Philly’s spring fantasy – Paris in bloom at the flower show

The grizzled guy turned from the stack of boxes he was sorting and asked, “Do you want to see something really cool?”

I didn’t know this person, but I was at the Philadelphia Flower Show, so I figured it was okay to answer yes. The show is opening in two days, I was checking out the work in progress at the convention center.

He slid a long flower packing box from the middle of a palletized stack and cut it open. It contained dozens of anthuriums, a curious tropical flower that looks like a waxy tongue with a white scaly finger sticking out of its middle. These were black, and they were special. The guy showing me was Bill Shaffer, a Philadelphia floral designer who is a major exhibitor. He was excited to show off these anthuriums, because the flowers were one of seven varieties in his exhibit that were being displayed for the first time in the US.

A rose by any other name

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If you’ve lived in Philadelphia for more than a few years, it’s probably somewhere in the back of your mind that the Flower Show takes place around now, a lovely yet artificial early taste of spring. The dogwood in my yard won’t be flowering for another two months, but the dogwoods on exhibit in the Pennsylvania Convention Center will be in full bloom by the time the show opens this Sunday. So will tens of thousands of spring bulbs, hundreds of cut flower displays, and other wonders; mechanical, horticultural, technological, and occasionally slightly illogical.

Billed as the largest indoor flower show on the planet, the show has been in continuous annual operation since 1829.

The first few shows sound as if they were quite tame; one day events featuring displays of flowers, plants, and vegetables – awards given to the best of each class. A vestige of these early days is still visible in the “Horticourt” area of the show. This is the section reserved for superstar houseplants, their owners vying with each other for ribbons.

Except for a dip in popularity during the Civil War, at which point Philadelphians seemed to have misplaced their enthusiasm for horticulture, the show has grown steadily for more than 180 years.

It’s all the more remarkable because a lot of once venerable horticultural societies have recently fallen on hard times, and many regional flower shows are getting smaller. The 2010 Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s New England Spring Flower Show was cancelled due to funding and organizational issues, it’s back on a more modest scale this year.

Philly really does seem the place to be for spring flowers. “Basically, it’s the Royal Horticultural Society and us,” explained Janet Lynn, of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society marketing department. PHS has been producing the Flower Show for the last 45 years, and proceeds from the show result in around a million dollars annually that go to the community greening and social programs that PHS administers. The Flower Show is also one of the events with the biggest economic impact on the city, bringing in $61 million dollars each year to the region.

A bit of home grown whimsey  

If you’re a regular attender, you may notice a couple of differences this year. When I was in the convention hall I didn’t see any complicated Lucite displays, no fiber-optic party lights, and only a restrained amount of neon. There are still a number of outrageous exhibits – I’ll be curious to see the recreated catacombs of Paris done en fleur when it’s completed.

But a large number of the exhibits have taken a more subdued approach, and they look great. Baby lettuces are used in a recreated rooftop garden; a vacant lot is interpreted as a revitalized garden with flowers spilling out of a cute junked car.

If you haven’t ever gone to the Flower Show, as long as you don’t incline towards Enochlophobia (fear of crowds) it’s really fun.  The theme this year is “Springtime in Paris,” thus the nod to French culture that each exhibitor has to figure out how to somehow squeeze in.

It’s good to remember that most flower shows had their heyday in the 19th century, and even at the ever-modernizing Philadelphia Flower Show it’s always going to feel slightly anachronistic. In one corner QVC will be broadcasting live under bright lights, while on the other side of the hall you can view exquisite pressed flower designs and a bank of miniature scenes featuring dollhouse furniture and tiny plants. Like a lot of things in our city, the Flower Show has the challenge of keeping its historical identity in step with its present day identity. Although at times this dance can be a little clunky, it is authentic, and definitely more interesting as a result.

The Philadelphia Flower Show runs Sunday March 6 through Sunday March 13.  Visit the show’s Web site for times and ticket prices.

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