By: Spencer Ganus, Clare McKenzie, Matthew Sima, Shom Tiwari

Blossom Garden Club was founded in 1946 in Trinity Park, Durham, North Carolina. Initial activities included hosting tea parties, discussing gardening practices, and creating flower arrangements. Over the past 72 years, the Blossoms aimed to become more involved in the Durham community by hosting events such as community service work days at a local public park, organizing educational tours of environmentally-focused businesses throughout Durham, partnerships with local nonprofits, and club-wide plant exchanges. To investigate the evolution of the club over time by recording oral histories, four interviews were conducted with members of Blossom Garden Club, including Susan Concannon, Dale Gaddis, Bebe Guill, Cavett French, and Elisabeth Stagg. Additionally, archival materials of club member and activity lists were used to supplement the research. Three main themes emerged during this investigation: the club members’ sense of community within and beyond Blossom Garden Club, the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on club members’ gardening practices, and the evolution of Blossom Garden Club’s identity over time.

Definition of Community

Many of the Blossoms interviewed felt that their personal senses of community have evolved as a result of their membership. The majority of the members of Blossom Garden Club live in the neighborhood Trinity Park, with the exception of four members who live within five miles. Blossom Garden Club uses the neighborhood’s public park, also named Trinity Park, as a primary gathering space due to its accessibility and proximity to members’ homes. The club holds meetings, service work days, and other informal gatherings in the park. A key component of the garden club’s work is maintaining the public garden in Trinity Park, which provides members who do not have personal gardens with a space to actualize their gardening skills and knowledge. This localized meeting space supplements many members’ sense of belonging within the club and the Trinity Park neighborhood.

The majority of members have individual gardens, but they share their plants with each other during club-wide plant exchanges. These exchanges create a collaborative environment even within personal gardens, which contributes to the members’ sense of community within the club as a whole. One Blossom Garden Club member, Bebe Guill, stated that she also participates in plant exchanges with other garden clubs in Old West Durham, where she resides, making Blossom Garden Club a part of larger gardening communities.

Membership to Blossom contributes to many members’ sense of community beyond the club itself in different ways. Blossom Garden Club is currently part of a statewide assembly of garden clubs that meets annually. This year, president-elect Elisabeth Stagg represented Blossom at the State Garden Club meeting. She expressed disappointment with the views of other clubs and the lack of diversity, mentioning that there were no people of color present at the meeting. Other interviewees noted that Blossom Garden Club usually does not attend the state-wide congregation, and the club has a desire to pull away from this larger organization.

While Blossom’s statewide community is no longer of much value to its members, the club’s relationship with the greater Durham area is. Annually, Blossom Garden Club votes to select programming for the members. Recent outings have included visits to Duke Forest, Duke GardensTransplanting Traditions, and the Maplewood Cemetery. The Blossoms value these interactions with the community around them and enjoy the educational value of the programs as well. Susan Concannon described her relationship with her gardening knowledge as “give-and-take.” As a docent for the Children’s Program in the Duke Gardens, she shares what she learns during Blossom Garden Club field trips with younger generations.

Blossom’s relationship with communities in Durham began decades ago.  In 1978, the club hosted an event focused on Eno River development, exemplifying their investment in the development of public green spaces around Durham. The club developed their relationship with South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces, Inc (SEEDS) in 1997 to promote equity and environmental stewardship through urban gardening practices and education. Blossom still works with SEEDS today, in addition to other nonprofits such as Keep Durham Beautiful. Currently, the club is focused on a tree-planting initiative with Keep Durham Beautiful that aims to restore trees that have been removed for various reasons, including Duke Power’s expansion and the 100-year lifespan of willow oaks. Interviewees also mentioned their goal of bringing trees to underfunded neighborhoods that historically have very few trees.

When Duke Power installed more power plants in the early 2000s, the company removed many trees near Trinity Park and did not replace them. The Blossoms responded to this by establishing the Trinity Park Tree Committee, which is their personal effort to plant more trees in addition to their collaboration with nonprofits and the city of Durham’s tree-planting goals. Blossom Garden Club has strong relationships with many such organizations within Durham, which contributes to members’ sense of community within the city.

