With 27 gardens and four natural areas, the Chicago Botanic Garden provides a lush oasis of calm and beauty just north of the Windy City.
Flowers and more at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Whatever the season, the Chicago Botanic Garden offers visitors a chance to enjoy something green and beautiful.
Surrounded by color on a beautiful day
We visited the garden on a beautiful early fall day last September.
Despite the season, there were still plenty of colorful summer plants blooming in the formal gardens behind the visitor center and along the water.
Waterlilies in the Heritage Garden
In a garden filled with stunning gardens, the Heritage Garden stands out for both its beauty and the range of plants on display.
The center of the garden features a flower-filled garden planted in a fountain.
This garden-in-a-fountain is in a plaza encircled by walkways and a ring of waterlily ponds.
Technically, the Chicago Botanic Garden only has one aquatic garden. This is not it. However, with a mix of tropical and hardy waterlilies, Victoria lilies, lotuses, and a variety of other water-loving plants like cana lilies, the Heritage Garden’s formal water garden is one of the most beautiful I have seen.
And that’s not all. The ring of water gardens is enclosed by another ring with a walkway and yet another exuberant garden.
It’s a wonderful space.
Apparently the garden is laid out to reflect the layout of gardens from the past. The plants themselves are grouped by geographic origin and scientific classification.
That organizational structure was more-or-less lost on me. However, it did explain the giant sculpture of a very young-looking Carl Linnaeus pouncing on a flower!
(The Swedish botanist developed the system used to name plants and animals.)
The English walled garden
There are other formal gardens at the Chicago Botanic Garden, including a rose garden that wraps around a lawn with a large fountain.
(You can see a few roses if you look closely.}
I don’t have anything against rose gardens, but I prefer the six peaceful “rooms” of the English Walled Garden.
While it was an inviting space on a fall day, I think these English gardens would be particularly lovely in spring. Not quite as good as England in the spring, but still a lovely place to linger.
The Japanese Garden
The Japanese Garden is another area of the Chicago Botanic Garden that would be particularly stunning in spring when the trees and shrubs are in bloom. But fall is also a great time to visit, as many of the leaves turn brilliant colors.
The garden is built on three islands (two of which you can visit) and has an enticing mix of plantings, dry gardens, bridges, and buildings.
Step into a warmer climate at any time of year
The Chicago Botanic Garden has three greenhouses filled with plants more commonly found in tropical rain forests, hot deserts, and semitropical regions.
The tropical greenhouse
The tropical greenhouse is where I’d want to be on a cold winter day, as daytime temperatures inside are in the 80s – 90s with 90% humidity. It’s a bit like being in a plant-filled sauna!
The desert greenhouse
Of course, the arid desert greenhouse wouldn’t be a bad place to hide out on a cold winter day either.
There’s a nice mix of cacti, succulents, and other odd things. A few were even in bloom when we visited.
The semitropical greenhouse
The third greenhouse is for plants that thrive in warm, but not tropical, areas. A lot of the plants here are familiar houseplants, but there are also more unusual plants and an amazing bog garden with carnivorous plants.
The Chicago Botanic Garden has a bonsai collection that includes almost 200 plants, a selection of which can be viewed in a sheltered courtyard from spring through fall.
All of the bonsai have labels that indicate the age of the plant and how long it has been trained. One white pine in the collection has been trained for at least 100 years! I find that rather amazing.
Besides gardens, the Chicago Botanical Garden also has exhibition space that features a variety of plant shows and art exhibits throughout the year. The largest of these spaces is in the Regenstein Center, which is also where the greenhouses are located.
Exhibits change regularly and often include the work of fine art photographers and painters.
When we visited in September 2017, the featured exhibit included paintings, sketches, and textiles by Brazilian designer Roberto Burle Marx. I wasn’t familiar with Marx’s work, but having seen a few of his bold graphics and swirling colors I would love to see some of the landscapes he created. They must be an amazing mix of color!
Plan your visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden is open daily throughout the year, although not all gardens within it have much to see all year. (Chicago has winters, after all.)There is also special programming throughout the year, including what looks to be a lovely Christmas display in December and a spectacular orchid show in February and March.
There is no charge to visit the garden, but there is a rather considerable fee for parking.
The botanic garden is a popular location for weddings and other events. During those events, the general public may not have access to all parts of the garden. If there is a particular part of the garden you really want to see during peak wedding season, call ahead and make sure it will be open to the public while you are there.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is located about 20 miles northwest of Chicago in Glencoe, Illinois.
The garden’s website provides detailed information and links, so the following is just a brief summary.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is easily accessible by car, as the gardens are just off Interstate highway 94.
Parking is available at the garden and can be purchased in advance through the garden’s website.
While the parking fee is rather high (currently $25 per car), there are discounts available for seniors from Cook County and low-income Illinois residents. There is no charge for US military personnel and their families.
Public transit to the garden is available via Metra Rail. The Braeside station is less than a mile from the garden. On Sundays the Garden Trolley connects that station to the garden. The rest of the week, visitors can take the Pace bus to the garden, but apparently they need to let the driver know.
The bus can be used to reach the garden from a variety of locations in the area, but it doesn’t run on Sundays.
A new bike path links the garden to the Green Bay and North Branch trails. There is a bike path along the edge of the garden, with bike racks located to allow pedestrian access inside the garden.
There is also a bike rental station at the botanic garden where visitors may pick up or drop off a bike to use for the day.
Dining at the garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden has several dining options during the summer.
The Garden View Café offers several options for breakfast, lunch, and Sunday brunch between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. throughout the year. Seating is available in the sunny dining room or outside on an expansive patio with wonderful views over the river to the garden.
(That’s the patio at the Café. Looks pleasant, doesn’t it.)
During the summer, there are additional dining options. The Garden Grille offers burgers, brats, and daily specials. Along the rose garden, the Rose Terrace Beer Garden serves craft beers, salads, and sandwiches. Both of these seem to have limited operating hours that vary with the day of the week.
Resources for planning your visit
If you are interested in a particular part of the garden or just want a better idea of what to expect when you get there, the Chicago Botanic Garden has resources to help you.
Take a virtual tour
The garden’s virtual tour lets you see much of the garden using Google’s street view technology. It’s a little clunky to navigate, but it provides a good idea of how the gardens are laid out.
Follow the map
A map of the garden is available once you arrive, but you can also view and download the map before you leave home.
Consult the app
Visitors with a smartphone should try the Chicago Botanic Garden’s app. It’s designed to meet the needs of both casual visitors and serious gardeners and is available for both IOS and Android phones.
The app’s interactive map will be of use to everyone. Besides showing the layout of the garden, it aids navigation by showing exactly where you are in the garden. It also lets you mark favorite places – including the location of your car!
The app also offers several narrated walking tours and a guide to what’s in bloom at the time of your visit.
Serious gardeners will appreciate the app’s plant finder feature, which can be used to locate specific plants in the garden. Just type in a plant’s common or Latin name and the app will show you where to find it. There is also a plant guide that lets you search by plant characteristics to find examples of plants that might be right for your own yard.
What’s in bloom?
If you are interested in seeing a particular plant in bloom, check the garden’s What’s in Bloom page.
Like much of the upper Midwest, winter weather has lingered longer than usual in the Chicago area. That means the only garden flowers in bloom are winter blooming trees and shrubs like witch hazel and pussy willow and early bulbs like crocus, reticulata iris (those really low-growing ones), and winter aconite. And, of course, the greenhouses are full of things in bloom!
The website says they will be planting spring annuals in mid-April. However, with daytime temperatures dropping into the 40s this weekend, those plantings are still likely to be pretty limited for a while.