Thursday, February 23, 2012

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Spring Flower Shows

Symptoms: Patient's heart rate elevated while reading plant catalogs. Body temperature rises when passing daffodils in grocery store. Husband reports frequently seeing patient in garden looking under dead leaves for signs of emerging plants. Possible mania suspected.

Diagnosis: Spring fever

Rx: A visit to the Lincoln Park or Garfield Park conservatories in Chicago to see historic azaleas and other plants in bloom. May substitute generic. Repeat as necessary.

Azaleas spring show Lincoln Park Conservatory
The Lincoln Park Conservatory
Yes, Chicago's winter has been among the mildest seen in the past 125 years. Only a few hyacinths have tentatively poked their heads out of the ground in my garden so far. And the buds on my witchhazel are just starting to swell. Somehow, none of this seems to help. I'm as anxious as ever for spring to begin.

I need green and I need it now. So it's time to make a trek to Chicago's conservatories.

The Lincoln Park Conservatory, located on Chicago's north side near Lake Michigan, has its annual spring show until Mother's Day. The Garfield Park Conservatory, on Chicago's west side, has a smaller-than-usual spring display for a few more weeks as it is still recovering from last summer's hailstorm. The blooms in its Horticulture Hall are still a delight.

Azaleas spring show Garfield Park conservatory
The Garfield Park Conservatory
Visitors also can enjoy a little bit of horticultural history at both locations. Many of the azaleas now blooming are directly descended from two varieties displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Actually, the term "azalea" is a bit of a misnomer. The evergreen shrubs technically are rhododendrons -- R. concinnum and R. scabrum 'Phoeniceum.'   Both hail from the Far East and were relatively new "discoveries" at the time of the Columbian Exposition. They probably were displayed in the fair's Horticulture Building as neither is hardy in Chicago.

These aren't the original plants, of course, even though azaleas and rhododendrons are long-lived. They are cuttings that have been taken from the originals. Many have been grown as small trees in pots that can be moved around for various displays.

Azaleas Garfield Park Conservatory
At the Garfield Park Conservatory
Both varieties have lavender/purple/violet blooms. So the Chicago Park District has added more modern varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas that bloom in complementary colors. The Lincoln Park Conservatory also has mixed in camellias, muscari, tulips, cyclamen and other foliage plants.

The effect is, well, like a spring tonic. Even though a major snow storm is threatening to hit the Chicago area later today, just looking at these pictures has me dreaming of the day I can get out in the garden again. As the prescription says, I'll just have to repeat as necessary.

By Karen Geisler

Historic azaleas at Garfield Park Conservatory
Rhododendron concinnum

Rhododendron near fountain Garfield Park Conservatory
Rhododendron scabrum 'Phoeniceum' at the Garfield Park Conservatory
flanks a fountain from Chicago's sister city of Casablanca, Morocco


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