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Posts Tagged ‘botany

The Philadelphia Flower Show: Watered Down?

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This past Fall, thanks to a much-needed incentivized vocational coercion (IVC) technique used by my employer to finally, initially, really, entirely, devote myself to my true passion in horticulture, I (re-)enrolled as a student in Delaware Valley University. Already, within a few weeks of enrollment, I’m engaged in invaluable courses aimed right at my interests: Commercial Vegetable Production, Principles in Sustainable Agriculture, and Integrated Pest Management. And I haven’t paid a cent!

I really ought to open those bursar e-mails.

A perk of being a DVU student is volunteering (and getting in for free) at the Philadelphia Flower Show, where, this year, DelVal is showcasing its educational booth “Forgotten Structures”. The exhibit, a sort of Mayan/Cambodian-hybrid ruin overgrown with ferns, birds-of-paradise, and crotons, is the DVU Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Sciences’s nod to the destructive and creative properties of water.

While the actual water feature — a cascade down the ruin steps into a pond — was non-operational, the exhibit was still impressively beautiful and lush and its stone structure realistic and reminiscent of a long-forgotten jungle temple. On the interior walls of the structure were water factoids: water comprises ~66% of the human body (contrary to what I learned in high school), raindrops aren’t actually tear-shaped (rather hamburger bun–shaped), and the corrosive power of water as well as its ability to promote growth of plant species in the most unlikely of places.

Regarding the latter, take for instance the foundation piles driven into the slopes of the Delaware River — these abandoned protruding vertical logs are bursting with Amorpha fruticosa, more commonly known as false indigo. Perhaps this plant’s thriving is due to the water being transported up through the pile via capillary action? Either way, the piles here and those of the old immigration station of the 1870s at Washington Avenue Pier may be abandoned but not by these advantageous pioneers that have been clinging and thriving there for years.

In the same vein, the ferns growing wild atop the Flower Show’s Forgotten Structure are most likely not there by accident but a pointed reference to the fact that ferns’ sperm (condensing a whole, very complicated biological process to a minimum) needs water to complete its life cycle and, therefore, released airborne spores can grow anywhere where moisture is present and conditions are right.

Delaware Valley University’s Forgotten Structures exhibit. Asplenium ferns and poinsietta cascade from the overhead entrance.

On the other hand, in my Sustainable Agriculture course, we learn about the destructive power of water in relation to poor farming practices: overtillage, and, thus, compaction leads to hard pans in the soil, which then lead to soils with poor absorption; this then leads to run-off, which flows into nearby streams and rivers. All fine so long as the farm in frame does not use pesticides/herbicides/fertilizers that do not otherwise belong in the watershed…

Hunter Hayes Landscape Design’s beautiful Spring Thaw exhibit

The overwhelming majority of visitors — both fist-timers and regular annual attendees — commented on the lack of exhibits, lack of “pop” (consider last year’s “wow” factor of all those vibrant tulips), and the lack of continuity as a result of this year’s vague theme, Wonders of Water.

While I’ll agree there was less razzle-dazzle this year, I praise several exhibit’s attempts to educate rather than just impress. Temple University’s well-thought out exhibit, Within Reach: Unlocking the Legacy of Our Hidden River, took visitors on a river ride from coal mine to ocean, exploring energy generating by waterwheels and the river’s contribution to the activity of tidal marshes, like those that used to exist right where I live in South Philadelphia.

A big hit with visitors and a PHS Silver Medal winner in the Educational category, W. B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences’s sus·tain·a·bil·i·ty exhibit explored “Dutch innovations in land recovery, redirection and re-use of stormwater, creating new cultivars and other advances in environmental sustainability.”

For those who needed a little more eye candy comparable to last year’s Holland display, next year’s theme sounds as though we’re in for a colorful, if not psychedelic, experience. 2019 Flower Power will not only celebrate the anniversary of Woodstock but will also feature the Florists’ Transworld Delivery World Cup, the world’s most prestigious floral design competition. I look forward to lots of color, XXL bubble-text Grateful Dead t-shirts, and leafy smells that are probably not coming from the plants on display.



