Philly, Flowers and A Friend

phillyIt all started for Philadelphia way back in 1829. The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) was founded in 1827 and the first show was held at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street in 1829.  The Show was moved to the Civic Center in the 1960’s and stayed there until 1996 when it was moved to its current location at the Convention Center.  The Civic Center was where I first encountered it along with my “bestest” gardening buddy, Glo.  We had met in the vanpool in 1992 and had discovered right off the bat that we both loved growing things.  During those long slow morning commutes, we talked about flowers and growing things and maybe going to the world famous Philadelphia Flower Show.

If you garden on the east coast (or anywhere in America really), you will, no doubt, have heard of the Philadelphia Flower Show. Glo and I decided that we needed to go and so we did. And we continued going for, gosh, maybe 15 years.  The Horticultural Society has a long tradition of conducting the shows and we have our long tradition of going to see them.  It works out for both sides of that equation.

For Glo and me, tradition was simple.  We took the train from New Carrollton to Philadelphia. On the way, we caught up on things and enjoyed a brunch – well, sort of – we always had a Bloody Mary and some bagels with cream cheese. There is nothing quite like relaxing and enjoying a late breakfast and libations as the train rumbles through the Maryland and Pennsylvania countryside on its way to Philly.  Our adventure usually continued with a taxi ride to the Convention Center and an exhausting day at the show.  We are creatures of habit so we usually stroll through the exhibits for several hours….okay, strolling as much as the crowds will allow…..sometimes we crept and bumped our way through the exhibits.  Then we headed upstairs to the food court for a snack and to take a load off our feet.  Then, after another couple hours going through the vendor side of the show and buying those things we couldn’t possibly do without but still small enough to lug home on the train, we walked the 6 blocks or so down to the Irish Pub – 12th Street Location – on Walnut Street (gotta love Philly).  After a dinner and a nice Irish Coffee, we grabbed a cab and headed back to the train station where we caught our train and mostly nodded and dozed our way back to Maryland.

And so it went for many years – this tradition of ours – until arthritis put my walking and roaming days on hold.  Our last show together was in 2007 and we talked about it and missed it every year since then.   I just couldn’t trust my knees to hold up even after having total replacements in 2011…that is, until this year.   I had been thinking it was time to get back up on the horse and give the show another try. So we started making plans. We opted to drive this year and I recruited Jerry to go along as our driver. He wasn’t keen on going to the show but thought a weekend (in the middle of the week – we would never try to brave the crowds on the actual weekend) in Philadelphia might be fun.  So this year, we revived our tradition – Bloody Marys and all – and headed back to the show.  In case you’re wondering, our driver was not keen on the fact that he had to drive and was only allowed the bagels part of the breakfast but that is just the way it goes – drivers get nothing.  Our plan was to go to the show and send Jerry off to find our hotel for the night. ( I’ll take a moment to give a plug  – the Holiday Inn Express – Midtown on Walnut Street was very nice and very accommodating and maybe about 4 blocks from the Convention Center…..close enough to walk if your tired feet will allow it after viewing the 10 acres of exhibits at the show.) Just one more little note – the flower show includes 33 indoor acres with 10 acres of exhibits.  More than 250,000 visitors attend the show each year.  If you go in the future, plan to spend at least one day and expect to be very tired when you are done.

Display 1The show this year was called “ARTiculture” to celebrate the combination of “Art” in “Horticulture”.  You can find out more about the theme at the official PHS website – Philadelphia Flower Show.   You can also find highlights of the show with photos at that site. I would not normally refer you to another site for highlights and photos but I had my own Murphy’s Law moment no sooner than we arrived at the show and started checking out the exhibits. I had decided to leave the good camera in the car and just take my small Sony point & click camera into the show. My rationale was that the Sony was small, easy to carry, and we’d be taking photos of displays in crowded conditions and wouldn’t require too much zoom, etc.   SO I took maybe three photos and, of course, got the dead battery signal just before it went kaput entirely.  No problem, I will just do like everyone else and use my phone to take photos. The phone photos are not bad but they are also not great. Mea culpa – we get what we get and it is what it is.

