It’s hard not to feel for the people behind the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest in the world and the oldest in America. When they chose this year’s theme — “Bella Italia” — they couldn’t have known that the stock market would hit its lowest level in more than a decade during their show, and that it might therefore be an inopportune time to celebrate flowers and Italy and events that are “the largest in the world.”
Indeed, the entrance to the 180th anniversary show is so suggestive of Roman decadence that the theme seems almost tongue-in-cheek. Just inside the doors, soaring columns topped with urns of overflowing flowers line a row of fountains that ends at a tall temple where opera singers and choirs give daily performances. Other displays celebrating the art of Florence, the fashion of Milan, the wine of Tuscany, and the leisurely gondola-filled life of Venice surround the Roman centerpiece. Is the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society playing the fiddle while the world outside the convention center burns?
But Philadelphia, like every flower show, is and always has been about largely ignoring the time, space, and laws of nature in the world beyond its walls. This week a major snowstorm hit the entire East Coast, but signs of it are invisible inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center — the profusion of blooming flowers belies the fact that spring is still weeks away. Many people, in fact, choose to describe the show (innocently enough) as a place where “Spring has sprung!” but this, too, is deceiving. What’s sprung instead is a composite, idealized Spring made up of the entire season and beyond. The Flower Show does not suggest a slow coming out of winter’s deep freeze: Here, daffodils, tulips, azaleas, roses, irises, forsythias, crocuses, orchids, hyacinths, snapdragons, geraniums, hydrangeas, daisies, and pansies are all in bloom at once. Such a presentation is strongly encouraged at the Flower Show. The first rule of its 61-page Exhibitor’s Guide — coming before the ban on taxidermy and the requirement that all cut trees be treated with flame-retardant chemicals — states, in bold: “…forced plants must predominate, and the emphasis should be on color.”
The Flower Show is divided into five categories. The first is a collection of large landscape and floral displays, including the nods to the show’s Italian theme. These are the creations of landscape designers and florists, a kind of attraction-cum-discrete-advertisement. Visitors walk among them and can see how the right stone patio and stainless steel appliances would make them want to eat outside more, how a waterfall of amaryllis bulbs would make their wedding reception original, how tiny lights underneath plants could make their own gardens back home feel as magical at night as the gardens here in the dim convention center do.
These give way to the competitions that marry art and plant, of which there are many. Some competitors created displays for front porches, back yards, balconies, urns, and tables. But flower petals, leaves, sticks, and stems, in turns out, can be manipulated to create beautiful things that you’d never know were made of plants unless you either were told so, or you were at a flower show, in which case you could guess as much. Competitors used flora to make winestoppers, dresses, neckties, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, handbags, hats, and heels. Some pressed flowers into recreations of the Mona Lisa, “Christina’s World,” and “The Last Supper.” Others created tiny dollhouse-like rooms of plant materials. In each case, competitors wrote an statement of intent, which was printed on a small card alongside the judge’s comments and affixed, in the case of winners, with a shiny ribbon with gold lettering. Constructive criticism is apparently encouraged. Among the judges’ comments: “Victorian color theme of facade conflicts with plant material color palette,” “Emptiness of container is a lost opportunity,” “Topiary needs refinement,” and “The Russian Olive would be enhanced by judicious pruning.”
Beyond these, schools, colleges, and government agencies such as the EPA have created displays advocating for green roofs and the use of native plant species. Hyperspecialized plant enthusiasts including the the Bonsai, African Violet, Philadelphia Cactus and Succulent, Delaware Valley Fern, American Rhododendron, and American Ivy societies have displays of their eponymous foci, as well as brochures on how to become a member.
The individual plants came next. These are the classic competitions of plant against plant in categories that can at times seem excruciatingly differentiated. Consider Amaryllis, which includes categories 090 (Any Hippeastrum cybister hybrid, one single-nosed bulb), 95 (Any hybrid miniature Hippeastrum, one single-nosed bulb), 100 (Any standard single-flowered hybrid Hippeastrum, one single-nosed bulb), 102 (Any standard double-flowered hybrid Hippeastrum, one single-nosed bulb) and category 105 (Any Hippeastrum, one bulb with attached offsets). Groups of volunteers in yellow vests held a green plastic ribbon that read “JUDGING IN PROGRESS” around other groups with clipboards who moved along the rows of plants, quietly debating the merits of each.
And just as every museum ends in the gift shop, and every roller coaster ends at a kiosk where you can buy a photo of your ride, the Flower Show ends at the Marketplace. This takes up entire third of the Flower Show’s floor space. You’ve got, of course, almost every kind of plant you can imagine — from roses and orchids to cacti and air plants. They come fresh-cut, dried, or potted; as seeds and seedlings. There are plenty of tools to improve the act of raising plants: pruning sheers, pots that stack, greenhouses, hose nozzles, rototillers, and a kind of mesh fence that keeps deer out of your garden. There are things that help celebrate plants, like teak lawn furniture and botanical illustrations and copper lawn ornaments. The show also attracts businesses that think their products, no matter how un-plant-related, would nevertheless appeal to the type of person who goes to flower shows. I saw booths for calligraphers, LASIK eye surgery, Tourism Ireland, and a book called Look Out Cancer, Here I Come!. I saw several selling dip mixes and flavored vinegars, with baskets of pretzel sticks out for sampling.
But despite the conspicuous consumption of the marketplace, the competitive intent of many of the displays, and the excess suggested by the both the volume and flashiness of plant life (much of which will be discarded when the show ends this weekend), the Philadelphia Flower Show didn’t end up feeling as out-of-touch with the times as it might when one first enters the floral Bacchanalia. It’s hard to come down hard on people trying to earn a living by selling worm composting kits and these small wooden frogs that actually sound like frogs when you run a stick over a ridge on their spine, or whose identity is so tied to what they’re selling that give their businesses names like Flowers by Dotti, and Orchids by Karin, and Lamps by Lynne. In the end, the woman at Peony’s Envy needs to eat, too, right?
And sure it can seem unfortunate to see one clump of daffodils awarded a blue ribbon while an equally beautiful group sits next to it, ribbon-less. But this forces you to lean in and examine the flower, to try and see just what makes one a winner and one, well, a loser. The same could be said for the explosive displays of color and petals and odors that almost overwhelm the space: Maybe the Flower Show’s excess isn’t gratuitous, but is instead the most timely excess one can enjoy right now.
This was most acute for me as I walked by a display of lilies. Possibly the most fragrant of flowers, in such numbers they created an olfactoral wall that stopped everyone who passed. We all leaned in, and some people closed their eyes, and some sighed.
The pleasure in such an experience: No HR rep can tell you to pack up your things and leave it. No tow truck can come in the middle of the night and repossess it. No bank can change the locks on it. It’s yours for life. And best of all, it’s free. (After, that is, the $24 price of admission.) • 4 March 2009