Botanic gardens are looking at the ways that zoos are trying to save threatened and exceptional species—including whooping cranes, black-footed ferrets, and giants pandas—to see if their approach could be adapted and used to help save rare plant species.  

Over the past year, the Chicago Botanic Garden has been working with the Brookfield Zoo, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and other institutions to modify management tools developed for zoo living collections for botanic garden use.

Scientists and curators at botanic gardens and zoos both manage populations—of plants and animals, respectively—for conservation purposes. This type of conservation, outside the habitat of the plant or animal, is called “ex situ” (off site) conservation. There is a lot of similarity between the best practices for living collection management at zoos and botanic gardens, but to date, we have not often worked together to adapt tools developed for animals to plants and vice-versa.

This may be due, in part, to the fact that plant conservation relies heavily on seed banking. Storing seeds is an effective conservation method for most plant species, and avoids many of the problems associated with growing plants in the garden. (Living plants may be killed or injured by diseases and pests, may hybridize with other plants in the garden, and over several generations, may change genetically in ways that make them less suited for reintroduction.) However, many plant species are not well-suited for seed banking, either because their seeds are recalcitrant—they cannot be dried and frozen—or because some plants rarely produce seeds. Living collections offer an alternative conservation method for these “exceptional” species.

PHOTO: Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

In this recent paper in the American Journal of Botany, we describe an approach that botanic gardens could adopt to improve their management of rare plant species—based on the “studbook” approach zoos use for animals. We hope to test this approach in two rare plants next year: Quercus oglethorpensis (Ogelthorpe oak—found only in the southeastern United States), and Brighamia insignis (Ālula—found only on Kauai in Hawaii).

PHOTO: Quercus oglethorpensis.

Quercus oglethorpensis
Photo ©2015, Virginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation

PHOTO: Brighamia insignis.

Brighamia insignis

It is clear that zoos and botanic gardens have much to learn from each other, and we hope to work more with our zoo counterparts in the future.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Under a grey fall sky, the English Walled Garden was blooming with color, activity, and life. Rain-glazed flowers drew tiny hummingbirds, and fountains sang. It was a special day. John Brookes, the English landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens was there for a visit, something that has happened only once every few years since the beloved site was dedicated in the summer of 1991.

PHOTO: Clematis bloom through a wall in May in the English Walled Garden.

Clematis blooms through a wall in May in the English Walled Garden.

Although the garden has grown and changed since that time, it has remained true to the original concept Brookes created. “There’s an intimacy about it that I think people like,” said Brookes, who strolled the space with a small team of Garden staff members. “I don’t think there’s another area that has this range of plant material in it,” he added.

Before entering the garden, Brookes paused to soak in the entrance plantings along the west wall, evaluating the shape, color, and size of each shrub, flower, and vine. The vibrant section had been replanted since his last visit, but he nodded as if in agreement as he swept his eyes over the arrangement.

He was next drawn to the perimeter of the garden that overlooks the Great Basin. The border of the space and the height and shape of trees and shrubs were his first priorities there and throughout his tour. Neatness was fundamental in his view, as he looked for carefully arranged edging such as boxwood bushes. However, in places such as the daisy garden, he encouraged the horticulturists to allow for wild messiness, and for tall, abundant blooms that create a relaxed feeling.

As he walked from one garden room to the next, he admired splashes of color and white flowers that brought a light touch to the many deep green plantings and shady areas. He looked over the shoulders of a cluster of art students who were painting their own vision of the space, and nodded with approval.

PHOTO: Sunlight shining through apples in spring bloom create dappled shade over foxglove in the English Walled Garden.

Sunlight shining through apples in spring bloom creates dappled shade over foxglove in the English Walled Garden.

PHOTO: The yellow blooms of Magnolia 'Elizabeth' are a beacon of spring in the English Walled Garden each year.

The yellow blooms of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ are a beacon of spring in the English Walled Garden each year.

PHOTO: Blooming through late fall, the morning glory vines captivate visitors to the English Walled Garden.

Blooming through late fall, the morning glory vines captivate visitors to the English Walled Garden.

PHOTO: Preparing to bloom, morning glory vine creeps up the wisteria arbors of the English Walled Garden in midsummer.

Preparing to bloom, morning glory vine creeps up the wisteria arbors of the English Walled Garden in midsummer.

