Flowermart embraces the 21st century, but with lemon sticks

Celia Rose Gieszl, of Baltimore, adorned with a flowering hat and matching dress, is framed by extra large artificial sunflowers at the 2011 Flowermart.
Celia Rose Gieszl, of Baltimore, adorned with a flowering hat and matching dress, is framed by extra large artificial sunflowers at the 2011 Flowermart.(Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

The big hats, the beautiful flowers, the maypole, the lemon peppermint sticks — those are the hallmarks of Baltimore's Flowermart, an oasis of old-fashioned gentility that its organizers promise will stay that way.

Which is why it's a little disturbing when its president starts talking about computers and relevancy and modernization.

"We're moving into another generation," said Carol Karcher Purcell, president of Flower Mart at Mount Vernon Ltd., which has been running the century-old Baltimore street festival since 2000. "We've gone electronic, we've crossed that bridge. These gals are really up to speed, moving into the next generation."

But Purcell chuckles reassuringly at the fear that this could translate into a different Flowermart than the one generations of Baltimoreans have embraced. Yes, its organizers are learning how to use computers and social media (you can friend them on Facebook). But the essence of Flowermart won't be changing anytime soon, she promises.

"We wanted to keep the tradition alive, but at the same time, to enhance it," Purcell said. "We want the next generation to be able to create their own traditions."

So yes, visitors to this weekend's Flowermart will notice a few new things — nothing radical, just new. There's an expanded children's section, called The Beehive, with storytelling, craft-making and some pirates running around. A quilt is being raffled off — "a beautiful piece of artwork," Purcell promises. The Flowermart logo has been altered, adding Mount Vernon's Washington Monument to the traditional flowers. And the slogan for 2012 has been changed, from "Different in sense" to "Blossoming civility."

See, nothing revolutionary. Just enough tweaks to suggest that Flowermart, while grounded in the past, isn't tied to it. It's staid, not static.

"It has style, it has pageantry, it has tradition," Purcell said. "We still have the maypole dance, for example, with the Bryn Mawr girls."

She and her compatriots are taking that "Blossoming civility" logo to heart, Purcell notes. "

That's our mission, so to speak," she said. "We still use words like 'responsibility' and 'respect' — things like that, at Flowermart."

Flowermart's history bespeaks that determination. Begun in 1911 as a way to help city folk gathers plants for their gardens, it grew into an annual gathering that cities throughout the country would copy.

"Flowermart is Baltimore's rite of spring," Purcell said. Few would argue with her.

Roadblocks have cropped up along the way. Civil unrest marred a handful of Flowermarts in the 1970s, and a lack of interest (as well as fresh blood) led to its cancellation in the mid-1990s.

But Flowermart has come back in recent years, thanks partly to the intercession of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who saw it as a Baltimore tradition worth saving.

The result is a throwback to gentler days, when kids sucked on lemon sticks (one of Baltimore's most charming culinary innovations), women wore big hats to shield their faces from the sun and people strolled leisurely through Mount Vernon on a warm spring day.

Said Purcell, "Flowermart does have a wonderful, gentle side to it, and we cherish that."


If you go

The 2012 Flowermart runs 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Mount Vernon, centering on the area surrounding the Washington Monument, at Monument and North Charles streets. Admission is free. Information: flowermart.org.

Flowermart contests

This year's Flowermart includes four contests in which visitors can take part. They are:

Grand Hat Contest, 2 p.m. Friday. Kids and adults are invited to show off their headwear. An entry form is available on the "Contests" page at flowermart.org.

Pet Parade and Mascot Contest, 11:30 a.m. Saturday. All pets are eligible, costumed or not.

Wildflowers Costume Contest, 11:45 a.m. Saturday. Why not come dressed as those dandelions you're always trying to exile from your yard?

Dance Contest, 4 p.m. Saturday. Ribbons and prizes will be awarded,