mirei, a famous garden designer, laid out the four gardens that surround the building. He combined tradition and abstractionism to create these contemporary Zen gardens.

PHOTO: The eastern garden of Tofuku-ji's Hojo, with the temple’s foundation pillars, and the western garden with square azalea shrubs which reflect an ancient Chinese way of land division

The eastern garden of Tofuku-ji’s Hojo, with the temple’s foundation pillars, and the western garden with square azalea shrubs, reflect an ancient Chinese way of land division.

PHOTO: The southern garden showcases a cluster of forceful rock groupings and moss covered mounds.

The southern garden showcases a cluster of forceful rock groupings and moss-covered mounds.

PHOTO: Visitors sitting quietly and gazing at the dry garden at Tofuku-ji.

Visitors sit quietly gazing out at the dry garden.

PHOTO: The northern garden uses foundation rocks and moss in an irregular checkered pattern.

My most favorite—the northern garden—uses foundation rocks and moss in an irregular checkered pattern.

PHOTO: The design, very minimalistic and modern, captures you as much as the southern dry garden with its giant rocks and mossy hills.

The design, very minimalistic and modern, captures visitors as much as the southern dry garden with its giant rocks and mossy hills.

The seminar also included a visit to a cloisonné museum, a stone cutter’s studio, and a trip to Ashu forest for an all-day garden-making workshop.

PHOTO: Kinzo Nishimura, a 4th generation stone lantern maker, designed the famous lantern at Kenroku-en.

Kinzo Nishimura, a fourth-generation stone lantern maker, designed the famous lantern at Kenroku-en.

PHOTO: Kinzo Nishimura in his workshop.

All lanterns at his workshop are chiseled by hand.

Seeing these world-famous gardens in person, attending lectures, and being immersed in a fascinating culture will make me a better and a more well-rounded Japanese gardener. I have a much better grasp now on certain features of my garden and why they became a part of the original design. I also loved Kyoto as a town, with its lush mountains always in view and ever-present water in the form of rivers, streams, and canals. I already have a list of gardens I will visit next time I’m in town.

PHOTO: Finished lanterns dwell between the forest and unworked stone in the foreground.

Finished lanterns dwell between the forest and unworked stone in the foreground.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org