Thursday, May 13, 2010

Delaware Center for Horticulture's Rare Plant Auction at Longwood Gardens

Our doorman handed me that day’s mail and right away my eye caught the hand-written envelope with the sublime return address of Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH) and its rather scrolly graphic below, noting: “Pearl Anniversary of the Rare Plant Auction”

No one would argue that this post required immediate attention.

I got to thinking -- what’s more special than gently gliding the letter opener along the spine of an envelope to discover you’d been “cordially invited,” “asked to commemorate,” or read that the sender pleads with courtesy,  “won’t you please join us?”

Oh, the anticipation! 

For this extraordinary event – one could look at the The Pearl Anniversary milestone notation and mentally check off  “ There’ll be the buffet dinner, open bar, and the PLANTS!” 

It doesn’t get much better, does it?   J 

If you ever even considered that plants are not the undeniable horticultural artistic expression of garden art, the invitation from the Delaware Center for Horticulture heralds plants as not only a treasured work of art but the inspiration for other, fine art. 

Suitable for framing, the grey and white formal invitation palette features a Cattleya ‘Alice B. du Pont’ orchid – art by Anna Anisko, and the heading: “2010 Thirtieth Annual Rare Plant AuctionÒ  A Benefit for the Delaware Center for Horticulture’s Greening Program.” 
As if that wasn’t enough, attendees for the Rare Plant Auction were admitted free to Longwood Gardens for the day – and the glamorous site of the annual auction.

Registration Options included Pearl at $500 per person ($250 tax-deductible). 
Attendees at this level received valet parking, auction preview, gift plant, gift bag, cocktail party and mini auction at the home of Linda and Steve Boyden (this was on the Thursday preceding the Auction). 
A Benefactor ticket at $250 per person ($100 tax-deductible);
Subscriber at $175 per person ($75 tax-deductible);
and as I noted in previous blogs and Tweets, for those 40 and younger or Auction first-timers a Seed Pearl ticket, ($100 per person).

From Abelia to Zenobia – the DCH ( offered more than 500 plants at what is billed as the world’s one and only official Rare Plant AuctionÒ to raise funds for their local greening programs. 

Christie’s Fine Art Auctioneers conduct a Live Auction of a select group of rare and unusual specimens.
An additional 500 prize plants were up for bid during a Silent Auction.
Last year’s event raised more than $100,000 for community greening and education programs in Delaware and this year they raised more funds than that.

The day of the Auction was glorious; sunny skies and warm.
Following a family bridal shower, my mother Virginia accompanied me to the event. 
We boarded the Amtrak train at Metro Park, in the Garden State – and in just three stops – arrived in Wilmington. 
Attention all New Yorkers – you can visit Longwood Gardens very easy.
Just get to 34th St/Penn Station!

I’d arranged for car service to pick us up and transport us to the Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.  (Well, that was all a bit dodgy as the Delaware car company created what could have been a big problem but a second car service, Eagle Transportation Services was able to skillfully get us a driver.)
So after a few crazy calls, we were on our way. 
It’s a short, 20-minute drive through some beautiful countryside, too.

Upon arrival at Longwood Gardens, we took the option of walking through the magical, wonderfully curated Conservatory. 
We were captivated by the plant displays and kept stopping to take photos and revel in hearing the delighted gasps, oohs, and ahhs, of the soon-to-be-departing Garden visitors. 
The Garden was closing for the evening and they couldn’t get enough of the color, shapes, and texture all around them.

                Neither could we for that matter. 

Look at these exotic orchids

cool silver and blues and shapes in the desert or succulent displays.

We soon made our way to the event area.  And from the coat check to registration check in, everyone was so very friendly and welcoming.   
Later we learned DCH aims to make this a fun party where attendees can see beautiful plants. 
They knock it out of the park!

You can’t help but tingle with excitement and awe, surrounded by towering specimens; curious plants-as-architecture, with lights and stars both bouncing off the glass archways and domed roof. 

You could sense the anticipation from the increasing cluster  or “bouquets” of attendees greeting one another, enjoying a cocktail, and the ambience.

But there is no question the night belongs to the plants. 

In homage, the plants for the auction are displayed in the already too-good-to-be-true Conservatory at Longwood Gardens.
Horticulture enthusiasts wear their heart on the sleeve and can readily attest to the jewel-like quality of favorite trees, shrubs and flowering plants. 
And not unlike the late-day Garden visitors, true enthusiasts can never get enough of plants – especially rare and newly introduced ones. 

