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Posts Tagged ‘Longwood Gardens

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

Post Philly Flower Show Review

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The highly anticipated 2016 Philadelphia Flower Show has come and gone, and so suddenly it seems.

Being that it was my first, I’ve no basis for comparison, but I can pick out the highlights that made the event worthwhile for the 30 bucks I didn’t pay (thanks, part-time job perks!).

Big Timber Lodge

Big Timber Lodge

Big Timber Lodge

At the entry of massive Hall A was Big Timber Lodge, an impressive, rustic wooden-beam structure stretching loftily to the Convention Center rafters. Beneath the beam-hung floral chandeliers were ferns and fading columbines galore among the pines.

Wooden-cage animal models such as bison and maybe elk (a new species of elk unsure of its decisions in life) featured throughout the exhibition, stuffed and draped with twigs, flowers, mosses, and such. Funny how most of the life forced for the Flower Show would wilt well before its natural time — as long as they compost, I’m fine with it!

Pink ColumbinesCHARRED!

One of my favorite exhibits unfortunately had some technological problems and an upsetting lack of information, but as soon as I saw the charred logs at its entrance, I recognized it as a representation of the succession of a forest following a fire.

Go here for a brief overview of succession at Yellowstone National Park.

Rock plantsNatural Landscapes

“These look like they’ve been here for years!” My sister keened to the realistic settings painstakingly installed by Stoney Bank Nurseries (representing Yellowstone National Park), Hunter Hayes Landscape Design (representing Valley Forge National Historical Park), and J. Downend Landscaping, Inc. (representing Arcadia National Park).

HorsesFloral Structure Displays

Well into my third wine and vaguely aware of my need for a proper toilet despite all the natural ones about me, I and my equally wined sister ventured into the space designated for floral sculptures and displays. This blurry display did not impress us, though the flower-stuffed cardboard display, a nod to the natural arches in the aptly named Arches National Park, was quite the photogenic opportunity for visitors.



The red flower and glass chandeliers, representing the Chandelier Tree — a 276-foot-tall coast redwood tree in Leggett, California, with a 6-foot-wide-by-6-foot-9-inch-high hole cut through its base to allow a car to drive through — were a magical and captivating display arranged by the Institute of Floral Designers.

All in all, while it had interest in its tie with the NPS and well-installed natural exhibits, most I spoke with were a bit disappointed by the lack of the “exotic”, some finding that even the natural landscapes were all too familiar. Those same people had been previously wow’ed by the 2012 exhibition, which had a

Floral chandeliers

Floral chandeliers

Hawaii theme, and the 2015 movies-themed exhibition (which would’ve been so timely considering this month’s new Pixar exhibit at Franklin Institute!).

Even still, I hope the Flower Show helped to highlight the importance of our national parks and encourage parents to in turn encourage their kids to become Junior Rangers — I watch kids come to the NPS desk at the Independence Visitor Center and see how excited they are when they stamp their Passport Books and take the oath to become part of the great program.

Floral and cardboard arches

Floral and cardboard arches

For those looking for more botanical adventures, I can’t recommend enough Morris Arboretum, located a bit out of the way north of Philadelphia but entirely worth the effort getting there. This sanctuary of trees features a gorgeous, shady Katsura and an equally gargantuan Blue Spruce, one of the most amazing miniature railroads I’ve ever seen and, just as so, the most amazing herb and rose garden, and a number of fascinating ground plants like a favorite species of mine, Epimedium.

Beautiful hanging Abutilon

Beautiful hanging Abutilon

Worth visiting as well are the native plants of Bartram’s Garden and, of course, the east coast’s premier plant palace,  Longwood Gardens. I’ve also been impressed by Scott Arboretum out in Delaware County, part of Swarthmore College, about 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

Making Botanical Gardens Better

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I’ve been harping on about the need for improving botanical gardens and making them more interesting without really offering any insight on how to do so. Sort of like how people on Facebook bitch about Obama’s botched health care program or tsk-tsk the current state of lobbyists and corrupt politicians in Washington. Or anything else that’s solely the government’s fault.

Those sardonic librarians...

