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Some of the star attractions of Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden are the dozens of beautiful dwarf conifers used to create Chicago in miniature. What you might not know is that many of these conifers are great plants for the Chicago area and can easily be incorporated into your home landscape.

Dwarf conifers are a good way to add four-season interest and wildlife habitat to your yard, and with their unique colors and growth habits, they are practically living sculptures. I’ve selected four of my favorite interesting and unique conifers (found in Wonderland Express—go check them out) that are hardy in the Chicago region.

Picea englemanii 'Bush's Lace'

Picea englemannii ‘Bush’s Lace’ features elegantly draping stems.

Picea omorika 'de Rutyer'

Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’ displays bright blue needles.

Engleman spruce (Picea engelmannii ‘Bush’s Lace’) is a tall, powder blue spruce that is grown for its upright habit and pendulous side branches. Unlike some evergreens, this spruce will keep the gorgeous blue color throughout the year. This tree thrives in the extremes of Chicago’s summers and frigid winters. It is a vigorous plant and will often put on two feet of growth in one season, so make sure to plant it somewhere where it has some room. Engleman spruce are happiest in full sun with well-drained soil. A mature specimen of this tree can be found in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

De Ruyter Serbian spruce (Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’) is another spruce that will thrive in the Chicago region. Serbian spruce typically feature dark green needles with silver undersides that shimmer in the breeze, but on this variety, the silver is on top, making for a pop of silvery blue on each branch. This is a slower-growing cultivar, often growing only six to eight inches a year in a loosely conical shape. Because it is a spruce, it requires full sun and well-drained soil to look its best. There is also a large specimen of De Ruyter in the Dwarf Conifer Garden.

Pinus mugo 'Tannenbaum'

Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’ holds its beautiful green color all winter.

Tannenbaum mugo pine (Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’) is a twist on a classic mugo pine. Most people are familiar with mugo pines as the little round pines that often resemble boulders in the landscape. Tannenbaum, as the name suggests, is an upright form that grows as a perfect green pyramid, with the classic Christmas tree shape. It is a relatively slow-growing plant—approximately six inches per year—and holds its dark green color all year. Mugo pines are amazingly hardy and should do well throughout the Chicago area, provided they receive full sun and have relatively well-drained soil.

Glauca Prostrata noble fir (Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’) grows as a creeping mat of icy blue foliage. Weeping blue noble fir makes an unusual addition to the landscape due to its rounded needles, unlike the similar weeping Colorado blue spruce, which has incredibly sharp needles. This makes it a far better choice for placing near walkways. This slow-growing plant averages four to six  inches of growth a year, eventually forming a clump about two feet tall and about six feet wide. As with other conifers, this noble fir prefers full sun and well-drained soil.

Abies procera 'Glauca Prostrata'

Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ stands out among the surrounding greenery.

Top tips for keeping your conifers happy:

  1. Most conifers prefer full sun and have very little shade tolerance. All of the trees in this article prefer full sun.
  2. Conifers are generally adapted to areas with well-drained soil. Avoid places that stay wet to prolong the life of your plant.
  3. Avoid windy locations. Because conifers keep their needles all year, it is best to site them in less exposed places so they don’t dry out and lose their needles.
  4. Water thoroughly in the fall. You only have once chance to make sure the plant has enough water before the ground freezes and you can’t water it anymore. If we have a dry fall, it is helpful to water your newly planted trees until the ground freezes so they have enough water to last the winter.

©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

Think you know Chicago? Look closer.

Chicago landmarks reunited for the holidays

Karen Z. —  November 19, 2015 — Leave a comment

The marvelous miniatures of Wonderland Express reunite with their iconic Chicago landmarks for the holidays! Below are six of the most popular of our 80+ replicas alongside their real-world landmarks for comparison.

Created by Applied Imagination for our holiday and model train exhibition and photographed by staff photographer Robin Carlson, each model building is created in detail using only botanical materials. Come see these models and more for yourself: Wonderland Express is open daily November 27, 2015–January 3, 2016.

Click here to buy advance tickets.

