Shorter days. Cooler nights. A gardener’s fancy turns to thoughts of bulbs: What’s new this year? How can I boost color in the spring? How do I extend my bloom time?
Gardeners seeking early signs of spring will be happy to plant Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’. The pretty flower—pearlescent white, flamed with blue—brightened the Bulb Garden lawn last spring. It’s also a good candidate to use in perennial borders, under trees and shrubs, and among ground covers.
Narcissus ‘Frosty Snow’, builds in variety and interest with its color-changing ways. White petals open around a yellow cup, which slowly shifts from white with a yellow rim to pure white. It’s almost like getting three flowers with one bulb.
The deep orange of Tulipa kaufmanniana ‘Early Harvest’ can bring warmth and vibrancy to a spring garden, that pairs well the “intensely” orange blooms with a blue anemone (Anemone) or squill (Scilla). ‘Early Harvest’ also offers a more compact height and perennializes well, making it a better bet to return year after year.
A vivid garden palette might benefit from Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Pink Elephant’. Its large, fragrant flower spikes are the palest pink tinged with salmon. Such faint pastels and whites can have a calming effect in a garden and give the eye a place to rest. Companion planted with a coral-cupped narcissus, ‘Pink Elephant’ could also be used to create a nostalgic feeling.
Allium ‘Pink Jewel’ can step up in early June, right after the tulips are done for the season. It fills in the gap when there’s not a lot blooming. The 6-inch flower clusters are composed of cheerful raspberry-sherbet pink florets with bright green centers.
Can’t wait for spring? Pick up a fall-blooming crocus and plant it as soon as you get home. New among this year’s offerings, you’ll find Colchicum ‘Violet Queen’. The large blooms combine beautifully with ground covers, providing a rich, purple color in September and October. ‘Violet Queen’ is pest resistant and naturalizes readily.
In case you missed it, the International Herb Association has named tarragon the herb of the year. “What?” you might be thinking. “What about basil?”
Sure, tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) has silvery leaves and an anise-like flavor, but basil is the king of herbs, beloved by all. It’s such a crowd-pleaser that we’re giving away Napoletano Bolloso basil seedlings during Herb Garden Weekend, July 26 and 27, and the rest of the month as well.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink tarragon and the diverse palette of herbs available to modern cooks. The late author and farmer Noël Richardson once wrote, “If we could take only one herb to grow on a desert island, it would be difficult to choose between basil and tarragon.”
How about you? What (culinary) herb would you choose? We put the desert island question to staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden and received colorful, informed, and surprising answers.
“Wilson! I’m sorry!”
Basil, it turns out, not only tastes delicious, but might also help deal with the many stresses of island life. Gabriela Rocha Alvarez, plant labeling technician, notes that basil repels insects, has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and could help her keep calm while she’s waiting to be rescued. She would pick the varieties Ocimum basilicum and O. tenuiflorum. “These types of basil need warmth and full sun, and self-seed.”
Sophia Shaw, president and CEO of the Garden, says, “Hands down, basil.” She uses dried and whole fresh leaf basil, and pesto. “I hope my island also has tomatoes and garlic!”
Survivor: Desert Island
Inspired by the practices of many coastal societies, Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, would choose dill (Anethum graveolens). Besides going well with all types of fish and seafood, it’s also a good source of vitamins C and A, and the minerals manganese, iron, and calcium, he says, and the monoterpenes and flavonoids—antioxidants and chemoprotectors—help neutralize the carcinogens found in smoke. “I do love smoked fish,” says Tankersley. “Please let there be driftwood available!”
Dill is also known to help soothe upset stomachs and relieve insomnia. “Although the sound of waves on a sandy beach normally puts me to sleep—I might be a bit stressed if marooned. And dill’s volatile oils have antibacterial properties that could come in handy,” says Tankersley, “if I get injured and need to dress a wound.”
The savory herb also wins a vote from Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, who likes dill for both its flavor and growing habits. “It’s my favorite tasting herb, especially with fish, which I suppose would be a staple of my diet,” she says. “It is a self-sowing annual so I could save seed and grow it again the following year if I hadn’t been rescued.”
It will get stuck in your teeth!
Parsley is the choice of horticulturist Ayse Pogue, who says it reminds her of growing up in Istanbul. “We have many dishes where we mix parsley and feta cheese—pastries, breads, and salads. We also sprinkle it on cold dishes cooked with olive oil and served with parsley and lemon juice.” One such favorite is barbunya.
