Don't be fooled by the Garden Club of America woman. Beneath her prim gardening apron and polite smile lies a passion for earthy delights, a penchant for pushing the boundaries of accepted horticulture and, yes, even a streak of political activism.
And you thought it was all white gloves, big hats and little wedge-shaped sandwiches.
"We're not just pretty flowers anymore," said Ann Cherry of Baltimore, a member of the Guilford Garden Club. "We're realigning our thrust more to the environment and conservation."
Mrs. Cherry is among more than 600 club delegates who have gathered this week at Stouffer Haborplace Hotel for the 79-year-old organization's annual meeting. They have come from 189 clubs across the country for five days of workshops, speeches, tours and a club-to-club plant exchange.
To step into the meeting amid the oak-paneled doors of Stouffer's fifth floor is to step into pre-feminist America. Members refer to each other as "ladies, gals and girls," and the meeting catalog lists women by their husband's name, with the woman's name in parentheses, if at all. For greater political incorrectness, consider the catalog's description of the Owings Mills garden of Mrs. E. Phillips Hathaway, where "Sweeping lawns carry your eye to this pond where a Confederate flag, courtesy of Mr. Hathaway, flies valiantly in the breeze."
But meeting co-chairwoman Nancy Swindell (Mrs. Robert H. Swindell Jr.) of Baltimore said that the organization in the last decade has updated its agenda, placing greater emphasis on educating members and the public about environmental protection. Along with scholarships for study of landscape architecture and botany, the club offers environmental studies grants. The organization even has its own environmental lobbyist, Phoebe Driscoll of Philadelphia, plus a hired Washington consultant on legislative matters.
"We look at plants from every aspect," said Mrs. Driscoll, who grew up in Harford County. "Artistic, conservationist, horticulturist."
Her game is politics, and she and other members of the Garden Club of America can be seen testifying on Capitol Hill and buttonholing congressional aides, pressing the club's chief environmental issues: protecting endangered plants, animals, wetlands, the California desert wilderness and ancient forests, plus recycling and reauthorizing the Clean Water Act.
The battle also continues against that eternal Garden Club nemesis, the roadside billboard. The club's been fighting those since the 1920s.
"It's something we will never give up," said Mrs. Driscoll. "We look on billboards as visual blight."
She spoke in the Baltimore Ballroom, where club members were setting up the big plant exchange. Each club delegate brought with her six plants selected by the club. These will be judged this morning, then exchanged by club members. No cash changes hands, just plants.
Rosemary Jones, who co-chairs the plant exchange, carried her six infant plants in a bag from her home in Newport Beach, Cal., about 15 miles south of Los Angeles. She made it through airport security with the plants, no problem, but they had to ride coast-to-coast in the darkness under the seat in front of her.
"They don't like being on the plane," Mrs. Jones said. Particularly the glory bower, which suffered droopy leaves.
Mrs. Jones inherited the gardening bug from her mother. "It becomes an obsession really," she said. "It's a challenge to make something grow in your area that they tell you [you couldn't grow.]"
Mrs. Jones lives in Zone 11 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's map of growing regions, based on climate. There's a certain breed of bright-pink tulip that the USDA says you can't grow in southern California, not unless you take the plant out of the ground and stick it in the freezer for six weeks so the plant thinks it's in Zone 8, where winters are cold. Well, Mrs. Jones has grown the tulips without the freezer, and has three seasons of bloom to show for it.
She likes pushing the limits, she said. "We all do."