Photographs and article by Anne Belmont
For those who enjoy photographing flowers and plant life, our long Chicago winters can make it challenging to find subject matter to photograph. Many of us enjoy photographing the winter landscapes, but if this winter is destined to be anything like last winter, it will be tough to be outdoors photographing for long periods.
The greenhouses at Chicago Botanic Garden provide the perfect place to warm up, peel off your hat, gloves and extra layers to shoot some beautiful indoor subjects.
Last winter, in the midst of shooting for a 365 project on patterns and textures in nature, I had to become creative in finding subjects for the daily photos I posted. Although I had photographed quite regularly in the greenhouses at CBG, last winter I got to know every square inch of them. CBG’s Regenstein Center contains three greenhouses – The Arid, the Tropical and the Semitropical. The Arid Greenhouse quickly became my favorite. I have to admit that I wasn’t all that into cacti and other succulents until I began to spend more and more time exploring this fascinating greenhouse. It is a treasure-trove of patterns, textures, interesting shapes and colors and, most importantly, it’s toasty warm inside.
Learning a bit about cacti and succulents and their adaptations to an environment of extremes is fascinating. The unusual shapes, shallow root systems, waxy coatings and thorns and spines are all ways the plants have adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert and enable them to store and conserve water. Ranges in temperature from searing heat during the day to a 40 degree drop at night, rocky, sandy soil and precious little water have all forced cacti and succulents to not only adapt but thrive in their unique environment. They produce some of the most spectacular blooms in the plant world.
If you have a macro lens, the Arid Greenhouse is a perfect place to focus in on the interesting patterns and textures of the plants. I often shoot my subjects with sharp focus and higher apertures to capture all the details, but I also find the Arid Greenhouse a perfect place to experiment with shooting with wider apertures, emphasizing the beautiful lines and colors of the plants, as well as the light. Bring a wide angle, as well, because in the winter many of the plants are in peak bloom and it’s fun to capture the colorful greenhouse in all its glory.
During the holidays there are pots and hanging orbs of bright red kalanchoe and large red balls nestled among the plants. Tripods are allowed in all the greenhouses and I highly recommend bringing one. Pack a diffuser if you are shooting on a sunny day, as the glass enclosures of the greenhouses mean shooting in full sun.
Although the Arid Greenhouse provides a wonderful place to photograph during the long winter months, don’t limit your visits to this greenhouse to winter. A few years back a sudden downpour at the Garden in early June forced me inside and when I stepped into the Arid Greenhouse I was delighted to see the Echinopsis ‘Apricot Glow’ were in full bloom. Now I check the greenhouse throughout the summer and have learned that these magnificent cacti bloom intermittently through the summer months, usually starting in mid-May. The blooms only last a day, so timing is everything.
Just a note: the greenhouses are open during Wonderland Express, which runs November 28 – January 4, but it means that you will need to enter the Greenhouses through the side outer doors rather than through Regenstein, unless you have tickets for Wonderland Express. For those who have never been to Wonderland Express, it’s a magical experience for kids and grown-ups alike. Regenstein is transformed into a winter wonderland of plants, miniature trains and detailed replicas of over 80 of Chicago’s buildings and landmarks constructed of natural materials. Check the CBG website for details: chicagobotanic.org.
Also, during the Orchid Show (February 14 – March 15) and a period of time during set-up of the show, the greenhouses are totally closed, so check the CBG website before you go. More about holiday events and the Orchid Show in future articles!
For more ideas of what to photograph in the Arid Greenhouse, visit my gallery of images annebelmont.zenfolio.com/arid_greenhouse.