Gardening For The Soul: Ten Steps To A Happy Life

View from atop the Bavarian Alps

Spring is a good time to start fresh and focus on what’s really important in life. For me, the month of April is a time of introspection. I make a mental list of what parts of my life need to be reorganized, adjusted or just plain thrown out.  Then I replenish my house with a happy mind.

Just like spring cleaning, the job comes with a little work. But it always feels good once the task is done. Here are ten tips to get you started.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.10.13 PMAcknowledge what exists, right here, right now and accept that everything is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Expending all your energy on battling reality is never a recipe for happiness. Try taking a realistic view of what is happening in your life; then decide what you want to do about it.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.15.06 PMRecognize that problems do not exist as separate entities from the self. Only you can turn an event into a problem by allowing it to enter your mind and consume you. Remember that what seems upsetting to you may have no effect on others. Try looking at events in your life with more objectivity and realize that you alone create the effects they have on you.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.15.27 PMTreat yourself with the same kindness you treat your family, friends and pets. This seems like a natural, but many of us place our own emotional and physical wellbeing far behind all the others we care for in our lives. Caring for your own self is as important as caring for others, plus it has the added advantage of giving those you love more of you to care about.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.15.43 PMTake a walk outside, at least once, in every type of weather. Spring offers us rich opportunities to do this. Why do we label certain kinds of weather as “bad?” Challenge your conditioning, put on the appropriate clothing and venture outside your comfort zone. Discover the essential beauty of all forms of weather.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.15.56 PMRead a book on a subject you have no interest in. Our reading preferences by definition block us from expanding our horizons. How can we possibly know what we think about all topics? Choose a new reading category, open your mind and discover something new.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.19.59 PMAccept others as they are. Decide not to internalize other peoples’ behaviors and make them your own. Instead, watch the action like you watch a movie, choosing to like or dislike what you see, nothing more. A sense of humor helps a lot with this step.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.20.13 PMLook deeply into the eyes of someone you don’t know. Ever notice how catching someone’s eye instantly establishes a connection? It feels good to be actively seen. It also signifies that that person matters. Give someone the gift of your attention. It will change your day.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.20.35 PMListen attentively. Before jumping to respond, pause a moment and digest what is being said. Wait for the other side of the conversation to finish, then take a breath. You’ll discover things you might otherwise not have heard.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.20.53 PMNext time you prepare a meal, chop things slowly. Choose one food and appreciate the feel of it in your hand and the flavors it releases.  This simple act will provide you with a whole new understanding of the foods we eat and the important gifts they bring us.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 12.21.04 PMDecide to be happy. Happiness is a decision. Vow not to have any more “good” or “bad” days. Realize that all days are made up of both. Greet each morning with a positive attitude. A happy life awaits you.




Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time, in a clear demonstration of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices.

I’ve always been fascinated by this area of study that attempts to understand how these pioneering plants came to be. Back in 1643, the Roman botanist Domenico Panaroli (1587-1657) was interested, too, when he began compiling the world’s first inventory of plants growing in the ruins of Rome’s Colosseum. Of the many species he observed, he discovered that most originated not in Italy, but in North Africa.

Inside view of Rome’s Colossium

In his book titled Flora of the ColosseumPlantarum Amphytheatralium Catalogus, Panaroli identified 337 ruderal plants growing in and around the different climatic zones of the 6-acre colosseum. The lush vegetation, which was thriving without apparent need for cultivation, exhibited a dynamic intermix of native and nonnative species. The surprising findings led Panaroli to hypothesize that the foreign plants had traveled in with birds, or by wind or possibly on the coats of animals brought to fight in the ancient arena.

Daniel in the lion’s den

Two hundred years later, an English doctor named Richard Deakin recorded a total of 420 species growing simultaneously in the ruins. The plants, which he documented in his 1855 book Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, included figs and vines, wild roses, orchids and dianthus, many of which had naturalized in the microclimates of the Roman forum. He wrote:

The object of the present little volume is to call the attention of the lover of the works of creation to those floral productions which flourish, in triumph, upon the ruins of a single building. [ ] Though without speech, they tell of that regenerating power which reanimates the dust of mouldering greatness.

Wild rose, Rosa canina

Today the list of species from the Colosseum has grown to 684. Of these, over two hundred of the species first identified by Panaroli still remain.


In our lifetime, or at least mine, one of the largest ecological disasters occurred in 1986 in Ukraine when an explosion and fire in the Chernobyl nuclear plant released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The catastrophic nuclear disaster contaminated an area of approximately 1000 square miles in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It is now referred to as the Exclusion Zone.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant

In the first decade following the accident, though, scientists began noting an important development in the composition of the area’s microscopic organisms. As a result of their exposure to high levels of radioactive contamination, the bacteria had started mutating more rapidly. And they were beginning to create new radiation-proof forms of life.

