Out and About: Arboretum's flower show springs to life

Narcissus

Narcissus, “Peeping Tom”

We found ourselves yearning for a touch of budding nature, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather and the hype for the Philadelphia Flower Show. So we headed far away from the hustling crowds to see the other flower show—at the Morris Arboretum, Penn’s botanical museum at the northwest corner of the city, in Chestnut Hill.

As soon as the car rolled up the road that curved through the open fields, the agitation of city life fell away. Even the black sheep arrayed across a hillside field communicated bucolic stillness. Even once we realized they were two-dimensional steel cutouts, “Cotswold Sheep,” by Charles Layland, the impression of stillness and peace remained.

Undaunted by Arboretum Marketing Director Kate Sullivan, who opined how nothing was blooming yet, we headed down to the rose garden.

What to plant

Ideas were everywhere. We saw winter jasmine weeping over the edge of a stone retaining wall and red sedum between stone risers and treads. Dwarf daffodils sprouted out between the rocks in the stone walls. Need help with your garden? This is the place for inspiration and information, and no Flower Show crowds.

Then Sullivan, sporting a purple silk rose on her black overcoat, turned up on a golf cart.

She pointed out spring snowflakes, narcissuses and crocuses blooming on hills and in flower beds. Lenten roses and viburnums shocked with early pinks.

Part of what attracted us to the arboretum for a visit was a self-guided tour, “Great Plants for Your Home Garden.” The first plant on the list was a drought-tolerant tree, a Shumard oak. At times like these, it’s just what the doctor ordered. Another suggestion, hummingbird summersweet clethra, may show up in our own shady garden, which would appreciate its white flowers in “July/August” and its “consistent gold fall color.” The tour brochure states, “Best in moist soil …very tolerant of wet or dry and clay soils once established.” We’re sold.

Volunteers

As Sullivan pointed up the early-early spring colors, we came across a team of about 30 volunteers.

“Want to come join us?” asked volunteer Karen Bower. She was part of the weeding brigade. Mulchers wielded heavy shovel loads further up the hill. “We have different levels of work. …It’s sort of like going to the Flower Show, but stretching it out for nine months,” said Bower, referring to the Flower Show practice of compressing flowers from several seasons into one display.

Pushing the educational as well as the spiritual benefits of volunteering, Bower said, “You learn to do your own gardening better and faster.”

Then we met volunteer Betty Davis (CW’42), who said she comes every week. “I love it,” she explained. “Coming along Stenton Avenue I say, That’s my arboretum.” She wasn’t the only alum in the volunteer corps. “I’m ’51,” piped up Leba Grodinsky, referring to her class at the School of Allied Medical Professions.

Nor were they the only retirees. The group told us fellow volunteer Oliver Williams, whose back needed a break from mulching, was a former political science professor.

Our personal pain came from getting in the car and heading back into traffic. Ouch.

The Morris Arboretum, 100 Northwestern Ave. in Chestnut Hill, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily until April, when the weekend hours expand to 5 p.m. For information on the arboretum and its many programs, visit www.morrisarboretum.org or call 215-247-5777. Admission free to members and children under 3, students, faculty and staff; $8 adults, $6 seniors and students; $3 children ages 3 to 12.

Want to join the volunteers? They meet Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m. at the Widener Center at the Arboretum. For information call Iana Turner at ext. 110.

Originally published on March 28, 2002