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Some merchants seemed more eager to talk about plants than sell them.

September 08, 1988

One evening each month, the Southern California Horticultural Institute convenes in the Friendship Hall on Riverside Drive for a lecture on a topic such as how to identify and cultivate Gossypium barbadense.

Then, in September, the institute lets loose with a kind of frenzied plant fest. The annual sale is a 1-night open market that both disseminates the product of the year's work and raises a few dollars for the organization.

Though a few professionals customarily set up tables at the sale, most of the merchandise is home-grown and brought in free by the members.

Because the prime plants can be snapped up in the first 5-minute surge, the public is kept outside, under the Friendship Hall's attractive Mission arcade.

At last year's sale, the man assigned to police the doors wore a name tag identifying him as "Barbara's Husband." Even when the line stretched out into the night with what must have been 100 excited horticulturists, Barbara's husband was able to hold the line with only a few gentle words and an occasional greeting for someone who evidently knew Barbara.

At 8 p.m., he stepped aside and the shoppers rushed through the door. Many went straight for a pile of cardboard boxes against one wall and grabbed a couple to carry out their purchases. Others, having brought wagons or merely intending to buy what they could carry in their own labor-strengthened hands, went straight for the tables.

These were arranged in rows and squares on the yellow hardwood floors. Some vendors had only cacti or bromeliads. Others had a little of everything and seemed lost in tropical lushness.

Prices were as low as 50 cents for the easily propagated items and up to almost $20 for exotics or mature trees in 5-gallon plastic containers.

The quickest shoppers were already heading for the cashier with several selections before the line was exhausted.

The showier, and correspondingly pricier, items moved slowly. But, at $1 apiece, a bucket of epidendrum cuttings was quickly decimated.

A lot of money was changing hands in small denominations, and a good deal more might have were it not for the horticulturists' need to acquire a set of facts for every purchase under consideration.

This information was gleaned in difficult-to-follow conversations that jumped from the earthy mechanics of soil preparation to the pretty, but obtuse, Latin of plant classification.

Even some of the merchants seemed more eager to talk about their plants than to sell them.

"It's a true geranium," said vendor Bill Tufenkian, whose enthusiasm for an un-geraniumlike plant on his table came out in a tumble of words.

"It really likes water," he said. "It will get 30 to 500 flowerets. It grows from about 3 feet to 6 feet tall. Small, 5-petal lovely flowers. You'll get about 300 to 500 flowers. Then it sets seed and dies. Two to three years."

He noticed my interest and went right on to propagation.

"I plant about 100 a year," he said. "I like to do it in Petrie dishes with paper towels. I tried sponge rock and it didn't work very well."

He then digressed on the unfortunate confusion in the methods of grading sponge rock, making it impossible to select the right size without a visual inspection.

"You want to look for the quarter-inch size," he said. "If you slap the bag . . . the small ones slide to the bottom."

He finally got back to the paper towel in the Petrie dish.

"You want to keep it moist. Don't keep it out of the sun. Wait for the second leaves."

The lesson proceeded through potting and, finally, planting.

Tufenkian didn't get the sale. But he did get in a plug for the Southern California Chapter of the International Geranium Society, of which he is "future and past president."

His parting message was that geraniums deserve more credit than they get.

"You're lucky when you go into a nursery to see five different varieties," he said. "You're talking 15,000."

At the other end of the table, Fred Braden, head salesman of the Begonia Garden of Palos Verdes, and Michael Kerry, manager of a wilderness park in West Covina, fell into a duet as they studied a sprig of leaves presented to them by a woman.

" Koelreateria bipinata ," one said.

"It's a lovely tree," the other said.

"Seed pods like a Chinese lantern."

"To about 30 feet."

As the merchandise and the crowd thinned, a prim woman named Jeanne Woodbury just strolled and looked.

"There are some very pretty things here," Woodbury said, but she wasn't buying.

"My husband said, 'If you bring one more plant home . . .' "

It was OK, she said. She brought 41 with her to sell.

"It got to the point we reached an agreement," she explained. "For every one that comes in, one has to go out. He doesn't really know much about plants. But you know, I can't bring one in that he doesn't find in 24 hours.

This year, Barbara and he husband are traveling and won't be there. But Jeanne will be back. And if your balcony could use a crown of thorns, you could make Jeanne's husband happy tonight.

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