}

March 10, 2012

The Smith College Bulb Show - A Living Legend

THE 2012 SPRING BULB SHOW AT THE SMITH COLLEGE LYMAN CONSERVATORY - A WOW EXPERIENCE THAT SURPRISED BOTH OF US. 

In many ways this is a sad, sad excuse for a spring flower show.

NO lawn tractors on display. No interlocking concrete bricks.

It's missing that omnipresent scent of spring flower shows - the scent (stank) of pine bark mulch.

And if you are expecting to see caged peacocks and waterfowl, with black plastic ponds complete with coins and koi - forget about it.

There weren't even any over-priced hot dogs or stale pizza.

This, my friends is 100 percent flower show circa 1899, and I completely immersed myself in its glorious floriferousness.

There was a time, where horticultural perfection reigned, were educated and experienced gardeners toiled over every detail of botanical selection, culture and display of a plant, and the Smith College Bulb Show proves that this attention to detail can still be compelling in a world where orchids sell for $9.99 and most any plant is considered a disposable decoration.  If you find yourself in New England over these next two weeks, I urge you to make an effort to visit the show. If you love plants on display in the late winter, thoughtfully real clay pots, rare orchids, real wooden plant labels and displays with natural lighting ( um...it's called the sun), then you must attend. If you can imagine this entire spectacle arranged and presented in (of all things) - a nineteenth century glass and wood conservatory?  Sit down and read more.


EACH DISPLAY HOUSE AT THE LYMAN CONSERVATORY HELD THOUGHTFULLY CURATED DISPLAYS OF FORCED, FRAGRANT SPRING BULBS. CHECK OUT THESE VELTHIEMIA BRACTEATA - THEY SEEM LIKE A DIFFERENT STRAIN THAN MINE.


On this cold, blustery Saturday in March, Joe and I experienced a taste (well, more of a scent, really) of the past. After a slow breakfast of some home made sticky buns and fresh berries, we packed up the truck headed out west to the Berkshires to go buy some clay for throwing a kiln full of long-tom pots, that I need to make for the tuberose's that will be arriving in a few weeks.  We decided make the trip richer, by finally taking-in the conservatory Smith College in near-by Northampton, MA to see the annual Spring Bulb Show at the Lyman Conservatory, an event which has been on my wish-list for a few years, but one that I always seem to out-schedule for greenhouse chores.


The first thing one notices after parking the truck and walking across the campus toward the event, is the beautifully ornate wood and glass conservatory, which was built in 1895 by the Lord & Burnham Company. Originally once called the Lyman Plant House, it was one of the first important glass conservatories built in the United States. Smith College, then an all girls school for liberal arts,  started its 'range' of glasshouses with a single greenhouse in 1895, but by 1910, the complex had grown to include elaborate glass palm houses, and a series of smaller glass houses built to house plants from every region of the world, or as the ancient text in the brochure states, from Madagascar to Borneo. Little Smith College had essentially built themselves a laboratory for plants, and generations of graduates have benefited from this investment.
A CLASSIC HEIRLOOM CONSERVATORY PLANT FROM THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, MIMULUS AURANTIACUS - A MONKEY FLOWER NATIVE TO CALIFORNIA.
A RARE RELATIVE OF THE AFRICAN VIOLET, SINNINGIA EUMORPHA, GROWS FROM A TUBER,


A CURATED DISPLAY WITH A COLOR THEME. CINNERARIA DAISIES, TULIPS AND MUSCARI  ARE  ARRANGED WITHIN A COLOR PALETTE.

Today, two flower shows are held each year to mark the shift of the seasons, a Chrysanthemum show in the autumn, where students display collections of not only trained 'mum's in the traditional methods begun in the 18th century ( cascades, standards and even older Japanese and Chinese methods) but also, they show off their own breeding results, topped off with a popular vote where attendees can vote on their favorite hybrid form, bred by horticulture or botany students. In spring, the Spring Bulb Show held every March for two weeks, signals the start of spring, or the end of winter.

SPANISH MOSS HANGS AT A PORTAL TO AN DIFFERENT CLIMATE ZONE BETWEEN THE VINTAGE GREENHOUSES

Today, a day which began with snow squalls and a couple of inches of new powder, certainly felt more wintry than springy, but once the sun emerged, it's brilliance reminded us ( and the flock of robins tearing up the lawn at Smith College looking for worms) that spring indeed, is knocking on our door. The Lyman Conservatory is a jumble of vintage wood and glass greenhouses, and a treasure for any architecture buff or plant geek.  One enters through  two exhibition houses, which are small, but packed with forced bulbs of every kind. Quaintly old-fashioned in many ways, the displays are naive yet thoughtfully un-fussy. Believe me, we are plant snobs, and we still enjoyed this show much more than any commercial spring flower show that we have attended in the past 25 years.




