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Ott’s: An obscure plant paradise March 1, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, Uncategorized.
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It’s no longer February in scenic PA, but there is still snow on the ground, the container water gardens are still frozen, and my winter aconites and snowdrops still haven’t made an appearance. Clearly, it’s time for a trip to take in some really good greenery. I could of course wait ’til next week and the Philly Flower Show, or the end of the month when the Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society (SEPOS) holds its annual orchid extravaganza at Longwood Gardens. But our friend Ben hates delayed gratification almost as much as I hate crowds (I’ll go to the Longwood show but not the Philly Flower Show for that reason).

So today I’m going to head down to one of the undiscovered gems of Pennsylvania gardening, Ott’s Exotic Plants in Schwenksville, PA. It’s one of the few remaining authentic Victorian glasshouses, it’s packed to the gills with interesting houseplants and tropicals (and, better yet, they’re all for sale), and it’s a truly great gardening adventure. So fasten your seat belts and come along for the ride!

Imagine the thrill of driving down a winding river road, passing tiny villages and lots of seemingly uninhabited woodland, then suddenly rounding a bend and seeing the huge dome of a Victorian glasshouse rising on your right. As you pull in to the modest parking lot, you can already see a wealth of blooms and foliage pressing against the walls. You walk in–mmmm!!!–that ineffable smell of warm, moist, fragrant air, enriched with oxygen from thousands of breathing plants. You are literally enveloped in a tropical paradise of tree ferns, palms, ficus, and hundreds of other plants.

The sight and sound of flowing water from grottoes and waterfalls reaches you from all directions. Plant-lined paths entice you to choose one of the many plant rooms to explore. If you go to the left, you’ll find yourself in a room full of endless kinds of terrarium plants, orchids, African violets, peperomias, and ferns. Turn right, and you’ll wander into a begonia-lover’s paradise, though ivies and innumerable other foliage plants compete with the begonias for your attention.

But something is drawing you on–the roar of water coming from the next room. As you pass the doorway, you come into the heart of the Victorian greenhouse, a recreated jungle scene of rocky mountain, enormous waterfall, and tropical plants everywhere. Nothing’s for sale in this room–it’s just as it was a hundred years ago, and as you stand there (or climb up to the top) you can pretend to be a Victorian tycoon surveying his fabulous folly.

But there’s more. Behind the mountain and waterfall, a door leads you into an extensive collection of amaryllis, clivia and Christmas cacti (which, thank heavens, are for sale). Or turn left, duck through a narrow passage, and you’ll find yourself in an enormous greenhouse that is packed with every kind of marvel–figs and citrus, cacti and succulents, an incredible collection of coleus, an extensive herb section, hanging baskets of every kind, and innumerable flowering plants, from seasonal favorites like bulbs and cyclamen to fuchsias and bougainvilleas. It’s enough to take anyone’s breath away, especially when you see the giant parent plants–Ponderosa and Meyer lemons the size of an elevator, cane begonias taller than you are, jade plants too big to fit in an SUV.

From this room, you can head through a long area filled with beautiful containers, indoor gardening supplies, and bulbs, and emerge at last into their checkout room, which also contains an extensive selection of garden seed packets and, if memory serves, some bizarre feathered chicken statues from China. (But let’s not think about them.) There’s even an extensive outdoor nursery and a large bedding plant display to encourage one-stop shopping.

Our friend Ben loves Ott’s, and has gotten many treasures there over the years. But it’s not without its dark side–in fact, it has two of them. The first is that plant identification is pretty much entirely lacking. You won’t find mislabeled plants at Ott’s–you won’t find labels, period. Every plant is a “Plantus unknownus,” and the staff, though friendly, won’t be able to help you pin down the name of that fabulous begonia cultivar or, say, the unbelievably stunning chartreuse-and-dark-green-variegated Boston fern our friend Ben snagged there last year. If you’re one of those people who refuses to buy an unidentified plant, our friend Ben suggests Logee’s or Glasshouse Works instead. But if you don’t mind a little horticultural sleuthing, you’ll find a trip to Ott’s hugely rewarding.

I did say there were two downsides, didn’t I? The other is so astounding it beggars belief. It’s a monstrous manmade mountain that lurks ominously behind the greenhouses. In the fall, it is covered with tens of thousands of blooming mums in every color, creating a multicolored monstrosity that literally has to be seen to be believed. Like a psychedelic trip from the Sixties, it resembles a volcano that erupted in technicolor lava. The result is Ott’s pride and joy, and busloads of tourists come from all over the world to see it, especially from Japan, where the chrysanthemum is more appreciated than it is in the States. Our friend Ben has often wished I was brave enough to ask them what they thought of it. If you’re dying to see this spectacle for yourself, go to Nan Ondra’s blog, Hayefield (there’s a link on this page), and look at the comments for her latest post, “The Softer Side of Yellow.” (You’ll enjoy the actual post, too.) She includes a link to an earlier post that features pictures of the awful Mountain of Mums. Mercy on us!!! Don’t forget your sunglasses.

In spring, Ott’s creates a Mountain of Pansies in equally technicolor mode, but hopefully it won’t be up yet and the monstrous mountain will be dormant when our friend Ben makes my biannual pilgrimage down later today. Stay tuned–tomorrow I’ll tell you what I saw, and, of course (gulp) what I bought!

Ott’s doesn’t have a website, but you can find directions by Googling Ott’s Exotic Plants. It’s open daily.        



1. hayefield - March 1, 2008

Thanks for the virtual tour; it was much needed on this dreary morning! Yes, the labeling situation is a bit frustrating, isn’t it? I suspect the variegated Boston fern is Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Tiger’; you can see one photo here: http://www.landcraftenvironment.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=LANDCRAFT&Product_Code=FERN-TIG&Category_Code=444 or Google for others for comparison.

And if anyone wants to see the mountain o’mums, here’s a link that’ll take them directly there: http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/?p=324

Can’t wait to hear about what you acquired this time!


Thanks, Nan–and thanks for the plant ID. Much appreciated! I was almost afraid to even reveal the existence of the MOM, lest it discourage people from experiencing Ott’s for themselves. But maybe they’d enjoy joining the tacky party!

2. Joy - March 1, 2008

What a wonderful place that must be to loose yoursefl in .. makes me very jealous but glad you wrote about it for me to imagine what it is like !

Thanks, Joy! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And you’ll have to put Ott’s on your list next time you wander down the East Coast. It really is one of those hidden jewels that’s worth a little trip out of your way!

3. Sarah - March 2, 2008

I wish I could have gone with. Instead we ogled modulars. Most humiliating, our favorite was the low end double-side. Of course, no passive solar designs anywhere in sight.

Wish you’d been there too, Sarah! It was highly entertaining as always. (See the followup post for some classic new, ah, features.) Maybe you can do a solar retrofit when you find the modular of your dreams!

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