A look inside the Willow Street garden of 90


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Jul 22, 2023

A look inside the Willow Street garden of 90

When oakleaf hydrangea flower clusters fade to pink and green, it’s time to capture that color, freezing it beyond fall’s frost. At Bartram’s Garden, volunteers cut these pink and green flowers,

When oakleaf hydrangea flower clusters fade to pink and green, it’s time to capture that color, freezing it beyond fall’s frost.

At Bartram’s Garden, volunteers cut these pink and green flowers, snipping away at least 3 inches of the stem, making them easier to arrange. They avoid the biggest clusters, which are harder to add to wreaths. They don’t take more than a third of the plant, leaving plenty for pollinators.

They fill 5-gallon buckets with flowers that will be dried as filler for holiday wreaths. The harvest covers two tables.

“You want to dry more than you need,” says Emily Costantino, formal flower gardener at Bartram’s Garden. Founded in 1728 in Philadelphia, it is the oldest botanical garden in the country.

Around the tables, the group strips away the leaves (which don’t dry well) and tie into bundles of three. Costantino clips the bundles on a line inside a 18th century house. Then it’s time to close the shutters and wait.

The holidays are months away, but the work of drying flowers takes time. It starts in winter with wisteria vines pruned to make wreath forms. As flowers bloom through the spring and summer, they’re picked to preserve.

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While planting might be solitary work, often the processing becomes a good excuse for a party. Verna and Viola Mueller hosted a watermelon party at their home in Willow Street last week. Their guests earned their share of watermelon after peeling a pile of money plant or lunaria.

The Muellers are twins so identical a friend embroidered their names onto matching red smocks. Years ago, after they retired from Hamilton Watch Co., they outgrew their garden and planted more flowers in Doris Lindhurst’s childhood home. This summer, the sisters are 90. They shrunk their own backyard garden and find garden help from Lindhurst.

“We’re getting older and we just had to slow down,” Verna says.

Their garden might be smaller but it is still packed with flowers to cut for fresh bouquets and some to dry in the basement. To dry, they harvest plants like silvery artemisia, cockscomb, German statice, hydrangea and money plant.

At the watermelon party, friends circle around a pile of money plant branches. If drying plants takes patience, so does growing them. This plant takes two years to bloom.

Once the flowers fade, the seed pods dry on the branch, protected by a brown husk. At the party, to reveal the silvery seed pod, a good shake is a good start. The rest of the husks are rubbed off. It’s easy work but still takes about two hours to peel so many branches.

New to the party were Brett Caggiano and Christine DiFonzo who met the Muellers through a family member who shares a chiropractor. They plan to add dried lunaria to their rehearsal dinner decorations.

DiFonzo read that lunaria symbolizes honesty, money and modesty. It has a cool texture that also reminds her of snow, she says: perfect for their December wedding at Excelsior in Lancaster.

While Viola and Verna are scaling back, their basement still is stocked with dried flowers. They might not get around as well yet they still spend time in the garden.

“I just enjoy nature, I guess,” Verna says.

The dried flower work at Bartram’s Garden, where the hydrangeas were harvested, is growing.

Last year, staff made 50 wreaths to sell at the holidays as a sustainable alternative to evergreen wreaths. It’s an idea championed by Katie Jacoby, who is now head gardener at the Barnes Arboretum at St. Joseph’s University.

This year, Bartram’s Garden wants to make even more wreaths. Recruiting volunteers to gather plants monthly through the growing season will help, Costantino says at the July volunteer day.

“We use seed pods, seed heads and things with different shapes and textures,” she says.

Bouquets of larkspur, globe thistle and poppy seedheads dry in a room inside the Bartram House at the garden in southwest Philadelphia. This group loves the space not for its history, but the shutters that block sunlight, which can fade drying plants.

Not everyone has a dark room for drying. For her own flower drying, Costantino cuts holes in a paper bag for air flow, adds flowers, loops the handles around a hanger and places it in a dark closet.

The room at Bartram’s Garden houses the garden’s dried botanical experiments. Costantino shows Queen Anne’s lace, hung and dried, creating a mop-like shape. Laying the flowers flat in a box on silica creates a flat, round shape.

They’ve learned to harvest strawflowers early because the flowers continue opening after picking. They know mice love gomphrena, which needs to be stored in boxes after drying.

Wait too long to harvest and some flowers will bloom, making them less viable to dry, like a group of echinops Costantino points out in the garden.

“Most of them have went to flower but that’s OK because the bees love it,” she says.

It’s trial and error when it comes to drying. Even invasives can have a purpose. Oriental bittersweet and porcelain berry vines can be used as wreath forms.

Most of the floral volunteers at the July session live in apartments and wanted to learn new ways to explore flowers. Devika Menon of Philadelphia has already experimented on her own, drying peonies and preserving them in resin coasters.

In addition to florals, plants such as fragmites or common reeds, switchgrass and Indian grass make great fillers, Costantino says. Once volunteers help harvested them in September to dry, it will be time to make wreaths.

Bartram’s Garden has monthly floriculture volunteer days for people to gather plant material to dry. The next sessions with openings are Sunday, Oct. 22 and Nov. 19. To learn more, visit bartramsgarden.org.

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