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Sure, V-Day was snowed out... but romance still blooms in the gardens
Indoors or out, you can't beat the gardens for romantic settings -- even in winter
by Denise Cowie - 2/7/2007
Romance and romantic are words that get tossed around a lot at this time of year. But just what is romance, anyway?
Most dictionaries have half a dozen definitions, and “love affair” rates well down the list. And not one that I could find put a dollar figure on romance, which surely would surprise all those retailers who were subliminally urging you to check the price tag on your Valentine’s Day gift to see how much your beloved really cares.
If Extreme Spending were the point, this suggestion by SmartMoney.com for “a proposal no other couple will be able to top” would surely take the prize – a trip to the 18th-century Taj Lake Palace, a white-marble-and-mosaic vision of a hotel set in Lake Pichola in Udaipur, India. For a fee, you could have half a dozen turbaned butlers row your luxury barge to the middle of the lake for an extravagant dinner and a fireworks display lighting up the sky just for you as you pop the question. Of course, it you were to opt for the hotel’s “grand royal suite lake view room,” that alone would cost you $1,520 a night, which could set the soon-to-be-newlyweds’ budget back a bit. Nevertheless, the hotel was booked solid through Valentine’s week.
In our area, of course, Valentine's Day was something of a bust, with Cupid up to his chubby little cheeks in snow and ice, courtesy of winter's first real blast.
But love will find a way to have its say. And if romance is, as one dictionary defines it, “a mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something … strangely beautiful,” you need look no further than our area’s public gardens if you want to plan a heart-felt dalliance, or even a proposal. And it will cost you less than a tip for one of those turbaned butlers.
Crystal palaces of all sizes
What could be more romantic than strolling with your significant other beside a burbling stream in mid-February, basking in the subtropical warmth and earthy smells of a lush and fern-filled grotto? Forget that it’s winter. You can find all this and more tucked into a hillside at Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania in Chestnut Hill, in a miniature crystal palace known as the Victorian fernery (pictured above right).
The fernery, a jewel of a romantic garden, is one of my favorite spots in Philadelphia, but it’s certainly not the only garden that offers the possibility of romance under glass.
Just about everybody knows about the splendid Conservatory at Longwood Gardens, with its acres of indoor gardens and water features. But did you know that the recently revamped East Conservatory has several intimate areas screened by large hedges? These secluded cul-de-sacs, overlooking magnificent display gardens and waterfalls (photo second from top), were designed to encourage quiet contemplation – but they are perfect for a proposal. And at the other end of the glasshouse complex, there is the Orchid House, home to more than 3,200 different kinds of this most sensuous of flowers. If the sight and scent of all those hothouse blossoms doesn’t make you feel romantic, you’re in there with the wrong person.
Keeping cozy in a butterfly house
Across the river from Center City is a surprising contender in the romance stakes – the Camden Children’s Garden on the Delaware River waterfront. Here, you can linger among the greenery in the Four Seasons Butterfly House, which is very cozy in winter, whispering sweet nothings as the butterflies flutter around you.
But you don’t have to be indoors to capitalize on the romance of nature – although you may want to wait until the ice melts a bit. Or keep in mind what Irving Berlin wrote about having your love to keep you warm. Longwood and Morris both have classical love temples overlooking water features that practically beg for romantic liaisons (center photo shows Longwood's Love Temple in fall).
And Christine Pape at Morris also recommends the arboretum’s Mercury Loggia and Ravine Garden (photo second from bottom, in late spring). “It features a grotto with an underground passage and a beautiful winter garden that (is usually) full of blooming witchhazels in February,” she says.
Walking paths built for two
Although gardens are naturally romantic places, it doesn’t hurt to give nature a helping hand. That’s what they’ve done at Jenkins Arboretum, where the pruning policy decrees that the paths, although embraced by the plants, “should be wide enough for two people to walk, holding hands.”
Apparently this invitation to romance works. Harold Sweetman, Jenkins’ executive director, tells the story of an off-season visitor who caught the attention of garden staffers because he was hopping about the paths in what seemed like an agitated way, sitting first on this bench, then on that one. The staffers made sure they kept him in view because of his odd behavior – until the man asked them when they would be through working in the area, because he’d been trying out benches to find the most romantic spot in which to propose to his beloved, and he was waiting for them to leave so he’d have some privacy.
Favorite romantic places
How many spots are there in the region’s public gardens that might inspire you to murmur “I love you”? Way too many to count, so we asked a few garden honchos to nominate their favorite places for a romantic walk, or perhaps a passionate declaration.
“Winterthur by far,” said one person who may not want to be identified because he is affiliated with a different garden. “There is a summer house on the hill above the quarry. It opens to the wonderful view below and beyond, and is closed off behind. You can see through the slats anyone who may be coming up behind you, but they can’t see you.”
Out in the same general direction, he suggests the walk along the Brandywine at the Brandywine River Museum. “You can go fairly far upstream and have a nice view of Andrew Wyeth’s home in the distance, and geese – which mate for life – landing on the river.”
Courtship behavior that isn’t human
And if the idea of mating for life rings your romantic bell, check out the gibbons in the PECO Primate Reserve at the Philadelphia Zoo. They do, says Ginette Meluso, who also recommends a visit to the Amur tiger area at the Bank of America Big Cat Falls, where zoo officials are hoping passion will blossom between tigers.
Apparently a lot of us find the courtship behavior of our animal relatives fascinating – or maybe inspirational – at this time of year. Not only does Philadelphia’s zoo host a “mating tour” on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, but the San Francisco zoo features what has been described as a “rather cheeky” Valentine’s program called “Woo at the Zoo” that is a huge hit with human lovers.
Does that fascination extend to birds? Tyler Arboretum thought so. Until the storm proved to be such a wet blanket, it had been encouraging lovebirds and bird lovers to flock to Tyler for a “winter bird walk” early on Feb. 14.
Behaving like a skunk
You could always try drawing inspiration from plants that produce so much heat they can melt the snow around them. That would be skunk cabbage, and you can check out this astonishing plant if you take a walk along the gentian trail to the pond at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County.
“Right at the beginning of the trail, to the right, is a nice patch of skunk cabbage," says staffer Nancy Beaubaire, that was in bud when she spotted it earlier this month. At the top of her list of romantic walks at the preserve, though, is a stroll along the Marsh Marigold Trail – which is not far from the Visitor Center, so you can stop in for a map and a bit of a warm-up. At the end of this trail is a bench, says Beaubaire, that “overlooks a hill that goes down to Pidcock Creek, and offers a nice view of the creek.”
Talking of views, urban lovers would find it hard to beat the view of the Center City skyline from the meadow or the banks of the Schuylkill River at Bartram’s Garden, which, as any plant lover knows, has romance to spare just in its history – established long before the American Revolution, it is the country’s oldest botanical garden still in existence.
Going for the gold
Then there are contemporary man-made spots, such as the giant chair at the Scott Arboretum on the Swarthmore College campus.
But if you are planning an unusual proposal, what could be more romantic than plighting your troth on an old-fashioned carousel, such as the one on the grounds of the Camden Children’s Garden (photo bottom right)?
You could hoist your beloved onto a carousel animal, kneel at her (or his) feet, and go for the brass ring. Just make sure the one you offer your intended is made of gold.