The worst-affected woodland, composed primarily of Scots pines, is today known as the Red Forest. (The name comes from the ginger-brown color the trees assumed after absorbing the intense doses of radiation.) Although the majority of the pines were bulldozed and then buried in trenches, today scientists are observing what they call an unnatural selection. New types of plants have started growing in the forest and their biodiversity is increasing.

Plants growing in an abandoned amusement park near Chernobyl

In fact, in the last ten years, the M.G. Kholodny Botanical Institute of NAS of Ukraine has recorded intensive processes of reforestation as well as the presence of more than 40 different trees that have begun appearing in the Red Forest. These include some entirely new species.

Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, is now growing in the Chernobyl area.

Left undisturbed by humans, aggressive ecologies of native species, including several new kinds of natural lichen and grasses, have developed. As they commingle with other nonnative groups, the Chernobyl plants are combining to form species that have never before been envisioned. Some of the plants and animals have even evolved a tendency to produce more cancer-fighting antioxidants to help them resist the effects of pervasive radiation: attributes that may one day help humans develop some of their own.

Oliver Kellhammer  is an artist, educator, activist and writer. Through his botanical interventions and public art projects, he seeks to demonstrate nature’s surprising ability to recover from ecological damage. His evolving body of work has taken such forms as small-scale urban eco-forestry, inner city community agriculture and the restoration of eroded railway ravines.

Concrete Island by Oliver Kellhammer

In 2006, Kellhammer created a botanical garden of ruderal plants for the World Urban Forum, which was held in a former heavy equipment plant in Vancouver, British Columbia. For his exhibition, Kelhammer chose a disused corner of the site, a concrete rectangle, where a variety of weeds and other plants appeared to be flourishing. Rubble, garbage and other debris had provided the perfect conditions for ruderal plants such as scotch broom, cottonwood and Himalayan blackberry as well as several species of mosses and grasses to grow.

Kellhammer noted that the plants comprised both native and nonnative species; a reflection of sorts of the city’s Asian, European and native British Columbian inhabitants. To call attention to the plants, he installed botanical labels on the various species with the option to push on a button to connect visitors’ cell phones to recorded information. The Concrete Garden provided interesting insights into the workings of ruderal plants as well as nature’s incredible resiliency.

Yes, Mother Nature is full of surprises. One has only to look to the Colosseum, Chernobyl and innumerable abandoned areas around the world to see the processes of her regeneration, proving that architecture, like all of us, is inevitably ephemeral.

New York City’s Flower District: Green Oasis In A Concrete Jungle


New York City’s historic flower district

It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a jungle. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a certain stretch of New York City’s West 28th street in Manhattan. There, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a vibrant community of plant wholesalers and retailers set up shop each morning, transforming the city’s teeming sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle.

Located just south of McDonalds, New York City’s flower district covers just a little over a block between 7th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. But what it may lack for in size, it more than makes up for in appearance. The garden oasis is home to about two dozen vendors specializing in everything from fresh-cut flowers and indoor tropical plants to exotic orchids, unusual foliage, spring flowering branches and floral supplies.


A walk through the district immediately immerses you in the smell of fresh greenery and floral fragrances emanating from the hundreds of plants lining the sidewalk. During our visit, we navigated around jumbles of colorful bedding plants, metal buckets overflowing with fresh flowers and giant shrubs standing guard at the curbside. As delivery men raced past us pushing carts loaded with foliage, we peered into humid shops selling towering palms, tropical houseplants and rows of exotic orchids, stacked floor to ceiling.


A centuries old tradition

Today’s flower district is heir to a rich tradition going all the way back to the 19th century. Many of the vendors have been in business for generations. The city’s original floral trade began on a ferry dock on East 34th street where it eventually became known as the Chelsea Flower Market. Wholesalers would gather at the dock to sell flowers that were brought in by ferry from growers on Long Island. The mostly German, Italian, Polish and Greek immigrants sold their fresh merchandise from tiny shops and wooden pushcarts to retailers throughout the city.


As demand rose for cut flowers, many of the wholesalers relocated to West 28th street to gain access to more affluent buyers and to be closer to Ladies’ Mile, home to many of the day’s most fashionable department stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Lord and Taylor. New York City’s flower district was born.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.46.05 AMNew York City Flower Market circa 1904

By the mid 20th century, the market was flourishing with around 60 vendors. According to a 2004 New York Times article, by 1977  more flowers were being bought and sold in New York than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Amsterdam.

The floral rush hour

On the morning of our visit, deliverymen were rapidly unloading bundles of cut flowers and tropical houseplants from trucks and rolling plant racks into position in front of the various wholesale establishments. While we sidestepped around colorful flats of plants, a steady stream of white vans, emblazoned with the logos of area nurseries, pulled up alongside us to double-park on the already congested street.


