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Go Green in Illinois


About 90 miles west of Chicago, Rockford has its own claims to fame in the gardening world. The destination was selected as a winner of an America in Bloom award in 2007, and groups can spend several days exploring gardens and other attractions in the city and neighboring communities.

Among the most memorable botanical attractions in the area is Anderson Japanese Gardens.

“It’s considered one of the finest Japanese gardens in North America,” said Andrea Cook, associate director of marketing and communications at the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Anderson family had an affinity for Japanese culture, and they had some land, so they turned it into a garden with traditional 16th-century Japanese architecture.”

The 12-acre garden is built in “pond-strolling” style, which means visitors walk alongside koi ponds, gentle streams and cascading waterfalls to see traditional gravel gardens and beautiful Japanese trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers.

“They have an annual summer festival with different tea celebrations and Japanese-inspired drumming,” Cook said. “They also have docents that can give you private tours of the gardens.”

Another popular garden attraction in the area is Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens, which sits alongside a walking path on the banks of the Rock River. The outdoor gardens include colorful flower beds, a floral clock and an accredited rose garden. And the indoor conservatory features an 11,000-square-foot exhibit area with water features, sculptures and tropical plants.

“It’s really nice in the colder months because you’re swept into the tropics when you go inside,” Cook said. “They do a butterfly exhibit in the spring, and they also have an orchid exhibit with many different species of orchids.”

Groups will enjoy 150 acres of trees and plants from around the world at Klehm Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, which locals describe as Rockford’s “secret” garden. The arboretum is known for its hundreds of
crabapples and magnolias that bloom in spring, accompanied by lilacs, tulips and daffodils. There are numerous demonstration gardens on-site, among them a butterfly garden, a hosta garden and an iris garden.

Cook also suggested groups visit La Paloma Gardens, which is in a residential neighborhood.

“A woman and her family had a house with a large backyard,” she said. “So they started this garden a few years ago, and it’s a really unique, beautiful experience.”

Quad Cities

Continuing southwest from Rockford for about 120 miles, groups will arrive in the Quad Cities, a destination that comprises four cities on the banks of the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois. On the east bank, Rock Island and Moline offer several distinctive opportunities for visitors.

Groups exploring Illinois gardens can start the Quad Cities leg of their tours at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island, which features both outdoor gardens and an indoor conservatory.

“Last year, they started a new event in December called Winter Lights,” said Jessica Waytenick, public relations and marketing manager at the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They decorate the outdoor gardens beautifully with holiday lights.

“They also have specific tours, so you can do a chocolate tour. You see chocolate plants, talk about them and do a little tasting. Coffee tours are also popular.”

In keeping with the agricultural theme, many travelers to the area stop at the John Deere Pavilion in Moline. This museum introduces visitors to the history of John Deere, which is headquartered in Moline and has been making farm equipment in Illinois for more than 100 years.

”You see some of the unique items they make, like an automatic lawnmower operated by GPS,” Waytenick said. “You can try driving a combine through a simulator or try driving a dump truck and loading dirt into it in a simulator. It’s not as easy as you would think.”

Nearby in East Moline, groups can tour the plant where John Deere manufactures combines. The tours are offered three times daily and last 90 minutes each.

Groups that enjoy factory tours should also visit Arsenal Island. In the middle of the Mississippi River, the island is an active military base where workers have produced items for military use since the early 1800s. A museum and a historic home are open for tours.