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TBT: Shocking Pink

October seems a little early for the Cactus Geranium to start blooming after its summer dormancy, but it is, which occasions bringing up this old post from January 2011 in its honor.

Sometime during the night, the buds of Pelargonium echinatum unfolded their cerise petals. The next morning, the intensity of the color was a shock to eyes grown accustomed to the restrained colors of winter.


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Which is about the time I wondered: When did pink leave demure behind to become shocking? And when did those two words first become inseparable?

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What’s amazing to me, number one, is there is an answer to be found to such idle questions of mine, and it can be unearthed in less than 10 minutes:
Pink first became shocking when the eponymous perfume Shocking was launched in 1937, the packaging designed by Leonor Fini for fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

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Surrealist-inspired Schiaparelli — pardon the crude and class-divisive shorthand which was in use at the time — was the ugly aristocrat to Coco Chanel’s pretty commoner, Chanel’s designs as sedate as Schiaparelli’s were outrageously flamboyant, and the two were supposedly intense rivals. (Perhaps flamboyance comes easier to those with trust funds? Just wondering…) Legendary photographer Horst P. Horst, interviewed by Maureen Dowd for the New York Times in 1988, remembers: “Chanel so disliked the overpowering style of the shocking pink, Dali-sketched creations of Elsa Schiaparelli…that she always pretended to forget Schiaparelli’s name, referring to her rival as ‘that Italian designer.'” Horst royally ticked off Chanel by photographing Schiaparelli first, but Chanel apparently became mollified enough to later sit for Horst. (Is life still this exciting?)

Tiny copy of Horst’s portrait of Schiaparelli:

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Horst’s portrait of Coco Chanel:

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The women’s choice of head gear says it all.

Horst might be better known for this corset ad, re-enacted by a famous singer in her ’90s music videoVogue directed by David Fincher:

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In remembering how she came upon the name for her perfume, Schiaparelli recalls in her autobiography Shocking Life: “The colour flashed in front of my eyes. Bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a colour of China and Peru but not of the West’s shocking colour, pure and undiluted.”

Practically speaking, this little South African pelargonium is kept dry in summer, when it goes dormant, then erupts in impudent, shocking pink flowers after winter rains. Elsa would love it, a shocking color, pure and undiluted.

Unforgettable Fire! Natural Discourse 2016


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I usually have at least a hazy impression of the origin lands of the plants in my garden. Drawing from the five mediterranean climate regions for low-rainfall plant inspiration and choices as well as arid and semi-arid regions keeps my garden well stocked and me endlessly entertained. Island plants will always fire my imagination, whether from our own Channel Islands or faraway Madeira and the Canary Islands. The lands of aloes, whether Somalia, Madagascar, South Africa, the home of the protaceae family, Australia and South Africa, this is the stuff road trip dreams are made of, and I indulge in such daydreams frequently. Much closer to home, however, there’s this inexplicable blackout in my mind for a desert that is the botanical font of so many plants in my garden, a region bigger than California, the “largest desert ecosystem in North America and the third most biologically diverse arid region on Earth.”

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(all photos courtesy of Mark Briggs and Natural Discourse)

As she’s done since 2012, Shirley Watts assembled a mesmerizing group of speakers on topics related to the transformational powers of fire, including a couple other personal favorites, “Birds, Fire and the Chaparral” by Erica Newman, and William Fox on “Fire, Art, Environment” (“I basically look at how artists manifest human creative interactions with natural-built and even virtual environments, and I bring that stuff back to the museum,” which would be the Nevada Museum of Art.)


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Mark clarified the acronym does not allude to the WWF Superstars of Wrestling. I’d love to have this T-shirt.

Mark Briggs’ talk at Natural Discourse October 1, 2016, (“Using Fire as a Tool to Bring Back the Rio Grande/Bravo along the U.S.-Mexico Border,”) really helped flesh out this remarkable Chihuahuan Desert region for me, the land of peyote and so many agaves, dasylirion, opuntia, ferocactus, ocotillo. The U.S.’s complicated relationship with our southern neighbor and the heated political demagoguery this campaign season can color so many of our perceptions, even to the point of draining a land of its unique physicality in the popular imagination. Only recently have the border crossing restrictions put in place after 9/11 been lifted.