Although we had arrived at 9:30 am, the real action is said to begin around 5 am. That’s when designers, florists and other professionals start appearing to select from the first deliveries of the day. Many have developed special relationships with particular wholesale establishments over the years who regularly supply them with rare and unusual specimens.

sidewalk display 1

A peek into International Garden Inc. is a journey back to the early 20th century. Its white tiled walls with black banding, old fashioned lettering and wall-mounted staghorn ferns add to the old-time charm, providing a glimpse into what the New York City flower district might have looked like in its heyday. We observed a number of professionals standing lost in thought before tables stocked high with exotic foliage while elsewhere designers provided creative direction to staff as they rapidly assembled arrangements.


As we navigated the market, towering palms, clipped yews and upright box temporarily muffled out the noise of the city. In front of one store we stopped to admire the wide selection of spring-flowering branches including cherry, forsythia and pussy willows, wrapped tightly in bundles. Stacked upright and leaning closely together, they were almost as tall as we were.


While the 5 am crowd is strictly composed of professional designers and florists, by mid morning when the market opens to the general public, the sidewalks are teeming with everyday people. The atmosphere is bustling and sociable, with lots of interaction between buyers and sellers. This is partly due to the fact that none of the plants are priced, which makes it necessary to approach owners to bargain.


Caribbean Cuts, located at 120 West 28th, specializes in unusual tropical flowers and foliage from Puerto Rico. Their impressive merchandise includes gigantic elephant ears, eucalyptus and palm fronds as well as exotic florals. The 12-year-old business own farms in the Caribbean where they grow their own products for sale.


Exotic palms for sale at NYC’s Caribbean Cuts

My daughter nicknamed this alley “Plants waiting to get into the club,” which seemed somehow appropriate for the city.


Sadly today, the number of vendors in New York’s flower district has dwindled to only around two dozen shops, battered by pressure to turn valuable real estate into more profitable ventures. There has been talk about moving the market, but so far no new location has been identified. Meanwhile the vendors continue to do a lively trade, supplying fresh florals to the top designers and hotels in the city.

shelves of plants

The New York City Flower District is open Monday through Saturday. Get there early to get in on the action. Most vendors close up shop around noon.


Orchids 101 (For Beginners Only)

Paphiopedium orchid at Pennyslvania’s Longwood Gardens

Years ago I was touring the Filoli mansion in Woodside, California when I came across an unusual flowering plant. It was perched on a table in an upstairs hallway and sported tiny, reddish-brown blossoms. Plunging my nose into the petals, I discovered its flowers smelled exactly like chocolate.

Our guide explained that the plant was called ‘Sharry Baby,’ commonly known as Chocolate Oncidium; a member of a large family of orchids admired for their beautiful flower shape and dozens of blooms. This was news to me, because like many people, I was mainly acquainted with the common orchid Phalaenopsis, most notable for its large, flat-shaped blooms and attractive, low-maintenance qualities.

Chocolate oncidium, commonly known as Sharry Baby

Thus began my foray into the exotic world of these diverse and beautiful plants.

Branching out, I began looking for opportunities to expand my knowledge. So it happened that while in Mexico, I found myself touring an off-beat orchid garden called Lo de Perla located high on a mountainside in a tropical jungle. There, in the deep humid shade of giant ferns, tall palms and monster-like climbing vines, thousands of orchids known as epiphytes were growing wild on trees.

I learned that most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow on top of other plants, such as trees. For this reason, they are often referred to as ‘air plants.’ At Lo de Perla, there seemed to be an infinite number of varieties. The garden also had a small greenhouse in a clearing filled with hundreds of rare and unusual species.

One of the many beautiful orchids at Lo de Perla

Then last year, I heard about a spectacular orchid show being held at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. Located in the museum’s main lobby, it was curated by the Smithsonian Gardens and United States Botanic Garden and featured hundreds of orchids in a customized gallery created by the Hirshhorn’s own designers. The curved structure was constructed of random-shaped cubby holes, each featuring a single orchid species. My daughter and I were duly impressed.

2017 Hirshhorn Orchid Exhibit

But this year, I received my best education to date at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens.  Each year, from January through March, it hosts an orchid extravaganza. This was my first time visiting the show and as expected, the conservatory was brimming with jaw-dropping installations.

Orchid arch in East Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

There were huge spheres of Phalaenopsis orchids hanging throughout the conservatory.

And some unusual varieties like this Laelia undulata, that from afar looked more like an allium than an orchid. But close up, you could clearly see all of the little orchid flowers.

Laelia undulata

Close-up of Laelia undulata

Ample signage dispersed throughout the garden, confirmed that the orchid family, or Orchidaceae, is exceptionally diverse in terms of size, color, floral structure, fragrance and origin. One of the largest families of flowering plants, it is considered the most evolutionary advanced plant family due to its highly specialized floral structure.