2017 Review in Plants

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2017 was a year of scandal and surprise. Hurricanes ravaging the Caribbean, the intensifying spotlight on sexual harassment, a talking wig placed in the Oval Office, no good movies made and yet scores of Oscars handed out because people no longer know what a musical actually is, Russia, North Korea, JFK, hypodermics inland… I say we’re in for another rapid-fire list of words set to a tune high-school history students can learn for extra credit.

But what of the plants? Who they? What do? And why? Find out in this latest blog installment of some of the most important, or at least amusing, stories of the past year. 2017 has certainly been a time of conversations over invasives, conservation efforts, and the discovery of new plant species. Let’s do this.

Glow-in-the Dark Plants?

But I remember it starting out with a failed Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for research into glow-in-the-dark plants. Promises were made that I could read at night by the light of my Brazilian philodendron. My philodendron remains, to this day, ignorant of this promise.

As is the trouble following holiday celebrations every year, there was a bit of jean-fitting issues. No, sorry, gene-fitting.

“To get the plant to glow well, the research team had to insert six genes. But they never could get all six in at once. At best, some plants glowed very dimly.”

Imagine, s’il vous plait, my supreez when in December of this, no, last year, when it was announced that MIT scientists had successfully infused some common garden produce with luciferase, the glowy/light-emitting substance found in fireflies. As reported by the school, the “light generated by one 10-centimeter watercress seedling is currently about one-thousandth of the amount needed to read by, but the researchers believe they can boost the light emitted, as well as the duration of light.”

Regardless of the whole GMO controversy, these plants are in demand, not only for fashion but for energy conservation. On the other hand, the previous year has seen the introduction and spread of some less-than-desired plants and an effort to tame or, more and more, eliminate them completely…

What’s Invasive, Native, In between?

The question over what to do — if anything — about invasive plants (or any organism) is a constant topic in my own news feed. And, of course, it’s inextricably tied to calls for planting native species in their place.

One of my favorite pieces of last year was an article that caused quite a spot of trouble for an ambitious campaign led by Cheerios, which began disseminating free packets of seeds — a mixture of U.S.-native wildflowers — as part of its “Bring Back the Bees” effort. I happily ordered a packet for my boss and myself after perusing the list of wildflowers included in each and threw them into the back alley.

There are good Forget-me-nots and bad Forget-me-nots. Which is which?

I couldn’t have been more thrilled when a gorgeous, tiny Forget-me-Not sprouted in our makeshift rain swale. And then horrified when I read the aforementioned article, which, for all of its speculative nature on exactly which species of forget-me-not had been packaged in the Cheerio seed packets, had the title “Don’t Plant Those “Bee-Friendly” Wildflowers Cheerios Is Giving Away”. In the end, the blogger posted a not-exactly-a-retraction-nor-apology account of her interactions with the company and consultants involved, maybe a case example of the sometimes overzealous campaign against so-called invasive plants.

Still, there are some plants that are too zealous for their own good, and one can’t help but admire the efforts of the goats of ’17 who number among the biological agents working — and masticating — to clear out aggressive species like multiflora rose. I considered such an effort in my numerous and most-like annoyingly persistent e-mails to DRWC regarding the rapid spread of Japanese knotweed at Washington Avenue Green, which went unanswered, but someone — whether connected with the Green, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, or otherwise — took it upon themselves to clear out a section and sow a lovely pumpkin patch.

And although it started in 2016, an honorable — yet tentatively so — mention of the eradication of invasive carp…using herpes.

Invasive, yet delicious Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard)

Finally, in the invasives category, I include the Penn State-led research into the effects of fracking on the spread of invasives, like our thorny friend muliflora rose. Disturbance of any kind gives advantage to this plant and others such as common mullein and my beloved garlic mustard, an often-overlooked culinary delight that has spurred its own question over invasive plants.*

News in Plant Conservation

While invasives can be a murky subject, there’s no question in saving a species that’s on its way out of the world and onto the USDA Threatened & Endangered list or a Wikipedia page List of recently extinct plants.

