Plants & Gardening

Plants & Gardening

Garden Stories

Plant People

Conversations with Garden Staff 

Chicago Botanic Garden staff members play roles as diverse as the plants that call our space home. And in growing their career, each staff member has also grown a personal connection with the nature they support.


Cathy ThomasPlant Propagator

Cathy Thomas

What exactly is a plant propagator?

I start plants, either by sowing seeds or by doing cuttings, to support all the different programs at the Garden. So when [horticulturists and other Garden staff] decide what plant they want, my job is to start that plant and get the little seedlings, the baby plants, ready to pass off to the growers.

greenhouse propagator greenhouse sprouts

What’s an early memory you have of connecting with the natural world?

I grew up in Montana in a mining town. In the early 1900s when the mining was at its heyday and there wasn’t any thought of environmental consequences, the pollution was so bad that grass didn’t grow. When I was growing up it wasn’t that bad, but there still wasn’t the interest in gardening like there is in areas like Chicago. We went on a trip to [the United Kingdom] and went to a botanic garden. I think it was in Scotland, along the coast. Compared to Montana, it had a lot of tropical plants and it was really lush. I was just amazed.

What started you on your career path, and what made you want to continue?

When I was in college in Montana, I studied horticulture, but I had no idea what I wanted to do with it. Then I came out [to the Chicago Botanic Garden] for a year-long internship. I didn’t end up going back to college—I stayed. I did eventually finish my degree, but in horticulture the hands-on experience is so important.

I started as a grower. Then I worked in our nursery as a supervisor for a couple years, then moved into propagation, which is what I always wanted to do.

What prompted you to study horticulture in the first place?

I started college in education, but I decided I really didn’t want to be a teacher. So then I was like, I like plants, I’ll try horticulture.

I was good at science in school, and I remember having a teacher say, you’re good in science, you should be a teacher. Why didn’t they say, you’re good in science, you should be a scientist?

What is it about your work that you like so much, that drew you in?

I like figuring out how to get the plants to grow. In the past, [Garden staff] would go to Siberia or the Republic of Georgia, countries that have similar environments to Chicago, and collect a lot of seeds and bring them back. It might be a maple, but it’s a different type than we’ve grown here, different than I can find any information on, so I try to figure out how to get it to grow. We’re trying to mimic nature.

It’s really fascinating, the survival mechanisms that plants have come up with. I walk through the Dixon Prairie and I have seeds stuck on my clothes, because they’ve figured out that’s how to distribute themselves. That’s stuff that I find interesting, all these natural mechanisms plants have come up with to germinate at the right time, to make it through the conditions they have to make it through until it’s the prime time or place to germinate.

What’s something that you want people to know about the work you do?

The key part that our department and propagation play in so many different parts of the Garden, so many different programs. Like for Camp CBG, when the kids are taking home this little plant—this is where it starts.

Anna Joranger
Conversations with Garden Staff