orchidLet me start by saying this year’s show like every show that I remember was overwhelming. This is the grandmother of all American flower shows and it shows (pun intended) in every single exhibit. From the grand display at the entrance to the tiniest miniature exhibit at the back, this show is about flowers.  We have been to other shows in Washington, DC and Baltimore but those are more “home and garden” shows and tend to focus on the vendors and what they sell.  The Philadelphia show is a “faire extraordinaire” and the focus is on flowers and exhibits and competition.  (Yes, I am aware that you usually don’t see “faire” and “extraordinaire” together in this way in normal text. I googled it and checked Wikipedia and decided to use it anyway.  My intended meaning is a great big fair that was totally awesome…incorrect use of French phrase notwithstanding.) The exhibits are judged and ribbons are given for 1st, 2nd, 3rd place and honorable mention so it is like a country fair in that context. Most home and garden shows do not do this but at Philly, I think this competition brings out the creativity in the exhibits.  You never know what you will see or how flowers and plants will be used in a particular exhibit. It is not about some vendor’s product line – it is about the plants.  To win a blue ribbon is quite an accomplishment and reading the judge’s critiques adds to the pleasure of seeing the exhibits.

display 2Back to this year’s theme – it was right on point for Glo who was fascinated with all the different crafts and artwork on display. Art was the theme and all of the exhibits were about art. For me, it was a little disappointing. I like the flowers and plants and landscaping displays more than the art.  Don’t get me wrong, I dearly love art (and junk) in the garden but many of the exhibits this year were so focused on the art that they didn’t do much with landscaping. There were plenty of huge floral arrangements and plenty of exhibits covered with organic materials.  If you like the Rose Bowl Parade each year at Thanksgiving, you would have loved the Philly show this year.  Art pieces were created using organic materials – like the big Rose Bowl floats – and some of it was quite good and, to use my overworked word, extraordinary.  Glo loved it and came away with so many ideas for art projects to do back at home that I expect not to see her for months while she goes into a creative frenzy implementing all those ideas.

winter gardenI cannot begin to describe all of the beautiful exhibits but I will tell you about my favorite from the show. Okay, one of my favorites.  There was a section of landscaping exhibits that were inspired by paintings.  The exhibit included the painting so that you could see the inspiration piece and decide how well the exhibitor captured the art in the display.  It was also one of the more controversial ones, I suppose. It showed what I would call a winter garden.  Every gardener knows the value of having good “bones” in the garden and including those structural elements that add interest to the garden in winter.  But this exhibit took that a little further and appeared to feature the beauty in winter-dead plants in the garden. I loved it. I am notorious for not cutting down dead plants until spring. I like the look of golden grasses and seed heads and I also like that birds love those seed heads and hiding in the grasses during the winter.  The neighbors might not approve and see nothing more than dead things when every brown stem is not cleared from the yard in autumn but I like it.  One other thing to consider – it is not unusual to see a floral arrangement with bright blooms but imagine that someone took the time to “arrange” dead grasses and thistle and milkweed in about a 20X20 foot space to make it look like a lovely winter meadow.  To me, that was amazing.  Do you suppose they just went out to a field and took up the sod with the plants intact to create the space? You never know with these displays.

balls for gloGlo’s favorite: There was a display with giant balls covered and filled with organic materials – seeds and petals and nuts and leaves – and arranged into colorful displays.  Glo has giant vine-woven balls in her garden already so I fully expect to see giant hoops and circles and balls covered with dried flower petals in her flower beds the next time I visit her garden.

jewelOf course, the miniature exhibits caught her eye too. Her sister is also an artist who specializes in miniatures. If you think creating regular artwork is difficult, try doing it in miniature.  One of my favorite miniature pieces was in the “jewelry” section and was a piece depicting a bird, of course.  The photo I’ve included doesn’t do it justice – it was an incredible piece.

bonsaiAnd there were the bonsai. I am always captivated by these small trees and the age of some of the trees. This is a hobby that is a lifetime commitment. Some of the trees have been in “training” for decades.  I suppose the bonsai artist (hobbyist? technician?) is really the one in training for all those years because it seems as if they are always perfecting the tree notwithstanding that they always look so perfect to me.

