Dee Nash chronicles her summertime odyssey through the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Upon arriving at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, visitors may be overwhelmed by its sheer immensity. I know I was. Last summer, on a sunny day at the end of May, I visited the garden with a group of fellow writers. As I stepped into the Visitor Center and was handed a map, I recalled a quote by the legendary Taoist philosopher, Lao-Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Although the Chicago Botanic Garden doesn’t encompass a thousand miles, it is 385 acres situated on nine islands enclosed by lakes. Twenty-four distinct display gardens and three native habitats make the Garden, as it’s affectionately known, an exceptional vacation experience.
Surprisingly, the Chicago Botanic Garden is relatively young. Although the city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837 with the Latin phrase, Urbs in Horto, meaning “city in a garden,” the botanic garden didn’t officially open until 1972. It was a long journey.
Formed in 1890, the Chicago Horticultural Society searched for a home in which to create a garden, hold flower and horticultural shows, and house its extensive library. Several locations were considered and ultimately dismissed until William A.P. Pullman suggested 300 acres of the Skokie Lagoons. In 1965, in a unique public and private cooperative partnership, the Cook County Forest Preserve entered into an association where it continues to own the land while allowing the Society to develop and operate the Garden. The Society then hired John O. Simonds and Geoffrey Rausch to develop a master plan for the Garden focusing on its vocation of “collections, education, and research.” Simonds and Rausch were joined by other leading architects and garden designers to engineer a true floral destination.
“To promote the enjoyment, understanding, and conservation of plants and the natural world . . .” is the Garden’s timely mission. Recognized for its extensive plant collections and dramatic displays, it is also a learning and scientific research facility with a recently completed “green” roof atop the science center. In the fall of 2009, the south roof garden was planted solely with North American native plants, while the north roof garden is composed of a mix of plants currently used in green roof gardening. The staff also tests and evaluates other plants they feel have potential for green roof use, recommending those which are low maintenance, have absorbent qualities (to lessen rain runoff), and cool the building while remaining attractive. Bulbs, like small narcissus, crocus, and striped squill, along with herbaceous plants such as Pulsatilla Vulgaris, (pasque flower) and Phlox subulata (creeping phlox) bloom throughout spring. Other perennials and grasses will fill in as the roof garden continues its first full year of growth.
Although the Garden can’t truly be seen in one, two, or even three days, it’s a good idea to start with a plan to visit those gardens that most interest you first. If you have only one day to visit, ride the Bright Encounters tram that whisks you directly to the display gardens on the main island for a close encounter with gorgeous flowers. If you desire to see the Garden as a whole, the Grand Tram tour provides an overview. Either tour will acclimate you with the overall layout so you can leisurely revisit favorites.
To give visitors more time to enjoy the Garden throughout summer, the grounds are open 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., from June 5th through September 6th (with different schedules posted in some gardens).
For more information, including the schedule of events held throughout the summer, visit the Chicago Botanic Garden’s extensive website:www.chicagobotanic.org.