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The binational team, with Mark Briggs center, in the red ballcap


Mark Briggs, through the World Wildlife Fund, has been working with a binational team on the river that forms the boundary between the two countries, called the Rio Grande when it flows in the U.S. and the Rio Bravo when in Mexico. The specific task Briggs’ talk focused on was the eradication of Arundo donax from the riverbanks, using first fire and then herbicide on regrowth, to restore its broad and shallow optimal habitat conditions. The giant cane, with which I am regrettably personally very familiar (removed fall 2014, and I wish I’d had the use of a flame thrower), alters the river from a habitat-friendly configuration of broad and shallow to the antithetical, habitat-stifling configuration of narrow and deep.


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‘Big Bend Century Plant,’ Agave havardiana, Big Bend National Park, to zone 7

The Chihuahuan Desert’s northern reach extends into New Mexico and Texas, but two-thirds of the desert lie in Mexico.
The Rio Conchos and the binational region of Big Bend is the geographic focus of the World Wildlife Fund’s work in the basin.

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The Rio Grande/Bravo basin is 607,965 sq. km, twice the area of Arizona
3,034 km from headwaters in southern Colorado and upper Rio Conchos to the Gulf of Mexico

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I so agree with this fellow’s opinion of the giant cane. I gave the thumb’s down to Arundo donax too for my zone 10 garden. And they say tetrapanax is difficult to contain? Ha!

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Hotsprings, Big Bend National Park, showing the river choking on the lush growth of giant cane.

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The “Los Diablos” team at work on the giant cane.

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A portion of the river painstakingly restored.

I had already seen The Atlantic’s video on the fire-fighting team Los Diablos which Mark included in his presentation, and you may have too, but it’s worth another look.

N.B. You can catch up with more of Shirley’s work with Natural Discourse at the upcoming “Digital Nature,” which promises to be a magical evening at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden Oct. 22 & 23, 2016.

Occasional Daily Weather Report; hot stuff

I’ve got my seed packets of scarlet flax in hand, ready to sow for spring bloom, some interesting cool season cabbages and greens on order, and I can’t stop thinking about hot soup. I’m ready.
And like waiting for the headliner at a show, I’m getting a little restless when the opening act (summer) refuses to leave the stage.
I’m ready to hand the garden over to winter (and complain about how little rainfall we’re getting.)
But heatwaves do bring undeniable benefits. There was such a glorious hush over the neighborhood yesterday, chased indoors by heat and televised sports.
Today is supposed to top 100. Yesterday was high 90s, a throwback to those lackadaisical summer days when I pile a bunch of reading in the coolest spot outdoors I can find.
But who am I kidding, September is always hot in Los Angeles and it’s foolish to expect anything else. I’ve always been out of meteorological sync with this season.
As a kid it felt bizarrely, infuriatingly arbitrary to trudge back to hot, stuffy classrooms instead of heading again for the beach.

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And I may have prematurely moved touchy Agave gypsophila ‘Ivory Curls’ into a full sun position for fall/winter.

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And he’s just outgrown the leaf burn from a previous bout of sunstroke.

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Sorry if I sound a little testy. Hot and dry in autumn is a signal to the termites to wing it, an event that always sets our teeth on edge as they flap against our little wooden bungalow.
But ain’t life grand? Autumn light, insects that eat houses, grasses that catch the wind like schools of fish work the currents — I tell you, it’s simply too wonderful. Have a great week.

Wednesday Vignette 9/21/16


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The aeoniums are losing that shriveled and squinty, “Anybody seen my sunglasses?” look they acquire over summer, plumping up again for their favorite season that’s just ahead.

An old post from January 2013 “comparative aeoniums” shows them at their happiest.
(Anna at Flutter & Hum collects Wednesday Vignettes.)

Occasional Daily Weather Report 9/20/16

We’re having a spell of clammy, sultry weather, the kind that will boost passionflowers another foot in growth seemingly overnight.


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Passiflora hybrid ‘Flying V,’ was a gift from Max Parker, who blogs at Hook and Spur.
‘Flying V’ is a cross between two Jamaican passionflower vines, Passiflora penduliflora and P. perfoliata.
Jamaica’s tropical marine climate averages temperatures around 83F, so I think ‘Flying V’ has been feeling right at home in this tropical island weather we’re having.

