Archives For behind-the-scenes

I remember vividly the first time I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was silent (unusual for me) and in awe. Everywhere I looked, I saw plant labels, and looking at them provided me some kind of familiarity—like when you meet someone new, you want to know their name, what they do, what they like, right? Well, the same with plants.

One important aspect of visiting a botanic garden is acknowledging its plant collection. Botanic gardens are living museums, and when you go to a museum, you want to know what is in front of you. A display plant’s name on the label is the first interaction between you, the individual, and the environment. It’s important to recognize how vital it is to label our plant collection.

Here at the Garden, we use the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). Only scientific names—written in Latin—are universal worldwide. The scientific name of a plant usually consists of its generic name and its specific epithet, which forms the name of the species. There are no regulations for common names, but scientific names are constantly reviewed and occasionally, we have to replace labels where a plant’s Latin name changes when it is reclassified.  

PHOTO: Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

Volunteers Doris and Leon and intern Tremaine processing label requests.

PHOTO: The plant label room, with bundles of labels stored in buckets in front of card catalogs.

Not everything is glamorous: the cluttered label room

My volunteers and I are responsible for providing display plant labels to the horticulture staff and exhibitions department. People ask me, “Are you bored in wintertime, since there is nothing for you to do?” Uh, what? That may be the busiest season for the labeling team.

We start checking label requests lists, which had been coming in since the previous December, pull labels out of the drawers, assess the accuracy of labels with no name changes, check their appearance, and assemble and process label orders. These processes take four months. In the next few weeks, as the Garden prepares to bloom, we are prepared to deliver 3,400 display labels for spring and summer annuals—plus, the labels for our permanent collection.

Our label room stores more than 45,000 plant labels. We have card catalog cabinets (remember those from libraries before we went digital?) and now even shoeboxes that hold our labels. The labeling team collects, maintains, disassembles, recycles, and discards labels. The Garden has produced close to 10,000 labels a year.

How do we print our labels?

PHOTO: Sample of a display label in the Chicago Botanic Garden.

This is our standard label, 2” x 4”, printed with a metalphoto process (photosensitive anodized aluminum); using silver letters with black finish.

Our labels are printed on photosensitive anodized aluminum, a process called metalphoto finish. It withstands the temperature variations in our climate, and also doesn’t rust or fade. This keeps all the labels in our collection looking standardized, so they are not a distraction in the garden beds, but a helpful hint.

Other botanic gardens use different methods for displaying plant information, based on their individual climate and labeling needs. It’s always fun to see how someone else solves a problem when I am out travelling:

Planter in downtown Quebec with a plant label in it.

A label from downtown, Quebec, Canada. I do not speak French, and before I get nervous, I see the scientific name with relief.

A plant label in Montreal Botanic Garden is a QR code; you must scan the code to see the information.

A label from the Alpine Garden, Montreal Botanic Garden, displays only a QR code; you need access to the internet to scan the code and download the plant information.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

A label in Evian, France. This style of label is attached to the bark of the tree on a spring; this allows the tree to keep growing without being harmed.

This label is mounted on a post at Royal Kew Gardens, London, England.

This label is mounted on a post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England. They speak English here, but the common name of the plant could have varied. Still, as long as I see the scientific name, I know what I see.

This is a big display/interpretive label at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo; about 12 inches by 18 inches.

Labeling at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan. I’m not fluent in Japanese, but I can read the Latin names. This is a big display/interpretive label, about 12 inches by 18 inches.

This label is made to withstand the constant humidity of Costa Rica.

A label in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica. I speak Spanish, but the common name would vary from region to region, so I stick to the scientific name. This label is big and sturdy, around 7 to 8 inches across, and is made to withstand the constant humidity.

Next time you visit the Garden, check out the Linnaeus statue in the Heritage Garden and see the decoding of a plant name.

Our visitors come for different reasons. Some look for comfort, solitude, peace of mind. Others come for education, research, experience, horticulture, and design. Most of them have this in common: they will want to know what they are looking at. And as diverse as our audience is, they will look for the scientific name that is universal. If you visit any botanic garden in the world, the display plant label will remain the same, no matter the country. It may vary in design or style, but at the end, we all speak “plant language.”


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The hand-carved Buddha is in the house. A circa-1850 glazed Chinese jar is filled with green Cymbidium orchids native to Asia. And we’re pampering 10,000 other orchids so they’ll be in full flower for Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show.

Lighting crews, horticulturists, and dozens of other staff members are putting the finishing touches on Asia in Bloom: The Orchid Show, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s biggest flower exhibition of the year. The Show features sweeps of orchids native to Asia, blooming with color and scent. In our heated greenhouses and galleries, the exhibition runs February 10 to March 25 and kicks off with a Members’ Preview night on Friday, February 9.

A circa-1900s hand-carved Buddha is unwrapped for display by Gabe Hutchison

A circa-1900s hand-carved Buddha, on loan from Pagoda Red, is being prepared for display. In parts of Asia, such as Myanmar, orchids are used as offerings to Buddha.