In the final month of 2017, an article appeared detailing a proposal by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to make a few changes to classifications. The classifications of all but one of the nine plant species included in the report have seen a bump up in the list, not necessarily indicating the doom of extinction but certainly an acknowledgment of decline in field observations.

Among those mentioned for population decrease: Asclepias
variegata (White milkweed), Baptisia australis (Blue false indigo; this one is surprising to me), Lycopodiella margueritae (Marguerite’s
Clubmoss), and Equisetum scirpoides (Dwarf scouring rush). See the full list of newly classified, altered classification, and more here.

Honorable mention:  The daring work of saving the last samples of dying species

New Plant Discoveries

Not all was gloom and doom in 2017. It may have not made a lasting impact on everyone, but I recall the vivid, contrasting yellow-orange image of November, when researchers discovered “eight new species of spinifex, including one they say has the flavour of salt and vinegar-flavoured chips.”

Spinifex grass, with a salt and vinegar tang

In June, a new bush tomato species was discovered in a national park in Australia, the article propounding the importance of federally protected natural areas. So much for that here in the U.S., maybe…

And then there was the July announcement that a new mycoheterotroph – plants that “generate energy from sunlight via photosynthesis but are instead parasites that feed on the underground roots of fungi” – was discovered in Japan. And it’s a beaut to boot.

ScienceDaily, a favorite news source of mine, reported in December the discovery of 16 flowering species.

Good News, But Long Way To Go

There’s still a lot to be learned, especially with increasing urbanization. I hope 2018 is a year of citizen science – observations and data compiling of our surroundings by individuals interested and invested in their environment – an effort to conserve, respect, and seek education on/know about the importance of the plants around us, and a better-tasting Japanese knotweed jam.

*Two other honorable mentions: an individual who knows his history and uses plants in his artwork, and a small rural PA town that turned its annual celebration into a tasty cause for invasive Japanese knotweed removal

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 2, 2018 at 10:17 pm

Costa Rica, Where Houseplants Reign Supreme

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A note: Sadly, following my ill-fated trip to Costa Rica, my Dell laptop passed, suddenly and furiously. It could’ve been the constant stresses of moving. Or it may have not been equipped to handle the thousands of plant pictures downloaded daily. Weirdly enough, the last item I was attempting to download was Rosie O’Donnell’s “Another Rosie Christmas” album, during which the computer prompted the error code “Not enough data or dignity in the world”.*** In any case, all photos — until I am able to resurrect Dellee — are not from my trip and most likely Wikipedia.


An approximation of the enormity of the Yucca plant in Costa Rica

On a steep bank along a busy highway leading into the city of Heredia — one of the major cities just outside the country’s capital of San Jose — grow towering Adam’s Needles (of the Yucca genus) with stems reaching seven, maybe eight, feet in the air. They’re in flower, each stem bursting with clusters of cascading white flowers. My mother’s yucca could never attain such heights, and not just for my father’s repeated assassinatory attempts on its life with the lawn mower. Whereas we in the northeastern United States, hardiness zone 7 for the Pittsburgh area, have limits as to what we can grow and how long each species can thrive before winter weather interrupts, plants in Costa Rica enjoy year-long sunshine and temperatures averaging 70 – 81 degrees Fahrenheit.*

The other flora growing wild in and around Heredia and San Jose might be immediately recognizable for anyone with houseplants or who has stepped into the Lowe’s Home & Garden section. Only, like the lofty yucca on that embankment, these indigenous species grow to monstrous sizes.

Monstera deliciosa, Swiss cheese plant

Two surprising facts about this common houseplant: its fruit is edible and purportedly delicious, and it is, in situ, an epiphyte, meaning it does not root in the soil but lives on the surface of other plants, getting its moisture and nutrients from the air or otherwise. Tillandsia is another such epiphytic plant found in the home, and in Costa Rica, hundreds sit like nested birds on tree branches.

