Larry and Me: How the Como Inn Came to Wonderland Express

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

Living Fossils

I have been waiting weeks for my favorite moment in fall. It’s almost here! My ginkgo is turning golden and is getting ready to drop its leaves!

It might not be an exciting prospect for some people but the fall leaf drop of Ginkgo biloba is something I find amazing and wonderful. Before I get into why, let me tell you about this fantastic tree.

PHOTO: Ginkgo tree in spring and summer green color.
Also known as maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba has unusual leaves in that they do not have a branching network of veins; single veins run from the base of the leaf in a straight line to the edge.

Ginkgo biloba is a living fossil—fossils of Ginkgo biloba date back 270 million years, predating even the dinosaurs. This tree is truly durable and long lasting. They make excellent street trees, tolerating restricted soil space and pollution. Several even managed to survive the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan!

PHOTO: Ginkgo trees planted along a street.
A row of ginkgo trees planted along a street demonstrates the difference in growth habits.

Though ginkgo tree habits tend to vary between cultivars, they can grow anywhere from 50-100 feet high and 30-40 feet in diameter. When left to grow naturally, these trees will grow slowly, but growth can be accelerated with the help of fertilizer and watering. Young ginkgoes can often be very open and awkward-looking when left unpruned, and this is clearly visible with some street trees. Their habit, however, will improve with age as these young, long branches will become massive and reminiscent of old oaks over time.

Ginkgoes can be male or female, and identification is easiest at this time of year. Your nose can tell you if a ginkgo is male or female before you even see it. The female typically produces an abundance of fruit with a bad odor. In fact, the University of Illinois has a female ginkgo tree near the center of campus where students frequently walk, and it is not uncommon to see people checking their shoes, thinking they “stepped in something.” This fruit frequently makes a mess on lawns, paths, and sidewalks. That is why males are usually preferred for landscapes.

PHOTO: Gingko fruit and leaves on the grass underneath a tree.
Yes, they are edible, but the fruits of the female ginkgo tree have a distinctive, unfriendly smell. Female trees are often single plantings, rather than a series of trees.

In spite of the fruit odor, and beyond their ornamental value, some research suggests that the leaves can be used to improve memory and concentration. The leaves also increase the body’s production of norepinephrine, which can increase heart rate. The seeds of the female tree can also be used in cooking and are sometimes considered an aphrodisiac. If you are interested in picking the fruit, however, make sure to pick fallen fruit and wear gloves, because some people will have an allergic reaction from contact with the fleshy coating.

My favorite thing about ginkgoes, however, is their dramatic fall color and leaf drop. The leaves of ginkgo turn a beautiful golden yellow that rivals the fall color of birches. Beyond their fall color, the real drama happens after the first few golden leaves fall. After this, you can expect the rest to fall within the next 48-72 hours, carpeting the ground beneath it in golden yellow leaves.

PHOTO: Ginkgo tree in fall color.
A ginkgo tree in full fall glory. Male trees bear catkins in early spring; female trees flower, but very inconspicuously.

If you’re thinking about growing a ginkgo, it is important to always consult with a nursery about the varieties they have, and the gender of the trees. Buying an unnamed cultivar grown from seed is a big risk if you don’t want to be cleaning up the fruit later. (It takes 20-50 years for a ginkgo to produce fruit, so you may suffer the consequences if you don’t attend to the details when you make your initial purchase.)

As part of our specialized collection, the Chicago Botanic Garden has 28 different varieties of Ginkgo biloba, all of which can be located via our website and GardenGuide plant finder app.

I hope you can find your way to the Garden and check out all our wonderful ginkgoes!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Real San Francisco Treat

Over the summer I had the chance to visit many places, from arboreta, native plant gardens, and desert gardens, to cemeteries—all in an effort to interact with additional leaders in the field and get inspiration from other gardens across the country.  This was all possible due to the Chanticleer Scholarship, which supports educational opportunities for public-garden professionals. I arranged to spend a full day touring with each expert. While each place I visited was totally unique and showcased a vast array of plants, it was the San Francisco Botanical Garden (SFBG) that intrigued me the most.

I arranged to meet with Bob Fiorello, who is an award-winning horticulturist and pest-management professional with more than 25 years of experience in public gardening. Mr. Fiorello has been a gardener at SFBG since 1998 and started both the San Francisco Integrated Pest Management Task Force and the Sustainable Parks Information Network (SPIN).

PHOTO: Banksia bloom
Unusual leaves are topped with an unusual bloom on Banskia speciosa.

