Archives For horticulture

The SciFi Rant

Boyce Tankersley —  March 2, 2018 — 6 Comments

I have been a fan of science fiction since the early days of Star Trek on TV (Yep, I am that old). I think it is one of my strengths, as a scientist, that I have the ability to visualize “out of bounds” solutions. I like to think this open-mindedness has contributed to my successes.

I discovered a love of growing plants and archaeology as a young child on a ranch in West Texas, surrounded by miles of vegetation and peppered with intriguing traces of the people that had lived on the land before I got there.

Coming from a family of modest means, I realized that I did not have the luxury of “discovering myself” at college, and so at 16, I made a short list of possible careers with their pros and cons: growing plants and studying ancient civilizations. Neither career path was going to result in wealth, but that was not a major goal in my life’s plan. (Yes, I have on several occasions wished for time travel to reevaluate the advantages of wealth.) A strong contender was archaeology, but one of the cons was that if I were out of a job, I would not have the skills to grow food to feed my family. Don’t you just love spreadsheets? So growing plants was to be my career—and if I were unemployed, at least I would have the skills needed to grow food for my family.

I soon learned that within the whole plant science field were a number of specializations, not just “growing things”: horticulture, botany, plant taxonomy, plant physiology, plant genetics, agronomy, and plant pathology. Yikes, another decision!  Like any good budding scientist, I knew research was in order:

  • Horticulture is the art and science of growing plants.
  • Botany is the scientific study of plants, including their physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance.
  • Plant Taxonomy is the science that finds, identifies, describes, classifies, and names plants.
  • Plant Physiology is a sub-discipline of botany concerned with the functioning—or physiology—of plants.
  • Plant Genetics deals with heredity in plants, specifically mechanisms of hereditary transmission and variation of inherited characteristics.
  • Agronomy is a branch of agriculture dealing with field-crop production and soil management.
  • Plant Pathology is defined as the study of the organisms and environmental conditions that cause disease in plants, the mechanisms by which this occurs, the interactions between these causal agents and the plant (effects on plant growth, yield and quality), and the methods of managing or controlling plant disease.

Horticulture was the name of the discipline I wanted to specialize in, and that, as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “was the rest of the story.”

So where does the rant about SciFi fit in?

Siting on the couch with my son and watching E.T. the Extra-terrestrial for the umpteenth time, I was dismayed to learn in the director’s cut that the original title had been The Botanist. Now everyone in plant sciences knows that botanists are great folks to share a beer with, but they are lousy at growing plants. If they could grow plants ,they would be horticulturists, not botanists. But I let this one slide, Steven Spielberg is a great guy, and everyone deserves a break sometimes. Besides, in an alien culture, perhaps the two are more closely aligned. (Another example of out-of-the-box thinking!) 

Fast forward to The Martian, a real thriller that pushed all of the right buttons in my SciFi loving psyche…except that they described the survivor as a botanist. No self-respecting botanist would know enough about growing plants and their requirements to pull off that feat. Nope, another missed opportunity. Obviously a horticulturist; a botanist would have studied the tubers as they dried up and died. The horticulture field just lost another opportunity to attract the first generation to grow plants on another planet!

ET: A tiny botanist, or maybe something a little more cross-disciplinary? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal

ET: A tiny botanist, or maybe something a little more cross-disciplinary? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal

Mark Watney may be a biologist, but here he's a horticulturist. Photo via

Mark Watney may be a botanist, but here he’s a horticulturist. Photo via

The stomach flu earlier this year was a really unpleasant experience, but while channel surfing Netflix last weekend, I came across a SciFi series called The Expanse. Yep, that was me for four days straight—watching a total of 26 episodes—knowing that I was out of it enough to be able to come back in a time of health and catch some details my fevered brain didn’t absorb. (Yes, Netflix was concerned and periodically offered me alternatives, but I was hooked.)

About halfway through the second season, the action shifts to a food production facility featuring solar collectors, greenhouses, and plants grown in hydroponic solution. Vital to survival of our species in space, plants cleanse the air and provide nutrition for space-based operations—NASA has been working on it for at least 40 years. Great scenes, great actor, actually got the technical terminology right…and then they referred to him as a botanist!

