February 15, 2011

A Winter Respite

There comes a point in every New England winter – especially one that features multiple feet of snow on the ground – when sanity requires a dose of greenery. There are multiple ways to get a shot of green but most of them start with a pat-down by a TSA agent. Having neither the time nor the inclination to fly the unfriendly skies, we ventured instead to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden.
Tower Hill is the home of the Worcester County Horticultural Society, a venerable organization that barely registered on the radar screen of not-for-profit institutions until it decamped from downtown Worcester for a 132-acre former farm on a hilltop in Boylston, some ten miles northeast of that city. A visitor center opened in 1994 but it was the unveiling of the 4000-square-foot Orangerie in 1999 that made Tower Hill a winter destination for me.

Tower Hill's new Limonaia
Last November, Tower Hill augmented its credentials with the opening of the 3500-square-foot Limonaia (pronounced, I was informed, lee-mon-NIGH-ya). The opportunity to see a camellia show at the site was sufficient impetus to make the 40-mile journey this past Saturday.

Reduced to its simplest, both the Orangerie and the Limonaia are, essentially, large open indoor spaces with lots of plants in containers. Well, yes, but then the Venus de Milo is a chunk of sedimentary rock to which someone took a chisel.

The Orangerie at Tower Hill

Both are extraordinary spaces, light-filled and airy, and classically proportioned. The new Limonaia has a bit more exposed concrete than I care for, but that’s quibbling. Mostly, it’s the plants that make the space such a welcome respite. We’re talking containers with mature, subtropical trees and shrubs; artfully arranged to form a garden. There are occasional fountains and statuary, with garden-appropriate tables and chairs scattered about, but the plants are the main attraction.

A garden of pots
in the Orangerie
True to its name, the first thing you see in the Limonaia is a lemon tree heavy with bright yellow fruit. Camellias in flower march along the walls in rows. And, everywhere there are interesting botanical specimens. Palms soar to the ceiling, yucca aloifolia – what I called ‘Spanish bayonets’ growing up – tempt children. The mix of foliage and bloom colors is pitch-perfect.

The Orangerie hardly looks picked over for Tower Hill’s expansion. As the nearly photos suggest, it was as lushly tropical on this visit as when the Limonaia was just an excavated pit.

The Camellia Show at Tower Hill
The camellia show – our ostensible reason for visiting – was a delight. Camellias are native to eastern and southern Asia and Sandy Kautz, the show’s organizer and arranger, brought in a trove of Chinese and other Asian-influenced objets d’art to capture the eye.

Camellias are not easy to grow in New England – this is not a tree you park in the nearest sunny window and expect it to thrive. Its roots and branches are hardy down to well below zero, but leaves and buds are susceptible to winter burn, making it more of a Zone 6 or 7 plant. In other words, a cool greenhouse is a nice accessory to have if you’re interesting in pursuing camellias as a hobby.

There were hundreds of specimen blossoms on display and judges still at work when we arrived. We watched them work, marveling at their attention to detail. All in all, a very satisfying visit.

Tower Hill is, of course, far more than a winter destination. But in summer there are parks and reserves that are much closer and offer comparable experiences. At least for me, winter is Tower Hill’s time to shine.

February 1, 2011

The Huddled Masses

They are camped out around my home, at least 80 refugees, far from their subtropical origins, gathered by windows and leaning toward a feeble sun for sustenance. They huddle together to preserve precious water in a house where the humidity is in single digits.
What we do to our houseplants. We take growing things whose ancestors never experienced a frost and transport them to environments where, for six months of the year, all that separates them from death by frozen capillaries is a pane of glass. And all this for…. What?

There are more that 80 houseplants
in my home, clustered around
windows.  Here are 15 of them.
Why do we have houseplants? I typed that question into Google, ordinarily a bastion of reason and well-marshaled information. The first response was a query right back at me: ‘How can I get rid of gnats?’ Not ready for a Socratic dialog so early in the morning, I declined to provide an answer. Five pages of scrolling later, I had not found any erudite answers from horticulturally-inclined sociologists, although I uncovered an online survey indicating that our 80+ population of plants puts us dangerously outside the bell curve (the average number is five).

And so, I am left to come up with my own answers. The first one is obvious: they’re green and they sometimes flower. It’s February in New England. There is more than two feet of snow on the ground. Who wouldn’t want to have something nearby that reminded us that winter is not a permanent condition?

Another answer is that houseplants are undemanding. Water them once a week. Check them for insects (including, yes, gnats). Re-pot them once a year. Compared to a pet, they’re self-sufficient. My aunt kept a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) in a darkened hallway that, to the best of my knowledge, was never watered, only dusted occasionally. It lived for decades.

Plants can surprise you. My wife received a lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus ‘Rigel”) as part of a plant challenge. She nurtured it for three months but, once the challenge was over, put it in a plant rack where it was promptly forgotten about. This winter, it has started flowering. Not spectacularly and not prolifically. But every week another bright red bloom appears.

Plants also respond to pampering. I cannot walk by a display of orchids without pouting like a six-year-old that “I want one”. And so our home is filled with dendrobium and phalaenopsis specimens. They bloom for several months, then the flowers wilt and the stems turn brown. The plants go onto a lower rack away from the prime sun locations. Then, one day something magical happens: a new stem forms and, over the course of a month, bud nodes appear. The orchid gets tender, loving care: swabbed with alcohol to rid it of pests and placed in a location with perfect, filtered light. A few weeks later, the flowers begin to open.

Neomarica's blooms last just one
day and the plant does nothing
but take up space 50 weeks of the year.
But those two weeks of flowers
make up for the freeloading.
Finally, plants get to become family. Last month I wrote about a cyclamen that has been around so long it is practically a family retainer. Our various bougainvillea have been in residence for so many years that I can predict their flowering cycles to within a few days. As this is written, the buds are starting to swell on our walking iris (neomarica), a plant that freeloads around the house for 50 weeks each year before earning its keep in a spectacular succession of blooms, each lasting just a single day.