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Plant festival brings enthusiasts together

Multicolored orchids and water lilies, wind chimes and jazz music, the scents of roses and gardenias, the tastes of exotic fruit jellies and pure honey and the feel of velvety herbs and prickly cacti brought students, the University and the community together for the USF Botanical Gardens’ Fall Festival.

“The weather was just perfect, and this is the most amount of vendors I have ever had,” said Kim Hutton, Event Coordinator for the Botanical Gardens. “Aside from the huge list of vendors, the live jazz music by Trio Vibe is novel addition to this year’s Fall Festival.”

Angel Miller, a freshman majoring in bio-medical sciences, serves as a work-study student at the Botanical gardens. She sat at the check-in desk and handed out maps to visitors. “The best part of the whole event is to see everybody get excited about plants. The orchids were my favorite. They had so many colors and were so beautiful, it was amazing,” she said.

All Seasons Nursery offered herbal flora. Rosemary, bay laurel, lemon verbena, basil and chives are just a few of the potted herbs that drew in visitors.

Vendor Don Chafin showcased the nearly 90 varieties of bananas he grows and sells in his “Going Bananas” display. The entrance to his banana cove was flanked by a poster titled “The Banana in Florida,” which provided visitors with information about the variety of banana species found and grown in Florida.

The Aroid and Tropical Plant Club décor was enhanced by their philodendrons, coleus and Desert Roses. Their anthuriums, cultivated for their glossy red heart-shaped bract surrounding a rod-like spike of tiny yellow flowers, had immense ornamental value.

Facing the bonsai garden was a small pond blooming with pink and blue waterlilies amid their disc-like floating leaves. The site belonged to Marilyn Eigsti, a vendor and member of the Florida West Coast Koi & Water Garden Club. She primarily focuses on growing and selling water lilies.

“This is the first time I am participating in this festival, and I am very pleased with it,” she said.

Plant taxis were available as a courtesy to visistors, many of whom were elderly. These golf carts spent the day ferrying cartfuls of pots and plants out to customer’s cars.

Mild To Wild Pepper Plants was bustling. Owner and vendor Don Swanson has more than 50 varieties of peppers to offer. Participating in his third show at the Botanical Gardens, the veteran uses a catalogue to keep track of his pepper varieties.

“It’s a hobby I do in my backyard,” he said. “I have some of the top ten hottest peppers in the world. I have over 50 flavors now, but my goal is to get 100 by next year.”

Every culture has its own variety of pepper, and there are about 50,000 varieties of pepper in the world. Referencing his catalogue, Swanson describes a napili orange pepper plant: “This pepper is extremely rare. This is the first year the seeds are on the market. You can actually eat the pepper to fit your taste according to its growth. When young, the pepper is yellow and is mildly hot, but once it turns orange or red, it gets really hot.”

Don Mixon, owner of Unbelievable Hibiscus, has taken part and sold his collection of hibiscus in the Spring Plant Festival and the Tropical Plant Fair. He was happy to be back for the Fall Festival.

“I’ve heard the words ‘unbelievable’ and ‘are they real?’ from my visitors almost a thousand times,” Mixon said. “Everybody thought hibiscus only comes in red, yellow and pink. But I’ve grown and sold green, purple and brown ones.”

The marathon workshops organized as a part of the festival and held in the garden conservatory were a public favorite. Don Chafin, “the banana guy,” presented “Yes, We Have Those Bananas” for attendees eager to grow bananas in their backyards. D & D Growers spoke about “Herb Appeal” while offering tips on growing and maintaining an herb collection. After that the Rare Fruit Council explained “Basic Citrus Growing” and gave advice on caring for plants and landscaping techniques. Other workshops were also offered.

The next event scheduled for the USF Botanical Gardens is the Beginners Bonsai Workshop on Oct. 27, followed by the “Orchid Show & Sale” during the first week of November. For a calendar of events, contact the Botanical Gardens at (813) 974-2329 or check out the Gardens’ Web site at Cas.usf.edu/garden.