My wife, son, and our new puppy came rushing to my bedside—such a cry of anguish they had never heard. They reassured neighbors at the door that everything really was “all right.” Ugh!

A FluorPen is used to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants.

John “JC” Carver, a payload integration engineer with NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Test and Operations Support Contract, uses a FluorPen to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants inside the growth chamber of the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) Flight Unit No. 1. Half the plants were then harvested.

Dear SciFi movie writers, directors, etc.: In space, plant scientists probably wear many hats, but please note: horticulturists grow plants; botanists study them.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Many of the display gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden may be sleeping this time of year, but our horticulturists definitely are not. They’re hard at work during snowy winters, thinking about all the new plants and planning for the New Year.

The Garden in Winter

We asked a few horticulturists for their gardening resolutions for 2018—whether at the Chicago Botanic Garden, or in their own backyard. Feel free to snag one of their ideas for yourself.

Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden

Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden
Some of my New Year’s resolutions are to clean and sharpen my tools, start a compost pile with my kitchen scraps, pet more bumble bees, and sit on a garden bench every day. Okay, maybe every week. Well, at least every month. Baby steps. Baby steps.

Michael Jesiolowski, senior horticulturist, Entrance Gardens

Michael Jesiolowski, senior horticulturist, entrance gardens
I want to include more bulbs in my perennial plantings. Bulbs might not be the first thing that comes to mind when going plant shopping, but they can be used to complement perennials in bloom or massed on their own to make a bold statement. How about an early summer combo of Allium ‘Globemaster’ and Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’? Hmmm…

Ayse Pogue, senior horticulturist, Japanese Garden

Ayse Pogue, senior horticulturist, Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden
My New Year’s resolution is to apply the principles of the  soil initiative the Garden has just begun. I am very excited to learn more about how to take care of our soils properly and, in the meantime, increase the vigor and resiliency of our plants.

Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist, Rose Garden, Heritage Garden, and Linden Allee

Tom Soulsby, senior horticulturist, Krasberg Rose Garden, Heritage Garden, and Linden Allee
For me, plants with especially unique leaf characteristics such as color, shape, and variegation have recently piqued my interest. I’ll be on the hunt in 2018 for more plant ideas that express these characteristics. Distinctive plants inspire my seasonal designs in the Heritage Garden.

Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, Greenhouses

Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, Greenhouses
My horticultural New Year’s resolution is to be a better plant dad to my houseplants. Since I spend the day at work taking care of the tropical plants at the Garden, it is sometimes difficult to maintain enthusiasm to come home and keep watering plants. However, I know that when I am more attentive to my houseplants they thrive and brighten up my living space.

Tom Weaver, horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden and Waterfall Garden

Tom Weaver, horticulturist, Dwarf Conifer Garden and Waterfall Garden
My New Year’s resolution for my home garden is to be less stressed out when my dog, Pepin, tries to help me by digging holes all over the garden. I chose this because she loves to dig and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop her, so I might as well use the help and make use of the holes she’s digging!

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Getting That Tropical Look

Tom Weaver —  September 6, 2017 — 1 Comment

This season’s Brazil in the Garden exhibition features a bold tropical look at the Chicago Botanic Garden—you can get that same vibrant feel in your home garden, using perennial plants.

Surprisingly, there are a number of plants that thrive in the Chicago area in spite of their tropical looks. With attributes ranging from huge leaves, delicious fruits, or potent fragrances, these trees and shrubs will add a tropical splash to your backyard year after year.

Magnolia ashei is one of the most tropical-looking plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It features huge leaves, huge flowers, and huge fruits. The leaves can grow up to 36 inches long, the flowers can be more than a foot across, and the fruits are up to 5 inches long and turn bright red. Magnolia ashei has an irregular growth habit and makes a bold specimen. Look for this one in the Native Plant Garden (however, this plant is not an Illinois native).

PHOTO: Magnolia ashei

Magnolia ashei has beautiful leaves and intriguing fruit.

Another large leaf magolia, Magnolia tripetala x obovata, is similar in most respects; however, it features a broad, round form and is a bit more formal in the landscape. This magnolia can be found in the Waterfall Garden.