A more artful, near-approximation of the epiphytic Monstera plant encountered in Costa Rica

Strelitzia, Bird-of-Paradise

Curators and visitors alike at Kew Gardens must have filled their breeches

when Francis Masson** returned in 1773 from his collecting expidition with a most unusual and striking plant: Strelitzia, more commonly known as

Bird-of-Paradise. In Costa Rica, many variations in color and size can be found everywhere, but all with thick, sturdy stems and the same remarkable resemblance to its namesake, the colorful birds of the Paradisaeidae family. The beak-like projection on the plant, the spathe, is used by birds as a perch. As the birds step into the spathe, it releases and dusts their feet with pollen, which they unwittingly take to other flower perch stops.

A Bird-of-Paradise, the bottom half of which is the sitting perch (and thus the pollenation-transport site) for many indigent birds

Gunnera, Giant rhubarb

Gunnera may not be a houseplant, but it is sometimes seen in the North American garden, only not to the gargantuan size they can attain in their natural setting. One news article in 2011 featured the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset, which housed a Gunnera plant with an 11-foot span! In Costa Rica, this plant is also aptly referred to as Sombrilla de Pobre, or poor man’s umbrella.

Where some plants dominate in size, others do so by quantity and colonization. Even for its heaping spread, you still couldn’t walk past Clitoria

ternatea without doing a double-take.  Like our Bird-of-Paradise, this flower has also been aptly named, although its carnal botanical designation has been contested several times since. You might find the beautiful deep blue-purple flowers are behind a mixologist’s magic.

A Gunnera plant in Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset, admittedly much larger than the ones I encountered in Costa Rica

Some other gigantous forms of commonly known plants are Alpinia purpurata, or red ginger; Dracaena (a popular species of this genus being D. marginata),  colorful Cordyline fruticosa, and, of course, the most unbelievably tall palm trees with trunks as thick as 55-gallon drums.

Honorable photo mention: Stachytarpheta frantzii

Los Payasos, The dancing big heads

Perfectly described by another blogger as “hulking creatures that seem to come straight out of a Chuckiesque nightmare”, Los Payasos, or the clowns, are also a common sight in the streets of Costa Rica. While not plant related,

Totoro could’ve definitely used a Sombrilla de Pobre

*Costa Rica has many climates and microclimates and vary depending on elevation, e.g., the humid climes of misty cloud forests high up in Monteverde, the dry coastal towns abutting the Pacific, or the blustery wipe-your-face-clean-off winds atop Irazu Volcano.

**Masson introduced hundreds of species to Kew Gardens. Read more about his adventures here.

***Another Rosie Christmas is the best gd Christmas album in the world, and I am being deadly serious.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 1, 2018 at 10:43 pm

No Mercy, Alnus

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A year goes by quickly!

Especially when it’s been four months.

We got the call late one night that our place not only had been on the market but that it had also, interestingly – and I use interestingly here very incorrectly — been sold.

The landlord, whose identity will remain anonymous and synonymous with the worst of shitstains after a Taco Bell 5-layer burrito, had gone to Florida with big dreams of making it in real estate. Florida was hard, he said. As a result, money was tight, he said. Real estate turned out to be weally weally hard. He didn’t know it would be so difficult in Florida in real estate. He said.

There are books in the library covering the disastrous state of Florida real estate, I said.

You put us through the wringer because you thought we would leave the place early and prove to be typical, terrible young renters. I said.

And now we’re without a support to hold us up, scrambling and reaching for any prospect of a decent living situation nearby and within budget.

Irony aside and damning the circumstances, our patio and housefront have never looked chuffier. The real late-summer winner has been the cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), grown from seed and which has wound its way around every fence post in the alleyway and through the front-step rail and mailbox.

According to a very unique site dedicated to climbing/twining plants*, “Ipomoea is from the Greek ips, which means ‘a worm,’ and homoios which, means ‘resembling,’ referring to the wormlike twining habit.”

The long, tubular red scarlet flowers seem to be a product of coevolution, perfect for the long beaks of hummingbirds — which, on second thought, might mean the hummingbird’s beak came to be specialized due to the flower’s structure. And it’s probably no mistake that a hummingbird’s vision, very different from ours, is attuned to the red hues of the light spectrum. The pleasingly shredded-looking leaves are a result of the hybrid between the cypress vine and a red morning glory.

