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Museum toasts to green _ and purple and red ...

For the rest of the free world, Saturday was St. Patrick's Day, awash in green beer, corned beef and cabbage (along with green milk and mashed potatoes, according to Bonnie Freeman, whom I ran into at the grocery store and who planned to tint everything green for her family dinner that night).

At the Museum of Fine Arts, however, the day was given over to preparations for Night of the Orchid, a party launching Art in Bloom, a weeklong collection of events combining art and gardening. Beer and corned beef were absent from the evening's buffet by Sarasota caterer Michael's on East (more on that later), but green was much in evidence in the flora and fauna enveloping the museum.

About four dozen arrangements _ some so involved they were really constructions _ were spread throughout the galleries. The most spectacular by far was the huge "bed" created by Bill Russo and a team of florists from Carter's that dominated the Great Hall. The bed's only literal parts were the antique mahogany headboard and footboard. The mattress was made of purple statice, pillows were plump masses of chrysanthemums, and a blanket of more than 1,000 galax leaves was draped at its end. Climbing above it were branches, woven with orchids, arching into a dome in the style of a lit a la polonaise. (Okay, I'm showing off with that arcane bit of interior design knowledge _ it's one of those beds with an arched metal canopy covered in fabric. Jacqueline Onassis slept in one, I read somewhere.) Anyway, this flower bed (get it?) is fabulous. It and all the other arrangements will be on view through Thursday, so hike over to the museum to see them. But back to the party.

As most of us approached the bed with awe, museum director Michael Milkovich announced that "for $5,000 you can spend a night in it. Like the Lincoln Bedroom, only a better deal."

Peter Sherman, looking it over with wife, Clementine, was interested until he realized he couldn't jump on it, as the mattress has no springs.

Once we got past the splendor of the bed, there were plenty of other floral delights to see. I have more affinity for the traditional masses of flowers rather than cerebral, Oriental-type arrangements, so I loved the luxurious abundance of apricot roses and fully opened parrot tulips, evocative of Baroque still lifes, that Anastasia's did for the gallery entrance to the Abraham Bloemaert exhibition.

Ditto the monolith of white roses and mums by Tim Huff, Jeannine Hascall's profusion of creamy roses in the staid Georgian Room, a vegetable patch set up by Janet Stoffels _ only thing missing was Peter Rabbit _ and the landscape of roses, lilies and delphiniums created by Botanica's Carmen Gonzalez.

Still, Jacqueline Brown's spare composition of orchids and branches, forced into early flowering, growing from a Steuben Glass bowl and placed in the dramatically lit Steuben Gallery, was pure elegance. As was Nena Shepherd's zen-like garden, created in the center of the Poynter Gallery, its giant bamboo stalks blooming with baby's breath. And how the chaps from the Flower Centre managed to make an arrangement of stock look edgy I do not know, but they did, as an homage to Louis-Gabriel-Eugene Isabey's moody Fishing Village.

After she explained it to me, I really liked Mary Perry's arrangement of dried flowers and fruits in the antiquities gallery. "In ancient times, when you had a conversation under roses," she said, "it was confidential. That's where the term "sub rosa' comes from. And the pomegranates, with their seeds, were symbols of fertility. Like Aphrodite." So now you know.

This was a chew and view kind of party, with a sophisticated spread of little bites that included tiny lamb chops, quesadillas, mussels swimming in broth in big copper bowls, stuff like that. I told Alice Eachus, the evening's chairwoman along with Blanca Brown, that I missed the mashed potato bar of a year ago. It was too high-concept and nobody ate them, so the risotto and tortellini station was brought back.

In the crowd were Carol Upham, president of the museum's board; Jeanne Tucker, president of the Stuart Society, host organization; Betty Breedon; Steve and Nancy H. Thomas; Kevin and Jennifer St. Cin, my new neighbors; Norval Marr and daughter Maggie; Bob and Donna Fletcher, who interpreted the dessert buffet for me (loved the mousse in chocolate cups shaped like tulips with red and green stripes); Donna Nannen; Ed and Betty Shamas; Anne Shamas; Dr. Bill and Janet Hunter; Dr. Charlie and Eunice Hirsch; Bob and Lynn Strickland; Cary Bond; Nin and Cindy McQuillen; Helen O'Brien and Charlie Cosby; Dolly Rote; Marvin and Lois Atkins, with friends Dr. Jim and Judy Green; Sunny Endicott; John and Penny Buzzard; Joe and Harriet Night; Dick and Helen Minck; and Alex and Cynthia Astrack.

Dr. Susan Beaven came with her father, Dr. John Beaven, visiting from Indiana; and Betty Jean and Tom Miller came with friends and former St. Petersburgers Allen and Ann Clark, visiting from Alabama for Art in Bloom week. Lloyd and Louise Chapin realized that Ron and Magdalena Satlof are their neighbors at Dolphin Cay. "I try not to get my car too close to your Jaguar," Chapin said. Satlof is a retired TV executive, with credits as a producer of the Dick Van Dyke Show.

Margaret Word Burnside wore a floral frock and Aaron Fodiman looked very Night of the Orchid in purple socks and lavender sports coat. Bill and Jean Heller were the only people I saw with St. Patrick's Day green on unless you count Susan Hicks' celadon silk pantsuit.

Seating in the Marly Room was at a premium, so some were creative in finding places to perch, including Sam and Lea Newman who, with several other couples, formed what looked like a formidable gantlet in the Marly Room doorway. I made sure I wasn't wearing a sign on my back that said "Kick Me" as I scrunched through them. Parsla Mason sat outside on the museum's steps and called it "the best seat in the house," actually outside the house, but I had to agree. Carolyn Bond had banked the exterior windows with orchids and lit everything with candles. It was a serene backdrop to the bustle of Beach Drive.

The Art in Bloom general chairwoman is Kim O'Brien, who is a childhood friend and therefore one I automatically favor, but I can say without prejudice she has done a wonderful job with the week. Still to come are today's luncheon, a tour of Selby Gardens on Friday and the annual Garden Tour on Saturday. For information, call 896-2667.

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