Creating A Legacy

In spite of the vagaries of spring weather in the Midwest, Mother Nature came through with another spectacular display for the Garden Club’s luncheon on May 6. The entrance drive to the Oak Park Country Club was a showcase of gorgeous blooming trees, flowering shrubs and plants.

Centerpiece by Sue Milojevic
Centerpiece by Sue Milojevic

The human touch wasn’t bad either. The tables bedecked with beautiful floral centerpieces and pink napkins, along with the twenty colorful floral raffle items all presented a powerful “wow” factor upon entrance to the dining room. Add to that the guests wearing beautiful hats and lovely clothing and you get an idea of the visual impact we felt.   Yes, it is nice to enjoy the four seasons!


Wearing a floral decorated hat to the luncheon is a tribute to our club’s 98 year heritage of women loving flowers. Granted hats and gloves were de rigueur for the well dressed women even fifty years ago, but today it is an enjoyable event at our luncheon. We promenade our creations and vote for our favorite decorated hat. Delia Vargas, Ginger O’Malley and Linda Zwierz received the People’s Choice awards this year.


Delia, 1st
Ginger, 2nd






Another returning favorite was speaker, Cornelia McNamara.Cornelia We last saw Cornelia’s floral magic at our luncheon in 2010. A Chicago native, who graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, she lived and worked in Manhattan, was a candidate for the position of Chief floral designer at the White House and finally she returned to Chicago and opened her own firm in 2005. Although Cornelia has handled the floral designs for numerous prestigious events and weddings in Chicago, she maintains the demeanor of a girlfriend chatting across the table from you. While creating gorgeous arrangements with ease right before our eyes, Cornelia was also telling us about her flower farm outside of Chicago, “Five Row Farm” and her participation in “Chicago Honey Co-op”, an urban bee farm both in an effort to reduce her carbon foot print on the world. She maintains that 85% of the flowers sold in the US are grown on another continent with unregulated pesticides and shipped in refrigerated containers to the final destination. We can do our part to lessen the carbon impact, she told us, by buying locally grown flowers in season or to grow our own.

The Oak Park Country Club has been such a wonderful venue for our annual luncheon. In addition to being a beautiful location, Tracy Reyes and her crew are unbelievably cheerful and helpful assisting us with our early morning set up, special diets, bar tender, punch, car valet and clean up! Chairwoman Kathy English was ably assisted by board members, club members, guests, and husbands to deliver a beautiful event

Special thanks to Sue Milojevic for designing the centerpieces and to the Ways and Means team of Mary Ellen Warner, Ruth Rowe and Barbara Graham for the unique raffle items. We couldn’t have had a better day-of-supporting crew! Ticket sellers: Alice Blanchard, Sherry Pavel and Cindy Rossi plus  GC male auxiliary of Graham, Vitullo and Zwierz were outstanding.

Thanks to all who helped continue the Garden Club legacy.

View the “Photo Albums” in the side panel on the main page for additional pictures of the May 2015 Luncheon


















Gardeners Networking

River Forest Wildflower Preserve
Virginia bluebells, White trillium

Gardeners networking in Oak Park and River Forest were in full force this past week.  I received an email that I will share with you:

“Give yourselves a spring treat!  Drive or better yet walk to the Forest Preserve Park in River Forest.  The northwest corner has a meadow of wild flowers in bloom that is truly lovely.  They don’t last too long so take your cameras.  The contrast of the Virginia Bluebells and the giant white trillium is breathtaking.  Monet would have loved it.  Look closely to see the little trout lilies and many other ephemerals as they are called because they do not last long.  It will put a smile on your face.  Enjoy, Joan Meister”

Marilyn Moore and I walked over to Quick and Bonnie Brae in River Forest to see those beautiful wildflowers.  We were struck by the huge colonies of white trillium and wondered how long they had been there.  Marilyn recalled reading in our history pamphlet that the Garden Club had planted hundreds of tulip bulbs in one of the parks.

Later, I was telling our club historian, Mary Ellen Warner, about the field of wildflowers and not surprisingly she knew all about that garden.  In 1921 members of the Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest established a wild bird sanctuary at that location.  The members planted wild flowers and put out birdhouses and a pool of water.  Later the Forest Preserve took over and renamed it Wild Flower Preserve.  Mary Ellen recalled that the Forest Preserve had also planted shrubs and trees in that location.  Over the years the area had become overgrown and unattractive and eventually the trees and shrubs were cut down.  Voila the trillium and Virginia bluebells were back in the spring light.