An exhibition of Phalaenopsis hybrids from Taiwan rarely seen in the United States was on display in a hallway adjoining the conservatory. It demonstrated a specialized technique perfected by experts in Taiwan for growing these orchids. The plants are notable for the length of time they hold their flowers and for the number of flower-pairs blooming in perfect unison on each stalk, a quality that was instantly discernible.

Phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

Close-up of white phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

The real education began, however, when winding our way through the labyrinth of greenhouses that adjoin the main conservatory, we spotted an exhibit focused mainly on instruction. In a long hallway adjacent to the bonsai exhibit, we discovered hundreds of colorful specimens from Longwood’s own orchid collection. Started in 1922, the collection contains over 2,000 types of showy and unusual varieties.

Attached to the wall behind the orchids were signs describing the main characteristics of the Cattleya, Miltoniopsis, Vanda, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Masdevallia,  Paphiopedium, Oncidium and Phalaenopsis varieties.

Here are some stand-outs and a little about each:

Cattleya orchids are exceptionally showy and often fragrant. Also known as corsage orchids, they were the most popular variety in the early 20th century.

Cattleya orchid

Miltoniopsis orchids, commonly known as pansy orchids, are native to Central and South America. They are most notable for their large flowers and long stems that can carry up to seven or more blooms at a time.

Miltoniopsis orchid

Vanda orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia. They are known to be some of the bluest flowers in the orchid world. Almost always vibrantly colored, they can range in hue from dark purple to red, pink, yellow and white.

Vanda orchid

Unlike many other orchid varieties, cymbidium orchids, which are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, need cool temperatures and bright light to flower. Most carry many flowers on a single stem. They are often used in cut flower arrangements.

Cymbidium orchid

Dendrobium orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Oceana. They are unusual in that they grow on rocks in addition to trees. A large genus with over 1,000 species, they are sometimes referred to as ‘rock orchids.’

Dendrobium orchid

Masdevallia orchids can bloom year round in the right conditions. Native to Mexico and Central and South America, they are sometimes referred to as ‘little flag orchids.’

Masdevallia orchid

Paphiopedium orchids, also known as slipper orchids, have a large pouch that resembles a shoe. Native to China and tropical Asia, they usually carry just one flower per stem.

Paphiopedium orchid

Oncidium orchids (of which the aforementioned chocolate-scented Sharry Baby is one) are a large genus of over around 300 species. (They also have hundreds of close relatives.) Commonly known as dancing ladies, they are native to South America.

Oncidium orchid

The most common orchid variety, Phalaenopsis orchids are the easiest to grow. Also known as moth orchids, they have large, flat blooms and thick green upright leaves. Native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, they grow mainly as epiphyties.

Phalaenopsis orchid

Thinking of heading to the store? Many orchids are easier to care for than you might think. Just remember, since most of them are used to growing in air, they don’t like lots of water or heavy soil around their roots. Water once a week in the morning, allowing the plant to completely dry out between waterings. Never leave your orchid standing in water, which will quickly rot the roots.

True-Blue Flowers: A Dozen Of The Best And Brightest

Himalayan Blue Poppy at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens/Kari Wilner

Years ago, in an effort to distract my middle-school aged daughters, I dragged them to an avant-garde exhibit at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show was a one-color retrospective on the works of the French artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962) and it focused on the color blue; specifically, a supersaturated deep blue created by Klein that made you feel like you had been sucked out to sea and were drowning. Needless to say, it left an indelible impression on all of us.

The exhibit was accompanied by Klein’s commentaries on the role he believed blue played in our lives. He wrote:

“All colors are associated with concrete ideas whereas blue calls to mind first and foremost the sea and the sky, that which is the most abstract in tangible, visible Nature.”

Klein likened blue to an open window. He believed that the color blue defined the very edges of our visible reality. Think about it – do the sea and sky have any distinguishable boundaries? Maybe this is why what lies behind or beyond these two constants in our world has been the subject of speculation for centuries.

In Klein’s view, blue distinguished what was visible while expressing what was not. To illustrate this idea, he worked with a chemist to develop his own brand of blue. Introduced in Milan in 1957, the supersaturated ultramarine pigment took the world by storm. It came to be known as International Klein Blue (IKB).

Yves Klein Blue Monochrome 1961

The hardest to see

Due to its shorter wavelengths, blue is a harder color for the eye to see. This, coupled with the proximity of blue to the end of the visible spectrum, may explain why for centuries blue color has symbolized that which is mysterious or unknown.


So what role can blue play In the garden? Does it inject the same abstract note, evoking a sense of wonder and mystery? Or does our difficulty in discerning it add an important structural element to our compositions? The answer is all of the above.

Bigleaf hydrangea and Blue coleus, Plectranthus thyrsoideus

Blue and perspective

When it comes to perspective, ‘hot’ colors seem to move forward in space while ‘cool’ colors appear to recede. As a cool color, blue can add depth and volume to a composition where it often appears more as an ‘impression’ than as a discernible flower.

Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ appears as a blue ‘haze’ in this garden

Blue harmonies

Blue flowers form pleasing harmonies with pink, apricot, butter cream and violet blooms, where they help to add volume to a composition.

Blue and apricot make a pleasing harmony

Blue contrasts

On the other hand, when paired with yellows and whites, blue flowers provide contrast, helping to point up the brighter colors.

The blue hydrangeas make the white orchids ‘pop’

Blue/purple compositions

Many blue flowers tend toward a purple/lavender tint. Combining blue with purple blooms makes for a restful composition. I like to inject a note of bright green to liven up these peaceful garden spaces.

A blue and purple garden


Following are some outstanding blue flowers, all photographed at Longwood Gardens’ spectacular ‘Winter Blues’ exhibit on view now through the end of March. See if some of them don’t work in your own garden!

Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’:  A hybrid perennial poppy that produces large, sky blue blooms in late spring. Likes partial shade and grows to a height of between 3 and 4 feet.

Himalayan blue poppy ‘Linghom’

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ is a great shrub for the semi-shade border, big blue blooms in early summer. Blooms on old wood.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’

Blue Coleus, Plectranthus thyrsoideus, also known as Bush coleus, is a member of the mint family. Originally from Africa, it is grown primarily as an annual in our area.

Blue coleus

Blue Flax, Heliophila coronopifolia, is a delicate blue daisy grown as an annual in full sun.

Blue flax (a little more purple than blue)

Blue Daisy, Felicia amelloides ‘San Gabriel’ produces blue, daisy like flowers from summer to autumn. Grow in full sun.

Blue daisy

Muscari aucheri ‘Blue Magic’, also known as grape hyacinth produces fragrant, true-blue flowers in late spring. Best naturalized in large groups in full sun. Plant bulbs in fall.

Muscari ‘Blue Magic’

Portuguese squill ‘Sapphire Blue’ is a perennial bulb with large, conical racemes of star-shaped violet/blue flowers in early summer.

Portuguese squill

Pride-of-Madeira, Echium candicans ‘Select Blue’ is an evergreen shrub with gray-green leaves and long stalks of periwinkle flowers that bloom in late spring to early summer. Hardy to about 25° F.


Delphinium ‘Blue Jay’ bears tall spikes of deep blue flowers in early summer.

Delphinium ‘Blue Jay’

Ground-Ivy Sage, Salvia glechomifolia is a creeping perennial native to the highlands of Central Mexico. Bears light blue flowers atop scalloped, yellow-green leaves.

Ground-ivy sage paired with lilac pansies

Columbine, Aquilegia, ‘Bluebird’ produces large, 3″ light blue and white upward facing blossoms in late spring. Grows 12 to 24 inches.

Columbine ‘Bluebird’

Happy planting!


USPS Puts Its Stamp On America’s Most Beautiful Blooms

Floral stamp from the USPS Pollinator stamp series

You may think that gardens and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have little in common, but The National Postal Museum, located in Washington, DC, is currently challenging that point of view. It recently opened an exhibition featuring the botanical art behind 50 years worth of floral stamps. And it’s delivered the goods just in time for the spring season.

Located in Gallery 6 on the lower level of the Museum, Beautiful Blooms: Flowering Plants on Stamps marks the first collaborative effort between the National Postal Museum and Smithsonian Gardens. Designed to commemorate the issuance of U.S. stamps featuring American botanicals, it displays 33 original pieces of conceptual art alongside the floral stamps they helped to develop.

The exhibit is colorful and uplifting and not only for the sheer beauty of the illustrations. Touring the artworks, I was struck by the decades of effort that have gone in to creating the stamps, for the sole purpose of raising awareness for our nation’s natural beauty.

Multi-color printing helped pave the way

Although the first U.S. stamps to depict flowers (as a frame) date back to 1920, flowers themselves appeared rarely in designs until the late 1950’s. This is when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing installed a series of new printing presses that enabled multicolor stamp printing.

Following the adoption of this revolutionary printing process, the U.S. and Japan in 1960 issued a joint stamp commemorating the centennial of the United States – Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce. The 4-cent stamp featured pink cherry blossoms with the Washington Monument silhouetted in blue in the background.

Flowers became a central motif in 1966 with the launch of Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify America. Under her initiative, the Johnson administration, through the U.S. Post Office Department, issued a series of floral stamps to raise awareness (and funds) for the beautification of public spaces.

To develop the stamp design, several artists submitted color concept drawings for staff to review. Lady Bird, herself, played a key role in selecting the final images.

Concept art for 1966 stamp publicizing Beautify America campaign

In 1969, following the success of the first Beautify America stamp, a series of 4 stamps was issued to draw attention to public spaces at all government levels, from the federal to the state and local. Expanding on the theme, the winning images drew on a wider variety of species, including such iconic American plants as daffodils, tulips and cherry trees.

