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Posts Tagged ‘horticulture

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

And the PHS Gardening and Greening Contest Award goes to…

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Not us!

Two months ago, I entered our front and backyard spaces in PHS’s Gardening and Greening Contest, which so exists to celebrate “the accomplishments of gardeners in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.”

Alleyway before & after. Even some of the dirt in the before picture was added — this was originally a garbage pit and was spanned by broken-down wooden slats, which my roommate cleverly used to make our existing vegetable-garden planter. In this plot, we have growing Ipomoea sloteri, purple Salvia, stonecrop, coneflower, Cleome, Shepherd’s needles, and other wildflowers.

Contenders could win in one of several categories, including Children’s Garden (we have far too many poisonous plants and far too few children to be considered, it seems), Combination Garden, Container Garden, Flower & Specialty Garden, Garden Block, Public Space: Plantings/Parks, Urban Farm (ineligible as we do not sell our fruits of labor…yet), and Vegetable Garden.

Gods alive! Our leafy friends have really thrived in this humid summer. In the left-hand corner, my ace-in-the-hole Mucuna Pruriens is hopefully vining, twining, and waiting for the right timing until its big show… Bottom left-hand corner: Mothra

While I’ve listed the categories now, I didn’t take it upon myself when entering the contest to read the fine print of the rules, regulations, and possible winning categories. Had there been an “Entirely Green Foliage” or “Drunk Garden Design” category, we would have surely won. That being said, we did our damnedest, and I’m proud that my roommate and I worked together to put some green against the otherwise bleached concrete of 1109 Mercy Street. I’m also chuffed that we managed to keep most plants alive throughout a week of scorching sun and some strange man who our neighbor informed us was peeing in a particular plant at four in the morning (which, incidentally, is now dead).

Lesson learned: Borage deserves a bigger bed

While we’ve been busy with our own green space, I’d been meaning to take a stroll around South Philadelphia to show off some of our neighbor’s beautiful front-porch/yard/patio green spaces. I’ve met a few of them, and they certainly know their plants. First up…

Christ, this place. The owners looked down on me from their upper deck veranda — sitting in white, Victorian chairs, drinking wine out of marble goblets and savoring cheeses and capers — and told me to scamper off like a good little urchin, before I had a brief glimpse of a nude Minerva with water arching from her teats into a pool of porcelain koi.

No. Not right. I didn’t see these people at all, and I’m betting they’re absolutely lovely. At the least, they take extraordinary care of their magical courtyard, and it must have been years of attention to train the now-bursting grape vine and some careful thought into establishing the soft-colored pines that preside over their unbelievably Spring-green lawn.

You’ll see from the photos of our own front green space that I’m partial to purples, pinks, blues, and greens. I am not a fan of yellows, reds, and oranges. Yet, this house just up 11th street has some definite interest and a well-thought-out plan (heat- and sun-tolerant varieties) with its cascading Lysimachia, well-matched Coleus, and Amaranthus tricolor, a striking red-yellow-orange pigweed I’ve never seen before.


Again with the orange hues in the photo above, but these owners have cleverly used an elevated tub and a smart, symmetrical arrangement as well as some interest in the right, lower-hand corner with a blue oat grass and an unknown vine.

Not far from the red-yellow-orange house, this front appeals to me with its old-fashioned street lamp and entirely red-green theme with Elephant Ear plants and mandevilla.


I imagine this neighbor vied for the container competition. He’s also the one who gifted me the purpletop vervain and bronze fennel (now sadly passed) on my walk with the dog a month ago. And I can never resist a good use of pines and Lantana.

We met our neighbor on the corner a few nights ago as we were arranging our own front yard green space. Cigarette dangling from her mouth, odd curlers still in hair, she said she had been training her clematis and ivy for over 10 years. The stunning double clematis variety which she disdains, as it takes on a rather ragged and dried appearance after a short flowering period, peeps out from the pink roses and Japanese stone fountain hidden below the trellis.

So there we have the finest of South Central Philly, and it narrows down both the possible PHS winner and whose plants on which I’ll be increasing the pH balance.


Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

July 23, 2017 at 5:19 pm

New Buds & Blooms in the Mercy Lee Botanical Garden

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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