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At the Gardner Museum, cultivating blooms — and hope — after a canceled rite of spring

The Gardner Museum's plants are stored and grown in a greenhouse in Hingham overseen by horticultualist Erika Rumbley.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Pity the gardeners who have to compost the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s beloved nasturtiums before the flowers have had their annual, eye-popping debut.

Earlier this month, that sacrifice fell to Erika Rumbley and her team of five full-time horticulturalists at the Gardner Museum’s greenhouses in Hingham. “It was an incredibly sad day,” says Rumbley, the museum’s director of horticulture.

Typically a hardy — and edible — summer perennial that thrives even under benign neglect, the Gardner’s nasturtiums are a dreamscape made real by what Rumbley calls “intense human manipulation.”

“We are growing them in this opposite world,” she says. “Planting them in June, when they would be in bloom, and growing them through the winter.”


They are trained to grow up and across the greenhouse ceiling, reaching lengths of 20 feet or more. “And then, after months of saying, ‘not yet, not yet, not yet,’ we hit go,” Rumbley says, “and they flower and flower and flower until we transport them, bridal-train-style, to the museum.”

But not this year.

On March 12, Boston museums announced indefinite closures amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19. The Gardner Museum, known for a permanent collection that doesn’t change, is also famous for growing a living collection that does.

Of the countless species that rotate through the museum’s courtyard each year, the nasturtiums are arguably the headline act. Isabella Stewart Gardner began the tradition in 1904, when she first opened her Venetian-style palace to the public. The flowers marked her April birthday and have since become as sure a harbinger of spring as Opening Day at Fenway Park. Last year, more than 16,000 visitors beheld their dazzling, three-week run through mid-April. This year, those missing the tradition can take in a video behind the scenes at the Gardner’s greenhouses and read a primer on the nasturtium’s painstaking cultivation.


Away from the public’s admiring gaze, the flowers are handled like the temperamental stars they are. The heavy-handed process is one of survival of the fittest, and the most beautiful. “We start with hundreds and cull and cull and cull for vigor and correct form and color,” Rumbley says. “We are looking for that very particular saturated orange.”

Arthur Pope immortalized the flower’s ideal in his 1919 painting “Nasturtiums at Fenway Court,” which hangs in the museum’s Macknight Room. The juicy, jewel-toned blossoms of Pope’s re-creation have set the public’s expectations for what the flowers should look like ever since.

A nasturtium in bloom at the Garder Museum's greenhouse in Hingham.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“While there has been appetite through the years for variations on the theme,” Rumbley says, “the public is so attached to the tradition that we enact it to a T, if we can.”

Not everyone has taken the public’s attachment in stride. A 1929 article in a Boston newspaper headlined “Notorious Nasturtiums” chronicles then-Gardner Museum director Morris Carter’s exasperation with it.

“It appears that during Mrs. Gardner’s lifetime, when the palace was open to the public in April, the small balconies above the courtyard were filled with brilliant nasturtiums, which trailed their flaming blossoms down over the pink stucco of the walls in an agreeable clash of color. Apparently no one who saw the court with the nasturtiums has ever forgotten them,” the author writes. And that is why, “the patience of the most long suffering and hospitable curators will probably still continue to be tried by the observant ladies who walk past the Titian but gasp with emotion over a few green tendrils covered with crimson blossoms.”


By two weeks past their intended installation date, March 24, Rumbley says she had to let the labor-intensive vines go. “It had to happen. I chose to cut them down myself, because I didn’t want my team to have to do that.”

Rumbley finds their fate especially crushing, she says, “Because it’s our first spring without Stan.”

Stan Kozak, Rumbley’s quiet legend of a predecessor, held the job for 50 years, until his death last November. “The show this year was part of a series of memorials for Stan within the museum, so for that not to be able to happen is very sad,” she says.

There have been other tough calls, like the composting of some 4,000 bulbs — including fritillaria, what Rumbley describes as, “strange, otherworldly, Dr. Seuss flowers,” that were intended for a spring show of forced bulbs that would have been the largest at the Gardner since the 1940s.

A fritillaria just starting to open.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

And there have been human-to-flora pep talks. “I have heard my team telling plants that they will be seen by people soon,” Rumbley says. “That is our purpose. To grow things for an audience.”

If gardening is an act of optimism and patience, planting during a pandemic is even more so. Rumbley has been tending two generations of campanula, ones that will flower this summer, and ones she seeded on New Year’s Day that will bloom in August, 2021.


“They have this kind of wild, windswept look,” Rumbley says of the bell-shaped blue and white flowers that soar to 6 and 7 feet. “I love the moments in the courtyard where, even though it’s this classical, structured space, these plants seem like wild creatures beamed in from someplace else. They seem like they are breaking free.”

Post-lockdown, that just might be the flower we need.