Approved art for 1969 stamp series

As a result of Lady Bird’s efforts (and sales of the stamps), the United States added thousands of flowering trees and plants to public roadways and parks during this period.

Four Seasons of Garden Flowers

In 1992, the USPS issued a sheet of 50, 29-cent stamps, featuring wildflowers from each of the fifty United States. In dedicating the Wildflower stamps, then- assistant postmaster general Gordon Morison said:

“Starting today, millions of wildflower stamps will begin blooming in the upper right corner of cards and letters. As these stamps blanket the postal landscape, they will carry two messages. One is the personal message written on the card or letter inside the envelope. The other is the message of the stamps themselves – that our nation’s wildflowers add natural grace and beauty to our lives.”

The stamps turned out to be so popular that the service subsequently created the Garden Flowers series of stamps, one for each season, featuring flowers typically found in the American garden. The series ran from 1993 to 1996.

Conceptual art for the 1993-1996 Garden Flowers stamp series

Final stamps

Pollination stamp

Apparently the USPS is no stranger to the link between flowering plants and their pollinators. In 2007, artists submitted designs for a stamp representing the symbiotic relationship between the two. The beautiful image (below) was not chosen, but represents one of the conceptual drawings for the Pollination stamp.

Concept image for Pollinator stamp series

The final stamps, a stunning digital compilation of images, featured horticultural illustrations seen from two different perspectives; one with pollinators in the center and the other with flowers as the central motif.

2007 Pollinator stamp series

Birds in the Garden Series

The creators of the 1982 Birds in the Garden series were Arthur and Alan Singer, the first-known father and son team to develop art for a U.S. stamp series. Their conceptual designs drew attention to the integral role birds play in the garden in controlling pests, aiding in pollination and adding color and beauty to the landscape. Arthur created the bird designs and Alan created the flowers.

A stamp in the 1982 Birds in the Garden U.S. stamp series

At the time of their issue, the Birds in the Garden stamps were the best-selling stamps in U.S. postal history.

The launch of the Rose Series

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan designated the rose, one of the most common images found on stamps worldwide, as the official flower and floral emblem of the United States. In 1988, Illustrator Richard Sheaff developed this concept art (one of many) for the 25-cent Love stamp. He based his drawing on a series of photographs of roses.

Concept art for 1988 25-cent Love stamp

By the 1990s, the rose stamp was being issued in numerous formats, including books, panes and coils. Artist Gyo Fujikawa created the 3rd, 4th and 5th designs.

The Rose stamp continues to be one of the most popular images sold.

Flowering Trees Series

These beautiful pieces of concept art immediately call to mind the images of Audubon. The stamp series featured flowering trees native to different geographic regions of North America portrayed in an old-fashioned botanical print style.

Approved art for Pacific Dogwood stamp

Final 32-cent stamp

The Botanical Congress

I wasn’t aware that there was a Congress devoted solely to botanicals, but the International Botanical Congress (IBC) meets every six years to discuss plant sciences research and nomenclature issues. It is tradition for the country hosting the event to issue a stamp in its honor.

These developmental artworks commemorate the 11th IBC held in 1969 in Seattle Washington. It was the first time Latin names had been used on botanical stamps.

1969 Botanical Congress commemorative stamp

For more information on this lovely exhibit, click here for The National Postal Museum’s website. On view now through July 14, 2019. The Museum is located directly across from Union Station.


Finding Your Center on the Labyrinth Path

Children walking a labyrinth

Sometimes life can seem like a maze full of twists and turns and lots of dead ends. It’s not always clear how to approach the center. But for those willing to walk its cousin, the labyrinth, there can be true transformation. Some say the process ultimately leads to insights into the circuitous path of life itself.

A labyrinth is not a maze

The words labyrinth and maze are often used interchangeably, but in practice they are not the same. While both are composed of meandering paths leading towards a center, there is one key difference: where the maze has many paths, the labyrinth has only one.

The Maze

Many of us have harrowing tales to tell of our first experience navigating a maze. That’s because a maze is purposely designed to confuse us. My first time involved a gigantic hedge maze located at Longleat in Wiltshire, England. With the central observation tower clearly in view, I managed nonetheless to get hopelessly lost and had to use the ‘cheater’ arrows to work my way out.

Hedge maze

Mazes are multicursal, meaning they are made up of multiple paths and directions. Many also have more than one entrance and exit. The Longleat maze, with nearly 2 miles of paths to choose from, is the largest in Britain. Constructed of 16,000 clipped English yews, it can take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes to complete.

Solving mazes like Longleat takes patience, focus and the ability to remember each twist, turn and blind alley encountered along the way. In my case, there’s always next year.

The Labyrinth

The labyrinth is more my speed. It is unicursal, meaning it consists of only a single path and direction. There is one entrance and exit which are usually the same. Designed for ease of navigation, labyrinths are often flat or built low to the ground with no high hedges or walls to obscure the view.

