As a floral artist, Leah Kennell knew about flowers from all over the world, but was at a loss when she encountered local wildflowers she found during walks. That was the impetus for her to begin volunteering at Wildflower Island in Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining
"Working in a flower shop you get flowers from all over the world coming to you in a box," Kennell said, who lives in Kent, Putnam County.. "I wanted to learn about the flowers that should be at my feet here."
Kennell is now the curator for Teatown's two-acre wildflower refuge. Former Teatown curator Jane Darby asked her to take over after she retired from the position back in 1997and she has been there ever since..
Ossining is a far cry from where her journey began. Kennell grew up on a dairy farm in Gettysburg, Pa where her family grew all their own food. Her years as a floral designer and piano teacher left her longing to reconnect with the outdoors and when her father died suddenly in 1995, Kennell decided more outdoor activities would help her out of her funk.
"I started helping my neighbors to shovel snow because that's what my dad always did, and it made me feel so much better," she said. "Then I started volunteering in the (wildflower) garden. I just wanted to volunteer to feel good."
As curator, Kennell spends a few mornings per week outdoors pruning and weeding to keep wildflowers healthy. She also transplants and propagates occasionally to make native plants for plant sales, a fundraising activity.
Kennell doesn't get to use much of her floral artistry skills in the wildflower garden because native plants are generally left alone to flower and then go to seed, rather than being moved around or cut.But her background in botany does help her to understand and identify the 230 native and endangered species of wildflowers on Wildflower Island at Teatown
It wasn't hard for Kennell to give up floral designing because the job took up most of her weekend and holiday time for 20 years, preventing her from doing things with her husband.
"I could make so much more money teaching piano," she said. "When the economy fell and people were not spending lavishly anymore on weddings, it was sort of serendipity. I had my mornings free and I started volunteering."
Kennell tied her music and floral interests together in 1999 producing a hardcover book with a CD called "Beauty Gone Wild" that features instrumental music inspired by wildflowers.
Aside from teaching piano and working at Teatown, Kennell also teaches floral design and a wildflower class at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Her favorite wildflowers change with the time of year. In early spring, they include trillium, bloodroot and hepatica.
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