Oh, those sardonic librarians…

But as I sit here on what could be the eve of my final day as an underground troll holed up in the basement as my gracious benefactor of a landlord hosts a Father’s Day cookout (Happy Father’s Day to everyone, by the by!), I am drawing up a very rough, anything-goes list of ideas while watching the original, first Jurassic Park and stealing them from other websites. The ideas, not the dinosaurs.

Also while learning this

Also while learning this

So, without further a-poo-poo, here are some ideas on how to make botanical gardens more compelling as well as enriching and educational:

1. QR Codes — Although a bit of a newbie myself with QR code–readable mobile apps, I thought that botanical gardens worldwide would’ve immediately taken advantage of this essentially at-your-fingertips textual tour guide (not suggesting to do away with human guides, but more on that later). What’s more is that the institution could create their own info pages linked to these QR codes. During my visit to Tokyo’s glass hothouses, I relied on spotty WiFi and Wikipedia for knowledge on flora I found botanically and historically fascinating — I found it even more incredulous that the gardens hadn’t chosen to highlight these stories…which brings us to the next idea.

2. Stories — Where History and Botany collide. And why shouldn’t they in a botanical garden? Just read this amazing tale summarizing the global impact of a sole slave boy who discovered and shared his knowledge on how to pollinate the vanilla plant. And take in those illustrations! Kid-friendliness aside, botanical gardens could afford to be a little more racy with displays. After all, plants are all about reproduction, which means sex.

How can storytelling work in a botanical garden setting? Take, for instance, the decomposition of an animal, displayed at the Natural History Museum in London: the model demonstrates certain time points of a rabbit’s decomposition in a series of contained displays. Now, consider especially the locality of a botanical garden: here, a display could show the ebb and flow/succession of dominating plants and the external (read: human-caused) factors contributing to the destruction or proliferation of certain exhibited species.

If only we lived in the age of R2D2-projected holograms, these stories could be supplemented with said human factors, the historical figures telling their own part in botanical dramas. And despite my distaste for overly cheesy tour guide actors (I’m talking to you, Ben Franklin of Boston — your autobiography proves that you were a dick), I think this is where tour guides can really enhance the experience, by several playing these parts as a guest meanders through the displays. You know, a hole they’ll fill until we have Star Wars–quality holograms.

And speaking of history, why can’t botanical gardens include pop culture references? Other museums do. I’m talking Triffids, Little Shop of Horrors, Amy Stewart–inspired botanical alcohols — even if this was a separate exhibit at the end of the tour, next to the gift shop, it would provide some fun celebrity and modern-day appeal.

Also, I just think we need to bring back Brendan Fraser

Also, I just think we need to bring back Brendan Fraser

3. Tour Guides — My London experience in 2013 would’ve been quite dry had I not taken the free SANDEMANs tour, led by a witty copycat of Jimmy Carr; the guide was incredibly knowledgeable, improvisational, and funny to boot, and I had no problem quaffing up quite a bit of voluntary tip money at the end of the tour. Perhaps this is one element botanical gardens should try out; if the guide made the experience worthwhile, then open your wallet as wide as you see fit. Also, please hire me.

4. Live Debates — Botany is a field full of controversy and intrigue. Exploit it! Host events that invite scholars, horticulturists, and other fancily named plant enthusiasts to venues at which hot topics are planned in tandem with the garden’s current flowering features.

5. Guest Curiosity and Feedback — This is a favorite of mine because it taps into our childish stage of constant Calvin & Hobbes’ “Whys”. The Socratic method of questioning could be implemented a number of ways: books placed throughout the gardens and in which visitors could pen their questions regarding all-things botanical or perhaps an end-of-tour query box in which anyone can submit their queries, which would be answered via radio show or on a feed on the garden’s website. This, in itself, could lead to more and better-designed exhibits. I daresay it encourages an entirely separate blog post.


I’ll. never. stop. posting.

6. Evening hours — I’m a bit biased, having known of Dale Chihuly’s work beforehand, but I admired Phipps Conservatory’s creative sight in using the glassmaker’s work so exquisitely in its exhibits. Chihuly’s work already wonderfully imitates nature — twining, writhing, and illustriously colored — but what really caught my and, undoubtedly, the public’s attention was the use of lights to accentuate the artist’s sculptures at night.

