The Chicago Botanic Garden opened more than 40 years ago as a beautiful place to visit, and it has matured into one of the world’s great living museums and conservation science centers. Every year, more than one million people visit the Garden’s 27 gardens and four natural areas … all uniquely situated on 385 acres on (and around) nine islands, with six miles of lake shoreline.
A Little History Lesson
Located in Glencoe, IL (25 miles north of Chicago – about one hour driving time) the Chicago Botanic Garden traces its origins back to the Chicago Horticultural Society, founded in 1890. Using the motto Urbs in Horto, meaning “city in a garden,” the Society hosted nationally recognized flower and horticultural shows; its third was the World’s Columbian Exposition Chrysanthemum Show, held in conjunction with the world’s fair held in October 1893.
After a period of inactivity, the Chicago Horticultural Society was restarted in 1943. In 1962, its modern history began when the Society agreed to help create and manage a new public garden. With the groundbreaking for the Chicago Botanic Garden in 1965 and its opening in 1972, the Society created a permanent site on which to carry out its mission.
The Garden today is an example of a successful public-private partnership. It is owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and operated by the Chicago Horticultural Society.
The Garden’s Mission
Conserving plants is one of the most significant challenges of our time—and a major focus at the Chicago Botanic Garden. From studying soil to banking seeds, from restoring habitats and protecting endangered plant species to developing new ones, Garden scientists are fighting plant extinction, pollution, and climate change through diverse and exciting research.
The Garden’s permanent plant collections cover 385 acres and currently hold more than 2.6 million living plants. These plants are of native and non-native origin and are found in the Garden’s public terrestrial and aquatic displays. The current permanent Living Collection includes trees, shrubs, vines, hardy perennials, and tropical plants, for a total of more than 11,000 species.
Herbaceous Perennials Collection
Herbaceous perennials are the Chicago Botanic Garden’s largest and most extensive collection of plants. By definition, perennials continue to flower and fruit, year after year. Herbaceous perennials do not form woody tissue and normally die down at some period of the year in response to temperature, moisture, or light, and renew activity in the following growing season (examples include: rudbeckia, coneflowers, daylilies, and hostas)
In addition, I learned that the Chicago Botanic Garden has the largest collection of documented and labeled hardy herbaceous perennials on display in any public garden in North America. They range from 1-inch-tall thyme to 8-feet-tall compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and are displayed as specimens, as ground covers, in mixed borders, and integrated sweeps of thousands of plants. Breathtaking!
Rose Garden Highlights
The Chicago Botanic Garden has a beautiful, varied rose collection in the Krasberg Rose Garden and elsewhere on the grounds. As many new varieties of disease-resistant and hardy roses are introduced, the best of these will be incorporated into the Garden’s collection.
Above all, the Garden states they will not collect disease-prone, non-hardy hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, … unless they are famous for historic, cultural, or horticultural reasons. The rose groupings are all marked, so if you see one that catches your fancy for your home garden make sure you take a photo … or jot down the name!
We arrived at the garden after a brief morning rain and I was able to take some photos of the flowers with a few droplets still visible. Lovely beyond words! The above photo is one of my all-time favorite hybrid tea roses … Peace. Below is another favorite of mine … Tropicana. Love the coral color!
The English Walled Garden
One of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s most enchanting and popular places is the Helen and Richard Thomas English Walled Garden, which was designed by renowned English landscape architect John Brookes. Step past the sleepy stone lion, breathe in the cowslip primrose, and listen to the water trickle into an eighteenth-century lead cistern—the feeling is as timeless as the tiny thyme plants growing between the hand-pressed bricks.
Each of the six unique garden rooms in this area evokes a different mood, featuring elements of English garden design through the centuries. There’s the Cottage Garden—overflowing with fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers; or the wisteria-covered Pergola Garden—with flowers and foliage in cool blues, purples, and silver.
In designing the English Walled Garden, Brookes said his intent was to present a typical period-style English country garden that would evoke as many of the senses as possible. The garden “should be visual, of course, with color, but also scent and texture in the planting, and a feeling of it all not being too immaculate,” Brookes said. “Plantings should be full and almost overflowing their borders. It should be a joyous and restful place above all else. Mission accomplished!
Visitors can stroll down a winding boardwalk to view scores of magnificent waterlilies and lotuses in various stages of bud and bloom. The shady hill of the nearby Bulb Garden is a favorite spot of artists eager to capture the emerging flowers in the sparkle of early morning light.