What’s truly remarkable about this species — and any mentioned in The Climbers Project website, for that matter — is how it grows, how it reaches out to grasp and twine around the nearest object without the aid of eyes or any sort of guidance (such as the chemicals in odors, which some vining and twining plants use to detect nearby supports). In Daniel Chamovitz’s book, What a Plant Knows, the author devotes a chapter to a plant’s “sight”, which is really the interplay of gravity and light, the tiny particles known as statholiths that influence the direction of plant growth (gravity) and the chemical auxin literally changing the morphology of the stems (growth toward light).

This goes back to Darwin, cutting the nips and tips off of plant stems and roots, trying to figure out how the devil plants “knew” how to grow and where to grow. Thank god rabbits don’t photosynthesize.

The curiosities of later scientists gave the opportunity for plants to travel to space, beyond the wildest aspirations of a coconut dreaming of crossing the Pacific Ocean. Root and stem growth theories were confirmed with the absence of gravity, but what was still puzzling was the twining motion (including the “circumnutation”, or helical movement of such plants, demonstrating in the gyration of a sunflower). Here’s a video not of a sunflower demonstration this so-called heliotropism — I just loved the jazzy French gypsy music.

Which brings me back to my original anecdote: my roommate and I had our tips cut off. Well, that’s gross. But in any case, we suddenly had no support and were suddenly uprooted with no prospect in sight. But like a plant whose flowers are constantly decapitated by a brutal mailman and that somehow inexplicably wildly yet calculatedly strain themselves to find another solid support, we found a suitable place to call home and where we’ll spread our seed all over the place.

Again, gross. But for those of you who want our new address and to see more gratuitous photos of plants driven by narcissism, ego, and a touch of interest in plant science:

1915 S. Alder St., Philadelphia, PA 19148




*Burnham, R.J. (2008-2014). “CLIMBERS: Censusing Lianas in Mesic Biomes of Eastern RegionS.” <;.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

September 17, 2017 at 7:43 pm

The Rival of Longwood Gardens

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…and all of the world’s botanical gardens.

It’s been over a month since I made my daring move to South Philadelphia — which is actually not bad despite my bullet-riddled body — and I’ve been going gangbusters on my front- and backyard botanical collection. Soon, I’ll be able to charge five quid for entry. No friend and family discounts.

And now that I have some more space and I’m feeling far too confident in my ability to garden, I’ve tried out some species that I’ve seen abroad or on Amazon, which reminds me that I need to stop drinking while looking at plants on Amazon.

I’ve found borage to be ridiculously easy to germinate, though it droops promptly in the blasting sun; Safflower pops up readily and sturdily, although I think that might be ivy; a boxed Thalictrum can survive a lob across the room from a buffoon of a coworker who can’t read “Fragile” on the cover; quinoa seedlings just look like leggy weeds; and bleeding heart leaves are just downright gorgeous and look great next to anything. On the other hand, Mucuna pruriens takes its sweet time growing and has attracted every thug slug in the block to come and chomp on it and our basil. (Though beer traps have proved pretty successful.) And the Canna lily cutting I’ve had since my doomed job at the greenhouse just keeps hanging on, mocking me for my poor horticultural skills.

I’ve even guerrilla gardened our good-looking neighbors’ front-window flower box with some striking white and purple salvia interspersed with silver mound Artemisia. My efforts have proved beneficial on two fronts: I can enter our street into the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s green street competition, and the neighbors never close their curtains.


The real beauties — and biggest challenges — that are newcomers to our Mercy Lee Botanical Garden are Hoya ‘Strawberries & Cream’, Gloriosa superba, and Daphne odora ‘Maejima’. I smelled the latter before I saw it in Koriyama, Japan, and it’s one of the most attractive and beautifully fragrant plants I’ve ever encountered. Unfortunately, I’ve read that it’s one of the most difficult to transplant and care for. Gloriosa happens to be an incredibly toxic plant, so I’ll need to keep it in a Beauty-and-the-Beast bell jar.