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All summer it’s been near impossible to get any photos, as all the blooms clustered at the top of this Agave mitis ‘Multicolor’ bloom stalk, disappearing under the eaves in this photo from 2015.
(Hybridizer Mark Cooper felt the leaves bore a resemblance to his favorite guitar, the Gibson Flying V, played by Hendrix, Albert King, Lenny Kravitz, among many others.)

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The vine was planted in a large pot that’s been half buried in the ground, with the agave stalk, minus most of its bulbils, plunged in the center as an impromptu scaffold.
To be honest, using the agave stalk for support was a bit of a joke. I assumed the vine would need endless cajoling and coaxing and ultimately opt not to thrive. Call me jaded, it’s true.
But this vine immediately took off for the heights, and it’s taken all summer for it to cascade back down and bring those little pink parachutes back within camera range.

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And if I leave too early in the morning or get home too late the blooms will be closed shut, more shuttlecock than parachute.
Now I’m wondering how long it will be before that fibrous agave stalk disintegrates and the vine needs to be disentangled from its support.
But that’s a worry for mid-winter, not days like this. It’s nice to see the sky tumbled with big fluffy clouds for a change too.
‘Flying V’ is reportedly root hardy to zone 8.

Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Fast Forward’

I recently picked up a gallon of Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Fast Forward,’ which may or may not be the answer to a pink muhly lover’s prayers. The PR is it’s more uniform and blooms earlier, possibly as early as August, depending on where you garden. It’s been beautifully grown, already carrying a half dozen blooms spikes. So I thought I’d use the occasion to tell you about the time I snuck some muhly grass into a narrow border I planted for my mom, and how she surreptitiously but methodically clipped its blades into submission to comply with a stern vision of neatness that I certainly didn’t inherit, which of course canceled out any hope of flowering — but I see I already have in a post from October 2013, which is reposted below. At my mom’s over the weekend, I noted that she “tided” an agave too that, to my eye, seemed innocent of any offense. It’s all part of a general wariness of plants that runs in my family. Boy, am I the black sheep in that regard. Or maybe that makes me the green sheep?

I’m very excited about this so-called early-blooming muhly, so we’ll see how it does. A couple months or so earlier in bloom would be a significant breeding accomplishment.

As far as seasons go, to me summer is rich, pungent, dense, where autumn is quicksilver, vaporous, light on its feet, with a tartness that is the perfect apertif to summer’s gluttony of sensation. The eaves are now dripping morning dew as the dry season comes to an end, with hopefully the return soon of prodigal rains, and the light arrives in glittering beveled sheaves. Summer and winter can each grow tiresome in their own ways, but I challenge anyone to find fault with those seasons that seem to gently swing in on quiet hinges, spring and fall. Purple muhly grass pretty much sums up how I feel about fall with its transformational buoyancy and crepuscular coloring, but it was a little trickier to find some this year. The big stands of it at the Long Beach airport were “tidied” at some point mid-summer, so no blooms this year. There are similar tidying impulses in my family, though in my case they seem to have skipped a generation. I planted one clump of muhly grass at my mom’s, in a long narrow border with agaves and other succulents, and she was surreptitiously taking scissors to the grass blades throughout summer to keep them neat. Again, the blooms were sacrificed. These big stands of muhly grass pictured below are in a hard-to-reach spot at the entrance to a freeway, safely removed from compulsive tidiers. I biked there a couple nights ago on the way to picking up some gyros for dinner. Muhly grass, pennisetum, sesleria and aloes are what I found, but at the link can be seen what will be back again in spring.


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Natural Discourse: Fire! 9/30 & 10/1/16

I’ve lived long enough to have experienced the dispersal of information about plants move from paper to the computer screen, and it seems I rarely have the sense anymore that I’m cut off from an essential stream of information on one of my favorite topics. But in other important cultural, scientific, and political matters, I often feel that with the digital floodgates open on seemingly every topic and opinion, many vital issues fall prey to a lack of inflection or emphasis and are thereby deemed irrelevant in the popular imagination. Yes, platforms like the TED talks help give marginally popular issues a voice, but for those of us always scanning the sky, the land, thermometers and rain gauges, I do feel our concerns are woefully underrepresented in popular media. And what’s incredibly frustrating is that these concerns of ours are not narrowly personal but important and central to everything we love (life!). So when programming like Natural Discourse came along back in 2012, I immediately sensed this is the focus that’s been lacking.

