The principal genius of the Lurie Garden, conceived by Kathryn Gustafson, Shannon Nichol, Jennifer Guthrie (Gustafson Nichol Guthrie firm), and Piet Oudolf, lies in the ingenuity with which North American prairie plants are mixed with exotics to spectacular effect in an urban environment. A 15 ft tall hedge, a physical manifestation of Carl Sandburg’s “City of Big Shoulders’, gives muscular heft and the maple allees (Acer x freemanii [Autumn Blaze] = ‘Jeffersred’ keeps the scale proportional and intermediate between the skyscrapers and the perennial plantings. Because Chicago’s cold and snowy winters can truncate the winter interest of herbaceous plantings that Piet Oudolf is famous for, the structural stillness of the hedge and maple trees cannot be underestimated and by its virtue of solid mass, the former makes the garden’s loose naturalism more marked during the growing season, and the latter intercepting light at a higher level. Had not the Gustafson Nichol Guthire firm and Oudolf been perceptive to create this framework, the Lurie Garden overall looks lost against the domineering Chicago skyline. Below are two photographs of different plantings taken at different seasons.
One could say that the first photograph of the garden in autumn resembles abstract expressionism since colors – the scarlet ridge of maples, the angular contours of the hedge, the tawny seedheads of Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, and the fine loose foliage of Amsonia hubrichtii – are sharply demarcated.
1. Amsonia hubrichtii
Restricted to the Ouachita mountains in Arkansas and Oklahoma, Amsonia hubrichtii commemorates the American conchologist (someone who studies molluscs) Leslie Hubricht who found it in 1942. Young plants resemble straggly pine seedlings, but will mature to form billows of fine-textured stems with 3 to 4 feet spread. Like other amsonias, Amsonia hubrichtii produces light cornflower blue flowers in spring. Although some garden writers have derided its widespread availability and potential overuse in landscapes, it still remains somewhat uncommon and should not be overlooked especially for its bright yellow autumn foliage. Full sun and regular soil will be satisfactory and a bit of self-seeding may be observed. The second photograph shows Amsonia hubrichtii in its spring attire (Number 6).
2. Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’
One of the earliest switchgrasses to be introduced to the trade for its reddish foliage, ‘Shenandoah’ is a German selection by Hans Simon who evaluated more than several hundred seedlings of ‘Hanse Herms’. Leaves emerge green in early summer and develop reddish tints in midsummer. ‘Shenandoah’ does not flop and remains remarkably upright throughout the season. The downsides is that the foliage seems more susceptible to rust than the green or blue-leafed cultivars and the roots, aromatic when dug, are irresistible to rodents, especially voles.
3. Thujas (Thuja occidentalis ‘Brabant’, T. occidentalis ‘Nigra’, T. occidentalis ‘Pyramidalis’, and T. occidentalis ‘Wintergreen’, Thuja ‘Spring Grove’)
Different Thuja cultivars fill out the hedging that surrounded the perimeter of the Lurie Garden and diminishes the unsightly effect of winter damage were one variety used. In a heavily trafficked urban environment, the thujas do not suffer from deer depredation and remain evergreen.
4. Acer x freemanii [Autumn Blaze] = ‘Jeffersred’
Freeman maples are hybrids between Acer rubrum and A. saccharinum that combine the best attributes of their parents. The form and brilliant scarlet foliage is inherited from Acer rubrum, with rapid growth and urban adaptability from A. saccharinum. In Manual of Landscape Plants (2009), Michael Dirr noted that Autumn Blaze has ‘rich green leaves with excellent orange-red fall color that persists later than many cultivars, dense oval-rounded head with ascending branch structure and central leader, rapid growth and Zone 5 hardiness, may be more drought tolerant than true Acer rubrum cultivars.” Indeed the scarlet color is a worthy ornamental characteristic of Autumn Blaze. Dirr does express caution over the overuse of Autumn Blaze in commercial landscapes.
By contrast, the second photograph taken in early summer depicts the Lurie Garden painterly in the Impressionist manner – the drifted plantings orient in unusual angles, the colors appearing brushstroke-like, and plants an essence of their selves. Not surprisingly, the Lurie Garden Design Narrative describes this section “bold, warm, dry and bright” and the its topography “a contoured, controlled plane experienced by walking on its surface.” Early summer is a bounteous time for herbaceous perennials which respond well to longer day lengths and consistent warmth.
1. Monarda bradburiana
Monarda cultivars from Europe have largely overshadowed the native species from which they were hybridized, and it’s a shame since the species seem to exhibit better mildew resistance and adaptability. Native to open dry woodlands in Southeast US and northwards to Iowa, the Eastern bee balm has attractive silver-green foliage and creamy pink tubular flowers. The calyces age attractively to a wine hue, an additional seasonal interest after the main floral display has finished. Here in the Lurie Garden, the wine calyces connect visually to the dark globes of Allium atropurpureum. Pollinators are usually drawn to its nectar-rich flowers, giving a strong case to cultivate Monarda bradburiana.
2. Allium atropurpureum
I first saw this allium at Nori and Sandra Pope’s late Hadspen Garden, Somerset, UK where the dark purple florets echoed the purplish-suffused blue foliage of Rosa glauca in the plum border. Used alone, Allium atropurpureum looks lost, receding in the background. However, its dark tone is a good chromatic foil for the purple Salvia river and Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’. Some accounts have noted the short lifespan of Allium atropurpureum although excellent drainage may be the difference between success and failure. Topping up the bulbs annually will offset any gaps and maintain the display overall.
3. Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ and Papaver orientale ‘Scarlet O’Hara’
Of unknown parentage (one parent is certainly Amsonia tabermontana), Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ originated in the stock beds of White Flower Farm several years ago. It is a superb garden plant for its all around good looks – the buds are a winsome dark blue, habit is tidy and manageable, leaves dark green and lustrous (turning yellow in autumn), and pests seldom trouble ‘Blue Ice’.
The bright splash of red orange from Papaver orientale ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ prevents the planting from looking sedate, polite for a lack of better term. In a mixed planting like the Lurie Garden, Oriental poppies can be tricky to integrate because they left gaping holes during summer dormancy and resent crowding when foliage returns in late summer and autumn. In addition, it is easy to plant in the empty spaces vacated by dormant Oriental poppies.
4. Amsonia tabermontana var. salicifolia
Taller (24-36″) than ‘Blue Ice’ (12-15″) and bearing lighter hued flowers, Amsonia tabermontana var. salicifolia was among the first amsonias to be cultivated and still remains a classic for the perennial border. The terminal clusters of light blue flowers appear in spring and become bean-like seed pods in late summer and autumn. Be mindful of its siting since transplanting established amsonias is not a feat for the weak-hearted as their taproots probe long and deep.
5. Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’
Sometimes the best garden plants are happy accidents and ‘Purple Smoke’ was a chance seedling discovered by the late curator Rob Gardner in the trial beds of Baptisia minor and B. alba at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Sultry smokiness essentially sums up the appealing trait of this hybrid – the stems emerge an inky gray color rare among herbaceous perennials, the flowers a soft violet the color of evening dusk, and the pea-like foliage unfazed by heat and humidity. Mature plants can reach 50″ tall. In this planting above, the soft violet flowers are a good transitional hue between the salvias and Allium atropurpureum. Young plants do not resemble much and require some time to reach their full potential.
6. Amsonia hubrichtii