Chicago Botanic Garden

What's in Bloom

What's in Bloom — Highlight 04.12.13

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Clairette dwarf iris (Iris reticulata 'Clairette') is blooming in the iris family bed of the Heritage Garden.

Clairette dwarf iris (Iris 'Clairette') is a vibrant purple- and-white-flowered cultivar of Iris reticulata, or netted iris. The species name reticulata refers to the netted pattern on the dry bulbs. This award-winning variety is a low-growing, bulbous plant that blooms in early April at about the same time as snowdrops (Galanthus), glory-of- the-snow (Chionodoxa), and early crocuses. Its striking, long-lasting, 2.5-inch purple flowers have streaks of white on the deeper purple falls. The flowers bloom on naked stems, typically reaching 4 inches tall. Narrow, lance-shaped, grasslike leaves elongate to 15 inches after blooming, and they disappear by late spring as the plants go dormant.

These dwarf herbaceous perennials are especially effective when planted in large masses in sunny or lightly shaded areas of rock gardens, in the fronts of borders, along walks, or near streams or ponds. To ensure consistent flowering from year to year, plant supplemental bulbs each fall, or grow as annuals by planting new bulbs every fall. The bulbs also may be forced in pots indoors. Clairette dwarf iris thrives in USDA Zones 5 to 9. Don't be tempted to nibble the leaves, however; it is highly toxic.

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Galanthus nivalis 'Atkinsii' is a very showy, large-flowered snowdrop, among the first bulbs to bloom in early spring. The name was given to the genus by Carl Linnaeus in 1735. Native to large areas of Europe, from Spain to the Ukraine, the name is derived from the Greek gala (milk) and anthos (flower). The epithet "nivalis" means "of the snow," referring either to the snowlike flower or the plant's early flowering. With especially hardened tips to push through the late-spring snow, Galanthus nivalis was described at the 1891 meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society as "second to none in size, form, quality, and freedom of growth." The 'Atkinsii' cultivar is a vigorous, tall variety that grows to 9 inches.

This dwarf bulbous perennial has linear or strap-shaped green to gray-green, glaucous leaves (with a powdery surface, like that on grapes). At the top of its erect, leafless flowering stalk is a solitary, pendulous, bell-shaped flower with three pear-shaped, white, outer segments and three shorter inner ones, marked with a prominent green heart-shaped mark at the tips. The whitish seeds have small, fleshy tails containing substances attractive to ants, who distribute the seeds. Best planted in partial shade in moist, hummus-rich soil, snowdrops can be naturalized in grass under trees, where they look spectacular mixed with crocuses. The leaves die back a few weeks after the flowers have faded.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis 'Atkinsii') may be found in the middle level of the Waterfall Garden, on the south side.

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Iris histrioides 'George' is among the first of the very early spring flowers to come into bloom in the Chicago area.

'George' is actually a hybrid between Iris reticulata and Iris histrioides and combines the early flowering of histrioides with the robust vigor of the reticulata parent. The flowers are composed of three upright petals known as "flags" and three petals that hang down, known as "falls." The dark purple falls contain a blotch of white edged in yellow, known as a nectar guide.

Close observation on a sunny day will provide an opportunity to see bees and other nectar-gathering insects landing on the blotch and following the yellow strips inside the flower to the nectar. Very close observation will reveal pollen stuck to the backs of the insects, which provides for pollination of the flowers as the bees move from one flower to another.

The genus name is derived from the Greek iris, a messenger from the gods that traveled to earth on a rainbow. About 300 species of iris can be found in a wide range of habitats in the northern hemisphere, varying in size from diminutive very-early-spring alpines to tall bearded and juno iris, up to 3 feet in height, blooming near midsummer.

George dwarf iris (Iris histroides 'George') is in the Sensory Garden, on the west side of the path.

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Amur adonis (Adonis amurensis) and its ties to the namesake god are a good match. This plant is as handsome as any perennial, and once seen in bloom, its perfection is almost impossible to resist. Adonis is as ephemeral as the god Adonis, and soon after blooming, the plant returns underground to await the next late winter or early spring. This beautiful plant is native to the hills of Japanese islands and China along the Amur River, from which it derives its species name.

A member of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family, the flowers have waxy, heavy, bright yellow petals. The 1- to 2-inch, large-for-the-plant blooms emerge and open first. Just as the flowers fully mature, bright green, divided, featherlike foliage appears to form a fluffy collar around each individual blossom. The blooms are hermaphrodite (having both male and female organs) and are pollinated by bees, flies, and beetles. Reaching a height and width of about a foot, amur adonis quickly forms a very well-behaved, open clump in the garden. It thrives in full sun or light shade in USDA Zones 3 to 7, where the blooms react to cold or cloudy days by closing and waiting for sunshine and warmer days to return. It's a delightful choice for sun-dappled woodland areas, rock gardens, and cultivated beds that are humus rich, moist, and well drained. 

Amur adonis (Adonis amurensis) is on the hillside facing the exit to the Graham Bulb Garden.

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A herald of early spring, winter aconite's beautiful yellow blooms are borne over a mound of rich green foliage. A member of the Ranunculaceae family, Eranthus hyemalis is one of the earliest spring-flowering bulbs to bloom — and also among the smallest. Because these bulbs grow closer to the soil's surface, it takes only a few sunny days or thawing rains to warm the soil and signal to dormant bulbs that it's time to start growing. Cold winters typical of the plant's native European woodland origin, and cooler, humus-rich soil often bring the best show of flowers for the aconite.

There is, however, a dark side to these showstopping beauties — the entire plant is quite poisonous and may cause nausea, vomiting, colic attacks, and visual disturbances. Don't let this information compel you to remove them from your yard, though — the aconite's bitter taste makes it unlikely that a pet will fall victim to the plant through curious nibbling.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is in the path between the Graham Bulb Garden and Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.