Impact of Climate Change

The members of Blossom have gardened in Durham for a number of years, and as a result they have witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand. Club members Bebe Guill and Susan Concannon have faced difficulty growing some plants in recent years, such as chrysanthemums and tomatoes, that thrive in the fall season. Concannon explained that her dream of growing an apple orchard in one section of her garden might never be realized due to the rising temperatures in autumn and the early-onset frost. Both Guill and Concannon attribute these complications to climate change, and the consciousness of climate change within the rest of the club as a whole is clear. Blossom Garden Club hosted a community work day at the Trinity Park garden to clean debris and maintain the plants after Hurricane Michael struck, and club members acknowledge that the increasing likelihood of severe weather events due to climate change poses a risk to their personal gardens as well as the public one.

Many Blossoms design their gardens with local ecosystems in mind. Both Cavett French and Susan Concannon’s gardens are certified as wildlife-friendly, and other members such as Dale Gaddis focus on bringing pollinators to their gardens through their plants. The club has organized outings to lectures about the benefits of growing native plant species, and members make an effort not to shop at large-scale plant retailers or use pesticides.

One recurring topic among the five interviews with Blossom Garden Club members was the willow oak concern in Durham. Many Blossoms have willow oaks near their homes, and others are simply concerned about the future of Durham’s landscape. A large number of these trees were planted approximately a century ago throughout the city, and their lifespan is now coming to an end. This causes issues for many Blossoms when natural disasters strike and debris from the decaying trees damages plants. Moreover, the willow oaks that have been removed have not been replaced at the same rate, resulting in habitat loss for wildlife and disruptions of local ecosystems. Blossom Garden Club has responded to this issue by planting trees with their partner organizations, Keep Durham Beautiful and SEEDS, as well as the Trinity Park Tree Planting Committee.

Evolution of Club Identity

From interview data and archival materials, it is evident that the focus of Blossom Garden Club has shifted from socialization to sustainability. Blossom’s current members are passionate about the environment and conservation issues. Their devotion is evident not only through their community engagement and educational activities, but also through the methods they use to care for their gardens. Many of the Blossom women use sustainable gardening practices and grow indigenous plants, which supports the native ecosystem. They garden with local wildlife, resource conservation, and the future of Durham’s landscape in mind.

In contrast, when the club was established in 1946, there was a major emphasis on hosting tea parties, creating flower arrangements, and discussing gardening practices. Dale Gaddis described the purpose of the club at its founding as “a way for women to pass the time while their husbands were at work”. One striking fact about Blossom Garden Club is that when it began, the membership was comprised solely of Caucasian women who lived near Trinity Park. As it exists today, Blossom’s members are all Caucasian women living near Trinity Park.

Though the demographics largely remained the same over time, archival data points to a large shift in the interests of club members. From 1948 until the late 1980s, the club’s activities focused on socialization and flower arrangements. However, in 1978 a shift occurred when Blossom Garden Club hosted an event discussing development of Eno River. According to archival club yearbooks, Blossom became what it is today around the early 1990s.

One challenge facing Blossom Garden Club is member recruitment. All current Blossoms are above the age of 50, and while most of them have children, some have not inherited their mothers’ passion for gardening and do not plan to become active Blossoms in the future. Moreover, most new members join via word of mouth and the newest was recruited over 3 years ago. Throughout its history, Blossom has served as an educational and advocacy tool for its members and has accumulated an expanse of knowledge and resources that would be devastating to lose. During interviews, the Blossoms expressed a collective interest in connecting with Year-Round Garden Club, an all-male, all-African American gardening club, in an effort to expand their membership beyond its historical demographic makeup.

The Blossom Garden Club had a social focus when it was founded in 1946.  The club’s initial activities included hosting tea parties, discussing gardening practices, and creating flower arrangements.  Over the past 72 years, the Blossoms have become more involved in the Durham community by attending and hosting events such as community work days at Trinity Park, public environmental lectures, partnerships with Keep Durham Beautiful, and plant exchanges.  The founding members of the Blossom Garden Club were solely white women living in Trinity Park.  The active Blossoms have expressed an interest in diversifying the gender and ethnic makeup of the club, and one of our goals is to help them do so through this project.