A City Blossoms

On the first of May, tradition requires Annapolis and Eastport to put their best flowers forward.

Focus On May Day

April 27, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Every May 1, a profusion of flowers spills from baskets adorning doorways and porches throughout historic Annapolis. Since 1956, this May Day bouquet display has added a riot of color to the city's proper, red-brick charm. A certain amount of horticultural abandon recalls the holiday's ancient origins and creates a glad counterpoint to the city's Colonial sobriety.

When the Garden Club of Old Annapolis Towne was formed in 1955, its members, equally dedicated to civic deeds and perennial beds, decided to revive the May Day tradition, which has been practiced here and there around the country since the arrival of America's European settlers.

In those early years, Old Towne garden club members asked residents and business owners for their participation in the community event. At first, winners received modest prizes donated by merchants, but soon, awards were no longer needed to entice participants.

The May basket ritual can be traced to the ancient Roman holiday Floralia, honoring Flora, goddess of flowers. When the Romans occupied the British Isles, they brought with them Floralia, which fused with the festival of Beltane. As part of the hybrid holiday, neighbors in towns attached tree branches to one another's doors.

The May Day tradition traveled to the New World, despite Puritan efforts to quash the revelry and raze Maypoles. The practice, toned down from its licentious beginnings, spread from New England to other towns and villages, where on May 1, girls and boys gathered flowers in paper baskets and left them on the doors of friends, neighbors and sweethearts.

In Annapolis, May Day basket rules are simple: "Arrangements should be from fresh cut flowers," says Dorothy Elder, of the Old Annapolis Towne Garden Club, which still runs the event. Also, arrangements must fill a basket or other vessel.

The club downplays the May Day basket's competitive element. Ribbons are liberally bestowed for arrangements at homes, historic sites, commercial buildings, and for those created by children. "We tend to be very generous with all the ribbons," Elder says.

At 10 a.m. on May 1, teams of garden club members, plus a guest judge, set out on foot through Annapolis. They spend two hours on their designated routes and are careful not to give all ribbons (about 170) away too quickly.

More than bragging rights are at stake, though. Winners are invited to an elaborate tea where they can admire basket arrangements by Old Towne members.

This will be the seventh year that the neighboring Eastport section has followed suit with its own May Day basket celebration, sponsored by the Annapolis Maritime Museum. This year, a "Support Our Troops" May Day basket category has been added to the "Most Eastport," "Most Beautiful" and "12 and under" categories. Unlike those in the Old Towne contest, the 325 Eastport residents and merchants who usually participate aren't required to use fresh flowers.

While most Annapolis homeowners create their own May Day baskets, time-crunched merchants often rely on professional help.

Last year, the Flowers by James shop created 46 baskets, mostly for businesses, says owner James Potter. He and his staff arranged flowers in golf bags, bagpipes, boots and hats, among other receptacles. In the past, Old Annapolis Towne Garden Club members have questioned whether professional assistance was fair. Ultimately, they agreed that participation, by any means, was paramount.

Today, about 350 Annapolis businesses, residences and historic sites participate in the event -- a significant decrease from previous years, garden club members lament.

But for those who love a floral challenge, May Day is a time to shine. Scott Daly, merchandise manager at Homestead Gardens in nearby Davidsonville, is partial to May Day novelties. One year, with the assistance of a colleague, he fashioned a hanging Japanese garden, replete with running water. The three-tiered bonsai wonder graced the door of Joss, a Japanese restaurant on Main Street.

For those who count on their own gardens to fill May Day baskets, the elements are a perennial concern. "It's hard to tell what will be blooming," says Lisa Sherwood, a participant who lives in Murray Hill. She anticipates that tulips and lilacs will unfold in time for May Day.

For Sherwood, a member of the local Four Rivers Garden Club, May Day participation is a rite of spring. "An event like this ... is beneficial for the whole community," she says. "There's a kind of an enthusiasm and joy around it that's different than some of the things people hear about."

Other May Day events

Throughout downtown Annapolis and surrounding residential areas, the May Day basket extravaganza is hard to miss. After 10 a.m. on May 1, look for baskets in the doorways of private homes, historic structures and shops. The same holds true for the neighborhood of Eastport, where homeowners, merchants and school children also display flower baskets.

Area organizations and businesses have piggybacked events onto the May Day celebration:

* A May Day basket class will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Homestead Gardens, 743 W. Central Ave. in Davidsonville. Class includes instruction, a wicker basket, ribbons and approximately 20 fresh flowers. Registration is required. Fee: $60 To register, call 410-798-5000.

* The Historic Annapolis Foundation conducts a May Day flower basket making workshop from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. Wednesday at the William Paca House and Garden, 186 Prince George St. Admission is $40 for foundation members and volunteers, and $50 for nonmembers. Reservations and prepayment are required and can be made by contacting the Historic Annapolis Foundation at 410-267-7619, Ext. 8146.

* The Four Rivers Garden Club will sell cut flowers for May Day at its annual Flower Mart from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday by the Market House and City Dock in Annapolis. Proceeds support the club's plant projects throughout Annapolis.

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