It appears that every year there is a theme, and this year, the theme was inspired by Delft pottery, or Dutch ceramic ware ( I think - I never really paid too much attention to it, but it worked visually). OK - the windmill might have been too much, but then again, I could imagine a similar theme in 1910, 1945 or 1960 - it felt appropriate, and minus some attention to design and construction details that I might have been more thoughtful with (no contact paper with Delft patterns maybe), the show was a pleasure both visually and sensually.

Every time I attend a show like this, whether it be tacky or well done, I still leave inspired by something, and this visit to the Smith College Lyman Conservatory provided my with hundreds of photos - plant tags with names of 'must-get' plants, color combinations to recreate in my own garden, and even permission to break some rules. I was struck by how well Dutch Bulbs blend together even when you combine a mish-mash of colors - somehow they all never clash. Of course, one could never plant a home garden as densely as this, and I was reminded of my teen years in the 1970's when I used to work assembling spring flower shows while in agricultural school - one Dutch nursery owner was a master at jamming in every color of tulip and hyacinth - shoulder-to-shoulder in sweeping displays ala -Keukenhof, and the crowds would swoon as their eyes bled.

MIXED COLORS OF DUTCH BULBS ALL 'WORK' TOGETHER WITHOUT BEING A JUMBLE.

 I have to admit here at Smith College, I think I liked the mixed displays better than the carefully curated ones (although, they were very nice and maybe more relevant from a style perspective - I think the color palette particularly the one with burgundy, plum, violet and purples will be recreated by most every attendee to this show. I too was struck by the aspect of this exhibition - a modern spring flower show is usually held in a convention center, and here, one strolls through a nineteenth century wood and glass conservatory. The lighting is natural - the sun. No theatrics, no wood mulch, no waterfalls and recorded bird song. Also, there are not ropes to keep you away from the plant. Instead, you are invited into each display - you are not a visitor, instead, this is an installation and one is fully engaged with the installation.  The experience was practically therapeutic.


While watching a young dad carry his son on his shoulders, the boy kept poking at some tulips and shoving his nose into passing daffodils - two little girls squealed as they wove in and around through the crowd with petals that they had picked up off of the floor. No one yelled, or said 'no, "don't do that." beyond their parents. No harm was really being done, and I was too busy leaning over and taking a whiff myself. The flowers are inches from ones nose! I felt as if I was in my own greenhouse.

LACHENALIA ALOIDES SSP.QUADRICOLOR, THE CAPE HYACINTH


I expected the normal fare to be on display, but I have to admit that even with my snooty deisgner mind, it wasn't ugly, and to be honest, I needed a good dose of "Tulips, Narcissus, Hyacinths and the lesser bulbs" right now. I was surprised by many other plants in the display - as well as being impressed.  Each plant is labeled perfectly, which is a difficult task, and one rarely accomplished well. I was delighted that many displays included more unusual bulbs and plants - The Velthiemia bracteata were particularly tall and nice, and there were at least three strains. Then, I spotted my favorites - the Cape Hyacinths, or Lachenalia aloides var. quadricolor and a few other sub-species of L.aloides, which were very well grown, and in such abundance that I felt a tiny bit envious. I too was blown away by the other plant collections, and after spying a few Vireya's, a Rhododendron fragrantissimum or a R. maddennii cross, as well as a sweet collection of ferns and Lycopodium - I decided that a visit on a slower day would be in order.


If you ever find yourself in New England in early March, do plant to visit Smith College and this American jewel - even if you are not a plant geek, a snowy day amidst fragrant, moist and steamy air is better than any spa treatment.

THE ROOF OF THE LYMAN CONSERVATORY SEEN FROM THE MAIN CAMPUS AT SMITH  COLLEGE.

3 comments :

  1. Thanks for the great post and pictures! I have been living in the Boston area for five years now and have yet to make it out to see the Smith College greenhouses... Will have to remedy that soon.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous9:15 PM

    Next year be sure to cross the river back toward Worcester and see the bulb show at Mount Holyoke College. It is much more low-key and helpful to aspiring gardeners who want to see bulbs in a garden setting. Sherry from Amherst

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Sherry! I never knew that Mount Holyoke has a show too, I will be sure to check it out next year. Thanks for the tip!

    ReplyDelete

Oh yes, do leave me a comment!