Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas in Florida

I am back in Florida. I spent my last day up north, until next year, with my friend Julia having some quality time and in many ways revisiting our life in Center City Philadelphia. I can be somewhat melodramatic without any intention but as we walked the streets of Philadelphia I felt a sense of change and loss as so much of it has changed so dramatically since I first arrived in 1992. So many businesses seem to have changed hands and even for a recent arrival such as myself, I have seen multiple iterations of culture and institutions in very little time. I remember saying to Julia that I needed to go to a place where I have no history, where I don't have to think of all that has come and gone before. I want to discover something new, even if it is not as grand or established.

One such institution is the Old Wanamaker Department Store that has since been Lord and Taylor and now Macy's. Regardless, it still displays one of the most wonderful Christmas musical shows anywhere. I remember a winter in the 90's when my mother came to visit and it was so cold we took refuge in the Wanamaker tea room overlooking the display to warm up and enjoy the show. The tea room and my Mother are both gone and but the display continues as our memories...
In Florida they don't take themselves too seriously but I suspect they manage to enjoy Christmas just the same. I have been to a Victorian Party at the Safford House, the oldest house in Tarpon Springs around the corner from mine where volunteers use the season to celebrate and no doubt to raise some money for their causes and to keep the termites at bay. I say this because the house was built in 1883 out of heart pine and it was restored in the early 2000's only to need a fumigation soon there after for all the new wood that was used in the restoration managed to provide a feast for the little critters. I have slowly started to discover that my house is not all heart pine like I thought and it has suffered more at the little feet of the termites. Oh well, something gone eat you sooner or later.
I have come down in part to install air conditioning/heat pump which my old house needed. The system in place was installed in 1986 and regardless how good it was then it had long stopped working as intended. The recent cold spell here had tested its ability to produce heat and I knew it was not producing cold when it was hot here when I first saw the house. I did not need this expense but what are you going to do? At least there is a tax credit for the new system which is incredibly efficient and will hopefully last another 24 years!

As you can see from the image the old one looks like a little rust bucket and the new one like Darth Vader. The system was installed in a day and the house went from 1986 to 2010 in heating. The heat pump comes on for an hour and the house is toasty. The old one worked all night and never managed to get it beyond the low 60's. Although it is not the heat that I am worried about. I am confident that when summer comes it will be ready to extract gallons of water from the humid air and make life comfortable here in the tropics.

After the Wanamaker show I came home to finish packing for my trek to Florida. I realized that this trip was the beginning of saving some of my oldest friends: my plants. I don't say this with any disrespect to my two legged friends, but I have known some of my plants longer than many people. They have come to me in all manner of ways. I have some of my Mother's plant. One in particular, a Croton, which I have managed to kill and bring back from other cuttings more than once. The Croton, being one of my most important plants from my childhood, as hedges of it lined the entry walk of our home in Cuba. Well, I brought the last two remaining cuttings I had made and figured out that they could go in the Florida soil/sand as soon as I got here. Wrong, the weather turned cold and just as soon as I placed them outside I managed to salvaged them the next day. One more or less okay and the other a bit traumatized by the cold it has never known. So back in a pot they are waiting for warmer days to return outdoors.

This poor little Staghorn fern was given to me by my friend Shinichi Tanaka in Laguna Beach California some twenty years ago. His partner, and one of my dearest friends Niels Dahlerup would put up with me often in their backyard as I directed gardening traffic fixing this, pruning that and helping out as a way of paying for my supper for the many weekends I spent with them. They had a Jaccuzzi garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Staghorn ferns clung to walls and plants making this already delicious place look more inviting. Just before leaving California to go to Graduate School at Penn I visited one final time to have Shinichi give me two of the ferns to remind me of California. This year I lost one and I figured the remaining one should return to a place it can flourish.

I have packed a few others for this trip. My Agave Americana was wrapped and ready to come but the car was full so I was forced to leave it behind. Agaves are indistructible so when I return it will be there waiting for the next trip South.
A plant that made the trip was this Calamondin orange. It has a story and a half! My friend RJ picked the fruits from his homestead in Brownsville Texas. He saved the seeds and grew them in a small south facing window in his Co-Op in Manhattan. Somewhere along the course of events he grew more that a dozen plants and handed them out to many of his friends. I have had mine for six years or so which I brought down from Manhattan and have nurtured into a small topiary potted plant. Well, no more. It now resides in the sand next to the Ponderosa Lemon, the Tangerine and the Mango hoping to inspire it to grow and produce its strange fruit that is somewhat bitter but has a sweet edible rind.
Similarly many of my plants have stories, some not so romantic or complicated but they have been with me for some time. When I really have to cull my life of many things I will worry about lightening my load for now, I now have a house twice the size of the one I have lived in New Jersey so I figure I can take just about anything I want. Most of my dear plant friends will reside in my new Crescent garden, just off my dining room. As you can see it is not much. I have been at work even in the local cold temperatures putting some nutrients into the powdery sand. What a job I have ahead, but the journey is exciting and new.

Bordering the Spring Bayou where the Manatees are wintering in herds to stave of the cold I noticed the local little illuminated train (sorry for the blurry image I left my tripod in NJ) that reminded me of the Wanamaker Christmas display. It is solitary and small by comparison but just as heart filled to those here. My new friend Paula was disheartened by the budget cuts that eliminated some 1500 Poinsettias from the display. Strangely enough that reminded me of another plant to put in the garden. In Cuba and in California as well as Florida, Poinsettias grow and bloom outdoors at this time of year. A house like mine would have had an old plant or two to celebrate the holidays. It will again, Happy Gardening and Merry Christmas!


  1. Merry Christmas René! All the best in Fla! We will miss you!

  2. Wonderful post, as usual! I do understand having affection for plants. I look at my collection and remember the when and the why and even the cost of many of them and realize the prices today for plants are not outrageous. Maybe that's because of all the wholesale businesses in Florida that warehouse these plants for us northerners.
    Keep warm in Florida - it's frigid here in New Jersey. Too early for winter but here it is just the same.