Stone labyrinth in a forest

For thousands of years, many cultures and religious traditions have used labyrinths as transformational tools for meditation, prayer and healing. Walking the labyrinth requires patience. Even though the path ultimately leads to the center, it winds around the circle in a spiral shape. Sometimes it appears to lead forward, only to double back on itself as it slowly draws near the center.

Old stone labyrinth

Because it requires focus, most people walk the labyrinth in silence. Some pray or meditate. Others simply observe each step and breath along the way. Many believe that walking the labyrinth is symbolic of life’s journey. Just as in life, the labyrinth has its twists and turns. Sometimes it leads forward and sometimes back. The important thing is to keep on walking.

How to make a garden labyrinth

A labyrinth can be a stunning addition to the garden. It can be composed of almost any material you can think of: stone, river rocks, brick, pavers, gravel or mulch. If you’re up for the maintenance, you can even use bedding plants to define the contours.

Labyrinth with bedding plants/Boulogne, France

The important thing is to level the land and have a good plan. Many companies sell ready-made garden templates made out of weed-blocking fabric so all you have to do is lay them out on the ground and line the contours with the materials you wish.

For a peek at some great designs and ideas for materials, click here for the Labyrinth Company.

Where to find labyrinths

Not up to building one? These days, labyrinths are becoming more and more popular in religious spaces, schools, hospitals and even prisons where they are being used for meditation, prayer and healing. Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France is home to two famous ones. There is one in the garden behind the church.

And there is one built right into the church floor.

In my area in Maryland, there are a couple located on the grounds of churches, which are open to all. One of my favorites, though, is in Delaware at Winterthur Museum and Gardens. It was quite literally ground-breaking when it was built. Now it is commonly overflowing with enthusiastic little walkers.

Photo courtesy Winterthur Museum

The three R’s to walking the labyrinth

Although there is no right way to walk the labyrinth, some general guidelines do exist. One simple way to walk is by concentrating on the ‘Three R’s”

Releasing: letting of all cares, concerns and expectations upon entering into the circle

Receiving: being open to accepting those inspirations that are offered along the way

Returning: exiting the circle with gratitude for the healing forces that exist in the world.

Happy walking.

Valentines Day 2018: How To Really Say It With Flowers

This winter, I’ve been passing the time rereading a few French classics. It’s been a great way to while away the hours, especially since many of the books focus on life in the garden. Such is the case with Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily of the Valley). It’s a great story of French love and society and how a pair of frustrated lovers establish a secret correspondence by flowers.

It’s also the perfect Valentines tale; albeit a bit tragic.

Set in the picturesque countryside of La Touraine (Loire Valley), Le Lys dans la Vallée portrays the vibrant but never consummated love affair between Felix de Vandenesse, a young man, and the virtuous Henriette de Mortsauf, a married woman. Desperate to express his passion, Felix scours the countryside for hours a day, painstakingly collecting wildflowers to create elaborate bouquets for his beloved.

Felix hypothesizes that just like musical phrases, the colors and leaves of individual flowers vibrate with their own internal harmony. And when deliberately grouped together, they can create melodies that sing with emotions. During his expeditions, he scrutinizes each flower for its ‘spirit’ and light patterns, studying it not as a botanist, but as a poet. In the process, Felix learns the power of quiet contemplation.

‘I saw a blue in the sky that I had never perceived elsewhere,’ he exclaims.

Back home at the castle, he assembles the wildflowers into impassioned arrangements in the hope that his beloved will understand their meaning.

Wildflower meadow in La Touraine

I love the passage describing Henriette’s surprise when she spies the flowers for the first time. Felix has positioned the bouquets in buckets on the threshold just outside the front entrance. She instantly deciphers the message in the arrangements, returning to them again and again to relive the experiences that have gone into their making.

Chateau de la Chatonnière in Azay-le Rideau 

Felix’s first bouquets for Henriette contained fragrant silver-cupped white lilies and wild roses ringed by cascades of sky blue forget-me-nots, bright blue ruffled cornflower and spikes of violet-blue viper’s bugloss. 

Just for fun, I pulled photos of the flowers that composed the arrangements. Balzac describes the bouquets as a ‘boullionnement’ (a ‘bubbling over’ or fountain) of blooms from the heart of which leap Felix’s aspirations in the shape of white roses.

Felix’s bouquet of love

I love the simplicity of the wildflowers and the juxtaposition of the white flowers with the blue, which Felix describes as the perfect marriage of two virtues: “he who knows nothing” and “she who knows all.” Once I’d arranged them on my screen, the flowers instantly awoke in me a sense of that early 1800’s garden. The bouquet seems so child-like, yet all-knowing somehow.

But clearly, there are more than 50 shades of meaning in Balzac’s vivid description of their arrangement.