As of 10 minutes ago, the botanical garden had 74 confirmed species. Since then, the collection has increased by two, after taking a quick break to walk Nico (pictured on the right, taking a piss) and meeting a neighbor who was ecstatic that someone knew about purpletop vervain and bronze fennel and on the spot uprooted a few and put them in a pot for me to take home.

Longwood Gardens, look out…

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

June 12, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Spring Events & Attractions in Philadelphia

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The annual Philadelphia Flower Show is coming up quick (March 11-19), and we are so Spring ready at the Independence Visitor Center.


In my never-ending quest to push green activities in Philadelphia at the Center, I recently put up a display of my top favorite destinations for Spring. And as always, we receive the publication, Grid magazine, which is an excellent resource for ecological events in and just outside of Philadelphia proper.

This year’s Flower Show, though highly focused on tulips and all their variegations, also highlights the Dutch horti- and agriculture’s need to utilize space ecologically and economically, given the country’s limited, below-sea-level geographical setting. And I find this year’s exhibition fitting and called-for in a place like Philadelphia, which in my mind should today be a Kew Gardens-ranking botanical destination.
Sadly, it’s not, and “park” designation is barely merited unless it’s including “-ing lot”. As a “greene country towne” home to some of the pioneers of American botany and horticulture, I feel Philadelphia is frustratingly and embarrassingly lacking promotion of what is was and could be.

While I’ve mentioned a few of the following sites in a previous post, it’s absolutely worth mentioning them again in the top places I recommend visiting for your Spring (and beyond Spring) visit/stay/ambiguous-duration-of-inhabitance-similar-to-my-own in and around Philadelphia.

Bartram’s Gardens


Where? 54th Street & Lindbergh Boulevard

How do I get there? While it’s a bit of a trek from downtown, Bartram’s is accessible by public trolley #36 to 54th Street. If you’re just paying for roundtrip, have exact change or tokens ($2.25 per token or combo price for purchase at major stations downtown or at Independence Visitor Center).

Cost? Usually free!


A bright yellow wood poppy bursting above its leafy canopy in Bartram's Garden

A bright yellow wood poppy bursting above its leafy canopy in Bartram’s Garden

This should be the Kew Gardens of America, and, yet, it’s not all it could be and isn’t so well known to visitors. Bartram and his son were American pioneers in horticulture/botany, and the former site of the Bartram residence and gardens is the place to go if you want to understand the beginnings and aspirations of Philadelphia. At Bartram’s Gardens, there are walking tours available, free kayaking events on the Schuylkill River, and volunteer opportunities on the farm.

Here, you’ll also find one of the oldest and largest Ginkgo biloba trees in the Americas, dating from the late 1700s, as well as a rare-ish Franklinia, tons of garlic mustard, and Celandine poppy/wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).*

*Interestingly, according to one source, celandine poppy “is threatened by the invasion of Alliaria petiolate (Garlic Mustard)”, a subject touching on allelopathy (in this case, plants using chemical properties to inhibit other plants/competitors) I’ll be exploring soon.


John Heinz Wildlife Refuge


Where? 8601 Lindbergh Boulevard

How do I get there? By car – if you don’t have your own, take an Uber (bit expensive) or rent a car for the day from Hertz and maybe try fitting in the other recommendations here (Bartram’s or Morris Arboretum)

Cost? Free!


A thicket of milkweed, lanky grasses, butterfly bushes, and Melilotus officinalis

A thicket of milkweed, lanky grasses, butterfly bushes, and Melilotus officinalis

The 1,000-acre reserve is a bit surreal being so close to an international airport. Stop in at the Visitor Center to learn about the site’s sordid past, being a site of immense biodiversity and riparian importance turned into an industrial cesspool and now slowly being restored to its original ecological grandeur. There are seasonal plant hikes offered as well as numerous birding tours (the refuge is famous for its eagles’ nests), many of which are free to the public.

You can also volunteer here – for a couple of months, I helped weed out invasive poplars and garlic mustard and occasionally sitting the Visitor Center’s reception desk to answer questions about the refuge.