And although I mistook the venture for a botanical Philip Glass exhibition, I think even a music element might enhance the experience as well.

Look, everyone, I'm in a field of effortless, endlessly repeating crap!

“Look, everyone, I’m in a field of effortless, endlessly repeating crap!”

7. Mysteries and Quests — I’m a huge fan of the PC oldies like Myst, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and Banjo Tooie as well as the Nintendo-created Zelda series. Whatever that makes me, these games share the element of mystery, unlocking one clue after the next, tasks that must be completed, people that must be met, histories and cultures that must be learned and understood. Understanding is seriously lacking in botanical gardens, and although some provide trite little activities for children, such quest-driven games could work for all ages in this setting. Here again, technology can come into play, but, in the meantime, passionate tour guides could be the spark in guest participation just as well.


I understand the limits of botanical gardens, and I’m aware that those I haven’t yet visited might incorporate some of the aforementioned elements in their exhibitions. For those I’ve visited, as botanically interesting to someone who’s botanically interested as can be, perhaps we can up the ante and really jurrasicize (patent pending) the already interesting world of plants.

Why Do You Go Into the Woods?

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I’ve been to a number of botanical gardens and tracts of land fenced into to be called “parks” and “refuges”, and, bumbling through the carefully laid-out paths and among the strategically placed and cultivated botanical showoffs, I often wonder why people go into the (fabricated) woods in the first place.

Meanwhile, a recent article reported that “fewer than 400 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral botany degrees were awarded in 2012. Educators say that’s because students are being pushed into more modern, technology-related majors.”

And while I may be named after one, this bird -- the Gray Catbird -- is not to be messed with. One recently tried to abscond with my rake; in fairness, I was responsible for the accidental death of its child.

And while I may be named after one, this particular birdy — the Gray Catbird — is not to be messed with. One recently tried to abscond with my rake; in fairness, I was responsible for the accidental death of its child.

This article isn’t the first of its kind, and it’s apparent on kids’ faces what sort of wildlife excites them. At the ridiculously named John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, it’s the birds, turtles, and fish that receive the most attention from toddlers and adults alike; the plants serve as a ubiquitous green backdrop to the mammalian drama playing out in front of it.

At the Tyler Aboretum, younger visitors are awed by the unique treehouses and the grotto of tiny gnome villages, rightly so. But are they inspired by the Sleepy Hollow—like canopy above, without which such a forest gnome village would just seem like some suburban kook’s lawn ornaments?

Although I’ve enjoyed Longwood, Shinjuku, and Tyler, I feel as though something is lacking in botanical gardens, and, though it may not be the driving reason for fewer botany degrees, I still feel there is a noticeable lack of creative and tech-friendly education in such gardens and parks. An unfortunate dearth of knowledgeable tour guides, federal funding aside, may also be to blame.

Take, for instance, the Refuge, teeming with delectable edibles (my beloved gas-inducing garlic mustard being one of the invasive kinds); the Tyler Arboretum, a flagging but otherwise medicinally interesting herb garden; and Shinjuku Botanical Garden, harboring such economically and historically fascinating flora as Canna indica and others, the names for which I’m unwilling to troll through the hundreds of photos I took during my four-hour excursion there.

Informative signs present or not, readily phone-accessible Wikipedia aside, and gnomes or none, green spaces are simply lackluster. What would it take to enliven these spaces? Surround techno music synched with flashing neon lights among ferns in a darkened atrium with a dance floor? Enlarged mechanical plants alongside their counterparts – say, a Jurassic Park—inspired Venus flytrap lunging out at unexpected guests as they turn corners in a labyrinthine tropical maze? David Bowie? Actual triffids?

I admit the last one, and only the last one, is mad. But why else do people wander into the woods? To know what a plant’s name is in Latin? No. To see pretty flowers? Somewhat. To pee? Yes. But, I myself went into the woods for adventure, or misadventure. Some venture at the least. In any case, there is an expectation for something wild, beyond control, and other-worldly to occur, something that’s certainly in need today and to give the field of botany some much-needed appeal.