Ask Dr. Barb
More fun
Comment or question?
Print editions

Happy Valentine's Day: What's happening to the flowers?

Where have all the flowers gone?

All of my loved ones know that the best way to make me happy is to take me with them to pick out my flowers for Valentine's Day or birthdays or whenever.

Since arranging flowers is a hobby of mine, I always want something different to play with. And not everyone knows what flowers would please someone picky like me who is always looking at all sorts of them. I routinely visit florist friends, even when I don't plan to buy, just to talk with them about what's in their cases.

For years, Wegmans stores in many parts of New Jersey were my favorite place to shop for flowers. Wegmans would routinely have unexpected varieties. About 10 years ago, I would buy flowers every week, and I discovered safflowers at Wegmans in Woodbridge. Who knew that a name  associated with salad oil is also related to a gorgeous flower? The flowers and plump buds with soft, thistle-like tops, dried to a paper-bag brown on tall stems. I still have them, and I have not seen any anywhere since.

More recently in 2017, I got the most beautiful Valentine's Day flowers: bright pink scabiosas from another Wegmans store. It was a delight to watch these flowers, actually clusters of miniature blossoms, open in layers. I've since learned that scabiosas are easy to grow in the garden, but I saw them for the first time in a water-filled plastic flower bucket at Wegmans. I'm always excited to find cut flowers that I have never seen before, and Wegmans was a reliable supplier in that regard.

Not so this year. This year, the Wegmans store we went to had hundreds of bouquets, moved to the front of the store near the entrance as an apparent reminder to Valentine's Day buyers.

In all the rows of this display, there were so many bunches of common flowers. Roses that looked battered and too far open to last until Valentine's Day, along with spider mums, alstroemeria and the other sorts of flowers that always seem to appear in mixed supermarket bouquets.  The prices for these tired flowers was high, starting at $25. I refused to let money be spent on my behalf for inferior flowers whose quality did not warrant the higher price. Wegmans typically does not sell mixed bouquets in plastic sleeves. Instead, their mixed arrangements are most often sold in vases at various sizes. Clusters of one  type of flower, in bundles of a single color, are what's usually available. 

I tend not to like mixed bouquets, but at Trader Joe's on Monday this week, the "mini bouquets" at $3.99 each caught my eye. Three of these were purchased for me, and I put together the arrangement shown. Each had calla lilies, which I adore, tufts of refreshing green dianthus, sprays of small red and hot pink roses, and the exciting contrast of purple statice. In these arrangements, I did not mind the alstroemeria, which complements the other flowers. Don't get me wrong, alstroemeria is a lovely flower, but it's everywhere. I can usually get lots of them in good shape for about $4 at any ShopRite.

Anyway, I cut the stems relatively short and tucked them into a little red vase previously rescued from a thrift shop. (It still had the .99 cents price tag). I have been filled with happiness each time I pass these flowers in their red vase. 

On the day before Valentine's Day, and even tonight at 7 p.m. when I made a quick supermarket run, it was sad for me to see men grabbing up uninspired bouquets at the very last minute. I wondered about their wives or girlfriends, and I wondered about their lives. Getting flowers that were obviously purchased hastily out of a sense of obligation doesn't seem very romantic.

Is it the afterthought that counts here? Perhaps.  I suppose any flowers at any time are better than no flowers at all. 



New Jersey wild turkeys: a Thanksgiving delight 

Four wild turkeys were among a gang of eight visiting a wooded area of Monmouth County on Monday.I was pulling into the driveway of our art director's Monmouth County studio yesterday when I saw a cluster of huge birds crossing the road.


“Turkeys!” I shouted with excitement as I parked haphazardly, grabbed my camera and ran  into the woods after them. They did not look exactly like the fancier wild turkeys I used to see behind my house when I lived in a wooded area of Pennsylvania, and I was not sure if they were turkeys or turkey vultures (an image search would later solve that). Either way, I knew I had to get shots of them.


I found the birds, eight of them, feasting amid the fallen leaves. I followed them quietly and cautiously, using a zoom lens to get my shots. As this gang of birds roamed from place to place looking for the choicest fall eats, I inched closer and closer. At one point I was standing as still as I possibly could while taking photos, and they were near enough that I could have reached out and grabbed one.


I thought, maybe the presence of turkeys at this time of year was why the pilgrims were said to have feasted on turkey. Then I began to ponder how I would have no idea how to go through the processes that would be required to get a living turkey from the woods to oven-ready. The thought made me thankful for present-day Thanksgiving where others relieve us of such thoughts when they prepare turkeys to be seasoned, stuffed and roasted.


Who could harm a bird with such beautiful plumage, so lush and intricately patterned? I could not imagine hunting them, and I pushed back guilty visions of one plucked and cooked as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. These probably weren't Thanksgiving-type turkeys, anyway, I rationalized. And they'd probably taste gamey.