This night could not be considered the cure for what ails you, but rather a major player in enabling a passion! 
Not coincidentally, I recalled a Zen master, Lao Tzu’s admonishment: “There is no greater sin than desire…”
But to borrow from Michael Pollan, this was a dearly, doozy of a “botany of desire” and ground zero for any plant lover worth his or her seeds. J

The wow factor is huge, as are some of the specimen trees!

We were soon met by Wendy Scott, DCH’s charming and oh so professional and gracious Communications manager. 

And we must take a moment for Applause, Applause here! 
Wendy was recently named by The Garden Writers Association (GWA) as a 2010 Silver Award of Achievement for her writing “Our Urban Forest,” in the Writing - Newsletter/Bulletin/Brochure category.

I told you she was good!

Wendy secured a Rare Plant Auction event program for me.
The catalog itself is worth the price of a ticket.
It is chock a bloc with information on all the auction plants – and special notation about the “Rarest of the Rare” and “Hard to Find” supporting nurseries, plant donors, and the bios of the evening’s Plant Experts who were there to explain the plant’s provenance, growing needs and care. 
Displaying a measured depth of knowledge, Wendy provided an overview of the evening’s schedule-from Auction Preview to Silent Auction, to Live Auction to Dinner, Payment, and Plant Pick up.
She briefed me on the procedures and also offered interesting historical notes, including the story about Mrs. du Pont declining her husband Pierre S. du Pont (and Longwood Gardens’ founder) birthday necklace of fine-jewelry pearls; preferring instead ten-miles of elm, sycamore, and oak trees to be planted along Kennett Pike that she referred to as her “String of Pearls.”  

Mrs. Alice du Pont inspired this year’s Pearl theme. 
According to DCH:
In memory of Alice’s “pearls,” two special offerings highlight the auction – a collection of plants named for Alice du Pont and a real string of pearls. Longwood Gardens is donating five different plants that have been bred at Longwood and named in Alice’s honor. For our live auction, a Mikimoto 18-inch strand of fine quality cultured pearls hand-knotted on silk was donated from within the du Pont family to mark this special anniversary. A variety of plants in the silent auction also have a pearl theme such as Rosa ‘Pearly Gates’, Clematis ‘Perle d’Azur,’ Deutzia gracilis ‘Chardonnay Pearls,’ Rhododendron ‘Ebony Pearls,’ and Thalictrum ‘Pink Pearl.’

I think the piece of “Delaware folklore” and the link that drove the thoughtful plant selection provided an elegant intimacy and sense of history and sense of place to the event. 
Too often, a theme is chosen for these kinds of events that is merely a base for graphics display or as a vanity element to attract a donor or sponsor.
The Pearl Anniversary was lovely and permeated the event organically.  Kudos.

The Rare Plant Auction® gives attendees an opportunity to meet and speak with horticultural experts. 
My former Brooklyn Botanic colleague, Patrick Cullina returned this year to lend his expertise – and playful charm.  Patrick is presently the Vice President of Horticulture & Park Operations for Friends of the Highline – New York City’s sexy new park.  (

Here is Patrick gamely posing with Mother!  

I also caught up with Chanticleer’s enormously talented horticultural treasure, Bill Thomas.  (far left)

Bill generously provided a garden tour for my extended family last year after a wedding in nearby Villanova. 
We learned so much about this drop dead gorgeous “pleasure garden.” 
Chanticleer is a bijou of a garden and shouldn’t be missed.  Their curated plant displays and collections are breathtaking.  (

I saw Fred Bland, Chairman of the Board for BBG too, but I couldn’t get over to him…

I met Paul B. Redman, Director of Longwood Gardens while covering the live auction.  Mr. Redman served as this year’s Honorary Chair.
According to DCH press advisory, previously Mr. Redman was Executive Director of Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Columbus, Ohio and Volunteer Coordinator at National Tropical Botanical Garden in Lawai, Kauai, Hawaii.

The bidding at this year’s Live Auction was spirited, competitive and successful. 
More than a few people noted that because the economy was better this year, there was more and greater bidding.

Urged on by Christie’s volunteer auctioneer, Dean Failey -- who has conducted the auction for 17 years -- opening bids were driven up fast in most cases. 

Some bidding started at $500 or $800 and rose progressively upwards – some to $3,600. Some more.

I noted bidders furiously taking notes or consulting with a partner. 

Every plant and plant collection up for auction was introduced.

The Plant Experts were often asked to explain a bit more detail about a plant’s rare qualities or the elements of the plants in a specific collection.  So Patrick Cullina and Angela Treadwell-Palmer would provide “play-action commentary.”  

