A diverse bunch shows up for Flower Mart's first day


Here were three elderly women in red hats and purple suits, "The Sassy Chicks" they called themselves, perusing the aisles of potted geraniums and petunias, clusters of tulips and bunches of daisies. Nearby, girls in pale blue dresses stepped back and forth around the maypole, streamers in hand. And business at the lemon stick stand was brisk as always, as patrons flocked to buy stocky peppermint sticks plunged into lemons, even at $2 a pop.

Kevin Brown, donning a Las Vegas showgirl hat complete with gold sequins and large clusters of feathers, took it all in.

"I've been coming here since I was 12," said Brown, 46, of Guilford, in between hugging and greeting old friends. "You come to the Flower Mart, and you see people you just don't see anymore," he marveled.

"It used to be the old garden set that came here, the old ladies in their hats," he said. "Now, you see everyone. Black. White. Straight. Gay. Young. Old. Asian. There's a mishmash of everyone. It's fantastic."

And so it was, as Day 1 of Baltimore's Flower Mart kicked off in its 89th incarnation.

For the first time in its history, Baltimore's rite of spring will be spread over two days, spilling into today.

Yesterday, more than 100 booths squeezed into the cobblestoned streets around Mount Vernon's Washington Monument. There were vendors selling cashmere scarfs and crystals, jewelry and pottery. There were schools and churches, businesses and health providers, offering services that included blood pressure screenings and massages. There were gleaming antique cars and even a horse-drawn carriage or two gliding by. There were hats of all kinds --elegant, funky and plain silly. And, of course, there were flowers.

Attendance appeared light early in the day, with the area filling up as men and women in suits drifted in during lunchtime.

Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich floated by in a yellow dress and black hat, naturally. Black and yellow are this year's colors. A lemon stick in one hand, she shook hands with the other, stopping to pose for pictures with schoolchildren.

"I love the Flower Mart," said Ehrlich. "It's such a great tradition. I do come every year. It's just a wonderful way to start the spring season. And with the Preakness just two weeks away, I get to wear a hat again."

Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, District Court Judge Katie Curran O'Malley, were among the officials who opened the festival. She, too, donned a black hat and white and yellow dress.

Bonnie King-Rose, on the Flower Mart management committee, watched the festival unfold from under a straw hat adorned with sunflowers.

"The emphasis on flowers is because basically in downtown there's not a whole lot of opportunities for flowers," said King-Rose, who lives in Otterbein. "We're trying very hard to make people believe in your city. Bring people to your city, children to your city."

Though flowers were the focus of the day, some wondered where they all were.

"It seems less flowery than it used to be," said Donald Addison, 66, who browsed the booths during his lunch break from working as a security guard at the Walters Art Museum. "I walked through here this morning when I started work, and I didn't see a lot. ... It seems more focused on commercial art."

Shelly Baker, 33, of Shelly's Blossom Shop, had wreaths bedecked with roses and other flowers around her booth, which won the best-decorated booth award for the third year in a row. Her son, 1-year-old Dylan Henderson, squirmed around in a bumblebee outfit. Baker, who is on the Flower Mart board, said there have been more florists in years past. This year, most of the flower sellers are schools.

"We're trying to get more florists involved," she said.

For Carol Karcher-Purcell, chairwoman of the event, Flower Mart is a tradition that has evolved with the times. The event has traditionally been held on Wednesdays, catering to the corporate lunch crowd.

"The work force has changed," she said. "Most of the women are working now. Nobody's home anymore, so we're changing with the times. We're trying to give it deeper roots. We're trying to move into another era, and we're making our adjustments."

And so the decision was made to hold the event on a Friday and spread it over two days. "We're hoping to really bring out the families tomorrow," said Karcher-Purcell.

Still, Karcher-Purcell sounded just a tad nostalgic when she harked back to the Flower Marts when she was a teenager. "The personality has changed with the times," she said. "My memories of Flower Mart ... are of the genteelness of the city at that particular time.

Still, she quickly added: "The diversity that you see today here at the Mart is just so wonderful and very characteristic of today's urban environment."

Jazz music played in the background. Two teenagers, clad in black, strolled by. And two smartly dressed women with hats walked by, bunches of flowers in hand.


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