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 horticultural disco.
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 statement.
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 next year.
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 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.