The Crystal Gardens at Navy Pier on April 29, 2021 as city officials announced loosening of its Phase 4 COVID-19 restrictions effective immediately. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

DOWNTOWN — Plant-loving Chicagoans are trying to save huge tropical plants that for decades lived in Navy Pier’s Crystal Gardens as the massive room is dismantled to make space for an immersive entertainment center.

The 1-acre indoor garden, which was free and accessible to the public, was a favorite at Navy Pier. Its owners had to cancel their lease during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nina Salem, who has been helping the pier remove the garden’s plants. The garden is being replaced by the Illuminarium immersive experience, which a Navy Pier spokesperson previously said is necessary to boost business.

This Halloween, Salem and others participated in The Garden of Decay, a production meant to honor the trees that remained at Crystal Gardens. Because Navy Pier is a nonprofit, there was no full-time caretaking staff for plants during the pandemic, she said. 

“What ended up happening was a lot of the plants started to die back pretty significantly. They had one person that was watering and stuff like that, but it wasn’t any of the substantial upkeep that used to happen,” Salem said.

Bonnie Pear, a Navy Pier spokesperson, said the pier made significant efforts to rehome many plants in the Crystal Gardens in fall 2021. 

“Many of the smaller tropical plants and one smaller palm tree were rehomed,” Pear said. “The larger palm trees, some of which had reached the end of their natural lifespan, were too big for any local nonprofit organization to move without significant expense.”

This month, after the Garden of Decay finished, Illuminarium producers put together a pay-what-you-can sale over at Navy Pier for the remaining plants. Pear said they ended up raising about $500 for the pier, which will support free public arts, culture, and engagement programs at the Pier.

Illuminarium producers told Salem and other Garden of Decay organizers they could take as many plants as they could.

The sale is now closed at the pier, but Salem said there are still several plants left. Pear did not respond to Block Club Chicago’s questions about if there were any remaining plants and what would happen to them, but Salem said her understanding was they would be discarded. 

Salem’s educational business, the Insect Asylum at 2870 N. Milwaukee Ave., ended up taking about 700-1,000 plants. Salem said they’ve gifted plants to other organizations, sent them to family and friends and found homes for some — like the iconic elephant ears — in the space. 

Salem is looking for dirt donations to help these plants and encourages any people who are good with plants to come them off her hands. The Insect Asylum is giving away plants, but Salem said she’d appreciate donations for the plants on a pay-what-you-can basis. Donations will go toward building out the asylum’s community classroom. 

Salem is also looking for volunteers to attend to the plants that need homes, she said. More information is available here.

“My house looks like a jungle right now,” Salem said. “[But] we’re a sanctuary space here. We often overstretch our budget and our limits when things get dropped in our lap, when we’re like, ‘We have to do something.’”

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