Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and officially marks the first day of summer. It also occasions the first day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere which gets the shortest day of sun.
This year’s summer solstice was on June 21st, a few days after which I made my way with friends Robin and Jolly to the Chicago Botanical Garden.
It’s a place I’ve visited before. But since it’s no less than 385 acres of exquisitely landscaped gardens, it’s no wonder people like me go back often to witness its natural beauty.
And especially at the height of the Chicago summer when everything is in full-bloom, it’s a treat to see so many natural sun-kissed colors all enveloped in seas of shaded green.
Of course, those 385 acres include a number of waterways. Or more precisely put, the Garden itself is situated on and around nine islands inside the Skokie River Corridor. Sometimes described as a ‘living plant museum’, the Garden is actually made up of 27 displays or mini-gardens which you can walk around using a myriad number of nature trails.
Or you can take the open-air electric tram which snakes its way all around the outer edge of the Garden, stopping off at the Education Center established in 1976 and now known as the Regenstein Center. It also passes by the Rice Plant Science Conservation Center where one can find nine laboratories and a science Library containing scads of rare botanic books.
The Garden, which is owned by the Forest Preserve of Cook County but is actually run by the Chicago Horticultural Society, only broke ground in 1965, just over a half century. But it only opened to the public in 1972 after having enlisted a host of high-powered horticulturalists and landscape architects to create what could very well be one of the wonders of the world.
I have yet to see all 27 gardens but the one I wanted especially to view again was the renowned Japanese Bonsai Tree Collection. The Bonsai are the gracefully shaped ornamental mini-trees, some of which are dated between 600 and 1000 years old! No joke!
My friend Robin, seeing I loved the Japanese motif which somehow has its roots embedded in the religions of Shintoism and Buddhism, steered me towards the three Japanese landscaped islands which one can only visit by crossing a zig-zag bridge and then trek across another one. But the third island was said to be ‘sacred’ so nobody but the grounds-keepers could tread on it. We could only look.
I was satisfied since there was still enough light to go and see the Aquatic Garden as well as the English Walled Garden and even the Dwarf Conifer Garden. There was even an elegant display of orchid paintings inside the Regenstein Center which my other friend Jolly (from Kenya) was equally enthralled with.
But before we could leave, we had to walk around the Rose Garden which is one of Robin’s favorites. What we saw was a wide spectrum of colored roses, nearly all of which were in full bloom. But since the summer solstice had just passed and the sun was gradually shifting into cooler hues, a few of the blooms were already fading. That’s how fragile these flower can be.
The one other feature of the Garden that I wanted to investigate was the larger-than-life bronze sculpture situated squarely in the heart of the Garden. It was a youthful interpretation by the American sculptor Robert Berks of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus is the scientist considered the Father of Taxonomic Botany. That means he invented a system for naming and classifying plants according to their genus, species, Latin and common names. It’s thanks to him that virtually all the plants in the Garden are labelled for curious people like me to check out and actually read.
One of my favorite plant labels that we passed by on our way to the Walled Garden was the Black Coral Elephant Ear Araceae. In fact, those leaves really looked like elephant ears.
So as we walked across one last bridge leading to the mainland (which itself is just down the road from one of the five American Great Lakes, Lake Michigan), we felt refreshed having had an afternoon of clean air, organic as well as artistic beauty and fellowships with friends, one of whom I’d see soon back in Nairobi.