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Chicago Botanic Garden Flourishing for 50 Years

Jun 30, 2022 ● By Carrie Jackson
Plasticus porticus art structure.

Plasticus porticus by Cody James Norman—Chicago, IL. Photo credit Chicago Botanic Garden.

The Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe’s not-so-hidden gem, is celebrating 50 years as a destination for leisure and learning. Flourish: The Garden at 50, which runs through September 25, highlights the merging of art and nature with a variety of events and displays for all to enjoy. Guests can immerse themselves in the Garden’s rich history, imagine future developments and appreciate the present-day beauty.

While not the largest nor the oldest public garden in the country, the Garden has experienced tremendous growth in half a century. “When the Garden first opened in 1972, there was just one small greenhouse and garden. Now, 50 years later, it has grown into a multifaceted space that encompasses 28 gardens, a learning campus, numerous offsite programs and welcomes more than 1 million guests a year,” says Jodi Zombolo, associate vice president of visitor events and programs.

Symbiosis by Sam Kirk—Chicago, IL. Photo credit Chicago Botanic Garden.

With a mission to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life, the Garden is more than just a beautiful place to visit. “Access to plants and green spaces helps in a myriad of ways with both personal and community health, ranging from addressing air pollution to increasing community cohesion and social stability. Individual physical, mental and social health benefits of gardening and spending time in nature include stress reduction, quicker healing and improved physical health,” says Jennifer Schwarz, vice president of learning and engagement.

Spread over 385 acres, the Garden plays host to a number of plants that visitors will not be able to find elsewhere. “Our living plant collections consist of over 14,000 taxa, or unique species/types of plants, providing an opportunity for the public to observe and enjoy lesser-known plants. This includes our specialty collection from the Orchidaceae family and serves as a repository for plants of concern, where rare specimens such as the ghost orchid (Dendrophyllax lindenii) and Chicago native lady slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) are being propagated for conservation,” explains Jess Goehler, curator of plant collections.

All of the Garden’s education programs are designed to connect people with plants and nature in meaningful ways, says Schwarz. “We offer classes for children and adults on topics ranging from healthy cooking and sustainable food growing to benefits of pollinator-friendly gardens and native plants. We aim for participants to be able to take away practical ideas for becoming nature friendly and nature-conscious from all of our classes, regardless of content or topic,” she explains. Off-campus programs like Windy City Harvest, the Garden’s education and job-training program, help to bring food, health and employment to the community.

Flourish: The Garden at 50 is a series of garden-wide experiences, including interactive stories, pop-up events and nature-inspired art. “We’ve done art installations in the past, but they’ve always been one artist showcasing at a time. Flourish is unique in that it connects 10 different artists with distinct pieces and perspectives that come together beautifully. The show comprises eight outdoor displays and two more indoors, which are open and accessible to everyone,” says Zombolo.

One of the installations features a larger-than-life display by Chicago-based muralist Sam Kirk. Titled Symbiosis, the mural was inspired by essays from Garden staff members and guests on what the Garden might be in the future. “The mural represents people and ideas coming together. The stories included references to technology, different ways to work with nature and how to see it come to life like never before. Through the juxtaposition of art, I want people to discover a deeper appreciation of the healing and nurturing power of how nature connects us,” says Kirk.

Growing up on Chicago’s southwest side, Kirk appreciates the Garden’s many contributions to Chicagoland’s community. “Programs such as Windy City Harvest empower people to grow their own food through community-run garden plots and gives them access to green spaces. As an artist, I go to nature to get reinspired and recharged when I’m stuck. When I see art in places like the garden, it helps trigger my imagination, and I look at the plants and flowers differently,” she says.

The Garden has achieved a dedicated following in half a century, and continues to be a place that inspires, teaches and amazes visitors of all ages. “We have some patrons who have been members since the beginning and have seen the whole evolution. Some things remain constant, however. The model railroad which debuted in 2002 was originally intended to be a one-year exhibit, but it was so popular we kept it going. Whole generations who grew up visiting it as kids are now bringing their children to experience the same wonder. The Garden is thriving due to the commitment of our members, visitors and program participants over the last 50 years, and we are excited to see how we will grow moving forward,” says Zombolo.

The Chicago Botanic Garden is open daily at 1000 Lake Cook Rd., in Glencoe. Visit for more information.

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings. Connect at