Red trillium
Red trillium

More emails followed to say that there was also a nice patch of wildflowers at Austin Gardens on Forest Avenue in Oak Park.  In the early 1950’s Mrs. Henry Austin’s historic 1859 estate at 167 Forest was featured in the club’s Garden Walk.  The Austin family later bequeathed four acres of the property to the Park District of Oak Park, and thus Austin Gardens became part of the Oak Park landscape.  In 1965 the Park Board began plans to develop Austin Gardens and of course our garden club members planted wild flowers there.  Marilyn and I viewed more spring ephemerals including patches of red trillium and spring beauty.  These lovely flowers will soon go dormant and disappear for another year.

spring beauty
spring beauty

My thanks and appreciation go out to all of those past Club Secretaries that dutifully recorded the minutes of our organization, and to the Oak Park Historical Society for being the repository of the Club’s documents.  Thank you to Mary Ellen Warner and Marilyn Moore for researching the club history and passing on the information via the history pamphlet and our web site.  Coincidentally, Joan Meister. has been elected our club Secretary for 2015 to 2017.  Keep up the good work ladies.

Got Milkweed?

GC mtg 3-2015

On a recent Wednesday afternoon I was observing an attractive group of women sitting in the mansion nibbling on small plates of fruit, while waiting for the discussion to begin.    Which ones were ready to change their views and “Go wild in their garden?”


Then Kirstin Larson began speaking.  She was the child of hippies she said.  They had lived on a fifty acre organic farm in the 70’s.  She worked in their nursery and continued working for many years in Greenhouses.  She became a Master Gardener.  In other words, she has lived the eco-friendly gardening life of which she so passionately preaches.

Kirstin Larson  GCOPRF - March 2015
Kirstin Larson
GCOPRF – March 2015

She began her slide show: a picture of a neat house with an immaculate front lawn and foundation evergreens. What was wrong with the pictured landscaping that has been popular for decades?  “Sterile looking” murmured Peggy with a chorus of “amen” heard from the rest of the guests sitting at the table.  (Kirstin was apparently preaching to the choir at least on my side of the room!)   We were at this lecture to find out how to attract birds, butterflies and bees to our gardens.  Why have the song birds and pollinators been disappearing from the landscape?  In a super simplified answer the three main causes are: lack of diversity, loss of habitat and chemicals.

Lack of Diversity:

Acres of prairies with native plants have been replaced with housing developments, parking lots, shopping centers.   Many of the small family run farms and victory gardens are no more.  Agribusiness has come in with monoculture farming and chemicals.  Our garden centers offer pest free or disease free plants.  Without predators or natural enemies the “introduced” plants can and do crowd out the native plants.  Creeping Charlie was brought in from Europe as a good ground cover and is now difficult to eradicate.   Native plants are adapted to the local soils and climates and are the best sources of pollen and nectars for native pollinators.  If your yard only has cardinals, wrens, bunnies and squirrels, that is a good indication that there is not enough of a variety of plants to attract other species.  On the plus side, native plants usually require less water than non-natives, flourish without fertilizers and are less likely to become weedy. Many pollinators are plant specific. Sites on line, local nurseries and the Chicago Botanic Gardens provide extensive guides to native Midwest plants that are are attractive to pollinators.

Loss of Habitat:

As farms and fields became urban sprawl, the pollinators we depend on in the US for producing $40 billion worth of food and flowering plant products are losing their habitats.    Pollination occurs when pollen is moved within flowers or carried from flower to flower by pollinating animals such as birds, bees, bats, butterflies, moths, and beetles.  Native pollinators need native plants with certain characteristics particularly shape and size. While butterflies, bats, hummingbirds and moths can travel long distances, small mammals, native bees and wasps do not.  Providing shelter, water, and food sources are necessary to keep birds and butterflies returning to your yard.

Birds need a nesting spot, food and water.  Some birds are seed eaters, and prefer not only certain seeds but also a certain style of feeder.   Many birds are attracted to berries and fruit found on shrubs and fruit trees while woodpeckers eat insects.  Most birds like the sound of dripping or moving water and will appear daily at a bird bath. Larger birds, like robins, like to splash around in the water while smaller birds need the rim or a rock to perch on.  Even a trash can lid on the ground with some stones or sticks for perching and an inch of fresh water daily will attract an assortment of birds, insects and mammals.  Evergreens and shrubs like hollies can provide winter shelter for birds. If you have the room and can tolerate a natural nesting spot, let a portion of your yard grow a little wild.  Tall grass, a brush pile, leaves, dead trees or branches will provide a foraging and nesting area.

