A party with the poinsettias


The people who run one of Baltimore's biggest glass houses did not throw stones yesterday - they threw a party.

Reviving a tradition, the recently renovated Baltimore Conservatory and Botanic Gardens held its first holiday open house in three years, with a thousand poinsettias creating an especially festive look.

The 1888 Victorian glass palace in Druid Hill Park, a civic architectural gem that had fallen on hard times, reopened this fall after an extended upgrade and expansion.

Elizabeth Hopkins, the board president of the association that helps run the conservatory for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, said reviving the open house was the beginning of an effort to reintroduce the glass house to new generations of city dwellers.

"People in their 50s say, 'My mother used to take me to the Christmas show at the glass house,'" she said. "We need that to come back."

One family of three fit her aspirations.

"It was either this or watch the football game," said Tracy Smith, strolling through the rooms with his wife, Ndaneh and sleeping 2-year-old son, Maxwell. He added, "I've been to the one in Milwaukee - this one's better."

Another person seeing the conservatory for the first time was a 71-year-old Baltimorean. "I've lived here all my life and this is the first time I've seen it," said Doris Briggs, who works as a receptionist at City Hall. "I couldn't believe all this is in here."

Longtime conservatory patrons, some of whom were there for the first time yesterday since 2002, said not being able to visit during renovations was difficult - but that seeing freshly planted orchids and other blooming flowers, exotic flora and greenery was worth the wait.

"Before, there was so much vegetation, you missed out," said Frank Willcox of Overlea, whose father-in-law once worked on the grounds. "Now there's less, but you can see more."

Especially bright were the rows of "winter rose" and "freedom red" poinsettias, some arranged in the form of a tree. But the city-owned Cylburn Arboretum, which grows the Christmas show flowers, also provided subtle shades of the native Mexican flower: peppermint pink and a pale yellow. Two other varieties on display yesterday were named after artists: "da Vincis," with striking claw-like leaves, and "Monets," the colors of which resembled a painting by the famed Impressionist.

The atmosphere made for a fine place to take a date visiting from New York. Shawn Dowling, 45, of Baltimore said he brought Jenny McClintock, 34, of Manhattan to show her an old haunt.

"This is one of my favorite places, one of the best-kept secrets in the city," Dowling said.

"It's giving us ideas for his little garden or greenhouse," McClintock said.

The free event included musicians playing holiday carols on recorders, and a mother-daughter team serving refreshments.

Like many at the open house, Sheila Garrett of Woodlawn and her daughter Marissa said they had been impatient to see the conservatory, whose renovations cost $5 million, spring back to life.

"I waited for the opening forever," said Garrett, as she served cider and cookies with Marissa, 8. The pair, she said, spend a few hours every weekend helping at the conservatory to give Marissa some knowledge of the tropics and rainforests.

Yesterday's lesson, recounted by Marissa, concerned who brought the poinsettia to the United States - "Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s," she told a few adults.

The Baltimore Conservatory and Botanic Gardens poinsettia show runs through Jan. 2. The conservatory is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but is closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. The suggested donation is $2.

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