Among the Aquatic Garden’s featured plants is the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), immortalized in literature, religion, and history for its purity of bloom. Depictions of the 2-foot-wide leaves and 8-inch pale pink flowers arising above the water from the muddy depths are legendary.
The Japanese Gardens
This 17-acre lakeside garden includes three islands. Only two—Seifuto (Island of Clear, Pure Breezes) and Keiunto (Island of the Auspicious Cloud) are open to the public. Across the lake, the inaccessible island Horaijima (Island of Everlasting Happiness) is symbolic of paradise … in sight yet elusive.
Note that the larger rocks are partially buried, as if they have been in place forever. (Rocks are believed to be the bones of the earth, an essential part of a Japanese garden).
Flowering plants—such as iris, rhododendron, and plum—have a short bloom time, reflecting the yin-yang balance between the ephemeral existence of human life and the timelessness of nature. Many of the pine trees (which represent longevity in Japanese culture) are pruned and trained to give the illusion of age.
A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.
The Benefits of Native Plants
When choosing ornamental plants, it’s easy to forget how important native plants are. Native plants are essential to the web of life that includes birds and other wildlife, beneficial insects, and important microorganisms living in native soils. These natural communities evolved together, over a long period of time, into what are often called ecosystems. Ecosystems provide each member of its community with habitat in which live, and food or nutrients on which to survive.
In other words, plants native to the Midwest have adapted to the harshest winters, tolerate droughts, and flourish in local soils. Once established, they usually need less supplemental water and fertilizer, if any at all.
Since they are accustomed to our zone’s challenging conditions, native plants often experience less vigor-zapping stress than non-native plants, which usually means fewer pest and disease problems. This usually results in less time and money spent maintaining them, and fewer garden chemicals added to the environment. Good news!
Gardening in Small Spaces
This area of the garden offered many wonderful ideas for gardening in smaller areas. Many types of vegetables and herbs were thriving in raised beds, containers, and vertical gardens … tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, kale, radishes, eggplants, onions, rosemary, thyme, oregano and many more.
You can easily start your own sustainable garden in small spaces such as your backyard, a balcony, rooftop or a patio. One of the keys to success is making good plant choices. Choose compact, productive plants that take up less space … yet still provide plenty to harvest.
Plant Evaluation Island
One of the last areas of the garden we toured on this visit was the “Plant Evaluation Garden” adjacent to the Plant Science Center. What really caught my eye were the gorgeous winter hardy hibiscus and hydrangea varieties that flourished in this circular space.
Not the fussy tropical houseplants, but tough, hardy hibiscus shrubs that light up gardens as far north as Zone 4 with flowers up to 12 inches across! Radiant in shades of pink, red, white and a variegated mix.
The hydrangeas displayed seemed extremely happy with large, panicles of flowers. Most zone 5 hydrangeas bloom best when they get about 4 hours of sun each day and prefer moist, well-draining, somewhat acidic soil.
Panicle hydrangea blooms usually go through natural color changes as they grow and fade out, starting out white or lime green, turning pink, then browning as they fade and dry out. In addition, Panicle hydrangeas are the most cold hardy hydrangeas and also the most tolerant of sun and heat.
Planning Your Visit
Admission to the Chicago Botanic Garden is free, but there are parking fees: $25 per car on weekdays, $30 per car weekends and holidays, $10 for senior citizens on Tuesdays (age 62+). You can conveniently pay in advance online and show your receipt at the entrance gates. Please note that no pets are allowed, except for service animals.
Click here for a detailed map of the Chicago Botanic Garden: https://www.chicagobotanic.org/visit/map
With 385 acres to explore at the Garden, where do you begin? Plan to spend at a minimum two – three hours at the garden … there is a lot to see in every season. Enjoy a tram tour for an overview of popular areas. Listen to an informative narration by your guide as you ride through the colorful landscape!
In Conclusion …
Throughout its existence, the Chicago Botanic Garden has developed gardens and educational facilities with a meticulous eye toward its original mission.
The Chicago Botanic Garden opened more than 40 years ago as a beautiful place to visit, and it has definitely matured into one of the world’s great living museums and conservation science centers. Every year, more than one million people visit the Garden for good reason … take your time and explore the 385 acres and all it offers. It won’t disappoint!
We hope you found this post about the Chicago Botanic Garden interesting and helpful. Let us know your thoughts and your favorite areas of the garden by visiting our contact page …