Three Gardens of Good…and Evil

You may think of the three greenhouses as warm and cozy places to visit on a chilly fall day, but look sharp! There are dark and chilling secrets among the plants you may see there…

In the Arid Greenhouse

PHOTO: Giant toad plant.
Carrion flower or giant toad plant (Stapelia gigantea pallida) smells about as attractive as you might guess from its name.

ROT ROT ROT:  Though the star-shaped flowers of the toad plant look beautiful, they smell like rotten meat. (The scent attracts flies, which are the plant’s pollinators.) We warned you.

DEADLY SAP:  The milky sap of many plants in the euphorbia family irritates the skin and eyes…and is poisonous to humans and animals if ingested.

PHOTO: Peruvian apple cactus.
“Night owls” — bats, really — pollinate the peruvian apple (Cereus peruvanius).

THE BAT SIGNAL:  All cactus flowers last just one day—but the flowers of the Peruvian apple cactus only bloom one night, the better to attract its pollinator, a bat.

SHARP LEAVES:  Although cactus needles are nothing more than very skinny, narrow leaves, they are sharp enough to hurt. The tiny, hairlike needles can really get under your skin…ouch!

In the Tropical Greenhouse

PHOTO: Cocoa tree.
The fruit of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) give us our favorite dessert: chocolate!

CHOCOLATE AND FLIES:  Think about this as you’re eating your Halloween candy: tiny flies (called midges) are the pollinators for the cocoa tree. Therefore, every bit of chocolate you eat started with a fly…yum yum.

BANANA BLOOD?  When a leaf is trimmed off the banana plant, the sap that runs out is initially clear…but then it turns purplish-brown, leaving “blood” on the clothes of those who trim it. Is that a stain on your shirt?

KILLER BUGS:  When plant-eating bugs attack in the greenhouse, we release the appropriate bug-eating bugs. Although these mini-carnivores are mostly too small to be seen by humans…wait, do you hear munching?

In the Mediterranean Greenhouse

THE STRANGLER:  A rubber plant called the “Strangler Fig” has long, creeping roots that climb over other plants, tapping into that plant’s circulatory system and eventually smothering it. Most rubber plants are harmless…did you just see something move?

PHOTO: Deppea splendens.
The colorful and elegant Deppea splendens can be found in our greenhouses.

THE SPOOKIEST OF ALL:  By tearing down forests and destroying its natural habitat, humans have caused plants like Deppea splendens to become all but extinct. The only known survivors live in botanical gardens like this one.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

What Are Those Bugs?!

PHOTO: Three boxelder bugs sunning themselves on the wood siding of the Garden's Learning Center.They’re all over the Learning Center and maybe around your house, too. They are boxelder bugs, and although they are a nuisance, they are harmless.

So while they are bugging us, let’s find some things to admire about them.

First let’s answer the question: Why are they all here right now?

It’s all about their life cycle. These insects spend their youth in the woods during summer, growing up flightless. In late summer/early fall, their wings develop and they can take flight, seeking a nice, cozy place to spend the winter. Can you blame them for wanting to come into our comfortable homes? OK, don’t answer that.

They belong to a group of insects commonly called “True Bugs.” Insects in this order are distinguished by their straw-like sucking mouth part, which they use to feed on the juices of plants. You see – they don’t have teeth, so they can’t bite you!PHOTO: this closeup of a boxelder bug has an arrow pointed to the red "V" on the bug's back where the forewings meet.

These insects also have two pairs of wings that cross in the back. The forewing is thicker than the bottom of the wing and this gives true bugs a distinctive “X” or inverted “V” on its back.

PHOTO: a close up view of a boxelder bug from the rear with its wings lifted to expose its brilliant red abdomen.

Now let’s talk about that beautiful red color! Watch one fly away and it will flash its sassy red abdomen. In nature, red coloring usually warns predators that this creature will taste bad. I was not able to confirm whether boxelder bugs taste bad or just mimic other bitter tasting bugs. Either way, I don’t recommend trying them yourself. And I must warn you that if you smash this bug on your wall or any fabric, that red color can stain.

While these insects are related to stink bugs, boxelder bugs do not have a bad odor. The bug I was holding in this photo must have been regretting this fact.

Wikipedia lists some other names for boxelder bugs, including “zug.” So when you see these creatures congregating on a sunny spot don’t say, “Ugh!” Say, “Zug!”

Simple Seed Saving Method for Tomatoes

As farmers’ markets wind down, many of us want to preserve the bounty of this year for the next. Why not save save seeds from your last tomatoes so you can grow them yourself next year?

1)    Make sure to save the seeds from an open-pollinated or heirloom tomato. These seeds will reliably reproduce the “parent plant.”

2)    Choose a ripe, disease-free tomato; one past being edible is best.