Pogue appears to have chosen wisely. Parsley is also packed with nutrition—and is used as a natural breath freshener.
I’d Have the Thyme
Versatility—and a pleasing bloom—makes thyme the herb of choice for Celeste Vandermey, supervisor of plant records. “Thyme adds flavor and aroma to any soup or stew. It is easy to grow and creeps along the ground, producing beautiful little spikes of pink or white flowers,” she says.
Mojitos, Mint Juleps, and More
Many refreshing drinks—think iced tea, mojitos, and mint juleps—get some of their cool from mint, the herb of choice of Laura Erickson, coordinator of market sales for our Windy City Harvest Youth Program. “Hopefully, I could bring a hammock and a few good books along, too.”
Herbes de Provence
What about cilantro, chives, rosemary, and sage? What about herbes de Provence, a mixture favored by the French? If you’re interested in learning more about these and other flavorful, nutritious, and potentially beneficial herbs, come to our Herb Garden Weekend, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, July 26 and 27, in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
Danielle Rollins, preeminent Atlanta hostess and tastemaker, has a special connection to Chicago—a place that’s very close to home. Rollins lives in the stately home, Boxwood, that was built by Eleanor McRae in 1928 as a small-scale version of her Lake Shore Drive childhood home. Designed by architect Philip Shutze, Boxwood has been lovingly refurbished and serves as a gracious setting for the inviting parties Rollins shares in her book, Soirée: Entertaining with Style.
Q: Chicagoans are only able to entertain outdoors in the warm summer months. Can you suggest some ways to bring the grace and warmth of the South to our Chicago parties?
A: I think the key to entertaining in any of the four seasons is to focus on what makes your guests feel welcome, wanted, and happy. There are so many great celebrations coming up—Easter, Mother’s Day, or simply just because!
To me, summer is about outdoor entertaining. You’ve got nature as your inspirational backdrop and that should be your focus, with everything else blending into that. I love bringing the indoors outside. Without hesitation, I will incorporate my heirloom china as the place settings on a rustic table or have a full-blown picnic. Don’t be afraid to mix old and new, high and low. You don’t have to have the perfect items for entertaining. Stadium blankets, quilts, or even bed linens make the perfect table topper; I have even been known to use shower curtains as outdoor tablecloths! For your arrangements, nature provides everything you’ll need—as long as you have the clippers. With all this talk of nature, I offer my final suggestion for any fête: always make sure you have a backup plan; Mother Nature is a notorious party crasher.
Q: At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we encourage visitors to grow their own vegetables and support local farmers. How can these ideals be incorporated into entertaining?
A: I love shopping at my local farmers’ market down the street from me. I recommend shopping without a list. Go through and see what’s available and what’s local and build your menu around that. I can get really excited about radishes, carrots, English peas, asparagus, and fresh strawberries in early spring. What’s seasonal and what tastes best at the moment is my building block for any venue. The tabletop and flowers come second.
One of my favorite dinners I have ever orchestrated was a dinner with Blackberry Farms to honor heritage Southern farmers, complete with a flock of sheep on my front lawn! I used simple vases filled with a variety of wildflowers, and the place cards and napkins were tied with twine. The menu featured heirloom vegetables and mint juleps sweetened with sorghum. I think there’s nothing prettier than huge mounds of vegetables or fruits on a table. You don’t even need flowers.
Q: You’re known as a “gracious living” expert. What does that term mean to you?
A: Gracious living means having a sense of grace. It’s the one thing we can give to each other and to ourselves that makes life worth living. It means slowing down and focusing on each other. It means working to live, rather than living to work. Be kind to each other. Be kind to yourself. Take the time to enjoy the details. I think that’s something that’s hard for us all to do. The same thing translates to entertaining. Focus on what makes your guests happy and what gives them pleasure, and ultimately that will bring you pleasure.
Q: You’ll be a keynote speaker at the Antiques & Garden Fair, along with your friend and colleague Miles Redd. What have you and Miles learned from each other?
A: Miles is a great friend, and we share the same birthday. We met in 2001 and can finish each other’s sentences. He taught me a sense of scale, not to be afraid to change things, and that every room needs some sparkle! While Miles is a rule breaker, at heart, he’s really a traditionalist. He is also, without question, the reason I wrote my book. Miles is good at recognizing talent, but he’s even better at pushing that talent to realize their dreams.
