From the Ground Up
A History of the Chicago Botanic Garden
Today, the Chicago Botanic Garden is a flourishing environment of diverse gardens and expansive programming serving the needs of people. Visitors may find it difficult to imagine that this vibrant place was an undeveloped, primarily flooded piece of land 40 years ago. Beneath the plants, animals and facilities that now thrive here is a history of people with passion, vision and dedication that has helped Chicago become a leader in horticultural sciences and botanical gardens.
Garden in a City
The city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837 as “Urbs in Horto,” a city in a garden. Dedicated horticulturists ensured this moniker became a mission by promoting an understanding of and appreciation for plants. In 1890, they founded the Chicago Horticultural Society, an organization that hosted nationally and internationally recognized flower and horticultural shows; reached out to schoolchildren in Chicago classrooms; supported Chicago’s burgeoning park system; and helped found the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC).
In 1963, civic leaders, including trustees of the Chicago Horticultural Society, identified a parcel of land just over 300 acres belonging to the FPDCC. They contracted John O. Simonds, one of the nation’s premier landscape architects to re-imagine the site. Simonds diligently studied its strengths: a native woodland on the east side, a branch of the Chicago River, and lakes to the south.
The Green Blueprint
Inspired by the Garden of Perfect Brightness, an 18th century water garden often used as a retreat for Chinese emperors, Simonds grew a vision for what would become the Chicago Botanic Garden. Together with Geoffrey Rausch, he created a blueprint for a winding chain of lakes, nine islands with individual gardens, and an overarching “sense of place” characterizing Chicago’s natural environments. Simonds and Rausch directed that the site be used for research, collections, and education.
- Seasonal displays paying homage to early 20th century private gardens;
- Opportunities for innovation in horticultural collection and experimentation
- A living museum of landscape technique, horticultural science, and conservation
- Beautiful gardens and natural environments are important to the physical well-being of all people.
- People live better, healthier, and more satisfying lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens.
- The future of life on Earth depends on how we understand, value, and protect plants and the habitats on which they depend.
- deepen its commitment to education, science, and exquisite landscapes;
- broaden its recognition locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally; and
- improve the health of the natural world for present and future generations.