A wild turkey moves in close to eye me suspiciously but without fear.Their faces and long, graceful necks were disturbed by numerous pink globular growths. In my image searches online, their long necks would differentiate them from the apparently no-neck turkey vulture.


As I admired the unusual elegance of these birds, they came closer, and that actually made my heart sing. “Oh, hello!” I said to them quietly as I continued to take close-range pictures. Then they started to make turkey sounds, and the experience was heightened.


Years ago, I was in the chamber where lions were kept at the Philadlphia Zoo. While I was walking through, one lion began to roar. It was a powerful, awe-inspiring noise that no recording could ever capture. Within that room, the sound reverberated. I felt so fortunate to have been there at that moment. I had been to many zoos and seen lions in most of them. But to hear one speak made a rare and unforgetable moment.


I have mixed feelings about animals in capacity (especially when I recall from the same Philly Zoo visit the madrill who was pacing around his room and glaring at those who observed him through a window. There was what could only be characterized as rage in its colorful, expressive face that seemed so close to human.)


But in the woods, with a camera, there were no ethical issues to contemplate. I was so happy to have spent time seeing and hearing these turkeys in this week of Thanksgiving. Their presence was another small joy to be thankful for.




Flowers, fashion and furnishings: Exploring the passions of Empress Josephine 

Josephine de Beauharnais by Keizerin der Fransen (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)The fine taste of Joséphine de Beauharnais informed 18th and 19th century style, from couture fashion to interior design, all based on her Caribbean heritage, her narrow escape from the guillotine, and her legendary love for flowers.


On Saturday, Feb. 10 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., garden historian Lesley Parness will present “Josephine – The Empress Gardened,” a lecture about the French empress, made possible by Somerset County Park Commission. Admission is free, but pre-registration required by Feb. 9 for the lecture at the commission's North Branch Park headquarters, 355 Milltown Road, Bridgewater.

When divorced from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the powerful style-maker and lifelong fashionista known as Empress Josephine focused her energies on her estate, Château de Malmaison. There, her passion for plants grew and bloomed, stopping a war, costing a fortune, setting explorers to sail and starting a floral industry that endures today.


Parness, a retired superintendent of horticultural education at New Jersey's Morris County Park Commission, has five decades of travel, academic studies and work to provide a rewarding context for her own love of plants.  She now offers illustrated lectures and hands-on workshops on topics that connect “people and plants with science and story.”


For more information and to register for the lecture, call (908) 722-1200, ext. 5721 or visit





Piazza Italia: Taste authentic foods from Italy at Kings supermarkets

Piazza Italia food purveyors represent Italy with style, suited up beneath their aprons for the Short Hills opening of the 8-day Italian foods tasting event at 12 Kings supermarkets. (Photos by Kimberly L. Jackson)Piazza Italia, an 8-day event that brings foods and goods from Italy to 12 New Jersey Kings supermarkets,  opened today at Kings in Short Hills with music, folk dancers, a flash mob of opera singers and delicious bites of foods from several regions of Italy.

The Italian marketplace was already set up at Kings in Garwood, where the event moves tomorrow, April 1. Tastings go from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the store, with live Italian music at 2 p.m. The event moves to various Kings stores through April 9. There will be other Piazza Italia events at the Short Hills store from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 6. See the full event schedule at

For the event's Short Hills opening ceremony, Francesco Genuardi, the Consul General of Italy in New York joined Judy Spires, Kings chairman and chief executive officer, and Cecilia Ercolino, owner of Italian Products USA, the Elizabeth-based food import company behind the event. 

Genuardi called Italy a "superpower for food," noting that ItaTop, Cecilia Ercolino, owner of Italian Products USA, demonstrates hands-on leadership in setting up products for the Piazza Italia at Kings in Short Hills. Above left, Judy Spires, Kings chairman and CEO. Right, Italian Consul General Francesco Genuardi. lian products are often imitated and that the Piazza Italia showcase will give shoppers a chance to sample authentic Italian foods made by small artisan purveyors, often family-owned companies. 

Yes, that means pasta (Apulia), prosciutto (San Daniele) and pesto (Liguria), but also much more. Spires described the event as an "eating extravaganza" where Kings customers will have an opportunity to explore new artisanal foods and flavors. "Our customers travel to Europe, they know all these things, but they don't have to jump across the pond to try these products."

Ercolino, a New Jersey resident, has been importing Italian foods for more than a decade to supply big-name food service distributors such as Chefs' Warehouse and Sysco, and retailers such as Dean & DeLuca, Whole Foods, and Di Palo's and Zabar’s in Manhattan.


She has been working with Kings for a little more than two years to increase the supermarket chain's assortment of artisanal Italian foods. Kings also carries private label pasta, gelato and other store-branded products from Italy.


Italian Products USA, formerly based in Clark, imports handmade egg pastas, yellow or red Datterino tomatoes, award-winning balsamic vinegar, Nocellara olives, olive oil, coffee, truffles and other products.


