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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Hidden Horticulture In Chicago’s Public Spaces

Sep 30, 2019 08:45AM

Lincoln Park Zoo grounds / Photo Credit: Julia Fuller

by Megy Karydes

More than 2 million guests visit the Shedd Aquarium (SheddAquarium.org) every year. While there is no doubt the sea animals are the top attractions, many seem to miss something else in plain sight before they even pass through the aquarium’s front doors that is just as important to their mission—four acres of land planted with organic native and non-native grasses, wildflowers and vegetables.

The Shedd isn’t the only place to find horticulture in unexpected places in Chicago. Although Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZoo.org) may be known for its resident endangered species, it’s also home to numerous endangered plants. There are a number of reasons these organizations have horticulturists on staff.

Until retiring this year, Christine Nye has been responsible for the grounds as the Shedd Aquarium manager of horticulture programs since 1997. She credits her predecessor, friend and mentor, Bryce Bandstra, with starting the process, transforming the grounds from just seven species of plants into beautiful gardens.

After Nye took over, she decided the gardens should align themselves with the Shedd’s mission, which included conserving wildlife. “As a conservation institution, I wanted people to learn, right there outside of our wall and where they lived, why it was important to pay attention to the kinds of plants that we grew and the methods that we use, because we were all about sustainability and still are—environmental protection and conservation,” says Nye.

Today, the garden is filled with 75 percent native plants and 25 percent non-native perennials, all of which are organic and well-suited for our landscape, climate and soil type. “Organic and native plants maintain our ecosystem and allow us to try to build garden that emulate these principles for people,” notes Nye.

The Shedd Aquarium isn’t the only place to find “hidden” horticulture. Lincoln Park Zoo is home to 1,200 types of plants across the 49 acres of garden space comprised of historic trees, display gardens, animal habitats and prairie-themed gardens at Nature Boardwalk. Of those, 330 species are trees, shrubs and woody plants.

Abby Lorenz, manager of plant records and horticulture programs at Lincoln Park Zoo, has a team of six full-time horticulture staff, two seasonal gardeners and a dedicated group of more than 100 volunteers. The plantings they manage on zoo grounds and at Nature Boardwalk help the zoo to fulfill their mission of connecting people with nature.

Oddly enough, even though the gardens are in plain sight, sometimes visitors to the Shedd Aquarium and Lincoln Park Zoo overlook them. “Because many of the plantings are native [some are non-native] and planted in a naturalistic fashion, most people don’t recognize it’s a garden,” says Nye. Rather, they think it’s just the edge of the parking lot or that’s just how things grew in that area. Nye says it’s anything but. “It is intentional,” she says. “There’s an intentionality to everything we’ve done around the building.”

Behind the aquarium building is an area they call the Migratory Bird Garden, a pesticide-free acre filled with butterflies, dragonflies, birds and spiders. The garden also sits along the Mississippi Fly Way, a migratory route that is a popular stomping ground for visiting bird species, too.

Like the Shedd, what’s planted at the Zoo is intentional, whether that means the plants are for display, to preserve the historic landscape, for animal care or for their naturalized areas, such as the Nature Boardwalk. “Our display plants enhance the aesthetics of the gardens and grounds, engage visitors and introduce them to the art and science of ornamental horticulture,” explains Lorenz. “Our focal plant groups [North American native hydrangea, ninebark and perennial herbaceous hibiscus] are a living, conservation-based group of plants developed and maintained with the goal of preserving the genetic integrity of plants for educational and scientific purposes. Our historic tree canopy is actively maintained to connect us to our unique history, with oak trees that predate the city of Chicago.”

The zoo is also home to several endangered plant species that are widely available and easily cultivated in the commercial horticulture industry, but are endangered in their native region. “We have trees such as ginkgo, dawn redwood and paperbark maples (all common landscape trees but endangered in their native habitat), which provide us a starting point to talk about endangered plant species and plant conservation,” says Lorenz. Lincoln Park Zoo recently received arboretum accreditation from ArbNet (ArbNet.org). Four levels of accreditation recognize arboreta at various degrees of development, and the zoo has achieved Level II status.

Plants are also chosen with care to feed their respective animals at both institutions. “We have a list of species of plants that we grow that can be fed to animals, which we call ‘browse’,” says Lorenz. In addition to providing enrichment, the team also considers the nutritional value of what they’re feeding them.

“For example, we harvest mulberry and willow branches for our chimpanzees and gorillas twice a week,” notes Lorenz. “They also love hibiscus flowers. Rhinos, giraffes and camels create some of our highest demand for browse and enjoy the leaves of trees like honey locust, honeysuckle and linden.”

The Migratory Bird Garden at the Shedd Aquarium / Photo Credit: Brenna Hernandez

Like at the zoo, the Shedd also grows food to feed their collection. Many of the reptiles and fish are very interested in having fresh, organic produce dropped off, just like the humans that work at the Shedd, according to Nye.

Nye uses the opportunity to educate visitors with her gardens, too. Because some people may not know what a tomato plant looks like or how potatoes grow, she began using her garden as an educational tool, growing food in a public space and in an ornamental way. “We are totally organic, but encourage people to plant more than just natives,” she adds.

Part of the challenge in finding these hidden horticulture gems is to be more mindful of our surroundings. At both the aquarium and zoo, markers are available to easily identify what’s being grown so visitors can opt to try their hand of growing the plants at home. Lincoln Park Zoo recently created a tree map to help visitors identify trees of interest around the zoo (lpzoo.org/blog/trees-interest-lincoln-park-zoo).

For those seeking to discover more “hidden horticulture” gems, ArbNet.org provides a list of accredited arboreta around the world. ArbNet.org provides a list of accredited arboreta around the world. In addition to Lincoln Park Zoo, the only other accredited arboreta in Chicago, for example, is Graceland Cemetery (GracelandCemetery.org). Like Lincoln Park Zoo, Graceland Cemetery is a Level II. For comparison’s sake, The Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden are both Level IV.

The Graceland Cemetery is home to more than 2,000 trees and 50 species, from chinkapin oaks to Washington hawthorns. The Trustees of the Graceland Improvement Fund is responsible for managing the plants and welcomes visitors whenever the cemetery is open to take a tour. To help visitors locate and identify the trees on the grounds, a free map is available at the cemetery office or can be downloaded from the cemetery website.

Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer who is already plotting her spring garden. Find her at MegyKarydes.com.