This year’s Orchid Show is infused with a deep sense of history and culture, thanks to our friends at Pagoda Red galleries in Winnetka and Chicago. Pagoda Red loaned us many lovely items—including the circa-1900 Buddha and vintage glazed jar from Shanxi province, China—that helped us bring the theme Asia in Bloom to life.

You’ll see Pagoda Red’s pieces throughout the Show, as grace notes to the stories and legends we’re telling about orchids in Asia. The narrative includes fairies, native headhunters, and the secret ingredient (we cannot vouch for this, sorry) in love potions.  

From dream to reality

Here’s a peek at how we make our design ideas happen:  

This idea for an entryway was inspired by a modern Japanese tea house. It started with a sketch by Gabriel Hutchison, the Garden’s exhibitions and programs production manager.

Gabriel Hutchison's Japanese tea house sketch illustrates his concept for the show.

Gabriel Hutchison’s Japanese tea house sketch illustrates his concept for the show.

Carpentry supervisor Andy Swets built a frame for the tea house and constructed the finished walls.

Frame for the 2018 Orchid Show "tea house" entryway

A recessed panel in the frame will house a “window” featuring orchids.

A fabricated "window" backed by shoji screens for the Orchid Show 2018

The finished window, backed with shoji screens

Horticulturist Brian Barker sketched this idea for a Japanese-inspired dry garden surrounded by rolled bamboo walls:

Sketch of the Joutras Gallery bamboo walls and dry garden concept

It took three crew members two days to get the rolled bamboo walls just right.

The finished bamboo wall in the Joutras Gallery as part of the Orchid Show 2018.

The finished walls support moss baskets filled with orchids native to Asia in the Joutras Gallery.

Brian and senior horticulturist Salina Wunderle also thought it would be cool (pun intended) to shade orchids in the Semitropical Greenhouse with handmade parasols from Myanmar:

Handmade parasols from Myanmar hang in the greenhouse.

Handmade parasols filter light from the greenhouse roof above the “checkerboard.”

Meanwhile, our horticulturists are keeping a close eye on the 10,000 orchids, each of which has its own water, humidity, temperature, and light requirements.

Other new features

New this year is a display of the graceful Japanese flower arrangements known as ikebana, with orchids as the focus. Also new is Orchids After Hours on Thursdays, from 4 to 8 p.m., with Asian beer, sake, sushi, poke bowls, and other light fare for purchase.

Rhynchostylis orchid

This Rhynchostylis orchid, native to the humid forests of India and Southeast Asia, was kept in our new orchid house at 60 degrees Fahrenheit so it wouldn’t bloom too early.

Remember that the look of the Orchid Show changes throughout, as new orchids come into bloom and the ikebana displays change. And the Semitropical Greenhouse? You’ll get a different view each time, depending on the angle of the winter sun as it shines through the patterned parasols on to the orchids.  

Pro tip: Save time and buy tickets and parking in advance; members park for free. Share your photos: #CBGOrchidShow


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Designing the 2017 Orchid Show

Renee T. —  February 9, 2017 — 5 Comments

Take a sneak peek behind-the-scenes at the Orchid Show, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s biggest flower show of the year. Buy tickets here.

PHOTO: Phalaenopsis Sogo Yukidan 'V3'

Phalaenopsis Sogo Yukidian ‘V3’

We’ve rolled out the tall ladders, prepped hanging baskets with Spanish moss, and worked hard to keep 10,000 warmth-loving tropical orchids happy (including an orchid that is rarely shown in the United States, Phalaenopsis Sogo Yukidian ‘V3’; be sure to check out the unusual number of big blooms on each spike).

It’s all hands on deck for the Show, which runs February 11 to March 26, following the Members’ Preview night on Friday, February 10. Volunteers across the Garden and beyond have pitched in to help from departments including Education, Model Railroad, and Horticultural Therapy Services, along with our Woman’s Board.

Volunteers from all departments unpack orchids for the Orchid Show 2017.

Volunteers from different departments unpack orchids for the Orchid Show 2017.

It all starts with ideas from our creative team, which starts brainstorming shortly after the end of the previous year’s Orchid Show. 

PHOTO: Sketch of the Orchid Show designs for 2017.

Last June, horticulturist Brian Barker had an idea that looked like this.

The Orchid Show displays in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Now it looks like this: an arch of Vanda and Oncidium orchids between the palms.

Sketch of planter layout for the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Three big planters are nestled amid the existing greenhouse plantings.

Manzanita branches cover the framework of the planters for the Chicago Botanic Garden's Orchid Show.

Manzanita branches cover the framework of the planters; orchids will fill the top and stem of the structures.

Setting up the structure for the orchid "wind chime"

Setting up the framework

In the completed archway, supporting vines are woven together and attached to a hidden framework. Notice the dangling aerial roots from orchids that are epiphytes—plants that grow on trees, with above-ground rather than in-ground roots.