painted treesWas there something I hated? Yep. I absolutely do not think it is art to strip trees or shrubs of their leaves and paint the branches fluorescent colors. I love color in a garden especially a winter garden and I love seeing the shape of trees without their leaves in the winter, but painting a tree seems to me to be just this side of blasphemy.

display 4I could go on forever….the show is just that big. We finally wound down and found that we were hungry and exhausted and pretty much broke.  But it is impossible not to buy something with maybe 200 vendors selling everything from A to Z – seeds, plants, pots, jewelry, outdoor furniture….you name it. We always hit the tropical bulb vendors to see what new and AMAZING things are being sold. I got a great firecracker lily there a few years ago that is still thriving and blooms right around the 4th of July each year. How cool is that? Don’t ask how many things I bought, dragged them home, and then, using my inept green thumb, promptly killed – well, let die.  This year I added Foxtail Lilies to my collection. At least I am hoping it lives long enough to become part of my garden. It is supposed to be hardy but I am questioning that so I’ll probably plant them (I got three rhizomes) in pots and see how it goes.

display 3Unlike past years, I did not buy a bouquet of roses this year. There used to be a vendor at the show – a local nursery – who built a bleacher type display and had hundreds of containers of fresh cut roses in all colors and shades staged on the tiers of the bleachers. The rose stand was unbelievably beautiful and popular. Crowds of people would surround the stand to buy the roses. It was an adventure getting up to the front of the stand to buy a bouquet. The sellers were on a platform above the show floor in front of the roses so you had to reach up to give them your money. Then you would point to the roses you wanted – a single color or a variety of colors – your pick. For $5, you got a dozen roses and a little baby’s breath thrown in for good measure.  When you got there, it was like you won the roses.  It was special and it was a tradition – every year, I brought home a dozen roses but I do not buy the roses anymore.  A few years ago, things got all civilized and they stopped selling roses that way. You can still buy roses, or course, but the rose stand is just the same as all the others and pretty much the same as you see at the local grocery store. No bleachers – no crowds – no 5 dollar bill clutched in your hand as you made your way inch by inch to the front of the crowd.  It is just not the same.

herbsAs noted, after about five hours, we were plumb worn out and ready to leave. No, we did not see everything – not by a long shot – but we saw most of it and that will give us lots to talk about for months to come. Thank goodness the hotel was not far away. We were so tired and it was cold – we had left our jackets in the car so we didn’t have to tote them around all day. So we took a cab to the hotel – a dollar per block was well worth it.  After a bit of rest – just a wee bit because we were hungry too, we headed out for dinner.  The Irish Pub seemed like a thousand miles away so we asked the hotel bellhop for advice on good places to eat. We took the closest one – right next door – The Walnut Street Supper Club.   I have to give kudos to the Supper Club. The food was great, the service good, and the atmosphere was even better.  I’d eat there again in a flash.

high heelsIt was a long and exhausting day.  The old knees made it but I was tired and sore and my joints ached. I was glad we decided to stay overnight rather than try to drive home that evening.  The best thing was not the show or the exhibits or the flowers – it was the time I have spent with my friend over the years and the memories we have made. Sometimes traditions seem to get in the way of progress and moving forward but traditions with friends and family are very much worth keeping.  I expect that we will keep going to the Philly show as long as we possibly can and I hope that the Horticultural Society never loses its drive to keep the show going forever.

Now, speaking of making progress and new adventures – I hear the Chelsea Flower Show is really cool and includes both outside and indoor exhibits and is absolutely the place to go for anyone who thinks they might have a green thumb worth a plug nickel.  Glo – are you reading this? Are you ready to start a new tradition?

