I can say without the slightest hesitation that my child and even my cats have better social lives than I do. My daughter goes to birthday parties and school dances and has movie dates with friends. The cats have regular rumbles in back of the garage. I envy them 364 days a year. The one exception is the day that I go to the Philadelphia Flower Show.
The Philadelphia Flower Show, of course, is the biggest horticultural rumble on this side of the Atlantic. If you are a garden club member, you can enter one of the competitive classes and see how your over-the-top arrangement stacks up against those of your peers. If you are a garden designer, a landscape company, a plant merchandiser or a horticulturally-focused nonprofit organization, you can design and install an entire display garden, something that will certainly garner you a lot of publicity and possibly win you a prize. If you are a garden variety gardener you can put on a good pair of walking shoes and enjoy the whole spectacle.
The wonderful thing about the Philadelphia Flower Show is the aura of total unreality. Roses bloom alongside tulips. Clematis and orchids coexist as if they sprouted from the same piece of ground. Plants flower abundantly in dark corners. Grass grows like magic in exactly the right places, and weeds are absolutely forbidden to appear anywhere.
Trends flourish in the heady environment. When you go to Philadelphia you can see all the coming horticultural fads, sometimes within a few feet of each other. Several years ago the Flower Show was awash in clematis and lambs’ ears. This year I don’t think I saw a single lambs’ ear anywhere. Grasses had their moment last year and variegated foliage held sway before that. Fashion is a fickle thing.
The display gardens at this year’s show were more restrained than those of past years. The blossoms were just as perfect, but there were somewhat fewer of them. In general, the water features were also a little less grand. Whether you chalk it up to economic uncertainty, a reaction to the excesses of the past, or the spirit of the new millennium, less was definitely more in Philadelphia this year.
The exception to this trend was the presence of orchids everywhere. What’s more, the orchid trend has given birth to its own sub-trend. While big ruffly cattleya orchids appeared here and there, the smaller flowered Oncidiums showed up with greater frequency. If I were trading in orchids the way some people trade in pork bellies, I would definitely short Oncidiums.
The big news, literally and figuratively at this year’s show was big leaves. Elephant’s Ear (Colocasia esculenta) appeared in a number of different planting schemes. Gunnera (Gunnera macrophylla), a plant with giant rhubarb-like foliage, was also featured.
Though gunnera has its uses, I am not especially enthralled with it. Elephant’s ear, however, has slightly more refined, vaguely heart-shaped leaves. Soon the enormous tubers will be appearing in the garden centers, and I may invest in a few. When it comes to coverage, planting a given area with elephant’s ear has the same effect as planting a small shrub. A single plant can grow to be 6-feet tall, with leaves spanning 12-inches across. In this part of the world elephant’s ear is not winter hardy, but the tubers can be lifted in the fall and stored.
Two other large-scale plants that are old to cultivation and new to fashion are cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) and Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis). Cardoons, which have edible stalks and roots, have long been a staple of kitchen gardens. Now their large gray-green leaves have made them valuable landscaping plants as well.
Dark green and deeply dissected, acanthus leaves have been an inspiration to artists since time immemorial. I am also fond of the tall puplish-brown and white flowers that appear on tall stalks in early summer. Acanthus makes an especially dramatic statement when it is planted in large drifts. It can flourish in light shade, but will not burn in full sun.
This year in Philadelphia the theme was “Great Gardeners of the World”. Those great gardeners obviously understand great big plants.