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‘Garden Divas’ impart plant wisdom at upcoming JC Raulston event

Did you know that persimmons have male and female trees? Learn about this and more at the “Garden Divas” Winter Symposium at JC Raulston Arboretum on Feb. 18th.
Did you know that persimmons have male and female trees? Learn about this and more at the “Garden Divas” Winter Symposium at JC Raulston Arboretum on Feb. 18th.

When Pam Beck is in her Wake Forest garden, she doesn’t just see plants. She sees the important people of her life. Some of the plants she got from her colleagues in the gardening world; some came from people no longer living.

Her Cécile Brunner rose (aka “Sweetheart Rose”), for instance, likely dates to 1881. It grew at her husband’s maternal grandmother’s house in Macon, Ga. When the family lost that property during the Great Depression, they saved the rose and took it with them. Today it grows in Beck’s yard, and when she sees it, she sees her husband’s grandmother.

“There’s lots of people in my garden,” she says. “It’s not just plants.”

So when this garden writer (longtime News & Observer readers may remember her gardening column, which ran from 1999-2004) and speaker gives her “Hanging Out With Shady Characters” talk Feb. 18 at Raleigh’s JC Raulston Arboretum, she’s not just talking about shade plants. She also means her garden is full of characters she’s known.

Beck appears as part of JCRA’s winter symposium, playfully entitled “Garden Divas.” Beck, Pennsylvania perennials expert Stephanie Cohen and Tennessee ornamental horticulture specialist Carol Reese are the divas, a title these garden communicators wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for themselves, but one they regard with belly laughs.

“I began college as a voice major, and typically in music circles, divas are the very temperamental soloists,” Beck says, cracking up. “I hope and pray that I am not a temperamental soloist. I like to think I play well with others in the dirt.”

A diva crowned

It’s a title Cohen has run with, even to the point that her website is called theperennialdiva.com. That phrase first appeared as a joke on her nametag at a perennials conference, but she’s accepted it and made it work for her. While Cohen claims to be as un-diva-esque as it gets, she has a diva’s spirit.

“If you say something to me that I don’t like, you’re going to get some kind of an answer,” Cohen says. “I’m a little off-center. I think to be a diva you have to be a little off-center.”

In her presentations, she’s animated, fluid and ever-ready with her beloved groan-inducing humor. At her height, she says, she quickly realized that she couldn’t stand behind a podium – all anyone would see would be the top of her head. So she talks without notes. She moves around and acts things out – that is, she gets into the performance. Cohen taught for decades, both at middle school and the college level, and she’s learned from experience that the best teachers get up and move.

And she prides herself in her honesty, to put it mildly.

“I am known for plant-bashing,” Cohen admits. “What grower is going to stand up in front of an audience and say, ‘I have 15,000 butt-ugly plants and I want you to buy them?’ They’re never going to say that to you, but I can say that to the consumer – and have been doing it for years.”

Reese talks plant sex

Reese, who’s become bored over the years with pure planting tips, likes to explore plants’ stories, including their sex lives.

There are transsexual flowers, she says, and many plants have evolved techniques to prevent incest. Persimmons have male and female trees, while pecan trees have distinct male and female flowers on the same tree. On some trees, the female blooms first, while the male blooms first on others. There have to be trees of each type in the same neighborhood so they don’t self-fertilize.

Separately, in flowers with male and female parts, the female part juts out farther than the male part, and any insect coming in for a landing touches down there first, leaving pollen behind. There are chemicals that intercept pollen inside a flower and kills it if it’s too genetically similar.

Reese notes that the process “is remarkably similar to human sex, if you think about it.”

Talking about sex in the garden keeps her audience on their toes, Reese says: if they’re nervous, they’re awake, and she can feed them information. And that connects directly to the role she sees for herself. “Diva” may be a playful title for the event, but Reese makes it a point to be down to earth and approachable – and someone who can impart useful horticultural information without being dry.

“I’m a thread of knowledge that I pass on to others and you’re going to pass it on to somebody else,” Reese says.


What: “Garden Divas” Winter Symposium

Where: JC Raulston Arboretum. 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh

When: 8 a.m.-noon Saturday, Feb. 18

Cost: $65 members / $80 non-members

Info: jcra.ncsu.edu