PHOTO: Magnolia tripetala x obovata

The blooms of Magnolia tripetala × obovata can be up to a foot across.

Campsis radicans is a native vine with large, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers all summer long. The flowers are a hummingbird magnet, which just adds to the tropical allure, and are available in numerous colors, including red, orange, and yellow. This is a large, growing vine so give it room to grow. It does tolerate pruning but blooms best when allowed to grow uninterrupted. Even the seed pods are ornamental, looking almost like green bananas hanging from the flower clusters. Look for it in the Waterfall Garden, and the fence surrounding the Graham Bulb Garden, where we have red and yellow varieties mixed together.

PHOTO: Campsis radicans

Campsis radicans grows in the Waterfall Garden.

PHOTO: Asimina triloba

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) fruits hang high in the tree.

Another native plant that wouldn’t look out of place in the rain forest is the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba). This native tree has green leaves that can reach a foot long. It’s a beautiful understory tree that will grow well in dappled shade with ample moisture (but never standing water). However, the real reward with pawpaws are the fruit. These large fruits have an incredibly tropical flavor, like a mix of mango, pineapple, and bananas. The fruit are among the last to ripen in the late summer and well worth the wait. To get a good crop of fruit, make sure to plant two varieties.

Pawpaws also get beautiful golden fall color, which only adds to their appeal. One note of caution however: the trees can sucker, so make sure to plant your pawpaw somewhere where this isn’t a problem, or make sure to remove the suckers as they sprout. Look for pawpaws in the Bulb Garden, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and Native Plant Garden.

And finally, what is a tropical garden without lush fragrances? Clethra alnifolia is a hardy shrub that thrives in partial shade and boasts intensely fragrant blooms in late summer.

PHOTO: Clethra alnifolia 'Rosea'

Clethra alnifolia ‘Rosea’ has cheerful pink flowers that hummingbirds love.

PHOTO: Clethra alnifolia 'September Beauty'

Clethra alnifolia ‘September Beauty’ is one of the latest-blooming summer-sweet cultivars.

Clethra flowers have a rich smell similar to gardenia, but with spicy undertones. The flowers are tall spikes of white or pink and are a magnet for pollinators such as honeybees and hummingbirds. With careful planning, you can mix varieties of clethra and have blooms that last from mid-July through late August. Several varieties of clethra can be found in the Sensory Garden.

See Brazil in the Garden through October 15, 2017.

©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Heritage Garden Viola Pyramids

A 500-hour behind-the-scenes look at our 2013 fall display

Tom Soulsby —  September 26, 2013 — 8 Comments

My summer intern, Melanie Jensen (now a senior studying horticulture at Southern Illinois University), has always wondered how botanic gardens put together their impressive seasonal displays. In fact, she was so intrigued by them that she did her final presentation—a graduation requirement for the Garden’s horticulture internship program—on the complexities and challenges of preparing these displays.

To say the work is complex and challenging is almost an understatement. Sometimes our work here seems like magic. Overnight, the Garden can transform from spring to summer or summer to fall. Yesterday there were spring troughs, summer palm trees, or fall mum towers in the Garden. Today, there is something completely different. Yes, it does seem like it happens just like that, perhaps with the snap of a finger. But behind the scenes, for months or even years before most visitors get to see a display, a team is already hard at work making it happen.

The Viola Pyramids are currently on display in the Heritage Garden

The Viola pyramids are currently on display in the Heritage Garden.

Melanie and more than 50 other staff and volunteers had a front row seat this summer to help me create this fall’s signature display in the Heritage Garden—the Viola pyramids, which are now on display. The pyramids themselves are really just a set of simple flowers presented in a very unique way. The story could end right there, but what I think makes this display fascinating to people like me and Melanie (and hopefully to you, too) is the astonishing amount of work it takes to get the pyramids from concept to finished product.

The Garden began working on this project more than a year ago, when outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak and I were brainstorming on how we could use the pyramids in another display. Last used about five years ago, the pyramids have traditionally been used as a summer display component, planted with two cultivars of Alternanthera. Pressed to take a fresh approach to the pyramids, we settled on the idea that they would make a great fall display. We considered using mums (too fragile, and many growing challenges) and Verbena (not frost-tolerant enough for fall), and concluded that Viola were our best option. Others agreed.

