Route 66 highlights:  the secret garden in Chicago’s Grant Park

For many people, April 15 – Tax Day – isn’t necessarily a happy occasion.  Some folks look for a way to chase away the blues.  My co-author Joe decided to accomplish that differently this year and paid a visit to a little-known point of interest right off Route 66 in downtown Chicago.  Here’s his report.  Take it away, Joe!
Millennium Park is a favorite of locals and tourists alike.  So much fun with The Bean (Anish Kapoor’s giant mirrored sculpture, Cloud Gate), the Crown Fountain with its changing faces and wading pool, and so on.  But Millennium Park is really a subset of the much larger Grant Park, better known as Chicago’s magnificent front yard on the lakefront.  However, at Millennium Park’s southern end sits a hidden jewel:  Lurie Garden.  It’s a little slice of serene Illinois prairie in the heart of the city, an open secret to Chicagoans and to the wildlife that call it home or use it as a rest stop – but it’s unfamiliar to most human out-of-town visitors.

Chicago's Lurie Garden in early spring (Photo copyright 2015 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

Chicago’s Lurie Garden in early spring, with light blue Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa) covering barren areas of the ‘dark’ plate.  (Photo copyright 2015 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

This welcome respite from the drone of the city is tucked away about a block east of Michigan Avenue just north of Monroe Street, across from the Modern Wing of the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago and connected to it above street level by the Nichols Bridgeway (or, to put it another way, Lurie Garden is between the post-modern Pritzker Pavilion with its Great Lawn and AIC’s Modern Wing, near the NE corner of Monroe Street and Columbus Drive).  As well-informed route roadies know, the Art Institute constitutes one of the four corners of the Gateway to Route 66, located at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue.  That puts Lurie Garden about a block north of the route’s starting place.  Quite appropriate for a city whose motto is Urbs in Horto (city in a garden).

Opened in 2004 along with the rest of Millennium Park, Lurie Garden was created by landscape architects Kathryn Gustafson (American), Robert Israel (American), and Piet Oudolf (Dutch).  Only 2.5 acres in size, the garden was named in honor of the late Robert Lurie by his wife Ann, who endowed the city with a gift of $10 million for its care and maintenance (the cost of building it came from the city and elsewhere).  Mr. Lurie was a prominent Chicago investor and real estate developer whose family wished to honor his memory with “a tranquil and serene place for Millennium Park visitors.”  Like the park, the garden is managed by the Millennium Park Foundation, a joint venture between philanthropic concerns and the City of Chicago.  Interestingly, the garden features only perennials – many of which a passing trapper, trader or Indian tribe would have seen here 200 or more years ago, when the enormous tallgrass prairie of Illinois stood undisturbed before the city took root.

Sargent cherry tree (Prunus sargentii) in bloom (photo copyright 2015 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

A magnificent Sargent cherry tree (Prunus sargentii) blooming pink.  (photo copyright 2015 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

The garden grounds are based on a Chicago-centric theme and consist of four principal areas:  the boardwalk, the dark plate, the light plate, and the shoulder hedge.  The diagonal boardwalk divides the garden into two halves or ‘plates,’ with the dark plate east of the boardwalk and the light plate to the west.  You can find a complete plant list for the garden, including shrubs and trees, here.

According to Wikipedia, the boardwalk section “represents the natural Lake Michigan seawall that still bisects Grant Park.”  The diagonal boardwalk separates two eras of Chicago’s landscape development:  the historical-to-current landscape and the future landscape.  The boardwalk is also a reminder of early Chicago, when city fathers placed boards across the marshland to serve as sidewalks and plank roads (people, horses and carts were otherwise likely to sink several feet into the mud, which also hid the occasional sinkhole in which horses and wagons could be lost entirely).  The limestone used in the garden represents naturally occurring bedrock in and around the Chicago area – symbolically, of course; the actual rock used here is from Wisconsin.

The garden’s dark plate portrays the Chicago area’s pre-settlement landscape; the plants and flowers have subdued hues.  You’ll see several trees, such as the native Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), several types of arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), and a surprise Illinois native – a black locust cultivar discovered here in Chicago by city forester Bob Benjamin, appropriately named Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Chicago Blues’ (varieties of R. pseudoacacia are found throughout the Central and Eastern U.S.).

The dark and light plates both feature several kinds of Allium, i.e., varieties of flowering onion; no doubt they’re the landscapers’ in-joke about the city’s pungent past.  The word Checagou is a Native American term meaning “stinky place” or “[place of the] wild onion” – a reference to the abundance of wild leeks or onions in the area, present for hundreds if not thousands of years before settlers arrived (leeks are part of the Allium family, as is garlic).