"People want better, they want authentic, and that's what we are trying to deliver," Ercolino said.


Piazza Italia will allow Kings shoppers an opportunity to meet some of the people behind these foods,  Ercolino said. And for the purveyors of the approximately 75 featured products, some of whom are traveling to the U.S. for the first time, the event represents and opportunity to "make their American dream come true," she said.

The foods featured at the event won't necessarily become permanent offerings in Kings stores. Buyers will be evaluating how the products sell over the 8-day event to possibly make room for the best sellers.

Tarallini, a petite version of the Italian taralli snacks, are priced well at $2.99 for an 8.1-ounce bag. These looped treats from Puglia are like a cross between breadsticks and a savory cookie. Try the Chocolate taralli is a favorite taste from Piazza Italia, an Italian foods showcase at Kings stores through April 9."Classico" before you fall for the sweet chocolate variety, called Chocoralli. Tarallini also come in onion, fennel and other flavors.

On the high-end, but worth it, are Fragola Fabbri wild strawberries or cherries in syrup. From Emilia Romagna, the fruits are simmered for days in their own sweetened juices, cooking in large copper vats to produce the syrup. They come in heavy ceramic jars with decorative printing. These are made for reuse. The cherries are $19.99 for the 21-ounce container. Delicious, but I say spend the extra $5 and go for the strawberries, as their flavor is incomparable. Good enough to savor just one, as the brand representative noted.

Alicos organic sauces from Sicily have the clean, yet rich flavor of a sauce made of the freshest vine-ripened tomatoes. They are not pumped up with spices and have the taste of a simple recipe that allows the highest quality ingredients to shine.

Wild strawberries or cherries in syrup from Fragola Fabbri, since 1905.Also, seek out the Marabissi panforte from Siena. These offer an innovative spin on the classic Italian dessert paste of candied and dried fruit, nuts, honey and spices. Panforte is said to date back to the Middle Ages. This gourmet take is delightful with cheese, earning appreciative comments from several customers who were introduced to it that way. Marabissi panforte is also suggested for dicing into salads. The company also is offering two flavors of biscotti for sampling. 

On opening day, some shoppers were surprised by costumed dancers leaping and twirling near the cheese cooler and a prepared food bar. The dancing was to southern Italian folk music by Alessandra Belloni. Most shoppers were good natured, enjoying the show. Some even joined the dance near the end of the performance. Belloni will perform again at 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 4 at the Verona store.

For those who missed the operatic flash mob, the singers will make a 2:30 p.m. appearance Sunday, April 2 at the Hillsdale Kings store. Morristown customers will have an opportunity to meet James Beard Award-winning cookbook author  Julia della Croce at 6 p.m. on April 3.Dancers perform to music by Alessandra Belloni for the March 31 opening of Piazza Italia at Kings in Short Hills. (Kimberly L. Jackson)







NJ rose experts to prune, offer growing advice March 18 at Colonial Park 

Rudolf W. van der Goot Rose Garden showcases 3,000 roses of 325 varieties. Rudolf W. van der Goot Rose Garden to host volunteers with expertise in growing roses

It will be worth a drive to Franklin Township on March 18 when teams of expert rose growers from across New Jersey will help with pruning at the Rudolf W. van der Goot Rose Garden at Colonial Park.


Volunteers from the Jersey Shore Rose Society and the Penn-Jersey Rose Society will join the staff of Colonial Park Gardens from 8 a.m. to noon for the annual spring pruning for the garden's more than 3,000 roses.


Visitors are welcome to stop in to observe and learn correct rose pruning techniques while having their rose questions answered by expert rosarians who also can share rose growing tips, techniques and other related information. While donations are appreciated, access to the gardens and the rose pruning event is free of charge. The gardens will have just opened for the season, and the suggested donation is $3 for adults and $1 for seniors and children.


The one-acre Rudolf W. van der Goot Rose Garden represents 325 rose varieties, including popular modern hybrids and various classes of old garden roses. The garden was named in honor of Rudolf W. van der Goot, who designed and led the garden's development as Somerset County Park Commission's first horticulturist. Only roses that thrive in central New Jersey are kept in the garden's rose collections, and all rose types are clearly labeled. The rose garden presents a kaleidoscope of color, form and fragrance from late spring through fall.


Enjoyment as well as public education are goals of this garden, and a visit offers an exceptional opportunity to learn about the many available varieties that will thrive in this part of the state. Visitors can see the color, size, form, and quality of various rose varieties and choose those most suited to their home gardens.


The rose garden, honored with the 2015 World Federation of Rose Societies' Garden of Excellence Award, is located at 156 Mettlers Road (parking lots A and F) in the East Millstone section of Franklin Township. It is part of Colonial Park's more extensive arboretum, which includes the Fragrance & Sensory Garden, the Ornamental Grass Collection, the Perennial Garden and the Shrub Collection. Call (732) 873-2459, Ext. 21 or visit for additional information.