PHOTO: Willis Tower & botanical scale model.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)

1. Willis Tower
Have you had the nerve to try “the Ledge” yet? The glass balcony on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) wouldn’t be quite so intimidating from our 9-foot-tall replica…

PHOTO: Marshall Field's building clock & botanical scale model.

Marshall Field’s building clock

2. Marshall Field’s clock
We couldn’t quite squeeze all the numbers onto the face of our 3-inch-high Marshall Field’s clock (now Macy’s). Look closely at the 7½-ton, bronze original, and you’ll see that the Roman numeral “four” is represented as IIII rather than IV.

PHOTO: Newberry Library & botanical scale model.

Newberry Library

3. Newberry Library
In 1998, more than 100 years of city soot was washed from the darkened exterior of the Newberry Library, revealing its original 1893 surface of Connecticut pink granite.

PHOTO: Chicago Theatre & botanical scale model.

Chicago Theatre

4. Chicago Theatre
Called “the Wonder Theatre of the World” in 1921, the Chicago Theatre is a landmark loaded with other landmark references: the arch over the glitzy marquee is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the lobby after the Royal Chapel at Versailles, and the grand staircase after the one in the Paris Opera House.

PHOTO: Chicago Stadium & botanical scale model.

Chicago Stadium (now United Center)

5. Chicago Stadium
Before there was the United Center, there was the Chicago Stadium, home to the Blackhawks, the Bulls, boxing, ice shows, superstar concerts (Elvis, the Rolling Stones), and political conventions galore. Opened in 1929 and demolished in 1995, the Stadium was state-of-the-art for its day, despite being described as having “the acoustics of a shower stall.”

PHOTO: Rockefeller Memorial Chapel & botanical scale model.

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

6. Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
More than 100 seedpods stand in for the more than 100 statues that decorate the exterior of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Built almost entirely of stone, the real thing weighs a staggering 32,000 tons; our model, about 20 pounds.


Wonderland Express is a 10,000-square-foot holiday-themed exhibition that’s become a family-friendly tradition at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Model trains travel over bridges, under trestles, and past waterfalls on their way through a magical landscape with more than 80 mini-replicas of Chicago-area landmarks, all created with natural materials.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When I met Larry Marchetti at a model train show in 2002, I had no idea he was connected to the famous Como Inn restaurant, or that it would be the beginning of a 12-year friendship, full of fun and hard work together.

PHOTO: Larry Marchetti.

Larry Marchetti in the Model Railroad Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden

I was displaying my N-gauge layout at a show put on each year by the Fox Valley Division of the National Model Railroad Association. Larry stopped to look and we got to “talking trains.” I had been operating the Model Railroad at the Chicago Botanic Garden for two years, and we were expanding and looking for people to help us. Larry mentioned that he had a G-scale layout in his basement and, as they say, one thing led to another. I thought to myself that this was a fella who knew trains, was at ease talking to people, and someone I could get along with.

Larry soon joined us as an engineer and I realized I was very lucky in finding him. He turned out to be quite handy with tools and machines and, as he already had a lot of the same type of rolling stock that we had, was expert with repairs. It wasn’t too long before he became our first chief operating engineer.

We clicked and it worked very well. We eventually came to a point where we could kind of anticipate what the other guy was thinking of doing next. We had some squabbles and some hearty disagreements but they never got in the way of our respect for each other or the ends to which we were working. Some people forget, that is what a good friendship is.

Larry teased and cajoled with everyone in the Model Railroad Garden, always creating laughter and having fun. He was seven years my junior and he never let me forget that I was “the old man.” Another one of his favorite names for me was “shorty.” The “old man” one I comprehended but, “shorty,” I’m still working on. Larry was an infectious personality. He grew on you. He helped create our motto, “If you are not having fun in the Model Railroad Garden, you don’t belong there.” But when you are playing with trains what isn’t fun?

During our time together we would talk about our childhoods, our “war stories,” and our families. It was then that I found out that Larry grew up in Lemont, Illinois, on his family’s farm with a lot of animals and farm work. We realized that we had that in common, as I grew up in a similar way. I also learned that the Como Inn was the family business for many years. No wonder he had the gift of gab and found it easy to talk with our Garden visitors. He was a natural, and our visitors enjoyed his explanations of what the different cars and engines were used for and how railroads really worked. He would make the railroad an educational experience.

