Archives For Behind the Scenes

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

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

Ooooh-ooh That Smell…

The first visitors to our latest corpse flower bloom give their impressions

Renee T. —  April 26, 2016 — Leave a comment

On Tuesday, April 24, #CBGSprout raised a big stink at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Our day included these snapshots of the early morning visitors to the rare phenomenon of a corpse flower in full bloom.

We chatted with the early birds and met some “regulars”—visitors who had come by to meet Spike, the Garden’s first titan arum on display last August, and Alice, the corpse flower that bloomed last September.

Kids visiting corpse flower bloom, wearing a corpse flower t-shirt.

Maxwell and Lexi (in her Alice T-shirt) Kirchen visit Sprout early this morning before school.

Baby visiting corpse flower bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Harper, 14 months old, waves at #CBGSprout the corpse flower.

Carrie Kirchen of Deerfield visited this morning, along with Maxwell, age 9, and Lexi, age 6.

Lexi: It smells horrible.

Maxwell: We found out on the Internet. The Internet knows everything.

Lexi: It’s very stinky.

Maxwell: It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it. And it is very stinky.

Carrie: I happened to see the Facebook post. And we were here every day for Spike (a titan arum that previously was on display at the Garden).

Jamie Smith of Highland Park was here with Harper, 14 months old, as well as Susan and Jim Osiol of Mt. Prospect.

Jamie: We keep coming! Third time is the charm.

Susan: I’m obsessed. Our daughter called first thing this morning: ‘Mom, Sprout is blooming!’

Jim: It is vibrant. It’s a piece of nature that’s fascinating.

Visitors to titan arum Sprout at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Megan and Daniel Ladror of Chicago

The first visitor to Sprout the titan arum on the morning after the bloom opened.

Emily Rosenberg of Highland Park was here when the doors opened at 6 a.m.

Megan and Daniel Ladror of Chicago analyzed the smell:

Daniel: This smells like our garbage at home after two days.

Megan: It’s such a rare event. I’m excited to see one without waiting in line.

Emily Rosenberg of Highland Park loved the bloom:

Emily: Beautiful. It is so interesting with the spathe (modified frilly leaf). It has great textures.

A visitor from the Czech Republic sniffs the window removed from the spathe for Sprout the corpse flower's pollination.

Roman Bouchal of the Czech Republic came for the smell this morning, and found it in the window removed from Sprout the corpse flower’s spathe for pollination.

Schoolteacher Jody Schatz reacts to Sprout the titan arum's smell.

Schoolteacher Jody Schatz will have something to share with her class at Reinberg Elementary School in Chicago.

Michelle and Haley Nordstrom, who live five minutes from the Garden:

Michelle (who was watching the livestream at the school bus stop with her daughter when she realized that Sprout was blooming; they jumped in the car): I took a photo of Sprout and sent it to my daughter’s school and said, “We’re going to be late.”

Visitors Roberta Stack, Joanna Wozniak, and Apple, age 7:

Roberta: I’ve been watching it in the camera and saw it open. I ran right down.

Apple: Pretty smelly.

Joanna: I’m catching a cheesey whiff. A bit of Parmesan.

Apple: It does kind of smell like cheese.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Chicago Botanic Garden is on #TitanWatch. That’s right: if you visit the Garden’s Semitropical Greenhouse, you will see Sprout, the latest corpse flower from the Garden’s collection of 13 titan arums to begin a bloom cycle. 

PHOTO: Corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) on display in a variety of life stages: in fruit, leaf, and bud.

Our corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) are now on display in a variety of life stages: in fruit, leaf, and imminent bloom.

You might remember Spike and Alice in 2015: Spike failed to bloom but provided so much excitement; and Alice the Amorphophallus brought visitors to the Garden at all hours to see, and smell, a corpse flower in bloom. Now we are all watching Sprout to see if the corpse flower—known as a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum)— will produce a huge, rotten bloom. Follow the progress of #CBGSprout on our corpse flower webcam and check our website for updates.

We learned a lot about corpse flowers in the last few months, and in the Semitropical Greenhouse, there are corpse flowers at three different stages on display: in the middle of a bloom cycle (Sprout); a non-blooming titan arum leaf; and a pollinated and fruiting titan arum (it’s Alice!). 

Here’s what you need to know as you watch Sprout grow:

