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Chicago Botanic Garden, Morton Arboretum, Fernwood Botanic Garden and Lotusland

getaway-chicago logo Nine months ago, the Getaway Guys wrote a piece about the Regenstein Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden ( in Glencoe, Illinois. Because it was January and the Guys were looking for someplace warm to go, they thought Regenstein (without the time and cost of getting on a plane) an excellent choice for their Chicago area readers. Those in New York and California would have to figure things out for themselves. On a cold Chicago winter day there’s nothing quite like a restorative stroll through Regenstein’s  green houses, but during the Spring, Summer and Fall the place to be is out-of-doors and the CBG has lots to offer for less than a tank of gas.

4for1A random selection  of the numerous and informative things to investigate are the English Walled Garden, the Dwarf Conifer Garden (newly refurbished), the Enabling and Sensory Gardens, the Japanese Garden, and the Native Plant Garden. A favorite of Alan’s was Evening Island with its carillon and a favorite of Neil’s was the Fruit and Vegetable Garden. Both Guys liked Spider Island, which sounds mysterious and a bit icky, but neither saw an arachnid in the joint.

4for2If nature isn’t enough, there’s the Garden Café and Grille were the fare is pretty darn good, and the Garden Shop for those who like to spend money (not Alan’s cup of tea).

Another getaway venue whose emphasis is nature and not far from the Loop, is the Morton Arboretum ( in Lisle, Illinois. Established in 1921 by Mr. Joy Morton (1855-1934) and overseen by members of the Morton Salt family until 1977, the Arboretum has something in common with the Chicago Botanic Garden aside from lots of trees.  The Arboretum was designed by Ossian Cole Simonds (1855-1931) who was the father of the designer of the CBG, John O. Simonds (1913-2005). Neil, the scientific illiterate, thought both place were groovy and looked pretty much the same, but Alan (Mr. Science) knew the difference, but wouldn’t explain it to his partner for the tenth time!4for3

Whereas bike parking is available at the CBG (but riding isn’t allowed), at the Morton Arboretum bike riding is allowed on a limited basis. The CBG is strictly a pedestrian proposition (in a good sense) and the Arboretum is a rider affair (two or four wheels). At the Arboretum  visitors can stay in the air conditioned comfort of their family sedan and tool around the grounds, stopping here and there to take in something specific. Walking isn’t a bad deal either, because most of the trails traverse hill and dale under a canopy of foliage. Creating an east and a west side, the Morton Arboretum is bisected by IL Rt. 53, and is just north of Interstate 88.  To be expected, Neil preferred the west side and Alan dug the east side (the library is on the East side). On the east, Alan was hip to the Spruce Plot, the Appalachia, China and Japan areas and the Lindens, Elms and related sections. Westward, Neil got into the Europe, Spruce and Hemlock Hill (Socrates not withstanding) sections.

Neil finally got it, the Morton Arboretum is more “woodsy” than the Botanic Garden. (In fact it’s main purpose is to collect every woody plant that will grow in its climate.)

4for4Further afield, but still within striking distance on a tank of fuel is the Fernwood Botanic Garden ( in southwest Michigan. Less well endowed than the Morton Arboretum with its salt millions or the Chicago Botanic Garden with its multitude of high roller patrons, Fernwood is an ongoing labor of love started by Kay and Walter Boydston in 1964. It’s primarily an outdoor adventure consisting of native plants on 105 acres. Located on the St. Joseph River not too far from Niles, Michigan (or more specifically Buchanan, Michigan), Fernwood is a stone’s throw from South Bend, Indiana. Although, presently it may not warrant a stand alone trip from downtown Chicago, it’s definitely a place to include in a planned trip to South Bend (see “South Bend or Bust,” coming in November) or St. Joseph/Benton Harbor (see “Maids of the Mist”). The Guys visited Fernwood in the Spring of ’08 and enjoyed themselves throughly. Both liked the homespun quality and neither had a dissenting opinion about one aspect or another (an odd convergence, to say the least). Unlike the sculpted qualities of the Chicago Botanic Garden or the Morton Arboretum, this little recognized botanic garden in the middle of nowhere is a treat to behold because it’s plain and simple and offers a relaxing experience. A visitor doesn’t feel pressured to “appreciate” his or her surroundings.

In particular, the Guys liked the Japanese Garden, the South Vista Garden and the Tallgrass Prairie with its various native plants, but their favorite was the Nature Center with its free range aviary. 4for5Through large windows they observed the feeding antics of a  variety of native birds as they came and went at will, a show the Guys could have gotten into for hours on end. Visiting the center involves some controversy, however. A large collection of “stuffed” native birds and animals is on display, none of which upset the Getaway Guys in the least (possibly a generational thing). Both thought the setting appropriate and the display instructive and wouldn’t advocate doing away with the displays just because tastes have changed.  Taxidermied animals or not, Fernwood is well worth a trip.

While Fernwood is close to Buchanan and Niles, neither seem to offer a range of lunches equal to the restaurant at Fernwood. The menu is pretty gourmet (a must for Neil) and affordable (right up Alan’s alley).  To reach Fernwood, take the Indiana Tollroad (I80/90) to US 31, just west of South Bend, then head north across the Indiana/Michigan border to Walton Road, thence west to Range Line Road, and proceed north to 13988.  Fernwood is 90 miles from downtown Chicago.

4for6Given the self-imposed, getaway-chicago, 150 mile destination limit here’s a stretch: Leaving the Loop for O’Hare by car, train or taxi (18miles), get on a plane (on time?), land in Los Angeles (on time?), rent a car and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Montecito (95 miles from LAX). Seek out Lotusland ( where an émigré, Polish-Russian operatic singer, planted a world class botanic garden on prime California real estate. There, just south of Santa Barbara, an incredible botanic experience with an entry policy almost out of a spy thriller, awaits visitors. Caution, visitors not arriving on time for their tour, don’t get in, and may not get a 4for7refund either. To be fair, this policy has to do with restrictive Montecito parking codes and nothing to do with spies.  Fortunately, for Neil and his wife Holly, the wrought iron gate was still open when they arrived in mid-May just on time.

For obvious reasons this 25% of Four For A Tank isn’t a typical getaway-chicago suggestion for Chicago area travel. Not unlike the getaway-chicago piece (Far Fetched) based on The Getty Villa in Malibu, California, an opportunistic visit to this remarkable (and little known) botanic garden seems like a natural for inclusion, despite its distance from the Loop. Getaway Guy Neil and Holly knew of Lotusland, but never visited until recently, and while doing so on a beautiful California day they both had the same visceral reaction: “this is a destination people should know about!” (An expanded article devoted exclusively to Lotusland will appear in January 2009.)    October 2008

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