Rollins often starts her parties with leisurely cocktails—her signature Rollins Collins and other creative mixes of spirits, fruits, and edible flowers. A favorite summer drink is the Bloody Mary, served at a bar abundantly stocked with limes, lemons, carrots, celery, cucumbers, skewers of olives, pickled okra and onions, a selection of store-bought tomato juices, Mexican beers, and vodkas infused with pepper, horseradish, and other flavorings. Guests can assemble drinks to suit their tastes. Rollins calls hers a “salad in a glass.” She likes using a heavier glass—French hand-blown La Rochère or even a pilsner glass—with a nice rim to dip in lime juice or Tabasco, followed by seasoned celery salt. We’ll be serving a version at the Antiques & Garden Fair, April 11 to 13. Come and try one! (You can download her special recipe—with candied bacon garnish—here.)
Danielle Rollins’s Classic Bloody Mary
Celery salt 1 lemon, juice of 1 lime, juice of 2 oz vodka (freeze vodka overnight) 6 oz pre-made Bloody Mary Mix (Freshies is my favorite) 1 dash Tabasco sauce 2 tsp prepared horseradish 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce 1 pinch celery salt or Old Bay seasoning 1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
Pour some celery salt or Old Bay seasoning in a small plate. Squeeze lemon or lime juice into a small bowl and dip the glass rim into the juice. Roll the outer edge of the glass in the salt or seasoning until fully coated. For extra zing, use Tabasco sauce instead of the lemon or lime juice. Add the remaining ingredients into a shaker and fill with ice. Shake gently and strain into the prepared glass.
Garnish with celery stalk (with the leaves on) and a strip of candied bacon (see recipe below) or a bamboo skewer of olives, tiny grape tomatoes, and a lime wedge.
½ cup packed light brown sugar 1½ tsp chile powder 20 slices of thick-cut bacon
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with foil. In a small bowl, whisk the brown sugar with the chile powder. Arrange the bacon strips on the foil and coat the tops with the chile sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until caramelized and almost crisp. Transfer the bacon to a rack set over a sheet of foil to cool completely.
A dozen red roses say, “I love you,” but horticulturists at the Chicago Botanic Garden transcend tradition on Valentine’s Day. Read on for thoughtful, unusual, and homemade floral gift ideas.
Spouses can evoke their wedding day by combining flowers from their ceremony and reception into a Valentine’s bouquet, said Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist at the Garden. Tim would use sweet peas, freesias, and delphinium for a nostalgic, sweetly scented gift. Tropical flowers from spots such as Hawaii and Florida can conjure up memories of a romantic getaway.
Seeking a seasonal and local bouquet? Consider some of the dormant shrubs growing in your yard, said Heather Sherwood, senior horticulturist. A little advance planning can produce beautiful flowering branches from early-spring flowering shrubs, such as forsythia. Prune 2- to-3-foot lengths, put them in a container filled with water, and place them in a sunny location. The bright yellow forsythia flowers will begin blooming in roughly a week, while other shrubs may take longer. Heather likes mixing the forsythia with silvery pussy willow. You can tie the bunch with a big red bow and attach a homemade card with a big “I Love You” on it.
Flowering plants such as kalanchoe, African violets, cyclamen, and azaleas can bloom for weeks and serve double duty in the summer garden. Tim Pollak likes giving indoor blooming plants to friends and family, because they serve as a lasting reminder.
Want to remember Mom on Valentine’s Day? Fragrant and long-lasting carnations can denote love for a mother, says Jill Selinger, manager of adult education. Delicate, blooming four-leaf clovers (Oxalis tetraphylla) can boost a friend who’s down on his or her luck. The clover leads into St. Patrick’s Day and can be transplanted outside in summer. Primroses, symbols of young love, can be put in the garden in spring and come back year after year.
Considering a recipient’s color preferences can create a Valentine’s bouquet that’s in harmony with their decor, said Jacob Burns, curator of herbaceous perennials. “Not that many people have red and pink rooms,” he said. “If I had to pick, I’d want a simple bouquet of ranunculus, anemones, or tulips.”