  1. The corpse flower is one of the largest and rarest flowering plants in the world. It takes seven to ten years for a single corpse flower to produce a flowering structure (inflorescence). While other corpse flowers in cultivation have bloomed around the world recently, having more than one plant bloom in such a short time is uncommon. Watch for these signs the titan arum bloom is starting.
  2. Corpse flowers smell bad. Really bad. Peak stink time is usually very late at night.
  3. Speaking of night, that’s when corpse flowers usually bloom. And once they bloom, the bloom lasts 24 to 36 hours. Want a sneak peek? View our last titan arum bloom.
  4. If Sprout blooms, the Garden will stay open until 2 a.m. so visitors can experience the corpse flower bloom up close (last Garden entry will be 1 a.m.). Watch the live corpse flower webcam, check the blog (subscribe today), and follow the Garden on Facebook and #CBGSprout on Twitter to get the latest information. 
  5. Corpse flowers are BIG. In their natural habitats, they can reach 10 to 12 feet tall with a bloom diameter of 5 feet. In cultivation, they typically reach 6 to 8 feet in height, but all are different. 
  6. Corpse flowers are unpredictable. When the Garden was watching Spike, the first titan arum, even the horticulturists were surprised that the plant did not flower.
  7. Corpse flowers are native to Sumatra, but Sprout was grown here from seed the Garden received in 2008 from the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Learn about the titan arum’s native habitat.
  8. The corpse flower includes the corm, which may or may not go on to produce a flower; the spadix, which is the tall flower spike; the spathe, which is a single, frilly, modified leaf that enwraps the spadix; the petiole, which is the leaf stalk; and the branch-like rachis, which supports the many leaflets. Find more diagrams and information in our titan arum educator resourcesILLUSTRATION: Titan arum leaf parts diagram.
  9. Corpse flowers that bloom in the wild attract pollinators like carrion beetles and flesh flies. Once the plant is successfully pollinated, it develops olive-shaped, red-orange berries. Read more about titan arum pollination.
  10. Corpse flowers need protection. The Garden’s conservation work ensures that plants like these survive and thrive. Studying seeds from Sprout, Spike, and Alice enables scientists and horticulturists at universities, conservatories, and other institutions increase the genetic diversity of the species. See how we are studying our titan arum fruit.

PHOTO: The mature fruit of this Amorphophallus titanum is now being collected for seed.

The mature fruit of Alice the Amorphophallus is now being collected for seed.


We will be announcing extended viewing hours when #CBGSprout blooms. Spring is here, however—see what else is currently in bloom


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It happens every year—like Groundhog’s Day—and I have the same déjà vu annually!

Each winter for the past 20-plus years, I have supervised and worked on the pruning of the apple orchard at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Since pruning has such a great effect on an apple tree’s health, it became an annual duty of the Plant Health Care Department (that I manage) many years ago.

PHOTO: Tom Tiddens and Tom Fritz pruning the apple orchard.

Tom Tiddens and Tom Fritz pruning the apple orchard.

PHOTO: Closeup of pruning.

Cutting in the right location ensures speedy healing, and a good shape when finished.

To prune the north orchard (about 43 trees) it takes three people about two weeks. We wait until late winter/early March to begin pruning and complete the work before the buds begin to plump and open, as this is the optimal window to prune apple trees for plant health. Over the years I have been in every tree many, many times. Some are easier to prune than others, and some are downright intimidating. The one tree that is the most difficult to prune has been named “The Spirit Breaker,” and we always draw straws to see who gets to prune that one—it takes a full day! Overall, I very much enjoy this late winter pruning project, as it has become an annual rite of passage into spring for me.

Our current style of pruning strikes a balance between ornamental pruning and conventional orchard pruning, which focuses more on production (and which can be very aggressive) and less on plant health. The difference is that every cut we make is carefully made by hand back to a branch or bud, without violating the basic ornamental pruning rules. These carefully made cuts allow for healing without the dieback that can promote disease and other problems. We also work on developing proper branch angles, and thin the tree for better light penetration; another goal is to keep the height down. When pruning is complete, our orchard from a distance looks similar to conventional orchard pruning, where the older trees are kept low, but when you look closely, you can see the difference. 

PHOTO: The apple orchard before pruning.

Before pruning

PHOTO: The apple orchard after pruning.

After pruning

Why is it so important to prune an apple tree annually as we do to our apple orchard?

  • Proper annual pruning will increase harvest quality.
  • Pruning lessens diseases such as apple scab, fire blight, and leaf spot. It increases air circulation and allows the tree to dry out more quickly; moisture promotes disease. 
  • Keeping the trees thinned out (and not so tall) allows for better spray coverage for insect and disease treatments. (All treatments at the Garden are organic products, such as sulfur [mineral] for disease suppression.)  
  • Pruning regulates the height of the trees for easier harvesting.
  • Pruning allows for better light penetration for more—and higher quality—fruit.
  • Pruning allows for branch directional training that will increase production and lessen apple weight-load breakage in late summer.

PHOTO: The apple arbor in bloom, April 2012.

The apple arbor in bloom, April 2012. New whipstock was planted on half the arbor a few years ago, and the new trees should soon look this good again.

Being that the orchard is on the far north side of the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, I feel that many visitors miss out on the experience of walking through the orchard. Experiencing a walk through the orchard in the spring when the apple trees are in full bloom, with the fragrance saturating the air, is a sensory overload and a must-do! In the summer, the outer walk becomes almost tunnel-like, and you feel as if you are on another planet. It’s also fun to watch the fruit develop throughout the season, although please avoid the temptation to pick, as the fruit needs to be harvested at the proper time (which is different for each variety), and we use the harvest in many ways. Next time you are visiting the Chicago Botanic Garden, make it a point to “walk the orchard.”

As for me, I am closing this year’s book on “time to prune the orchard;” 2016’s orchard prune is complete!

Special thanks to Thomas Fritz and Chris Beiser (plant health care specialists and certified arborists) who worked diligently to get the orchard prune completed this year.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org