Quad City Botanical Center

From its outdoor conifers to its indoor waterfall, QCBC is sure to delight

One of the biggest challenges the Quad City Botanical Center (QCBC) faced when it opened in 1998 was creating a garden oasis in a longtime riverfront industrial area of Rock Island, Illinois. The site was less than ideal; concrete and asphalt had to be removed and fill soil had to be brought in to cover the industrial soil. Resulting drainage problems had to be solved. Plants and trees proven to be hardy in Illinois’ unpredictable USDA Zone 4 climate had to be chosen.

The 6,444 square foot tropical Sun Garden Conservatory was part of the answer to this challenge. The architecturally arresting building is full of plants from rain forests and tropical biomes, with the added features of a 14-foot waterfall, Japanese koi fish swimming in reflecting pools, and whimsical garden art.

Another part of the answer to the challenge came with a little help from local plantsman Justin “Chub” Harper. Past president of the American Conifer Society and retired supervisor of grounds for John Deere’s world headquarters in Moline, Illinois (where his award-winning work won him national recognition), Harper was looking to benefit local gardens while preserving his life’s work. He donated 48 one-of-a-kind conifers from his private collection to the QCBC, which purchased 40 additional conifers to create the Scott County Regional Authority Conifer Garden, located outside the Sun Garden Conservatory.

Open to the Public

According to Harper, the garden was designed as an outdoor room and consideration was given to form (the strong suit of the conifer), color, texture, and whether the plant would survive the weather extremes of the northwestern Illinois area. Since the donated plants were from Harper’s private collection, which he had been cultivating for over 40 years, their adaptation to the area had been proven.

Throughout the garden, weeping spires and columnar forms combine with prostrate and cascading forms to create fanciful images. A weeping form of the Douglas Fir (Pseu-dotsuga menziesii) called ‘Graceful Grace’ is situated close to the white exterior of the Botanical Center. The plant’s unique silhouette against the building is striking; according to Harper, “Weeping forms attract attention and no two look alike.”

The garden is a good display of the subtle textures of conifers with a nice blending of green and yellow hued plants. Though traditionally known as evergreens, conifer colors do change with the seasons. One of the specimens is a Bald Cypress, a deciduous conifer that turns a burnt orange in the fall and drops its leaves for winter.

The donated conifers include a six-foot Ginkgo biloba ‘Todd’s Broom’, a five-foot Taxus cuspi-data (Japanese yew) ‘Fastigiate Aurea’, and a nine-foot Thuja standishii (Japanese arborvitae). Some of the more unusual species include one-of-a-kind conifers derived from witches’ brooms, such as a five-foot Picea glauca (white spruce) ‘Thomson Broom’ and a five-foot Picea pungens (Colorado spruce) ‘Delp’s Dwarf Blue’.

The resulting space is a beautiful and unique conifer garden in a former Midwest industrial setting. Not only do the gardens of the QCBC help to rejuvenate Rock Island’s waterfront, they also help preserve the life’s work of a noted conifer expert.–Glenda Huntsman gardens in Durant, Iowa.

If You Go Quad City Botanical Center

2525 4th Avenue Rock Island, IL 61201 Phone:(309)794-0991 Open Monday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and Sundays, 12:00-5:00 p.m. Admission is $3.50 for adults, $3 for seniors (60 plus) and $1 for youth (7-12). Guided tours for groups of 10 or more are available with advanced registration. For additional information on programs and special events offered by the Quad City Botanical Center, visit www.qcgardens.com.

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