Lurie Garden’s light plate basks in sunlight, and brightly colored flowers abound.  This part of the garden illustrates Chicago’s future – dazzling and sunny.  There are no trees in this section, and prairie plants flourish in homage to Illinois’s past as a huge sea of grass on the prairie (thus the name ‘Prairie State’).  In fact, throughout Lurie Garden you’ll see a variety of grasses that are native to Midwestern tallgrass prairies, such as regular and red switch grass (Panicum virgatum), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), and sideoats grama grass (Bouteloua curtipendula), among others.

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The north and west edges of the garden are bordered by the 15-foot-high shoulder hedge.  Symbolically, the hedge refers to the City of Big Shoulders, a nickname derived from the fifth line of the 1914 poem entitled “Chicago” – written by noted author, journalist and poet Carl Sandburg, who lived and worked in Illinois for much of his life.  The poem was originally published in Poetry magazine, then republished in Sandburg’s poetry collection Chicago Poems.  The shoulder hedge also serves as a partial windbreak against Chicago’s rougher weather.

A prairie horticulturist’s dream, Lurie Garden is designed as a four-season garden.  I visited in mid-April, when the crocuses were past flowering and the rest of the garden was just starting to awaken.  Glory of the snow (Chionodoxa) was blooming, as were the narcissus, prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), and the wonderful, pink-flowering Sargent cherry trees (Prunus sargentii), though the lilacs (Syringa) hadn’t bloomed yet.  However, the Allium was already sprouting up in several places.  Not long after, spring finally arrived, along with varieties of mid-to-late tulips (they’re not prairie plants, but they provide the garden with color and foliage until the real prairie plants pop up).  Now in late spring, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) enliven the shade, while in the sunny patches you’ll soon see Eastern bee balm (Monarda bradburiana, part of the mint family), wild indigo (Baptisia australis), Eastern blue star (Amsonia tabernaemontana), shooting star (Dodecatheon amethystinum), anemones, golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), and other blooming vernal plants and shrubs, along with an influx of birds – including, if you’re lucky, a few hummingbirds migrating north that will have enjoyed the Monarda.  But that’s only the beginning.

By summer, the garden explodes with life and color.  Butterflies flit among the many varieties of coneflowers (Echinacea), butterfly weed or milkweed (Asclepias), blazing star (Liatris spicata), and yarrow (Achillea), and bees buzz above the purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and catmint (Nepeta) under the hot Midwestern sun.  The beds are full of daylilies, Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale), blue sage (Salvia azurea) and other sages, globe thistle (Echinops bannaticus), queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium dubium), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Stoke’s aster (Stokesia laevis), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and phlox, among others.  The shade shelters astilbe, hostas, coral bells (Heuchera), and wild ginger (Asarum canadense).  Summer is also when the garden has the most visitors, as it’s a lovely place to spend a lazy afternoon on the lakefront.

Lurie Garden in summer from porch of the Modern Wing, Art Institute of Chicago (photo courtesy of Choose Chicago and the City of Chicago)

Lurie Garden in summer, as seen from the upstairs porch of the Modern Wing along Monroe Street, Art Institute of Chicago  (photo courtesy of Choose Chicago and the City of Chicago)

Fall brings migrant birds stopping off on their journey south.  Ripe seed heads abound.  The garden is full of asters, sea lavender (Limonium latifulium), giant hyssop (Agastache), bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum, which isn’t really a mint), grasses such as sedge (Carex) and prairie dropseed, and goldenrod (Solidago).  But no worries, if you suffer from hay fever:  goldenrod doesn’t cause that – it’s usually the associated ragweed, which is not present in this garden.

Even winter has its beauty here.  Although cold temperatures render the plantings dormant, the beds remain uncut, and seed heads and ornamental grasses protrude through the snow.  These include blue star, wild quinine, Eastern bee balm, coneflowers, giant hyssop, and rattlesnake master.  There is serenity here, particularly in winter, and you have a close-up view of Chicago’s skyline without the street noise.  You may not be alone, however:  rabbits, wintering birds, feral cats, and the occasional coyote roaming the lakefront (yes, we have a few, but they’re people averse) know about the garden and may shelter there at any time, especially after sunset.  But you probably won’t notice them; the uncut beds usually screen them from view.

No matter when you visit or where you go in the garden, chances are you’ll see at least one thing you didn’t expect.  That’s part of what makes going there enjoyable.  So, whether you’re a local resident, a traveler just passing through, or in town to begin a road trip down Route 66, treat yourself first with a side trip to Lurie Garden.  Stop in for a while to take in the season; take a breath and a stroll, or just rest and contemplate life in Chicago’s own secret haven on the lakefront.  The rewards are priceless.
Until next time,
Joe (and Marie!)

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