Share / Discuss

Serendipity in Bloom

Strolling around Swarthmore’s campus, it is hard not to notice the captivating gardens that embrace it. The work of certain Scott Arboretum volunteers delights, educates, and inspires—one arrangement at a time.

Twenty-six years ago, volunteer Barbara St. John made a flower arrangement for a campus event using a repurposed coffee can—innovating in true Swarthmorean fashion—and voila, a new tradition blossomed. When Barbara speaks of the devotion and love that she has not only for the arboretum, but also for the volunteers and people involved in sustaining it, you can feel her appreciation. “It is a job of love,” Barbara says.

Each Monday, passionate volunteer flower arrangers take turns bouquet-shopping through the lush arboretum, clipping what they’ll need to make a display for a campus building or event. With utmost respect for the integrity of the gardens and their plants, each volunteer draws on her unique artistic vision to create her arrangement using nature’s palette.

This particular morning, veteran volunteers Helen Lightcap, Margo Coffin Groff, Ursula Maul and Beverly Schwartz eagerly greeted us, bright-eyed and excited, to venture out and share their weekly ritual of how they visualize, seek, gather, imagine, and arrange. Sometimes however, they do not know how the arrangement is going to come together until they find a vase that speaks to them. Oftentimes the ideal vase brings the flowers to life. On the other hand, there may just be the perfect flower that an entire arrangement is created around.

It becomes a mission of complement and harmony. Watching the talented ladies work their magic, one stem at a time, is truly an inspiring experience.

Options can vary according to season but there is always an abundant supply. “It is like a candy store!” exclaims Anita Lichtenberg as she searches for the perfect shade of purple to set off the deep green foliage she has gathered. Each arranger has her own style, and, according to Jacqui West, the administrative coordinator at Scott Arboretum—who is lucky enough to get a new arrangement every week on her desk—she is able to predict who created the arrangement. Botanical illustrator Susan Mintun, for example, likes big dramatic pieces that capture your eye, while Toby Gang, Bev Kostek, and Wendy White prefer Japanese-inspired arrangements that range from stark to dramatic.

Locations plays a role, too. In the front hall of Parrish, there is a specially made table that has a deep-set vase installed just for the purpose of flower arrangements. When choosing arrangements for this location, the flower arrangers know that very tall and sturdy flowers and plants are needed.

However and whatever they create, these artists hope to make a connection for others. This happened when Nancy Burkett, director of career services, decided to order weekly arrangements for their office after noticing the “beautiful flower arrangements in Parrish Parlors.” Since Career Services greets hundreds of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and visitors each day, Burkett says she “wanted to have something that created a warm and inviting space. We’re very grateful for the thoughtfulness and efforts of these amazing volunteers!” 

No matter the weather, these loyal volunteers explore the gardens to find just that perfect combination of nature’s bounty to bring their visualization to life. Though the arrangements may be different in the winter, they are equally as stunning and a great way to see the beauty in every season.

In addition to the romantic side of flower arranging, there is an educational side as well. Though Scott Arboretum Director Claire Sawyers wants people to connect with the essence and spirit of the gardens, she wants them to appreciate the science underpinning it all.

In efforts to do this, each flower arrangement has a picture card next to it that has both the common and scientific names listed for all the different species used in each bouquet.

Though most species in the arboretum have tags with their species name, sometimes they have to recruit the aid of Horticulturist Josh Coceano—“the plant genius,” according to volunteers—or Assistant Horticulturist John Bickel, “the walking botanical encyclopedia,” they say. After the information is are complete, each volunteer sets up the “stage” for her arrangement and takes a picture that will go along with the information cue card, which Curator Mary Tipping puts together to capture the viewer’s heart and mind.

What started as flowers from different gardens around campus ends up being showcased and shared to people indoors to appreciate the beauty of Swarthmore College’s Scott Arboretum. As Marcia Martin says, “I love this part of my day and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to do this.” Kate Sevensky agrees and adds that “flower arranging is both art and science here at Swarthmore.”

Finally, a botanical artist cannot just volunteer to become a flower arranger and start right away. According to PR and Volunteer Coordinator Becky Roberts, there is actually a rather intensive process to prepare and educate the volunteers in order for them to be able to do any work in the arboretum and around campus.

Part of Scott Arboretum’s mission statement is that they “cultivate plants to sustain the body, enchant the eye, and soothe the spirit,” and thanks to all the devoted, creative and inspiring flower arrangers, that is exactly what they do.

+ Click here to learn more about the flower arrangers