The show plays out in the cavernous environment of the convention center and features dozens of floral sets, hundreds of horticulturally themed vendors and thousands of competitors, who are still showing off their plants, still in search of a ribbon to affirm what they do.
Historically, big-city flower shows are like big cities themselves: They either change or decline but cannot stay the same. By all appearances, the Philadelphia show is in the midst of healthy change: Attendance climbed from 235,000 in 2010 to 270,000 last year and is on track to exceed 300,000 this year. The number of competitive entries in a feature called the horticultural court — the horticourt — is about 11,000, and the entrants’ enthusiasm has been rewarded with a new $1 million setting for the competitions that includes a fabric roof and new show benches and display backdrops.
“All the exhibitors have been just ecstatic about it,” said Diane Newbury, co-vice chairman of horticulture overseeing the judging. She was in aisles full of small but choice succulents, each in their own pots. Nearby were gigantic specimens of clivias and foxtail ferns and, farther along, slipper and moth orchids of impressive form and vigor. Beyond the orchids stood containers of daffodils, not only forced into flower but somehow twice their garden size. In the horticourt this year, “the lighting is much better,” Newbury said.
On much of the show floor, however, the lighting still has the capacity to deaden the colors of flowers brought painstakingly into bloom out of season. The show has gotten around this, coincidentally, by moving away from the types of displays you would have found here years ago, that is, pretty little gardens given structure with arbor vitae and cypress and color with azaleas and bedding annuals, tricked into bloom in the greenhouse.
Instead, the exhibits seem to be taking plants out of the garden and using them more as design elements. This was seen in an exhibit named “Fog on the Moors” in which the creative Philadelphia floral studio of Moda Botanica used dried and blanched ferns and other primal plants to effect mist.
The exhibit reflects the strategic change that has been in force since the society appointed Sam Lemheney show designer in 2005 and Drew Becher the president in 2010.
Becher is actively moving beyond the Philadelphia region to bring in top floral and landscape designers he hopes will sharpen the show’s edge and increase its entertainment value. He has placed a lot of stock in a show attraction named the Designer’s Studio, a “Project Runway”-like high-pressure contest among floral designers.