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Hope blooms again as nasturtiums return to the Gardner Museum

Six horticulturists are charged with transporting the nasturtiums from the museum’s Hingham greenhouse Tuesday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the nasturtiums have arrived.

Eighteen vines of orange flowers were gently draped from the balconies Tuesday afternoon, in keeping with the century-old tradition started by the museum’s namesake. The plants wind down pink walls, juxtaposing beautifully with the narcissus, hyacinths, and tulips that also decorate the Gardner’s courtyard this month.

“It’s an evocative display,” director Peggy Fogelman said in a phone interview. “All about beauty and renewal.”

Six horticulturists were charged with transporting the nasturtiums from the museum’s Hingham greenhouse in a slow and ceremonious way, Fogelman explained. The fragile vines, each connected to a clay pot, were brought via truck and carried in procession to the top floor. From there, the plants were slowly lowered over the railings.


“It’s like a bride ascending the stairs with people holding the train of her veil,” said Fogelman, who has overseen the installation five times. “When the vines cascade down, it’s almost like Rapunzel letting down her hair.”

Hanging nasturtiums returned Tuesday to the Gardner Museum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Almost every year since the early 1900s, the 20-foot plants usher in springtime and Easter with grandeur. Their annual debut is also timed to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s April 14 birthday.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fogelman said the blooms represent something more: “a hopeful future.”

The perennial display was canceled last year due to the pandemic, forcing horticulturists to compost the eye-popping plants. This partly explains why the tradition is back with improvements — and fanfare — for the 2021 season. (Look for nasturtium-themed menu items in the restaurant, plus nasturtium-derived jellies, oils, and syrups in the gift shop.)

Director of horticulture Erika Rumbley and her staff started tending to the plants months later than usual — in September, rather than in June. For decades, the blooms have started as summer seedlings. But propagating the cuttings in the fall has proved more fruitful, Rumbley explained.


The vines are still guided up the walls of the South Shore greenhouse and then over the structure’s ceiling.

A closeup of nasturtiums at the Gardner Museum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The nasturtiums were also groomed for the first time through “meticulous manipulation” without insecticides, Rumbley added. The team spent 500 hours doting on the plants for this year’s opening.

“In the courtyard, they seem so natural — they seem effortless,” Rumbley observed. “Really, it’s this gentle, continuous redirection of the plant’s energy over several months to force it to take a longer form than it would otherwise.”

Horticulturists plan to water the vines daily, but their lives are brief and beloved. “Only two to three weeks,” Rumbley said.

Until then, the nasturtiums signal that spring has sprung in Boston.

“Being able to see that saturation of color before the landscape has blown up outside is what makes this worthwhile,” Rumbley said. It almost “feels like time travel.”


At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. On display until at least April 12. Timed tickets required. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.