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Chicago Botanical Garden program evaluates plants for beauty and muscle

The dull image of a long road is interrupted by a gravel path that winds back and forth on the pavement, tiny rocks turning into bricks when the road intersects with asphalt. But the eye is drawn to something else: not to the path, but to the greenery growing along its edges.

Located away from other attractions at the Chicago Botanical Garden, these plants are grown in the newest and largest of the three gardens. Scientists have been evaluating them for several years to determine which ones are best suited to thrive in the Upper Midwest.

“We train them for three years, four years, five years. We collect data every day throughout the growing season,” said Fred Spicer, vice president and director of the Botanical Garden. “How big is it? How wide is it? When did it start blooming? When did it stop? Did he live through the winter? “These are all really good things.”

For his first public commission in the United States, Belgian landscape architect Peter Wirtz was asked to create a garden with plenty of consideration space, as well as a decorative frame that would encourage visitors to an area that formerly attracted little foot traffic.

At the north entrance of the Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden, two pergolas surrounded by climbing and climbing clematis vines greet visitors. According to Wirtz, they act like guardians of a temple. Despite the design limitations of the paved road, pre-existing nurseries, greenhouses, and neighboring lake, Wirtz brought this temple to life with a combination of movement, color, and textures.

Spicer said the clumps of ornamental grasses in the evaluation garden looked like sleeping cats, their blades “waving wonderfully in the breeze.” “Walk or drive by and feel the tails brushing against your arm.”

Steel tunnels lined with European beech hedges and young crab apples, growing up to 2 metres, zigzag through the garden, encouraging visitors to get lost among the trees and bushes and take the path less travelled. The third and largest tunnel curls around itself like a snail, Spicer said.

“Picture it like a green candy coating,” he pointed to the growing crab apples, “and of course when they bloom, the white petals blowing down will distract you from the road, like you’re in a little snowstorm, distracting you, somewhere different.”

There is also a chance to stop and smell the roses. The Shida Evaluation Garden also hosts shrub roses in collaboration with the American Rose Sustainability Trials program to determine the most hardy and beautiful of the varieties grown. Although roses bred for stamina or size often lose their scent, some of the red, yellow and pink flowers on the bushes have managed to fill the air with a light, sweet aroma.

“Rose growers will send their plants that they think are valuable to different rose appraisers around the country,” Spicer said. “We’ve been doing this for decades. That’s why we collect our data over the years and send it back to the growers. No money exchanged, we get the plants for free. We also provide our information for free.”

A crabapple tunnel is seen in the Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden at the Chicago Botanical Garden.
Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida A rose grows in the evaluation bed at the Evaluation Garden.

Similar to roses, other plants in evaluation gardens are examined and graded according to different criteria. One focuses on decorative qualities such as flowers and leaves, and the other focuses on cultural adaptation to environmental and soil conditions. Another set of traits the Botanical Garden considers focus on winter survival and resistance to disease and pests.

As Richard Hawke walks towards the evaluation garden, he notices visitors approaching different plants; some of these are clearly more popular than others. As one of the directors of the plant evaluation program at the Botanical Garden, public interests have always been of interest to him.

“And sometimes you realize they’re looking at a bug,” he said. Spicer burst out laughing.

“Everybody’s looking for a different reason,” said Hawke, who is also director of ornamental plants research. “But that’s the beauty of a garden like this, whether it’s the garden as a whole or an appreciation garden, it can mean many things to many people.”

Study results from these trials allow the Botanical Garden to recommend plants from more than 1,000 taxonomic groups currently evaluated to industry professionals as well as gardeners interested in growing them at home.

Results: Published on the Botanical Garden’s websiteHe is featured in Fine Gardening magazine as well as other gardening and green industry publications.

Chicago Botanical Garden director Fred Spicer at the Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden on Oct. 4, 2023.

One of the reasons why this new evaluation garden has attracted the attention of the general public is that it allows the Botanical Garden to study plants in a shaded area that are naturally found in home gardens.

“The other thing this garden does is that we sun deck What the garden doesn’t do is it gives you the competition that you get in a home garden,” Hawke said. “Trees, bush roots, hedges, it’s all there.”

Evaluation studies are not new, but the Botanical Garden, in addition to running the largest and most diverse program in the country, claims to be one of the few programs to formally evaluate perennials or plants that live more than two years. As climate changes and extreme weather events such as heat waves and heavy rains become more common and intense, plant assessment has become even more important.

“I think we’re seeing the effects of a variable climate, temperatures are rising, and we expect some cold spells to be unusually cold,” Spicer said.

Studying plants over many years (four years for perennials and up to 10 years for some trees) will give scientists a more detailed understanding of the plants’ ability to survive these long-term changes on their own. Hawke said the Botanical Garden, in its quest for “non-interference”, rarely watered, pruned and staked trial plants in evaluation gardens. They do not spray either.

A restored wetland is seen in the Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

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Just as they take care to minimally interfere with the growth of the plants they grow, they also take care to manage the natural landscape of the Botanical Garden.

“That’s the other thing I love about this garden, this beauty,” Hawke said, pointing to the lake and meadow on the other side. “I mean, it’s not part of the trials, but when you’re here it’s a great place to stand, a great place to be. It feels so natural.”

Part of the lake’s historically eroded shoreline has recently been restored with native wetland plants grown from seeds collected within an 80-kilometer radius. Native plants and their roots prevent erosion, protect against flooding, improve water quality and look more beautiful than traditionally used grasses.

“So we’re creating really important habitat for wildlife, we’re creating that diversity for pollinators that is missing in a lot of modern landscapes,” Spicer said. “And that goes to show what the Chicago Botanical Garden does probably as well as or better than anyone else in the country; that is, the juxtaposition of the concept of nature and nurture. A cultivated landscape alongside a managed natural landscape. “It is truly full of beauty.”

Access to the Mitsuzo and Kyoko Shida Evaluation Garden is included with admission to the Chicago Botanical Garden at 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe; 847-835-6801, chicagobotanic.org


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