In a country like Kenya where land is a precious commodity, particularly now when drought is making life impossible for the vast majority of people, it might seem unfathomable that one garden, filled with flowers and trees, islands and man-made lakes, rivers and waterfalls, can be 385 acres.
What might be even more inconceivable is the idea that the land is prime property for so-called development, located as it is just next to a busy eight-lane super highway connecting Chicago’s northern suburbs to the big city.
And what might be even more surprising is that nearly all of those 385 acres are open to the public. (And what’s closed off is only what’s being newly developed to make the Garden even more attractive to both science-minded people and ordinary families as well).
But that’s the way it is at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
In fact, the Garden is not just one public space. The site which is west and north of Chicago and Lake Michigan is made up of 27 different gardens.
My personal favorites are the Dwarf Conifer Garden (which reminds me of Christmas since conifers were traditionally our family’s Christmas tree), the Rose Garden which is inundated with roses of many colors, the Japanese Garden (with all its miniature Bonsai trees) and the Native Plant Garden (since it’s fascinating to see the growing interest of people committed to restoring the Illinois prairie by seeding indigenous plants. The ecologists say the native plants will attract indigenous bugs and pollinators which in turn will bring back both migrating and native birds who used to regularly stop by native gardens specifically to munch on those juicy bugs).
But frankly, all of the gardens and woods are amazing to walk around. The day I was recently there with a friend, the place was incredibly congested with human traffic. People from all over the Chicago area come to see the Gardens, but since the place is so vast, once you’re inside and on any one of the walking trails, you hardly notice how many hundreds of people come to the Garden on a regular basis.
Since we only had a short time to see the Garden that day, my friend and I paid to board the open-air Tram that took us all around the outskirts of the garden. We missed a lot not being able to walk around the interior of the place, but at the same time, we were able to see all the islands that were inside the man-made lake (which actually flows into the Chicago River).
We were also able to get an overview of all the scientific research centers that operate in the Garden. There's a Plant Science Center, a Learning Center and Learning Campus. And there’s even a whole Butterfly House filled with both indigenous and exotic butterflies.
What I also found intriguing were the activities under construction that our Tram drove by. We saw a slew of giant state-of-the-art green houses that were clearly going to be growing fascinating stuff.
Sadly, the Tram we road on had a tour guide who didn’t know what would be grown there, but she was able to tell us about the new Kris Jarantoski Campus which is named after some politician who’s raised money for that construction.
My friend was a bit disappointed that all those new buildings going up were taking away land that could have been committed to more flora. But at the same time, that campus (located at the far end of the Garden) will attract more scientific interest and scholars who are likely to add more notoriety and prestige to the Garden.
And for better or worse, many acres out of the 385 are devoted to public parking. But even the open-air parking lots are carefully marked so someone cannot easily get lost.
But if you get to the Chicago Botanic Garden, make sure you come with good walking shoes since you’ll want to see everything, if you give yourself the time.
Fortunately, in the Visitors’ Center, there’s a well-stocked restaurant catering to all kinds of tastes (and pocket books). The foods are fresh and one can eat either indoor or outside where one can have a fabulous view of the Garden.
The fact that it’s open 365 days a year is pretty remarkable, since Chicago has four seasons, and one might think that in winter time, when there is snow and ice and freezing weather, the place would be closed. But being committed to nature, the Garden is said to turn (when it’s cold) into a magical winter wonderland.
But whatever the season, the Chicago Botanic Garden is one place to see the Midwest of America at its natural best.