Come together: ‘United by Flowers’ at the Philly Flower Show

The annual Flower Show inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center asked designers to conceive landscapes where we come together.

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A floral installation at the Flower Show

PHS workers construct the main exhibit of the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show at the Philadelphia convention center on Feb. 29. 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Spring must be near, because the annual Philadelphia Flower Show opens this weekend.

“We’ve got delphiniums. We’ve got hydrangeas. Veronica. Tons of roses. Flowering cherry,” said creative director Seth Pearsoll, standing in front of the grand entrance to Exhibit Hall A at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“We’re looking at eucalyptus, stock, and allium,” he said. “And that’s just this arrangement here.”

Behind that arrangement is a hedge of pink baby’s breath floating in the air, suspended from the ceiling over a black reflecting pool mirroring back its pops of color.

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“Chock full of color, but also a very sophisticated Dutch Wave palette,” Pearsoll said, referring to a gardening technique based on perennials. “If you’re looking for classic flower show color, we have you there. If you’re looking for accent horticulture, we have you there as well.”

The nation’s largest and oldest indoor flower show — the first was in 1829 — is put on by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to support its year-round civic gardening, beautification, and education programs.

This year, the PHS has invited florists and landscape designers from around the world to make displays based on a theme: “United by Flowers.”

A floral installation at the Flower Show
A harmonious table setting inspired by geometry from Robertsons Flowers at the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Flowers are universal, Pearsoll said, uniting people across space and time.

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“Plants, flowers, gardens speak to us across thousands of years,” he said. “It’s a place for people to get together over this thing that has meant something to us for a very long time.”

Some exhibitors interpreted the theme as national unity. There are two displays centered on cross-country road trips. One of them was designed by Jennifer Reed of Mullica Hill, N.J., who created a large map of the United States banded by preserved flowers of different colors, representing gardening climate zones.

A red MG convertible, which Reed sourced from a local junkyard, is positioned in front of the map. Inside are mannequins representing a driver and passengers wrapped in road maps — they appear to be a family — ready to point the car toward the open road.

Installation at the Flower Show with a car
The USDA Hardiness Map by Jennifer Designs at 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Our destinations that we go to with our families and our friends, it usually is geared towards the time of year and what we’re gonna see,” said Reed. “Should we go through Virginia and see the leaves? Should we go to California and see the super bloom? We really are geared to looking outside the window and seeing what our surroundings look like.”

Jennifer Reed and Chris Clark posing at the Flower Show
Designer Jennifer Reed (left) and Chris Clark (right) from Jennifer Designs in Mullica Hill, N.J., used American-grown flowers to recreate the USDA plant hardiness map at the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Other designers took the “United” theme to a more intimate level. Tanisha Sample of West Philadelphia arranged a dining room of antique furniture set with enormous bouquets of mostly roses and tulips, carpeted by sod grass.

“A beautiful dining area to feel like you’re in your auntie’s or mother’s dining room,” Sample said. “It’s human connection. Love. We are happy at the table. Sometimes we grieve at the table. We even share recipes, secrets at the table. You might even have a business meeting. In all nationalities, the table brings us together.”

This is Sample’s first time as a solo designer in the Flower Show. She was trained as a cosmetician, and it is a giant professional leap for her to exhibit as a florist on such a prominent stage.

Tanesha Sample at the Flower Show
Floral designer and Philadelphia native Tanesha Sample and her company Tissarose create a floral table setting inspired by the need for community at the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I didn’t grow up on a flower farm. Remember, I’m from West Philadelphia. Concrete steps,” she said. “For me to put down cosmetology and pick up something else is to show possibility. I can be a florist. I am a florist. A Black, beautiful florist.”

Coincidentally, right next to the former cosmetologist is another take on a space well understood as a welcoming place of neighborhood and community unity: a Black beauty salon. The Black Girl Florist collective created a mock-up of a hair and nail shop festooned with roses, delphiniums, limeflowers, and baby’s breath.

Valerie Crisostomo, the Atlanta-based designer and CEO of the Black Girl Florist, completed the salon look with hairdryers, scissors, and even vintage copies of Jet magazine — an especially knowing wink to the culture.

Valeri Crisostomo setting up her floral installation
Floral designer Valerie Crisostomo builds a beauty salon that Black women will recognize their experience of community in for the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show on Feb. 29, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We’re talking about a place where we go in vulnerably to get our hair done,” she said. “We’re able to have conversations and build relationships with other women who are in the same journey in that same moment.”

Among the literally manicured flower displays is one that looks distinctively rough, strewn with discarded concrete traffic barriers and rusty panels of corrugated tin, between which rise Shasta daisies, common mullein, and witch grass.

Designer Kelly Norris of Des Moines, Iowa, presented the unity theme by addressing a question most major cities have in common: What to do with abandoned lots?

“There is a lot of vacant space in Philadelphia and cities across the U.S. that we should think about activating differently,” Norris said. “Vegetation is already leading the way. It’s already showing us what’s possible here. How do we take that cue and start to create a space where people and nature come together with some consilience?”

Kelly D. Norris posing for a photo
Floral designer Kelly D. Norris from Des Moines, Iowa, demonstrates what vacant lots could look like at his exhibit at the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What appears to be a vacant lot allowed to grow wild is actually deliberately composed. Norris and his team conceived the space in modular sections meticulously interlaced with 35 species of plants.

Like staring at a Jackson Pollock drip painting, the challenge for viewers is to find the structure of colors and textures in the meadow.

“We marble them out so it has the effect of feeling randomized,” Norris said. “But if you start watching for the recurrence of colors and textures, you’ll sense there’s an underlying pattern to the madness.”

Outside of the floral and landscape showcase, the Flower Show has expanded its educational attractions with scheduled workshops and its own take on the Apple Store Genius Bar, where visitors may ask experts on any gardening question.

A floral installation at the Flower Show
A rudbeckia hirta on display in an exhibit by floral designer Kelly D. Norris from Des Moines, Iowa, at the 2024 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The show also brought back favorites such as the Butterfly Pavilion for children and an extensive marketplace. The Philadelphia Flower Show runs until March 10.

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