Sylvia Spina Lin, 88, an avid gardener who often took top prizes during her decades of exhibiting at the Philadelphia Flower Show, died Sunday, Oct. 14, at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Abington, after a fall at home in Warminster.
Mrs. Lin came to gardening in middle age, after a career as a nurse and then years spent raising six children. As her daughters and son began leaving the family home in Rydal, she filled their rooms with plants — mostly succulents and especially begonias. To her family, she was "Nonna Begonia."
For 34 years, Mrs. Lin entered plants at the Flower Show — usually more than 100 at a time. She won the competitive horticultural sweepstakes award eight times. Mrs. Lin first entered the show in 1976, and entered her last begonia in 2010, when she was 80.
But Mrs. Lin, who often went head-to-head with Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance Hamilton for prizes at the Flower Show, did not have an elaborate greenhouse or an army of gardeners. She was an intuitive gardener, self-taught.
Jane Pepper, the former president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, said Mrs. Lin was a "star participant" in the Flower Show. And though she specialized in begonias — the small, temperamental flowering hanging baskets — Mrs. Lin would sometimes try growing another variety of plant "to see if she could grow it to her own exacting exhibition standards," Pepper said. Mrs. Lin often could.
"Sylvia was competitive, but she was also always very generous with other exhibitors — and potential exhibitors — sharing not only information on her growing techniques but also sharing plants with them," said Pepper. Mrs. Lin, who also volunteered with the PHS, was particularly keen on attracting new members.
Mrs. Lin used to say that her affinity for plants was a natural outgrowth of her work as a nurse.
Born in Camden and a graduate of Camden High, Mrs. Lin trained at what was then Temple Hospital. She worked on a surgical floor at the hospital, where she met her future husband, Paul M. Lin, a Temple neurosurgeon from Shanghai.
They married in 1953, and their union would last for 64 years, until Paul Lin's death in 2017. Mrs. Lin often noted with pride that her father, an Italian immigrant, welcomed her future husband into the family with open arms at a time when interracial marriage was outlawed in some states.
Mrs. Lin relished the jobs of wife and mother, and family came before everything else.
"She was an Italian grandmother to the nth degree, and she reveled in the lives of her children and grandchildren," said her daughter Jennifer Lin, an author and former Inquirer reporter. "She was very traditional — a devoted wife, a devoted mother."
But as her children grew, she thought about growing plants competitively. She had attended her first Flower Show as a teenager and never forgot it.
"I was in total awe, even as a young kid," she said of the Flower Show in an interview for a family video about her horticultural career. In her first show, Mrs. Lin entered a white rabbit's foot fern, winning an honorable mention.
She was so excited about that ribbon that she called the hospital where her husband was on staff and asked a nurse to relay the news to him in an operating room.
"You'd think I won the lottery," said Mrs. Lin, a longtime member of the Wissahickon Garden Club.
The next time she entered the show, in 1977, Mrs. Lin won her first blue ribbon and began her quest for the Sweepstakes Prize, awarded to the competitor who scores the most points in the horticulture section of the show. In all, Mrs. Lin won more than 1,000 blue ribbons.
Mrs. Lin was sharp until the end, though after her husband's death "there was a hole in her heart," Jennifer Lin said. Mrs. Lin's decline was swift. She fell and broke her pelvis on Oct. 12 and died two days later after asking to be turned toward the sunset.
In addition to her daughter Jennifer, Mrs. Lin is survived by four daughters, Angela Lin, Daria Lin-Guelig, Damien Lin, and Stefanie Lin; a son, Paul S.; 13 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said Saturday, Oct. 20, at 11 a.m. at Nativity of Our Lord Church, 605 Street Rd., Warminster. Burial will follow in Calvary Cemetery, Cherry Hill.
Memorial donations may be made to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, c/o Development, 100 N. 20th St., fifth floor, Philadelphia, Pa., 19103.