Looking for some good public plantings? Head for an airport. Not just any airport, but the airports in Chicagoland. While I haven’t been in every airport around the country, I’ve seen enough to take a look and sniff, “Chicago’s airports are better than this.”
The approach to O’Hare is always impressive with masses of colorful annuals and hanging baskets. Someone (taxpayers?) has spent an obviously impressive sum of money to make this happen, and I, for one, am happy enough to pony up.
I spend more quality time at Midway, also admirable for its year-round efforts to alleviate the travails of traveling. Early summer brings us hundreds of Japanese tree lilacs (Syringa reticulata) waving fluffy flags of white as we wend our way down Cicero or along 55th Street. They’ve been underplanted with colorful annuals, which are sure to be still chugging away come fall.
And if you drive to the airport along 55th Street (Garfield Blvd.) between the Dan Ryan Expressway and Western Avenue, a giant median parkway of multicolored green trees will keep you company. (A remnant of the 1900s City Beautiful original goal of linking Chicago’s parks with parkways.) Trees come and go, of course, and the emerald ash borer has taken its toll, but replacements have been planted, and early summer found northern catalpas in full bloom in the median. No Southern belles languidly fanning themselves to ward off the vapors, these catalpas are zone 4 hardy and tolerant of both our alkaline soils and drought.
Up in Milwaukee, Melinda Myers writes in this issue’s Wisconsin regional report about another off-the-beaten-path site where we can find interesting trees: cemeteries. With no heavy construction equipment or traffic to trample their roots, trees in cemeteries are left to their own devices and live out their lives unencumbered. Think of cemeteries as a destination. Especially as autumn moves in and trees are gearing up for their last hurrah.
Fall is about dwindling light and shorter days (sigh) but also vibrant color. It doesn’t come just from the trees. Container displays have made a great leap forward in artistic sophistication the last few years. Chrysanthemums are still the go-to plant of the season, but nowadays you’re likely to see them tucked into massive planters alongside bromeliads and kale and artichokes. No longer are they just sitting solo in a pot.
Fall color can also come from ornamental peppers, the subject of this issue’s cover story. Not quite all the colors of the rainbow, but close. Think of them as the latest hip bedding plant. That’s what the designers at Cantigny Gardens did a few years ago. See them growing by the thousands in our coverstory on pages 42-45.
But innovative public plantings can be found everywhere, even in inauspicious places like airports. The last time I was at Midway, they had recently planted towering castor beans in the median strip going down Cicero Avenue. With those red flowers and purplish leaves, they should be quite the autumn treat right about now.