PHOTO: The Como Inn model, created with all natural plant materials.

The Como Inn model created by Applied Imagination in honor of Larry Marchetti. Its debut will be at this year’s Wonderland Express exhibition.

During the 12 years he worked here, Larry put his heart and soul into making the Model Railroad Garden better with everything he did. Every time he came up with an idea, we would kick it around and invariably it would turn out to be something really cool. There were so many that I can’t remember them all. Let’s put it this way, if it weren’t for many of his ideas the railroad wouldn’t be as great as it is today.

PHOTO: Dave Rodelius in the Wonderland Express exhibit.

Dave Rodelius, chief engineer, brought Larry Marchetti on board the Model Railroad team.

Larry, of course, was also heavily involved in Wonderland Express when it arrived on the scene and had a tremendous amount of input regarding the logistics of its construction and operation. He did it with the same intensity he put into the Model Railroad Garden. He was a great detail man and during the construction of Wonderland Express we all would give him a hard time about being picky and he would give it right back to us, all in good fun. That could have been another motto of the railroad. ”If you can’t take some fun poked at you, you might not want to hang around with these ‘Railroad Rowdies’.” Once in a while, when Larry and I talked to friends, we would joke about spending more time together at work than we did with our wives at home. It wasn’t too far from being true.

Now you know why the Como Inn was chosen to be displayed in Wonderland Express in Larry’s fond memory and to commemorate his life with us. Applied Imagination has done an outstanding job of replicating it in great detail, for which we thank them.

Thinking of you, Larry,
Dave Rodelius

Heart Felt

The story behind the Waud miniatures

Karen Z. —  December 31, 2012 — Leave a comment
A close-up of the creature's features from Elmer and the Dragon.

A close-up of the beloved creature’s features from the book Elmer and the Dragon.

The Waud collection of storybook figures are always a welcome treat at Wonderland Express—see them in the Lenhardt Library. While you’re there, tell the kids the story behind them:

Once upon a time (mid-1940s) there was a creative grandmother who wanted to give her grandchildren something special for the holidays. Knowing that they loved stories—nursery rhymes and fairy tales and the great books of childhood—the grandmother, whose name was Mrs. Ernest P. Waud (her first name was Olive), decided to make tree-ornament-sized figures of the characters that her grandchildren knew so well.

Now, Mrs. Waud was accomplished with a needle and thread. So she gathered wool felt (in many colors), jewel-like beads, and shiny sequins and seed pearls, and she began to stitch.

Like many characters, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is displayed with the storybook that made her famous.

Like many characters, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is displayed with the storybook that made her famous.

Her handiwork brought the characters to three-dimensional life, with incredible detail: the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland glances down, mid-scurry, at a tiny pocketwatch…miniature red beads mark the Through the Looking Glass lion’s claws…bits of wire are twisted into eyeglasses for the Three Blind Mice…and the chimney on Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater’s house tilts at just the right crazy angle.

Over the years, Mrs. Waud’s creations earned local recognition. An ornament-laden tree toured the Children’s Memorial Hospital annually in the 1950s. The Museum of Science and Industry included her figurines at the Miracle of Books fair in 1953, and the Art Institute of Chicago displayed her work around 1963. Finally, in 1998, the collection found a permanent home here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. More than 60 characters are on display every year, and some are sure to make your heart skip: Babar and Celeste…Pigling Bland…Peter Rabbit…

He's Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.

He’s Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater.

Tell Mrs. Waud’s story, reminisce about your favorite childhood books, and smile as you explore the collection, on display through the first weekend of January.

"Mrs. Waud is such a perfectionist that she is not satisfied until there actually is character in the faces of her storybook images."  --Quote from a 1951 newspaper article.

“Mrs. Waud is such a perfectionist that she is not satisfied until there actually is character in the faces of her storybook images.” –Quote from a 1951 newspaper article.

Heartfelt wishes for a happy new year. ♥


©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org