Dressed in vinery Ivy: Since its introduction in 1992, the Camden Yards plant is growing on walls -- as well as fans.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ivy climbs the bleacher wall at Oriole Park, beanstalk-style, curling over the top as if straining to watch the game. There, the vines land at the feet of Jane Van Remoortere, a bleacherite in Section 90 who has come to appreciate the creeping green gatecrasher at her side.

"It's better than sitting next to a sweaty body," said Remoortere, 48, of Bethesda. "The ivy doesn't scream, curse or act obnoxious. It really seems to know its place."

Five years after its introduction into Camden Yards, the ivy is growing on Orioles fans, not to mention the stadium walls where mature vines spurt 6 feet a year and threaten to turn Oriole Park into a Chia park.

Already, the ivy is 10 feet from the top of the 40-foot green wall beyond center field, where the plants are expected to crest by the year 2000. Two years ago, the strapping vines swallowed the adjacent bleacher wall facing left field. The ivy would spill into the stands and cover the chairs -- topiary seats, anyone? -- if not trimmed regularly by the Orioles grounds crew.

"It's growing according to plan," said Dave Stewart-Craig of Imperial Nurseries, the White Marsh firm which supplied the ivy. "I guess it likes ballpark food."

Bathed in spilled beer, drenched with nacho dip, hammered by home runs, the vines press on, their rootlets hugging the concrete with Ripken-like persistence.

"I wouldn't play Romeo and Juliet and climb the vines, but they're sticking pretty good," said Stewart-Craig.

Fans sitting nearest the ivy say they enjoy rubbing ankles with the handsome foliage.

"It gives the feel of an old, old ballpark," said Zachary Howard, 41, of Baltimore.

"Love it, love it," said Tim Laramie, 38, of Buffalo, N.Y. "Reminds me of [Chicago's] Wrigley Field."

"Can I pot some cuttings and take them home?" asked Sandy Rogers, 40, of Manchester, Conn.

Others eye the ivy warily, as if it were of alien descent.

"It's OK, as long as it doesn't reach over and put its 'arm' around me," said Mary Fell, 39, of Boca Raton, Fla.

No one has yet vanished in the vines, said Paul Zwaska, the Orioles' groundskeeper, though the ivy has coughed up several old baseballs that had disappeared there.

Zwaska has managed the ivy from the start, tending and training the 200 plants that arrived one week before Opening Day, 1992. He feeds the vines during growing season and fusses over them year-round. The plants have thrived, growing at twice the normal rate of 2 to 3 feet per year, while gaining national TV exposure, much to the delight of the American Ivy Society.

"This is a wonderful public display of a marvelous plant," said Sabina Sulgrove, club spokeswoman.

Oriole Park is the only big-league stadium with true "English" ivy, an evergreen plant that keeps its color year-round. Since 1938, the outfield walls at Wrigley Field have been draped in Boston ivy, a member of the grapevine family whose leaves turn red, then shed in fall.

The Orioles' ivy has weathered slumps. Though the plants are watered regularly, hot spells play havoc with the vines, burning leaves and slowing growth. "Look at this," said Zwaska, plucking a browned leaf from the center-field wall. He studies it, shakes his head. This plant, he says, belongs on the disabled list.

"From home plate, [the ivy] looks great, but close-up you can see she's stressed," said Zwaska. Possible remedies include lowering a huge curtain in front of the ivy to shade it while the

club is away.

Another problem: The vines refuse to cleave to a pair of ugly sewer pipes protruding from the wall. "We've even tried hand-wrapping the ivy around the dang pipes, but it just won't take hold," Zwaska said. "The vines want nothing to do with them."

A few feet away, the ivy grows so quickly it must be trimmed several times a season. The thinnings are discarded, though Zwaska says there is talk of potting and peddling those clippings for profit, as the Chicago Cubs did in better years.

"I'm sure there are people who'd want a piece of ivy from Oriole Park," said Zwaska -- just as tomatoes were the rage at Memorial Stadium. Zwaska's predecessor, Pat Santarone, raised tomatoes there and staged ballyhooed contests with manager Earl Weaver over who could grow the biggest fruit.

Club officials planned on tapping that tradition when the new park opened. Zwaska balked. "I'm not a tomato person," he said. Larry Lucchino, then Orioles president, stood firm and ordered two concrete tomato planters, each the size of a small desk, named "Pat" and "Earl."

Eventually, Zwaska gave in. Or so the Orioles thought.

"I grew those tomatoes for two weeks in '92," he said. "Then the plants just vanished."

Vanished?

"Well, they may have disappeared accidentally, on purpose, on my account," he said.

The ivy would have swallowed them anyhow.

Pub Date: 7/31/97

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