See also The Tidewater Gardener’s blog on the Flower Show – he included some awesome photos. Guess he checked the camera battery before going to the show. 🙂


Brrr-ding in Paradise

grey dayIn late January, it was cold in Maryland – really cold and there was snow and freezing rain and all sorts of winter weather events that were starting to get just a little bit old, in my humble opinion. So, like any all-American retired person, we started thinking about Florida and warm sunshine and maybe a little misting rain here and there to cool things off towards evening.  What else could we do but head south on the auto train?  We arrived to sunshine and blue skies – 80 degrees – and we were set to do some serious birding in warm weather…..or so we thought.  We had exactly one day of warm weather before a coldfront (were they calling it a “Polar Vortex” this year?) hit the southeast and most of Florida. Rats! The temperature dropped to the 30’s and turned rainy – not really freezing rain but darn near close to it. Well, we were there so might as well try to enjoy it.  Thank goodness we had packed jackets and gloves and hats and sweaters and a few long sleeve t-shirts for the trip. I had learned a great deal about “layering” while living in Alaska in the late 70’s – layers on when the temperature drops and layers off when it rises – so was prepared for cooler weather but had hoped I wouldn’t have to wear those extra layers down in paradise.  I mean, it is Florida after all.

And my layering involved all sorts of clothing – undershirts, shirt, sweater, windbreaker – in all sorts of colors. Back in the fall last year, I had attended a photography workshop put on by the local bird club – Anne Arundel Bird Club – and taught by a birder and photographer named Emily. You can find some of her beautiful photos of birds at her blog – Hoof Beats and Foot Prints.  Emily had advised us to wear earthy colors when out birding so we blended in a little more with the environment.  She noted that the purple shirt I wore to the workshop wasn’t exactly in keeping with eath-tones. Hey, it was a Baltimore Ravens shirt – so what’s not natural about that?

dressed 2But all in all, I have had a couple of thoughts about getting all camouflaged up to go birding.  First – I have found that no matter how far away I am or how quietly I approach, the birds always know I am there long before I know where they are, especially the hawks and eagles.  The birds do not seem to care whether I am wearing brown or green or purple – they tag me right from the start. As such, many of the photos I take show the bird giving me a look that says, “I know you are there and you had best behave, little lady”.  Secondly, I love to go birding in botanical gardens and arboretums and such – great places to see all the “B’s” right in one spot – birds, butterflies, bees, blooms and bugs.  I find myself wondering if, perhaps, I should blend in there too. Should I wear riotous pinks, magentas, or orange (okay, maybe even purple) in hopes that the birds will not notice me standing amongst the flowers in the garden? It is a good question, I think. Wouldn’t I stick out if I wore camo in a flower garden?

But I do like to fit in and I can follow good advice so I had headed on up to the local Bass Pro Shops and picked up a nice long-sleeved camo shirt (just like the boys wear on Duck Dynasty) and I was all prepared to be almost invisible the next time I went out birding. If it works for the Robertsons, then it should work for me.  I brought that camo shirt with me to Florida thinking I wouldn’t wear it much because it was long-sleeved and it would be way too hot, but it turned out to be exactly the shirt I needed during those first four days of nasty weather.  Yeah, all those folks in the restaurants wearing tropical Hawaiian shirts and such did kind of look at me kind of funny but, hey, I was warm and when I stood near the potted plants, you could hardly see me at all.

In spite of the weather, the birding was pretty good. It was, after all, Florida. There were birds all over the place.

anhingaAnd there would be birds in a climate that allows orange trees to grow wild in the parks.  Now I have picked a few red raspberries at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis in the past but for the most part, I have not seen lots of fruit trees in public parks with ripe fruit right within arms’ reach ready for you to just pick it and eat it. In Florida up around Ocala, there were orange trees everywhere not just in the orchards on the farms which are huge by the way. Turns out that oranges are a bit like kudzu in Florida and, with the help of birds and other critters to eat the fruit and spread the seeds, the oranges have become a bit of a nuisance to the folks who live there.  But I personally cannot imagine I would ever have problems with oranges (or tangerines or grapefruit) growing out in the wild like that…..or, red raspberries either for that matter.