I wanted to know what kind of motivation spurred such a “botany of desire” and so when the Live Auction concluded, I approached the couple that held the winning bid on a very coveted collection that benefited from a protracted bidding war among several attendees. 
Asking that his name not be used, he and his wife explained that his mother was an extraordinary gardener with a green thumb – kind of a famous or well-known gardener in their community (people come from all over the country to attend the Rare Plant Auction). 
Therefore, it was his mother’s love of plants and her role model status that inspired a life-long love affair with plants.  Wow! Yeah for Mothers…

I bid my measly budget on some silent auction gems but didn’t bring home anything. But the plant display compositions were terrific just to view.

And some of the attendees were sporting colorful fashions of their own! 

My mother couldn’t resist the Community Gardening outreach and bought a letter to support the program.
According to DCH:
A special feature of this year’s event was the Greening Neighborhoods Map, a large interactive exhibit illustrating DCH programs in Wilmington relating to trees, parks, traffic islands, and community gardens. Guests were invited to “purchase” pieces of the picture as it is assembled throughout the evening.

Here is Mother with Anne Maddingly, Community Garden Manager

DCH worked with neighborhood citizens to produce the first urban farm in Delaware. 
I will write more about this important gardening and food project for my other blog:

Following the letter donation, Mother and I went into the dazzling dining area in the Conservatory. 
It was otherworldly and so magical it took your breath away walking into the room.

Soon after we enjoyed our meal and an interesting dinner conversation with our new-found friends at the table, Wendy stopped by to let us know she’d found an escort to drive us back to the train station. 

Like two Cinderella’s, we quickly but reluctantly prepared to depart the Garden’s intoxication and hop into our carriage.
In fact, our delightful escorts were Felise and Michael Cressmsan. 
The drive back only extended our appreciation for the work of the Garden and DCH.

Michael is with AstraZeneca, “a proud supporter of the Rare Plant Auction.” 
Felise is a Master Gardener and a leader of the Wilmington Garden Club. 
She has also been a dedicated volunteer for many years at the Garden and is on the Rare Plant Auction’s Steering Committee. 
And she wore the sweetest dress that evening!
Felise added to the evening’s narrative by sharing stories of all the talent and hard work behind the scenes that goes into producing such a spectacular event: from identifying appropriate plants, assembling them at the Garden in a timely manner, arranging the plant vignettes and compositions for viewing, and producing plant labels and ID’s.

(Call out here to Moira Sheridan who is also noted in the catalog for writing the plant descriptions) 

Here are some of the Garden's interns - enjoying the fruits of their labor:

We bid farewell and thanked Michael and Felise and dreamed of dramatic, glamorous plants as our train swooshed us home.

The Rare Plant Auction at Longwood Gardens is an amazing and special event that you shouldn’t miss. 

So be sure to mark your calendars for next year. 
Plus, guess what?  You can double your pleasure in 2011! 

Wendy was smart and kind enough to point out that next year the Rare Plant Auction is April 30th and Point to Point at Winterthur is May 1st.

All the festivities will take place on the same weekend.  Quelle chance! 

The Brandywine area is captivating, the Rare Plant Auction is a special opportunity to enjoy the Garden and take home some one-of-a-kind plants that will make all your friends and family pea green with envy and Point to Point is an exciting day of steeplechase horse racing on the Winterthur Estate. (I think that’s three things that will make you smile, but who’s counting?)

But for certain, this will be THE place to be for anyone who loves art, beauty, tradition, horses and plants.  

How Glamorous!

The Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH) cultivates greener communities by inspiring appreciation and improvement of the environment through horticulture, education and conservation. Founded in 1977, the Center’s site in Wilmington, Delaware includes a 1.5 acre educational demonstration garden, a 3,000 volume lending library, lecture hall and a greenhouse. DCH supports 16 active community gardens throughout the city of Wilmington; beautifies Delaware’s roadsides with native vegetation; maintains the landscaping of many urban gateways, corridors, and streetscapes; leads regional conservation projects to enhance Delaware’s urban forest; and provides educational programs for children, teens, and adults.  For more information, visit

Longwood Gardens is one of the world’s great horticultural displays, offering 1,050 acres of gardens, woodlands, and meadows, including 20 outdoor gardens and 20 indoor gardens within 4 acres of heated greenhouses. Featuring 11,000 different types of plants, spectacular fountains, stunning seasonal displays, extensive educational programs, and 800 horticultural and performing arts events each year, the Gardens are open every day, including holidays. Longwood is located on US Route 1 near Kennett Square, PA.  For more information, visit


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