Presentation adds thought, meaning, and beauty to a floral gift, agrees Selinger. Gardenias, symbols of secret love, can be floated in a bowl, filling a room with their intoxicating scent for several weeks. How about placing a posy or small violet plant in a souvenir mug from a special date or trip? Remember, roses are red, violets are blue…
Orchids can make an exotic, very feminine Valentine’s gift, and some varieties, such as Phalaenopsis, are very elegant and easy to grow, notes Sherwood. Plant biology graduate student (and our informal orchid spokesperson) Anne Nies recommends adding red and pink orchids—her favorite flower and research subject—into a mixed bouquet to add color, fragrance, and texture. “You can also make a bouquet or arrangement out of orchids alone; they have a wide variety of shapes and sizes,” said Nies. Among her recommendations are red Cattleya with their spicy scent, and mysterious-looking, blood-red Paphiopedilum, or lady slipper orchids. She also likes one of the stars of our upcoming Orchid Show: Oncidium ‘Sharry Baby’, which smells like another Valentine’s favorite—chocolate!
Still can’t decide what flowers to give for Valentine’s Day? How about all these flowers throughout the whole year? A gift membership to the Garden affords free parking, discounts, and blooms in all four seasons. Loved ones receiving a tribute gift will get a beautiful notecard from the Garden acknowledging the donation made in their honor. How’s that for a very special Valentine’s card?
Riley Obenchain conjures a feeling of mischief and magic.
He wears a tattered straw hat, trimmed with a red poppy, that looks like something a scarecrow might wear. His bushy black eyebrows dance when he talks, bringing to mind the woolly bear caterpillars abundant in the fall. A playfulness—tinged with the macabre—also shows in the jack-o-lantern characters Obenchain creates each year for HallowFest, the Garden’s popular, family-friendly celebration of Halloween.
Obenchain’s ghoulish, yet somehow gallant, jack-o-lanterns provide a mild dose of horror while eliciting smiles and laughs. There’s the tiny pumpkin gripped in the long, pointy teeth of a massive pumpkin. The little guy has a sort of “Oh, no, Mr. Bill” look on his face. The big, toothy smile on another jack-o-lantern gives a mixed message. Obenchain describes it as an “I’m-happy-to-see-you-because-I’m-going-to-eat you” look.
“I get a lot of, ‘Wow! I could never do that!’” says Obenchain, who’s helped keep the Garden’s trams, lawnmowers, and other machinery running smoothly for 35 years, “but in actuality, anyone can do this.” Here are a few of Obenchain’s tricks and techniques, gleaned in a recent interview.
Where do you get your inspiration?
A lot of times, the shape of the pumpkin has the idea. The pumpkin determines what you’re going to carve. How is it going to sit? Is it a “Bert” or an “Ernie”? (A Bert has a more elongated shape, while an Ernie has a round, well, pumpkin head. Obenchain is cultivating a large pumpkin this year that has a sort of crocodile look to it.)
What are your favorite tools?
I like using old-fashioned steel knives. (The steel is more rigid than stainless steel. Obenchain uses a range of sizes and keeps them sharp. He taps them into very thick pumpkins using an old hickory log that he’s kept for years. Toothpicks, bamboo skewers, or even the occasional nail can be used to patch mistakes. A trowel with a sharpened end makes a good seed scooper.)
What sorts of other materials do you use?
Long, skinny gourds for antennaes. Gourds for ears and eyes. One year I used a forked stick for the tongue of a snakelike pumpkin. (Obenchain shows photos of jack-o-lanterns carved by nephews under his tutelage. One looks a little worse for wear, with crosses for eyes and an arrow through its temples.)
What is the biggest pumpkin you’ve ever carved?
An Atlantic Giant squash (Cucurbita maxima ‘Atlantic Giant’). It topped out at 1,010 pounds. (The record-breaker could cover a small table top. Obenchain needed a hand-pruning saw to carve its foot-thick walls. The big galoot had to be moved with a forklift. Another behemoth was so long that Obenchain had to crawl inside to scoop it out, creating the ultimate Obenchain image—a man-eating pumpkin!)
While most of the pumpkins carved for Hallowfest are from outside growers, each year, Obenchain tries to grow a few giants of his own in friendly competition with other Garden staff members. This year, he’s growing another ‘Atlantic Giant’ with seeds saved from the thousand-plus-pound monster—if the raccoons don’t get it first!
Join us for HallowFest on October 26 and 27, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, to see Obenchain’s creations for this season.