PHILADELPHIA FLOWER POWER
When you go to the Philadelphia Flower Show, it helps
to take along the right attitude. If seeing gorgeous,
high concept gardens full of the most fashionable flowers
makes you feel insecure, then take yourself elsewhere.
If you need a massive dose of color, fragrance, humidity,
and horticultural inspiration, then the Philadelphia
Flower Show will be perfect for you. On my calendar
it officially marks the end of winter. It also reminds
me of everything that a garden can be—provided
you have a forklift, a crew of ten, at least $20,000
and the ability to make crocuses, roses and hydrangeas
all bloom simultaneously.
The centerpieces of the Flower Show are the display
gardens, sponsored by nurseries, florists, educational
institutions and other horticultural (and occasionally
non-horticultural) entities. This year, one of the pieces
de resistance was a Victorian house, complete with “gingerbread”
trim and surrounded by a sumptuous garden. Another well-publicized
display featured an array of CD’s suspended high
above the plants. As the CD’s twinkled in the reflected
light, I felt as if I had wandered into some kind of
Every year I stand in awe of the flower arrangements,
many of which are literally and figuratively over the
top. Each exhibitor articulates a theme, which, thankfully,
is spelled out on cards beneath or beside the arrangement.
Most of the arrangements are large, and many are gorgeous.
Some are just inexplicable. A large sculptural installation
dominated the center of the display area, looking as
if it had been constructed from pieces of a child’s
giant metal building set. Long metal rods connected
balls and cubes covered with red or white carnations,
and the whole thing revolved slowly. The effect was
that of an interesting merger between the Tournament
of Rose Parade and the complete works of Alexander Calder.
I think it’s safe to say that the piece made a
Naturally there was an emphasis on conservation and
ecologically sound gardening techniques, including a
display sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Recycling was present in the form of one large arrangement
that incorporated old rake heads, flowers and various
vegetables including cabbage and potatoes.
Above all, the Philadelphia Flower Show is about fashion.
Last year potagers or kitchen gardens were hotter than
hot, and there were several on display. This year the
only vegetables that I saw were in the arrangement with
the rakes. Last year there were thousands of lamb’s
ears (Stachys). This year there were a few, but dwarf
boxwood was clearly much more important. Over the past
few years, the “cottage garden” theme has
been articulated with masses of foxgloves everywhere.
This year foxgloves have been supplanted by giant snapdragons,
each one individually staked to stand tall and proud.
Malvas, those tall, slightly more elegant hollyhock
relatives, were ubiquitous. The relatively new cultivar
‘Mystic Merlin’, which has bluish-purple striped
flowers, and its cousin Malva ‘Zebrina’, another
striped bloomer, stood in majestic clumps from one end
of the hall to the other. On the shorter side of things,
scabiosa, sometimes referred to as pincushion flowers,
enlivened the front of many displays. I saw lots of
blue and purple scabiosa, but curiously, no pink. Maybe
One fashion that has persisted is the vogue for coleus–the
brighter the better. I saw lime green coleus, and blood
red varieties. The Victorian gardener inside me leaped
for joy at the sight of coleus cultivars with splashed
and whorled leaves in shades of cream, chartreuse and
pink. The coleus wave was crested by the colorful caps
of coleus standards. These plants, trained to grow on
supports, with the side shoots clipped off until the
top of the support is reached, are a vibrant versions
of traditional small-scale topiary. I have no doubt
that this coming summer we will see them flanking the
front steps of many fashionable houses.
Flower show convention seems to dictate that you can’t
really have an impressive display without a water feature,
and about three-quarters of the Philadelphia exhibitors
supplied them. Each of those same displays had a little
sign in front of it warning Pennsylvania residents about
drought-related water use restrictions. Artificial ponds,
pools and decorative rills may be eternally fashionable,
but with water shortages on the horizon, they may not
be very practical. If the spring rains don’t come,
I predict that this year even fashionable gardeners
will be thinking more about mulching than plumbing.