orange treeI really think the cold weather helped in the birding though. Right away we were seeing Red-Shouldered Hawks all along the roadside and plenty of American Kestrels. We were driving along a busy highway in Ocala when we spotted a Kestrel and, having no place to stop on the busy road, turned off onto a side road so we could double-back and get a better look of the Kestrel.  That’s when we spotted our first life-bird of the trip – a beautiful Red-Headed Woodpecker.  Now, I know Red-Headed Woodpeckers are found in Maryland and one shouldn’t have to go to Florida to see one but we had not had any luck with finding one back home.  It totally caught me off guard to see one right there on a power line watching us while we were trying to get a good look at the Kestrel.  But isn’t that just the way birding is?

woodpeckerBecause of the weather, we took to meandering around heading from Ocala towards the Gulf coast. Our original plans for the trip were to spend a day with relatives near Ocala (which we did) and then head over to Crystal River to see the Manatees that come up the rivers and winter over in one of Florida’s many warm springs.  Thinking I was ever so clever, before we left home I had sent myself an email with hot links to all the springs and wildlife refuges and parks we would visit along the way. My intent was to keep the email in my smartphone and then open it at intervals, click on a link, find info about the spring or park, get the address, and go there.  Guess I wasn’t so clever when I checked my emails, clicked on “select all” and deleted the email with the links along with all the spam messages I had received. But all was not lost.  I still remembered some of the names of some of the parks and we had a GPS so we used the feature on the GPS for finding attractions “near here”.   This turned out to be a good thing and allowed us to visit quite a few parks and springs and forests as we drove along. Some of the best birding spots turned out to be parks we would never have visited had we just followed my original plans. I also got a little better at using to find local hotspots along the way.  Another good source for finding hotspots is the Great Florida Birding Trail although I had some trouble connecting the Trail locations listed on the internet to the road on which we were traveling.  But I got better at it as we traveled and since we didn’t have any deadlines to meet, we pretty much birded where ever we found ourselves.

field of ibisBut, while we were searching for parks and preserves along the road, we didn’t really have to search very hard for the birds. It is Florida, after all. I think I might have said that already.

ibisThere were Great Bearded (or Blue) Herons (GBH) and Great White Egrets where ever there was water and White Ibis’s were as plentiful as Grackles.  Speaking of Grackles, we were very familiar with the Common Grackles back home but not so familiar with the Boat-Tailed Grackles in Florida. We absolutely fell in love with the female Boat-Tail – she is a beautiful dark cinnamon and rich chocolate brown. Although they appeared to be as numerous and troublesome as Common Grackles back home, we got to the point of looking forward to seeing the Boat-Tail Grackles every day as we traveled.  At one park, a persistent Grackle stood on a sign that said, “Do not feed the birds” begging for handouts.  We didn’t have any birdseed or I would certainly have broken all the rules and fed him – he was just that charming bobbing and cackling to us about his desire for food.

grackleThere were some birds that I really wanted to see while in Florida. One bird I had heard about that got my interest was the Grey Kingbird.  I kept seeing grey birds that I tried to “mind-morph” into a Kingbird but it just doesn’t work that way. No matter how much you want to see a bird and how many birds you try to identify as the target bird, it just never works. So the Eastern Phoebe I kept seeing and trying to call a Kingbird stayed an Eastern Phoebe – beautiful bird in its own right – and I struck out on the Kingbird.

phoebeWe didn’t strike out with the Loggerhead Shrike.  I had heard that the bird is similar to a Northern Mockingbird and can sometimes be confused with a Mockingbird. I could not imagine any bird being so similar to the Mockingbird to be confused with it. And the Shrike is different from the Mockingbird. But when we first spotted the Loggerhead Shrike, the first general impression was that it was yet another Mockingbird and to move on. But the distinctive mask over the eyes gave the bird away and we stopped, got good looks, and added another life-bird to the list.

shirkeIt was cold and it rained but there were birds aplenty and we discovered that exploring parks and refuges can be quite rewarding even without a plan and even in nasty weather.  We had four days of cold wet foggy weather and then the cold front passed, warmer weather came in, and the layers of jackets and shirts came off.  Then, we found the Florida we had come looking for – sunshine at last.

It is Florida, after all.