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Photo above taken by photographer George Bennett, when fire was threatening the 747 Wing House in the Malibu hills.
The house, designed by architect David Hertz from the wings of a decommissioned Boeing 747, is on the site of Tony Duquette’s Ranch, which itself was destroyed in a brush fire in the 1990’s.
When fire was menacing the Wing House in 2013, George was on site with his camera. He has been invited him to show us these stunning images and recount this close brush with destruction.

Shirley Watts has brought Natural Discourse, an “ongoing series of symposia, publications, and site-specific art installations that explores the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of botanical gardens and natural history museums,” this year to the Huntington on September 30 and October 1, aiming her intensely curious, curatorial mind on a subject of both regional and timely importance. Apart from record drought continuing in the West, July has been pronounced the hottest month on record, and our notorious fire season has leaped its usual seasonal boundaries and has morphed into an ongoing conflagration. The subject of fire is, well, hot. If ever there was a time to shout Fire! — this is it. Fire in all its guises, destructive, regenerative, inspirational, will be discussed by a fascinating group of scientists and artists at this year’s Natural Discourse at the Huntington September 30th and October 1st:

Friday evening from 7:30 to 8:30:
John Doyle, Jean-Lou Chameau Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems at Caltech. His talk Fire and Life, will highlight Southern California’s particularly complex relationship with fire.
Mia Feuer, artist, Assistant Professor of Sculpture at CA College of the Arts, will talk about her work at the tar sands in Alberta, CA.​​​

Saturday from 9 to 4:
Thomas Fenn, Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Ancient Pyro-technology. Tom is an archaeologist who specializes in examining early technologies. His research combines chemistry, geology, archeology, cultural anthropology and history. He will talk to us about the history of man’s discovery and use of fire.
George Bennett, photographer, will talk about fire at the Wing House in Malibu
Erica Newman, fire ecologist will talk about biodiversity in chaparral and what to expect with fire and climate change
William L. Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, will talk about fire as an outdoor spectacle and as art in the environment.
Sara Hiner, musician and Eric Elias, pyro-technician, will talk about their collaboration on the fireworks at Hollywood Bowl
Mark Briggs, river ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund’s Rio Grande/Bravo Programs will talk about controlled burns on the US/Mexican border

I do think it’s incredibly important to support this unique programming (written in my best, silkiest NPR/PBS-solicitous voice), and it’s just been made easier to do so.
Prices have been reduced; tickets can be ordered here.

Los Angeles, if ever there was a discourse designed specifically with you in mind, this is it. Come support Natural Discourse. I’d love to see you there.

Bloomday September 2016

We’ve been babysitting a cat whose life had been previously confined to indoors. His love for his newfound garden kingdom almost matches my own.
But his ungainly enthusiam translates into tearing through the garden like a baby elephant, and stalking birds, so I’ve been cutting back a lot of the summer stuff much earlier than usual.
Depriving him of cover and maybe a bell for his neck should even the odds.

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But there remains a few blooms to report. Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ is a big, luminous presence now. almost always in bloom.
‘Robyn Gordon’ has been in reliable bloom all summer as well.

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The eremophila have grown into substantial shrubs in one summer.

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Sedums are in bloom. I don’t usually spring for the herbaceous sedums, but these new darker colors were too tempting to resist.
This one ‘Touchdown Flame,’ held the dark coloration without fading, and I so appreciate the yellow flowers versus pink.

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Salvia uliginosa and Calamintha ‘Montrose White’ both get the Most Attractive to Wildlife award this summer, in bloom for months.

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A summer-blooming aloe is what makes ‘Cynthia Giddy’ so special. I pulled this offset off the main clump just weeks ago, and it’s already throwing a bloom.