Mr. Fiorello gave me a very elaborate tour, informing me that the San Francisco Botanical Garden makes up 55 acres, convenient for tourists visiting Golden Gate Park. I noticed that the paths are wide, yet there are many smaller paths that allow you to admire every one of the 8,000 different types of plants from across the world. Most of the collections are displayed geographically, so I felt as if I were walking through distinctive habitats on other continents. Most of the plants I witnessed are the result of collecting expeditions to diverse parts of the world.  

The most unique habitats rendered are cloud forests.  Cloud forests are distinctive areas prone to continual fog and are mainly found in Central and South America, East and Central Africa, and Southeast Asia, where temperatures are mild all year round. San Francisco has abundant fog in summer and rarely drops below freezing in winter, so cultivating plants from these environments makes sense, especially when these habitats are diminishing in nature due to human destruction.

Brugmansias, fuschias, and salvias were some of the radiant flowers I witnessed throughout the MesoAmerican Cloud Forest.  Even brighter were passionflower vines climbing up trees and shedding neon orange and pink blossoms across the paths. This particular cloud forest has become established as a national and international resource by the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC) for scientists and researchers and is one of the few specialized collections focusing geographically on a diverse group of plants.  Most other gardens, including the Chicago Botanic Garden, simply focus on collecting plants within a certain genus, with the goal of being experts of that group.

PHOTO: Trumpet-shaped Brugmansia blooms hang pendulously from a vine.
Brugmansia (Photo courtesy San Francisco Botanical Garden)
PHOTO: Passionflower vine blossoms.
Passionflower (Passiflora sp.) vine blossoms

Mr. Fiorello wanted me to see his favorite genus, Banksia. For that, we had to travel to an area devoted to the flora of Australia and New Zealand. The saw-tooth leaves on Banksia serrata were unusual. In fact all the plants in this collection were strange in appearance when compared to other vegetation.  The red-colored aerial roots of New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsia) were sort of creepy, while the red-hued fronds of the Pukupuku fern (Doodia media) were quite attractive. Even the hot pink fruit of the lily pilly tree (Syzygium smithii) looked tasty (though I hear it is not).

PHOTO: New Zealand Christmas tree.
New Zealand Christmas tree (Metrosideros excelsa)
PHOTO: Lilly Pily tree.
Lilly pilly tree (Syzygium smithii)
PHOTO: Pukupuku, or common rasp fern.
Pukupuku, or common rasp fern (Doodia media)

I am crazy about native plants, and California hosts more wild plants than any other state.  I was told that the greatest numbers of natives are displayed across the bay at Berkeley Botanical Garden, where they make up a third of that garden.  The San Francisco Botanical Garden’s native plant collection differs however, being heavily designed and with less emphasis on individual plant communities.  While they have fewer natives than Berkeley, the selected plants are grown in much broader sweeps and in beautiful combinations that really put on quite a show.

The native that wowed me most was Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri). The blossoms are enormous and resemble sunny-side-up eggs, held on tall grey-green foliage. The other eye-catcher is flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum), a fifteen-foot-tall, irregularly shaped shrub with fuzzy lobed leaves and prolific flowers that are yellow-orange.

PHOTO: Matilija poppy.
Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri)
PHOTO: California flannelbush in bloom.
California flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum)

There is nothing more festive than wandering the replicated redwood grove. Below the colossal tree trunks, I found a solid carpet of green comprised of shamrock-like redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), robust fronds of sword fern (Polystichum munitum), bold leaves of Western coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus), and lacy-looking Inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra). This was a great prequel to what I would enjoy while hiking Muir Woods and perfect for tourists who may not have the chance to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.

PHOTO: A view up into the redwood canopy.
A view up into the redwood canopy
PHOTO: Redwood sorrel.
Redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

My tour of SFBG taught me that plant-collecting expeditions can be one of the most gratifying means of obtaining plants.  I also found that not every specialized collection has to fall under the same rules to be recognized by the NAPCC. For instance, we at the Chicago Botanic Garden are among the few gardens that attempt to preserve cultivars of plants while most public gardens focus on the wild collected species of plants.

Even after almost eight hours, I still had not seen everything. I thanked Mr. Fiorello for his gracious time and insight and insisted he go enjoy his weekend.  I continued to wander the grounds for another three hours filling my camera with photos and enjoying the cool autumn air.

If you find yourself in San Francisco, do take the time to visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden. You will not regret it. Although you might be sorry that you flew and cannot bring home all of the gorgeous and inexpensive plants sold in their incredible gift shop (as I was).

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and