What emotions do these bouquets stir in you?

In modern times, “Say it with flowers’ is a common slogan used by floral companies to sell flowers. Certainly the gift of a dozen roses at Valentines Day sends a beautiful message. But there’s something about Felix’s simple arrangement of wildflowers that stirs my heart. Is it the combination of flowers? Or the message conveyed by each?

Perhaps it is the dedication of Felix in collecting each of these blooms to create messages of love that touches me.

Something to think about on this Valentines Day.



Snowdrops: A Surefire Cure For The Mid Winter Doldrums

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis

At first glance, it seems impossible. It’s the middle of February and small clusters of tiny white flowers are breaking through the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the harbingers of spring. To me, their yearly emergence mid winter is the perfect symbol for courage and resilience as, one by one, they infuse cold weather months with a new kind of meaning.

Snowdrops have an inspiring ability to survive and grow in the face of much weather adversity. It’s hard not to look at them and draw parallels with life. Louise Glück’s poem articulates this idea beautifully.

This poem always motivates me to go out and do something big. And it certainly makes a person look at snowdrops with a whole new level of appreciation.

About Snowdrops (Galanthus)

Snowdrop, Galanthus, is a small genus of bulbous herbaceous perennial plants that is part of the amaryllis family. The plant gets its name from the Greek gala meaning milk, and anthos meaning flower. Common snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis, (nivalis is Latin for snowy) is the best known species of Galanthus. Native to large areas of Europe, it has been introduced and naturalized all over the world.

Diminutive in scale, but built like a warrior, Galanthus nivalis has narrow leaves and sturdy 6-inch stems that produce a single white, tear-shaped flower. The pendulous blooms are composed of six petal segments: three small petals surrounded by three larger ones. The inner three are notched at the tip and have U-shaped green markings.

Common snowdrop flower

In my area (Zone 7) common snowdrops typically flower in February/March. The large-flowered Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’, recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, is one of the earliest blooming varieties. And the heirloom Galanthus ‘Flore Pleno’ is a beautiful, double-flowered cultivar if you’re looking for something a little different.

There’s also a larger variety of snowdrop called Giant Snowdrop, or Galanthus elwesii. It has 6 to 12 inch stems and much larger flowers. It blooms later than Galanthus nivalis, usually in March.

How do they grow in such a cold world?

According to Cambridge University, snowdrops have built-in anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) that allow them to survive in subzero weather. AFPs bind to small ice crystals and inhibit them from growing in plant cells (which causes death in the tissue). This protects the plants from severe-weather stresses and also some diseases.

Occasionally, very harsh cold can cause snowdrops to fall over. But not to worry, thanks to AFPs, they’ll perk up again as soon as temperatures rise.

Anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) help snowdrops survive harsh weather

How not to confuse snowdrops with snowflakes (of the botanical kind)

A few years ago, I started renovating a garden on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the spring, hundreds of bluebells and what I thought were snowdrops starting appearing in the woodland. The flowers looked slightly different, though. They were bell shaped. And all of the petals, not just the inner ones, had green markings at the tips.

Leucojum vernum

I had confused snowdrops with another species, Leucojum, with which they are closely related. Leucojum aestivum  (also known as Giant Snowflake) has pendulous flowers as well, but with a couple key differences. The flower is bell-shaped and all six petals are the same size, with green markings at the tips. Snowflakes look a lot like giant lilies-of-the valley.

Leucojum vernum flower/each petal has green markings

Snowflakes bloom much later than snowdrops, depending on your location anytime between April and very early May. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is a popular cultivar.

How to grow snowdrops

Common snowdrops prefer partial shade, but will take full sun. They are deer resistant! Plant clusters of 20-25 bulbs in fall a few inches apart for maximum impact. This is a flower that looks great as a ‘carpet’ under bare trees.

Snowdrops look best planted as a mass

Once they’re done flowering, leave the foliage on the plant until it turns yellow to allow the plant to store nutrients for next year’s blooms.

Snowdrops multiply easily by themselves; however, they can also be propagated by division. The best time to lift and divide snowdrops is when they have just finished flowering.


Snowdrops contain the alkaloid galantamine, which according to the National Institutes of Health, has shown mild cognitive and global benefits for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. However, it can also cause gastrointestinal distress if consumed in large quantities. Some sites list galanthus as poisonous for humans and animals. For more information on signs of snowdrop poisoning in dogs, click here for signs and symptoms in dogs. And wear garden gloves when handling the bulbs.

Snowdrop bulbs can be toxic to humans and pets

Only a couple weeks now until the snowdrops will be blooming in my area. I already feel spring around the corner…

Photos courtesy/Shutterstock


Bamboo Gets A Makeover Thanks To A California Garden

The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind whose roots advance a foot a day and need to be dug out with a crane. But, I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views on the plant suddenly upended. It all started with a spectacular variety featuring aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading