By JoAnn Greco
Friday, February 19, 2010; WE21
Its distinctive, wisteria-like white flowers won't bloom until early summer, but the towering yellowwood at Philadelphia's Bartram's Garden is still a majestic sight. Planted more than 200 years ago, the tree holds pride of place just outside the stone house that naturalist John Bartram built with his own hands.
The chance to walk through the garden's winter-hushed woods, which slope down to the Schuylkill River, is new this year. Usually closed until April, the garden will be open during much of the Philadelphia International Flower Show in celebration of its selection as the showcase exhibit of the city's park system.
Coming on the heels of record snowstorms in Philly and Washington, the flower show, which opens Feb. 28, presents the perfect chance for the 250,000 who attend each year to start dreaming of spring. It also calls for a pilgrimage or two to a few of the 40-odd botanical gardens and arboretums that make the region one of the premier sites in the world for gardening enthusiasts.
For many of them, horticultural tourism begins, quite literally, at Bartram's Garden. Bartram purchased this land -- originally about 300 acres -- in 1728 to establish what became America's first botanic garden. Traveling from Florida to Lake Ontario and as far west as the Mississippi River as King George III's royal botanist, Bartram brought back indigenous trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.
Today the site, which was visited by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, is just 45 acres and is surrounded by rowhouses and power lines in a rundown, formerly industrial neighborhood three miles southwest of downtown. No matter: The historic trees (including the country's oldest ginkgo), plots of just-emerging bulbs and an old stone cider press next to the river easily overpower their urban setting.
Bartram began a "long history of exploration that's intrinsic to why the Philadelphia region is so rich in public gardens," says Jane Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the flower show's presenter. This year, a special exhibit at the show, "An Explorer's Garden," examines that history. It's filled with the descendants of exotic plants brought back from expeditions conducted by early adventurers from Philadelphia. One of these is a five-foot-tall vessel fern, originally discovered in New Zealand in the late 1830s by U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes and later used to form the core of our national Botanic Garden.
The area's best-known public garden, Longwood Gardens, has its own long research history. It has sponsored or embarked upon about 50 field trips, and visitors to the show can see the products of that labor, including the now-ubiquitous New Guinea impatiens, as well as the unusual blue poppy.
The estate dates from the 1680s, but it was Pierre du Pont who in the early 1900s created the world-renowned network of formal gardens and fountains, as well as the massive conservatory. Through March, that structure will be enlivened with the hottest of hothouse blooms during an "Orchid Extravaganza," which sees dendrobiums and phalaenopsis, lady slippers and oncidium dancing their way out of pots, down walls and around columns.
Less formal than Longwood, but not nearly as rustic as Bartram's Garden, Morris Arboretum offers stately lawns shaded by great cherry trees, magnolias and conifers. Because it's owned by the University of Pennsylvania, it, too, has conducted horticultural research around the world. The flower show's Explorer's Garden will include some of these recent finds, such as several varieties of rhododendrons.
The arboretum's signature is its exquisitely restored Victorian fernery, the only remaining one of its kind in North America. In chilly weather, this curving glass conservatory offers a sultry haven of greenery. The Morris also maintains a collection of outdoor sculpture; its flock of Cor-ten steel "Cotswold Sheep" grazing in a meadow is particularly beloved. Visitors can seek them out while embarking on a treasure hunt for the arboretum's varied array of witch hazels, the vivid colors and heady scents of which are early harbingers of spring.
If mere hints of warmth are too tame -- well, that's what the flower show, in all its forced-growth glory, is for. Not only does the addition of the word "international" to its official name emphasize that this is indeed the largest indoor flower show in the world, it shines a spotlight on some mighty hot climes.
At the show, the bougainvillea is always in bloom and the sun always shines, but this year, a South African tableau glows with Zulu hues and textures; jasmine-scented vignettes re-create an Indian wedding; and a Brazilian rainforest comes alive with the caws of parrots from the Philadelphia Zoo. Shops and food stands, too, promise an international bent, as does the entertainment, which includes samba and a Bollywood extravaganza.
Spring may be just a few weeks away, but in Philadelphia, the sizzle of summer is already in the air.
Greco, a freelance writer in Philadelphia, is the editor of TheCityTraveler.com.