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Not a great photo but I got home late and was losing the light. This Plectranthus neochilus weaving around the Copper Spoons kalanchoe has been a friend to hummingbirds all summer.
Plectranthus zuluensis is also in bloom.

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A little potted crassula has erupted in pearly blooms.

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The grasses pretty much own the garden now. This is Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ with some agastache and bog sage in the background.

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But leucadendrons and aloes are biding their time to shine in winter.

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Glaucium grandiflorum keeps throwing trusses of blooms, this one a little beaten down (probably the cat again)

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The beauty and vigor of the vine Solanum ‘Navidad Jalisco’ continues to be simultaneously alarming and delightful.

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The slipper foot, Euphorbia (or Pedilanthus) macrocarpus, has been much more floriferous in the ground than a container.

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And that’s about all there’s light for. Happy Bloom Day!

reprising a 2010 visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden

(Ms. Bancroft is celebrating her 108th birthday this month — yes, that’s not a typo — and we’re all awaiting the upcoming launch later this fall of the book chronicling the making of her garden The Bold Dry Garden.)

If you have an Internet connection and a love of plants, you probably also have many unmet friends with those same two attributes.
Finally meeting up with them is thrilling. When they arrange to take you to marvelous gardens you’ve never visited before, life doesn’t get any better.

Just such a friend arranged for a group of gardeners to visit the Ruth Bancroft Garden, located in Walnut Creek, California, one I’ve long wanted to explore. The garden didn’t disappoint.

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I’m guessing Agave lophantha.

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This guy in the center looks a lot like my Mr. Ripple, which is an A. salmiana hybrid.

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Thrilling enough, no? But what I didn’t expect to find was garden scenes like this.

Our visit luckily coincided with the RBG’s 16th annual Sculpture in the Garden fundraiser. Nothing loosens up a group of gardeners more than provocative garden sculpture.

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You should have seen the caboose on this lizard lady. I don’t know how she kept her balance in those heels.

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But it would take a lot more than a lizard in heels to upstage plants like the spiral aloe, Aloe polyphylla.

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There were swathes of succulents of every stripe, spike, and rosette, including this Aloe distans.

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And the occasional bull-human ceramic hybrid.

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These sauteed gentlemen utterly charmed me.

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We were wondering if this regal fellow is the Sharkskin Agave, aka the Ruth Bancroft Agave. Can you tell we toured without a docent?
I doubt a docent could have corralled us. We peeled off in twelve different directions, crossing paths periodically to compare notes and point out possible missed gems.

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Barrel cactus and a gorgeous, diaphanous, broom-like shrub but apparently not a cytisus. No one knew its name.

When curiosity grew to unmanageable proportions, we flagged down docents to fire questions at them. (What a nice bunch docents are.)

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This plant seemed to attract the most attention.
The flowers were similar in shape to our native calochortus and also to an Australian shrub that’s grown in So. Calif. that we call the “Blue Hibiscus,’ Alyogyne huegelii.
The Blue Hibiscus has sandpapery-textured, maple-shaped leaves, and this shrub’s leaves were threadlike.
Input from a couple docents pieced together an ID. Alyogyne hakaeifolia.

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More garden denizens.

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These ceramic sculptures were built in components and slipped over pvc pipe. The combinations arising from this simple technique are seemingly endless.

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Meeting a group of gardeners, of course, never disappoints. Their erudition in matters horticultural and otherwise can be astounding.

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And whether fluent in botanical Latin or not, we all speak the same language and come from the same tribe.

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The sculpture exhibit and sale runs through July 18, 2010.

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we have a winner

The Muradian pot will now reside in the care of Jon in Baltimore, Maryland. Congratulations! I’ve sent you a PM.

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It turned out to be fortuitous that the pot was set aside pending the giveaway, because these new shelves came crashing down Saturday with a sound Marty likened to the “wreck of the Hesperus.”
That would be my doing. I’m guilty of overloading it with just one more pot…every week or so.
It’s been strengthened and rigged again, and amazingly no plants seem to have been lost. I couldn’t bear to take a photo of the carnage so here’s the semi-tidy aftermath.
Lots of pot shards to sweep up, but nothing precious. The orphaned plants are already shaking off the trauma in their new digs.
It’ll be in the mail this week, Jon.