Heirloom Tomato Weekend_RJC8698

3)    Cut the tomato ‘around the equator’ and squeeze out the seeds and ‘goo’ in to a strainer over the kitchen sink. Run cold water over and use your fingers to try and separate the ‘goo’ from the seed.

Heirloom Tomato Weekend_RJC8715

4)    Knock the strainer on a paper plate lined with a coffee filter, dislodging the seeds from the strainer.

5)    Label the filter with the tomato variety and let dry which could take up to three weeks. The top of the refrigerator is a great place for this.

tomato seeds in envelope_RJC6138at

6)    When dry, scrape the seed in to an envelope labeled with the variety and the date for storage. If the seeds stick to the coffee filter, simply fold the whole thing up and store in the envelope. The filter itself can be planted; it will disintegrate.

7)    Store your heirloom tomato seeds in a cool dry place indoors. I like to put them in my top desk drawer.

8)    Seeds have varied life expectancies. Tomato seed is viable for 4-10 years.

Mark your calendars for the Second Annual Seed Swap on February 23, 2013. For more information on seed saving visit our web site.

Lions and tigers and plants, oh my!

Plant and animal costumes topped most of the award categories at Saturday’s fourth annual Spooky Pooch Parade! More than 300 four-legged competitors and an uncounted number of two-leggers streamed into the Garden on a beautiful, sunny fall day to show off their creativity, parade around the grounds, and engage in some extremely friendly (lots of tail wagging) competition in five categories.

Best Overall went to Nanuk, a husky/German shepherd/yellow lab mix whose owner “dressed” him in tiger stripes using all-natural, non-toxic hair spray (made for dogs!). Nanuk’s look was simple, sophisticated, and show-stopping (he was great about posing for pictures).

Best Horticultural Interpretation was awarded to Enzo, who was dressed as a rainforest, a costume much-appreciated by the garden-friendly crowd. The 3-year-old Italian waterdog’s owner fashioned a handmade cocofiber shell, then stitched on orchids and epiphytes (air plants) that bounced around as Enzo walked the parade.

“The Pumpkin Patch” was named Best Puppy, meaning Nino, a 7-month-old puppy AND his family (dad and daughter), who all wore farmer/vine/pumpkin costumes. Nino drew much attention for his unusual breed: he’s a Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian truffle-hunting dog.

A 13-year-old Yorkie won Best Senior for an interpretation of the Cowardly Lion: turns out that the grandmother in the family made the costumes for both Kiwi the dog and her own 11-month old granddaughter, who also attended, dressed as a brave little lion.

Finally, Jessie and her owner took home the award for Best Combination Dog & Owner, outfitted as sheriffs. The prize acknowledges the dog and owner who look most alike—how fun is that!

Visit the web site to view pictures of all of the winners.

We all noticed how many truly creative and wonderfully handmade costumes there were this year—we think it’s proof that people love Halloween almost as much as they love their dogs. Here’s a gallery of a few favorites.

Also, don’t miss this video of our favorite highlights from Saturday’s Spooky Pooch Parade — to share with the kids and anyone you know still looking for a great costume idea!

Pirate DogFang Girl


  • Dressed as a storm cloud, an English bulldog was followed by a corgi, dressed as a rainbow.
  • One of several hotdogs brought along his own human bottle of ketchup and human bottle of mustard.
  • One dog in a full-body shark costume and another as a sea turtle were trailed by their humans — dad in a full-body wet suit, goggles, and snorkel, and daughter as a squid.
  • Two dogs in suits: canine presidential contenders!

Recognizing Poison Ivy

Trees are not the only plants whose leaves change color and drop in the fall. Poison ivy is gorgeous this time of year!

PHOTO: Poison ivy with red leaves growing as a vine on a tree.

Yes, there is poison ivy growing at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It can be seen growing as a vine on the tree in this picture.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a “wicked plant”; it is part of the habitat. The chemical in poison ivy that causes us misery, urushiol, does not bother other animals. In fact, deer eat the leaves and many animals eat the small whitish berries that appear in late fall and winter.

Poison ivy leaves vary a little from plant to plant, but once you get to know the basic shape it is unmistakable. First notice the characteristic three leaflets that remind us “Don’t Touch Me!”

Now look at how the top leaflet is symmetrical and attached to the main stem by a short, thinner stem called a petiole. 

The lower leaflets have thumb-like lobes that point away from the top leaf. These leaves attach to the stem at their base.

Can you find the poison ivy in this picture?

PHOTO: Poison ivy leaves are bright red on the forest floor, which is covered in brown and gold leaves fallen from the trees.

If you identified the red leaves as poison ivy, then you are ready to hike a trail at the Garden this month and enjoy the color!

We make every effort to remove poison ivy from edges of trails so fear not! Stay on the paths, learn to recognize it, and you have nothing to worry about.  See if you can spot (but not touch!) some poison ivy along the way.