Again and again, he paused, considered, discussed, and nodded, occasionally spotting a new addition to the garden, or the absence of a plant that had once lived there. Always, he was looking for brightness in the form of blue, yellow, and white flowers, silvery accents, and varied vines against red brick walls. Sitting beside a trickling fountain, he noted the importance of the many water features. “It brings it alive,” he said. Water “brings light down into the garden because you get a reflection. It’s the sound, really,” he added.

PHOTO: John Brookes, the landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens known as the English Walled Garden.

John Brookes, the landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens known as the English Walled Garden.

Returning to the perimeter of the garden, he stopped to take in the view from beneath an English oak that was planted by Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret in 1986, when ground was broken for the garden.

Brookes’ design was inspired by several gardens in England, including the gardens of Russell Page and the Great Dixter gardens.

Returning to the tour, Brookes and the team of Garden staff anticipated the arrival of mums and asters in the coming days. Like a proud parent, Brookes said that the garden has “just grown and matured,” since it was first planted. “It feels like a real garden more than a show garden.”

A brightly colored butterfly swept by as if to say “thank you,” while a photographer snapped a photo of a hummingbird and several women in wide-brimmed hats gathered on benches to chat. A vision come to life.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Planting well-being: near and far

How the Horticultural Therapy Department makes an impact on a communities health, education and wellbeing.

Clare Johnson —  October 10, 2016 — 2 Comments

This year, the Horticultural Therapy Services department consulted with a wide range of organizations to bring the healing power of nature to communities across the globe—from Illinois to the Philippines. 

This past spring, the Horticultural Therapy department was contacted by Park School—a self-contained public therapeutic day program in Evanston, Illinois—to develop a plant-based therapy program alongside its staff and students. This program was generously funded by Foundation 65, the educational foundation for Evanston-Skokie School District 65. 

Throughout the spring and early summer, we planted and tended an accessible, outdoor container garden as part of the students’ therapeutic curriculum.


Planting sensory containers with a student at Park School

Park’s devotion to its students, community, and environmental education landed the school a grant from the GRO1000 grassroots grant project. This grant enabled Park to contract with the Chicago Botanic Garden to design a permanent sensory garden for the school. 

As the design consultant, I led the garden design steering committee—comprised of Park staff; Mary Brown, Ph.D., of District 65; and Park’s PTA—through the design process, resulting in an accessible and engaging sensory garden design set to be installed on October 14 and 15. 

The Park School Sensory Garden boasts elements such as an outdoor classroom with overhead pergola, accessible garden shed and raised containers, hanging sensory planters, and a memorial garden. Park School will be hosting a volunteer day on Saturday, October 15, for local community members interested in getting involved in this fantastic project. The volunteer day will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a garden dedication at 2 p.m. 

C:UsersAmy OlsenDownloadsPark School update 729 11x17 Landsc

Rendering of the Park School Sensory Garden (Clare Johnson)

The restorative power of nature knows no bounds, and we’re fortunate to be able to provide consulting services to organizations near and far. When Rachel Jones, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the Philippines, contacted us in early 2016 asking for design guidance, we immediately said “yes.”

Rachel works at a nonprofit organization called My Refuge House. It’s a shelter for girls who have been rescued from commercial sexual exploitation and abuse. Two years ago the shelter switched from a highly clinical track of therapy to one that is more culturally relevant and uses alternative approaches. As a professional who had previously worked with horticultural therapy, Rachel created a project and received a grant to create a healing garden on the property for group therapy and individual meditation.


Collecting cuttings from community members for the healing garden

Rachel and I discussed some of the fundamental principles of therapeutic garden design, including but not limited to private and public gathering spaces, lush plantings, smooth paving, shade structure/trees, safe perimeter, moveable seating, and so on.

Rachel engaged the local community while constructing the garden. She shared a story about how she collected some of the plant material: “Today we went on a hike up the mountain, where the shelter is located, to ask people for cuttings from their plants. We met great people and they were all very generous in providing plants for our garden.” When planning a garden, involving your community is a great way to increase the ownership of a space, and the devotion to the mission.

It was wonderful to read the updates from Rachel as they came to the end of the installation. 

My Refuge House

The Healing Garden at My Refuge House in the Philippines

When the garden was completed, they hosted a dedication ceremony memorializing the hard work that had gone into the creation of the healing garden. It was an honor to be a resource for this incredible project, and we hope to have a powerful effect on many other communities, moving forward. 

The healing power of nature, much like these projects, has no limits. Something as small as a shady nook with a gliding swing can make a world of difference for someone in need.  