Hummingbirds like sugar water that you can make yourself.  The ratio is four cups of boiling water to one cup of white granulated sugar.  Stir until the sugar has dissolved.  DO NOT ADD RED FOOD COLORING!  Let the mixture cool before adding it to the feeder.  The water mixture needs to frequently be changed as well as washing the feeder with soap and water to prevent disease.

When choosing the best flowers for attracting hummingbirds, birders need to consider more than just whether or not a hummingbird will drink from the flower. It is also important to choose several varieties of flowers that bloom at different times so nectar is available from early spring through late summer, giving the birds a rich food source throughout the season. Flowers with very little fragrance will be less attractive to bees, which can help eliminate the problem of insects on hummingbird feeders.  Finally, all the flowers should be suitable to the climate, temperature, soil and level of sunlight so they will bloom well and produce healthy, rich flowers.  FYI:  Kirstin heartily recommended blue and black salvia for attracting hummingbirds

Butterfly Garden

Monarch caterpillar chrysalis

Butterfly habitat is another huge subject. Basically butterflies need host plants to lay their eggs and provide food for the emerging caterpillar and nectar plants for adult caterpillar’s food. Of course we all know that Monarchs lay their eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias) which has been rapidly disappearing in the landscapes.   You need to be able to tolerate chewed leaves and caterpillars to enjoy the sight of the butterfly.  All adult butterflies need nectar plants for feeding and are attracted to bright colors and flowers with strong scents.   Native plants will attract native butterflies.  Hybrid plants on the other hand, are bred for color or flower size and do not have much nectar.  Butterflies like a nice rock for a sun bath and shelter on the north for wind breaks.  They like mud for minerals so a shallow container of mud or moist bare ground would satisfy that requirement.

Interestingly our garden oasis will not have much impact on honeybees which are a European import, and are used commercially for honey production and pollination.  Commercial use of honey bees to pollinate almonds, cranberries and canola has developed into a business of trucking the hives across state lines to the specific crops needing fertilization.  As remarkable as they are, honeybees do not know how to pollinate a tomato or an eggplant flower.

Approximately 4,000 species of native bees exist with at least 250 species in Illinois.  Native bees are generally solitary which means that every female is fertile and inhabits a nest that she constructs herself in the ground or in hollow spaces in wood.  A solitary bee produces neither honey nor beeswax but is a good pollinator as she collects pollen and nectar that she puts in each cell of her nest and then seals it off.  Providing nest boxes has become popular for gardeners.


Probably the best way to have birds, bees and butterflies frequent our gardens is to stop using pesticides.  In general a pesticide is a poison meant to destroy or mitigate any pest.  The target pests can include insects, weeds, birds, plant pathogens, mammals, fish and microbes that destroy property, cause a nuisance or spread disease.  These poisons are very effective but the drawback is the toxicity to humans and other desired species.  Pesticide exposure can have a variety of adverse effects from mild irritation to skin and eyes to documented studies of very severe effects.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting exposure of children to pesticides and to use safer alternatives.  Pesticides contribute to the decline of pollinators and their habitat, particularly birds. Pesticide drift occurs via wind and water to other areas and is known to cause water pollution and soil contamination.  The immediate benefit of the pesticide may not be worth the long term effect.

Integrated pest management, crop rotation and plant diversity are a few of the safer alternatives to pesticides.

“Not all insects, weeds, and other living organisms require control. Many organisms are innocuous, and some are even beneficial. IPM programs work to monitor for pests and identify them accurately, so that appropriate control decisions can be made in conjunction with action thresholds. This monitoring and identification removes the possibility that pesticides will be used when they are not really needed or that the wrong kind of pesticide will be used.”

Beneficial organic controls such as praying mantis egg cases and lady bugs can be found at Garden Centers and through special group sales.  A more tolerant attitude towards a few holes or nibbles on leaves and an acceptance that all insects are not bad will go a long way towards eliminating the need for cans of bug spray. Healthy plants and grass thrive on good soil that contains organic matter which encourages earthworms and microbes, and retains nutrients.

Companion planting is all about natural pest management.

The Secret in the Tea Leaves

silkfabricOnce upon a time in a faraway place, a beautiful Empress was sitting under a Mulberry tree in her garden enjoying some tea when suddenly  a round, white,  cocoon fell into her bowl.  Angrily, the Empress grabbed the cocoon out of her tea and saw a thread unwind from the cocoon.   The Empress soon decided the thread from the cocoon could be spun into a wonderful yarn.  Thus began the origin of silk.