Saying we are creating Viola pyramids is the easy part. Actually doing it is a completely different story, and it’s a testament to great project planning and teamwork at the Garden.

Here’s what it took:

1. Our production team grew 6,400 Viola plants, half orange and half purple, so they were ready for planting into the pyramid structure by early August. The pyramids are 9 feet wide at the base, and 10 feet tall at the apex. 

Panels lined with landscape fabric

Panels lined with landscape fabric

2. In the meantime, Melanie and I led the team to prepare the pyramid frames. Working in the nursery, our first step was to attach landscape fabric to the front face of the pyramids using hundreds of zip ties. Landscape fabric helps hold the soil and the plants in the frame. We had to be very careful that the fabric covered every nook and cranny of the frame. If not, soil would leak from the frame, and it would undermine the integrity of the entire planting space.

Filling the panels with custon blended planting media

Filling the panels with custom-blended planting media

3. Next we custom-blended special planting media, using lightweight potting soil and perlite. The pyramids retain water differently at their tops versus their bottoms, so we changed the composition of the media throughout the frame to accommodate this variance. Near the top of the pyramid we used a heavier, more water-retentive blend of about 70 percent soil and 30 percent perlite. At the bottom, where there is a risk that the pyramid could become waterlogged, we created a lightweight mix that was about 30 percent soil and 70 percent perlite. You can see in the picture how the soil/perlite composition changes from top to bottom.

panel with hose

Soaker hoses weave throughout the frame

4. Most of the time we will water the pyramids with a hose and water nozzle, but sometimes we need to give them a deeper soaking, especially on hot and sunny days. To help with that, we weaved soaker hoses throughout the frame so that we could water from the inside out.

Intern Melanie Jensen prepping the panels

Intern Melanie Jensen prepping the panels

5. To make the pyramids lighter (each individual panel weighs about 500 pounds—meaning each pyramid weighs 2,000 pounds), and to reduce the amount of soil and perlite needed, we stuffed sheets of foam insulation into the bottom of the frame. A mesh screen secured all of these materials inside the frame.

Deadheading the viola panels

Deadheading the Viola panels

6. Time to plant! We cut tiny holes into the landscape fabric and inserted a Viola plant. As we planted, we also pinched and deadheaded each and every Viola. During the critical first few weeks of growing in the pyramids, the Viola plants need to spend their energy developing roots and spreading foliage to cover the entire frame, rather than producing flowers. Removing all of the flowers is a hard thing to swallow, but it’s really for the best long-term interest of the display.

(Incidentally, the cut flowers were put to good use, donated to our Roadside Flower Sale team. Pressed flowers are sold at their annual sale, with proceeds supporting Garden initiatives, including generous funding for the horticulture department.)

PHOTO: Giant planted triangles of blooming violas in the nursery.

The Violas doing what they do best: blooming again

7. The original plan was to leave the Viola plants simply to grow as-is under the care of our great production team until they were display-ready in mid-September. However, Mother Nature had other plans. The weather caused the Viola to grow faster than expected, and by late August it became clear that we would need to do another round of deadheading. Staff and volunteers again converged in the nursery for two days of meticulous work removing every flower head and seedpod from the display. It was a lot of work, and a little disconcerting to again make a beautifully colorful pyramid all green and flowerless, but it was an important task so the Viola could flower prolifically later into the season.

PHOTO: A team of 12 people (and a forklift driver) place a panel in the Heritage Garden.

Lifting a panel into place in the Heritage Garden

8. Time to move to the Heritage Garden! It took 15 strong groundskeepers, some extra machinery and ropes, a lot of creative thinking, and 1½ days of hard work to move the pyramids from the Nursery to the Heritage Garden. Come by and take a look!

I often like to break down the numbers for a project, because it articulates the scope of work in a way that words cannot. So, here are some numbers for this project: Over one year of planning, more than 50 people involved, 6,400 plants used, and more than 500 hours of labor to get the job done. Yes, 500 hours!