Morris Arboretum


Where? 100 E Northwestern Avenue

How do I get there? By car or by train then Uber (this one’s complicated – if you’re willing to half-bike it, send me a message)

Cost? $17 for Adults, $9 Youth/Students


A monstrous, Kraken-like Katsura in Morris Aboretum

A monstrous, Kraken-like Katsura in Morris Aboretum

Trees, wonderful trees. I’m more a fan of low-lying plants, but this arboretum contains some impressive tree species. I was, in the very true form of the word, awed by the Katsura and Blue Atlas Cedar trees on the property. And for someone who very much does not like roses…what a rose/herb garden Morris has.

And an amazing miniature railroad to boot!


Sculpture Bicycle, Fairmount Park Bike, & Mural Maps


Where? Independence Visitor Center, 6th and Market streets (1 N Independence W; GPS: 599 Market Street)

How do I get there? From the airport – Take the Airport line to Jefferson Station and walk or take the “L” subway to 5th and Market

Cost? Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee (except for Shofuso House)


I’m a huge advocate of bicycling. And Philadelphia is a huge fan of potholes and a-hole drivers. And soon, the Visitor Center will no longer offer WheelFun bicycle rentals. That being said, there’s still Indigo, hugely popular with locals and fairly well strategically placed throughout the city. While I’m not a fan of Indigo’s unwieldy bicycles, I’d much rather able, active, and adventurous folks to get around the city this way. With a little street assertiveness and keen awareness, visitors can get around quick and sightsee at the same time, able to hop off and check out anything at their own leisure – including Philadelphia’s unique collection of sculptures and murals.

At the Visitor Center, we not only provide both, but also promote our bicycle sculpture maps and, a recent addition, Museums Without Walls, a free program offered by Association for Public Art. Signs posted at various sculptures have a number that can be dialed, which connects you to a recording by an expert/professional explaining the art piece in front of you. The APA’s Museum Without Walls webpage includes an interactive map, or you can visit the Independence Visitor Center to grab a free city map as well as a Mural Mile Walking Tour Map, which lists some major murals in downtown Philly (out of over 2,000 murals in total!).

Lastly, although WheelFun bicycle rentals are ruthlessly being killed off by bus tours (don’t get me wrong – great way to see the city as well!) and backwards-thinking nonprogressives, I’ll still hold on to dear life our self-guided bicycle maps, which feature Fairmount Park, a beautiful greenway that includes the Japanese Shofuso House and Horticulture Center, our Schuylkill River Trail maps, and the a-bit-outdated 2014 Center City Bike maps.


Honorable Mention: Sister Cities Park


Where? 210 N 18th Street

How do I get there? Walking, public transportation, PHLASH (when in operation, seasonally), hop-on-hop-off buses

Cost? Free!


Tiarella, or foamflower, thriving in downtown Philly at Sister Cities Park

Tiarella, or foamflower, thriving in downtown Philly at Sister Cities Park

Across the street from an amazing cathedral and Philadelphia’s most famous interactive science museum, Sister Cities Park is a satellite location of Independence Visitor Center. While you can buy discount tickets here for some of the places I’ve mentioned in this post, you can also experience a bit of one of north Philadelphia’s green spaces, Wissahickon Park.

If you have a car, skip the small stuff and drive up to experience the real thing. If you’re passing through downtown Philly, be sure to stop with your kids (or just if you’re a plant fanatic like myself) to enjoy the part Visitor Center-part kiddie pool-part Café-part ecologically friendly park, styled after the Wissahickon with a mini, meandering waterfall and native plants like Tiarella, blueberry and cranberry bushes, and wild columbine.

While the ground plants serve in a stormwater management system, the building itself in which our Visitor Center/café is installed also serves as a “green roof”, a roof of sedums, sage, and switchgrass absorbing rainwater and “minimizing heat-island effect”.

And whether I’m stationed at Sister Cities or our 6th-street Visitor Center location, come in and say hello, buy some discounted Flower Show tickets, and ask me for more recommendations – I can do more than bore the bullocks off of you with plant-related information, I promise.

