My Kind of (Conifer) Town, Chicago is!

By Web Editor
Interpretive signage at the Morton Arboretum
Interpretive signage at the Morton Arboretum

Chicago is famous for many things, including architecture, deep dish pizza, Navy Pier and Wrigley Field. But did you know that it is also famous for conifers? Conveniently located within non-stop flight range for most of the US, Chicago is a conifer-lover's Mecca. Two world-class botanical gardens, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum boast extensive conifer collections and miles of walking, driving and cycling paths. The query posed in the photo above likely referred to the commercial importance of conifers, but we coneheads know that that is only the tip of the iceberg.

A Picea abies loaded with seed cones at the Morton Arboretum
A Picea abies loaded with seed cones at the Morton Arboretum

The Morton Arboretum

The Morton is big - 1700 acres - and it follows that the plants are big, too. It lives up to its designation as an arboretum and there is little frou-frou flower finery on display, although the entrance and visitor center are nicely and decoratively landscaped. The conifer garden includes some good sized specimens of species trees, including a group of Pinus virginiana that have enough age on them to display some seriously decorative bark.

One of the group of mature Pinus virginiana in the conifer collection at the Morton Arboretum
One of the group of mature Pinus virginiana in the conifer collection at the Morton Arboretum

What the Morton lacks in fancy cultivars and heavily planted beds is miles and miles of driving and walking trails throughout the mostly-forested arboretum. It was easy to visit by driving along the main arteries and stopping at the frequent pull-outs to inspect trees more closely or just to walk around and enjoy being among the trees and under the canopies. This is an outdoor-lovers garden, a place to take a picnic or a stool and a sketchbook. There is so much room that it is easy to find a spot of one's own. The huge numbers of spring-flowering trees make a return visit in April or May almost a command performance.

Abies nordmanniana 'Tortifolia'
Abies nordmanniana 'Tortifolia'

There were some cultivars on display, however, planted in or next to mixed beds in other areas of the Arboretum (i.e. not in the designated conifer garden). The specimen of Abies nordmanniana 'Tortifolia' (twistleaf Nordmann fir) was lovely, as was the Pinus densiflora 'Oculis Draconis'.

Pinus densiflora 'Oculis Draconis' (Oculis Draconis Japanese red pine)
Pinus densiflora 'Oculis Draconis' (Oculis Draconis Japanese red pine)

In short, if you are near Chicago and are longing for wide open spaces, soaring trees, expansive lawns and miles and miles of roads and trails, don't miss a trip to the Morton Arboretum. You don't have to be a conifer lover or even a tree lover. There is a four-acre children's garden and a one-acre maze. The leaves are about to start turning, so don't waste time planning your trip! Oh, and as an extra bonus, they have one of the best gift shops I've ever seen at a botanical garden.

The Chicago Botanic Garden

A waterlily pond in the Conifer Garden at the CBG, watched over by a stunning Pinus densiflora
A waterlily pond in the Conifer Garden at the CBG, watched over by a stunning Pinus densiflora

What the Chicago Botanic lacks in comparative size (it's 385 acres, so it's not small), it more than makes up for in how jam-packed that space is with choice plantings. Situated on nine islands in the Cook County Forest Preserves, just inland from Lake Michigan, it's a stunning site that is so full of marvelous specimens that you might have to go back to the Morton Arboretum to rest your eyes after visiting! While making what we thought was a bee-line to the Conifer Garden, we found ourselves captivated by the perennial garden outside the visitors center, called the Crescent.

An Agave coexists edgily with Salvia, Buddleia and other herbaceous perennials in the Crescent
An Agave coexists edgily with Salvia, Buddleia and other herbaceous perennials in the Crescent

It's rare that tree lovers find themselves unable to tear themselves away from seasonal color, but the combinations of hues and plants in these beds are both harmonious and edgy, catching the observer in the tension between soft blooms and toothy agave leaves, and between rich purple leaves and silvery spikes. This is a sophisticated perennial garden, one that demonstrates what can be done with a fearless approach and a deft eye. This creation is by Liz Rex, one of the Garden's staff horticulturalists.

Seed cones on Tsuga canadensis 'Kelsey's Weeping' in theDwarf Conifer Garden
Seed cones on Tsuga canadensis 'Kelsey's Weeping' in theDwarf Conifer Garden

The Conifer Garden at CBG is one of the best collections of dwarf cultivars in a public garden. The specimens are healthy, well-placed and have enough age on them to demonstrate what that little plant that you saw at the nursery in the three gallon container will look like after a few years in the ground. The paths are ample and easy to navigate and allow you to get up close and personal, making it easy to see details, such as the lovely profusion of cones depicted above. You can read more about it on CBG's website.

Pinus sylvestris var. hamata (syn Pinus sosnowski)
Pinus sylvestris var. hamata (syn Pinus sosnowski)

The Dwarf Conifer Garden is on a hill overlooking the Japanese Garden, which is on its own island. Past the conifers, pools of water spill down the hill, rushing through rocky crevices with a roar that is audible throughout. The Garden is framed by a series of Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris), most of which are open enough (or begin branching high enough) to provide glimpses of the Japanese Garden beyond. Even on a hot day, the shade of the pines and the sound of the water are cool and refreshing.

The Japanese Garden has stylized conifers in a formal layout
The Japanese Garden has stylized conifers in a formal layout

You could easily spend a day at either garden. The conifers are wonderful, but both gardens offer much more. At a time when many of us prefer to interact with others out of doors, Chicago may be your kind of town!

Comments