It seems like a lot of work—and it is—but I hope that everyone who sees the display takes away something uniquely personal to them. Perhaps it sparks your creativity on how to use simple plants in unique ways. Maybe seeing something new and special triggers your passion for plants and horticulture, either as a hobby or as a career. Sometimes the display will draw your attention to a part of the Garden that you never explored before now. Or maybe you like it just because it looks pretty cool. It’s even O.K. if this display just isn’t your thing: artistic choices are very personal. Whatever your take-away is, however, my hope is that we can use this display and others like it to engage you in a conversation about plants and to help you connect to the Garden in an exciting new way. That makes 500 hours of work worth it for me.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Heptacodium Miconioides, the Seven-Son Flower

A berm blog update

Dave Cantwell —  September 21, 2013 — 18 Comments
PHOTO: Image of bark

The gorgeous, exfoliating bark of Heptacodium miconioides looks stunning year-round.

Are you looking for a plant that offers some “wow” at the end of the season? That particular something that offers color, and maybe even more? Here’s something on steroids: Heptacodium miconioides.

This large shrub or small tree (15 to 20 feet tall on average), native and rare in the wild in China, was successfully reintroduced to western horticulture in the 1980s, and its popularity has come to span the globe for good reason: this is not just a brilliant autumn performer—it’s a year-round beauty! I suppose we can start the story when this ornamental shrub is dormant in the winter, with its striking exfoliating bark peeling off of nearly every branch in tan, cream, or light brown ribbons or patches, revealing the underlying tissue that has developed into a wash of many colors: vertical striations of creamy white, deep yellow, green, tan, bluish-green, olive green, brown, ochre, and even rust; more so as the plant ages. But that’s just the beginning of the show.

PHOTO: Heptacodium miconioides in flower

The Latin Heptacodium means “seven flowers,” hence its common name “seven-son flower”— though that’s just the average number of flowers on each shoot.

Heptacodium are among the first to sprout leaves in the spring, and their light green color is especially attractive. Should they break dormancy in an early thaw and the leaves succumb to a return of the cold, do not fret, because they’ll start over again. This plant likes to grow. Once the leaves fill in and the warm weather settles in, you’ll have a beautiful, irregularly umbrella-shaped, dense canopy of long, shiny, deep green leaves. And suckers. Be sure to catch them in late May and cut them off, as they can easily and rapidly form straight whip-like vertical branches that mess up the plan. You may even need to revisit the suckering scene in late summer, as it simmers down and readies to bloom.

Let your Heptacodium establish for a couple of seasons into a V-shaped, multistem plant, then select three to seven sturdy stems for the plant to stand on, and cut off the rest of the stems, including the suckers. (As we’ve mentioned, this plant likes to sucker. Profusely. Even if it gets run over by an off-road vehicle—and some of ours have—it will sucker back into a strong and proper plant in one or two seasons.) They really like to grow, and with few natural (nonautomotive) pests to disrupt their progress, they’re reliably hardy in the Chicago area’s Zone 5 climate.

PHOTO: Heptacodium miconioides in fruit

It looks like it’s blooming, but this is the fruiting stage. After pollination, the sepals elongate and change from green to dark pink, becoming part of the incredibly showy fruit.

In late summer the plants begin to set up for their flower display, developing whorls of buds at the tips of the branches; these structures form bracts of seven, hence its common name, “seven-son flower.” These open progressively, until the entire plant is covered in a cloud of tiny white blooms that smell somewhat like jasmine or alyssum—a sweet scent, to be sure. As amazing as this display can be, it changes even more. As the small dark fruits (or seeds, or berries) form, the white petals fade, and the corollas (flower petals) form sturdy calyces (a calyx is a specialized petal that wraps around the fruit) that color up into reds ranging from rose to nearly purple; some are even bluish in color, which can last as late as November, when the birds will find these treats and finish them off.

But wait—there’s even more! We’ve come full-circle back to the amazing winter display of that colorful, textural, exfoliating bark. With all of this to enjoy, seriously consider placing one (or more) of these beauties in a highly visible, year-round spot in your garden.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and