Sometimes, things don’t always go as planned. Work on the 13-foot high orchid “wind chime” got delayed while we waited and waited for a delivery of bamboo supports from Colombia… Luckily, the shipment arrived before the Show.

When you walk into Nichols Hall, don’t forget to look for the dozens of blooms overhead.

The finished orchid "wind chime" in Nichols Hall

The finished “chime” looks deceptively simple…

This year’s theme is Orchids in Vogue, a playful look at the influence of orchids in popular culture, including fashion. Last summer, senior horticulturist Salina Wunderle came up with an idea for an orchid “dress.” Now we have three design teams working on orchid dresses; come see the final result.

Materials sketch by horticulturist Salina Wunderle for one of this year's highlights: 3 orchid gowns.

This materials sketch by horticulturist Salina Wunderle details one of this year’s highlights: orchid “dresses.”

Salina Wunderle's dress sketch shows how her material choices will be layered to create the final look.

Salina’s dress sketch shows how her material choices will be layered to create the final look. The availability and maintenance of the plants might mean some changes in the final design.

Under construction, this is one of 3 gowns made of orchids and other plants to be displayed at The Orchid Show this year.

We did some trial runs, testing materials to help determine weight and structure, and making sure they’ll stay fresh for the run of the Show.

PHOTO: Cymbidium Sarah Jean 'Peach'

Cymbidium Sarah Jean ‘Peach’

Don’t miss our exclusive Members’ Preview night, Friday, February 10. Visit the Orchid Show February 11 to March 26, 2017. 

…and don’t forget to tag us in your selfies: #CBGOrchidShow


Photos by Maria Rebelo and Robin Carlson.
©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s a sneak peek behind the scenes of our annual Orchid Show! (Purchase tickets here.)

All hands are on deck as the last orchid shipments have been delivered, the ladders are lowered, the final moss gets tucked in, the lights get positioned, and the delicate task of watering and caring for 10,000 orchids begins.

Behind the scenes, it’s been quite a production, and staff have been documenting it all. Their “befores” and “afters” give you an idea of the complex and wildly creative infrastructure that supports all those gorgeous orchids. 

Looking forward to seeing you there—and don’t forget your camera!

PHOTO: Boxes of orchids lined up for unpacking.

Organized orchids: as boxes and boxes of orchids from warm-weather nurseries arrived, they were staged in Joutras Gallery…

PHOTO: Unpacked orchids await final placement on rows of tables in Nichols Hall.

Unpacked orchids line tables as they await placement in the exhibition.

PHOTO: Horticulturist Liz Rex unravels Vanda roots.

Patience and a horticulturist’s touch: root-bound Vanda orchids had to be teased out of not one, but two pots each, root by root.

PHOTO: Vanda orchids in the greenhouse.

Each Vanda is then tucked into the displays in the Tropical Greenhouse.

PHOTO: Horticulturist Heather Sherwood creating orchid chain.

Upcycling at its best: horticulturist Heather Sherwood trimmed ten years of wisteria vine growth from the English Walled Garden…

PHOTO: Finished orchid chain.

…then hung it inside the skylight as a backdrop for these “waterfall” chains of mini Phalaenopses.

PHOTO: Notched bamboo supports await orchid plantings.

What a difference a week makes! Last Friday, bamboo supports in the Bridge Gallery looked like this.

PHOTO: Dendrobium orchids fill bamboo supports.

This week, Dendrobium orchids are being layered in, transforming the entrance to the Orchid Show.

PHOTO: Staff plant up the bamboo trees and wire baskets to create orchid trees.

Building orchid nests: the size of a small tree, each orchid “nest” holds 175 to 200 brightly colored orchids.

PHOTO: A blooming Phalaenopsis orchid tree in the exhibition.

Finished “trees” in both bud and bloom ensure peak blooms throughout the show.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring isn’t progressing very quickly outside, so we stopped by the production greenhouses to find out how spring is growing behind the scenes. Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist, was excited to show us what it takes to grow thousands of the spring annuals and vegetables that will soon be planted outdoors.

Tim told us we are growing 73,000 spring annuals and vegetables this year to be planted outside in the gardens in April. If you like pansies and violas, you are in for a treat, as we’ve planted almost 30,000 of them! A lot of planning goes into scheduling when to start seeds, thin them, transplant them, and harden them off to be ready when each horticulturist needs them. The production team of more than 50 staff members and volunteers makes it all look easy, but I’m guessing with this harsh winter, it hasn’t been easy.

Just one of the wows visitors will see this spring are the hayracks that hang over the bridge from the Visitor Center to the main island. Staff members and volunteers just recently spent 12 hours planting them with 1,200 plants. They will grow safely in the greenhouses until the weather gets warm enough to bring them outside. Can’t wait!

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to learn all about getting ready for spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org