Empress His-Ling-Shih was soon to be known as the Goddess of Silk.  She was credited with the rearing of silkworms and the invention of the loom. At first the use of silk was reserved only for the Emperor and other dignitaries.

Eventually a cottage industry developed for producing silk in China.   For six months a year,  every woman in every family devoted a large portion of her day to the feeding, tending and supervision of the silkworms and to the subsequent unraveling, spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidering of silk.

Silk production was a very demanding process.  First the blind, flightless moth, Bombyx mori, laid approximately 400 eggs in a period of four to six days.  As the adult moth had rudimentary mouth parts and did not eat during its short life, it died shortly after laying the eggs. Thousands of tiny eggs, the size of pin heads, were gathered and placed in a warm environment for about ten days until they hatched.   In was said that the women put the eggs in little sacks and placed them between their breasts until the eggs could be laid out on trays. Family member would stoke the fires around the clock to maintain the temperature.  The hatched larvae (caterpillars) were about ¼” long.  The larvae were fed fresh picked, chopped mulberry leaves every half hour night and day.

Silk fibers are very thin, about 1/2500 of an inch in diameter.  Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make a pound of silk. During a six week period, the larvae would shed their skin four times.  Finally, the larvae, grown to about three inches, quit eating, changed color and attached themselves to a branch or frame and began spinning their cocoons-rotating their heads  in a figure-eight movement for the next three to eight days.   The cocoon produced a continuous filament approximately one kilometer in length (3,280 feet}.  At this stage the cocoon was treated with hot air, steam, or boiling water to loosen the tightly woven filaments.  The silk was then unwound.  Filaments from four to eight cocoons were reeled and twisted together to make one thread.

For at least two thousand years the Chinese held the closely guarded secret to the source of their silk:  the indigenous Bombyx mori (Latin for silkworm of the mulberry tree).  In order to maintain their monopoly on silk, anyone trying to smuggle eggs or cocoons out of China, or in any way to reveal the process, was punished by death.

Outside of China,  numerous attempts were made to explain the origin of silk.  Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote in 70 BC “Silk was obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…”.   The Roman poet, Virgil, believed that silk was combed from leaves.   Dionysus,  the Greek historian, thought it was made from flowers.  Others thought the silk threads grew on special trees or were the down of a special bird.

In spite of their secrecy, the Chinese lost their monopoly on silk production.   A story is told that in AD 550 two Monks hid silkworm eggs in hollow bamboo walking sticks and brought them from Asia to a Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, in Constantinople, where he created a thriving silk industry.  Dominance in silk production moved from East to West and back again.

Sericulture is the name given to silkworm farming.  Silkworms reached Sicily in the 12th century and sericulture migrated north to the Como area by the 16th Century.  Como had ample lakes and a thriving Mulberry farming business, and the silk industry thrived there.  In the 16th century France surpassed China in silk manufacturing.   In the 19th century, Japan exported the most silk in the world.   China regained their dominance of silk production after WWII, and now along with Japan, manufactures more than half the world’s silk.

Today undyed, raw silk (fabric and yarn) is purchased from China, finished in Como, Italy and supplied to the fashion houses of Paris, Milan and New York City.  If you own a silk scarf, tie, blouse or dress by any big name fashion house, chances are the silk came from Como, Italy.

The silkworm is not a worm but a moth pupa, and it is only one of several insects that create the animal protein silk as it weaves its cocoons and webs.  The silk of spiders has industrial uses.  In modern times, scientists are studying the silk from the Golden Orb Spider which is said to be almost as strong as Kevlar.  Kevlar, the strongest man-made material is drawn from concentrated sulphuric acid.  Spider silk is drawn from water.  Unfortunately, spiders in a confined space will cannibalize each other, and thus are too difficult to manage.  All kinds of industrial uses could be found if they could produce spider silk:  from items such as parachutes to artificial tendons and ligaments.

Silkworm moths produce twice as much silk as spiders.

Recently two men in Madagascar worked for five years and a team of 80 people to gather and produce the silk thread from the golden orb spider to create a beautiful cape that was on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011.  Read about it here:

Much more immediate gratification (in just one afternoon) can be had by creating your own unique silk scarf.   There are many methods to dye and paint silk.   One method  will be taught  by Karen Snow of Silk for All Seasons at our Spring Study Group March 18 from 1:00-3:00 pm.   Fun, fast  and easy using vegetable dyes.  Cost for materials for one scarf will be $35. The class will be held in Oak Park, space is limited. (15 people maximum)  Club members may register and pay for the class on line at  (click this link)   A letter will be emailed to you acknowledging your payment and giving the location of the class.

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