Find more information about the project at My Refuge House by visiting the Peace Corp volunteer’s blog

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

As fall approaches and the leaves begin to change, the Chicago Botanic Garden bids adieu to our beautiful summer blooms until next year. The air starts to get crisper (and your summer plants will too), but September isn’t the expiration date for color and excitement at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and it shouldn’t be in your garden either.

We asked Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, and Cindy Baker, manager of horticultural services, for their favorite fall-blooming perennials that will make your landscape pop this season.

PHOTO: Phlox paniculata 'Barfourteen' Purple Flame® garden phlox.

Purple Flame® garden phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Barfourteen’)


Phlox paniculata
Garden phlox

Look no further for a long-blooming and beautiful native perennial that provides a whole palette of color options for your garden. Phlox cultivars add shades of showy pink, lavender, or white in clusters of delicate-looking flowers. Their sweet fragrance will attract late-season butterflies and hummingbirds to your own backyard. Garden phlox are generally hardy plants and will grow well in sun or shade. Plant in midspring with a layer of mulch to retain soil moisture for maximum flower production.

PHOTO: Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues' switchgrass.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’)

Panicum sp.

Ornamental grasses may not seem like an obvious choice for garden excitement but they can help to create texture and movement. Switchgrasses are an environmentally smart choice as they are native to tallgrass prairies in the United States. Cultivars are variable in color with red to light golden blooms and deep green to blue blades. Switchgrasses are low maintenance and will tolerate nutrient-poor soils, but plant in full sun to keep plants upright and blooming all fall. Because they can grow up to 8 feet in height, consider planting toward the back of your beds and place smaller plants in front.

PHOTO: Callicarpa japonica 'Leucocarpa' (Japanese beautyberry).

Japanese beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica ‘Leucocarpa’)

Callicarpa sp.

This small shrub has something to offer year-round; it blooms in the summer, then its flowers are replaced by small berries that last until winter. Depending on the species, Callicarpa can have shiny white or bright purple berries—both are a big hit with birds. All species have long, arching branches that cascade outward but with pruning, the shape is variable. Beautyberry should be planted in rich soil and pruned in early spring but otherwise requires little attention throughout the year. Ensure your shrub receives adequate moisture for maximum fruit production all fall long.

PHOTO: Rudbeckia hirta 'Autumn Colors'.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta ‘Autumn Colors’)

Rudbeckia cultivars
Black-eyed Susans and coneflowers

With familiar daisy-like flowers that will bloom through all of fall, it is no wonder that species of Rudbeckia are a fall favorite. Petal colors can range from shades of bright yellow to orange-gold, and some cultivars have flushes of red on the petals. Rudbeckia will respond well to deadheading or alternatively, leave the dried flower heads on the plant to attract migrating birds to your garden. This will also allow the flowers to reseed because not all cultivars of Rudbeckia will act as perennials in colder climates.  These flowers are low maintenance if planted in well-drained soil.

PHOTO: Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra', or Japanese blood grass.

Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’)
Photo by Jim Hood, via Wikimedia Commons

Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’
Japanese blood grass

Japanese blood grass is another low maintenance ornamental grass. Usually smaller in stature than switchgrass, it introduces a dramatic splash of deep red into your landscape. Although nonnative and normally a fiercely invasive plant, this cultivar does not produce seed and spreads slowly. This grass is best used as a border plant in well-drained soils.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative, and its local partners were chosen as one of five finalists in the Food to Market Challenge.

The Food to Market Challenge, conducted collaboratively by Kinship Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, will award $500,000 to the multidisciplinary team that presents innovative solutions on how to bring local food to market. The Farm on Ogden Development (F.O.O.D.) includes distributors (Midwest Foods), farmers (Windy City Harvest, Creciendo Farms, Return to Life Farm, Sweet Pea and Friends, Garfield Produce Company), educators (Windy City Harvest, SAVOR…Chicago, ProStart Culinary Training, South Loop Farmers Market), healthcare and access (Community Economic Development Association, Lawndale Christian Health Center), land access (Brinshore Development, SAVOR…Chicago), and customers (SAVOR…Chicago, South Loop Farmers Market). Watch the video and see how this group of longtime partners is positioned to answer the challenges of the food supply chain in Chicago: food, health, and jobs.

PHOTO: Windy City Harvest is part of a team competing in the Food to Market Challenge.

Windy City Harvest is part of a team competing in the Food to Market Challenge.

The winner of the Food to Market Challenge will be selected at a “Shark Tank”-style event held at the Museum of Contemporary Art on October 26. 

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and