Weeks 6 & 7 Under the Greenhouse: Soilless Soil & Seeds of all Sizes

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“Soil?” Happy Friendly Mist Guy said (to keep names confidential, we’ll stick to job titles plus personality trait). “Well actually, this is soilless medium. This whole operation we’re running is basically hydroponics — that’s why we have to mist the cuttings so much throughout the day.”

What’s all this? Soilless medium.

The Canna in question

The Canna in question

According to Upstart Farmers Network, soilless medium like ours contains “…no inorganic matter like sand, silt, or clay involved, which means that the mix technically isn’t soil.” The greenhouse’s particular brand states that it contains “long-fiber sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.”

Perlite in particular, with it’s tiny, irregular grooves, has been demonstrated to have excellent water-retaining properties, leaching out the water when needed by the plant. The substance is actually volcanic glass and expands under high heat conditions and is inert, so it has no harmful effects on the plants.

All of which makes me feel very stupid for crushing the white pellets, thinking I was helping the plant take up the nutrients better – although it does feel pleasing to crush those pellets.

The other ingredient in our soilless mix is one of some controversy, being that it is also a nonrenewable source but comes from the bottom of bogs, some the biggest reserves being in Western Siberia and Canada.

While in the early 2000s, many papers came forward dooming the earth’s atmosphere from overharvesting peat bogs (peat bogs are carbon sinks, and it’s been argued that harvesting releases too much of the gas) like the very confident report, The Myth of Permanent Peatlands by Linda Chalker-Scott, there are scant reports of negative impacts of harvesting and instead reports of rehabilitated bogs and sustainable harvesting practices, especially in Canada.

The small, ridged seeds of Daucus carota (either wild or the cultivated form we’re all edibly familiar with), difficult to grasp or suction mechanically

Anyhow, back to our greenhouse medium — while the plants in the greenhouse are routinely misted and kept in high humidity under T5 fluorescent grow lights, the medium is important from the get-go and explains why every mint cutting I’ve taken home has failed to root in the rich, thick potting soil I purchased from Home Depot; the soil tends to become waterlogged, suffocating the roots and allowing fungus to flourish on the leaves. I also need to stop bringing home so many discarded cuttings — I think I’m developing an unhealthy addiction.

Moreso, since this soilless soil is so much more aerated than my store-bought actual soil, cuttings are easier to stick and can grow out their roots, apparently even transplants from starter trays that get smooshed into the the larger tray holes. One of my favorite and easiest to transfer is Canna, a plant that vexed me and my massive Facebook fanbase – my mother and a very correct former (and excellent) high school teacher of mine.

Initially, I had it from one authority at the greenhouse that the blue ball was the Canna seed itself — Happy Friendly Mist Guy, who I now defer to for all my botanical questions, confirmed my teacher’s comment that the blue layer is rather technically a coating, which is applied in a process known as pelleting.

While Canna does, not all seeds come in globular form, a form that so happens to make it easier for both machines (see video below) and people to grip the seed and place into the soil. Some are astoundingly minuscule, for example the seeds of Begonia species, one source measuring each at 1/100th of an inch (the frustration of planting of such seeds just gives me one more reason to hate on Begonias). Other record breakers include Petunias as well as mustard and orchid. Orchid species have claim to the smallest known, while mustard was once thought to be from biblical references.

And while it’s not the case for our Cannas at the greenhouse, some pelleting is applied for pesticidal purposes. Non-pesticide coating binder (holding the coating material together) can consist of “various starches, sugars, gum arabic, clay, cellulose, vinyl polymers, and water” according to the formula listed by one pelleting company.

So there, the mystery solved: no exotic birds with a penchant for 400-nm wavelengths, although we know plants that do use color to attract specific pollinators and vectors such as bees. But I’m all the wiser, and I now have a font of knowledge, Happy Friendly Mist Guy, who’s happy to attempt answering the infinite questions I have at the greenhouse, and an equally wise high school teacher who I’m now worried is shaking his head over my abysmal blog writing and use of “font of knowledge”.

So many cultivars of Canna! Salmon, Burgundy, Tropical Rose, Variegated, Dwarf, and on and on and on.

So many cultivars of Canna! Salmon, Burgundy, Tropical Rose, Variegated, Dwarf, and on and on and on.