It's Crabapple Blossom Time!
Gardeners of all ages and experiences await the changes of springtime. Flowers open not by the calendar but according to their own genetic coding, current temperatures, available moisture, and light cues. The element of surprise each year means that visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden never know when one of the signature spring moments will arrive—the magnificent flower show put on by the scores of crabapple trees circling the Great Basin.
Where to begin?
A beautiful spring walk designed to capture the crabapples, and other magical vistas and views, begins at the Overlook, next to the English Walled Garden. From this point, the entire central lake is visible, with Evening Island, the Arch and the Serpentine, the two bridges that connect the Main Island to Evening Island, forming a necklace sparkling with crabapple blossoms along the Lakeside Gardens.
Walking from the Overlook toward the Arch leads visitors directly through masses of complementary flowering perennials, bulbs, ornamental grasses, and ground covers, laid out in a tapestry of color and texture with the intention of blooming in sequence with the crabapples above them. Early spring colors of these companion plants focus on yellow, purple, blue, and chartreuse—excellent enhancements for the powerful pinks, reds, and whites of the five different varieties of flowering crabapples: ‘Calocarpa’, ‘Prairifire’, ‘Donald Wyman’, ‘Profusion’, and the Japanese flowering crabapple. These varieties have been chosen for their sequential bloom time, the longlasting flower shows, the ornamental quality of the buds, flowers, fruit, and foliage, and their resistance to pests and diseases.
The early combinations of blue forget-me-nots, chartreuse lady’s mantle and marsh spurge, with dark purple grape hyacinths, drifts of daffodils and tulips, catmints, and coral bells capture just one moment in an ever-changing palette of spring color. The tiered arrangement of Japanese flowering crabapples to the left and ‘Calocarpa’ to the right allows a closer view of each tree as it moves from colorful leaf emergence to fragrant flower bud, mature flower, and finally to fruit. Note how the dark pink buds of ‘Calocarpa’ develop into white flowers; the Japanese flowering crab’s red buds open pale pink, but pass to all white. ‘Donald Wyman’ changes its pink buds to white; ‘Profusion’ starts red but ends up violet with red flashes; and ‘Prairifire' sports dark pink buds that blossom into deep fuchsia.
Colorful Flowers, Colorful Fruit
Birds, bees, and butterflies love these blossoms, and the tasty fruit that follows is enjoyed by hungry birds and wildlife. There are considerable differences in fruit as well as flowers. ‘Calocarpa’ produces glossy red fruit, while the Japanese flowering crab features yellow fruit with a rosy blush. ‘Prairifire’ retains its small dark fruit through winter, and only in late February or March do ravenous birds and squirrels pick off the dried globes.
The Views from Evening Island
As the walk continues across Evening Island, a new complement of plants borders the crabapples. These will bloom later in the season, after the trees have fully leafed out and are full of fruit. Low-growing dark pink roses, bluebeards, seas of ornamental grasses, and Golden Shower coreopsis will create a painter’s masterpiece of color and texture, whether viewed up close or from across the lake. From all points, the reflected images of flowering trees are intensified in the water. When the petals drop and the wind picks up, it truly seems to rain with flowers.
A Shady Reflection
Crossing the Serpentine affords another perfect time to look back at the ring of nonstop blooming beauty. As the bridge reconnects with the Main Island, a shadier environment is revealed, with ligularia, hosta, fern, Jacob’s ladder, and Solomon’s seal growing low, while the crabapples claim the sunnier high spots. The walk around the Great Basin has as many special moments of discovery as there are plants and flowers. The picture-perfect moments of today will not be the same as tomorrow. Come back soon.